Memories of Satan
How vivid memories of entire events that never occurred can be planted into a someone's mind.
Image: Enric Martinez/Flickr
A series of videos recently uploaded on YouTube show two young children divulging disturbing information about a secret society active in north London.
The siblings reveal that they have been the victims of satanic ritual abuse, inflicted upon them at school and church in the affluent suburb of Hampstead. In hours of video footage that has been viewed millions of times, they describe the sacrificing and eating of babies, grotesque sex parties, and rituals of satanic worship.
"The assertions were that babies had been abused, tortured and then sacrificed," a judge later put it. "Their throats were slit, blood was drunk and cult members would then dance wearing babies' skulls—sometimes with blood and hair still attached—on their bodies."
They name dozens of perpetrators, claiming teachers and the parents of other pupils belong to the pedophilic cult lead by their own father.
Naturally the police took these initial accusations seriously.
But after six officers searched the church, they found no reason to suspect any satanic behaviour. Eventually, after two police interviews, the children admitted it was false—citing physical and psychological abuse from their own mother Ella Draper and her partner Abraham Christie, who pressured them to lie.
"That was all made up," the 9-year-old girl explains to the police. "He told me to say that, and I said 'Why, Abraham? That's not true though' and he said 'Yes, that is true, so don't lie and say that to the police. They dance around with baby skulls in the church, don't they?' That's what Abraham told me, and I said 'no, they don't' and he said 'yes, they do—stop lying, you little brat.'"
Despite the confession, campaigners are adamant that there is more to this case then we are being lead to believe. "Believe the children!" "Satanists!" were some of the cries that could been heard just a few weeks ago at a demonstration outside the school.
How did huge numbers of people become so frenzied over baseless accusations, and how did the line between fact and fiction become so blurred?
Meanwhile, High Court Justice Pauffley determined in March that there had been no satanic cult. "I am able to state with complete conviction that none of the allegations are true," she said. "I am entirely certain that everything Ms. Draper, her partner Abraham Christie, and the children said about those matters was fabricated. The claims are baseless. The stories came about as the result of relentless emotional and psychological pressure as well as significant physical abuse."
"Both [children] P and Q have suffered significantly. Their innocence was invaded. Their grip on reality was imperilled."
"Their minds were scrambled."
As bizarre as this story seems, it's far from the first time someone has contrived a story about satanic horrors—and repeated it so many times that they themselves almost began to believe it. In fact, it's been happening since the early 1980s. In a BBC Radio 4 documentary, journalist David Aaronovitch identifies the controversial book Sybil, published in 1973, as the predominant cause of what came to be known as "the satanic panic."
The book, written by Flora Rheta Schreiber, tells the supposedly true story of Shirley Ardell Mason (under the pseudonym of Sybil Dorsett) and her therapist Cornelia B. Wilbur. The story goes that "Sybil" began sessions with Wilbur to treat her social anxiety.
Wilbur's therapeutic technique, Schreiber writes, was based on efforts to help Sybil contact repressed memories of repeated sexual abuse perpetrated by her mother when she was a child. Soon after beginning therapy, Sybil begins to show signs of multiple personality disorder (MPD) and eventually dissociates into 16 distinct personalities.
Sybil lead to an increase in the popularity of neo-Freudian attempts to access deep-rooted repressed memories. There was also an increase in the controversial diagnosis of MPD (now known as dissociative identity disorder), resulting in it being classified as an official condition by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.
"It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say, 'That's what I remember.' For her it was very real"
However, the events reported in Sybil are highly dubious. Psychiatrist Herbert Spiegel listened to taped conversations between Schreiber and Wilbur and is certain that Wilbur planted the personalities in Mason's mind using suggestive techniques during therapy.
Sybil also set a precedent for pseudo-scientific literature reporting the therapy of patients with repressed memories and MPD. Dozens of these books suddenly began emerging detailing very similar stories.
In 1980, Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist-turned-husband, Lawrence Pazder, coauthored a book called Michelle Remembers which effectively reintroduced the occult to the 20th century psyche, causing collective hysteria across the United States and eventually reaching the United Kingdom in what could be described as the modern day answer to the Salem Witch Trials.
Smith initially begins therapy to treat her depression, which was triggered by a miscarriage. In one session she allegedly broke down and started screaming for 25 minutes before proceeding to talk in a small child's voice. The two then went through over 600 hours of hypnosis therapy in which Pazder helped Smith "recover" repressed memories of satanic sexual abuse she received from her mother and others in a cult back in her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.
As with Sybil, the credibility of Michelle Remembers has repeatedly been called into question. When The Mail on Sunday asked whether or not the accounts in the book are true, Pazder replied, "It is a real experience. If you talk to Michelle today, she will say, 'That's what I remember.' For her it was very real. Every case I hear, I have skepticism. You have to complete a long course of therapy before you can come to conclusions. We are all eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn't matter."
Further investigation has found many inconsistencies and inaccuracies throughout the book, such as car crashes that never happened. Childhood friends and other associates were interviewed and confirmed that there was no point at which a supposed nonstop 81 day satanic ritual she was alleged to have been involved in could have happened.
Also, a lot of the alleged recovered memories bare resemblance to the themes common in horror films of the time such as The Exorcist and The Omen, and there seem to be parallels to the secret societies of West Africa, where Pazder had worked in the 60s.
A glaring lack of any empirical evidence for the claims made in Michelle Remembers didn't stop Pazder becoming a leading expert in the field as allegations of satanic abuse began mounting in the early 80s.
