Parallels Between Recollections of Repressed Childhood Sex Abuse, Kidnappings by Space Aliens, and the Salem Witch Hunts
Ronald C. Johnson*
ABSTRACT: The way repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse,
including ritual satanic abuse, are restored and treated closely
resembles the way memories are restored and treated in persons claiming
to have been kidnapped by space aliens. The witchcraft trials in Salem
have similarities to both of these. Persons claiming victimization learn
of a possible cause for their distress and find specific persons to
blame. They learn their symptoms from books, authority figures, or other
"victims." Their beliefs are reinforced and validated by
therapists, support groups, and, to varying degrees, the general
Recovered Memories of Repressed Childhood Abuse
The topic of recovered memories has been extensively covered in the
popular media and in professional meetings and literature. An
Psychological Society (APS) symposium in San Diego in 1992, an article
in the APS Observer (July, 1992), and a comprehensive paper (Loftus,
1993) dealt with the validity of claims of recovered memories of
childhood sexual abuse. Elizabeth Loftus and John Briere debated the
topic at the 1993 American Psychological Association convention in
August. Few topics in psychology have created as much controversy and
The debate is over whether reports of "recovered"
memories are based on memories of actual events or are a result of
confabulation evoked by therapists, survivor books, television shows,
or other sources. As Wakefield and Underwager (1992) report, in many
cases where the accused parents are aware of their adult child's
therapy program, the book, The Courage to Heal (Bass & Davis, 1988),
"The Courage to Heal"
This book (Bass & Davis, 1988) is sometimes referred to as the
"Bible" of the survivor movement. Here are some quotes:
Often the knowledge that you were abused starts with a tiny
feeling, an intuition. It's important to trust that inner voice and
work from there. Assume your feelings are valid. So far, no one
we've talked to thought she might have been abused, and then later
discovered that she hadn't been (p.22).
If you told someone about what was happening to you, they
probably ignored you, said you made it up, or told you to forget it.
They may have blamed you. Your reality was denied or twisted and you
felt crazy (p.58).
Many survivors suppress all memories of what happened to them as
children. Those who do not forget the actual incidents often forget
how it felt at the time. Remembering is the process of getting back
both memory and feeling (p. 58).
Recovering occluded memories (those blocked from the surface) is
not like remembering with the conscious mind. Often the memories are
vague and dreamlike, as if they're being seen from far away (p. 72).
If you don't remember your abuse, you are not alone. Many women
don't have memories, and some never get memories. This doesn't mean
they weren't abused (p. 81).
If you don't have any memory of it, it can be hard to believe the
abuse really happened. You may feel insecure about trusting your
intuition and want "proof' of your abuse. This is a very
natural desire, but it is not always one that can be met (p. 82).
One practical way to validate your abuse is to look at your life.
If you see the effects of abuse and then, as you begin the healing
process, you see your behavior change, even slightly, you can trust
that your belief is sound (p. 88)
(In the "For counselors" section). Believe the
survivor. You must believe that your client was sexually abused,
even if she sometimes doubts it herself. Doubting is part of the
process of coming to terms with abuse. Your client needs you to stay
steady in the belief that she was abused. Joining a client in doubt
would be like joining a suicidal client in her belief that suicide
is the best way out ... If a client is unsure that she was abused
but thinks she might have been, work as though she was. So far,
among the hundreds of women we ve talked to and the hundreds more
we've heard about, not one has suspected she might have been abused,
explored it and determined that she wasn't (p. 347).
Working in a group is the only helpful therapy I've gotten in my
whole life, and I've been in therapy since I was six years old.
That's forty-one years. Being in a group is better than being with a
therapist because other survivors really understand they weren't
taught to understand. And hearing other people's stories has sparked
things in my memory. I can see myself coming in and out of groups
for years, maybe for my whole life. Group support is fantastic (p.
