TREATMENT OF SATANISM*
Michael D. Langone and Herbert A. Nieburg
Concern stimulated by the rise of cults during the past two
decades has contributed to the development of dozens of organizations devoted to
studying the subject of cults and to helping families and individuals adversely
affected by cult involvement. In the United States, the leading secular
cult-education organizations are the American Family Foundation (AFF), which
focuses on mobilizing professionals, and the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), which
focuses on mobilizing families and former cult members. (See Langone, 1991, for
a clinical overview of this issue.)
Until a few years ago, these and other cult-education
organizations rarely received inquiries about satanism. By late 1989, however,
the situation had changed dramatically. At that time, CAN reported that
approximately 10% to 15% of their 700-plus monthly telephone inquiries concerned
satanism (C. Kisser, personal communication, October 19, 1989). AFF, which
maintains a less visible public profile than CAN, has seen a noticeable increase
in satanism-related inquiries, but not to the same degree as CAN. Inquiries have
subsided during the past year, although they are still numerous.
What is the nature of the concern generated by satanism? Why
has there been such as increase in inquiries? What can mental health
professionals do to respond to the growing concern? These questions are the
focus of this contribution, which relies heavily on a longer, published report
(Langone & Blood, 1990).
CONCERN GENERATED BY SATANISM
The term �satanism� specifically refers to the �worship of
Satan, alleged to have been practiced in France
in the latter part of the nineteenth century; the principles and rites of the
Satanists� (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971).
Current popular usage of the term (in the U.S.A.), however, covers a broader
range of activities, including:
formal or informal worship of Satan or entities
equated with or associated with Satan or with violence cruelty, and
the practice of black magic (i.e., the
manipulations of alleged magical forces for destructive ends);
preoccupation with literature, symbols, rituals,
or other artifacts and activities associated with Satan or related entities, or
with black magic; and
attempts to enhance sexual, criminal, or other
activities by participation in rituals associated with the worship of Satan or
related entities, or with the practice of black magic.
The term, �Satanism,� then, popularly refers to the dark side
of occultism. Academic purists understandably object to lumping such a
hodgepodge of activities under the rubric �satanism.� However, those of us who
work day to day with laymen who do not bother making fine distinctions tend to
be more tolerant. Because this contribution has a practical emphasis and because
so many media accounts and scholarly reports have implicitly used the broader
definition of satanism, we too will employ the broader definition out of
deference to popular usage. We believe, however, that the terms �malevolent
occultism,� �abusive occultism,� and �occult-related violence� more accurately
describe the range of phenomena that concern us here. In this article we will
use these terms interchangeably with �satanism.�
Satanic activity is often considered �cultic� because
traditionally a �cult� is a deviant group whose practices are not closely
related to the mainstream, whereas a �sect� tends to be a group that has
splintered from a mainstream religion or that has accommodated to the mainstream
society over time (Nelson, 1968). Cult-education organizations, however, see the
central feature of contemporary, controversial cults as the widespread use of
highly manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to exploit members
(American Family Foundation, 1986). According to this view, much satanic
activity, for example a serial killer who leaves satanic graffiti next to his
victims� bodies, would not be considered cultic, although it may reflect
psychopathology colored by satanist beliefs and practices. We limit use of the
term �satanist cult� to describe only those groups who practice satanism
and that rely on highly manipulative techniques of persuasion and control
to insure obedience among members.
Some academicians have advanced the term �new religious
movement� to label satanic and other cults, but we, who have worked with the
victims of unethical manipulation, many of whom come from political or
psychotherapeutic groups, reject this term as too narrowly focused on religion
and as a euphemism that draws attention away from the features that make cultic
groups controversial. Nevertheless, �new religious movement� is an appropriate
term for describing nonmanipulative religious groups of recent origin.
Obviously, properly categorizing a particular group can be a difficult task
because information is often lacking and because many groups fall into the gray
area in the continuum between highly manipulative and respectful.
TYPES OF ACTIVITIES FREQUENTLY ASSOCIATED WITH SATANISM
Teenage Satanism. In
the United States and
Canada, a disturbing number of
teenagers are attracted to satanism. Some are involved to an alarming degree,
but most seem to be superficially involved. (We do not know, however, what
percentage of the superficially involved, sometimes called �dabblers,� become
more deeply involved or form or join satanist cults.) Those of us who study
cults are regularly approached by mental health colleagues treating teenagers
involved in satanism. Wheeler, Wood, and Hatch (1988) reported that a �survey
conducted in Provo, Utah, found that 62 or 92 psychotherapists (67 percent) had
treated adolescents involved in satanism� (p. 547).
One of the most upsetting examples of teenage involvement in
satanism occurred in 1987, when four teenage boys in a Midwest town formed a satanist group. One boy was the
senior class president of his high school. The four boys filled notebooks with
satanic symbols, poetry, and musings about death or mutilation. They made up
their own rituals, which borrowed from occult books, horror films, and heavy
metal music, and which were fueled by drug abuse. One night they drove to a
deserted area and sacrificed a cat. Then three of them turned on the fourth boy,
beat him to death with baseball bats, and threw his body into a cistern they had
named �the well of hell.� (Kelly (1990, p. 106, citing Johnson, 1989), reported
that the victim said, �Why me, you guys?� to which one of the perpetrators
replied, �Because it�s fun Steve.� At his murder trial, the leader said he
believed that Satan had commanded him to kill. All three are now serving life
terms in prison without the possibility of parole.
The prevalence of teenage involvement in satanism can only be
estimated. One study (Bourget, Gagnon, & Bradford, 1988) found that 8 of 250
adolescents (3.2%) referred for psychiatric help to a facility that handled all
adolescent psychiatric referrals in an area near Ottawa, Canada, were involved in satanism.
