The wide, leafy streets of Hampstead in north London are picturesque, villagey and quaint. This is the kind of ultra-expensive suburb that has everything money can buy – everything except a dark underbelly. But Hampstead is the setting for the new investigative podcast from Tortoise and Alexi Mostrous, known for the whiplash-inducing, catfishing saga Sweet Bobby. Hoaxed investigates “one of the most serious British conspiracy theories of all time”: the story of how a small group encouraged thousands of others to believe in a “satanic paedophile cult” based at a school and church in “the heart of Hampstead”.
Mostrous begins his podcast by playing clips from a police interview in which two children, aged seven and nine, claim to have been abused in the most horrific of ways. “In my classroom, they’ve got this little door at the back… It’s just a little tiny little room. It’s all stuffed with sweets, prizes, especially to pay the children with sweets to do sex to them,” one says. “And we got our own church too, because… we kill babies, we drink their blood, we eat them.” Later, the child tells police that all of this is untrue, and that he was forced to lie by his abusive stepfather. But clips of these videos were leaked online by the child’s mother and her conspiracy-minded associates, and went viral. People turned up at the school and church, screaming about child murder.
Mostrous agonises over his decision to include audio from these videos: “Believe me when I say we have debated – gone back and forth and back and forth – on how much of this material to play,” he says. Still, I felt queasy: at these specific clips (evidence of a different kind of abuse in and of themselves), and the podcast as a whole. People were drawn to this theory by salacious words: “Satanist”, “paedophile”, “conspiracy”. This, too, attracts listeners to Hoaxed as grim entertainment.
It’s impossible to “disprove” a conspiracy theory – you can only feed it. Hoaxed is thoroughly researched and thoughtfully reported; perhaps later episodes will reveal the show’s wider significance. But as of now, I’m not sure what purpose an “investigation” like this can serve.
This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!