Strange Fruit: Ozark Folklore and the Continuation of Traditional Witch Beliefs in the Modern Satanism Scare.
David Sivier

From Magonia 91, February 2006 


One of the major problems presented by the Satanism scare of the 1980s and 1990s is the apparent reappearance of a set of beliefs and a persecuting mindset little different from the magic and superstition of previous centuries in the economically and technologically developed world. Indeed, the problem is particularly acute in the case of America, one of the most important crucibles for the forging of the Satanism scare, and a nation that has prided itself on its scientific and technological modernity

In searching for the origins of the modern Satanism scare, historians and sociologists have necessarily paid most attention to the contemporary societal factors stimulating its rise, like the increasingly irrational ideologies permeating psychotherapy, victim culture and the drive to identify as pathological an increasingly wide range of human behaviour seen as shocking or deviant, such as ‘emotional incest’ or ‘sex addiction’, the emphasis of certain sections of American social reformers and some feminists in demands for the children of the poor to be taken into state care, and the breakdown of a moral consensus on issues such as sexual morality, which has allowed Satanic Child Abuse to become an issue that can unite conservative Christian Evangelicals and Feminists and left-wing groups in a moral crusade. [1]

The genesis of the modern witchcraft accusations in the demonology of Middle Ages, including the Blood Libel myth directed at the Jews has been recognised and explored by a number of researchers, and comparisons drawn between the great witch-hunts of the past, such as those directed against the Bogomils in the ninth and tenth centuries, and the great witch-hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. [2]

These have all been identified as having a common origin in the breakdown in the wider Christian community, such as between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic for the earlier persecution, and Roman Catholic and Protestant for the latter.[3] However, while some historians have effectively demonstrated the origins of modern allegations of satanic ritual abuse in nineteenth century anti-Satanist and anti-occultist propaganda, such as Gareth Medway in his The Lure of the Sinister, few seem to have considered that there may also have been operating an unbroken tradition of witch beliefs that may also have fed into and stimulated the Satanism scare of the last twenty years.

Contemporary sceptical researchers into the Satanism scare have instead traced its roots in the narratives of adult survivors, often converts to Christianity, such as Doreen Irvine and June Johns in the 1960s and 1970s. These authors “presented Satanism (not distinguished much from Wicca) in turns of kinky adult sex, homosexuality, drug taking and suburban wife-swapping, with the now largely vanished phenomenon of the desecration of churches”. [4] The motif of child abuse, however, only entered these narratives because, “as society became more permissive and secular this repertoire ceased to conjure up images of ultimate decadence and evil” [5]

Yet while contemporary historians, such as Dr. Ronald Hutton in his The Triumph of the Moon, have effectively refuted the idea of a Palaeolithic cult of a horned god continuing unbroken into the twentieth century, it is however quite possible that some elements of a witch-cult, in so far as it was believed to exist in socially backward, agricultural communities in America, continued to exist from the sixteenth century onwards to inspire the Satan hunters of the late twentieth century. Indeed, the Canadian historian, Elliot Rose, in discussing the existence of a ‘witch-society’ in the Ozark country of the US, as described by the American folklorist, Vance Randolph, drew explicit comparisons between it and the descriptions of contemporary witchcraft practices by Gerald Gardner. He concluded that “I think we can see in this Ozark testimony the traces of the cult stripped to what its unlearned members considered its essentials, after persecution and enlightened scepticism between them had deprived it of both learned leadership and true continuity of tradition.” [6]

Randolph’s study of Ozark folklore is valuable for the insight it gives on a number of Fortean topics, not just witchcraft. For example, his description of the appearance of spectral lights along the ‘Devil’s Promenade’, a lonely stretch of road in Oklahoma, fourteen miles from Joplin, Missouri, is interesting not just for its description of the lights themselves, but also for the explanations offered for them. These include not only the supernatural – that they are the spirits of a murdered Osage chief, or a Quapaw woman who killed herself after the death of her husband in battle, but also for the scientific and pseudo-scientific. Thus it is suggested that the lights are those of cars driving on Highway 66 five miles away, are marsh gas or “that the effect is produced somehow by electrical action of the mineral deposits in the ground.” [7] 

Randolph’s book was originally published in 1947, about the same time the UFO myth was gestating, and although this explanation for strange lights seems to have been forgotten until proposed in the 1970s by Persinger and Paul Devereaux, its recording by Randolph suggests that the piezo-electrical explanation for such unexplained lights has its basis in the folkloric rationalisations offered for such phenomena, rather than the cold, detached theorising of a laboratory researcher.

The points of contact and contrast between Gardnerian and Ozark witchcraft discussed by Rose was the appearance in both cults of nudity and ritual sex, and instruction in the cult’s mysteries of an initiate by a parent or other family member. In the Ozarks the novice witch was taught the cult’s traditions by a parent of the same sex, while they were inducted into the cult by a member of the opposite sex in ritual coition in front of a naked coven. For Gardner, however, instruction had to be carried out by a member of the opposite sex, and although initiation was – performed naked, it did not involve sex. [8]

Beyond the similarities and differences between the two cults is the question of the similarities of both to the incestuous, satanic cults described in Michele Remembers. In this conception of a modern, satanic cult, as formulated by the social worker, Maribeth Kaye, and criminal psychologist, Lawrence Klein, “membership is transmitted primarily through families” and “sexual child abuse and torture is deliberately employed by Satanist families as a technique to brainwash and program children to confuse evil with virtue, so that they will follow instructions to commit Satanic evil acts without feeling any guilt.” [9]This is similar in concept to the Ozark belief that “the secret doctrines must pass only between blood relatives, or between persons who have been united in sexual intercourse. Thus it is that every witch obtains her unholy wisdom either from a lover or a male relative … A mother can transmit the secret work to her son, and he could pass it on to his wife, and she might tell one of her male cousins, and so on.” [10]

While the transmission of the secrets between family members is not necessarily incestuous, and there were rituals that could transform a woman into a witch which did not involve sex, such as repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards and firing seven silver bullets at the moon, the important element nevertheless in consecrating the witch in her unholy career was sex: “A virgin may possess some of the secrets of ‘bedevilment’ imparted by her father or her uncle, but she cannot be genuine witch, for good and sufficient reasons.”[11]

According to the tradition, this sexual initiation took place at the family burial ground, at midnight at the dark of the moon, over three consecutive nights. Devils and the spirits of the evil dead did appear, conjured up by the blasphemous incantations of the witches and the recital of the Lord’s Prayer backwards, the person initiating the witch was another mortal human being, not Satan himself. In this respect it differed from some of the medieval and early modern witch narratives, in which the witch copulated with Satan or a demon, [12] but was similar to the recovered memories of survivors of Satanic Ritual Abuse, who were sexually abused by their fellow humans, although the Devil and other demons nevertheless also appeared during the ceremonies. It thus appears that, amidst the basis of such fears of child ritual abuse in the concern over all too real cases of incest and child abuse that were appearing in the 1970s, the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare also drew on traditional stories of witch families and sexual initiation, and conflated the two elements according to the fears of the times.

Appearing with the motifs of multi-generational witch families and satanic sex also was the belief that witches burned the body of newborn children in order acquire further magical powers, and that the ashes were used to make luck charms. [13] While this element of the myth ultimately derives from Inquisitor’s allegation against a group of heretics at Orleans in 1022, that they burned the bodies of children born from their orgies to Satan and used the ashes in a blasphemous parody of the Christian Eucharist, [14] it is also of the same type as the allegations in the modern Satanism scare that women were being used as ‘brood mares’ to supply children for sacrifice to Satan.

This folklore, although fantastic to those raised in a more sceptical environment, was responsible for several Satanism scares even before the appearance of the moral panics several decades later. Randolph knew three women who were not only believed to be witches, but also believed themselves to be witches. [15] One panic concerning an alleged ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ supposedly occurred when a group of young people were photographed dancing nude at the side of a road outside a cemetery, apparently conforming to the pattern of a witches’ Sabbath. Randolph himself considered that they were just drunken young people, and that the photograph of a similar gathering at Forsyth, Missouri, showed a group of Holy Roller religious fanatics outside their camp on the White River, accompanied by thrill-seeking young men from nearby villages. [16] If nudity, either in a Christian ecstatic ritual context or simply done for less elevated pleasures was practiced in backwoods Missouri, then it might explain why the Venusians who contacted Buck Nelson were similarly naked when they landed on his farm and walked into his farmhouse carrying their coveralls. [17]

The supposedly satanic activities carried out in Missouri were not necessarily so spectacular. Even something as relatively harmless as teaching schoolchildren to say their times tables backwards as a learning aid, in such an atmosphere of superstition and fear, could be construed as suspiciously antichristian because of its similarity to the witches’ supposed practice of repeating the Lord’s Prayer backwards. According to Randolph, one ‘pious Baptist lady’ in McDonald County, Missouri, denounced the local schoolteacher for teaching the girls in her care their multiplication tables in such a way, because of the danger that ‘they’ll be a-sayin’ somethin’ else back-lards tomorrow.’ [18]

Again, there’s a remarkable similarity to modern conflicts and attempt to maintain supposed Christian education in schools. This has included not only the topical debate about evolution, but also the campaign by American Fundamentalist Christian organisations against then use of the Impressions curriculum in school. Although designed to introduce primary school children to literature, it has been attacked for encouraging violence, Satanism, occultism, cannibalism and cultural relativism, in tones strongly reminiscent of the earlier concern about teaching the Lord’s Prayer backwards: “We believe there is a desensitisation effect here … Pretty soon, casting and chanting spells will seem so commonplace to kids that, when they’re confronted with the advances of satanic groups on a darker level, it will seem more acceptable.” [19]

At the time Randolph was writing, it was felt that witches were extremely common, with one informant telling him that “witches are thicker than seed ticks”, but that “it’s all under cover nowadays.” [20] A major cause of the growth in witchcraft was the increasingly immoral behaviour of the young, who lived ‘too fast and heedless’. [21] Despite this pervading climate of fear, suspicion and violence – Randolph gives several instances where people were shot or otherwise assaulted as suspected witches – nevertheless the country seemed placid and untroubled to outsiders: “Things happen in these hills which are never mentioned in the newspapers, never reported to the sheriff at the county seat. The casual tourist sees nothing to suggest the current of savage hatred that flows beneath the
 genial hospitality of our Ozark villages.” [22]

Since the days of the pioneering folklorists of the nineteenth century, the folk traditions of backwoods Appalachia have been of interest to folklorists because of the way they have independently preserved British folklore, including traditions that may have become extinct in the mother country. Certainly much Ozark folklore is remarkably ancient. The incidents recorded by Randolph of hill people who believed they had been changed into horses and ridden by witches are of the same type as the seventeenth century British allegations against witches and other heterodox religious groups, like Quakers, such as those made by Margaret Pryor of Long Stanton in 1657. [23] It thus seems likely that the Ozark beliefs about witches represent the persistence of sixteenth and seventeenth century British and European traditional ideas about witchcraft, as adapted by conditions in the frontier settlements of the New World. This is significant, because, as historians of witchcraft have pointed out, popular belief in witchcraft did not die out with the triumph of scepticism amongst the ruling elite in the eighteenth eentury, but still persisted into the twentieth century in some parts of Britain, France and the Netherlands, for example. [24]

It’s something of a truism that the heartland of American Fundamentalist Christianity, with its heavy emphasis on deliverance ministry and spiritual warfare against demons and the human agents of Satan is the traditionally economically backward rural south, and its possible that the ~ appearance and growth of Charismatic Evangelical Christian ministries nationwide during the 80s transmitted traditional southern lore about witches to a broader national audience as mediated by the Evangelists’ own emphasis on the literal truth of Scripture. In this atmosphere, where archaic, premodern ideas exist alongside a parallel, and contradictory belief in technology and progress, it’s fair to say that modern America is indeed a ‘medieval society with modern technology’, a situation ready for the spread of VERY similar medieval irrational fears and superstitions. [25]

It thus appears that the ultimate genesis of the Satanism scare in America was not the concern over new religious movements and cults in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as the Manson ‘Family’ and the activities of various devil worshippers, such as the Church of Satan, but traditional rural witchlore in the rural Deep South. While the rest of America was economically buoyant and felt morally and culturally secure, this folklore was largely confined to that area. With the growth of new religious movements in the 60s and the economic and social dislocation of the 1980s, the social climate nationally became more favourable to the spread of irrational fears of secret satanic conspiracies, lent verisimilitude by the existence of explicitly satanic religious movements like the Church of Satan and Temple of Set, and non-Satanist religions like Wicca, which claimed descent from the medieval witches but did not involve the worship of Satan.

Thus, the witch-hunts and panics Randolph reported in the 1940s became both the model and the precursor for the national and international panics four decades later, though this time led by people from backgrounds often very different from superstitious rural poor of the backwoods hill country.



  1. Sandell, R., Review of Mark Prendergast, Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives, Hinesburg, Upper Access 1995, Magonia 53, August 1995, pp. 22-3.

  2. Victor, J.S., Satanic Panic: The Creation of Contemporary Legend, Chicago, Open Court, 1994, pp. 273-90; Sandell, ibid, p. 23.

  3. Sandell, ‘Victims’, p. 23.

  4. Harney, J., Review of Jean La Fontaine, Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1988, in Magonia no. 64, August 1998, p. 17.

  5. Harney, J., ‘Devil’, p. 17.

  6. Rose, E., A Razor for a Goat: Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1989, p. 213.

  7. Randolph, V. Ozark Magic and Folklore (New York, Dover 1964), p. 234.

  8. Rose, E., ‘Razor’, p. 212.

  9. Victor, J.F., Satanic Panic: The Creation of Contemporary Legend, Chicago, Open Court, 1994, p. 97.

  10. Randolph, V., Ozark Magic and Folklore, New York, Dover 1964, p. 266.

  11. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 267.

  12. See, for example, the description of a sabbat in the Memoires of Jacques du Clercq, in P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, The Occult in Medieval Europe (Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan 2005), p. 126; also J.B. Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, Cornell University Press 1972), pp. 144-5.

  13. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 281.

  14. Russell, Middle Ages, p. 87.

  15. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 265.

  16. Randolph, Ozark Magic, pp. 267-8.

  17. Bord, l. and C., Life Beyond Planet Earth: Man’s Contacts with Space People (London, Grafton 1991), p. 135.

  18. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 266.

  19. Concerned parent quoted in “Trouble’s Brewing Over Witch in School Reader,” Buffalo News, March 10, 1991, pp. A1, A14, cited in Victor, op. cit., p. 158.

  20. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 264.

  21. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 264.

  22. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 300.

  23. Randolph, Ozark Magic, p. 279, ‘Long Stanton’, in Folklore, Myths and Legends, London, Readers Digest 1973, p. 242.

  24. See Davies, O., Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, Manchester, Manchester University Press 1995.

  25. Porter, B., review of M. Northcott, An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire, London, LB. Tauris 2004, Lobster 49, Summer 2005, p. 35



Desperately Seeking Satan.
Roger Sandell

From Magonia 42, March 1992 




In November 1991 the Old Bailey’s first Satanic human sacrifice trial took place. Two girls, ten and fourteen, accused their parents and two other people of having forced them to take part in ceremonies in Epping Forest, on the eastern fringes of London, at which babies were killed and buried. In spite of the sensational headlines that greeted the opening of the case it was clear from the start that it had very curious aspects. Despite the unambiguous claims made against them, not one of the accused faced a murder charge but were instead charged with child abuse. The prosecution admitted that digging by the police had produced no buried babies and there was no evidence of any accompanying epidemic of missing babies. After four days the case collapsed when one of the girls stated that she was unsure whether the events described had really happened or were nightmares, and that her grandmother, with whom she was living, has stopped punishing her when she told her about them.

A few weeks before this case took place, the nazi activist Lady Birdwood had been found guilty at the Old Bailey of inciting racial hatred by distributing material accusing Jews of ritual murder, a coincidence which highlighted the way this trial seemed to exploit similar images of Gipsies as child stealers and wizards. The Satanist ceremonies were said to have taken place at a memorial to Gipsy Smith, the Romany evangelist of the 1930′s and 40′s, and the defendants included Gipsy Smith’s grandson George Gibbard, an Evangelical Christian and South Eastern representative on the National Gipsy Council. [1]

Meanwhile hearings into the official handling of the Orkney Satanism case continue. A parent has been cross-examined to explain why she bought a child a video of The Witches (for non-cinemagoers, the recent film of the Roald Dahl children’s story).

Meanwhile in the USA, bizarre trials continue. In North Carolina a day-care centre owner stands accused of sexual abuse and Satanic ceremonies. The evidence includes testimony from children describing the presence of lions and elephants at these ceremonies. In Chicago a judge has dismissed a case against a man accused by a five-year-old girl of murdering five identical girls in a human sacrifice. The defence centred on allegations that the child had been coached by Barbara Klein, a counsellor who apparently gave advice to the prosecutors in the recent Old Bailey case. [2]

The Satanism scare has now been with us long enough to have produced several books. Patricia Pulling’s The Devils Web [3] a US publication sold in Britain in evangelical bookshops, gives a good idea of the different components of the scare. ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and similar occult-type games are controlling teenagers minds to the point where they murder each other or commit suicide (the book opens with an account of the allegedly D & D related suicide of Patricia Pulling’s teenage son). Records by heavy-metal rock bands not only contain pro-Satanist lyrics, but also subliminal Satanic messages only audible when played backwards. Many unsolved murders are the work of Satanists.

When examined in detail the evidence for most of these claims evaporates pretty rapidly. The alleged backwards messages in heavy metal records seem to be contemporary versions of tales dating back to the ‘sixties of great secrets hidden in rock records or their sleeves. Nothing that is known about record production or the psychology of perception makes them plausible (if it was possible to influence people in this way, why are there no messages like “Buy our next album”?) The whole argument has been reduced to total absurdity by claims of Satanic messages in such places as ‘The Mr Ed Song (the theme from the TV series about a talking horse, not the UFO witness).

Stories of groups of Satanists committing random murders appear to have originated with the US wave of alleged cattle mutilations in the 1970′s when the mutilations gave rise to rumours of cults carrying out sacrifices. Patricia Pulling’s evidence relies on two cases of the last few years. the first is Henry Lee Lucas, a Texas murderer who in 1983 confessed to murdering 360 people as part of the rites of a cult called ‘The Hand of Death’. Although Lucas’s confessions were widely publicised and were seized upon by police forces anxious to improve their clear-up rate, the only supporting evidence linked Lucas to just one murder, that of his mother, and his claims are now generally discounted by law-enforcement authorities.

The second case is rather more substantial: the Matamoros (Mexico) slayings of 1989 in which at least twelve people were murdered by a drug smuggling gang led by Adolfo Constanzo, a practitioner of the sort of supernatural beliefs held by many poor but otherwise respectable Mexicans. At least one of these murders, that of an American tourist named Mark Gilroy, does seem to have been seen as a sacrifice to confer magical powers (the gang was exposed after a member drove through a police check, believing himself to be invisible) but it is not clear where religious beliefs began and the general casual violence of drug gangs towards rivals and informers stopped.

The evidence for the alleged ill-effects for Dungeons and Dragons seems similarly inconclusive. Although some press stories have featured allegations of teenage murders and suicides by the game’s devotees, further investigation has revealed violent homes or other factors that seem at least as relevant than the fact that those involved had played a game with a US following of several million other players.

Patricia Pulling’s account of her son’s suicide after a curse was placed on him in a D & D game is certainly a sad tale, but according to local press accounts he was also depressed by his failure in a school election (and one can only be astonished by the fact that his mother had left a pistol freely available while he was alone in the house). The only other evidence for the Satanic effect of D & D games seems to be some cases of adult D & D players being convicted of sexual offences against younger players, but these fall into a long established pattern of paedophiles cultivating activities and interests liable to bring them into contact with children.

Reading Pulling’s book suggests that one reason for the current US anti-Satanist scare is the fact that it has connected a wide variety of current American fears. Serial killers, the increasing rate of suicide among young people,, the violent messages of some types of popular music, drug gangs, and the increasing presence in the US of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, some of whom maintain traditional non-Christian religious practices, all are linked together in the same way that a few years ago Armageddon theology managed to link a variety of late ’70s and early ’80s concerns about the US and its place in the world.

The fact that most of these scares are specific to the USA probably accounts for the failure of the scare to achieve such resonance in Britain. However Children for the Devil by Tim Tate, researcher for the highly unconvincing Cook Report TV programme on Satanism, attempts to make out a case for the reality of Satanism in Britain and the US. [4]

Tate attempts to distance himself from Evangelical Christian anti-Satanism. He rejects such manifestations of the scare as campaigns against Halloween celebrations, and heavy metals bands, and accepts modern neo-Paganism as a valid religious belief. Indeed he give some interesting information on the background to US anti-Satanism that I was not previously aware of.

Especially striking is the fact that one organisation involved in spreading the anti-Satanist scare is the so-called US Labor Party led by the now-jailed political cultist Lyndon Larouche (Diane Core of ‘Childwatch’ the charity backed by Geoffrey Dickens MP that has publicised anti-Satanist tales, has also spoken at Larouchist meetings). What is significant about this is that this organisation was spreading similar tales in other contexts long before its present anti-Satanist campaign. In 1974 it claimed to have uncovered a CIA-KGB assassination plot against Larouche. Dissident members of the group were subjected to ‘debriefing’ sessions, which later resulted in charges of kidnapping against their accusers. As a result the victims told tales, promoted by the Larouche organisation, of CIA brainwashing that involved details identical to those made later in tales of Satanic child abuse. These involved sex with animals, exposure to pornography and scatological humiliations. One detail especially reminiscent of US day-care centre Satanism tales is the claim made in the confession of one victim who had been living in London that these events took place in an Islington school when it was closed over the weekend. (Incidentally Larouche has been accused of sexual abuse by female former disciples).

While Tim Tate rejects many feature of US anti-Satanism, he nonetheless devotes most of his book to defending the validity of charges of Satanic child abuse (SCA). he begins his argument by claiming that; “Ritual crime. abuse and murder have been reported, investigated, proven and recorded for nearly five hundred years”.

To prove this he devotes nearly fifty pages to a resume of the history of Satanism and witchcraft. It is difficult to speak of this section of the book with restraint. Tate gets just about every historical fact wrong and clearly has not the faintest idea of what he is writing about. He shows no sign of having read any serious books on European witchcraft such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, or Hugh Trevor Roper’s the European Witch Craze of the 16th and 17th Century. Instead the only historical sources cited are Dr Margaret Murray’s discredited writings, H. T. F. Rhodes equally unreliable The Satanic Mass, and a Peter Haining pot-boiler (Were these the only books on the subject in his local library perhaps?)

He begins by distinguishing Satanism from witchcraft, and follows Margaret Murray in seeing witchcraft as a primitive nature religion involving the worship of a horned god and moon goddess. He states that: “By the time of Christ this rural pantheistic religion was well established throughout Europe.” Oh yes? Where exactly? Such a cult bears no relation to classical or Nordic Paganism, or Celtic Druidism, the main religious systems of immediately pre-Christian Europe.

From this unpromising beginning Tim Tate jumps a millennium to give us his bizarre version of the witch trial era, arguing that tales of human sacrifice and sex orgies confirm similar modern tales. He does at one point concede that tales told under torture should be treated sceptically, but promptly disregards his own proviso by treating the trials of the Knights Templar, Gilles de Rais and Father Grandier of Loudon without mentioning that torture was employed in all these cases, neither does he point out that all these people had made powerful enemies beforehand. He accepts clearly absurd details such as the eight hundred or so child victims ascribed to de Rais – enough under medieval demographic conditions to depopulate quite a large area. He quotes the alleged Satanic pact given in evidence at the trial of father Grandier without mentioning that it was supposedly countersigned by a devil.