Wheeler et al. (1988) reported that 17 of 32 adolescent referrals in their
sample were involved in satanism. Because these studies� subjects were not
randomly selected (i.e., they were psychiatrically disturbed youth), it is
hazardous to extrapolate from these findings to the broader population of youth.
However, if one extrapolates from studies that find 20% of the population to be
diagnosable psychiatrically (Freedman, 1986), one might estimate from the
Canadian study that several thousand psychiatrically disturbed teenagers in the
United States and Canada are involved in satanism.
As to the number of involved teenagers who are not
psychiatrically ill, we can only speculate. It is sobering to consider, however,
that according to Gallup polls (Gallup Youth Survey Release,
March 22, 1989), 27% of teens enjoy hard rock/heavy metal music, much of which
contains violent and satanic lyrics. The potential influence of such lyrics on
youth prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics in the February
1989, issue of its journal to issue six recommendations aimed at violence-tinged
music and music videos. Even if only a very small percentage of youth preferring
such music were involved in satanism, they would number in the thousands,
perhaps the tens of thousands.
Ritualistic Abuse in Day Care. Finkelhor,
Williams, and Burns (1988) identified 1,639 cases of sexual abuse of children in
270 day care centers across the United States. Reportedly 13% of
these cases (N
= 213) also involved ritualistic abuse. Finkelhor et al. (1988) define
ritualistic abuse as:
� abuse that occurs in a context linked to some symbols or
group activity that have a religious, magical or supernatural connotation, and
where the invocation of these symbols or activities are repeated over time and
used to frighten and intimidate children. (Cited in Cozolino, 1989, p. 3)
Finkelhor and his colleagues identify three types of
cult-based ritualistic abuse, in which the
sexual abuse is a means for inducing religious experience in the
pseudo-ritualistic abuse, in which
perpetrators, whose goal is sexual exploitation, employ rituals to intimidate
psychopathological ritualism, in which the
abuse is part of an individual�s or small group�s delusional or obsessive
It is not know what percentage of ritualistic abuse cases
fall into each of the preceding categories. Another limitation of the Finkelhor
study is the lack of objective corroboration of reports of ritualistic or sexual
abuse, the study reported on allegations of abuse (Hicks, 1989).
Kelley (1989) compared 32 children sexually abused in day
care with 35 children who were sexually and ritualistically abused in day care
and 37 nonabused matched controls. The children had been abused in 16 day care
centers in 12 states. In 92% of these cases, criminal charges were filed against
abusers. The conviction rate in these criminal cases was 80%, with no
differences in rates between the ritualistic abuse cases and the nonritualistic
abuse cases. Five percent of the criminal cases resulted in verdicts of not
guilty; 7% had charges dismissed; and, at the time of reporting, 7% of the cases
were still in progress (Kelley, in press).
Ritualistically abused children in Kelley�s study exhibited
more severe and more enduring psychopathology than sexually abused children.
More specifically, ritualistically abused (RA children) and sexually abused
children (SA children) differed on the following dimensions:
RA children experienced more types of sexual
abuse (8.34 vs. 4.81).
RA children were victimized by more perpetrators
(5 vs. 2).
RA children were more likely to have been
physically abused, physically restrained or forced to eat human excrement,
urine, and semen.
More RA children were given drugs that made them
drowsy (74% vs. 28%).
Eighty-six percent of RA children described
chants and other rituals associated with satanic ceremonies.
RA children demonstrated significantly more
behavior problems as measured by the Child Behavior Checklist.
Although ritualistic abuse clearly exists, some have
expressed concern that as ritualistic abuse cases are publicized, more and more
innocent people are being unjustly charged with criminal sexual abuse by
disturbed, confused, or unscrupulous accusers. Journalists Charlier and Downing
(1988) reviewed 91 criminal cases in which ritualistic abuse had occurred.
Forty-five cases resulted in dismissal, 11 in acquittal, and 23 in convictions
(12 were still pending when the contribution was written). In one striking case,
a man, pressured by police and his minister, confessed to ritualistically
abusing his daughters even though he had no memory of the event. The prosecutor
called Richard Ofshe, a noted cult researcher, as an expert witness. After
investigating the case and interviewing the accused, Ofshe switched to the
defense because he had become convinced that the accused was the victim of
psychological coercion (Waters, 1991).
Solitary Satanists. Some
of the most gruesome events associated with satanism are murders performed by
demented individuals whose fascination with satanism colors � and perhaps even
motivates � their horrid crimes. Richard Ramirez, the �Night Stalker� of
left a trail of murder, rape, and assault. At his trial, he shouted �Hail,
Satan� and flashed a satanic symbol drawn on the palm of his left hand. In
September 1989, after a 14-month-long trial which included testimony by hundreds
of witnesses, some of whom reported that they had been forced to �swear to
Satan,� Ramirez was found guilty of 13 murders and 30 other felonies and was
sentenced to death. �I am beyond good and evil,� the unrepentant Ramirez stated
at his sentencing: �Repeat not the
errors of the Night Prowler and show no mercy. Lucifer dwells within us all�
Satanist Groups. The
most famous satanist organization in the world is the Church of Satan founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey, a
former lion tamer, carnival performer, criminologist, and police photographer.
The Church of
Satan claims to be a
response to the hypocrisy of conventional religion. LaVey�s The
(1969), which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, says that man is �just
another animal, sometimes better, more often worse, than those that walk on
all-fours, who because of his �divine spiritual and intellectual development�
has become the most vicious animal of all!� (p. 25). The
advocates the unbridled satisfaction of all lusts and impulses, but,
conveniently, it contains �disclaimers� of a sort regarding activities
potentiating criminal prosecution; for example, human sacrifice is to be
performed �symbolically,� rather than physically. Some who have read
especially teenage Satanists, may interpret it more literally than LaVey, at
least publicly, intends.
