Burn The Witch!  (If We're Wrong, We'll Apologize)

Terry L. Kern*

ABSTRACT: The belief in the existence of widespread satanic ritual abuse and the search for those who are practicing such rituals parallels the witch hunts in the 17th century.  The basic assumptions, indicators, and types of evidence of the earlier witch hunts and the current concerns with satanic ritual abuse are examined and found to have much in common.

The Value of History

We live in an age in which debate represents as much an exchange of labels as it does ideas.  In this atmosphere, the term "witch hunt," overused as it is, serves as such a label.  The term is normally used in a pejorative sense to connote an indiscriminate search for those accused of some malice, real or imagined, often in support of an agenda.  For most Americans, "witch hunt" brings to mind the hearings conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Witch hunting is more than a label, however, or an image of misapplied power.  It is, rather, a process by which the hunter creates the prey and defines the means by which it will be hunted.

I posit that there exists within this country today a new witch hunt under the guise of satanic ritual abuse (SRA).  Several different definitions of SRA have been given, but all have in common the alleged performance of acts of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse upon children while performing some act of worship to Satan usually involving a group.  The search for those who allegedly practice such rituals in Satan's service today parallels the hunts conducted for witches believed to act in his service in Europe and America in the 17th century.  Witch hunting is as much a matter of mindset as method.  For a search for the devil's disciples to be prosecuted, certain assumptions and beliefs must be held as valid.  Furthermore, they must be held as valid in the face of persuasive evidence, which unless dismissed out of hand, would invalidate those beliefs.

I will limit my examinations of witch hunting to what passed for evidence and the use of that evidence by public officials in two specific instances.  The examples are meant to be illustrative and should not be considered as universal to witch hunting.

Witch hunts have occurred the world over in many different societies and within many diverse cultural frameworks.  Witch hunts in the 17th century were not a constant.  They would appear first here, now there, as circumstances allowed.  These circumstances include social, religious, and economic stressors and conditions.  Witch hunting in England, for example, was as different from Germany as Germany was different from witch hunting in Spain.  Even the concept of witches as persons, usually women, working malice and mischief in fealty to Satan, was the result of an evolutionary process.  It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine all of the components of that process.

Current concerns with Satanism, generally, and SRA, specifically, are not new.  There is a firm historical context for both.  If history has any useful purpose, it is that it demonstrates that few, if any, circumstances are unique.  Historian Gustav Henningsen, who has written extensively on European witch hunting, points out that, "Unless we understand in advance that human nature is unvarying and that only conditions change, historical research would be meaningless" (1980, p. 26).

Such an understanding of human nature was evidenced by the Reverend John Higginson when he wrote the following preface for A Modest Inquiry Into The Nature of Witchcraft concerning the Salem witch trials:

I am persuaded that such a treatise as this is needful and useful ... that whatever errors or mistakes we fell into in the dark hour of temptation that was upon us may be (upon more light) so discovered by us that it may be a matter of warning and caution to those who come after us that they may not fall into the like (Hansen, 1969, p.220).

Higginson regarded the witch trials and subsequent executions at Salem as a repeatable phenomenon and wrote those words in the hope that a mistake unrepeated would represent a calamity avoided.  It is in the hope that such a calamity may be avoided that this paper is written.

The Invisible World

Witch hunts, within the context of targeting the devil's disciples, require a belief in the devil in some form.  This may be as an essence or as an anthropomorphic being.  Even if the existence of the devil is not a universally held belief, it must necessarily be held by some.  One cannot hold allegiance to that in which one does not believe.  Those living in the times of the European witch hunts during the 1600s believed in an invisible world inhabited by spirits.  Historian Joseph Klaits, who wrote of European witch hunting, observed that "hardly anyone challenged the universal opinion that supernatural forces constantly intervened in everyday life, rewarding and punishing, blessing or cursing" (1985, p.3).

This invisible world was extraordinary in that it went beyond the five senses through which we interpret our world and form our reality.  But as anthropologist S. F. Nadel, writing of African witchcraft observes, "Witchcraft creates an imaginary world of cause and effect to which the criteria of our own reality are almost inapplicable" (Nadel, 1935, p. 426).  This belief in an invisible world placed the image of the witch as one who lived in the real world but accessed the invisible.  Further, this view aided the belief that since witches were extraordinary people, extraordinary means may be required to identify them.  The five senses, would, therefore, be ineffective.