He totally fails to mention many important areas of the witch-mania that are highly relevant to the Satanism scare. He is totally unaware that British witch-trials were very different from those on the continent. The systematic use of torture and centralised inquisitional bodies were not a feature of British trials. As a result the tales of mass sacrifice and huge witches Sabbaths are found almost entirely on the continent. The British cases involve fewer defendants and much less spectacular organisations.

There is no discussion of the role played in the witch mania by child accusers who testified to manifest impossibilities, and in some cases resorted to conjuring tricks to create the impression of being bewitched, a subject highly relevant to contemporary SCA cases. [5] Neither does he discuss the identical accusations of ritual child murder that were commonly made against Jews. If modern SCA claims are vindicated by similar claims made hundreds of years ago, are modern neo-nazi claims vindicated by similar medieval claims?

Not content with relying on discredited ideas from other writers Tate makes some insupportable claims of his own. He sees modern witchcraft as being largely a Cathar creation and supports this by quoting the confessions of two Cathar witches who confessed to worshipping Satan in fourteenth century trials. The only problem with this is that neither of the witches quoted ever existed. Their confessions are both nineteenth century forgeries, as Tate would have know had he troubled to read Norman Cohn. [6]

Like many dubious writers on witchcraft he seems especially fascinated by the Black Mass, and devotes several pages to the 1680′s ‘Affair of the Poisons’ and allegations of Black Masses at the court of Louis XIV. Although, as usual, most of the more bizarre allegations in this case come from confessions made under torture, the affair seems to have some factual basis. However the Black Mass of the period bore little resemblance to later fantasies. In an age when the Mass was seen as an almost magical ceremony and masses might be said for good harvest and success in war it did not seem a very big step to secretly hold masses for purposes not approved by the Church, such as sexual success or the death of an enemy. Such practices were seen more a testimony to faith in Church rituals than as a blasphemy.

Of course no book of this nature is complete without a lurid account of Alastair Crowley, a figure who in fact, when his more bizarre claims are dismissed, seems simply a not untypical member of the avant-garde of the period exaggerating his own wickedness to outrage convention in a manner similar to Gabriel D’Annunzio and the young Salvador Dali.

A further measure of Tim Tate’s historical ignorance is that he seems to know nothing of Gerald B. Gardner, who in the 1940′s and 40′s originated the ‘Wicca’ cult which Tate seems to think is genuinely ancient and whose rituals involving nakedness and flagellation are a perfectly genuine example of so-called ‘witchcraft’ being used as a cover for bizarre sexual practices.

After this lamentable ‘historical’ section we arrive at the present day. We are presented with a list of modern self-proclaimed ‘Satanists’ who have appeared in court charged with a variety of offences, chiefly sexual. The list presented is far from exhaustive, Mr Tate’s cases do not include Norman Pasnail, the 1970′s Jersey (Channel Islands) sex killer who was obsessed with Gilles de Rais, or Vic Morris, the neo-nazi Satanist and convicted child molester who various investigative journalists have linked with the search for the killers of Hilda Morrell. [7]

While these cases should serve as a warning that not all cases where allegations are made are baseless, they take us no nearer to the allegations of large scale undercover Satanist cults and human sacrifice. Most of them involve a single person and the only alleged ‘human sacrifice’ Tate can find is a case of two Birmingham fans of the pseudo-Satanist band Iron Maiden, one of whom stabbed the other after a party. Although the police officers in charge of the case talked of human sacrifice this failed to impress the Appeal Court who reduced the murder conviction to manslaughter on self-defence grounds. The cases quoted no more validate the more bizarre allegations than the recent case of a rabbinical student from London’s Hassidic community convicted of child abuse validates tales of Jewish ritual murder.

Nor does Tate consider these stories in a wider context. As has previously been pointed out in Magonia, any form of cultist organisation grouped round a leader seems to be a fertile field for sexual exploitation, whatever its alleged belief. For example the regime of Frank Beck, the Leicester children’s home manager recently convicted of sexual assaults on inmates, seems to have had many cult-like features. Beck appeared to have total domination of his staff and inmates, and justified his sexual abuse as therapeutic. [8]

Tate takes the SCA cases of the last few years back to the book Michelle Remembers. To persuade us to take this book seriously he summarises it in a highly misleading way, omitting to tell us any of the details that make it impossible to take this story at face value. He carefully ignores all the many supernatural claims made in the book, such as the appearance of the Virgin Mary to the abused child Michelle, and the presence at the Satanist ceremonies of Satan himself, speaking in what sounds like fourth-rate heavy-metal lyrics; “Look at my eyes and you can see/ the fire burning inside of me./ Look at the children in them too/ The fire that burns, what is new?”. He ignores the prophecies of an Armageddon brought about by a Soviet/Iranian alliance in the early 1980′s. Nor does he mention the fact that Michelle has two sisters who strongly deny her story. He gives the impression that her account has been endorsed by the Vatican, whereas the quote from a Canadian archbishop given in the book seems carefully non-committal: ‘I do not question that for Michelle this experience was real. In time we will know how much of it can be validated. It will require prolonged and careful study. In such mysterious matters hasty conclusions could prove unwise.”

Other cases cited by Tim Tate are the US day care cases, and some British ones that he has personally investigated. He is convinced of the accuracy of the children’s testimony. Consider these quotes:

“Like many who remain sceptics I tried to write off these children’s disclosures as fantasies or the product of watching too many videos. But neither theory works. Tried and tested psychological research has proved that children cannot fantasize the details … to recall it so vividly they have had to have experienced it in some way … More telling still is the way in which the children disclose these incidents. It causes them real visible pain to talk about their experiences. How do I know? Because I have sat with these children – by their request not mine – as they struggled to share the poisoned memories inside them”

“Of all the reports I’ve received the most personally depressing for me are those dealing with very young children … No matter how familiar researchers become with the details, the knowledge cannot alleviate the horror and confusion of such events – particularly in the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable among us. Yet those provided by three or four-year old children furnish the investigator with valuable evidence concerning the reality of this phenomenon. Since such small children cannot read there is no chance of contamination from written sources. Few TV programmes during early viewing hours have ever offered specific details of this experience… Consequently the details that children relate can be regarded as purer thanthose in adult accounts … But so far our knowledge outpaces our skill in helping people deal with these previously unimaginable experiences. New coping techniques must be introduced, new therapeutic skills must be developed. Much work is to be done if very young lives are not to suffer permanent psychological scarring.”

The first quote is from Tim Tate; the second is from Budd Hopkins, describing his interviews with very young children recounting abduction experiences. [9] In view of the similarity of their arguments we must conclude that either Satanists are holding hideous ceremonies in our midst and aliens are descending to abduct large numbers of people, or that the question of assessing testimony from children (or adults) is rather more complicated than either of these writers allow.

Certain features of the stories Tate looks at underline the similarity between SCA claims and abduction stories. He concedes at one point that some stories contain clearly impossible features and mentions claims of ‘operations’ that are contradicted by medical evidence, and even a case of a child who claimed to have been abused in a spaceship. ‘Natalie’, a teenager returned to her mother after living with her grandmother for ten years, tells of being taken into a big house where children were kept in cages and murdered. But the house also had a more curious inhabitant named ‘Lucifer’:

“He was a sort of friend, at least he seemed to be then … When I was locked up in my room at nan’s he used to be there … I had no friends except him … Now I know he was a spirit or something”

Tim Tate seems to have no very clear idea what to make of such stories. However he insists on the literal truth of all the details of them that are not manifestly impossible in spite of all contrary evidence. He tabulates allegations made in 28 US cases. Practically all of them involve claims of babies being slaughtered and acts of child abuse being videoed, but no corpse has ever turned up, no video been recovered. Satanist never get caught by the sort of mischance that commonly happens to non-Satanic criminals. The serial killer Dennis Neilson was caught when neighbours complained about the smell from his house, the Yorkshire Ripper when stopped for a traffic violation. Serial killers usually work alone and the examples of pairs are rare enough to be notorious for years afterwards (e.g. Loeb and Leopard, Brady and Hindley). However we are asked to believe in large groups of people committing murder and torture of a viciousness surpassing the worst of individual serial killers.

Tate seems impressed by Sandy Gallant, a San Francisco police officer widely credited as an expert on Satanic crime. Some of her notes of advice to police forces are printed in an appendix to The Devil’s Web and they include a quite remarkable list of problems involved in the prosecution of SCA:

“No evidence is found at alleged crime scenes to substantiate statements made by victims. Though homicides are reported no bodies are found. Though children say they saw other children who were kidnapped no record of these children can be found with the National Center for Missing/Exploited Children.”

Is any comment necessary?

The British cases described in detail are Nottingham, and others derived from Tate’s own interviews. Unfortunately his handling of the historical material already examined means there are problems here. When his assertions can be checked Tate can be shown to have ignored the use of duress in producing confessions and ignored parts of stories which are clearly impossible. Since these are also items of controversy in the modern confessions how can we be sure the same process has not gone on in the summaries of his own interviews?

His section on Nottingham gives some further details about the extended family on whom the allegations centred. These seem to have been a horrifying collection of urban hillbillies living on the fringes of society in a nexus of poverty, crime, incest and subnormality reminiscent of the legendary Sawney Beane family. However the idea of such a family being the high priests of some secret cult seems to owe more to H. P. Lovecraft than reality.

This highlights another problem. Tate rejects the idea propounded by evangelical anti-Satanists that all Satanists are part of a world-wide cult hundreds of years old. He believes rather that modern Satanists are simply following information on historical Satanist practices. At one point he remarks the resemblance between one modern Satanist claim, and the case of Gilles de Rais, and demands that sceptics explain how the person making these claims could know such obscure facts. Apart from the fact that de Rais has long been a favourite for ‘World’s Wickedest Men’-type paperbacks, this question is quite meaningless unless one accepts the ancient cult idea that he explicitly rejects. In any case, the Nottingham family do not appear to be the sort of people one can easily imagine researching historic Satanism.

In spite of this, a Nottingham social worker declares herself convinced of the SCA charges when a three-year old produces “a historic Satanist chant”. Ignoring the lack of understanding of anyone who thinks there is such a thing, the claim is, as Peter Rogerson points out, identical with the evidence frequently offered in reincarnation claims.

The villains of Tate’s account of the Nottingham affair are the police, who he depicts as being blind to SCA evidence and refusing to investigate. He does not mention, much less reply to, the police contention that they searched the houses for supporting evidence and found none. Nor does he point out that we are asked to believe in mass chanting, murders and the sacrifice of a live sheep (curiously described by the child as being brought in a plastic bag and killed by someone sticking their fingernails into it) in a terraced house, unnoticed by the neighbours. Does Tim Tate not realise that if such dubious material was introduced into court a defence counsel would have a field day, and the real acts of child abuse that did occur in Nottingham might well have gone unpunished? It may be that the adversarial court system of Britain and the USA is not the best means of sorting out the truth of these cases, but at present it is the one the police have to operate within.

A less tendentious account of the Nottingham case is contained in Peter Hough’s Witchcraft: A Strange affair, a journalistic survey of the development of the anti-Satanic scare in Britain. [10] It includes some dubious anecdotes and is more sympathetic to the idea of the pre-Christian antiquity of witchcraft than the evidence warrants, but is a useful and fair-minded account. It includes interviews with people on both sides of the controversy and gives a much more rounded picture of the subcultures of Satanism and amateur occultism. Hough describes the activities of the anti-Satanist con-man Derry Mainwaring-Knight, providing an insight into the credulity of some Evangelicals to any anti-Satanist claims, however ridiculous. He also gives examples of how the activities of some Evangelical anti-Satanists have caused some disturbed people they have come into contact with to become even more disturbed. He looks at the parallels of SCA claims and UFO stories, but only devotes about a page to this. I would have been interested to see this discussed in more detail, something that Peter Hough’s involvement in UFO fieldwork investigations makes him well qualified to do.

A different sceptical perspective come from In Pursuit of Satan, [11] Written by Jim Hicks, a former US policeman and analyst for the Virginia Department of Justice, he looks at the response of US police departments and the psychiatric and welfare agencies to the SCA scene. The story he tells is alarming. The SCA gospel is spread to local police departments by seminars often organised by Christian fundamentalists. Like sixteenth century witch-finders they seem to define ‘supporting evidence’ so widely as to make in practically impossible for anyone to defend themselves. (Sandy Gallant advises police seeking evidence of Satanism to search houses for objects including I-Ching books, gongs or bells, and chalices, goblets or cruets) They advocate authoritarian measures such as examining library records to see who is borrowing books on the occult, and spread tales of mass Satanic political conspiracies. Their influence on law enforcement seems a scandal reminiscent of the influence of the Ku Klux Klan on some 1950′s police departments.

The promoters of such seminars try to present themselves at ‘anti-cultist’, apparently defining cults as any non Christian-fundamentalist fringe religious belief. Thus concerns about the rise of superstition and irrationality are seized upon to reinforce political and religious authoritarianism, just as the SCA panic seizes upon increased awareness of the reality of child abuse to promote a similar agenda.

The response of the US psychiatric profession seems to have been, from James Hicks account, equally dubious. Psychiatrists are shown to have accepted obviously apocryphal stories and dubious historical accounts in discussions of SCA in professional journals. Elaborate discussions around the day-care cases have sought to explain why the accused corresponded to no known profile of child molesters or why inspectors or visiting parents never found supporting evidence. (From a British viewpoint it would also be pertinent to ask why these day-care cases seem to be a purely American phenomenon with no parallels in the British cases.)

Looking at the conduct of the day-care cases, Hicks depicts investigators leading child witnesses in a manner which seems to approach child abuse itself. His account of the most notorious of these cases, the McMartin affair, bears very little resemblance to Tim Tate’s and the story calls for a complete book of its own (a TV mini-series is not surprisingly planned, but will no doubt simply endorse the view of the affair held by whichever of the protagonists has the most expensive lawyer).

What future developments in this story will be is hard to predict. So far, what it has told us about the continuing ability of irrational panics to exercise wide influence in modern societies in not reassuring.




  1. As is the usual custom in such cases, Mr Gibbard’s name was not given in the press. It is given here because he has chosen to make it public as part of his campaign for compensation for wrongful imprisonment. See New Statesman, November 29, 1991
  2. Economist, August 31, 1991, also Fortean Times, nos. 60 and 61
  3. Also worth considering in this context are the ‘Little Uri Gellers’ of the 1970s, who, following Geller’s TV appearances, fooled parapsychologists with simple tricks.
  4. Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons  University Press/Heinemann educational, Paladin, 1995. See chapter 4. Pimlico, 2nd revised ediiton 1998.
  5. Searchlight Anti-Fascist Monthly, September 1985. Incidentally local rumours have linked the Morrell case with witchcraft. She was killed on the spring solstice and the wood where her body was found had previously figured in local ‘witches’ sabbaths’ tales.
  6. To be precise, some sort of ‘regression therapy’
  7. UFO Brigantia, November 1991
  8. Peter Hough, Witchcraft: A Strange Conflict  Press, 1991.
  9. James Hicks. In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult  Prometheus Press, 1991

    Click on the links in the references above to order the book from Amazon 


Still Seeking Satan, Part 1. Roger Sandell

First published in Magonia 51, February 1995.

Part One

Among several recent books on the subject of Satanism, Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan fills a notable gap by giving a detailed account of one particular Satanism case, the Olympia, Washington State, case of 1988-89.

Even by the standards of such cases the story he has to tell is bizarre and grotesque. The two teenage daughters of Sheriff Paul Ingram, an evangelical Christian, attend a church summer-camp where a speaker ‘prophecies’ that someone in the audience has been a victim of child sex abuse. the daughters respond by having flash-back memories of abuse by their father. When arrested, Ingram has his own flashbacks where he sees himself sexually abusing his children, and immediately confesses.

The charges escalate until Ingram is no longer merely a sexual pervert but the leader of a gang of Satanists carrying out human sacrifices. Two other police officers are arrested as cult members, but protest their innocence.

Throughout all of this Ingram continues to supply flashback memories of any suggestion put to him, including deliberately false ones put by a sceptical psychologist to test the validity of his confessions. the bottomless credulity of the investigating officers survives this revelation, as it does a claim by one of his daughters to have been raped by police dogs and the discovery that she has forged a letter to herself purporting to be a threat from Satanists. Finally Ingram, now repudiating his confessions, is sentenced to life imprisonment while his co-accused are acquitted. [1]

Lawrence Wright tells this story with the help of transcripts of police interviews which reveal a series of abuses that make it extremely surprising that they were ever accepted as evidence. Leading questions are asked; Ingram is told that if he does not make a full confession his daughters may kill themselves, and a potential witness is told he will be able to take out a profitable claim for compensation.

Interestingly there are hints at some points of tales that might have been interpreted in a completely different way. Ingram’s son when first interviewed by police remembers no abuse, but when pressed further to recall odd happenings in his childhood tells of a dream of little men floating through his bedroom window and standing round his bed. This story, which would have immediately been seized on by UFO abduction believers,is interpreted by police as a cover memory disguising child abuse.

The problems of ‘flashback memories’, ‘cover memories’ and ‘false memories’, which Wright also explores, have in the last few months been the subject of a number of reports in the British press and television. The False Memory Society, a US group of parents who claim to be the victims of false memories of abuse planted in adult offspring by dubious therapists, now has a British branch. Although none of the British cases have yet ended up in court, some of them also involve tales of Satanism and human sacrifices. Another British group recently founded is Accuracy About Abuse, which champions the validity of work done by therapists to recover memories of abuse. However, Marjorie Orr, the founder of this organisation is scarcely likely to dispel doubts about therapists since, although described as one, she is better known as the writer of the Daily Express’s horoscope column and the voice on a recorded message fortune-telling by phone service – activities which some evangelical. Christian promoters of the Satanism scare would regard as ‘Satanic’ themselves.

Wright shows that both sides in the memory controversy can point to evidence in their favour. Loftus and Ganaway, two sceptical psychologists, have conducted experiments claiming to show that children will endorse and elaborate on totally imaginary events which they are told happened to them in the past. A survey conducted at an American school where a deranged gunman had fired on children showed that several months after children who were absent on that day gave accounts of allegedly seeing the gunman. [2]

On the other hand a recent survey of adults who were child victims of sex offenders allegedly showed that up to 38% had no memory of the incident. However, this survey has come under attack for including former victims who were very young at the time of the assault. One wonders also whether in some cases `don’t remember’ actually means ‘don’t want to discuss with a complete stranger after twenty years’. And did the survey make any distinction between former victims of systematic, long-term abuse and those where the abuse had been a single incident? The distinction is a vital one since there is a very big difference between repressing the memory of a brief trauma – which is known to happen after involvement in accidents or disasters – and the alleged repression of memories of long passages of one’s life.

There are wider questions, too, than can easily be settled by surveys and experiments. Is the model of the human memory propounded by the therapists who gradually uncover memories of Satanism one that is simply based on the not uncommon film plot device in which the audience is initially shown a brief unexplained flashback to a character’s memory which is gradually expanded on as the narrative progresses? (A well-known example is Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, shown on BBC-TV) [3]

Another aspect of the controversy which deserves more sceptical scrutiny than it has received is the use by both sides of the term ‘brainwashing’, which is variously depicted as a means whereby evil Satanists force victims to forget their abuse or commit crimes, or as a means whereby evil therapists force sinister memories on unsuspecting patients.

In each case the model for explanation is a dubious one. The term first appeared during the Korean War, when it was used to explain why large numbers of US prisoners of the Chinese and North Koreans were prepared to collaborate and publicly denounce US policy. According to the brainwashing model of explanation they had been the victims of a combination of advanced and sinister mind-control techniques devised by Soviet psychologists, and fiendish Oriental tortures. This belief was partly responsible for setting off a mind-control arms race between Soviet and US intelligence services in which innocent people suffered as unknowing guinea-pigs, and – like the rather similar ESP race – exaggerated reports of each side’s capabilities led the other to make frantic attempts to catch up. The film The Manchurian Candidate depicted some of the alleged capabilities of brainwashing to plant memories of imaginary events, and transform people into robot assassins, to be activated at a given signal. [4]


Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey in The ‘Manchurian Candidate’, the film that helped to establish the popular conception if brainwashing. Harvey (right) who is being programmed as an assassin, is shown shooting a fellow PoW.

Little of this stands up to scrutiny. The mysterious and sinister techniques allegedly used somehow failed to re-surface in Vietnam. The lower rate of collaboration amongst British POWs in Korea and its total absence among the Turks (the next largest UN contingent) suggests that low US army morale and motivation had more of an influence on the behaviour of American troops in captivity. However the belief in the existence of sinister techniques to control directly the human mind has been an enduring one.

Equally suspect is the idea implied by some sceptics that it might be possible to isolate some kind of ‘False Memory Syndrome’ as a specific medical condition that might explain claimed memories of bizarre and highly improbable events. This would indeed be convenient portmanteau explanation but it is probably more accurate to see these tales emerging as part of a wider interaction involving both social and psychological factors as well as group dynamics, and no more have one single explanation than all false confessions to the police or all false claims to be the victims of crimes. Individual Satanist cases probably have a variety of roots, including family tensions (which can be glimpsed in Wright’s account of the Ingram case), the very existence of ‘survivor’ groups that foster a climate of self-reinforcing fantasy, and the subconscious desire of those who have paid large amounts of money to therapists to come up with recovered memories sensational enough to justify the expense.

The fact remains, however, that the ranks of American therapists include many bizarre and sinister practitioners. Just how bizarre can be seen by reading Daniel Ryder’s Breaking the Circle of Satanic Abuse, a book so eccentric that one might dismiss it as a product of the lunatic fringe were it not for the fact that its author is a licensed social worker, and the cover contains endorsements from police officers, psychologists and child welfare groups. It appears to be a product of the so-called ‘Christian Counselling’ movement, a synthesis that makes clear the similarities between evangelical Christianity and ‘recovery therapy’. Notably their common emphasis on confession and rebirth, and emphasis on individual evil rather than social factors as an explanation for people’s problems. Thus Ryder’s accounts of work with alleged ritual abuse victims alternate between exhortations to remember that Jesus has been victorious over Satan, and passages of psychobabble that defy parody:

Tim, who’s a 37 year old computer programmer guesses that his inner child is six. Tim’s next task was to do some activities appropriate for a six year old. He got some coloring books for his inner child. He was also doing daily affirmations holding a teddy-bear and talking into a mirror. Bianca, a 40 year old manager was doing some experimental inner-child work. She was skeptical until she found herself too late for a corporate conference because she had found herself engrossed with a dolls house she was playing with.

If these methods fail to produce memories of Satanic abuse, apparently the therapist should go on a fishing expedition through any memories that are the slightest bit out of the ordinary:

If the client is ready there are other ways to jog memories. One is to go back to the neighbourhood one grew up in. Walk around if possible, remembering the adults, remember-ing the children. What were their personalities like? Did anything ever seem odd? Do you remember any adults who seemed especially sadistic or overtly sexual? What’s happened to some of the children who lived in the neighbourhood? Did some develop psychiatric disorders?

Ryder’s therapy produces Satanic cult tales that one might think would test the credulity of the most gullible believers (but to judge by the book’s endorsements have not done so). His Satanists have paranormal powers and, it seems, that they may use these to make evidence vanish. Thus neatly explaining why no-one ever finds any. Demons and non-human monsters are present at ceremonies, according to Ryder.

Tales like this underline another problem that the Satanic cult memories share with memories of alien abductions and past lives. Not only do different therapists not only keep on finding lots of whichever of the above is their speciality but never anything else, but also each finds a particular sub-type of their speciality unique to themselves. Thus Budd Hopkins’ alien abductors are rather different from John Mack’s, and reincarnation researchers tell tales about the process which completely contradict each other. Similarly, Ryder’s cult stories are very different from those found by more secular investigators. But Ryder also reports a new type of abuse which he claims to find emerging:

A certified therapist who requested anonymity for safety reasons said that some clients had memories of being abused in laboratory type settings. This laboratory abuse is seen as experimental. This therapist said survivors have remembered being hooked on to electrodes. [Another therapist] said survivors report having memories of surgical procedures. [She] also reported more than one of these survivors claim they remember being programmed to assassinate powerful people if cued.