As reprehensible as many may find LaVey�s philosophy, his
�church� may not be a cult according to the definition of a cult that sees
extensive use of manipulation to exploit people as a central feature. (It may,
however, be considered a cult according to the traditional view of cults as
deviant religious belief systems disconnected from the mainstream.) Many who
join LaVey�s organization have only a tenuous connection with it. Many appear to
join because it gives them a rationale for indulging themselves sexually. But it
does not appear, at least to the casual observer, to have the totalitarian
control systems that characterize the cults that have caused so much controversy
during the past 20 years.
The Temple of Set, founded in the late 1970�s by Michael
Aquino, a former high-ranking member of LaVey�s Church of Satan, has become
perhaps the most influential satanist group in the U.S.A. Aquino, who holds a
PhD in political science and is a former Colonel in U.S. Army Intelligence and a
specialist in psychological warfare, takes as the source of his religious
beliefs the ancient Egyptian god of darkness, Set. The �Setians� see themselves
as an elite occult society focused on magical development leading to total
freedom, power, and immortality. No illegal activities have been ascribed to the
Temple of Set, although in 1989, Aquino and his wife, the high
priestess Lilith, were the objects of a multijurisdictional investigation of
ritual child molestations in northern California. No charges have been filed
(Goldston, 1989, p. 1A).
Perhaps the most violent occult group of recent years was
that of Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo, a Cuban-American drug lord from Miami. In April, 1989,
police conducting a drug raid at an isolated ranch near the Mexican border town
of Matamoros uncovered a mass grave containing the mutilated bodies of 13 young
men, among them Mark Kilroy, a premed student at the University of Texas.
Although his crimes were described as �satanic� in press reports, Constanzo was
a devotee of Palo Mayombe, a Caribbean �black magic� religion related to
Santeria and Voodoo, who laced his rituals with elements taken from many
sources, including ancient Aztec sacrificial practices (Raschke, 1990). Four
members of Constanzo�s gang arrested at the ranch showed no remorse as they
described the grisly rituals they believed would ingratiate them with the evil
spirits and gain them protection from harm. Weeks later, Constanzo and another
gang member died during a Mexico
City shootout with police. Other members of the group
were taken into custody.
�Adult Survivors.� Perhaps
the most intriguing phenomenon associated with satanism is that of adults
recovering memories of having been ritualistically abused as young children.
Given the existence of ritualistic abuse in day care today, it certainly is not
hard to believe that some young children were ritualistically abused 20 or 30
years ago. What is unsettling, however, is the number
of adults claiming � often during psychotherapy � to be victims of ritualistic
abuse. Dozens of conferences have brought together mental health professionals
who say they are treating �adult survivors,� as these people have come to be
known. Many �survivors� are diagnosed as multiple personalities, some reportedly
having hundreds of �personalities.� Support groups for these people exist
throughout the United
States. There are even support groups for their
therapists. Indeed, in a neopagan magazine, Green
an advertisement says �Pagan Therapists Volunteering Services to Adult Survivors
of Ritual Abuse� (November, 1989, p. 11). Seventeen �pagan therapists� are
listed! Clearly, considerable attention is paid to adult survivors. Yet law
enforcement experts have not been able to verify memories of the crimes
reported by adult survivors (Lanning, 1985).
WHY HAS THERE BEEN SUCH AN INCREASE IN INQUIRIES?
Necessarily, the actual incidence of satanist activity during
recent years has either decreased, stayed the same, or increased. If it has
decreased or stayed the same, then the increased interest shown in the subject
is due to a heightened awareness of actual activity and/or misperceptions of
reality � both of which demand further explanation. If the actual incidence has
increased, then the increased interest would be expected, although heightened
awareness and/or misperceptions of reality may result in a disproportionate
level of interest.
Although we are not aware of any relevant sociological
studies, we believe that the experience of mental health professionals indicates
that teen interest in satanism has increased markedly. As noted earlier,
Gallup polls have found that 27% of
U.S. teenagers prefer heavy metal
music, some of which contains lyrics that are explicitly satanist. Pulling
(1989) reported on a study by Wass which found that 24% of urban high school
students were �HSS (homicide, suicide, satanist) fans.� Satanism per se
is probably only a part of an overall increased fascination with violence and
rebellion, most conspicuously manifested in heavy metal music. In a review of
the psychiatric literature on adolescents and their music, Brown and Hendee
Rock music, reflective of the adolescent peer culture,
symbolizes the adolescent themes of rebellion and autonomy. Increasingly it does
so with disturbing lyrics that connote violence and pornographic sexual imagery
� At the very least, commitment to a rock subculture is symptomatic of
adolescent alienation from these authority figures� Research into the effects of
media messages has been problematic because of the very pervasiveness of music
and its individual appeal and meaning. The effects of rock music, particularly
heavy metal music, have not yet been studied extensively. As an important agent
of adolescent socialization, however, the negative messages of rock music should
not be dismissed (p. 1662)
Adding to, and perhaps facilitating, the influence of music
is a general cultural degeneration into irrationalism (Fair, 1974). The
diminishment of faith in traditional religions, which value rationalism, leads
to increased interest in the occult and in �natural� religions (e.g., Wicca,
neopaganism). This growing fascination with occultism can be seen in other areas
as well. When many of us were young, for example, science fiction books had
titles such as The Star Conquerers. Now they have titles such as The
Sorcerer Avenged. In the former, �John Wayne� was simply rocketed into outer
space. In the latter, Merlin the Magician wanders through the fantastic world of
the imagination. Both may appeal to an adolescent�s need to experience power
vicariously. The former, however, pays homage to rationalism and science by
making �antimatter lasers� the source of power. The latter regresses to
�childhood omnipotence,� to borrow a psychoanalytic concept, by making thought
itself the source of power. Although the aggression in contemporary science
fiction may not be as blatantly traditional as in the older science fiction, the
recourse to magical thinking is, in our view, disturbing. We believe that such
cultural changes, however difficult to study and measure scientifically, have
indeed contributed substantially to an actual interest in occultism among youth.