Ritual abuse (often called satanic ritual abuse or SRA) is a
special form of childhood sexual abuse. In SRA there are allegations
of satan worship, torture, ritual sacrifice of animals and humans, and
cannibalism along with the sexual abuse. Many mental health and police
professionals believe that satanic ritual abuse exists and is
frequent. Bass and Davis are convinced of its reality:
"This isn't an isolated thing that only happened to me.
traced it back in my little town three generations. And it happens
in other towns too. It's happening to kids today. I've had more than
a hundred calls about ritual abuse. It's starting to break into
the papers. And people are starting to believe it." ...
Ritual abuse is surfacing now because we' ve started to talk openly
about the sexual abuse of children. More and more adults are
remembering what happened to them when they were young (p. 419).
The book, Michelle Remembers (Smith & Pazder, 1980), seems to
have triggered the flood of claims of ritual abuse. This book was
written by Smith (the victim) along with Pazder, her therapist, whom
she later married. Since then, there have been a variety of books,
magazine articles, and talk show presentations featuring ritual abuse
The Paul Ingram Case
Probably the best single description of a case of alleged satanic
ritual abuse is in "Remembering Satan" (Wright, 1993).
see Ofshe, 1992.) Paul Ingram was a policeman and also a member of
Pentecostal sect. The case began when fellow police officers
questioned him following his two daughters' accusation of sexual
molestation. The allegations began following a Pentecostal retreat for
girls, and Pentecostal church officials, especially an assistant
pastor, John Bratun, had much to do with the events that followed.
(One of Ingram's daughters had also read a book on the topic.)
Ingram denied any memory of sexually abusing his daughters but said
that his daughters wouldn't lie, so that he might be
"repressing" his memory of the abuse. Next, two other
persons were accused of sexual molestation by one of the daughters.
With the help of his interviewers, Ingram began to remember the events
and came up with recollections of the involvement of the two persons
who also were charged. Pastor Bratun helped Ingram develop a technique
for remembering and soon Ingram began to have memories of people in
robes gathered around a fire, with one of them cutting the heart out
of a black cat. (The daughters, to this point, had said nothing about
satanic rites.) A son was brought in for questioning and eventually
recalled being plagued by a witch, being bound and gagged, and being
forced to commit fellatio.
Ingram's wife was accused of sex abuse by the daughters. A son,
interviewed in Nevada, recalled seeing his mother having sex with his
father and one of the two other accused men while the other accused
person masturbated. Mrs. Ingram could not recall the event at first,
but eventually did so.
The daughters now recalled satanic rites, animal sacrifice, being
tortured by being burned, and being cut with knives, and one of them
recalled the sacrifice of a human infant. One of the daughters charged
that her father forced her to have sexual intercourse with goats and
dogs and took photos of the intercourse.
At Paul Ingram's trial one of the daughters described approximately
25 infant sacrifices and claimed that she had been impregnated and
then aborted with the abortus being cut up and rubbed all over her body.
Paul Ingram cooperated with the prosecution at his own
trial. However, some of the testimony was so strange that an outside
consultant, Dr. Richard Ofshe, was brought in by the police.
Ingram claimed to be able to recall the events described by his
daughters by using the memory technique that Pastor Bratun assured him
would bring him only the truth. Dr. Ofshe decided to test Ingram by
making a new accusation that he had forced a daughter to have sex with
one of his sons. Ingram had only vague memories, but was told to pray
on it. His memories became more clear at a second meeting.
brought up the same scenario to one of the daughters, who denied it.
third meeting with Ingram resulted in a full and complete confession.
Paul Ingram, after praying and visualizing (developing mental
pictures that then can be put into words) with Pastor Bratun produced
a list of ten other alleged cult members all present or former
employees of the sheriff's office. Charges of satanic ritual abuse
faded away. Ingram pleaded guilty to six counts of rape. Charges
against the other two accused persons were dropped. A daughter charged
that approximately 30 satanists controlled the county government and
that there had been a cover-up. Paul Ingram, who began to have doubts
about his memories of satanic rites before sentencing, is now serving
a 20-year prison term.