Such stories seem to be becoming more common, and Ryder’s version of them is not the most bizarre. Cary Hammond is the producer of a video on Satanic abuse used by various American police departments, who, according to Lawrence Wright, claims:

Such cults were developed by Satanic Nazi scientists who were captured by the CIA after the war and brought to the US. The main figure was a Hasidic Jew, Dr. Greenbaum who saved himself from the gas chambers by assisting his Nazi captors and instructing them in the secrets of the Cabala.

Dr Hammond is quoted as saying:

People say what’s the purpose of it? My best guess is they want an army of Manchurian Candidates, tens of thousands of mental robots who will smuggle drugs, engage in arms smuggling, very lucrative things, and eventually, the megalomaniacs at the top believe, create a Satanic order that will rule the world.

For writers like Bill Cooper and John Lear, UFO retrieval tales have linked with themes such as drug barons and ‘treason in high places’, now the Satanic cult stories are linking up with abductee-type medical experiments, political assassinations, Nazis-in-America conspiracy theories and Jewish ritual murder tales.


1. A historical equivalent of Sheriff Ingram might be major weir, the former Cromwellian officer, who in 1670 made an unprompted confession to a lifetime of witchcraft and bizarre sex crimes.

2. A recent case involving demonstrably false memories is that of Roald Dahl who claimed in his autobiography to have been beaten by Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, the future Archbishop of Canterbury whilst attending Repton school. In fact Dr. Fisher was not a Repton master at the time Dahl was there. [See also The Strange Case of Mr Esther Rantzen and the Demon Headmaster]

3. Similarly, the current image of ghosts as transparent figures seems to rest not on witness accounts, but early cinema trick photography.

4. Tim Tate, the leading British journalistic proponent of the Satanic abuse scare also scripted the 1994 Channel 4 documentary claiming that Sirhan Sirhan had been brainwashed by the CIA 

For Part Two, and bibliographical notes continue HERE


Still Seeking Satan, Part 2. Roger Sandell

Still Seeking Satan, by Roger Sandell. From Magonia 51, 1995

Part Two

Two new collections of essays on Satanist abuse, mostly by health professionals, are Out of Darkness from the USA, and Treating Survivors of Satanic Abuse from Britain. Since their formats are similar, it is easiest to deal with the together, using their initials to locate individual essays. Most of the contributors to both books work in the public sector and so avoid some of the more extreme claims that come from therapists in private practice. However each book contains one essay indicating clearly that impressive qualifications and prestige jobs are no guarantee against writing total absurdities.

Catherine Gould of the Los Angeles Ritual Abuse Task Force writes on `Diagnosis and Treatment of Ritually Abused Children’ (OOD), a large part of which consists of a quite ludicrous checklist of symptoms of Satanic abuse which includes items such as ‘child refuses to worship God’, ‘child resists authority’ and ‘child is extremely controlling with other children, constantly playing chase games’.

A notable feature of this catalogue is that it includes a large number of contradictory items, which cause practically any type of behaviour to become evidence of Satanic abuse, including both ‘child is afraid to separate from parents, cannot be alone and clings’, as well as ‘child seems distant from parents avoiding close physical contact’.

‘Satanic Cult Practices’ (TSSA) by Dr Joan Coleman, a psychiatrist, relates uncritically the most extreme claims. Satanists include ‘police, politicians, ambassadors and aristocrats’. They carry out human sacrifices, burying bodies on the country estates of wealthy cultists. Their leaders hold regular meetings at a national level to plan activities such as gun-running and drug dealing. They are divided into local groups of eighty or so members which are run by a group of officials whose titles include Scribe, High Priestess and Thane. (In fact the word thane has no connection with any form of magic or supernatural belief but was simply the title of a village headman in Anglo-Saxon England. Has Dr Coleman become confused by Macbeth which has both thanes and witches?)

One authority which she cites for all of this is Satan’s Underground by ‘Laurel Stratford’, a US `survivor’ story which has been proved to be a hoax. Apart from this she cites alleged testimonies from her own patients. The first patient to describe apparent Satanic abuse told of witnessing the sacrifice of three Vietnamese children around 1976 “brought to Southampton from the USA, among the first Boat People”. Readers may remember that Boat People were initially housed in centres such as disused army camps and were closely supervised by the social services. That the disappearance of three such children could have gone un-noticed by the authorities seems very unlikely. Did the parents report it, or were they Satanists too?

Dr Coleman is impressed, like many abduction researchers with the apparent unanimity of the witnesses. One example is that apparently witnesses agree that the altar used in ceremonies will have a sword, a skull, a chalice or a book on it. Given that one would expect a Satanist altar to have something sinister and suitably archaic on it one would hardly expect claims that the altar was decorated with a mobile phone or a pop-up toaster!

Equally credulous is a piece by a member of the team responsible for the 1992 Channel 4 programme, Blasphemous Rumours (TSSA). This programme featured irrelevant, manipulative images such as shots of an empty children’s playground filmed in polarised light and accompanied by discordant music. It gave credence to manifestly absurd claims such as one interviewee who recounted being present at a ceremony in a specially constructed underground chamber where hundreds of people were present. The documentary makers made no attempt to check out matters which could have been investigated, such as a claim to have been in a Satanic temple that was a windowless building in London’s Docklands.

It is enlightening to compare this programme with one broadcast on Channel 4 in 1994 in which a woman claimed that she and her children had been sexually abused while members of the Children of Godgroup. While flawed in some respects – notably its use of the dubious ‘brainwashing cult’ model of explanation – it centred on witnesses who told their stories directly to camera, showed photographs of themselves with other cult members, and produced old letters and internal documentation: the kinds of details which are conspicuously absent from the Satanism cases.

The producers of the Satanism documentary seemed impressed by the nearly two hundred calls Channel 4′s switchboard received after transmission, telling tales of Satanist abuse. One wonders what they would have made of the several hundred calls received after the recent British radio appearance of UFO abduction writer John Mack.

Both books attempt to take some kind of historical perspective. Brett Kahr, a psychotherapy lecturer, contributes an essay ‘The Historical Foundation of Ritual Abuse’ (TSSA) which argues that modem Satanism cases are a continuation of child sacrifice which he contends was widespread in ancient times. He can point to the Tophet cult in the ancient middle east as a genuine example of such practices. Beyond this he shows how little historical understanding he has. He cites the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, and the Greek legend of Medea as evidence for widespread child sacrifices. In each case the story was set about a thousand years before it was written down, at an era which even the original audience would consider remote and barbarous. Moreover, the tone of each tale is evidence, not for the popularity of human sacrifice, but for the universal abhorrence it inspired.

Kahr’s ignorance is also clearly indicated by the fact that he seems impressed by the ridiculous and misleading ‘historical survey’ in Tim Tate’s Children for the Devil which I analysed in detail in an earlier review.

Martin Katchen’s ‘History of Satanic Religions’ (OOD) is no better. Most of his historical ‘evidence’ relates to tales told about medieval heretics by their enemies, and allegations made by the clerical anti-Masonic movement in the nineteenth century. Both these essays share certain characteristics with most historical writings on Satanism by believers: there is no reference to works on witchcraft by mainstream historians such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, Keith Thomas and most particularly Norman Cohn. Cohn has discussed in detail how medieval heretics became associated with tales of orgies and human sacrifice. There is no attempt to analyse the main legend of human sacrifice, that even the writers here would presumably agree to be baseless, that of Jewish ritual murder (the US book devotes on throw-away sentence to this point in its introduction, while the British one’s silence is surprising since its editor, Valerie Sinason, is Jewish).


Moreover, one wonders exactly what point these essays are supposed to be making? By exactly what process were grim ancient rituals transmitted to proprietors of Californian day-care centres and semi-literate families on British council estates? Did they exist underground for centuries unsuspected by contemporary social commentators or later historians? Ryder claims that “various forms of occult practices, including Satanism”, were brought to America from “European countries, Africa and Australia” (Australia??) but beyond this there is no explanation.

A second essay by Katchen, ‘Satanic Belief and Practices’ (OOD) attempts to make sense of Satanic cults in terms of sociology, anthropology and comparative religion. He sees the brutalities allegedly inflicted by such groups as analogous to US Marine Corps training in which abuse and harshness is used to form group loyalties. This attempt is unconvincing. there are certainly cultures, both amongst tribal peoples and in advanced societies in which initiation into the group is a brutal process, but in all of these the brutality leads up to a final initiation – like a coming-of-age or a passing out ceremony – when it stops and the newcomer is recognised as a member of the group. At what point does this happen with the Satanists? No survivor tale gives us any clue. Once again, there are many cultures and sub cultures that practice and reward extreme brutality against outsiders. What is inexplicable about the Satanic cult stories is the way cults that are alleged to be trans-generational supposedly practice, on those who are to be the carriers of the tradition, grotesque and meaningless brutalities that could hardly be endured without total traumatisation that would make normal functioning, even within the cult, very difficult.

Any attempt to apply any sociological analysis to these groups also breaks down in the total failure of those telling the stories to give any account of their day to day functioning – something which might be comprehensible in the case of children but not with adults. Do different groups choose their own leaders, or are the imposed from Satanist National Headquarters? Are there ever any internal disagreements of schisms? What impact has AIDS had on Satanism? Have the cults been devastated as one would expect from groups whose rituals involve sex orgies and drinking blood? Have they changed any rituals as a result? On all of these points there is silence, and in fact on any description of the minutae of day to day life there is silence. Lawrence Wright’s book illustrates this very well. At one point Sheriff Ingrain is providing his interrogators with a detailed description of a horrific Satanist rite. However a sceptical; psychiatrists intervenes to ask what sort of things the cultists talked about when the ritual was over. This reduces Ingram to incoherence, totally unable to provide a reply to this sort of mundane query.

The contents of the two books under consideration are not wholly credulous. There is a contribution by Kenneth Lanning, an FBI specialist in child abuse cases (OOD) that makes an impressive and informed sceptical case, not denying the possibility of satanic abuse, but pointing out the many problems involved in the evidence so far presented (18th-century magistrates’ manuals recommended a similar strategy, saying that magistrates faced with accusations of witchcraft should not deny the existence of witches, but point out the problems involved in proving an allegation). Lanning points out the complete discontinuity of Satanism cases with other cases of child sex rings, where features such as the involvement of women and allegations of the victimisation of adults as well as children, are practically unknown.

An interesting comparison which Lanning does not explore is with the other wave of child sex allegations currently rife in the US – those against Roman Catholic priests, some of which, like the day-care cases, involve allegations of whole institutions incorporating cultures of child sex abuse. However the similarity stops here. The cases involving priests have resulted in many guilty pleas and supporting evidence in the form of long histories of allegations against individuals before action was taken. There are no tales of the involvement of women (in spite of many institutions where nuns look after children) or of murder, or of paraphernalia that is never found in searches. Recovered memories rarely form the basis for such allegations and there are certainly no ‘experts’ alleging these cases validate anti-Catholic tales of past centuries. [5]

Another writer, George B. Greaves, a forensic psychologist, contributes an essay ‘Alternative Hypotheses Regarding Claims of Satanic Cult Activity’ (OOD). While faulting believers for their methodology, he ultimately argues for the reality of Satanic cults, rejecting folklore-bases explanations on grounds very similar to those advanced by Eddie Bullard for rejecting folklore explanations of UFO abduction tales. He argues that Satanic cult stories are not like urban legends – structured narratives leading to a climax in the same manner as jokes.

This is however to take an over-restrictive view of the nature of urban legends. To illustrate urban legends to his readers he gives the example of a cat killed by being placed in a microwave cooker. In fact, just such tales of babies being killed in microwaves have appeared in Satanism allegations!

Valerie Sinason, the editor of the British book, seems to take a rather ambiguous position. In spite of accepting the reality of Satanist abuse she contributes an introduction to the Lawrence Wright book, accepting, somewhat grudgingly, that a miscarriage of justice occurred. Her introduction thanks for her suggestions, Dr Sherrill Mulhearn, the anthropologist and leading Satanism sceptic, although any input by Dr Mulhearn into the book is not evident.

Her own essay, ‘Internal and External Evidence’ at least has the merit of being frank about the fantastic content of some survivor stories:

Malcolm, aged 27, a lawyer, could clearly describe the expensive furnishings in the place where he was ritually abused. However, whilst in a trance state he spoke about being in a huge palace where everyone, including some famous people, could fly.

However, she concludes that the Satanist may use drugs to implant false memories in their victims, and, bizarrely, that these stories are the fault of investigators who do not believe everything they are told. [6]

Where patients correctly experience another’s response as irrational disbelief they can then unconsciously fabricate to a point where everything is disbelieved: this makes them angrily in control of further rejection. By the same action they have also protected their allegiance to the cult.

The one first-hand survivor account she includes in her book is hard to assess. the author claims to have been abused in a residential centre, a setting which is easily exploited for sexual abuse. He claims to have been the victim of a child sex ring whose members were Freemasons, who chose his as their boy god, and made him the centre of their rituals: a procedure which bears no relation to other survivor tales. There is a reference to human sacrifice, but the claimant states that his abusers gave him drugs, and as a result he is uncertain about what was and was not real. A puzzling and inconclusive story made even more so by the absence of any information about whether any attempt has been made to report it to the police or other authorities.

It is a relief to turn from these books to the official report The Extent and Nature of Ritual Abuse, by Professor Jean La Fontaine. The version currently available is merely a 35-page summary of main findings, with a more detailed report to follow. Even so its summing up of some eighty British allegations, few of which were reported in the press, is full of interest. First of all the claim made by many believers that there are a large number of separate cases with similar details supporting each other is shown to be false; many allegations are unique to individual cases. Even basic features of the image of ritual abuse, such as the use of robes or costumes only feature in about a third of the allegations.

A particularly significant section of the report is ‘The Class Context of Allegations of Ritual Abuse’, which looks at the people who face these charges.

There were 203 adults (111 men and 92 women) reported. Of the men only 35 were reported as being in work. Six had casual labouring jobs, eight had more skilled manual jobs, and three had middle-class jobs. The work of the other 18 employed men was not specified in the files but there were indications that they were low paid. Few women were working, all but one in manual work. In 12 out of 38 cases the poverty of the children’s parents was referred to. Only one man owned the house he lived in. Run-down urban estates were mentioned in twelve cases.

A similar picture is given in an essay in the Sinason book; ‘A Systematic Approach’, by Aaron Ben-tovim and Marianne Tranter, which gives the case history of a family accused of taking their children to a ‘Satanic Church’ to be abused by figures:

The details of the case reports indicated the children had always been subject to poor standards of hygiene and the results of poor financial management. Clothing was poor and inappropriate to prevailing climatic conditions. Diet was adequate but of poor quality… It was extremely difficult for the social worker to describe the chaos within the household. Children as they grew older became more unruly, left to fend for themselves beyond the mother’s control. the mother yelled rather than talked, school attendance became poorer, social isolation became marked… Dental and personal hygiene was non-existent. The children were left unsupervised on the estate and there was regular concern and complaints from other families… acts of vandalism, bullying, stoning elderly people begging and burglary, although always unproven, [Note the way the writers solemnly record allegations of vandalism as unproven while accepting allegations of Satanic abuse.]


In Britain allegations of Satanic abuse have become part of a wider social issue, where housing estates inhabited by Rab C. Nesbitt ‘underclass’ figures are now seen as a ‘Dark Continent’ awash with idolatry and witchcraft

Here we are clearly a world away from Joan Coleman’s fantasies of wealthy Satanists burying their victims on private estates, or from the US cases featuring expensive therapists or middle-class day care centres. What seems to be happening in Britain is that allegations of Satanism have become part of a wider social image, that of the ‘underclass’. As employment has collapsed in many communities there are arguments amongst policy-makers as to whether or not the poor are a violent, threatening rabble, responding only to authoritarian measures. Images of the underclass move from such discussions to mass audience images including TV characters such as the Jackson family on EastEnders, Rab C. Nesbitt, and Harry Enfield’s Wayne Slob. Now it seems housing estates are seen as a 1990′s equivalent of a ‘Dark Continent’ awash with idolatry and witchcraft.

Writers such as Tim Tate have attacked the Fontaine Report for allegedly making light of the eight or so cases of ritual abuse that have resulted in convictions. Fontaine argues that these have all involved either an individual or a group of at the most four, and that they have not involved any of the bizarre features such as human sacrifice. However it seems to me that she is on less secure ground in arguing that the rituals were only incidental to the abuse, as a means to intimidate the children.

Motives are not always easy to assess, and to see how the cases she mentions fit in it is useful to adopt the typology of the believers in satanic abuse. Several of them divide types of Satanists as follows:

    • 1- Public Satanists. These are followers of groups such as Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan, who, as even the anti-Satanist concede, are rarely involved in criminal offences.
    • 2- Teenage Dabblers. Young people with an interest in the occult derived from such sources as heavy-metal music and horror films. In Britain few of these have been involved in any crimes more serious than minor church vandalism, but in the US, anti-Satanists can point to dabblers involved in more serious crimes including murder. However when these cases are examined drugs and the wide availability of firearms seem to be more significant causes than occultism. Ironically some of those involved in such cases have been from evangelical Christian households, and have adopted Satanist symbols as a sign of rebellion. [7]
    • 3- Psycbopathic Satanists. Unbalanced individuals obsessed with the idea of Satan either acting alone or with a small number of accomplices. Here again there is a well-authenticated history of such cases with the most famous being the Manson gang.
    • 4- Transgenerational Satanist – Satanic Cults. This is the category on which the controversy centres: the existence of large, highly organised and well-equipped groups, including groups carrying out elaborate ceremonies involving crimes such as murder, and involved in a variety of criminal conspiracies to support their activities.

When these categories are adopted it becomes clear that all of the authenticated cases discussed by Fontaine fall into the third category. By contrast, Valerie Sinason, who has also responded critically to the Fontaine Report, cites as examples of Satanism, cases that have little to do with any of the categories. Thus her book includes a case of a girl sexually abused by an elder brother who claimed to be possessed by spirits, and a case where an abused child states “Daddy eats poo”, a very different matter from allegations that children are being forced to eat excrement as part of ceremonies where they are tortured.

It may well be wise to bear this typology in mind while considering both recent press coverage of Satanism allegations, and possible coverage in the near future. When these allegations first surfaced in Britain in 1989-1990 they were for a time treated uncritically by the press, a position which soon moved to general disbelief, unaccompanied by detailed investigations (except in the cases of the Independent on Sunday and Mail on Sunday) and this attitude was reflected in coverage of the Fontaine report. However some tabloid coverage of the extraordinary Gloucestershire ‘House of Horror’ mass murder case currently awaiting trial has hinted at some occult motivation, and if this claim is vindicated by the trial it will no doubt be taken as vindicating the Satanic cult tales, in spite of fitting, on the worst interpretation, into the category of psychopathic Satanist. [The Fred and Rosemary West trial referred to here concluded with guilty verdicts, and no suggestion of Satanic activity was introduced into the evidence - JR]

In spite of the increasing number of studies into the Satanism panic, credulous and sceptical, there still seems to be no single overall historical account of its growth. I was therefore interested to see Michael Newton’s Raising Hell, The A-Z of Satanic Crime. Unfortunately the book is flawed in many ways, including its authors credulousness, and its use of an alphabetical case-by-case format which makes it hard to refer to unless one is already familiar with the cases. The accounts of the British cases, and the history of witchcraft, are extremely inaccurate, making it hard to rely on the book’s accounts of other cases I am not familiar with. However it does cover a wide range of US cases and so provides some overall perspectives. Apart from summarising a number of the most prominent day-care centre and Teenage Dabbler cases, it gives some indication of other components of the myth. It looks at some of the magical practices that are current among some Latin and Caribbean migrants to the USA which, although they have perhaps contributed to the wider fear of Satanism, have little overlap with any of the major anti-Satanist allegations, in which an interesting but little remarked feature is the almost complete absence of black people as either accused or accusers.

It also looks at various occult groups which formed part of the ‘sixties underground, such as the Process Church of the Final Judgement. Such groups were certainly involved in some nasty activities, as sections of the underground declined into a drug-laced morass of squalor, irrationality, violence and sexual exploitation, just as fringe political groups such as the Symbionese Liberation Army did. However the claim that they gave birth to Satanist cults now stalking America is unconvincing.

What this book does suggest is that rumours and urban legends concerning sinister occultists were a part of the underground culture and later spread to the wider American scare. Another example of the same process is the way ‘sixties tales about great secrets hidden in the music or designs of Beatles albums have been transmuted into tales of sinister Satanic messages in rock songs.

One interesting feature of Newton’s book is that it makes clear the origins of the anti-Satanist panic in the cattle mutilation scare of the early ‘seventies. Sixties films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out had established the image of Satanism. As a result of the US release of the latter film, the original novel appeared as a US paperback, the first Dennis Wheatley title ever to be published in America, giving the image further visibility. Consequently Satanism was seen as one frame of reference for the cattle mutilation reports. Tales were told, similar to UFO occupant stories, of mysterious hooded figures seen by night-time motorists in the South Western states (like aliens, Satanists, with a whole desert to choose from, seem always to stand where they will be seen). Kenneth Bankston, a Kansas convict, told a widely reported hoax tale of his membership of a cult of Satanic cattle mutilators.

The film Race With the Devil demonstrates that the main components of the Satanism scare were already in place in 1975. In this film the heroes, played by Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, stumble on robed figures carrying out open-air nocturnal rituals. As the cultists pursue them, apparently respectable individuals turn out to be secret Satanists. Thus a piece of fiction anticipated many of the details that were to reappear in subsequent, allegedly factual, stories, just as many elements from UFO abduction accounts appear in earlier fictions. [8]

The cattle mutilation panic did not merely provide the origins of the Satanism myth; attempts to link the mutilations with UFOs were a major factor in the dominance of US ufology by abduction and conspiracy theories. A process which has now gone so far that actual unidentified flying objects seem hardly to figure in most American UFO publications at all. The mutilation panic also coincided with the Watergate scandal and a new interest in the JFK assassination on its tenth anniversary. This coincidence influenced theories of the mutilations as being the result of sinister government experiments, setting the pattern for many subsequent government conspiracy tales.

Seen in isolation the Satanism panic is one of the most extraordinary events in late twentieth century US social history. In a wider context it forms part of a more prevalent and alarming abandonment of rationality.



5. One exception is the allegations of child abuse against Cardinal Bernadine of Chicago, a cleric who has been active in ending the cover-up on these matters. These allegations were made by a complainant undergoing regression therapy and who later withdrew them. The therapist involved had no qualifications except one awarded by ‘John-Roger’, the New Age guru who has been accused by the American press if influencing Arianna Stassinopolus-Huffington, wife of Michael Huffington, the right-wing Republican candidate in recent US elections.

6. Although administration of drugs as part of sex abuse is not improbable, mystery drinks feature both in Satanic abuse and UFO abduction stories. Peter Rogerson has reminded me that in some reincarnation accounts the claimants state that between lives they were given a ‘drink of forgetting by a supernatural figure but somehow avoided taking it.

7. The use of Satanic imagery by heavy-metal bands seems to have increased following the evangelical anti-heavy-metal campaign. A new development has been the appearance in Scandinavia of ‘Death Metal’, a sub-genre linked with a skinhead-style racism. Britain’s first death Metal fanzine has recently appeared – Harsh reality, an ugly publication combining music reviews with occultism and Holocaust revisionism.