Obviously, drug use accentuates these tendencies toward magical thinking.
We have much less to say about the actual incidence of other
varieties of satanism. Thirty years ago, a much smaller proportion of children
went to day care centers. Given the current statistical rarity of ritualistic
abuse is day care centers, it is quite possible that 30 years ago ritualistic
abuse in day care centers existed at levels similar to today�s but went
undetected. Although the frequency of adult-survivor memories would suggest that
ritualistic abuse was just as common, if not more so, 20 or 30 years ago, the
lack of verification of these memories precludes the drawing of confident
conclusions. We simply have no way of knowing whether or not the actual
incidence has increased. We think the same is true about solitary Satanists,
such as Richard Ramirez. There are too few of them � at least ones who commit
violent crimes � to draw valid statistical conclusions.
At first, it might appear that the number of organized
satanist groups has increased. Among identified groups in the
United States are, for
example, the Church of Satan, the Abraxas Foundation, the Temple of Set, the Werewolf Order, the Order of the Ram, the
Worldwide Church of Satanic Liberations, and the Church of Satanic Brotherhood. Although earlier
groups existed, for example, Aleister Crowley�s group, to our knowledge, a
scholarly study of the numbers of such groups and their membership levels during
different times has not been performed. Although it seems reasonable to believe,
given the cultural changes mentioned earlier, that the number has increased,
truly we do not know.
HEIGHTENED AWARENESS AND MISPERCEPTIONS
Two social changes in the past 20 years have contributed to a
heightened public awareness of and a tendency to misinterpret virtually all
social problems, at least in the United States. The first is the
growth in the number of organizations, such as the Cult Awareness Network, that
specialize in educating the public about a social ill. (In the area of Satanism, unfortunately,
the credibility of some of these organizations � not including the Cult
Awareness Network � leaves much to be desired.) The second is the dramatic increase in
the number of television talk shows. The former need the latter in order to
deliver their messages to the public; the latter need the former to provide
topics for discussion.
Every day millions of Americans listen to Oprah Winfrey, Phil
Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jesse Raphael, Larry King, and scores of local
variants on radio as well as on television. Talk show producers must compete for
audience attention. Sometimes the programs are unrepentantly silly. Sometimes
they are commendably enlightening.
Needless to say, satanism has been the topic of many talk
shows. Unfortunately, talk show producers and TV viewers rarely have training in
the social and behavioral sciences. Once sensationalized on a talk show, a
phenomenon that is statistically rare but intensely disturbing, such as
ritualistic abuse in day care, engenders panic. If one had a child in day care,
one should be much more concerned about the possibility that the bus driver took
cocaine than the possibility that the teachers practiced ritualistic abuse.
Nevertheless, millions of people respond viscerally, rather than rationally.
Other talk show producers, freelance writers, news magazine editors, television
and radio news producers, and sometimes even scholars respond to this
controversial �new topic by exploring the subject themselves. The issue thus
becomes even more publicized.
On the other hand, publicity is good; the citizenry is
informed. On the other hand, everything � even the extremely important � is
reduced to a passing media fad that stokes emotion and, at best, provides only a
superficial analysis of the issue. The media�s frenzy over satanism appears to
have died down in the United
States. We have heard that inquiries have also
diminished during the past year. Perhaps during the next few years, provided
public passions are not reignited, we may be able to draw a more accurate
picture of just how much in this field of abusive occultism is objectively
WHAT CAN HELPING PROFESSIONALS DO?
DEEPLY INVOLVED SATANISTS
Clinical observations of former members of �traditional�
cults (e.g., Scientology, the Unification Church) indicate that the majority of them were
relatively normal individuals who were seduced into joining during a period of
stress (Clark, 1979). Those who have worked
with satanically involved teenagers and adults, on the other hand, have observed
a high level of preinvolvement psychopathology (Bourget et al., 1988; Wheeler et
al., 1988). The connection between preexisting psychopathology and satanic
involvement is not clear, although the two probably have a reciprocal
relationship. Psychologically disturbed individuals, who tend to feel weak and
inadequate, will be attracted to the promise of personal power inherent in
Satanist ideologies. Repeated participation in satanic rituals, especially those
involving violence, may turn what was originally a power fantasy into a
full-fledged delusion. As individuals become embedded in the satanist belief
system, especially in the context of a manipulative satanist group, their
contact with and capacity to relate adaptively to the mainstream world diminish.
Moreover, the cognitive dissonance elicited by repeated acts of violence can,
over time, destroy all social inhibitions. Thus, satanism, which turns
Christianity upside down, may �exorcise� the conscience � what was formerly
thought to be evil is now seen as good and what was thought to be good is now
seen as evil.
Needless to say, treatment of such persons can be very
challenging. First of all, satanists are unlikely to seek help unless they have
renounced their occult involvements or have been ordered by judicial authorities
to participate in psychotherapy. In treating deeply involved satanists,
therapists can (a) eliminate conscience-suppressing factors such as rituals,
drugs, and group contact; (b) strengthen motivation to participate in therapy by
connecting these clients to dissociated or suppressed guilt; (c) analyze the
relationship of preexisting psychopathology and satanist involvement, (d)
provide appropriate channels for dealing with guilt as it is manifested; and (e)
find socially constructive means for helping these clients increase self-esteem.