The Satanic Abuse Conspiracy
A recent book, Out of Darkness: Exploring Satanism and Ritual Abuse
(edited by Sakheim & Devine, 1992), addresses events such as those
in the Paul Ingram case. Although Sakheim and Devine note the need for
skepticism, most of the contributors accept the existence of a vast
conspiracy of satanic abuse. For example, Greaves (1992) evaluated
alternative hypotheses concerning claims of satanic cult activity and
stated that they were gravely wanting. He asserts that survivors'
memories cannot be a result of having read of or heard of other
accounts of abuse since most survivors profess not to have read
anything concerning the topic and no single book or movie contains the
material reported by even a single patient. However, contrary to
Greaves' assertion, the Ingram daughters' accounts mirror those of
Michelle's Secret (Smith & Pazder, 1980) and Satan's Underground (Stratford, 1988) and at least
one of the daughters had read Satan's Underground (Wright, 1993, May 24,
Greaves cites the Necronomicon (Schlangecraft, Inc., 1977) as a
major source in supporting the belief in ritual satanic abuse. However, the Necronomicon has a strange history and its acceptance as
anything but a hoax indicates, at the least, a lack of exposure to
literature. H. P Lovecraft wrote a large number of short stories,
novelettes, and novels about decaying New England families, most of
them in the region around the imaginary Massachusetts town of Arkham.
The equally imaginary Miskatonic University was located in Arkham and
there in the locked shelves was the Necronomicon, a book on satanism
to be treated cautiously, since reading it could drive one mad. Schlangecraft, Inc. (obviously a somewhat obscene pseudonym based on
Lovecraft's name) decided to fill the gap and produce the book. It is
now accepted as real, by Greaves and also by some law enforcement
officials (see Terry, 1987).
The one skeptic in Sakheim and Devine's book is Kenneth Lanning
(1992) from the FBI's Behavior Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia.
unwillingness to accept the claims of widespread ritual abuse has led
to the accusation that he is a satanist (p. 110). (Lanning notes other
instances of unfounded fears for example, the belief that hundreds of
thousands of missing children have been abducted each year. All but a
few hundred were runaways or involved in parental disputes over child
custody and only about a quarter of these may have been abducted by
strangers.) In discussing ritual abuse Lanning observes:
The most significant crimes being alleged that do not seem to be
true are the human sacrifice and cannibalism. In none of the
multidimensional child sex ring cases of which the author is aware
have bodies of the murder victims been found in spite of major
excavations where the abuse victims had claimed the bodies were
located. ... Not only no bodies found, but also, more important,
there is no physical evidence that a murder took place. Many of
those not in law enforcement do not understand that, while it is
possible to get rid of a body, it is much more difficult to get rid
of the physical evidence that a murder took place, especially a
human sacrifice involving sex, blood, and mutilation (p. 130).
The large number of people telling the same story is, in fact,
the biggest reason to doubt these stories. It is simply too difficult for that many people to commit so many horrendous crimes
as part of an organized conspiracy. Two or three people murder a
couple of children in a few communities as part of a ritual, and
nobody finds out? Possible. Thousands of people do the same thing to
tens of thousands of victims over many years? Not likely. Hundreds of
communities all over America are run by mayors, police departments,
and community leaders who are practicing satanists and who regularly
murder and eat people? Not likely (p. 131).
If a group of individuals degenerate to the point of engaging in
human sacrifice and cannibalism, that would most likely be the
beginning of the end for such a group. The odds are that someone in
the group would have a problem with such acts and be unable to
maintain the secret (p. 132).
Kidnappings by Space Aliens
The controversy about repressed childhood abuse and ritual abuse is
over whether these reports are reality based or are a result of
confabulation evoked by therapists, religious leaders, survivors'
groups, books, or other sources. The claims of abductions by space
aliens are relevant to this debate since the way the memory for the
alien abduction is uncovered closely resembles how memories of early
sexual abuse and ritual abuse develop.
While having been kidnapped by space aliens is not yet a part of
the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, treatment of these victims is a
growth industry in some therapeutic circles. Dr. John E. Mack, a full
professor at Harvard Medical School, has written a review article
(Mack, 1992), and is writing a book on the abduction experience.
claims that "between several hundred thousand to more than
3,000,000 adults in the United States alone have had an abduction
experience" (Mack, 1992, p.10). He states:
Many abductees have been forced to go "underground,"
keeping the information of what they have been through to themselves
until, with considerable fear and courage, they venture forward to
contact someone who they hope is capable of helping them (p.10).
