Treatment of Satanism

Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134.

Treatment of Satanism

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

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).



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:

1. formal or informal worship of Satan or entities equated with or associated with Satan or with violence cruelty, and destructiveness;

2. the practice of black magic (i.e., the manipulations of alleged magical forces for destructive ends);

3. preoccupation with literature, symbols, rituals, or other artifacts and activities associated with Satan or related entities, or with black magic; and

4. 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.


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 ritualistic abuse:

1. cult-based ritualistic abuse, in which the sexual abuse is a means for inducing religious experience in the perpetrators;

2. pseudo-ritualistic abuse, in which perpetrators, whose goal is sexual exploitation, employ rituals to intimidate children; and

3. psychopathological ritualism, in which the abuse is part of an individual’s or small group’s delusional or obsessive system.

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:

1. RA children experienced more types of sexual abuse (8.34 vs. 4.81).

2. RA children were victimized by more perpetrators (5 vs. 2).

3. RA children were more likely to have been physically abused, physically restrained or forced to eat human excrement, urine, and semen.

4. More RA children were given drugs that made them drowsy (74% vs. 28%).

5. Eighty-six percent of RA children described chants and other rituals associated with satanic ceremonies.

6. 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 Los Angeles, 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” (Associated Press, 1989a, 1989b).

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 Satanic Bible (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 Satanic Bible 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 The Satanic Bible, 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 Egg, 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).


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 (1989) concluded:

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 Conquerors. 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.


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 real.



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 desirable.

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.


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).


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,

Disassociation, long 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 example:

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. 10)

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.



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.


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 hospitalization.

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 few months.

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:

1. Most cases that will come to the attention of psychotherapists or other mental health professionals will be those of adolescent dabblers.

2. These dabblers have a myriad of psychiatric disturbances and symptoms of mental illness.

3. Many of these cases involve instances of earlier perceived trauma and their subsequent post-traumatic responses.

4. Young persons who identify with satanic practices, for the most part, do not have accurate information about satanism as a religion, system, or philosophy.

5. 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 psychopathology.

6. There is a distinct place for inpatient psychiatric hospitalization for satanically acting-out youth.

7. 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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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.


Reproduced from: Innovations in Clinical Practice: A Source Book (Vol. 11) by L. VandeCreek, S. Knapp, & T. L. Jackson (Eds.), Sarasota, FL: Professional Res. Press. C. 19