Therapists should keep in mind that these patients unlike many neurotics whose
guilt is disproportionate to their �sins,� have often done things that
should arouse guilt. Indeed, the lack of guilt is frequently a telling
sign that something is seriously awry. If guilt cannot be elicited, it may be
necessary to treat the patient as a classical psychopath. Rewards and
punishments will have to be manipulated in order to contain destructive
antisocial impulses. If guilt is elicited and effectively addressed, the person
may feel a need for expiation. Therapists should not hesitate to help the
patient find appropriate means of making amends. Referral to a pastoral
counselor may often be appropriate.
Realistically speaking, therapists will rarely have an
opportunity to treat deeply involved satanists. The great majority of those who have
worked with satanists have treated young people, and the majority of these young
people have had only superficial involvements in satanism. The term �dabbler� has often been
applied to these youths. Wheeler et al. (1988) suggest that satanism intrigues
adolescents because it provides them with power and control, an opportunity for
rebellion, an escape from boredom, a place within a group, and a feeling of
exalted status. They see satanist involvement as youthful alienation exacerbated
by a sort of �poison� which is difficult to understand and predict. They
recommend that these patients be separated from all satanist influences, much as
drug addicts are separated from the drug subculture. The patients should be
helped to see and understand the true goals of their satanist activities (e.g.,
to feel potent) and to find more effective ways of achieving those goals than
the negative ones of magic and control over others. Gradually, the need for
power can be guided away from satanism and toward personal mastery,
self-control, and nondestructive assertion, thereby helping to resolve issues of
identity and self-esteem. Family involvement in therapy is certainly
Tucker (1989) contends that religious ritual has a compelling
potency that may indeed be archetypal. Mass at Notre Dame cathedral can be a
moving experience even to a nonbeliever. Though reversing Christian morality,
satanic rituals may nonetheless tap into religious archetypes, especially if
potentiated by drug use. These experiences, which lend a mystical aura of
authority to a rebellious belief system, can fortify satanists against a hostile
world, much as participation in ritual has fortified Christians and other
religious followers against personal doubt and external dangers.
In treating satanists for whom ritual appears to have been a
potent psychological factor, it is important to keep in mind the distinction
between belief and feeling. However undifferentiated and vague, powerful
feelings of a transcendent world can be elicited by a variety of rituals
associated with a variety of religious belief systems. The feelings alone,
therefore, cannot confirm the beliefs. If a satanist can come to understand
this, he or she may become open to examining alternate beliefs systems
compatible with the mystic-like feelings. (This same principle, by the way, can
be applied to former members of traditional cults, especially eastern groups for
which subjective mystical experience is often central.)
The role of ritual is likely to be especially prominent among
what Tucker (1989) calls Profile 2 teenage Satanists. These youth are from
normal families and are seemingly well-adjusted, intelligent, and sincerely
desirous of meaning and purpose. Seeing hypocrisy in the world, these youth turn
to Satanism to proclaim their outrage and to justify the self-indulgence that
derives logically from a world without values.
Profile 1 satanists, on the other hand, tend to come from
disturbed families and to have a long history of psychological maladjustment.
For these youths, satanism boldly states what they have come to learn through
hard experience: Love and trust
must be avoided because they lead to disappointment and pain. For such
youngsters, satanism can justify the selfishness that automatically results from
a rejection of love and trust. The negative reactions of other people can bring
them much-needed attention. Joining satanist groups can give them a sense of
belonging without a corresponding demand for trust and love; they relate to
others solely on a dimension of power.
PERPETRATORS WHO RITUALISTICALLY ABUSE CHILDREN
As noted earlier, Kelley (1989) found that ritualistically
abused children exhibited more severe and more enduring psychopathology than
sexually abused children. What gives ritualistic behavior this additional
negative potency? In part, the added potency may derive from archetypal
structures in the mind. Supernatural threats, for example, that the �devil� will
kill one�s parents if one talks about the sexual abuse, can terrorize young
children, even though they may have no influence over older children, for whom
the archetypal structures may take on a different content (e.g., standard
horror-movie themes). However, ritualistic abuse need not be �religious.�
Indeed, the utilitarian pseudoritualistic abuse described by Finkelhor and his
colleagues (1988) may be the most common type. Perpetrators may capitalize upon
a young child�s psychological immaturity in order to exploit him or her
sexually. They may, for example, tell children that a bomb has been implanted in
their stomachs and will explode if they tell anyone about the sexual abuse. Or
they may make the children take part in mock �sacrifices� of other children,
thereby guaranteeing that nobody will believe the children if they tell because
there will be no dead children.
Ritualistically abused children, therefore, receive, in a
sense, a cognitive injury as well as physical and emotional injuries. Their
cognitive development and their capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality may
be impaired by the repeated association of magical threats with physical and
emotional abuse. The resulting confusion invites dissociative defenses.
Therapeutic work, therefore, should unfold at a pace that is tolerable to the
child. The child will need continual reassurance in order to develop the trust
to disclose and talk about the ritualistic abuse. Therapists should remain alert
to the presence of dissociative defenses and guilt. Gradually, the child,
perhaps through play therapy, may reveal what happened. The therapist may then
be able to desensitize the child to the emotional pain and help the child
develop more realistic appraisals of what happened to him or her. Even very
young children can understand the concept of being tricked. Therapists should
keep in mind however, that they too can be tricked. Not all allegations of
sexual abuse, whether ritualistic or nonritualistic, are true. Indeed, the
credibility of children�s allegations of sexual abuse is a controversial area
within psychology (DeAngelis, 1989).