In 1985, Pazder appeared on ABC's 20/20 in what was the first major news report on satanism. He lectured police agencies on satanic ritual abuse and Michelle Remembers was used as a manual to prosecute satanists and educate social workers. He was consulted in more than 1,000 cases of satanic abuse including the McMartin preschool trial—the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.
Similar to the recent Hampstead case, the McMartin trial started when a mother accused her ex-husband and Los Angeles preschool teacher, Ray Buckey, of molesting her son in 1983. There is ambiguity regarding whether or not the child denied or confirmed the abuse, but after questioning Buckey, the police decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute.
Instead, they sent out a letter to around 200 parents of students at McMartin preschool asking them to question their children on whether they had been victim of abuse at school. Hundreds of children were then questioned by a child abuse prevention center, resulting in claims that 360 children had been abused.
"Many people think that memory works like a recording device, but it doesn't."
"Using puppets to encourage the children to reveal what happened, the therapists were able to unlock the horrible secrets of the McMartin school," explained one news reporter at the time. As the media coverage snowballed, so did the accusations, with seven other LA preschools being implicated.
With panic beginning to spread across America, it started to become clear that a lot of the techniques used to interview the children were highly suggestive. Eventually, everyone accused from McMartin was acquitted, with the children's testimonies deemed invalid.
These case studies illustrate something unnerving about the way our minds work. How did huge numbers of people become so frenzied over baseless accusations, and how did the line between fact and fiction become so blurred that individuals were able to fabricate such vividly grotesque accounts of their own life?
In the early-1970s, the influential psychologist Elizabeth Loftus developed the idea of the misinformation effect—the theory that acquired information can alter the memory of a previous event. Her pioneering work radically changed our understanding of the way memory works.
"Many people think that memory works like a recording device, but it doesn't," said the 70-year-old Loftus, who is still working hard as both a professor of law and psychology at the University of California, Irvine. "We don't just record the event and play it back later. We actually reconstruct memories using bits and pieces of experiences that have happened at different times and places."
Loftus and her colleague John Palmer conducted an experiment in 1974 where they showed participants videos of cars colliding. They found that using suggestive words when asking questions about the collision affected the participants' recollection of the events they had just witnessed.
The implications of these novel findings were huge. "One application of this work is to the legal system," Loftus told Motherboard. "In many court cases, people are bringing in memory reports and they need to be scrutinized carefully. They can't just be accepted as truth simply because they are expressed with a lot of confidence and detail. Distorted memory reports can enter legal cases and destroy the lives of innocent people."
Recovered memory therapy has less to do with accessing repressed memories than implanting new ones
"It can happen because you don't store a very good version of the information at the time of the event, but also a lot of changes can happen afterwards when you are talking to other witnesses," she said. "Or maybe someone is interviewing you and they have a bias so they interview you in a suggestive way. These are some of the situations that can produce distorted memories out there in the real world—it's contamination that often occurs after some event is completely over."
This contamination is not necessarily restricted to the minor details of a memory. Loftus is now conducting research into the theory that vivid memories of entire events that never occurred could be planted into a subject's mind.
"We make people believe specific things happened to them that are completely made up by us," she said. "We decided to try and see if we could convince people that when they were five or six years old, they were lost in a shopping mall and they were frightened and crying and ultimately rescued and reunited with their family."
Loftus presented a group of individuals with some true experiences and then the completely made up event about being lost in the mall. She interviewed the subjects suggestively and after about three interviews, roughly a quarter fell for the suggestion and started to believe this made up experience.
"If you tell a story, you can start to get people to believe it and remember that's what they saw, especially if you make people utter the story and commit to it," she said. "You can have a kind of collective memory distortion."
It is this collective memory distortion which led to the parents and children of McMartin's becoming so confused about what had happened.
Collective memory distortion may also be used intentionally by governments to pacify their citizens. "There was certainly a lot of speculation that this was going on in China after the Tiananmen Square Massacre," Loftus said.
The 1989 student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, were forcibly suppressed by the military. Little is known about the incident because the Chinese government have prohibited discussing the massacre. However, it is believed between a few hundred and a few thousand died in what the government has condemned as a "counter-revolutionary riot."
Loftus explains "They tell the story that it was the soldiers who were the ones being attacked and the soldiers were the innocent ones and the students were the aggressors. People were writing about this propaganda that was going on and this is the kind of thing that happens with brainwashing."
The fact that we are so vulnerable to the power of suggestion that we can be persuaded to believe such substantial pieces of false information about own own lives is dangerous. It is vital that this sort of research is conducted in order to understand the malleability of our memory.
There was no point at which a supposed nonstop 81 day satanic ritual she was alleged to have been involved in could have happened
"Yes, they do—stop lying, you little brat" was the line Abraham Christie reportedly used when trying to convince the young girl to lie to the police. Given the power of suggestion, it is easy to see how this sort of abuse could have distorted the children's memory. Perhaps it is testament to the their character that they retained a grasp of what was and wasn't real, after enduring so much abuse.
The scientific evidence to suggest that people repress memories of traumatic events is spurious, to say the least. In 2005 one of the leading experts in the field of memory, Richard McNally, wrote a letter to the California Supreme Court explaining, "The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry."
The scientific community seems to be in agreement that recovered memory therapy has less to do with accessing repressed memories than implanting new ones. Worryingly, a considerable division of the psychiatric community is yet to catch up.
As for Ella Draper and Abraham Christie, it has been suggested that they concocted the satanic cult story in order to tarnish the children's father in an ongoing custody battle (Draper has denied that she coached her children, or that she was even involved in a custody battle). Considering she's now on the run and believed to have fled the UK, it is unclear whether these questions will be ever be answered.
Jacked In is a series about brains and technology. Follow along here.