Today's witch hunters also see themselves as seeking persons living in the visible world who draw upon the invisible.  Lieutenant Larry Jones of the Boise, Idaho police, and very much a believer in the existence of a Satanic cult conspiracy, advises:

When confronting those criminals who are led or controlled by supernatural evil beings, philosophies or motivations, traditional police tools are not effective (Smith & Watalad, 1989, p. 100).

There are criminals of this world, according to Jones, who are so aided by supernatural beings of the invisible world that traditional police tools, even if previously proven effective, will not be effective against them.

This line of thinking seriously undermines public confidence in the ability of public authorities to investigate and ultimately solve crimes with Satanic overtones.  Furthermore, it opens the door for employment of unproven or questionable methods in the search for the devil's own.  The danger lies in that one finds what one seeks.  The "success" of extraordinary or questionable methods to unmask previously unidentified servants of Satan helps explain the "failure" of more traditional methods to do so.  This has the additional effect of legitimizing the methods employed.


It is difficult for mortal beings to directly confront the supernatural beings of the invisible world but not so difficult to confront their human agents, providing they can be identified.  Such agents personalize both the malice done and the responsibility for such malice.  Furthermore, the existence of these human agents presents a convenient remedy — execution or imprisonment.

Before any action can be taken against a witch, the witch must first be identified.  Although not universally employed, some of the 17th century witch hunters used behavioral checklists.  The belief was that a witch would exhibit some verbal or physical behavior which would betray them.  For example, H. C. Erik Midelfort writes of a list of proposed questions used by the prosecutor in the Southwestern German territory of Ellwangen in the early 1600s.  The list began by "asking if the accused could say the Lord's Prayer, the Ave Maria, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments" (1972, p.105).  The belief among those employing the lists of verbal indicators was that prayers were of God and no person who was of Satan could say them.

At about this same time, Henri Boquet, a witch-hunting prosecutor in the Bergundian Franche-Conte, proposed a similar list of indicators.  Physical indicators included an expression of fear on the face of the accused and the inability to shed tears.  Blasphemous language constituted a verbal indicator while the failure to seek redress for a previous accusation of witchcraft was considered a guilty behavior (Klaits, 1985, p.142).

Positive indicators of witchcraft justified the application of torture, the use of which soon produced a confession and the identity of a "confirmed" witch.  These "witches" then denounced others who did likewise until, taken together, these "confessions" validated the belief in witches in league with the devil.  Torture was not universally used in the witch hunts, and confessions were obtained without it.  But where it was used, the success it brought in obtaining confessions legitimized both its use and the indicators of guilt used to sanction it.

Alternate explanations for "guilty" behaviors were neither sought nor accepted with any frequency, although such explanations existed.  For example, a person is apt to display an expression of fear because the prospect of execution by fire is terrifying.  And certainly, one might forego redress for a witchcraft accusation when there is no reasonable prospect of obtaining it.  But seemingly innocuous behaviors were viewed in the worst possible light.

Checklists are still very much in vogue today.  Daniel Ryder, a licensed social worker and counselor, lists these behaviors as indicators of satanic ritual abuse: fear of being in a circle; vague memories of childhood; fear of being the center of attention; problems with sex; exaggerated codependency characteristics; lack of trust; problems with relationships; fear of abandonment; compulsivity; use or avoidance of alcohol and other drugs; survivor guilt; extreme scrupulosity; phobia about snakes; an extremely passive nature with an inordinate fear of violence, guns, and knives; and dreams with reoccurring images of blood, rogue figures, etc. (1992, pp. 1-8).  According to Ryder, these may be indicators of hidden trauma evidenced by adult "survivors" of satanic ritual abuse experienced as a child.  For example, Ryder tells us that during cult ceremonies, human circles are formed and that the child to be abused — even killed — is placed in the center of the circle (p. 2).  Once the memory of the abuse is recalled by the conscious mind, the reason for the fear is understood.  There are alternate explanations for all of these, of course.  Nightmares occur for a variety of reasons and many persons who have never been abused fear being the center of attention.  These behaviors may be found in some abuse victims but they are not exclusive to abuse.