ADULT SURVIVORS OF RITUALISTIC ABUSE
As noted earlier, the existence of adult survivors of
ritualistic abuse is not surprising, especially considering the evidence for
ritualistic abuse in day care centers. If such abuse occurs today, it probably
occurred yesterday as well. What is surprising is the number of people claiming
to be survivors. Those who have participated in psychotherapy are frequently, if
not usually, diagnosed as having a dissociative disorder and sometimes as having
Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).
Bloch (1991) says that childhood trauma is �now understood to
be a primary etiological factor in the formation of dissociative disorder� (p.
3). According to Bloch,
recognized as an ego-defense mechanism, is the process of separating,
segregating, and isolating chunks of experience from each other. The dissociated
information � affects, memories, impulses, cognition, perception, behavioral
repertoires � then can be organized and processed in discriminable forms and
manner. This strategy seeks to compartmentalize threatening, destructive, or
affectively negative material and prevent it from contaminating nonthreatening
material. (p. 1)
If the trauma occurred in very early childhood or if the
dissociative defenses are not effectively neutralized, a patient in therapy may
distort memories or many even construct them. A major challenge in therapy with
adult survivors, consequently, is separating fact from distortion. The
malleability of memory, especially in situations that enhance suggestibility,
has been studied widely. Orne et al. (1985), for example, cited a striking
Consider an individual who is trying to remember a person
whom he had seen only once at a distance of 100 yards. If, during hypnosis, he
is asked to �look at� the person using hallucinated binoculars so that he can
�see� him more clearly, the subject may describe the person in detail down to
the pattern on his necktie, even though the �perception� of such detail is
beyond the physical ability of the human eye at a distance of 100 yards. (p.
Because hypnotherapy is commonly employed to help patients
with dissociative disorders and especially with MPD, it is not surprising that
Orne (M. T. Orne, personal communication, November 18, 1988), among others, is
skeptical about many reports from adult survivors. This skepticism is further
supported by the dramatic lack of police evidence pertinent to such
reports (Lanning, 1985). Keep in mind, however, that skepticism does not mean
absolute disbelief. Ritualistic abuse of children occurs. There are in all
probability adults who were ritualistically abused as children. But, especially
in light of the publicity associated with ritualistic abuse, it is not
surprising that some people � especially those who may be victims of
nonritualistic child sexual abuse � may confabulate, constructing plausible
memories that simply are not true. Therapists working with this population
should keep these points in mind.
Ganaway (1991) suggests three alternative explanations for
what is becoming an epidemic of ritualistic abuse reports. Some reports may be
�screen memories,� that is, fantasies of trauma that defend against �more
prosaic but ironically less tolerable memories of perceived childhood trauma�
(p. 7) and that give the person a compensatory sense of grandiosity. Other
reports, according to Ganaway, may be �memories� implanted by therapists who are
not sufficiently sensitive to how easily highly hypnotizable individuals can be
led to believe in and elaborate upon suggestions having no basis in reality.
Lastly, Ganaway contends that the ritualistic abuse phenomenon may result in
part from what sociologists call �urban legend,� that is, a rumor that, even
though its origins are no longer apparent and objective evidence is lacking,
becomes sufficiently widespread that people believe in it essentially because so
many others believe in it. Victor (1989) described such a satanist rumor-panic
in Western New York.
An even more fundamental issue, however, is deciding whether
or not it is important to separate fact from imagination. Many therapists
believe that only the patient�s psychological reality is important, not the
objective reality. We question this assumption. If an adult in therapy falsely
recalls having been ritualistically or nonritualistically abused by her (usually
the patient is a woman) father and if the therapist acts as though this memory
were a real event, unavoidable real-life consequences ensue. Is the therapist
ethically or legally obligated to report the crime to the police, especially if
a ritual sacrifice allegedly occurred? Should the patient confront her father?
If so, what impact will this event have on her relationship with her family, who
will, of course, correctly deny the event? Will, for example, the patient lose
valuable family support and become more dependent on her therapist? If the
patient does not confront her father, she will still not be able to maintain
normal relations with him, which will lead to a family estrangement, though one
without any explanation from the family�s point of view? How much therapeutic
effort will be wasted in an attempt to help the patient �work through� her
�issues� with her fiction? Does the therapist have any ethical obligation
to the family? It seems to us that the therapist must at some point be willing
to raise the issue of truth. If the issue is raised and if the truth is indeed
not determinable with reasonable confidence, then the issue of toleration of
uncertainty and ambiguity arises. Can the patient learn to live with an
indistinct and at least partly irretrievable memory of trauma? Can the therapist
live with this situation?
We do not ask the last question in jest. Underlying this
discussion is the question of a therapist�s orientation toward trauma. Some
believe that it is necessary to achieve catharsis by reliving the trauma in
memory. Others believe that the focus should be on adapting to the present and
preparing for the future. Practitioners of the former school of thought may do a
disservice to patients when they stubbornly pursue memories that, in fact, are
not retrievable. thereby encouraging patients to confuse fantasy with reality.
Practitioners of the latter school may be delinquent if a traumatic memory is
retrievable and verifiable and if revisiting it would indeed be cathartic.
Perhaps therapeutic flexibility is the best approach.
THE CASE OF B
B is a 16-year-old Caucasian male who is an only child. While
in middle school, his parents noted changes in personality, especially more
aggressive and hostile behavior. They also noticed that his clothing indicated a
preoccupation with Satanism; for example, black tee-shirts with heavy metal
music groups� names on them and a black leather jacket that was artfully
designed with various satanic symbols such as pentagrams, inverted crosses, and
a skull and crossbones. When B first consulted Dr. Nieburg, he had a court case
pending for criminal mischief. Additional criminal charges followed.