8. Logically one should consider the possibility that by now a real cult might have merged deliberately aping the stereotype that has become established, just as groups like Anton LaVey’s ‘Church of Satan’ were influenced by films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out. However this would explain little, since many of the survivor storys relate to Satanic activities allegedly occurring in the 1960s, 1950s and even 1940s


LaFontaine, Jean. The Extent and Nature of Ritual Abuse: Research Findings. HMSO, 1994
Newton, Michael. Raising Hell: the A-Z of Satanic Crime. Warner, 1994.
Sakheim, David and Susan Devine (eds.). Out of Darkness: Exploring Satanism and Ritual Abuse. Lexington Books, 1992.
Sinason, Valerie. Treating Survivors of Satanic Abuse. Routledge, 1994
Wright, Lawrence. Remembering Satan. Serpents Tail, 1994


Transvection and Ufology. Manfred Cassirer

From Magonia 28, January 1988

The archetypal midnight hag on her broomstick has a comic Disney touch about her, a fact which did not always escape earlier students who were not above lampooning it. But at one time she was a grim reality, even if there was the occasional judge who ruled that nocturnal flights were not illegal.

We are talking about the supposed phenomenon of ‘transvection’, which is closely related, if at all distinguishable, to a whole variety of other subjects (no less controversial) for which there is yet reasonably good evidence. They include: traction, levitation, teleportation, bilocation, out-of-the-body experiences, and UFO abductions.


At an early date (10th century) the enlightened Canon Episcopi denied the existence of transvection, as a heretical throwback to heathenism. It explicitly denounced “wicked women … who profess that in the dead of night they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, and fly over vast tracts of country”.

Such things, to be sure, are “only done in the spirit”, and foolish indeed is he who believes that such fond dreams involve actual bodily activity. However, it was taken quite literally by post-mediaeval demonologists. Guazzo in 1626 voiced the opinion that “Sometimes witches are really conveyed from one place to another by the Devil, in the bodily likeness of a goat or some other fantastic animal, and are indeed physically present at their nefarious Sabbaths”. It was, he added, a view “commonly held by theologians and lawyer among Catholics of Italy, Spain and Germany. It should however be noted that none of these ideas are indigenous to this country”. (Mexican magicians, according to the 16th century write Acosta, were also credited with aerial flights, metamorphosis at will into any shape, and ESP (Lawrence, p.67).

These ideas did not however meet with general acceptance even in the European countries of their origin, but it was argued in some quarters that even if only a illusion or dream, transvection was still to be construed as a crime of intent, deserving of summary punishment – in spite of St Augustine’s expresses relief at not being responsible for his dreams!

Tartoretti in 1749 objected that participants in the sabbath, “if they feasted at their meetings … ought to come back surfeited and happy, instead of hungry and tired” and again, that they should be “able to escape from prison” with the same ease as they apparently left their bedrooms at night (Gurney, p.175, n.6). Tartoretti evidently failed to take into account the well-known fact that the Devil’s food is worse than useless; in the words of one of the Pendle witches “… although they did eat, they were never the fuller nor better for the same.” (Anglo, p.237)

Late mediaeval writers like Ulrich Molitor enforced the idea that the Adversary could, even in one’s waking state, induce vivid hallucinations like nocturnal flights. As in saintly bilocation “at the precise moment that at man is in one place, nevertheless he is able to appear in spirit in another”.It mattered little to this argument, if such it can be called, whether the prospective travellers made their way on the traditional broomstick or some equally improbable implement (cleft stick, distaff or shovel) or even on an animal’s back.

Meanwhile the application of an ointment is frequently mentioned. A fifteenth century prince, as ‘illustrious’ as anonymous, persuaded at witch to apply it experimentally. Predictably “nothing unusual happened (Kitteridge, p.166) in spite of liberal helpings of the supposedly magical substance, although the woman professed great faith in its efficacy. In the case of Elizabeth Style, on the other hand, the flying ointment was said to have been effective in 1665.

Had not Jesus been carried to the top of a high mountain by the tempter, and was not Ezekiel taken up by his hair to be conveyed a long distance, to say nothing of Habbakkuk? Many divines – Luther, Bodin, Melanchton – though that this should not be taken too literally, and that one’s spirit only went to the sabbatha.

In 1560 Giambattista Porta once more demonstrated that the customary preparations for a trance-like state failed to dislodge the resting subject, while Dr Gassendi at least produced the illusion of transvection by administering drugs to a control-group. Among those with first-hand experience was Paulus Grillandus, the author of the influential Tractatus de Hereticis et Sortilegiis (1536), who had actually handled the ointment (Hoyt, p.61).

With regard to the subject of this study, one has to agree with Owen that there is no logical objection to the possibility of traction of the human body granted there is a force capable of moving inanimate static bodies. At its most effective level it may amount to actual levitation. In an extreme case Christina of Stommeln was with difficulty rescued from suffocation when a cloud suddenly descended on her while at prayer indoors and she found herself taken to a disused and muddy reservoir. The cover story was to put the blame on the Devil (who else?) trying to kill her by drowning (Thurston, p.13). Twice she is said to have been dragged from her bed, conveyed out of doors and tied to a tree.In the Bromley Poltergeist Case a certain Mr Elms was twice involuntary propelled forward in this writer’s direction by an intangible force (Cassirer).

In 1647 the Devil in the shape of a Master of Arts carried away a scholar of St John’s Cambridge; his gown was recovered from the river and he was never heard of again (Notestein, p.362).

When a man named Harrison mysteriously vanished in 1664, no one had yet heard of UFO abductions. Three people were hanged for his murder – rather prematurely as it turned out, since two years later the ‘dead’ man returned from Turkey, whence he had been spirited away by witchcraft. About the same time James Barrow of Southwark could not be apprehended by any means as he used to fade from the midst of his would-be captors like some latter day Elijah.

Towards the beginning of the twentieth century a mediumistically gifted boy in Iceland, Indri Indriasson, was thrown from his bed after first being lifted up and pulled down to the floor. In the next stage he was forced “head foremost through the door and along the floor in the outer room”; this in spite of clutching at everything in site and being firmly secured by his legs by two men. This form of violent traction was exceptional, but of short duration. The data are regarded as satisfactory by Owen (Owen, p.207).

The dividing line between traction and levitation is a thin one, and in the Icelandic case actual levitation is indicated when it is stated that the boy was “balancing” in the air with his feet towards the window”.

A mistaken belief in levitation can sometimes be induced by an illusion shared by saints, witches and mediums among others. Still, one feels that Cotton Mather’s subject, Margaret Rule, is too hastily dismissed by Owen on account of alleged ‘vagueness’ in detail of the data. Apparently she was afflicted with veritable bouts of levitation: “One of her tormentors pulled her up to the ceiling of the chamber and held her there before a very numerous company of spectators, who found it as much as they could all do to pull her down again.” (Hansen, p.217)

This seems therefore to have been a bona fide instance of the phenomenon for which Mather had gone to the trouble of collecting signed statements. Since none of her bodily parts were in contact with the bedstead, the raising of her body extending “a great way towards the top of the room”, is precluded from being diagnosed as an arc de cercle in a hysterical fit.

Levitation is also associated with physical mediumship, and one need only mention the names of Stainton Moses, D. D. Home, Mirabelli, and the Schneiders. The evidence in connection with Home is virtually unassailable and testified to by Crookes.Among Catholic saints, St Joseph of Copertino is outstanding, and the data relating to his levitating feats are convincing, and were a source of embarrassment to the Church in his lifetime.
“Alleged flights through the air to and from the witches convention may be set on one side as fictive”, warns Owen in his discussion of teleportation.
His point is well taken. Bozzano, however, quotes an apparently trustworthy report by a missionary about a witchdoctor whose “spirit traversed a very considerable distance at night. While his body remained in a cataleptic state, a mysterious ‘something’ impinged realistically on the consciousness of a far-away native, and a pertinent message was conveyed.Transvection was sometimes dismissed on the grounds that the experient’s physical body was observed to be asleep or entranced concomitant with the reported adventure in time and space.

Once more on the borderline of the various themes, the alleged suspension in space must perhaps be sometimes ascribed to skillful gymnastics. In certain cases of ‘hystero-demonopathic’ epidemics young girls emulated the agility of squirrels.Mary Longdon was hexed in 1661 according to Glanville’s Modern Relations. She was sometimes “removed out of her bed into another room”, apparently paranormally, or even carried to the top of the house”. Typical associated poltergeist phenomena suggest that this may have been a genuine case, though Owen has reservations.

With regard to the subject of this study, one has to agree with Owen that there is no logical objection to the possibility of traction of the human body granted there is a force capable of moving inanimate static bodies. At its most effective level it may amount to actual levitation. In an extreme case Christina of Stommeln was with difficulty rescued from suffocation when a cloud suddenly descended on her while at prayer indoors and she found herself taken to a disused and muddy reservoir. The cover story was to put the blame on the Devil (who else?) trying to kill her by drowning (Thurston, p.13). Twice she is said to have been dragged from her bed, conveyed out of doors and tied to a tree.In the Bromley Poltergeist Case a certain Mr Elms was twice involuntary propelled forward in this writer’s direction by an intangible force (Cassirer).

In 1647 the Devil in the shape of a Master of Arts carried away a scholar of St John’s Cambridge; his gown was recovered from the river and he was never heard of again (Notestein, p.362).

When a man named Harrison mysteriously vanished in 1664, no one had yet heard of UFO abductions. Three people were hanged for his murder – rather prematurely as it turned out, since two years later the ‘dead’ man returned from Turkey, whence he had been spirited away by witchcraft. About the same time James Barrow of Southwark could not be apprehended by any means as he used to fade from the midst of his would-be captors like some latter day Elijah.

Towards the beginning of the twentieth century a mediumistically gifted boy in Iceland, Indri Indriasson, was thrown from his bed after first being lifted up and pulled down to the floor. In the next stage he was forced “head foremost through the door and along the floor in the outer room”; this in spite of clutching at everything in site and being firmly secured by his legs by two men. This form of violent traction was exceptional, but of short duration. The data are regarded as satisfactory by Owen (Owen, p.207).

The dividing line between traction and levitation is a thin one, and in the Icelandic case actual levitation is indicated when it is stated that the boy was “balancing” in the air with his feet towards the window”.

A mistaken belief in levitation
can sometimes be induced by an illusion shared by saints, witches and mediums among others. Still, one feels that Cotton Mather’s subject, Margaret Rule, is too hastily dismissed by Owen on account of alleged ‘vagueness’ in detail of the data. Apparently she was afflicted with veritable bouts of levitation: “One of her tormentors pulled her up to the ceiling of the chamber and held her there before a very numerous company of spectators, who found it as much as they could all do to pull her down again.” (Hansen, p.217)

This seems therefore to have been a bona fide instance of the phenomenon for which Mather had gone to the trouble of collecting signed statements. Since none of her bodily parts were in contact with the bedstead, the raising of her body extending “a great way towards the top of the room”, is precluded from being diagnosed as an arc de cercle in a hysterical fit.

Levitation is also associated with physical mediumship, and one need only mention the names of Stainton Moses, D. D. Home, Mirabelli, and the Schneiders. The evidence in connection with Home is virtually unassailable and testified to by Crookes. Among Catholic saints, St Joseph of Copertino is outstanding, and the data relating to his levitating feats are convincing, and were a source of embarrassment to the Church in his lifetime.

“Alleged flights through the air to and from the witches convention may be set on one side as fictive”, warns Owen in his discussion of teleportation.

His point is well taken. Bozzano, however, quotes an apparently trustworthy report by a missionary about a witchdoctor whose “spirit traversed a very considerable distance at night. While his body remained in a cataleptic state, a mysterious ‘something’ impinged realistically on the consciousness of a far-away native, and a pertinent message was conveyed. Transvection was sometimes dismissed on the grounds that the experient’s physical body was observed to be asleep or entranced concomitant with the reported adventure in time and space.

Once more on the borderline of the various themes, the alleged suspension in space must perhaps be sometimes ascribed to skilful gymnastics. In certain cases of ‘hystero-demonopathic’ epidemics young girls emulated the agility of squirrels. Mary Longdon was hexed in 1661 according to Glanville’s Modern Relations. She was sometimes “removed out of her bed into another room”, apparently paranormally, or even carried to the top of the house”. Typical associated poltergeist phenomena suggest that this may have been a genuine case, though Owen has reservations.

An official report about a hexed girl, Francoise Fontain, asserts that she indulged in repeated flights of up to four feet, and

that it required the joint efforts of several men to bring her down. The circumstantial nature of the account makes a good impression. Summing up the evidence. Fodor says. “Transportation of human bodies through closed doors and over a distance is a comparatively rare but fairly well authenticated occurrence.”

Though most parapsychologists would stop short of wholehearted agreement with Fodor’s confident assessment, he is pointing the right way in describing it as “a composite phenomenon between levitation and apport”, for both of which there is valid evidence.

Modern sceptics may doubt that the Revd. Robert Kirke of Aberfoyle was truly carried off by fairies in revenge for revealing their secrets. It was believed that those abducted sometimes returned as ghosts. Witches, of course, had no difficulty in overcoming the physical barriers of their homes, and Vallée, referring to “the archives of the Roman Catholic Church”, surmises that “many accusations of witchcraft stemmed from the belief in strange beings who could fly through the air and approach humans at dusk or at night.” (Vallee, p.62) Collective sightings even in daylight of weird configurations are neither rare nor necessarily extorted by torture-chamber confessions, nor confined to any one age.

Did not the Prince of Apostles (very much unlike the witches) thwart every effort to keep him in prison? In more modern times miracles of this kind are still alleged in some numbers. The Davenport brothers, for example, were “transported a distance of miles”, while other mediums such as Mrs, Guppy, Williams Hearne, Lottie Fowler and ‘Dr.’ Monk did at least as well several times.Anthropological data lend credence to the seemingly incredible. The above mentioned African witch-doctor successfully contacted a native hundreds of miles away through rough terrain. De W De Windt knew of a medicine-man who disappeared from his tent while being watched, only to be found unconscious half a mile distant (Fodor).

Bilocation must be taken into consideration in spite of its apparent violation of natural law. Fodor defines it as “the simultaneous presence in two different places”, with the proviso “mostly in histories of saints. Under this heading we may include the adventures of the Ven. Domenica del Paradiso who escaped to a cave where she spent two nights (Thurston, p.1014). However, her absence failed to attract attention, as she was impersonated by an angel!

More amazing, yet at the same time better attested, are the feats of Sor Maria de Agreda who bilocated no less than 500 times (!) as far afield as Mexico, where she converted a native tribe and distributed rosaries (which as a matter of fact, had all vanished from her cell). There were moreover other supporting indications that her visits to distant lands were not mere flights of fancy (Thurston, p.127)

Fodor elsewhere relates the phenomenon of the doppelganger, a ‘double’ considered by him the “etheric counterpart of the physical body which, when out of coincidence, may temporarily move about in space in comparative freedom and appear in various degrees of density to others.”

Perhaps this accounts for the fact that Alphonse de Liguori was able in 1774 to attend at the death-bed of Clement XIV according to witnesses while being imprisoned at Arezzo. If one can accept Aksakov’s famous tale of the bilocation of Miss Sagée the school-mistress, this would amount to irrefutable evidence in favour of the syndrome. Closely related to this phenomenon are out-of-the-body experiences which traditionally least involve the concept of an ‘etheric double’ or ‘astral body’ supposedly “an exact replica of the physical body but composed of finer matter” (Fodor).

More objective evidence for such an idea is provided by the data for materialisation. If witches ever did traverse long distances (and one would dearly like to hear concrete evidence for this belief), an alternative incarnation would provide the ideal vehicle. Col. de Rochas conducted some suggestive experiments in this field in which a plastic phantom form was created. Induced projection of the ‘double’ is said to have succeeded in early tests, and more recently the modern output on the subject is extensive and a comprehensive critique may be found in the work of of Dr Blackmore.

The idea was ably championed by Ochorowicz: “The hypothesis of a ‘fluid double’ (astral body) which, under certain conditions detaches itself from the body .. appears necessary (my italics) to explain the greater part of the phenomena. Henri de Siemiraski, artist and scientist, also spoke of the pragmatic necessity arising from his experience of the “hypothesis of the duplication (dédoublement) of the medium” (ibid. p.137).

We have come at last to the aspect of the greatest importance to ufology: abductions by UFOs. This subject has become of increasing interest and significance. Recent monographs by Scott Rogo (1980) and John Rimmer (1984) have been devoted to it. Here the flight is of an involuntary kind, over which the subject has no control apart from possible acquiescence. “With ever-increasing frequency”, says C E Lorenzen (Story, p.2) “UFO researchers are encountering witnesses who claim not only to have sighted a UFO and its occupants, but to have been taken aboard”.

This strange experience, which seems to be subjectively psychogenetic follows a predictably stereotyped pattern, unaccountably anticipated by science fiction. Its innocent victims are subjected to traumatic and at the same time mystic happenings under bizarre circumstances with alleged time-losses, possibly triggered off by geophysical or even quite trivial stimuli. Teleported to a strangely unrealistic environment. Betty Andreasson has encounters with non-human beings in a religiously inspired setting.


  1. For the most recent discussion of this enigma, see the Unexplained, 108, p 1250ff.
  2. De Rochas, p,170, Julian Ochrowicz, a most experienced researcher, was referring to the physical effects observed by him in his investigation of Palladino


  • ANGLO S, The Damned Art, RKP 1977
    BLACKMORE S J. Beyond the Body, Heinemann, 1981
    BOZZANO, E, Vebersinnliche Erscheinung, Francke, Berne, 1948,
    CASSIRER, M, Mechanical Witchcraft, (unpub, ms.).
    CROOKES, W. Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism, Burns, 1874,
    FODOR, N, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, Citadel, 1974.
    GURNEY, E. and PODMORE F, Fantasms of the Living, Trubner, 1886.
    NANSEN, C, Witchcraft at Salsa, Arrow, 1911.
    HOYT C,A, Witchcraft, South Illinois Univ. Press, 1981.
    KITTREDGE, G.L. Witchcraft in Old and New England, Harvard 1928
    LAWRENCE, E, Spiritualism among Civilised and Savage Races, Black, 1921.
    NOTESTEIN W, History of Witchcraft in England, Crowell, NY, 1968.
    OWEN, A.R.G. Can We Explain the Poltergeist?, Garrett, NY, 1964.
    PODMORE,F. Modern Spiritualism, Methuen, 1962.
    RIMMER, J, The Evidence for Alien Abductions, Aquarian, 1984.
    ROCHAS, A. de. L’Exteriorisation de la Motoricité, Charconac, Paris, 1906.
    ROGO, S. Abductions, Signet, NY, 1980.
    THURSTON, H, Surprising Mystics, Burns & Oates, 1955.
    VALEE, J, Passport to Magonia, Spearman, 1970.

Nightmares, Sex and Abductions. Manfred Cassirer

From Magonia 31, November 1989


Demonologists of the Renaissance – generally much less enlightened or humane than one would have expected – subtly distinguish the male incubus from his female counterpart (succubus). The former derives etymologically from Incubate (‘to lie down’), while the latter is a derivation of succubare (‘to lie under’).

The advantage of using the term ‘nightmare is that it is so familiar. It is however misleading in this context since it implies sleep, when in fact the experiences under discussion are always stated to involve full consciousness of one’s surroundings, e.g. of a light shining through a door in one of my cases. In Hufford’s words: “The victims are awake and … hear and see and feel odd-sounding things” [2]

Confusion has been created by Freudian interpretations arbitrarily forced on the data. Hufford, evidently ill at ease in this Procrustean bed, has cleared the air by explaining there are “at least three types of nocturnal experiences: a variety of dreams [of the REM-type], sexual encounters with ‘supernaturals’ … and attacks of the Old Hag type without any obvious sexuality.” [2] It is the latter which are akin to and ‘readily assimilated to witchcraft beliefs’.

As Old Hag attacks have attracted less attention than, say, nightmares, I shall start by summarising a typical example. It is of additional interest in incorporating elements suggestive of UFOs and the paranormal in general.

It commenced with the sighting of “a light across the Bay” in Canada. ‘John’, the experient, regards this episode with ill-deserved contempt and practically dismisses it as of no importance. His account meanwhile contains “all four of the primary Old Hag features”, including awareness of being awake, immobility with some possible sensation of pressure, and normal perception of the surroundings. Paranormal footsteps (standard features of haunted houses) are incorporated; a self-luminous figure glows in the dark.

Historically by 1100, Christian dogma concerning the gross double-act of demonic molestation and assault was “solidly established as an article of learned faith throughout Western Europe”‘. Oddly enough, recent study has established a similar syndrome on a more solidly investigated foundation as still flourishing in Newfoundland and elsewhere. Alleged violations of the human body by obscure and sinister entities is said to be all the rage, even if unconnected with black magic rituals. However:

“The precise distinctions which were made … between voluptuous sleep-related experiences and attacks of the Old Hag type are difficult to determine.”

As recorded by Cotton Mather [7], paralysis and fear were are induced through spectral visitation to one Richard Coman, the occult agency working through a New England sorceress being blamed. the attack was nocturnal, the subject – as in some poltergeist cases – was thrown out of bed, or almost so. It is an above average example of ‘spectral evidence’ brought before the courts.According to Persona (1328-1421) an unusual incubus-like creature flourished in Germany in the house of a certain “renowned knight”, attracted by his beautiful sister. Numerous as the creature’s accomplishments were, they did not include visibility, but the hands “slender and soft” were much in evidence, and it is a fact that ‘spirit hands’, detached from the body and often of a pleasant appearance, are amply attested in the mediumistic literature.

If we can believe Guazzo, females enslaved by the power of darkness were rewarded with an incubus in the form of a “rank goat” – an animal then most unjustly despised. Caietano, who wrote on witchcraft [4] knew of “a woman in love whom the devil anointed naked, promising that he would take her to her lover”. In an unconscious state she imagined that she was with him, but it was only a delusion.

According to Johann Meyfarth (1635) not only hundreds of women, but (he regretfully admits) even men, confessed to having had sex with demons. This however was dismissed as an illusion by no less a scholar than Thummius on account of the anatomical shortcomings of the spirits. Basically a fallen angel, Satan is incorporeal, but can shape a body for himself from a corpse. Having done so he is free to copulate, but first he must collect the semen. Brooding in the solitude of their cells, the undefiled godly brethren gave vent to their limited imagination, in which one is none too pleasantly reminded of abduction scenarios and rape by semi-human monsters described by Hopkins and Strieber, whether of heaven or earth [10].

At one time dismissed by Mother Church as salacious dreams, this sort of thing came to be taken deadly seriously, but by the time of Louis XV it was considered a huge joke. Incubi and the like were now considered as at best figments of the imagination, leading the way to the ultimate disinterpretation of the phenomenon as such. Still it could serve a useful purpose as a convenient alibi:

“To conceal sin, a woman, a girl, a nun in name only, a debauchee, who affects the appearance of virtue, will palm off her lover for an incubus spirit which haunts her.” [7]

As a cloak for concupiscence it served Bishop Sylvanus, whose physical form was assumed by a certain Sister’s incubus, undeterred apparently by the still distant prospects of the jibes of the Elizabethan Regina Scot and, no doubt, of other unsung more contemporary puritanical sceptics.

In a similar vein is Sinistrari’s moral tale about the religious who locked herself in after dinner. An inquisitive Sister bored a hole through the wall of her cell, when all was revealed: an all-too-earthly lover was masquerading as a spirit from the deep. On the other hand was it a genuine specimen notorious, it is said, for singing “the most dirty songs” (no examples being given) in which his modest virgin victim refused to join?

For once there is a happy ending, for the girl’s prayers and tears drove away the Evil One, and thus Margaret of Cortona was left in peace. When it comes to the question of the sex act, there is a marked lack of consensus of learned opinion among prelates, who had not as yet learned to confine their attention to matters political. Some had felt confident to assert that it gratified the demons themselves, but this is not the considered opinion of Thomas Aquinas, a man of superior authority in all matters relating to witchcraft and demonology.