The use of checklists in the 17th century and today are different in that today's lists do not attribute behaviors to those who do malice but, rather, to those who have had it done to them.  Through them, the devil's own are identified and denounced.  The checklists are similar in that each item may be considered as a pass-fail test with the failure of such a test constituting evidence of the devil's hand.  These checklists share the same basic danger — checklists are seductively simple and open to many interpretations.

Different Perspectives

During the European witch craze of the early 1600s, two men, Pierre de Lancre of France and Alonzo de Salazar of Spain, were presented with the confessions of accused witches, the denunciation of others as witches by the confessed, and ointments and concoctions said to be poisonous.  Each examined similar evidence but drew far different conclusions with equally different consequences (see Klaits, 1985; Henningsen, 1980).

Pierre de Lancre was counselor in the Parliament of Bordeaux.  He was commissioned by King Henry W as prosecutor in the Basque region of the Labourd in southern France.  He was vested with the extraordinary authority to interrogate under torture and pronounce summary death sentences.  This authority was granted because of the belief that the number of sorcerers had increased dramatically.

In 1609, de Lancre had 80 women executed for witchcraft.  In 1612, he published his demonological work Tableau de l'inconstance des mauvais anges et demons (Description of the inconsistency of evil angels and demons).  In this work, he set out a description of the witches' sabbat which helped transform the image of a witch from a solitary threat to a communal being.  His description was based upon the confessions of accused witches and 500 informants — most children — who claimed to have viewed the sabbats.

Dc Lancre depicts the sabbat as an altogether lurid and lubricious affair attended by numerous witches who came from various distances.  These witches allegedly flew atop diverse accoutrements and appliances not normally associated with aviation, such as pitchforks, broomsticks, shovels, spits, horses, and cattle.  Most sabbats were attended by a dozen or so witches, but some were said to involve more than 12,000 (a figure which should have given rise to some skepticism).  The devil, for his part, might take the form of a goat, bull, or similar creature.  No matter what his form, few accounts fail to mention the size of his genitals, which were used frequently and indiscriminately throughout the proceedings.  This was in keeping with the sexual overtones of the sabbat which was described by Klaits as follows:

A festive air prevailed, reminiscent of the wedding or court celebration.  Generally, the proceedings began with the witches kissing their master's rear.  Then each witch reported what malfice she had carried out since the last sabbat.  Those with nothing to report were whipped.  The business meeting concluded, a work session followed, during which the women industriously concocted poisons and ointments out of black bread and the rendered fat of murdered infants.  Having built up an appetite, they next banqueted on babies' limbs and toads, foods variously reviewed as succulent or awful tasting.  Then the devil presided over a parody of the Mass.  Finally, the social hour: the naked witches danced lasciviously back to back until the dancing turned into a sexual orgy that continued to the dawn.  Incest and homosexual intercourse were encouraged.  Often the devil would climax the proceedings — painfully it was generally reported with every man, woman, and child in attendance, as mothers yielded to Satan before their daughter's eyes and initiated them into the sexual service of their diabolic master (1985, p 2).

De Lancre's account of the sabbat ran some 200 detailed pages.  He came to believe that the entire Basque region was rife with witches and considered the witches' description of the sabbat as proof that the army of Satan really did exist.  This belief was strengthened by the similarity in the stories told.  However, attempts to verify or corroborate the specific details of the witches' stories were not made.  It was enough for de Lancre to accept the broad motifs.

Accounts of the sabbats were communicated across the Pyrenees from southern France to northern Spain by 1611.  As in France, witches were sought and found.  The Inquisitional Court at Navarre tried 53 persons for witchcraft and 29 of them were found guilty.  Prison conditions killed five of them, six died at the stake, and five were flogged.  The remainder received various lighter sentences (Hansen, 1969, p.224-225).  But these sentences did not stem the tide of witchcraft accusations, and one of the inquisitors from the court at Navarre was commissioned to investigate the claims of witchcraft.