B was in the 10th grade and not doing well
academically. He had been hospitalized one year prior to the date he first
consulted Dr. Nieburg because of suicidal ideation and feeling �out of control.�
B described the hospitalization as �torture.� About 1-1/2 years prior to his
first contact with Dr. Nieburg, one of B�s friends was killed by the brother of
another friend. At the time of this event, B rejected God and religious faith
and turned to satanism. He was not doing well in school and failed all subjects.
He was transferred to a special school, where he formed his own cell of Satan�s
Army. B continued to abuse alcohol consistently and repeatedly. As a result of
his legal problems, he was sentenced to do voluntary service for the community.
He admitted using occasional marijuana. His drinking progressed to consistent
liquor use three to four times a week and increased use of marijuana. He had
assaulted his father several times in the past. In the most recent episode, he
responded to his father�s yelling at him for not doing well in school by pulling
out a razor and lacerating his father�s arm and abdomen severely enough to
require hospitalization. Four local police officers and two state troopers were
required to bring him to the hospital for treatment.
B�s family history is significant in that he is an only child
in a very troubled family. His father, a blue-collar worker, has a long history
of alcoholism and perpetrating domestic violence. B had been furious with his
father for many years because of his father�s uncontrollable bouts of
aggression. Reports to Child Protective Services indicate that his father
battered him on numerous occasions. B�s mother appeared to be a
passive-dependent woman who had little influence over either her son or her
husband. Feeling intimidated by both her husband and her son, she was a passive
bystander to much of the violence in the home.
During the course of psychotherapy, B continued to write
satanic graffiti on school property and appeared at school dressed in clothes
covered with satanic symbols. He overturned a religious statue at a local church
and was subsequently arrested. School officials noted that B exerted a great
deal of control over some vulnerable students and that students and faculty were
�afraid of him.� School officials suspected B of having called in a bomb threat
to the school, but they could not prove their suspicions. He was very involved
in leading destruction rituals and black masses on a regular basis with a circle
of friends. He arranged for some of these friends to beat up students who would
not go along with certain of B�s satanic wishes.
B formed a somewhat positive therapeutic alliance with Dr.
Nieburg and showed up for almost all scheduled psychotherapy sessions. At first
he was very reluctant to speak about his activities. But when Dr. Nieburg
convinced him that he really wanted to learn more about what was going on and to
have some satanic phenomena explained, B became a very willing instructor. As a
result of the rapport established with his therapist, B agreed to call when he
was in trouble and to ask for assistance when he became very frightened.
B exhibited many features of Borderline Personality Disorder,
as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder related to the beatings he received
from his father. He also exhibited some of the typical signs of an alcoholic�s
child; for example, feeling that he had to protect his mother, being ashamed to
have friends come to his house, and losing control. The use of
cognitive-behavioral techniques in psychotherapy resulted in some diminution of
his acting-out behavior and some insight into why he acted the way he did. B was
seen in ongoing psychotherapy for approximately 2 years, at which point he
graduated from high school and totally gave up satanism. He replaced his satanic
dabbling, however, with racist acting-out behavior when he affiliated with a
local skinhead group. The members of the skinhead group told him that
psychotherapy would �pervert his mind.� He dropped out of therapy and has not
been heard from since.
THE CASE OF F
When F�s mother became aware that F had been dabbling in
satanism with a group of other students, she contacted the local youth officer,
who referred this 14-year-old Caucasian adolescent to Dr. Nieburg. F was angry
and confused and described herself as a hurt child. She had been introduced to
satanism approximately 7 months prior to her first session. During the weekend
prior to her visit she had cut a 666 and an inverted cross into her arm and a
pentagram into her leg because, she reported, �I was angry.� She was
hospitalized within 24 hours after first seeing Dr. Nieburg. This was F�s second
F�s mother reports having found, prior to F�s
hospitalization, a �book of shadows,� which described the activities in which F
had been involved. F lives with her mother, older sister, and younger brother.
When first seen she was in the ninth grade and was not achieving academically.
She had been hospitalized 2 years earlier because of acting-out behavior and
alcohol abuse. After this hospitalization, she was seen for psychotherapy by an
agency which discontinued therapy for the summer, during which time her behavior
began to deteriorate significantly. She had a history of frequent and heavy
alcohol intoxication and had been the victim of date rape when she was
approximately 13. She had repressed feelings of anger, hurt, and embarrassment
since that episode.
F�s father had physically abused her mother, and her parents
eventually separated and divorced. F�s father and mother had been divorced for 5
years when F was seen by Dr. Nieburg. Her father is a recovering alcoholic and
her mother a recovering compulsive gambler. After the divorce, F�s conflicts
with her mother escalated.
F has been involved in numerous episodes of running away and
promiscuous behavior. She once became upset over the breakup with a boyfriend
and carved his name on her wrist. A mental status exam performed when she was
hospitalized revealed a street-tough adolescent female with good eye contact.
She had constricted affect. Her predominant moods were sadness and depression.
She admitted to having poor self-esteem and feeling unattractive. She showed no
evidence of thought disorder. She expressed herself logically and coherently and
was not suicidal. She did, however, self-mutilate when she was angry at herself.