... experiencers are more likely to have self-diagnosed their
conditions as being UFO or abduction-related through a grapevine
of connections. This generally begins with a friend or colleague
to whom they have confided their experiences and questions and who
then refers them to a book dealing with the subject or to a lay
person or professional associated with UFOS or otherwise involved in the UFO
UFO-related abductions affect powerfully the lives of
experiencers. Some abductees feel as if they have been living a
second, secret life that they have denied or kept out of
consciousness, separate from their everyday experiences, even though
they know or suspect that what they have been through is of great
significance. When the memories of what they have been through are
relived, especially under hypnosis, feelings are expressed of
terror, rage, and grief as intense as any I have encountered as a
psychiatrist (p. 11).
I watch carefully for what I call signs of "ontological
shock." This is demonstrated by a certain sadness, even
tearing, which represents the impact of the undoing of the
experiencer's denial ("I have treated them as dreams" or
"I was hoping, doctor that you would tell me I was
crazy"), leaving them with the bleak realization that what they
have experienced actually occurred and that reality as they have
defined it is forever altered. It is an existential moment brought
about primarily by my indicating familiarity with the details of
their story from other cases, thus distinguishing what they have
been through from dreams, fantasies, or psychological symptoms
In most, but not all, cases the person wishes to go further with
the exploration of what he or she usually feels has been, if not a
lifelong process, an area of their lives that has been troubling,
burdensome, and mysterious. Further curiosity has usually been
aroused in the session, and the experiencers want to know "what
has been happening to me," as if to reclaim their lives. I
discuss with them the possible pain and distress they will almost
inevitably encounter if they explore further (pp.12-13).
... abductees usually feel, in addition, that they have been
instructed not to, or forbidden to, remember their experiences.
Sometimes they are told that this is for their own protection ...
Mack says much more, but these quotations demonstrate that there
are parallels between becoming aware of early sexual abuse, including
ritual abuse, and becoming aware of having been kidnapped by space
aliens. Communion: A True Story (Strieber, 1987), widely read in UFO
circles, includes descriptions of space alien activity that appear to
involve sexual assault (e.g., on p. 115, Strieber has his mouth forced
open, something stuffed into it, brushed his teeth afterward) and the
possible creation of alien-human hybrids (p. 227-278).
A recent article on abductions by space aliens (Judge, 1993) begins
with the case history of Catherine. "Catherine is an alleged UFO abductee.
She believes that alien
creatures have kidnapped her countless times since she was a child,
taken her aboard a flying saucer, and sexually abused her for breeding
purposes. Her story is not unique" (Judge, 1993, p.26).
goes on to describe the experiences of John Mack's abductees:
Most of the abduction stories Mack hears from his patients are
similar to Catherine's. In a typical scenario, the victim is taken
from his or her environment in most cases, from bed while asleep or
shortly after spotting a UFO by small, humanoid creatures who are
able to pass through walls and windows. The person is then taken
aboard a spaceship usually a saucer with bright lights
where he or
she is disrobed and subjected to medical procedures, including sperm
removal from males and pregnancy tests on females. Often the
abductee is shown images of global destruction; many describe an
enormous room containing rows of incubators that hold fetuses that
resemble hybrids of humans and aliens. After the abduction the
victim is returned to the site of the abduction with virtually no
recall of the incident and sometimes bearing small scars. The
aliens or visitors, as some abductees call them often force them to
forget the abduction episode or plant bogus "screen
memories" to replace the traumatic events. Later hypnosis or
another incident-seeing aliens portrayed on television, for
example-may trigger memories (Judge, 1993, p.26).
The Salem Witch Trials
Both the claims of satanic ritual abuse and abductions by space
aliens have similarities to the Salem witchcraft trials. Almost
certainly the definitive work on devil worship in Salem Village (the
town of Salem was almost completely unaffected) in Massachusetts in
1692 is Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts (1949).