“Heretofore… Incubus was fain to ravish women against their will”. However, after what seems a rather arbitrary watershed in 1400 there was an unexplained change so that now: “Witches consent willingly to their desire”

A similar unresolved dilemma relates to the victims of lewd demonic attention: at times it would be presented as almost rapturous, but at others the very reverse, and Scot quotes Nider to the effect that: “Heretofore… Incubus was fain to ravish women against their will”. However, after what seems a rather arbitrary watershed in 1400 there was an unexplained change so that now: “Witches consent willingly to their desire” [8]

If Nider was right – and his authority is perhaps too great to be successfully challenged – and morals were no longer what they were before that critical date, it may seem strange that there are nowadays once more so many reported cases of forced intercourse with the demons. Meanwhile, Nider gains support from stories such as that of the seventeenth century girl who, pursued by a fiendish spirit “seemed almost afraid of being delivered from the devil.” [7] Worse is to come – a nubile German witch was so depraved that she actually summoned her incubus!

What then of the offered pleasures of the Striatum or Witches’ Sabbath, those secret nocturnal gatherings promising prospects of every indulgence of the flesh? Retrospectively they seem very inviting from almost every point of view. Exceptionally, Petrus Valderma in 1617 depicts the participants sitting at “tables served… with the most delicious dishes and exquisite wines”, for those who were not too particular since the very waiters were demons – an experience to which some of us have occasionally been subjected. As if to soften the blow of the sinister catering service,

the refreshments were followed by alluring “sound of the most charming music” (no suggestive ditties here) and, the lights having been put out, the ample gratification of one’s every desire. [3]. But Valderma tactfully omits to mention that this “marvellous food” (as it is described elsewhere) could really consist of sickening bits of grass and worms as in the case of the fairy banquets laid on for abductees. [9] The Devil being allergic to the cleansing properties of salt, the goodies were habitually serve unseasoned.The long catalogue of crimes attributed to witches includes ligatures to cause impotence at weddings and other occasions. Christian Stridtbeckh, in his Van den Hexen (1723) describes five different ways of achieving this for the over-curious, some apparently too indelicate to narrate. [3], so that for once I can spare your blushes. However, lest you should think that theology is a dry-as-dust affair, I shall quote the eminent divine Adam Tenner who in 1617 published his illuminating Tractatus Theologicus dealing with, amongst other matter, the deadly perversions of witchcraft and similar associated enormities.

Tanner “calls attention to the assemblies held of both sexes, sometimes by day and sometime by night, in which every kind of sexual excess occurs. These may be called true schools of the Devil and seminaries of witches of both sexes, all the more injurious that no-one disapproves of or attaches blame to them. Recently, when a Jesuit happened upon one of these gatherings and reproved it, he scarcely escaped without bodily injury and when another sought to abolish them he Was told that they were the ancient customs of the land” [4]

The phenomenology of the paranormal has an uncanny way of adapting to new developments in culture and philosophy, and of fooling us in the process. Those who study the data of folklore, psychical research and ufology in isolation deprive themselves effectively of all hope of obtaining any profound measure of understanding of the underlying causes of these strange anomalies. None is more obscure and inscrutable than the Incubus/Succubus syndrome, and – in the update of the day – the Old Hag survival, taken with the more unpalatable aspects of the so-called UFO abductions, which retain all the vitality, as well as the mystery, of ancient occult lore.

A recent, and less extreme, example is what happened to Elsa, a young Englishwoman. Some years back she was living in a London hostel. One night in 1973 she awoke to find a girl “pacing up and down”. A light was shining through the door of the hall, but Elsa was very scared, especially when the figure lifted the cover of her bed to get in. In her written report Elsa says:

“I then saw the body bearing down on me and at the same time my head crashed back on the pillow very quickly as if it had been pushed. I heard a loud cracking sound as my head hit the pillow and I was unconscious.”Similar cases are numerous, and Scott Rogo cites a recent one of psychological orientation stressing the ‘sexual influence’ exerted on a middle-aged man by a nocturnal apparition in which Rogo detects overtones of feelings of guilt and

MacKenzie has just published something that happened to the late Dr Dewsbury, under the general heading ‘Something Under the Bed’ [5]: at three o’clock in the morning this psychiatrist and SPR council member had also encountered a ‘bedroom invader’ when he was “violently roused by the mattress being pushed from underneath as if by someone under the bed”.You may say that paranormal interference with beds is old hat; if so I shall be the last to argue with you. As usual, there was nothing to account for the disturbance, any more than for the rocking motion complained of to Hubbard, or in what Professor Kittredge has christened the ‘bedclothes trick’, in which the covers are pulled off the unwary sleeper, whether by goblins or by marginally more respectable poltergeists.

Andrew MacKenzie, once more, discusses the phenomenon of ‘a stranger in the bed’, so graphically described by my friend Elsa. This time the location is the French capital. Mrs Bourget and her husband were staying in a Paris hotel in 1962. Suddenly she woke to the “impression of being between two persons”. She became oppressed by a sensation of evil, which she stoutly refused to dismiss as a nightmare. Mrs Hellstroem of the Swedish Society for Psychical Research fared no better when two successive nocturnal phantoms invaded the privacy of a large double-bed.It may well be argued that prejudice too hastily dismisses ancient records as the worthless superstitions of credulous folk engulfed in an age of unreason in which man’s critical faculties were as yet insufficiently evolved; the more so when in one form or an other the beliefs reflected by them have survived in basic substance the shock of intel-lectual revision of cultural change, and modern obsession with technological advances.

An exceptionally knowledgeable writer has recently suggested that acceptance of UFO reports may be as baseless as those of witchcraft. Before this conclusion becomes part of accepted fact, one must consolidate the

validity of statements on the lines that the whole black magic syndrome can be adequately explained away as “a plausible fantasy created by the Church … and accepted by the common people”, it being in actual fact nothing more than “a combination of social and psychological forces” [9, p 376].

Wearied with the rehearsal of so many lecheries most horrible and very filthy and fabulous actions and passions … together with spirit Incubus, I will end

Fashions change, and not only in clothes, though the emperor’s are perennial. At one time it was assumed with confidence that the Reformation had done away with ghosts and apparitions. Few people nowadays think of disarranged beds as pointing towards the mischievous activities of goblins, since goblins are rightly unpopular at the moment. At the same time, it is not considered absurd in certain quarters to envisage the existence of entities hailing from ever-expanding distances of outer space that fly about in preposterous machines for the purpose of impregnating us for reasons best known to themselves. They are no longer the Biblical ‘giants’ of old, but equally implausible specimens of an assumed advanced state of more fashionable science.

Meanwhile, let us admit that we are indeed faced with mysteries in many ways beyond our powers of comprehension, but on which psychology, and its more recent parameter’ parasychology, can throw much light. It is in the direction of their arcane castramentation that we must look for enlightenment, For the present though, being (like Squire Scot) “wearied with the rehearsal of so many lecheries most horrible and very filthy and fabulous actions and passions… together with spirit Incubus, I will end”.


  1. HOPKINS, Budd, Missing Time, Marek, N, Y,, 1981.
  2. KITTREDGE, G. L, Witchcraft in Old and New England Harvard, 1928.
  3. LEA, H, L, Materials Toward a History of (3 Vols) Witchcraft, Yoseloff, N, Y,, 1951.
  4. STRIEBER, W. Communion: A True Story, Arrow, 1988.


The Phantom Ship and the UFO. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia New Series 1, 1976

Note to Archive publication: This is one of my very earliest pieces for MUFOB, much of the material had been collected, and the basic idea thought of in the early 1970s, before the article was written up, probably in the late Spring of 1974. It is a piece of old fashioned romantic folklore, reflecting its mainly antique sources.


Since this article was written, I have discovered that a syndicated article or articles about phantom ships, probably based on the old sources used in this article, was published in US newspapers during the 1897 airship epidemic, and clearly this directly influenced tales such as Merkel. Alas I do not have the reference to hand. 


Among the archetypal themes of folklore which has had a moulding influence on the UFO myth, is that of the ‘Ship of Souls’ the phantom ship, which sails in the clouds, and ferries the dead to the western paradise

The tradition of this aerial ship existed throughout Europe until the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and either arose spontaneously or was carried by European immigrants to North America. There are reasons to believe that the idea is of very great antiquity. It has provided the basis for the legend of the “Flying Dutchman”, and certainly many features of the myth are to be found in the 1897 airship reports. In Britain phantom ship legends were especially common in Cornwall. As late as the eighteenth century phantom ships were said to have been sailing in the clouds above Porthcurro Harbour. (1) In the coastal area of Yorkshire “the clouds at even[tide] sometimes take on the form of a ship, and the people call it Noah’s Ark, and observe if it points Humber-ways as a weather prognostic” (1). In 1743 at Porbio near Holyhead a farmer saw this aerial ship; it resembled a packet ship and was sailing in the clouds .(2,3). The aerial ship was inhabited, as witness this American story:

“A strange story comes from the Bay of Fundy, that ships have boon seen in the air … Mr Barrow stated that they were said to be seen at New Mines near Mr Ratchford’s, by a girl about sunrise. The girl cried out, and two men who were in the house came out and saw them. There were about fifteen ships, and a man forward with his hand stretched out. They made the eastward. They were so near that people saw their sides and ports.” (4, quoted in 5)

Strange stories were told of this aerial crew. It was said that they were drowned by the air, as a human sailor was drowned by the sea. Irish legends told of persons at worship who saw an aerial ship, whose anchor became caught in the church. When a sailor was sent down to free it, he was soon gasping for air like a drowning sailor, so that the anchor had to be cut and he was taken on board again (6). Gervaise of Tilbury (7) told a similar tale set in England (1). What is especially interesting to note is that a like incident set in Merkel, Texas appeared in the Houston Post of April 28 1897 (Rogerson Catalogue, Case 45), The sailor was even described complete with a blue sailors’ suit, a remarkable example of folkloric survival. One of the fullest accounts of the “cloud ship” was that related by Archbishop Agobard of Lyons (8), Vallee quotes Agobard as follows (9):

“We have however heard of many men plunged in such great stupidity, sunk in such depths of folly as to believe that there is a certain region, which they call Magonia, whence ships sail in the clouds, in order to carry back to that region those fruits of the earth which are destroyed by hail and tempests; the sailors paying rewards to the storm wizards and themselves receiving corn and other produce. Out of the number of those (who) believe those things possible, I saw several exhibiting in a certain concourse of people four persons in bonds – three men and a woman like they had said had fallen from those same ships, and they had brought, them before the assembled multitude to be stoned. But truth prevailed.”

This legend, which has entered deeply, into the ufological myth, contains a number of significant themes. The aerial region, Magonia, in the western land of the dead the Isles of the Blessed, the land of the setting sun; it is Atlantis and Hy-Brazil, the mystical land which haunted European culture for millennia, and which provided the psychological drive behind many feats of exploration (10). From this unknown land in the west, ships come on the air. The ships bring the dead who destroy the crops of the living to take to their own realm. The belief that crops destroyed on earth are used as food by the dead are common to most archaic societies. It is the basis of the rite of sacrifice in all cultures. The storms that destroy crops are the dead, who are transfigured into the elemental spirits of the storm.

“… the dead of the ancient Aryans were believed to possess astounding powers. They travelled like the wind, sometimes as the wind. Good winds were the souls of of the good dead, ill winds of the bad dead who raged through the wild sky, jealous, angry, and vengeful.” (1)

The memory of such beliefs can still be traced in the belief that the appearance of the phantom ship is a warning of storm. In the picture of the Flying Dutchman by Gustav Doré these themes are clearly drawn out; the phantom ship with her skeletal crew roars up, borne on the storm, the sailors whom her appearance has doomed are cowering in terror. The victims of the mob mentioned by Agobard were very possibly human sacrifices to the gods of the storm, for it was not just crops that the cloud ships took, but the souls of men also. The ship came to the dying to take their soul to the land beyond the west or to the undersea world of ‘Fiddler’s Green’. When the one whose soul was to be taken was of evil character the event could be awesome indeed, as witness this tale of the death of a Cornish wrecker: (11)

“…his death was, more terrible. still. It was harvest-time and the gentle breeze scarcely stirred the ripe wheat in the fields, while in his lonely cottage the pirate, now an old man, lay at the point of death, with the parson, the doctor and two fisherman as his sole companions. Suddenly a wind arose, whistling round the cottage while from the sea a voice could be heard crying: ‘The time is come but the man isn’t come’ … Then a black ship appeared on the horizon moving steadily towards the shore. As it hove into view it became clear that it had no crew, while hovering directly above it was a curious dark cloud which moved with the ship. Suddenly the cottage of the dying pirate grow dark as if an evil spirit had entered it. Vainly the parson attempted to exorcise it. There came a crash of thunders and as the dying man scroamed ‘The devil is tearing at me with the claws of a hawk’, a stream of lightning shot from the sky and the cottage began to burn. Not even prayers could save the situation and, led by the parson, the sick man’s companions fled from the building, abandoning him him to his Fate.On reaching the churchyard, yet another storm broke and and the coffin was ignited by forked lightening. Then all afire, it was lifted up by a whirlwind and conveyed like a great burning log through the sky to the Wrecker’s Hell”
Standing in the open they witnessed a terrifying sight. The small dark cloud slowly detached itself from the ship and drifted over the land like a hideous jellyfish until it was actually hovering over the cottage of the dying man, It then decended, snatched up his soul, and drifted back to the ship which sailed rapidly out to sea, Returning to the cottage, the visitors discovered the the pirate was dead, his face, transfixed by terror, was awful to look upon, On the day of the funeral, the bearers were surprised to discover that the coffin was almost weightless.

For the good dead, the coming of the ship is a gentle release. It is the boat which takes Arthur to Avalon. In the traditions of some families such beliefs are found in modern times. Take for example this account in Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book (12):

“Lord Archibald Campbell died at Easter 1913 … Mr [Niall] Campbell … told me the ‘Galley’ had appeared on Loch Fyne. When I asked him to explain, what this was, he told no that the ‘Galley’ was a little ship like the one in their [coat of] arms’ and that when the Chief or one near to him was dying it appeared on Loch Fyne with three people on board, one of whom is supposed to be a Saint connected with St Columba. When his father was dying the ‘Galley’ was seen to pass silently up the Loch and to come to land at a particular point. It then passed overland and finally disappeared at the site of a holy place associated with St. Columba and given to the church by the forebears of the Campbells. A great many people saw it on the occasion of his father’s passing, including a ‘foreigner’, that is to say one who was not a Campbell or even a Highlander, but a Saxon. When the ‘Galley’ was soon to pass over the land this man called out “Look at that funny airship”.

Readers of MUFOB will recall that this story appears in our catalogue as R37. Thus we can see this particular account as a bridge between the “phantom ship” and the UFO myths.

A very few of those taken by the phantom ship survive; they find themselves transported to a beautiful land of eternal youth, such as the Irish Tir n’Og. Often the return from this land is by some magical means such as a waterspout. (20).

The taking of souls by the phantom ship is paralleled by the seizure of the living by the dead who ride on the wild storm wind. In Norse mythology this storm wind is the “Wild Hunt” (Wilder Jagd) led by Wotan, who with his pack of demon wolf-dogs pursue the sinner through eternity (11). The unwary are seized by the hunt generally to be lost forever, but occasionally to be deposited, like the victims of the Latin American teleportation, miles from home. In the Scottish islands the host of the dead, the sluagh, is seen in the form of a black cloud which seizes the living (21), also depositing, them far from home. Some writers connect the wild hunt with the UFO. (22).In England the wild hunt is associated with notorious local characters such as Herne the Hunter who are compelled to lead the hunt to expiate their sins on earth. A variant on this theme is the demon black carriage drawn by headless horses, pursued eternally by baying demon hounds. The Flying Dutchman theme is clearly identical with the above; it is an expression of the archetypal theme of eternal unrest caused by the violation of a taboo, the myth of the Wandering Jew. The crime of the captain of the Dutchman was in violating a taboo of the sea, a crime which brought down the Guardian Spirit of the oceans. This figure was perhaps a sea goddess such as appeared to Captain Brown of the Usk and ordered him to return to port (23,24). [See the foot of this posting for further information about the Usk]

As the phantom ship passes there is sometimes the sound of wild carousing. Such jollities were also associated with the l897 airship, as testified by William McGiveron of Pine Lake (R33) among others. Other witnesses of the airship however heard ‘religious songs’ and alleged that the occupants handed out temperance tracts. Those will be the good dead on the boat to heaven, (as in the spiritual ‘Sit down you’re rocking the boat’). This latter point highlights the Christian modifications of the archetype.

If we examine some modern phantom ship reports, we can see the similarities to the UFO more clearly highlighted. Take the following story related by a psychiatrist Glenn Thomasson. (25) Thomasson was on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico in August 1970.

“That night (August 8th)… an hour before sunrise I was sitting on the bow of the boat when a large ship, illuminated clearly by the moonlight, appeared approximately 150 yards directly in front and perpendicular to our boat. It was only later when I thought about it that I realised that there were no running lights visible. After I had spent about ten minutes observing the ship through the captain’s binoculars I noticed the name but could not road it. All I could see was a large ‘I’. the first letter, The rest seemed to be rusted over. Suddenly a man walked to the railing of the ships lifted his arm and waved back and forth in a gesture of greeting. I caught myself just as I was about to yell agreeting in return but thinking of the sleeping crew I waved instead. He lit a cigarette but even in the glow of the match I could not see his face clearly. Then he reached down and picked something up and dropped it into the water. I saw the object shine in the moonlight but could not see what it was.Several minutes later I walked into the cabin to pour a cup of coffee, then returned to the deck, took one look and gasped in astonishment. The ship was gone …”

A few hours later the crew of the fishing vessel picked up a bottle with a message in from a German ship lost in 1943. The letter was yellow with age but the bottle appeared to be quite new. The similarity to UFO reports is striking – the same dream-like quality, the behaviour of the vessel and its occupants, the same equivocal “physical evidence” left.

The phantom ship comes to shore at certain anniversaries:

“In Normandy the phantom boat puts in at All Souls. The watchman of the wharf sees a vessel come within hail at midnight and hastens to cast it a line, but at this same moment the boat disappears and frightful cries are hoard that make the hearer shudder, for they are recognised as the voices of sailors who were shipwrecked that year.” (1)

A story is told of how one night at Dieppe, a ship La Belle Rosalie, which had been missing for many months came in. The people of the town gathered joyously about the ship, which clearly had suffered hard in storms, for her rigging was torn. As the people waited they were struck by the strange behaviour of the crew who were silent, not leaping to the shore as was the custom. Then just as men were about to disembark, a strange mist came from nowhere and obscured the ship. Moments later when this mist had lifted, the ship had disappeared. It was then that the townspeople remembered that it was All Souls, the day when the drowned sailors return, briefly, to their homes. (14)

The same thing happened in New Haven, Connecticut in 1647 (15). Sometimes the occupants of the ship disembark, to take their loved ones to their own land. Such a belief is at the centre of the ‘Ballad of the Devon Lover’, who seduces a human woman, taking her on a phantom ship to the ‘Mountains of Hell’. Sometimes the boat appears as a warning. The dead are jealous of the living, and seek to take them to their own country. Woe betide the mariners who attempt to cone to the aid of the phantom ship. During a wild storm, a ship was seen floundering, so the crew of the vessel which sighted the distress made out in a small boat to attempt rescue. As they reached the spot the phantom disappeared and a great wave came and drowned her would-be rescuers. To even see the Flying Dutchman is an indication of disaster.

To help try the unwary, the phantom ship is a shape-changer. Like the UFO she appears in the guise of the vessels of her day. In April 1927 Kristan Jonasson, a port officer at Reykjavik, saw a strange Faeroes drifter towing a row-boat with two men inside. The drifter had the identity letters FD indicating she was registered in Fuglefjord. Jonasson went out with the pilot and the port doctor to examine the vessel. As they approached it disappeared into a haze. No such ship was known to the Danish authorities. (16)

A notorious shape-changer was the Falkenbergs Ship, which was always accompanied by two small yellow lights. In the latter part of winter 1958 the crew of the British Empress, approaching Nykoping in Sweden, saw two strange yellow lights, like steam masthead lights. First one, then the other, came close to the water, then sank. Nothing was detected on radar. The Falkenbergs Ship was said to be responsible for the death of Andrew Black, the skipper of the Pentland Skerries light. In 1937 Black had seen a white distress light during a heavy storm. He went to investigate, and his fellow crew-members testified, seemed to be drawn into the water by some unseen power. No ship was reported in the area. This power reminds one of the alleged abduction of Rivalino Mafra, (17) or the glamour cast over the Venezuelan youth (R7) This particular story evokes memories of the disappearance of the three keepers from the Flannan Isle light (12), which was on ‘haunted ground’ where the inhabitants of Magonia are said to appear. (18,19)

One report of the phantom ship did get into the UFO literature. This was the report of the two Royal Princes in their book Cruise of the Bacchante. At 0400 hrs, on July 11, 1881, according to the account:”

The Flying Dutchman crossed our bow. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow in the midst of which light, the masts, spars and sails of a brig two hundred yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow. The lookout in the fo’clse reported her as close to the ship, while also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her. So did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the fo’csle: but on arriving there was no vestige or sign of any material ship. The night was clear and the sea calm.Thirteen persons altogether saw her. Two other ships of the squadron, the Tourmaline and the Cleopatra, who were sailing off our starboard bow, asked whether we had seen the strange light.”

This light was felt to be an omen of the death of the lookout. Similar lights in the Western Isles of Scotland are also regarded as omens of forthcoming death. Strange lights in coastal regions are often regarded as phantom ships, burning as they did when destroyed by wreckers like the famous Block Island phantom the Palatine. Some modern accounts of the phantom ship portray it as the Fairy Ship as in this account from the West of Scotland, circa 1910. (18,26)

The encounter took place on the lonely island of Muck off the west of Scotland. The two sons of a local man, Sandy MacDonald, aged about ten and seven, were playing on the beach when they found an unopened tin. As they were trying to open it, they saw a beautiful delicate looking little boy, a stranger to the island, standing beside them. He was dressed all in green. The boy invited then to come and look at his boat, and they saw a tiny vessel floating on the sea a few feet from the shore. A little girl three foot high, and a dog the size of a rat were in the boat, and the girl offered the children some tiny biscuits which they ate. After they inspected the boat, which was beautifully built with everything perfectly arranged the green boy and girl said it was time for than, to leave. They said goodbye to the two boys, and told them, “We will not be coming back here, but others of our race will be coming’

The similarities between the modern UFO and phantom vessel reports, point to their common origin. The folklore of Western Europe testifies to this common origin in the myth of the ‘Ship of Souls’ which takes the dead to the Western nether-world. Such a belief is of very great antiquity and seems to be universal in all cultures. The ship of the dead was identified by the Egyptians as the boat in which the sun-god Ra was propelled across the waters of heaven. The dead were believed to join the sun god in this celestial ship, to be taken to the land of the dead in the region of the setting sun. The sun as the celestial vessel carrying the sky-god is common to many Middle-East cultures (Assyria, Persia, etc.) and may provide the primal archetype of the UFO. (27) At this remote period we can perhaps see that the UFO and phantom ship have common origin as the vessel of the god or gods. The fact that classical and medieval visionary rumours’ have played such a major role in the development of the UFO myth, even to the point of providing a name – Magonia – for the home of such phenomenon certainly backs up this feeling.

Today the mythological structure which gave meaning to the phantom ship has vanished, as has the culture which nourished such a structure, leaving only memories which surface as random anomalies. Such anomalies no longer belong, hence their greut power to disturb. They are intruders from outside history and the world of waking reulity; intruders however which still have great power.