Father Alonzo de Salazar determined to examine these accounts for detail by interviewing confessed witches separately, secretly, and at the scene of the supposed sabbat.  The confessed witches were questioned on the specific details of their accounts such as where the devil sat, how the witch traveled to the sabbat, how the others arrived, how they got into the house, how they got out, what they ate, where they danced, and whether they heard clocks or bells in the area.  The confessed witches contradicted each other in answering nearly all of those questions.  As to the ointments or poisons prepared by the witches, de Salazar tested them by feeding them to livestock without harm to the animals.  Confronted with this, the witches admitted that these concoctions were pork fat — not baby fat — mixed with chimney soot and water.  The witches had turned the materials over to the prosecutor to satisfy the judge's belief that they were harmful.  This led de Salazar to suspect that such counterfeit substances had been received as evidence at Navarre.

De Lancre had considered the similarities in the stories told by the confessed witches as compelling evidence of widespread witch cults.  De Salazar examined similar accounts of the sabbats including women flying broomsticks, dancing with the devil, and making poison ointments.  But de Salazar did not find that evidence convincing and applied a more "traditional tool" of seeking corroboration. From this, de Salazar concluded:

I have not found a single proof nor even the slightest indication from which to infer that one act of witchcraft has actually taken place ...  Rather I have found what I already had begun to suspect in these cases before my experiences during the visitation; that the testimony of accomplices alone even if they had not been submitted to violence and compulsion — without further support from external facts substantiated by persons who are not witches is insufficient to warrant even an arrest (Henningsen, 1980, p. 304).

Contagion and Contamination Through Communication

De Salazar came to the conclusion that the consistency in the broad strokes of the witches' stories was due to communication between the witches.  In fact, de Salazar himself overheard two accused witches comparing stories while in prison.  That which would justify death at the stake in France would not justify an arrest in Spain.  In 1614, the year de Salazar completed his investigation, Imperial Spain stretched from the Pyrenees to Peru and from that time on, as a result of de Salazar's work, no person could be executed for witchcraft in Spanish territory.  De Salazar accomplished this by denying neither the existence of his God nor of the devil; only the existence of witches.

The graphic and lurid accounts depicted in the sabbat of orgiastic sex, cannibalism, and incest are strikingly similar to accounts told by alleged survivors of satanic ritual abuse.  Today, as in the 17th century, people who have never met tell similar stories of abuse at the hands of the devil.  And the similarity in stories is considered evidence of the work of Satan's servants by some.  Lt. Larry Jones observes that the "statements by victims from different parts of the country tally with each other" (Larsen, 1989, p.122).  To evangelist Bob Larsen, these "common elements combined to form a framework of evil" (1989, p. 11).  However, when de Salazar's method of examining details is applied, instead of the acceptance of the broad strokes, a similar result is seen.  As Robert Hicks, a criminal justice analyst who advises Virginia law enforcement agencies, points out:

Survivor stories are not comparable when details are matched.  Survivors, in fact, do not tell the same stories; their stories merely exhibit the same dozen or so primary motifs.

For example, one primary motif concerns the wearing of robes for satanic ceremonies.  If one believes the literal truth of a survivor's claims, one stops there: the other details do not take on importance.  But to a folklorist, the other details are important, and to an anthropologist, even more so.  What color robes were worn?  Precisely, what did the robes look like (length; type of fastenings; hooded or non-hooded, and so on)?  Any difference between robes worn by men or women?  At what point in the ceremony did participants don robes?  Remove them?  Were the robes decorated by any symbols?  What kind of symbols?  Did participants wear robes of specific colors and symbols depending on the longevity of their membership in the cult, of their status, of their sex, or their specific functions at rituals?  Or did robe colors and symbolism reflect mastery of the ritual trade; that is, did journeymen Satanists wear one color, apprentice Satanists another; what rules govern the storage and safe keeping of robes and how?  Of what material?  On the level of such details, the stories don't compare (1991, p. 166).

Like the sabbats of de Lancre, survivors' stories deal only with the sexually sadistic or bizarre.  Belief in the stories gave the sabbats subjective credibility, not validation.  In the same way today, it is the uncritical belief in survivors' stories that gives them credibility, and then only to the believers.  The cult described by survivors and its rituals have not been validated by evidence.