The sufferers generally were adolescent girls. Starkey points out
the dullness of their lives, their relatively low status, the fact
that their lives were "on hold" until they married, the
general public interest in witchcraft, the willingness of the clergy
(the psychotherapists of that era) to believe their claims, their
"contagious" influences on one another's claims of
victimization, their increased status that resulted from these claims,
and the validation of their claims from community support that led to
the deaths of many of those whom they accused.
Many women, and a few men, were hanged and one man was pressed to
death as a result of accusations of witchcraft made against them by
adolescent girls. This evidence brought against the convicted witches
was spectral evidence. The accusers "saw" events, such as
witches flying to satanic rituals in the Reverend Parris's orchard,
"saw" evil spirits at the witchcraft trials, and
"felt" the strength of these spirits as they choked their
victims while in the act of accusing the witches persecuting them.
As Starkey notes (1949, p. 251), Salem Village was "so odd a
site for God to choose as the battleground between heaven and
hell." The infestation of witches began in the Reverend Parris's
own kitchen, where Tabitha, a Black slave, informed a group of
adolescent girls on the art of magic. Among the visitors to Tabitha's
kitchen was Ann Putnam. Her mother, a semi-invalid, had persons she
regarded as enemies in Salem. Ann was very close to her mother.
first, then other young women, accused persons (almost all women)
residing in Salem village of witchcraft. The idea of witchcraft was in
the air; four children in Boston had been bewitched six years earlier
and it took the work of four ministers, including the redoubtable
Cotton Mather, and the hanging of the witch, to restore the children
to normalcy. Mather's book on the topic had wide circulation and the
Reverend Parris is known to have had a copy (Starkey, 1949, pp.
21-22). The symptoms experienced by the young women of Salem Village
were the same as those earlier experienced by the children in Boston.
Starkey also notes other means by which these young women could
develop parallel sets of symptoms to earlier cases and to one another.
Some of the accused managed to escape, but of those tried, all were
convicted and all put to death except (as the accusations spread)
those who were willing to turn "state's evidence" and testify
against others. Notably pious persons, such as Rebecca Nourse, died by
The young women afflicted by witches were sought out as
witch-finders by other communities, but began to suffer defeats.
identified Robert Calef as a witch; he began suit against them for
defamation of character, and they fell silent (Starkey, 1949, p. 195).
At Ipswich they met an old woman and had the convulsions that identified her as a witch, but the people of Ipswich
ignored them. The same kind of spiritual messages that had identified
witches told Mary Herrick that the wife of John Hale, a very prominent
minister, was invading her dreams (Starkey, pp. 223-225). Other witch
finders accused the wife of Governor Phips of being a witch (Starkey,
pp. 232-233), and even Cotton Mather, Massachusetts' leading theologian,
was accused (Starkey, p.265).
Respected citizens began to question the witchcraft proceedings.
Judge Richard Pike wrote Judge Jonathan Corwin (one of the panel of
judges hearing the witchcraft cases) arguing that trial procedures
were questionable. Thomas Brattle, a wealthy Boston merchant,
circulated an open letter stating that it was disgraceful that
magistrates based their judgments on common gossip, irresponsible
"confessions" and the pretensions of the afflicted girls.
Neighbors who earlier feared to speak, lest they, too, be accused,
petitioned for the release of persons accused of witchcraft (Starkey,
1949, pp.216-220). Dutch theologians in the former New Amsterdam, by
then renamed New York, were questioned by Joseph Dudley, a former
deputy governor of Massachusetts. They denied that spectral evidence
(on which all convictions rested) could be trusted (Starkey, 1949,
Governor Phips had equivocated, but the spread of accusations
(including those against his wife), expressions of doubt by leading
citizens, and the Dutch theologians' denial of the validity of
spectral evidence, led him to change the rules. Spectral evidence was
not allowed and 49 of the 52 persons scheduled for trial were not
tried. Three were tried and convicted. Judge Stoughton signed their
death warrants as well as those of five previously convicted witches
but Governor Phips reprieved them all. Some remained in prison for
some time, since they had to pay their room-and-board before release,
but eventually all who survived imprisonment were released. Despite
the wholesale jail delivery of witches, the previously afflicted young
women no longer manifested their seizures or other symptoms. They no
longer had a responsive audience.