Note from original publication: Since the above was written I have come across the following passage from Jung’s Flying Saucers commenting on one of his patient’s dreams, which involved a vision of the dreamer and another woman standing on the edge of the world looking at a silvery elliptical object peopled by cloaked figures in silvery white:

“The dream then uses the symbol of a disc-like UFO manned by by spirits, a spaceship that comes out of the beyond to the edge of our world in order to fetch the souls of the dead. It is not clear from the vision where the ship comes from, whether from the sun or moon or elsewhere. According to the myth in the Acta Archelai it would be from the waxing moon, which increases in size according to the number of departed souls that are scooped up from the Earth to the Sun, and from there to the Moon in a purified state. The idea that the UFO might be a sort of Charon is certainly one that I have not yet in the literature so far. This is hardly surprising, firstly because ‘classical’ allusions of this sort are a rarity in people with a modern education and secondly because they might lead to some very disagreeable conclusions. The apparent increase in UFO sightings in recent years has caused disquiet in the popular mind, and might easily give rise to the conclusion that, if so many spaceships appear from beyond, a corresponding number of deaths might be expected. We know that such phenomena were interpreted like this in earlier centuries: they were portents of a ‘great dying’, of war and pestilence, like the dark premonitions that underlie our modern fears. One ought not to assume that the great masses are so enlightened that hypotheses of this kind can no longer take root” – Jung, Flying Saucers, a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, p.78. (28)



References in bold italic underlined  are links to Amazon book listings (not necessarily the edition referenced)

  1. Baring-Gould, Rev. Sabine. A Book of Folklore, Methuen, 1913 (my current copy is Praxis Reprint 1993).
  2. Reference to be confirmed
  3. Llewellyn, Alan. The Shell Guide to Wales. Michael Joseph with George Rainbird, 1969
  4. McGivern, Fr James SJ, in Tacoma Town Tribune 21 November 1967, quoted in:
  5. Data-Net 9, 5 (May 1970), p12
  6. Wilkins, Harold T. Flying Saucers on the Attack. Ace Books, 1967 (Originally published as Flying Saucers on the Moon, Peter Owen ,1954, and Flying Saucers on the Attack. Citadel Press, 1954.
  7. Gervase of Tilbury. Otia Imperialia: Recreation for an emperor, edited by S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns. Oxford University Press, 2002 (English Medieval Texts) For Gervase see
  8. Agobard “On hail and thunder” translation at For more on these topics see Ross, Michael. Anchors in a Three Decker World Folklore Annual 1998 at For a critical review of the Magonia story and background information see Brodu, Jean-Louis Magonia: a Re-Evaluation. Fortean Studies 2 (1995) pp 198-215
  9. Vallee, Jacques. Passport to Magonia. Henry Regnery, 1969
  10. Ashe, Geoffrey. Land to the West: St.Brendan’s voyage to America""Collins, 1962
  11. Maple, Eric. The Realm of Ghosts. Pan, 1967
  12. Hunt, Robert. Popular Romances of the West of England. London 1865.
  13. Wood, Charles Lindley, Viscount Halifax. Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book"". Fontana. 1961. First published Geoffrey Bles, 1936.
  14. Bassett, Wilbur. Wander-Ships, Folk Stories of the Sea, with notes upon their origin. Open Court Publishing Company, 1917  (Chapter 3)
  15. Brown, Raymond Lamont. Phantoms, Legends, Customs and Superstitions of the Sea. Patrick Stephens, 1972.
  16. Armstrong, Warren (Warren Armstrong Bennett) Sea Phantoms. Odhams, 1963.
  17. ‘The Brazilian Abduction’ in Flying Saucer Review ,vol. 8, no. 6 p10
  18. Michell, John. Flying Saucer Vision. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1967.
  19. Hopkins, R. Thurston. Cavalcade of Ghosts. Panther, 1963
  20. Baring-Gould, Rev. Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Longmans, Green and Co, 1892. 
  21. Campbell, John L and Hall, Trevor. Strange Things. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968
  22. Ledger, Joseph R. Saucers or Ghosts. Flying Saucer Review , no.8, vol. 5 (September-October 1962).
  23. Gaddis, Vincent. Invisible Horizons. Ace 1965
  24. Smith, Susy. World of the Strange. Pyramid Books, 1963.
  25. Thomasson, Glen P. ‘Message from a Phantom Ship. Fate (UK) November 1971
  26. MacGregor, Alisdair. Alpine The Peat Fire Flame. Ettrick Press, 1947
  27. VALLEE, Jacques. ‘Occupant Symbolism in Phoenician Mythology‘. FSR 19, 1.
  28. Jung, Carl . Flying Saucers, a Modern myth of Things Seen in the Sky  Cygnet Books, 1969.

Additional works on the Phantom Ship:
Bassett, Fletcher A. Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and Sailors in All Lands and at All Times. Bedford, Clarke and Co. 1885. Can be downloaded here:

Other relevant books:
Goss, Michael and Behe, George.
Lost at Sea: Ghost Ships and Other Sea Mysteries. Prometheus, 1994.
Hadfield, R. L. The Phantom Ship, and other Ghost Stories of the Sea. Geoffrey Bles, 1937.

The Story of the USK

Fife Herald  30 October 1862  p4  


The barque Usk, ofNewport, which leftSwanseafor Caldera in May last, has just returned toNewportsafe and sound, to the great astonishment of every one in port, having turned back atCape Hornwithout completing the voyage. The ship had been 62 days out then, and a hurricane coming on was threatened with total destruction, so that the crew rejoiced to see it put back in the direction of theFalkland Islands, so as to be out of the gale. But Falkland Islands were passed, and the ship still proceeded on her course leaving theCapefar behind. The mate then came aft and asked Captain Mathias where he was taking the ship, and why he neither took her into a place of shelter, nor prosecuted the voyage to Caldera. Captain Mathias told him that “God Almighty had come into his cabin and ordered him to take the ship back to Newport, threatening him that if he took her on her voyage the ship and all her crew should be destroyed.” He added that a mystery hung over the matter which should never be revealed, but that the vision appeared to him on the occasion of the hurricane off Cape Horn, and “such being the will of the Almighty, he should not place himself in opposition to it for the sake of the owner the ship, or anything else.”

The mate remonstrated and offered to take the command, the captain being put ashore, so as to release him from obedience to the command of the Most High, but this course he declined. It cut him to the heart, he said, to take the ship home and perhaps ruin the owners, yet such being the will of God he could not disobey. The mate appealed to the» crew, but they said they saw nothing the matter with the captain, and they therefore thought it was their duty to continue to obey him. Consequently he ceased all “opposition to the captain’s will and the Usk continued her passage home safe and sound from top to bottom, her captain apparently happy and free from all care, and devoting his leisure hours to the conversion” of his crew. Prayers were held every evening at seven, and from that till nine none were allowed to enter his sanctum, the cabin, where no doubt he passed the time in ghostly studies. On arrivingNewporton Tuesday evening last the news, as may be supposed, spread like wildfire, creating a great sensation. The captain waited on the owner, Mr Benyon and repeated his story about the Most High visiting him. Mr Benyon, we are told, highly scandalised, here told Mathias to “blaspheme no more.” and the conversation took a more reasonable turn. Mathias insisting upon his statement, and the owner listening to the tale as the narration of some strange dream. The captain, on Wednesday morning, took away everything belonging to him from the ship. The” above” account is abridged from a narrative said to be taken entirely from the statements of the mate and the captain themselves.

North London News 1 November 1862 p3,  cf London Daily 27 October 1862


The fine barque Usk, built inBristolthree years ego, and owned by Mr Thomas Benyon, Dock-street, leftSwanseafor with coals, towards the end of April last. After being a short time out, Captain Mathias, the master, put backNewport, and the owner had the vessel thoroughly re caulked and remetalled. She proceeded to sea fromNewportMay, and, after a fine passage, reached Falkland Islands, having been 59 days out, andCape Hornin 62 days. Here gale came on, which rapidly increased to hurricane, and threatened the ship every instant with total destruction. She stood beating about to the southward of the Cape, and at length the captain walked aft and ‘up with the wheel,’ telling the men to  wear the ship.’ The mate was then asleep below, and the crew of course judged that the object of this must have been to get out of the hurricane and into smooth water to the eastward of theCape. They soon found that the ship was speeding along in the direction ofFalkland Islands. This also gave satisfaction. But Falkland Islands were passed, and the ship still proceeded her course leaving theCapefor behind. The mate then came aft and asked Captain Mathias where he was taking the ship, and why he neither took her into a place of shelter, nor prosecuted the voyage to Caldera. Captain Mathias told him that’ God Almighty had come into his cabin and ordered him to take the ship back to Newport, threatening him that if he took her on  her voyage the ship and all her crew should be destroyed. He added that mystery hung over the matter which should never be revealed, but that the vision appeared to him on the occasion of hurricane off Cape Horn, and  such being the will of the Almighty, should not place himself in opposition to for  the sake the owner, the ship, anything else.’ This intelligence must have startled the mate, but he remonstrated with captain with some firmness. said, ‘ Consider the serious loss you will cause the owner by pursuing this course.’ And willing any rate to save the owners, he further, and proposed that Captain Mathias should go ashore, leaving him, or putting some -one else board to take command and prosecute the voyage.

This course, he urged, would release the captain from the consequences of disobeying the commands the Most High. Captain Mathias immediately said, ‘ When my command of this ship is taken from me, take a knife and stab me with till I die It  cuts me to the heart to take the ship home, and perhaps ruin the owners, but such being the will of God, cannot disobey it for the sake-of man.’ The mate appealed the crew, but they said they saw nothing the matter with the captain, and they therefore thought it was their duty to continue to obey him. Consequently he ceased all opposition the captain’s will, Mid the Usk continued her passage home safe and sound from top to bottom, her captain apparently happy and free from all care, and devoting his leisure hours to the ‘conversion’ of his crew. Prayers were held every evening at seven, and from »t till nine none were allowed enter his sanctum the cabin, where no doubt passed the time in ghostly studies.Newportand Newport Docks were reached safely on Tuesday evening, and, as maybe supposed, this extraordinary tale was repeated with a thousand exaggerations and additions throughout the town, with the speed wildfire.

Captain Mathias at once proceeded to Mr Benyon’s residence, and reported his arrival to his amazed owner, who became very naturally somewhat excited, when Mathias said, ‘lf you can’t treat me like a gentleman I shall home.’ Mr Benyon replied that he was his employer, and he merely demanded a report of how had acquitted himself the trust he had reposed in him. Mathias then detailed how the Most High had entered his cabin and warned him against prosecuting the voyage, telling him that he was to back straight to Newport, and if not, the ship and the whole of her crew should perish. Mr Benyon, we are told, highly scandalised, here told Mathias ‘ blaspheme no more,’ and the conversation took more reasonable turn, Mathias insisting upon his statement, and the owner listening the tale as the narration of some strange dream, ‘The captain, on Wednesday morning, took away everything belonging to him from the ship. We may add that the foregoing has been taken entirely from the statements of the mate and captain themselves, and may be relied upon as the correct the extraordinary affair.

Westmorland Gazette 22 November 1862


A lengthened inquiry has taken place before the Local Marine Board, at their offices in Bristol, reference to the following charge against Captain Mathias, late master the barque Usk : —That he, on intended voyage from Newport Caldera, Chili, South America, which commenced about the lst of June, 1862, when the vessel arrived off Cape Horn, was guilty of a gross act  of misconduct, without any sufficient cause reason, neglecting omitting further to proceed on the said voyage, and the ship vessel did then navigate back to Newport. Mr Cathcart, solicitor, was in attendance behalf of the owners of the Usk ; and the defendant was likewise present, but without any legal adviser, and though the investigation lasted several hours his demeanour was perfectly cool and collected. Mr Cathcart having stated the case on behalf of the owners.

David Evans, the late chief mate of the Usk, was called and examined at some length, but nothing beyond the facts recently published was elicited. Mr Benyon, ofNewport, owner of the vessel, stated that Captain Mathias had been the master of the for the last three years. He had no authority return without completing the voyage fromSwanseato Caldera. The conduct of the captain had caused the owners considerable loss. This being all the evidence adduced. Captain Mathias was called upon for his defence.

He entered into a lengthened statement relative the position the vessel when he resolved to returnNewport, detailed minutely the particulars of the latitude and longitude, as well as the varying state of the weather. then said :

“I have never seen my glass so low before it was then in going roundCape Horn, either going out or coming home. After breakfast l am  accustomed, having been a professor of religion for seventeen years, to read a  chapter of  the Bible to myself in the cabin, and perform my service to my Creator. After that had transpired one morning. I felt a pressure upon my mind such I had not felt before all my life. First I began to ask myself What does this mean ?” I generally felt light and comfortable in all circumstances that have peculiarly happened during my life. I have been thirty-two years at sea. began inquire myself what it all meant, and said that would go, and make point of prayer of it, and found a still small voice speak to me within me telling return to Newport with the ship. But strove within myself, and in my own soul firmly wrestled against it. The more I strove, the more it resisted me, and found the power be so strong as be irresistible.

“I  remained in a state of great excitement, and no one on  board the ship could help seeing my emotion. No  one knew, indeed, what concerned me; and if the truth spoken by  every person ship, the power must have been felt. I remained till the afternoon, and then began consider what it meant, and what it all was for the still small voice spoke audibly and clearly within me, expecting that I would give my purpose, or He would break me without remedy. Visions have not seen; nothing, no bodily shape has appeared to me. Only mv own feelings have experienced, such as every Christian man would feel. With regard returning home I said within myself, Well, I should like have sign to know for certain that may not be deceived in my heart, deceive my own self in the presence of  my Creator. “That voice spoke again, and told me that the glass should rise It said “I will take my hind off you, and the glass shall rise immediately if you are obedient to  the command given you ”

“I implored the Divine compassion to allow me remain till the Sunday morning daylight, as the storm was terrific. I thought that the vessel would be safer in the trough of the sea than running before-Such storm. I could not sleep nor rest. I have doubt that the mate and the man in the cabin must have seen my countenance, and have known that there was something in the expression of my countenance that was never seen before, and could change will, before so determined to accomplish that voyage, that I had two occasions commenced. I  will leave you to judge what it must change the will of a man in such circumstances. I suffered for eight days. On the 8th day  I felt more easy, and turned the ship, and other person had anything with the changing the ship. The mate never dared to take the responsibility from me and no one has taken charge of the ship, and from that moment gave the command square yards and change her head every one of the men has obeyed my orders, and we had a favourable wind. I detected the hand ofProvidence in this, and when we arrived offLundyIsland, said that the ship would be port that night. Everything came I foretold, and the officers of the ship have seen things in that ship that cannot account for. I can see and account for them. The will of the Lord has been accomplished. But do not think I have seen any form, or vision, or bodily shape of any kind. I have known nothing but the Christian feeling, that still small voice, which spoke audibly.”

The Captain declined calling witnesses, saying that he stood entirely his own responsibility ; and, whatever the law inflicted he was prepared to suffer. Mr Britain, on behalf of the board, announced their decision as follows : That this board do report to the Board Trade as follows:—That Captain Henry Mathias, late master the barque Usk, of Newport, on a voyage that vessel from Newport to Caldera, which voyage commenced on about, the lst day of June last, did, when the Said vessel had arrived off or near Cape Horn, whilst under mental delusion, and without any proper or sufficient cause or reason, instead of proceeding on the said voyage, put the said vessel back, and returned with her to Newport aforesaid ; and that this board considers Captain still labouring under such delusion, and incompetent to take charge act as master of any ship or vessel, and this board doth therefore cancel the certificate of the said Captain Mathias.” Mr Brittan then directed the captain to send his certificate to tie offices of the board, and the proceedings terminated.

Things turn a bit spookier with this story:

Dover Express 23 January 1864  p4


On Saturday dispatch from the British consul at Coquimbo was received by the Secretary of the Board Trade, announcing the destruction by fire of the English barque Usk, while on a voyage fromSwanseato Huasco. Before giving the details of the dispatch, it may be stated that this was the unfortunate ship which put back early last year from Cape Horn England in consequence of the captain seeing, as he alleged, a vision on the ocean which warned him not to proceed any further on the voyage, and that in the event of his persisting, both he and the ship would be sent to perdition. The vessel’s return to Cardiff, after lapse of nearly six months, in good seaworthy condition, naturally astonished the owners, more especially when they heard the curious story which had operated upon the captain’s mind in putting the ship back when she had nearly reached her destination.

A Board of Trade inquiry was instituted into the captain’s conduct. The crew were examined, and they spoke of him being a very careful and sober master, although somewhat eccentric in his manner, and when they found that had put the ship back without any reason for so doing, the chief mate remonstrated with him, and endeavoured to take charge, which the captain resisted placing him in irons. The captain was examined he solemnly declared that after what had appeared to him he could not on ; it was the vision the Lord, and he was bid not to go on.

The result of the inquiry was that his certificate was cancelled. A new master was appointed to the ship, and she sailed second time on the voyage. What happened to her will be gathered from the subjoined document:— 44 British Consulate, Dec. 3, 1803. “Sir, have inform you that the barque Usk, from Swansea to Huasco, took fire on the 16th of November last, and was abandoned the following day in lat. 33 S, long. 10. The vessel sailed from Swansea on the 16th of July, and nothing of importance occurred on the voyage up to 5 a. m. on the 16th of November, when smoke was seen coming out of the hatches, and four tons of blasting powder were taken from the hold and thrown overboard.

At p.m. an explosion took place. The boats were then got out, and at 7 p.m. the ship, being full of smoke fore and aft, was put under easy sail, with her head towards the main land. At p.m. the crew left the ship, and the boats were towed all night. At sa.m. of the 17th flames were seen issuing out of the after hatchway, but in conscience of heavy sea, and the vessel being full of smoke, she could not be boarded. Both boats were then cut adrift, and steered for the mainland. The mate, six seamen and a passenger arrived at this port on the 21st ultimo, having been picked up in the long boat by the Chilian schooner Guayacan the previous day. The master and remainder of the crew reached Caldera on the 24th ult. The sole cause of the fire appears to have been the spontaneous combustion of the coal composing the cargo. am, &c.,

G. A. F. Tait,  Acting Consul. The Secretary Marine Department, Board of Trade, Whitehall

This added much to the folklore of the sea and exaggerated stories circulated.  The ever unreliable Elliott O’ Donnell told the tale in chapter 30 of his Strange Sea Mysteries (Bodley Head 1926), which moves the account from the autumn of 1862 to the spring of 1863,  has imaginary conversations, and now the inner voice had become “…a strange sight at sea. It was a great and beautiful spirit form, which he took to be divine, standing alongside the vessel” issuing a pre-emptory command”

This version is summarised in R I Hadfield’s “The Phantom Ship” also published by Geoffrey Bles in 1937, only now suggesting that the mate had also seen the spirit.

I am sure that I have seen even more exaggerated accounts but can’t lay my hands on them. — Peter Rogerson.

Taken to the Limits, Part 2. Peter Rogerson

Taken to the Limits – Part Two (Magonia 23, July 1986, pp. 3 – 12.

The new ‘folk devil’ of the dope fiend or the glue-sniffer carries on the tradition of the demonaic – the addict is ‘possessed’ by the drug and thence radically marginalised; he becomes the embodiment of all those anti-structural indecipherable aspects of the human, which we do not publicly display. The dope-fiend/demoniac is in Turner’s terms in a state of chronic hyper-liminality and closely associated, in many people’s eyes, is the stereotyped ‘brainwashed’, zombie cult member.

J. Gordon Melton has described the conversion and often superficially bizarre behaviour of cult members in terms of liminality [11]. The image of the cult member has been compared with that of the demoniac and ascribed distinguishing marks such as glassy eyes, Moonie Rash, Moonie Odour, ‘thousand mile smile’, monotone voice, reduction of peripheral vision, and in one case “a beam of red light shot out of her eyes”. To rid them of such stigmata, deprogrammers imprison cult members, keeping them away from other family members lest they pollute them, lock doors and windows lest they be enchanted away into wilderness. The return to the cult thus signifies a withdrawal from the psychological habitat of relatives and friends.

The haunted house reverses the stereotype of the home as the bastion of order: the ‘Englishman’s Castle’ keeping the wilderness at bay by powerful psychological and cultural moats and drawbridges. This reversal reminds one of the Fipa notion that the interior of the hut partakes something of the character of the wilderness: a domain of what is private, dark and obscure, cut off from conscious knowledge and control – a region of “women, sexuality and death” and the “secret anti-intellectual life of lawless passions” [2]. The Fipa realise that all too often castles have dungeons. To them there is in the secret heart of every habitat and every person, an interior wilderness.

To understand the full import of the image of the haunted house as a ‘disorderly house’ on the sort of people who corresponded with the early SPR, we must remember that the house as secure habitat was the sign of respectability, of emergence from the wilderness of the rough masses, from whose cheerless habitations escape was to the gin shop and music hall. The ghost, the insistent voice of ‘history’ refusing to remain buried, threatened a reversal of the historical, progressive habitat-creating process, and a reversion to the wilderness of the unacknowledged ancestors.


Mediums like Daniel Home,
halfway along the road from shaman to super-star,
were themselves examples of the chronically liminal

The Victorian seance was an occasion of liminality. Mediums like Daniel Home, halfway along the road from shaman to super-star, were themselves examples of the chronically liminal. Home himself is an excellent example: a strange sick childhood, a history of visions and wild talents, ambiguous sexuality and for much of his life a nomadic, permanent house-guest existence. He floated between the interfaces of Victorian society, occupying the court-jester’s role of confidant and trickster-in-chief to the royal and famous. From his position of chronic liminality, Home became the ‘medium’ between the living and dead.

But for the Victorians all too often the dead came from the secret world of the wilderness, not from the celestial Mechanics’ Institutes. In the seance room the ancestors reanimated the pantomime of the village wakes, rough bawdy and boisterousness. They banged tambourines and hit people on the head with trumpets, in fact played the sorts of jokes that the ancestors as they really were played – not how the bowdlerised Family Bible lists told it. In the liminality of the seance room the boundaries between living/dead, reality/hallucination, possible/impossible, even the boundaries of physical and psychological individuality were blurred, and sometimes fell. The bounds were broken in a sort of carnival in which the living and the dead were joined together. It is hardly surprising that under the enchantment of liminality even sceptics like Sir David Brewster reported signs and wonders – only for them to fall beneath the disenchanting dawn of daylight reason, common sense and structure, when the shipboard romance with the dead was over.

The descriptions of deprogrammers holding the ‘brainwashed’ cult members in sealed cabins where the cult/wilderness cannot seduce them, is more than reminiscent of the procedures used to capture and hold those enchanted by the fairies. It will be remembered that Turner described communitas as nature in dialogue with structure”: our encounter with the wilderness requires mediating figures.

Fairies make excellent mediators. They mediate between matter and spirit, in that whilst they are insubstantial shape changers, they are mortal, give birth and eventually fade away.

They mediate between habitat and wilderness, structure and communitas. They reside either in the wilderness or parts of habitat that have fallen back into the wilderness, such as raths, deserted churches, etc. However, they possess a structured society of their own, often inverted to the ‘normal’ – nocturnal and matriarchal – and maintain an interest in human affairs. They mediate between the polarities of good and evil, encapsulated in the tradition that they are fallen angels, too bad for heaven, too good for hell.

They mediate between the human and divine, as both elevated ancestors (the ghosts of the prehistoric dead) and fallen gods.

The fairies fall into two broad types: the trooping, who maintain their own counter-structure deep in the wilderness; and the solitary, who have little society and can be domesticated by humans.

The fairies take people who are in a state of liminality, at “the time between time”, “between night and day when the Fairy King has power”, people who happen to have strayed into places where the fences between wilderness and civilization are particularly weak. The fairies abduct mortals to Tir-Na-Nog – Magonia – the dreamtime of timeless liminality and communitas – a sort of endless end-of-term party. Magonia seduces men, such as the legendary Fianna of Ireland, from martial duty, and women from housewifely and maternal duty. From the perspective of the society from which they are taken they are either physically or socially dead (‘not the person I knew’: the complaint made by the parents of cult victims). They become wild, wanton, feral, unkempt: they have joined what the Greeks called the ‘exotika’, those from ‘out there’ [25] In our society such people may be called ‘mad’ or depressed, but is this not just the substitution of the vocabulary of one culture for another? In some psychologies, such as Laing’s, madness itself is seen as a creative process, a necessary period of liminality.