That people who have never met each other say the same things can be explained by communication and contagion.  We have observed how stories of the sabbat were spread from France to Spain.  In the same way, therapists who treat alleged survivors network with other therapists, and patients with other patients.  Sherrill Mulhern, an anthropologist at the University of Paris who has studied therapeutic practices and alleged survivors, observes:

Since the beginning of the satanic panic this networking has intensified.  There are many instances where cult therapists, often former patients with recovered cult memories, are treating groups of patients still in therapy attempting to uncover similar memories.  Newly "cultified" patients attend these sessions absolutely convinced that the survivor-therapist really knows what They do and "whatever They did to her, They did to me" (1991, p.157).

Television tabloids frequently feature survivors providing the same stories to people who they have never met but with whom they are, nevertheless, communicating.  It is therefore little wonder that survivors say the same things. But their stories do not constitute a stand-alone body of evidence.


Perhaps one of the strongest parallels between early witch hunts and today can be drawn from the Court of Oyer and Terminer at Salem in 1692 and its use of spectral evidence.  Spectral evidence concerned evidence of the specter or apparition of the accused rather than the bodily person.  Only the accuser could see the specter of the accused and this was called spectral sight.  During the trails, the afflicted demonstrated fits or seizures which they attributed to the action of the accused's specters.  The accused themselves never moved from where they stood.  The judges, who were "specter blind," could only accept the word of the accusers that they were being tormented by the specters of the accused.

These fits, more than any other "evidence" presented, helped send 20 persons to their deaths.  First, Betty Parris and then Anne Putnam Jr. and Abigail Williams began acting in an unusual manner.  This included contorting themselves into odd positions and making strange gestures.  They uttered foolish statements which nobody could understand, while at other times they were dumb as if choked.  The conventional practice of medicine being what it was, the physician who examined them, Dr. William Grigs, could offer no physical reason for their afflictions.  Instead he said, "They are under the evil hand." (Cotton Mather in Bun, 1914).

This was a diagnosis similar to that reached in Boston by Dr. Thomas Oakes in 1688.  There he examined the four children of John Goodwin, who had manifested similar symptoms, and gave the opinion that "nothing but an hellish witchcraft" could be the cause of the children's afflictions.  Interestingly, Cotton Mather, who would play a significant role at Salem, also examined the children.  Mather, who had studied medicine, described the children as having "strange fits, beyond those that attend an epilepsy or a catalepsy" (Hansen, 1969, p. 127).  Clearly, the violence of the fits were impressive and frightening to those who observed them.  To the observer, they became evidence of the devil's hand.

The belief in that evidence, manifested in this manner, overcame the belief in the innocence of the accused manifested by their lives.  In the case of Rebecca Nurse, 39 of her neighbors signed a petition stating that according to their observation "her life and conversation were according to her profession (as a Christian) and we never had any cause or grounds to suspect her of any such thing as she is now accused of."  One of the signers was Jonathan Putnam, who with Edward Putnam, swore out the original complaint against her but who had since changed his mind (Cotton Mather, in Bun, 1914).  On July 19, 1692, Rebecca Nurse went to the gallows at Salem.  She bid her family a tearful and public farewell protesting her innocence in the name of God, before whom she would soon be judged.  She forgave those who condemned her and prayed for the pardon of all for their sins.  By these public actions, she had behaved in a manner which was contrary to that expected of a witch.  Spectral evidence could not be overcome and she was hanged.

George Burroughs, a minister, was hanged for witchcraft on August 19th.  Before his death, he did what no witch was supposed to be capable of doing; he recited the Lord's Prayer.  What's more, he said it publicly and perfectly with great sincerity.  Persons within the assembled crowd expressed doubt as to Burroughs' guilt as it was the common belief that no witch was capable of reciting the Lord's Prayer.  Only the intervention of Cotton Mather allowed the hanging to proceed.  Mather rode forward on his horse and addressed the crowd saying "that the devil has often been transformed into an angel of light." (Hansen, 1969. p.148).

Mather was caught in a bind.  Had he accepted Burroughs' prayers as evidence of innocence, spectral evidence would no longer be considered evidence of guilt.  And if it was not evidence of Burroughs' guilt, it surely wasn't evidence of Rebecca Nurse's guilt.  So, instead, Mather allowed that the devil might permit his subjects to say the Lord's Prayer after all, thereby negating an indicator long held to be evidence of witchcraft.  This demonstrates how difficult it was to prove one's innocence of witchcraft (Hansen, 1969).