Some of the judges, such as Samuel Sewall, admitted error, which
others such as Stoughton and Hathorne (grandfather of Nathaniel
Hawthorne, who wrote of these events in "Goodman Brown") did not.
Reparations were made to surviving witches and children of those killed.
Massachusetts had come out of its delusion not without honor.
There had been misery, injustice, bloodshed, but at the worst
nothing on such a scale as had in the recent past been suffered in
witch-hunts in England, on the Continent, and in Sweden. In
comparison with historical precedents, the panic in Massachusetts
had been distinguished less by its violence than by the pertinacity
with which sanity had struggled for domination from the first and by
which it had finally prevailed (Starkey, p.29 1).
The similarity between claims of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, satanic ritual abuse, and abductions by space aliens are
clear. The same sequence of events occurs. The person claiming that
such events have transpired (1) is unhappy and feels that
"something is wrong," (2) with the aid of a therapist,
begins to recall the details of the abuse or kidnapping, (3) further
therapy, along with interaction with fellow sufferers, evokes ever
more memories which are, in turn, (4) validated by the therapist, the
support group of fellow sufferers, and the general community.
The events in Salem Village followed a similar pattern. The girls
led relatively low-status and boring lives until they became involved
in allegations of witchcraft. They were influenced by the Black slave,
Tabitha, and the allegations were supported by the clergy (the
psychotherapists of that era). The allegations gained them much
attention. Under the influence of each other (the local survivors'
group), the clergy, and the general community, the allegations grew
and more people were accused. As with today's survivors," the
influence of therapists and the group support and encouragement
resulted in ever increasing and elaborate allegations.
The belief in the infestation of witches in Salem Village
illustrates that when presented with information concerning strange
events, each person has a point where disbelief sets in. In Salem,
when the governor's wife was accused, when leading citizens expressed
doubt, and when the Dutch theologians denied the validity of spectral
evidence, attitudes changed and the witch hunts were over.
For most people today the point of doubt is reached well before
believing that 3,000,000 Americans have been kidnapped by space
aliens, sometimes with repeat abductions between one therapy session
and the next. For many, that point is reached well before accepting
the belief that there is a nationwide conspiracy of satanists who
sacrifice thousands of victims without detection over twice as many as
the victims of known murders (Lanning, 1932, p. 131). For others, the
point of disbelief is reached at the point where people claim sexual
abuse on the basis of evidence of the sort accepted as valid by Bass
and Davis (1988).
The events in Salem occurred when the original charter of the
Commonwealth was revised, putting an end to the theocracy, King
Philip's Indian war against the colonists had been moderately
successful, and at a more local level, family feuds festered. Times
were bad, and the residents of Salem village were a close, tight,
dysfunctional family. The problem erupted in Salem but spread,
possibly because Salem's problems were, to a degree, the problems of
all residents of Massachusetts (they did not spread to other
colonies). As Starkey points out, the citizens of Massachusetts did
manage to come to terms with reality, express their remorse, and make
We, too, are living in times of social change and of personal
feelings of powerlessness. May we do as well as the citizens of
Massachusetts in coming to terms with the reality of the claims of
recovered childhood sexual abuse and satanic ritual abuse.
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Observer, pp. 6-7.
Bass, E., & Davis, L. (1988). The Courage to Heal ()(). New York:
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F. Devine, (Eds.), Out of Darkness: Exploring Satanism and Ritual Abuse
(pp. 45-72). New York: Lexington Books.
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Terry, M. (1987). The Ultimate Evil: An Investigation of America's Most Dangerous
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|* Ronald C. Johnson is a professor of psychology at the
Behavioral Biology Laboratory at the University of Hawaii at
Manoa, Snyder Hall 115, 2538 The Mall, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822.