The ritual for the recapture of the ‘taken’ (whether in rural Ireland or by modern ‘deprogrammers’ is a reorientation into the world of structure and societas, ensuring that the ‘victim’ returns to his (or more usually her) appointed social role. Of course, given the conditions of the people when the fairy faith flourished it may be doubted if the victim was always happy about such a ‘rescue’! The dream of being taken by fairies, gypsies or demon lovers may have played the role in peasant societies that soap-operas and Mills and Boon romances do in ours: that of a romantic liberation from the drudgeries and routine of a life of structure.

Magonia itself was an ambiguous place. From the enchanted perspective of liminality and communitas it was a golden palace of great aristocrats; from the disenchanted perspective of structure and ‘daylight reason and commonsense’ it was often portrayed as a dank cave or the grave. But the fairy tradition could never agree as to which was the ‘really true’ picture. That would have meant a truly intolerable plumping for either communitas or societas. [29.30]

The descriptions of being taken, the often discontented, half-fey, behaviour of those who are (forced to?) return is extremely reminiscent of the Near Death Experience. Death is the supreme moment of marginality and liminality. The entry into the realm of the dead, down a long tunnel, is a sort of initiation ceremony, a symbolic re-birth. The land of the dead in the majority of these accounts too is clearly Magonia, the land of idealised, happy ancestors, the place of perfect communitas.

The Near Death Experience (NDE) straddles the fence between the world of the living and the dead. The experient has entered the ‘second world’ and on returning gains shamanic powers.

In the traditional, static society, the shaman alone gains power, and is a transformed individual in a static world. In the dynamic, transforming world the returning shaman often becomes a prophet preaching ‘the world turned upside-down’ in transforming liminality in which the rich, powerful, urban and corrupt are swept away, and the saving remnant will establish on Earth the communitas of Magonia.

The ‘solitary fairy’ represents the mirror image of this: it can be domesticated, though will always display tell-tale signs of wilderness, which manifest in secret. For example, the fairy wife may have goat’s legs or a fish’s tale, only visible at certain times when her husband is not allowed to pry. It is his violation of this ‘secret heart of things’ which sends her back into the wilderness.

The sasquatch exists in the liminal zone between socially constructed rational reality and the ‘goblin universe’ of wild anomalies

This solitary fairy is close to the ‘wild-man’, l’homme sauvage, the apeman or Bigfoot. The American Bigfoot is yet another excellent mediating symbol between humankind and wild nature or reality and non-reality. For Marjorie Halpin the sasquatch exists in the liminal zone between socially constructed rational reality and the ‘goblin universe’ of wild anomalies. It is part of the ‘uncanny’ which crashes in on us in marginal situations such as twilight (when the Elfin King holds power), and sensory deprivation. Sasquatch straddles and incorporates boundaries such as being/not-being and mind/matter. A creature of the mind which leaves a huge footprint, a message of man’s animal nature on the ground. [33] Monsters exist in the liminal regions between habitat and the wilderness, mountain peaks, water, and fissures in the ground through which power emerges. Monsters are associated with liminal regions because both constitute ruptures in the fabric of ordinary classification [34].

Monsters manifest their marginal quality by their ‘other-worldly’ elusiveness. In this they mediate between the natural and spiritual – the primitive, hairy, asocial character of the ‘manimal’ signifies the ‘regression’ to brute strength, ‘gross animality’ of man gone to the wilderness, yet the elusive, semi-magical quality hints at the ethereal wilderness of the dark spirits. [35,36]. Bigfoot lives in the ‘waste places’ of the earth, the forests and high mountains. Yet in much folkore he is coming into town, like the urban fox, trading the wilderness.

The central appeal of the mystery animal is the survival of wilderness – the reminder that there really are savage and unexplored places, holes in the maps which claim the whole world for habitat [37]. In the secret heart of Africa, where even python and pangolin fear to go there are beast of the prehistoric, cousins of the saurians of the watery depths [37,38,39]. Even in England’s green and pleasant land pumas stalk the tidy gardens of Surrey, that most archetypically suburban of counties.

The sea-serpent and the lake monster derive their power in the imagination from their presumed prehistoric survival. Paul Lester and Roger Grimshaw point out that the Loch Ness Monster’s huge body and small head points to an excess of instinct over reason, desire over restraint – heightened by the long, phallic neck [40]. The very existence of such a prehistoric survival in defiance of the scientific establishment challenges the complacency of our view of the world [41].

Yet there is something else about lake monsters which is always overlooked. In the old tradition they were water horses or kelpies which, like the Great Selchie of Sule Skerne, were a beast on the waters but a man upon the land, capable of begetting a child on a human girl. In the traditional tales just such a child – mediator between humankind and the natural world – is killed by a ‘gunner true’, an excellent symbol of structure, habitat, daylight reason and common sense. This murder is a sort of ‘cosmic catastrophe’ which sunders man from the natural world, which regresses into something utterly inhuman, prehistoric and saurian – the protean beast of the waters of the first chaos. Thus alienated from the natural world, humanity sees it as something hostile, alien and ‘other’; to be exorcised as at Loch Ness.

We can draw a table to represent this progressive descent into the wilderness of the past:


Personal past  – Spirits of séance, ‘Ruth’
Remembered Past  – Ghosts
Unremembered Past  – Fairies
Presocietal Past  — Alma, wildman, demons, poltergeist
Prehuman past   – Manimals, Bigfoot. ABS
Premammalian past – Sea serpents, Loch Ness monster

Perhaps, somewhere in the category where we assigned the fairies lie the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and other religious personages. The BVM is not only a mediator between God and man, but as William Christian [42] points out, she mediates between the local society and the forces of nature, both in terms of weather, devastation and disease, and in terms of the natural round of birth and death. The image of the mother and child is a symbol of the power of nature on the human body.

The Virgin is encountered, or her image found, at liminal spots, such as trees and mountains which connect with the sky; or caves and springs which link to the underworld. In these threshold places energy is exchanged between the supernatural world and the world of man. Most of the supernaturally found images were discovered by domestic animals, a part of nature built in to culture; the overwhelming number of human intermediaries were herdsmen, the most ‘wild’ of humans.

Much of these insights clearly applies to modern visions of the BVM, witnesses often being children of the rural lumpenproletariat, partly wild and close to nature. As in the early Spanish cases, the image of the BVM is only distinguished from the local ghosts and fairies by the adult structure of the church [43]. The Virgin preaches a message of submission to the liminality of poverty, chastity and obedience; as well as the overthrow of the current structure in a period of millenial liminality.

At first sight it appears difficult to fit the UFO into this scheme. After all, as a super-machine it appears to be the epitome of structure and habitat. One could agree with the late F. W. Halliday that the UFO/disc is the natural antithesis to the dragon/sea-serpent:

From the Sky
From the far future
Ufonauts heve big heads, small bodies, representing an excess of reason

Sea Serpent:
From the deep water
from the distant past
Small heads, large bodies, instinct over reason

The iconography on which Holliday based much of his argument represents the struggle of the solar-god against the primal dragon of chaos, the supreme symbol of the struggle of light, reason, order and habitat against darkness, instinct, chaos and wilderness.

But readers of Magonia know that there is much of the wilderness in the UFO. Above all the UFO ‘comes from space’, the ‘final frontier’, the ultimate absolute wilderness. The UFO is therefore the grand mediator between absolute habitat and absolute wilderness, past and future.

Though the UFO represents a technology, it is increasingly observed as part of the wilderness. Humanity is no longer seen as fashioning machines, but machines are seen as fashioning mankind. Modern cities are described as urban jungles. The machine and the urban jungle become the artificial wilderness, which needs mediators. Furthermore, UFOs are super-technology, their silence, ambiguous quality, selectivity and elusiveness speak of the supernatural.

If UFOs are seen as coming from outer-space, they are also seen as coming from such interior locations as the human mind or the hollow-earth; they mediate between outer and inner wilderness, between mind and matter, between dream and reality; between being and not-being.

The car’s habitat role is ambiguous: the sexual activity of courting couples or the aggressive impulses of the lone driver can convert it into every bit as much a zone of interior wilderness as a Fipa’s hut

The typical UFO experience takes place in the liminal time between night and day, either in the wild places, or in the liminal boundary between habitat and wilderness. One chief theme is the night car journey: the car represents a fragment of habitat penetrating the wilderness. As transitions from one place to another, journeys themselves are episodes of liminality. As Rogan Taylor points out [13] all travel tales are recapitulations of the shamans journey to the underworld and back. The Romance of the Open Road, wherein ghosts and ghoulies are met [45] is a secularised version of this heroic journey, phantom hitch-hikers the shaman’s spirit guide or even spirit wife. Furthermore, the car’s habitat role is ambiguous: the sexual activity of courting couples or the aggressive impulses of the lone driver can convert it into every bit as much a zone of interior wilderness as a Fipa’s hut. The car represents a perpetual liminal zone.

There are slower ways habitat can venture out into the wilderness: building developments which encroach on wild nature, such as the Benilee Estate in Staffordshire [46] or Runcorn New Town, or the trailer parks which mark the outer limits of many American cities, prominent in much ufological lore.

Many witnesses in European and South American cases seem to fit Christians’ description of ‘those closest to the wilderness’ – a hallmark of the ‘sincere’ UFO witness being illiteracy and lack of urban sophistication. An excellent example is the French witness discussed by Bertrand Meheust and Thierry Pinvidic [47], who was described as an orphaned outsider living with adoptive parents, barely literate, almost ‘simple’, but wise in the ways of nature and animal tracks, a true homme sauvage like Victor, the ‘wild boy’ of Aveyron, and a shaman-to-be. His UFO encounter takes place while gathering mushrooms in a wild place halfway up a mountain – afterwards he develops shamanic powers.

The UFO experience, let us interpret it as ‘radical misperception’, itself throws the percipient into a state of liminality, sometimes described as conceptual rape. The ‘misperception’ breaks down the fences of socially determined consensus reality, projecting the percipient into the wilderness where they are dramatically confronted with the fact that there is ‘an outside’, a numinous, powerful domain beyond the exorcising power of scientists and newspaper headlines.

It is not surprising that this should lead to spontaneous experiences of classical liminality which are called ‘UFO abductions’ [48]. Remember how Turner described classical initiatory liminality as bing ground down, stripped of rank and possession, subject to the absolute will of an initiation master. It is in the UFO abduction, rather than the saccharine Near Death Experience, where this classic initiation is best represented, and where in our western society we come closest to extreme liminality, as an anomalous, passive patient in an authoritarian medical examination. And where are these liminal experiences recovered? – in a ‘hypnotic trance’ where social expectation reduces the the hypnotised to a state of extreme liminality, passive instrument of the master hypnotist.

The real medical examination is a sort of ritual ordeal, after which the patient is returned to structure having changed states from ‘ill’ to ‘well’, his ‘well being’ proclaimed to the guardians of status and structure.

The abductee is a shaman-initiate, in transition to a new state of consciousness: the one who has been ‘outside’ so as to truly know what it means to be ‘inside’.
One can speculate further on the connections between nuts-and-bolts ufology and structure, as contrasted with the ‘New Ufology’ as communitas. In static periods of retrenchment such as the 1950′s or 1980′s the UFO is seen as a concrete, mechanical force; in liminal periods such as the 1960′s it is seen as diffuse and ‘supernatural’.

Much of what Clark and Coleman in their classic The Unidentified ascribed to the unconscious can btter be seen as expressions of liminality, communitas, and wilderness. The authors took the romantic road, lamenting over society’s failure to acknowledge the secret, Dionysian heart of our own life: we stand in peril, the unacknowledged wilderness may crash in on us so hard that it will sweep all aside.

Fortean phenomena and paranormal experiences, then, are the necessary anomalies which remind us of the limits of the known. They emerge in twilight, marginal situations when either individual or collective crises open up gaps in the fences of social reality to a domain of wilderness. We can slip through the gap, and hopefully return transformed, or power from the outside can ‘crash-in’ and transform our lives. We may react in terror, sensing a threat to the integrity of the rational world, or we may react with joy, believing that we see what is really real, and dream of re-enacting that reality in the world of habitat.

If Fortean phenomena belong to the world of wilderness or to the liminal zone between habitat and wilderness, they are not going to be explained or proven. We can either exorcise them so as to tidy up habitat, try to capture them with ‘explanations’ and ‘proof’ and drag them into habitat where they will loose much of their power, or we can stand wondering facing the breeze from beyond the limits in our face, perhaps trembling at the though of what lies within the interior and exterior wilderness impinging upon the torus of habitat.

Even Charles Fort never thought of that: rationality as a cosmic donut.



1. DUERR, Hans Peter. Dreamtime; concerning the boundaries between wilderness and civilization, Oxford, Blackwell 1985.
2. WILLIS, Roy. Man and Beast, Hart-Davis, Mac-Gibbon, 1971.
3. For these general topics see also any social and economic history; of special interest are: STORCH, Robert D. (Ed.) Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth Century England, Croome Helm, 1982 and CUNNINGHAM, Hugh. Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, Croome Helm, 1980.
4. Some of these themes are discussed in: DUDLEY, Edward and NOVAK, Maximillian E. The Wildman Within, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
5. BERGER Peter. The Sacred Canopy: elements of a sociological theory of religion, Doubleday, 1969.
7. CARRINGTON, Hereward. True Ghost Stories. Werner Laurie, 1916.
8. GUIDHAM, Arthur. Obsession, Spearman, 1972.
9. DE MARTINO, Ernest. Magic, Primitive and Modern, Stacey, 1972.
10. Derived from the account of Bergerian thought in: MARTIN, Bernice. A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change, Blackwell, 1983.
11. TURNER, Victor W. The Ritual Processes, Routledge, 1969.
12 This account of liminality was compiled from references 10 and 11, and from MELTON, J Gordon and MOORE, Robert L. The Cult Experience, Pilgrim Press, 1982.
13. TAYLOR, Rogan P. The Death and Resurrection Show; from shaman to super-star, Blond, 1985.
14. ERIKSON, Karl. Wayward Puritans Wiley, 1966.
15. COHEN, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics, MacGibbon & Kee, 1972.
16. CHIBNALL, Steve. Law and Order News, Tavistock, 1977.
17. WALLIS, Roy Salvation and Protest, F. Pincer, 1979.
18. ZURCHER, Louis A and KIRKPATRICK, R George. Citizens for Decency Univ. of Texas Press, 1976.
19. CONDON, Edward U. ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’ in Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Bantam, 1969.
20. FORT, Charles. Book of the Damned.
21. PEARSON, Geoffrey. Hooligan; a history of respectable fears, Macmillan, 1983.
22. GAUL D, Alan and CORNELL, A. D. Poltergeists RKP, 1979.
23. OWEN, George, Can We Explain the Poltergeist?, Helix Press, 1964.
24. ROLL, William G. The Poltergeist, Star, 1976.
25. CRAMER, Mark, The Devil Within, W H Allen, 1979.
26. GOODMAN, Felicitas D. The Exorcism of Annelise Michel, Doubleday, 1981.
27. SHUPE, Anson D. The New Vigilantes; deprogrammers, anti-cultists and the new religion sects, Sage, 1980.
28. BLUM, Richard and Eva, The Dangerous Hour, Chatto, 1970
29. BRIGGS, Katharine, The Vanishing People, Batsford, 1978.
30. GREGORY, Lady. Vision and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Colin Smyth, 1970.
31. RING, Kenneth, Heading Towards Omega, Morrow, 1984.
32 GREY, Margaret, Return from the Dead, Arkana, 1985.
33. HALPIN, Marjorie M. and AMES. Michael (Eds.) ‘Investigating the Goblin Universe’ in Manlike Monsters on Trial, Univ. of British Columbia Press, 1980.
34. BUCKLEY, Thomas. ‘Monsters and the Quest for Balance in Native Northwest California’ in 33.
35. SLATE, B. A. and BERRY, Alan, Bigfoot, Bantam, 1976.
36. CLARK, Jerome and COLEMAN, Loren. Creatures of the Outer Edge, Warner, 1978.
37. HEUVELMANS, B. On the Track of Unknown Animals, Paladin, 1970.
38. The python was a sacred animal of the Fipa, the pangolin of the Lele.
39. MACKAL, Roy. Searching for Hidden Animals, Codogan, 1983.
40. GRIMSHAW, Roger and LESTER, Paul, The Meaning of the Loch Ness Monster, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Univ. of Birmingham, 1976.
41. LESTER, Paul, The Great Sea Serpent Controversy, Protean Pub., 1984.
42 CHRISTIAN, William A. Jnr. Apparitions in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Spain, Princton U. Press, 1981.
43. McCLURE, Kevin, The Evidence for Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Aquarian, 1983.
44. HOLIDAY, F.W. The Dragon and the Disc, Sidgewick & Jackson, 1973.
45. GOSS, Michael,The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-hikers. Aquarian, 1984.
46. STANWAY, Antony and PACE, Roger, Unidentified, Undeniable, BUFORA, 1971
47. MEHEUST, Bertrand and PINVIDIC, Thierry. Presentation to the 1986 Anglo-French UFO Colloquium.
48. RIMMER, John. The Evidence for Alien Abductions, Aquarian, 1983.
49. CLARK, Jerome and COLEMAN, Loren, The Unidentified, Warner, 1973.
50. GINZBURG, Carlo. The Night Battles, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.


Taken to the Limits, Part 1. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia New Series 23, July 1986, pp. 3 – 12.

The origins of this study go back to the beginnings of my association with MUFOB, as an attempt to understand the emotional power behind the extreme scepticism of authors such as Patrick Moore. It is perhaps also a meditation on my own childhood night terrors.

In analysing human societies, anthropologists have often found it useful to study the interaction between human beings and wild nature. They have chosen to call these two realms ‘habitat’ and ‘wilderness’. A term such as ‘habitat’ implies far more than a geographical settlement: it is the ‘fenced in’ [1] zone of rational, ordered life; the domain under the control of human reason and ingenuity – the known, the familiar, the ordered and tame. It is the world of “daylight reason and commonsense”. ‘Wilderness’ therefore is the opposition to the rational, ordered world. It is the world of untamed nature outside the boundaries of habitation, the domain of the unknown, of passion and sexuality, of ‘the unconscious’, the secret heart of things, chaos, disorder and the ‘supernatural’.

Habitat is forged out of wilderness and chaos by a sustained effort. The attitude of the Fipa of Tanzania is typical of many agricultural societies, traditional Christendom, and much contemporary rationalism. The world is divided into the principles of open rationality, symbolised by the head, and secret sexuality, symbolised by the loins. The ideal of the community is the subduing of the forces of nature: this task is delegated to specialist ‘doctors’.

However, the community is haunted by fear of the apostate doctor, who will ally himself with those natural forces he is supposed to subdue. He is black-hearted, carried about upside-down by his wife while working evil in the village, can assume the shape of wild beasts such as leopard or hyena, and commands the bush creatures to invade the huts of his victim. [2]. Powers such as these were later attributed to Dracula.

The fear that the special guardians of a culture are secretly in league with the forces destroying it, and are guilty of violating society’s most sacred taboos is still a very present one. Thus members of the State Department were accused of being communists by McCarthy; doctors and clergymen (guardians of our bodies and souls) are accused in Parliament of being child-molesters. (An excellent example of the ambiguous nature of the ‘doctors’ who guard habitat against wilderness is provided by the ‘benandante’ or ‘good-walkers’ of 16th-17th century Fruili in Italy. These were people born with a caul, who when summoned by an angelic bedroom-visitor, went out in OOBE form to defend the crops against bands of witches. The inquisition finally turned the benandante themselves into witches).

The Victorians held similar attitudes to the Fipa. The task of civilisation was to subdue ‘animality’ by ‘reason’. The 18th century enclosures of ‘wilderness’ common spaces was speeded up; habitat in the form of canals and railways thrust deeper into the wilderness; the internal proletariat was subdued by Methodism, temperance, sabbatarianism, factory discipline, the new borough and county police forces; bull baiting, ale-house brawls, etc. were to be replaced by ‘rational recreations’ such as lectures on steam-hammers at the Mechanics Institute, Public Libraries, and vicarage tea-parties with lantern-slides of the Holy Land. Imperialism and missionary activity subdued the ‘dark continent’. Both the aboriginal inhabitants of the colonial territories and the urban poor were ascribed sub-human, ‘animal’ status, and were seen as savage beasts to be tamed. Darkest Africa was paralleled by darkest England [3 a,b, 4].

The scientist was one of the leaders pushing habitat progressively out into the wilderness. However, in the eyes of many some scientists, Darwin particularly, and later Freud, played the role of ‘traitor’, reminding humankind of its essential physical and psychological wildness. The evil scientist was to replace the witch as the ‘dark doctor’ of the imagination.

The sociologist and theologian Peter Berger has discussed this precarious habitat. His habitat is the whole cosmos of ordered, meaningful, socially constructed reality, which he calls the nomos. He argues that

“[In] marginal situations [such as] commonly occur in dreams and fantasy [there] may appear on the horizon of consciousness haunting suspicions that the world may have another aspect than its normal one; that is that previously accepted definitions of reality may be fragile or even fraudulent. Such suspicions extend to the identity of self and others. Every socially defined reality must face the constant possibility of collapse into anomie. The marginal situations, paramount amongst them death, reveal the innate precariousness of all social worlds. Every nomos is an area of meaning carved out of a vast mass of meaninglessness, a small clearing in a formless dark, always ominous jungle. [From] the perspective of the individual the nomos represents the bright ‘day-side’ of life tenuously held onto against the sinister shadow of the ‘night’. Every nomos is a edifice erected in the face of potent and alien forces of chaos [which] must be kept away at all costs. To ensure this every society develops procedures to assist its members to remain ‘reality-orientated’” [5]

To Berger the primary act of ‘reality-orientating’ is the parental reassurance that “everything is all right”, that there really are no terrors in the night, or at least that they do not hold power, and that the world is ultimately rational, orderly and even comforting. That such a reassurance can be give at all in good faith is for Berger evidence of a transcendent meaning to the universe – a ‘rumour of angels’. Much of the power of the supernatural in both ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ lies in the apprehension that the reassurance is fraudulent and that:

“… the terror of the dark which we all have, more or less, from which every child suffers [and] which is, to a certain extent, shared by animals, even by insects [is sustained by] in every truth, a terrible reality … that evil and horrible things lurk about us in the still, weird hours of the night, that there are truly ‘powers and principalities’, a true tyranny of the dark.” [7]

The defence against these ‘evil and horrible things’ from the internal and external wilderness can take extreme forms. There are the obsessive rituals described by Arthur Guirdham as being carried out by patients who felt they were being threatened by objective evil. [8] As Ernest de Martino argues [9] what is at stake in marginal situations is our very sense of being-in-the-world and the very foundations of reality. In tribal societies the ‘promise’ in the world is maintained through the shaman’s ritual. In modern, Western societies it is perhaps guaranteed by parents, priests, scientists, doctors and the whole of bureaucratic education. In our highly structured, literate world we at least have the partial illusion of having a secure reality. For those in cultures where much of day-to-day life is insecure, reality may be more fluid, allowing magic and miracles or occur.

In tribal societies the ‘promise’ in the world is maintained through the shaman’s ritual; in modern, Western societies it is perhaps guaranteed by parents, priests, scientists, doctors and the whole of bureaucratic education

In the Berger/de Martino viewpoint the chaos is literally awe-full, and humankind erects boundaries between itself and the chaos. Nomoi are dikes against infinity and ultimate chaos [10]. It is hard to resist Bernice Martin’s critique that Berger is almost wholly negative [10]; indeed there is an equally important tradition that sees the wilderness as the ‘true’ reality, that of habitat as somehow fake.