Even at Salem, there was contagion.  Joseph Ballard of Andover sent for some of the afflicted girls at Salem to examine his wife.  Their spectral sight produced results and soon Andover had its very own population of afflicted persons, and more than 50 people were complained of.  Even dogs were put to death on the word of the afflicted (Hansen, 1969).

However, at Andover, something quite different happened when the accusers pointed out "a certain gentleman of Boston" as one of their tormentors.  He responded with "a writ to arrest those accusers in a thousand pound action for defamation" (Hansen, 1969, p. 156).  This tactic had not been previously employed by any of the accused.  The novelty of it alone would attract attention, but a thousand pounds — a substantial sum in those days — added to the effect.  A suit of this magnitude caused a rethinking of the evidence.  Both the public and other ministers began to doubt the validity of spectral evidence.  Within a few years, its use as evidence would no longer be permitted.  At Andover, it wasn't just a suit that ended the accusations.  Rather, it was the belief that spectral evidence would prove an ineffective defense to such a suit that helped to bring an end to the accusations.  One would now be required to produce tangible evidence or face the consequences of a failed accusation.

The New Spectral Evidence

Spectral evidence is still in vogue today.  The survivors are the only ones who have seen the work of Satan's servants, and often that sight involves recovered memory, often through hypnosis.  This involves an abreaction, which is a re-experiencing in an altered state of consciousness of traumatic material in a secure therapeutic environment, where the memory's disturbing content can be processed and ultimately reintegrated into the unified conscious memory (Mulhern, 1991, p. 147)

Therapists diagnosing satanic ritual abuse report that these patients are actively recovering and abreacting memories of childhood sexual victimization before any satanic material emerges.  When allegations of Satanism emerge, the disclosure usually begins when a patient reports experiencing an intrusive image (such as people wearing robes, a knife slashing, or a bonfire), which is subsequently flushed out over several therapy sessions into a description of a ritual; or when a patient recognizes a ritual scene described by the therapist during a hypnotic interview (Mulhern, 1991).  During these abreactions, the patient experiences the images as real.  Therapists point to the violence of the abreaction of the recovered memories and images as evidence for the historic reality of the patient's victimization.  That the experience is true and real for the patient does not mean that it is historically correct.  Conspicuous by its absence among evidence for the reality of satanic abuse is independent corroboration.  Without corroboration, patient/survivor stories have validity only to the patient and those who choose to believe the patient.

This is particularly true given the questionable ability of hypnosis to produce historically accurate memory.  The popular conception that human memory works in the same manner as a video camera which can be replayed to produce an historically accurate record of events is a misconception.  Dr. Martin T. Orne, a professor of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, has made a number of significant contributions to the understanding and use of hypnosis.  Orne observes:

It appears that the criminal justice system's traditional use of a jury as a trier of fact, of the adversarial process, and of cross examination has served as the best available means of defining "truth."  However, this process can be subverted by a technique, such as hypnosis, that greatly facilitates the reconstruction of history, that allows an individual to be influenced unwittingly, and it may catalyze beliefs into "memories."  The result in testimony may then be presented under oath by an honest individual who is convinced of the accuracy of what may well be pseudomemories.  Paradoxically, then, the same attributes of hypnosis that make it a useful adjunct to psychotherapy also creates the greatest obstacle to its use in the forensic domain.  At the present stage of scientific knowledge, we cannot distinguish between veridical recall and pseudomemories elicited during hypnosis without prior knowledge or truly independent proof (Orne, Whitehouse, Dinges, & Orne, 1988, p.55).

Just as at Andover during the time of the Salem witch trials, the courts have become involved.  Today, the accusers have had first action at the bar of justice.  States, such as Illinois, have enacted legislation specifying particular penalties for ritualistic crimes.  Other states, such as Iowa, have extended civil statutes of limitations to specifically facilitate recovered memory accusation: the new spectral sight.  This legislation has permitted individuals who recover memories of abuse, often through hypnosis, to sue their parents whom they accuse of abusing them.  Some have been successful.

In May, the Napa County California Superior Court jury found two therapists had damaged Gary Ramona's life by planting false memories of child abuse in his daughter and returned a verdict in favor of Ramona for $500,000.  One week later, members of the Deborah David family filed a lawsuit against three Sacramento, California therapists, accusing them of implanting false memories of satanic ritual abuse that ruined their lives.  As the public and other mental health professionals begin to doubt and finally disregard the new spectral sight, there will be a great many "gentlemen from Boston."


