When a group of young Italian heavy-rock musicians drove two of their friends to a lonely wood east of Milan, stabbed and beat them and threw their bodies into a pit, were they enacting a satanic rite? Were they following orders from the Devil? Or were they merely drunk, stoned, scared, confused losers, trapped into violence by the nonsense with which they had stuffed their heads?
The trial of three of the eight people accused in the case gets under way in Milan this week. Ever since the two victims' bodies, missing since 1998, were dug up last June, the case has excited immense, ghoulish interest. Italy's staid newspapers have relayed every titbit, every new rumour. A group photo of killers and victims, all heavy metal fans and/or musicians, all in black, several sporting upside-down crosses and five-pointed stars, has been reproduced ad nauseam.
The trial comes at a time when evil is much on people's minds here. Vittorio Sgarbi, who has curated an exhibition on the theme of evil, which opened in a Milan museum on Saturday, believes it is the dominant theme of the new century. "Every century has an opening image which constitutes its signature," says the art critic. "In the first years of the 20th century it was Cubism, the 19th century it was Turner and Goya, the 17th it was the Caravaggio revolution. The first 10 years of a century give you its signature, its soundtrack. The soundtrack of the 21st century is the collapse of the twin towers. This is the century in which evil has put its signature at the entrance."
And now the Catholic Church has decided to do something about it. Last Friday morning, more than 100 clean-cut, fresh-faced young men in black filed into a lecture hall of the Regina Apostolorum, a Vatican theological college on the outskirts of Rome, for the inaugural session of a course unlike any sponsored before by the Church. Over two months it aims to teach the priests and aspiring priests who have signed up - most in Rome, others following by video in Bologna - how to banish demons: how to conduct the rites of exorcism that for centuries were part of priestly duties but that have been deeply unfashionable for a long time. Suddenly, after 200 years in the shade, exorcism is back in vogue.
Nor is this a fanciful exercise on the part of the Church. One of the lecturers on the course, a social anthropologist, Cecilia Gatto Trocchi, told The Independent: "They've decided to run this course because there is great pressure on the part of the common people, in the parishes. The momentum comes from underneath, not above - the Catholic Church is in this respect very rational, the most rational of all religions. Urgent cries for help have reached the bishops from the grassroots in the dioceses, and the bishops felt they had to do something about it. It's the families, the ordinary people who have been requesting it."
Carlo Climati, a journalist in Rome and one of the lecturers on the course, describes the typical progress of an aspirant devil-worshipper in Italy today. "They take a few steps in this direction," he says. "They start listening to some of the music, then they start surfing the Net; they meet other people who are interested in this topic in chat rooms. It's become a big problem because of the internet. Fifteen years ago the internet did not exist, and any curiosity young people had about Satanism died immediately, at the first step. Where could young boys go to find information about these things? Now they find the information very easily."
At the inaugural session Climati explains to the enrolled students: "The Satanism of youth is above all home-made Satanism. An ever-increasing number of young people are becoming fascinated by the cult of the Devil and by the world of darkness. For many of them, the shadows seem more attractive than the light. How does an adolescent come in contact with such a squalid environment? The starting point is often satanic rock, a gloomy and aggressive type of music which is allowing the record companies to rake in profits. It is readily recognised by its violent and anti-Christian lyrics, but above all by the disc covers, which often feature blasphemous images." Climati, himself a former bass guitarist in a band, stresses: "Naturally, not all rock music can be considered 'diabolical'. But it is undeniable that the fashion for Satanism can become an excellent way for mediocre singers without principles to swell their bank accounts."
Of course, the brand of "Satanism" promoted by rock groups such as the Deicides from Florida, Mortuary from Mexico, the gruesome Finnish band Impaled Nazarene, and the Beasts of Satan, a semi-pro group to which the northern Italian alleged murderers belonged, would be scorned by serious students of the occult. It's cheap kitsch. These people know nothing. Doesn't that rule their "Satanism" out of consideration? A Christian might retort, "By their works shalt thou know them." However vulgar and ignorant, the neo-Satanists may still arrive at the correct address.