She felt that this was the only way to release her anger. She dabbled with
satanic symbols but did not admit to being a member of a satanic group. She did,
however, associate with other acting-out friends. She appeared to have good
reality testing and admitted to becoming very angry and enraged during the past
While she was hospitalized, psychological testing revealed a
tremendous distrust of adults and an inability to develop intimate relationships
with others. Personality testing suggested a restless, impulsive, and
stimulus-seeking individual who craved a great deal of attention and approval
from others. Her characteristic unreliability, self-centeredness, impulsivity,
resentment, and moodiness became evident to those who had contact with her. Her
performance reflected the effects of characterologically based impulsivity. She
had acquired academic skills at a level equal to her measured intelligence. The
test data did not suggest gross psychosis but did indicate a low-grade tendency
toward magical and distorted thinking. She reported a constellation of symptoms
which included restlessness, impulsivity, delinquency, and aggressive behaviors
meeting the criteria for DSM-III-R Conduct Disorder. In summary, psychological
reports indicated that F was of average intelligence and displayed no evidence
of specific learning disability or other organic mental impairment.
Residential treatment had been considered, but F was placed
back in her school district in a special program where she did very well. Upon
discharge from the hospital, F was seen in twice-weekly therapy utilizing
cognitive-behavioral techniques. She stopped drinking, changed friends, and
became much more sociable in her daily life. She observed curfews set by her
mother and began to help with housework. She returned to an alternative school
placement and made honor roll consistently. She had several episodes of relapse,
but none required hospitalization. She is still a very angry, traumatized,
potentially acting-out young woman. She has given up satanic ritual totally and
has joined with a new group of friends who are more socially acceptable to her
mother. She had a brief trial of living with her father but that did not work
out. At the time of writing she continues to be seen in psychotherapy and her
roller-coaster existence is beginning to normalize to a great degree.
The rational-emotive/cognitive-behavioral therapeutic
intervention used in the two illustrative cases follows the techniques described
by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. These are based on the operational assumption
that thoughts (cognitions) lead to feelings, which then lead to behavior. The
cognitions are preceded by threats or challenges to a person�s underlying belief
systems. In both of these cases, underlying beliefs involving safety, security,
and gratification needs were threatened.
In one case, the underlying beliefs were challenged by
parental alcoholism and violence perpetrated against a friend. In the other
case, the major trauma involved parental abuse and subsequent threat to security
and autonomy. Psychotherapy explored and identified the clients� dysfunctional
cognitions in an attempt to �re-script� the �self-talk� in which both clients
operated. Issues of betrayal became apparent in both cases. The substance abuse
present in both cases was explored and treated within a context of
self-medication for affective pain, and resulted in a diminution of such
behavior but never abstinence.
Episodic violence rationalized by satanic rhetoric was
challenged and reframed from a perspective of anger, rage, fury, and the need to
manage those feelings. The cognitive interventions were fairly successful and
resulted in less overt acting out. Case One eventually switched out of satanism
to another form of acting out (white supremacy � �skinhead�). His behavior at
home, however, changed dramatically. He got his driving license and drove in a
responsible fashion. He began to talk to his parents and relate positively to
them. He graduated from high school and was pursuing employment at the time of
termination. Case Two changed her friends and, in so doing, broke the bond with
the satanic group of which she had been a follower. She continued doing well in
school and began working. She, too, received her driving license and took the
responsibility seriously. Her drinking decreased significantly and her
relationship with her mother improved. She also began speaking with her father
again after many years of estrangement. The relationship with her siblings also
improved significantly, to their surprise.
These two cases illustrate some points about working with
adolescent satanic dabblers:
Most cases that will come to the attention of
psychotherapists or other mental health professionals will be those of
These dabblers have a myriad of psychiatric
disturbances and symptoms of mental illness.
Many of these cases involve instances of earlier
perceived trauma and their subsequent post-traumatic responses.
Young persons who identify with satanic
practices, for the most part, do not have accurate information about
satanism as a religion, system, or philosophy.
Parents, clergy, educators, judges, police,
probation/parole officers, and mental health professionals need to educate
themselves about the strong relationship between adolescent satanic dabbling and
There is a distinct place for inpatient
psychiatric hospitalization for satanically acting-out youth.
It is important to recognize the need to see the
young patient as a total person and his or her family as a system. To view
components in a family system as individual and isolated is to miss the dynamic
interplay between the family players.
If our analyses and suggestions, at times, rang with more
authority than the reader deems appropriate, the reader is probably correct. We,
in fact have many more questions than answers. Satanism is an ill-defined area
and therapeutic work with its casualties is in its infancy. We still have much
to learn. We hope that we have at least stimulated the reader to think more
carefully about the issue.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Michael D. Langone, PhD, is Executive Director of the
American Family Foundation and Editor of its Cultic Studies Journal,
which he founded in 1984. He has studied the cult phenomenon and worked with
ex-cult members and their families since 1978. He has written many articles on
cults, and is co-author of Cults:
What Parents should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related
Violence: What You Should Know.
His training is in counseling psychology. Other interests include depression,
marital counseling, and the psychology of religion. Dr. Langone may be contacted
at P. O. Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 33959.
Herbert A. Nieburg, PhD, is currently on the staff of
Four Winds Hospital in Katonah, New York. His training is in clinical psychology
with special interests in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, cults, and
disorders involving coercive mind control and thought reform. He is Adjunct
Professor of Graduate Counseling at Long Island University and Visiting
Professor of Pastoral Psychiatry at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York
City. He is a consultant on satanism to the Cult Awareness Network and an
Advising Board Member of the American Family Foundation. Dr. Nieburg can be
contacted at 16 Dakin Avenue, Mt. Kisco, NY 10549.
Innovations in Clinical Practice: A Source Book (Vol. 11) by L.
VandeCreek, S. Knapp, & T. L. Jackson (Eds.), Sarasota, FL: Professional
Res. Press. C. 1992 Professional Resource Exchange, Box 15560, Sarasota, FL