Few issues, including this one, are so simple as to be a mere matter of heroes and villains.  Satanic ritual abuse is a virtual livery stable providing fresh mounts for a variety of posses.  Although each ride is in pursuit of its own agenda, each is convinced of the rightness of its cause.  Today's witch hunters, like their historical counterparts, are hard pressed to square motive with method.  Just as the witch hunters of old engaged in the dichotomous behavior of serving a merciful god by the most savage and unmerciful actions taken in his name, so too are today's witch hunters caught in the bind of "helping" survivors by savaging the innocent.  Some therapists and clinicians are as mystified and frightened by the violent abreactions of their patients as the court at Salem was by the fits of the accusers.  Each has placed its faith in things invisible.  What Cotton Mather called "this wonderful affliction" sent 20 people to their deaths at Salem.  Today it pits child against parent, brother against sister, and neighbor against neighbor in cases of recovered memories of abuse.

"After a century of witchcraft scholarship, it is at last becoming apparent that there is no reliable evidence for the existence of devil-worshipping witch cults and that the relatively few individuals who believe themselves to be devotees of Satan typically acquired such beliefs from suggestions from preachers or prosecutors" (Klaits, 1985, p. 12).  Likewise, after 10 years of investigation, law enforcement has been unable to validate claims of a satanic mega-cult involved in ritualistic murder, sexual abuse, or cannibalism (Lanning, 1992).  Delusion lay behind the earlier witch hunts with suggestions made to the suggestible who told the unbelievable to the believers who in turn suggested it to others.  History suggests that we are again in the grip of such madness.  One wonders if the only reason that people are not burned at the stake today is because it is a prohibited practice.


Hansen, C. (1969). Witchcraft at Salem (Hardcover)(Paperback). New York: Braziller.

Henningsen, G. (1980). The Witches' Advocate (Out of Print). Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

Hicks, R. D. (1991). In Pursuit of Satan (Hardcover). Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Klaits, J. (1985). Servants of Satan (Hardcover)(Paperback). Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press.

Lanning, K. V. (1992). Investigator's guide to allegations of "Ritual" child abuse. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime: Quantico, VA.

Larsen, B. (1989). Satanism: The Seduction of America's Youth (Paperback). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Mather, C. (1914 version). Memorable Providences 1689 in G. L. Bun, Narratives of the witchcraft cases: 1648-1706. New York, NY, reprinted 1959. (From Hansen, C. (1969). Witchcraft at Salem  (Hardcover)(Paperback). New York: Braziller.)

Midelfort, H. C. E. (1972). Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany 1562-1684 (Hardcover). Stanford, CA: Stanford Press.

Mulhern, S. (1991). Satanism and psychotherapy: A rumor in search of an inquisition. In J. T. Richardson, J. Best, & D. G. Bromley (Eds.), The Satanism Scare (Hardcover)(Paperback) (pp.145-172). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Nadel, S. F. (1935). Witchcraft in Nupe society. (From Henningsen, G. (1980), The Witches Advocate (Out of Print). Reno, Nevada: University of Nevada Press.)

Orne, M. T., Whitehouse, W. G., Dinges, P. F., & E. C. Orne, E. C. (1988). Reconstructing memory through hypnosis. In Hypnosis and Memory (Hardcover). New York: Guilford Press.

Robinson, E. (1991). The Devil Discovered (Out of Print)(Out of Print). New York: Hippocrese.

Ryder, D. (1992). Breaking the Circle of Satanic Ritual Abuse (Paperback). Minneapolis, MN: Comp Care.

Smith, L. E., & Watalad, B. A. (1989). Sting Shift (Out of Print). Littleton, Colorado: Street Smart Communications.

* Terry L. Kern is a police investigator at the Sioux City Police Department, 601 Douglas Street, Sioux City, IA 51101-1215.  [top]

   [Back to Volume 7, Number 4]  [Other Articles by this Author]

Copyright 1989-2014 by the Institute for Psychological Therapies.
This website last revised on April 15, 2014.
Found a non-working link?  Please notify the Webmaster.