Take the young folks from the grungy satellite town of Busto Arsizio lined up grinning at the camera in that photograph: bumptious poseurs you might decide, with a taste for appalling music which hopefully they would grow out of in a year or two. But two of them never got the chance to grow out of anything. Chiara Marino, the petite girl craning over someone's shoulder to get into the shot, and her boyfriend, Fabio Tollis, the smirking youth sporting a "Hell Awakes" T-shirt, disappeared in 1998 and reappeared six years later, decomposed and several feet underground.
The band was first known as Circus of Satanis, later as Beasts of Satan, and Fabio Tollis was the guitarist. He and Chiara Marino spent the last night of their lives drinking with the rest of the gang at a heavy metal club on the outskirts of Milan called Midnight. Then they all (police believe) drove back to Busto Arsizio, and on to the lonely wood nearby. There were rumours of disloyalty, suspicions in the air, jealousy. Some have spoken vaguely of a satanic rite. The dynamic that made the night murderous may be revealed this week in court. Whatever the actual chain of events, the evening finished with Chiara stabbed in the heart and Fabio beaten with a hammer. According to a witness, they were alive when they were heaved into the five-foot-deep hole.
It was the boy over whose shoulder Chiara Marino peeks in the photograph, Mario Maccione, who spilled the beans about the killing to the police, and led them to the graves in the wood. Suddenly, the confessions were tumbling out all over. Chiara's room, it was reported, was full of black candles and adorned with a fake skull. One of the group said Marino was identified with the Virgin Mary, which was the reason they killed her. More killings and several suspicious suicides came to light. Fragments of a diary were published, full of callow curses and invocations - "blood and death, blood raining down, blood bathing all my body, blood thirsty for blood ..." There were pages of instructions, it was said, about how to conduct satanic rites.
Yet one of the early rumours has been firmly squelched: the idea that the group was linked to a wider, more senior, more knowledgeable group of Satanists, from whom they were taking orders. The Beasts of Satan, like other covens of adolescent head-bangers across the Western world, existed in and for themselves.
Francesca Cramis, a lawyer for one of the accused, said the group was scarcely able to play its instruments, and was more involved with taking drugs and listening to music than practising Satanism. "They listened to death metal and satanic music," she told The New York Times. "These are guys who have severe problems and they convinced themselves that they were in contact with Satan and they had the power to kill others. It was born as a game but ended in tragedy."
Will the priests who emerge from Regina Apostolorum armed with exorcism diplomas be equipped to tackle the ills of the murderous longhairs of Busto Arsizio? Is confirmation of the Evil One's existence really what these ignorant young people need?
In some ways the Church's renewed enthusiasm for exorcism looks like a desperate lunge back towards the certainties of the Middle Ages, before all that troublesome Enlightenment stuff confused people's minds with versions of the truth at variance with the Church's.
Teachers on the course were at pains to stress how exorcism has changed, with a new rite introduced in 1999 supplanting that of 1614. Only priests will be sanctioned to carry it out, and they will be expected to work with doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Exorcism is the rite of last resort, when the priest is convinced that demonic possession is at the root of the problem, and when secular solutions have been tried and found wanting.
But however hedged around with ifs and buts, the return of the exorcist looks like the thin end of the wedge. Since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has been committed to dialogue with other faiths.
But if you target Satanism, the occult in all shapes and forms will soon come within the crosshairs. Harry Potter was never fully exculpated by the Church, despite the kindly headlines two years ago saying "Harry Potter gets Vatican's Blessing": many conservative Catholics would still support the declaration of the noted Roman exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, that "Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of darkness". From damning Harry Potter and banning seances, it could be a short step to proscribing everything else New Age, from Druids to Buddhists. In a few short sharp shocks, half a century of growing Catholic pluralism and intellectual maturity would be lost.
The kids of Busto Arsizio need something, for sure. Some attention from their parents. Better schools and colleges. A nice environment. Better job prospects. Spiritual guidance by people who could truly inspire them. But do they really need the Church telling them that the scary entities they have conjured up while smashed on booze and drugs are all too real?