This is the view of another East African tribe, the Lele [1]. The Lele are hunters who live in villages that are hot and dusty in the dry season, unpleasantly hot in the wet. They view the village life, with its complex game of social relationships, as inauthentic and subordinate to the forest, the source of all good things, and the zone of  “the secret anarchic heart of man in relation to his fellows” and the “hidden, communal side of man’s nature”. (Or at least Lele men feel this, for the forest is the preserve of men, and to hunt in the forest is a penetration of a secret, feminine place). For the Lele, human affairs are controlled by mysterious forces in the non-human realm of the forest; mediated by the minghe, the spirits that live in the deepest part of the forest farthest from human habitation, or by the sacred pangolin.

Parallels in our own history include medieval Christendom where ‘this world’ is but a poor reflection of the transcendent world of Heaven and Hell; or the Romantic vision of the free, natural man, bound by the chains of society.

A central theme of many cultures is the need to enter the wilderness to gain wisdom and return to the zone of habitat. As Duerr puts it: “In order to live within the order… in order to be consciously tame and domesticated, one had to have lived in the wilderness. One could only know what inside meant if one had been outside ” [1].

In order to explore this theme further an extremely useful guide will be the anthropologist Victor Turner’s concept of liminality. Turner derives his thesis from Arnold von Geunep’s study of rites of passage. In such a rite there are three stages:

1. Separation from the ordinary world
2. Margin – stripping of the previous identity and ritual grinding down of individual differences
3. Aggregation – period of reintegration.

Turner calls the central marginal phrase the liminal period (from Latin, limen – a margin or threshold). The liminal period is a betwixt and between time, the ‘time between time’, a period of flux and transition.

During liminality the neophyte is ground down, made anew, granted special powers. Liminality is often compared with death, being in the womb, invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, wilderness, and eclipse of the sun and moon. In contrast to the outside world of hierarchy, status and structure, those in the liminal period experience society and social interaction as spontaneous, immediate, relative and undifferentiated, and reflecting the deep generic bond between individuals. This experience Turner labels communitas as opposed to the outside world of status or societas.

Turner lists a set of features separating liminality from status society:


  1. Transition
  2. Totality
  3. Communitas
  4. Equality
  5. Anonymity
  6. Absense of property and status
  7. Nakedness or uniform clothing
  8. Sexual continence or orgy
  9. Total obedience
  10. Sacredness


  1. State
  2. Partiality
  3. Structure
  4. Inequality
  5. System of nomenclature
  6. Presence of property and status
  7. Distinction of clothing
  8. Nuclear sexuality
  9. Obedience only to superior rank
  10. Secularity

Pure communitas, experienced as sacred sharing and total community, cannot be planned, it is spontaneous, ‘magical’. Attempts prolong it by creative ‘nomative’ or ‘ideological’ communitas tend to lead into a ‘fall’ into ‘structure’, which tends either to fall apart ‘when prophecy fails’, or to become rigid, highly authoritarian structures.

By now of course the reader will realise that the wilderness, the ‘dark secret heart of things’ the source of man’s ‘hidden communal being’, is the place of communitas.

In today’s society, liminality is diffuse, and will usually only display limited aspects of itself as defined above. Thus recent historical examples of liminality can be seen in such apparently polar opposites as conscripted military service and hippie communes. Most liminality occurs spontaneously, as in courtship, bereavement and reactions to traumatic and marginalising situations.

In the contemporary world liminality may affect the whole of society. Martin argued that the nineteen-sixties were a period of collective liminality: indeed as liminality is the zone of flux and transformation, the whole of our ever-changing society can be regarded as liminal. Being even bolder we might argue that what T. S. Kuhn calls revolutionary science is a prime example of liminality.In the liminal state individuals are either ecstatically expelled from the socially constructed world of status, structure and commonsense into the wilderness to be transformed or bring back power from outside; or the fences of habitat are breached to let the power in. There must be creative balance between societas and communitas, as Turner argues:

“Spontaneous communitas has something ‘magical’ about it [but] it is no substitute for lucid thought and sustained will. On the other hand, structured action swiftly becomes arid and mechanical if not if those involved are not periodically immersed in the regenerative abyss of communitas… Societas is not merely the chains in which man everywhere is bound, but the very cultural means that preserve the dignity and liberty as well as the bodily existence of every man woman and child. From the beginning of man in prehistory it is the very mark of man. That is not to say that spontaneous communitas is merely ‘nature’ [it] is nature in dialogue with structure, married to it as a woman is married to a man” [11]

Liminality therefore is both dangerous as well as addictive, as well as liberating and creative [12].

It seems to me that Turner and his commentators have not emphasised some points. Liminality is usually – if not always – associated with altered states of consciousness, often in traditional societies pharmacologically induced. The similarities between classical liminality and the hypnotic state are obvious. Spontaneous liminality in our culture is best associated with drunkenness. Liminality is often associated with a heightened sense of reality – either an ascent into ecstatic heights or a plunge into abysmal depths: the experience is “more real than real”. In positive communitas the participant feels immense euphoria, power: “great was it that morn to be alive”. Positive communitas seems associated with the ‘crash’ of the wilderness into societas, negative communitas associated with pre-planned ritual.

Turner and commentators also point out that there are, within society, those who are more or less permanently marginal – despised minorities, outcasts, fools, jesters, deviants, and above all, the shaman. Bernice Martin sees the rock star as the major liminal figure of our time, an inheritor of a tradition, according to Rogan Taylor [13], going right back to the shaman. As we have seen the shaman is precisely the ‘doctor’ who guards the borderlines of habitat, who has established a rapport with the incomprehensible, disease bringing forces of nature. He is the one who ventures out into the transforming wilderness of the underworld to guide those who are experiencing spontaneous liminality, and in his seances brings liminality and communitas into the structured habitat.

The shaman is often regarded as a deviant personality, a marginal figure – the outsider, dreamer and visionary, who “must go to another world to live in this one” [13]. It is clear that the shaman blends into the neccessary deviant who “draws people together in a common posture of anger and indignation to express anger and bear witness against the deviant” [14]. The rituals by which the deviant is judged and the places to which he or she is confined contain many features of liminality – courts are places of ordeal and examination, prisons and asylums enforce liminal features such as uniformity of dress and deprivation of will and property. The denunciation of the deviant creates an open declaration of the bounds and values of habitat. The deviant must enter the wilderness so that those left behind will appreciate the benefits of habitat, and control the dark, wild side of their own nature, lest they too be cast out.

Because rapid social change is itself a form of liminality [10, 13] it is profoundly disturbing: “to defenders of ‘structure’ all sustained manifestations of communitas will appear dangerous, anarchical and must be hedged around with prescriptions and prohibitions” [11) Under these circumstances certain kinds of deviant individuals and behaviour become symbolic demonic witch figures, whose very existence poses a threat to the integrity of habitat. They become 'folk devils', the incarnation of society's ills, hounded by the press [15,16]

Those with a high stake in the maintenance of structure are liable to launch moral crusades which often seek to maintain the traditional cultural values of society [17]. Such movements will often appeal to those sections of the community who see their economic or cultural status declining. The victories of the moral crusaders are often symbolic ones: for example it was sufficient for the Yankee puritans who sponsored the Prohibition amendment that “[they] had been successful in getting their law against the challengers publicly proclaimed, and it was their law the ‘drunk’ and ‘such people’ had to avoid.” [18]

The reader will immediately perceive that the Condon Enquiry and CSICOP are moral crusades.

Moral crusaders such as temperance reformers or anti-pornography campaigners see themselves as defending core cultural habitat values such as order, sobriety, rational-ity, self-restraint and respect for traditional values, against the forces of antinomian chaos. The reader will immediately perceive that the Condon Enquiry and CSICOP are moral crusades.

The Condon Enquiry was set up at a time of major student protests in the United States, and at a time when the status of the scientific community was suffering rapid decline. Condon explicitly linked his critique of ufology and pseudoscience with a rejection of permissive educational values:

“A related problem to which we wish to direct public attention is the miseducation in our schools which arises from the fact that many children are being allowed, if not actively encouraged, to devote their science study time to the reading of [sensationalised] UFO books and magazine articles … we feel that children are educationally harmed by absorbing unsound and erroneous material … not merely because of the erroneous nature of the material itself, but also because such study retards the development of a critical faculty with regard to scientific evidence, which to some degree ought to be part of the education of every American … Therefore we strongly recommend that teachers refrain from giving students credit for school work based on the presently available UFO books and magazine articles.” [19]

By the time CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – now known as CSI, Comitttee for Scientific Enquiry) was set up ten years later the status of the scientific community had fallen even further. CSICOP was in effect an association of the elite constructors and guardians of the socially constructed habitat of status society, which looking back at the quote from Turner, we can see was uniting against the encroaching forces of anti-nomian communitas symbolised by the ‘occult’ rivals to scientific orthodoxy, and the threatening nature of the anomalies themselves.

The anomalies challenged by CSICOP and other ‘sceptics’ are not the kind of technical anomalies with which scientists regularly deal, and with which they maintain an exclusive understanding. No, they are major ‘existential’ anomalies which share a common explicit or implicit denominator, in that they challenge the whole scientific-historical process active in the West since the seventeenth century. This is essentially a process of progressive ‘tidying-up’, enclosing and disenchanting the natural world. These anomalies also challenge the associated metaphysic of ‘possessive individualism’, which asserts the autonomy and power of the individual against the forces of wilderness. They are phenomena which the linear historicism of the Judeo-Christian tradition had already condemned as ‘pagan’ – pertaining to the wild world outside the gates of the celestial city. Both the rationalist sceptics and the romantic believers derive the motional power of their arguments from this rage of the anomaly as the disruptive but creative outsider.
Charles Fort equated his damned and excluded phenomena with the damned, excluded, marginalised, permanently liminal underclass of society, who have the licence to mock the rich, powerful and respectable.

The carnival dance of the marginalised lumpenproletariat, the successors of the shamans [23] is compared to the ‘Furious Horde’ of the dead visiting the community at certain seasons. For Fort, these damned data are what is excluded as habitat forges itself out of chaos. They are part of the primal messiness and are constant reminders of the temporariness, partiality and precariousness of this habitat of fixed structures. At any moment they may gatecrash our reality party bringing reminders of the wild world beyond the walls.

There are a range of terrors which our community half-recognises as the wild forces come in from the bush. Take the continuum hooligan/vandal [21] — poltergeist [22,24] — demonic possession [25, 26], in which the forces of wilderness invade, in turn, the city streets and outer habitat, the interior of the home, and lastly the inner sanctum of the personality.

The hooligan or vandal is frequently called an ‘animal’, their behaviour ‘mindless’ or ‘savage’. The hooligan threatens ordered society and mocks its structure; they break property, symbols of human ingenuity and creativity. So do poltergeists, whose activities are seen as a savage rampage in which the orderly world of the household is overturned. The demoniac represents the most frightening image of all, for the demoniac is wholly taken over by the forces of wild nature and is reduced to a pre-human, even pre-mammalian level, and becomes a ‘break in the fence’ by which the forces of the wild insinuate themselves into the community.

To understand the full import of the image of the haunted house as a ‘disorderly house’ on the sort of people who corresponded with the early SPR, we must remember that the house as secure habitat was the sign of respectability, of emergence from the wilderness of the rough masses, from whose cheerless habitations escape was to the gin shop and music hall. The ghost, the insistent voice of ‘history’ refusing to remain buried, threatened a reversal of the historical, progressive habitat-creating process, and a reversion to the wilderness of the unacknowledged ancestors.

Continue to Part Two >>>


1. DUERR, Hans Peter. Dreamtime; concerning the boundaries between wilderness and civilization, Oxford, Blackwell 1985.
2. WILLIS, Roy. Man and Beast, Hart-Davis, Mac-Gibbon, 1971.
3. For these general topics see also any social and economic history; of special interest are: STORCH, Robert D. (Ed.) Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth Century England, Croome Helm, 1982 and CUNNINGHAM, Hugh. Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, Croome Helm, 1980.
4. Some of these themes are discussed in: DUDLEY, Edward and NOVAK, Maximillian E. The Wildman Within, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
5. BERGER Peter. The Sacred Canopy: elements of a sociological theory of religion, Doubleday, 1969.
7. CARRINGTON, Hereward. True Ghost Stories. Werner Laurie, 1916.
8. GUIDHAM, Arthur. Obsession, Spearman, 1972.
9. DE MARTINO, Ernest. Magic, Primitive and Modern, Stacey, 1972.
10. Derived from the account of Bergerian thought in: MARTIN, Bernice. A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change, Blackwell, 1983.
11. TURNER, Victor W. The Ritual Processes, Routledge, 1969.
12 This account of liminality was compiled from references 10 and 11, and from MELTON, J Gordon and MOORE, Robert L. The Cult Experience, Pilgrim Press, 1982.
13. TAYLOR, Rogan P. The Death and Resurrection Show; from shaman to super-star, Blond, 1985.
14. ERIKSON, Karl. Wayward Puritans Wiley, 1966.
15. COHEN, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics, MacGibbon & Kee, 1972.
16. CHIBNALL, Steve. Law and Order News, Tavistock, 1977.
17. WALLIS, Roy Salvation and Protest, F. Pincer, 1979.
18. ZURCHER, Louis A and KIRKPATRICK, R George. Citizens for Decency Univ. of Texas Press, 1976.
19. CONDON, Edward U. ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’ in Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Bantam, 1969.
20. FORT, Charles. Book of the Damned.
21. PEARSON, Geoffrey. Hooligan; a history of respectable fears, Macmillan, 1983.
22. GAUL D, Alan and CORNELL, A. D. Poltergeists RKP, 1979.
23. OWEN, George, Can We Explain the Poltergeist?, Helix Press, 1964.
24. ROLL, William G. The Poltergeist, Star, 1976.
25. CRAMER, Mark, The Devil Within, W H Allen, 1979.
26. GOODMAN, Felicitas D. The Exorcism of Annelise Michel, Doubleday, 1981.


One Measures a Circle… Peter Rogerson


circleFrom Magonia 26, June 1987

Peter Rogerson examines the folklore of ‘Balls of Light’ (BOLS), and finds some remarkable connections with UFOs, poltergeists and witchcraft

In the Rio Grand area of the United States, Lights in the Sky (LITS) are well known amongst both whites and Indians as signs of high flying witches. As Pulitzer Prize winning Indian novelist N. Scott Momaday wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexicanof 24th September 1972:”There are witches at Lémy Pueblo, and when I lived there I knew them sure enough. One night I saw some curious lights away in the distance, small points of light moving erratically about at ground level, and I was told them they were witch lights. I thought nonsense, there are some boys running about with flashlights, that is all. And then one of the lights rose slowly and moved like a shooting star across the whole expanse of the sky. I shudder to think of it”

The community believed that witches could fly disguised as gourds, eggs, pumpkins and especially fireballs. People could be abducted by witches, teleported to distant locations. The Cochite describe such fireballs as measuring six to twelve inches in diameter, and consisting of a black centre with a surrounding surface of fiery red flames. Other pueblos believed similar things.Strange tales are told of these lights – two men travelling the road to Chama late one December night saw at about 1 o’clock in the morning a phantasmal light in the distance. At first they thought it might be a campfire of wood gatherers, but on drawing close they saw it change shape and make unearthly motions. Finally it soared upwards and shot across the horizon to the town of San Luis. When the men went to a nearby house to enquire about the strange phenomenon, the farmer claimed he was bewitched and the fireball was his tormentor.

Nicolo Marina of San Mateo saw a fireball descending into an arroyo and on going to investigate he discovered it had changed into a huge rat. As he chased it through tall grass it suddenly changed into a dog, gave a savage growl and disappeared among the willows.

Men named Juan were noted as witchfinders and capturers. An excellent way to capture witches was to draw a circle on the ground. One such man was Juan Chavez of Torré, who lived in the 1890′s. One day, riding from Torré to visit a friend in Casa Colorado, down an isolated stretch of road he perceived a large ball of fire leaping over the countryside in great bounds. Realising it was a transformed witch, he dismounted and drew a circle on the road. The flaming object then flew into the circle and vanished. Juan carried on with his journey. Returning along the same route the next day he found an old woman named Chata, a suspected witch, sitting on the road unable to move unless he held her hand.

The bewitchment that these fiery witches brought was the supernatural attack. A modern case of this sort occurred in 1966 at the Alfaneo Quintana home in El Llan, south of Taos. A barrage of rocks pelted the house during the late night hours, and some witnesses saw weird luminosities. The wife of a local J.P., Mrs Mascarenas described fireballs “about the size of a golf-ball, a strange blue gray colour, not at ail like a flashlight”. They bounded along higher than a man’s head, and disappeared into the trees further down the Santa Barbara road. No footprints were found, and bullets fired into the darkness had no effect. (1)

There are a number of stories connecting strange assaults and ghost-lights in the literature.

In July 1962 a series of strange flashes like neon tubes, which were seen whether the blinds were drawn or not, plagued the Howell home in Clayton, North Carolina. They were red or yellow, about the brilliance of a 200 watt bulb. Parapsychologist William Roll who investigated saw “three clear but not blinding flashes of Iight”. No prowler was found, and it a geared that the lights originate from inside the house. (2)

During the period October 9-14, 1966, poltergeist disturbances, including phantom stone-throwers, furniture overturning and increases in air pressure were reported from the Szlanfucht house in Osceola, St Joseph’s County, Indiana. At the same time strange lights were seen in the sky in the area.’ (3)

In March of the same year similar disturbances were reported at the Reeves home near Toledo, Oregon. The story began when 15-year-old Kathy Reeves and a friend were walking up Pioneer Road and saw a ruddy glow in the distance. As they got closer they saw it was “smoke boiling all around, making a dome shape as high as a room”. No fire was found in the field, however.

From then on the family was plagued with ‘crawling lights’. At one time someone fired at something outside, which retreated,then the inside of the house suddenly sparkled with a multitude of crawling lights. Mrs Reeves woke up, at two in the morning to see:

“my whole bedroom … a rosy glow so bright you could read a newspaper in it … I happened to turn towards the door leading into the living room and I saw this thing like a cloud just hanging there. It was water-melon coloured and you could see through it … It was just a kind  of hazy mass for a couple of seconds, and then it disappeared.”

A chemist friend, Max Taylor, camped out and saw two pulsating spots of light on opposite ends of the house, like a beam of light seen at the extremes. Presumably on the same night a deputy saw an orange light maneuvering, which disappeared after ninety seconds with a high-pitched whine. Strange walking stumps were also seen and marks found in fields. Others saw peculiar objects in the sky. (4)

The Gould farm at South Middleton (Mass.) was, in 1977/78 the scene of a complex series of events, including a landed UFO which left physical traces, a small helmeted being which appeared and disappeared, a faceless prowler, a vague case of cattle mutilation, and poltergeist disturbances. (5)

At Lowell, Michigan, three men of ‘dubious repute’ became paranoid over ‘kids’ in camouflage suits who had the unnerving habit of running on all fours. Gradually they became convinced that ‘they’ were climbing into their house, and fired at them. The men thought they had killed one of the intruders, but no body was found, and the trio were arrested by the police. At Shelbyville, Michigan, a young couple panicked, believing they were being besieged by prowlers or police, wearing SWAT suits showing green lights. There was also a prowler who broke in, who fled when pursued, and a red light like a lens moving up and down the window of a the house. (6)

There are many other cases which fall into this pattern – an isolated farm in Ohio besieged by two giant ‘ape-men’ and something like a hazy, box-like light, a light beam, flashes of light in a wood, and a red light flitting among the trees, as well as cases like Hopkinsville, and even the notorious Ripperstone Farm in Wales.

evansIt was not just in the Rio Grande that strange lights were associated with witchcraft. Similar beliefs were held by several African societies. During his field work amongst the Azande, Evans-Pritchard (left) saw, just once,

“…witchcraft on its paths. About midnight, before retiring, I took a spear and went for my usual nocturnal stroll. I was walking in the garden at the back of my hut, amongst banana trees, when I noticed a bright light passing at the back of my servant’s hut towards the homestead of a man called Tupoi. As this seemed worth investigation I followed its passage, until a grass screen obscured the view. I ran quickly through my hut to the other side in order to see where the light was going … but did not regain sight of it. I knew that only one man, a member of my household, had a lamp that bright, but he had not been out or used it”

Evans-Pritchard was told he had seen witchcraft which had caused the death of a man in Tupoi’s compound. (8)

Amongst the Basuto, witches were accused of turning into fireballs in order to harass houses, and the witches appeared as balls of fire amongst the treetops. Men could extinguish them by using the proper medicine. (9)

What can one make of this apparent connection between LITs, witchcraft and poltergeists? A good clue lies in the cases of ‘phantom attackers’. An historical case mentioned by Westrum offers perhaps the best insight. In 1692 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an Ebenezer Bapson was plagued by ‘French-men and Indians’ who were repeatedly shot at for three weeks, defying all attempts to kill or capture them. Westrum comments: “the bold appearance of these phantoms, the general lack of concern about the gunfire, their seeming invulnerability when convincingly hit, and their skulking are all familiar elements in these stories.” (6)

The context of this story is dramatic. 1692 was the year of Salem, in the period when the security and very survival of New England was at stake. The Puritan experiment was threatened externally by the French and Indian depredations, which meant that no colonial border was safe; and the charter of 1691 enfranchised dissident Quakers
and Anglicans (10) The external and internal wildernesses were threatening the New World garden. The Indians and French were seen less as humans, than as demonic inhabitants of the howling wilderness (11) – a wilderness now perceived as “less a force to be mastered in accordance with divine plan than a menacing presence that threatened to encroach on their territories.” (10)

The same theme of habitat under siege from the wilderness is obvious. Perhaps the paradigm here is the famous film Assault on Precinct Thirteen in which the embattled inhabitants of an isolated urban police station are surrounded by semi-substantial urban terrorists and hoodlums, who remove the bodies of their dead, leaving little physical evidence.

The social, natural and supernatural wilderness is merged into a single vision of external chaos. The real life victims of such attacks appear to be those in geographical and/or socially marginal situations: inhabitants of the liminal zone on the physical and psychological frontiers of society, exposing themselves to the wilderness. The besiegers are today’s witches and demons, with all their traditional immunity to human weapons. By incorporating the wilderness into themselves they transcend the human condition: as part of the wilderness they are invulnerable to the puny efforts of human technology.

circleThe real life victims of such attacks appear to be those in geographical or socially marginal situations: inhabitants of the liminal zone on the physical and psychological frontiers of society

The central treason of witchcraft is the invitation of wilderness into the midst of habitat. It is not surprising that one of the afflicted at Salem reported that her spectral assailants included French-Canadians and Indians, and that the book which directed their diabolic mission was a Catholic devotional text written in French. (10)

Witchcraft accusations are generally believed to result from quarrels and tensions within the community; tensions which rupture the bounds of habitat, allowing in wilderness. To the Church, every act of sin or deviance placed the sinner in a liminal state, which made them an opening through which the external demonic forces could invade the community.So what can the equation BOLS = Witches mean? In a variety of cultures we have seen that BOLS are equated with the wild spirits of the distant wilderness, far beyond the frontiers of human habitation. They also symbolise the zone of the spiritual: in becoming a fireball the witch has achieved a final transcendence of the human condition.It might well be that if BOLs are associated with seismic activity or ball-lightning they would be even more appropriate as symbols of the wilderness, both perfectly demonstrating the fragility of human habitat, buffeted by the weather, split and shaken by the trembling earth.

A strict application of the psycho-socio-cultural hypothesis would make us hesitate about awarding any special status to modern ‘scientific’ theories making them immune from psycho-socio-cultural analysis. Such an analysis would argue that the modern folklore of earthquake lights, fault-lines and so on, contains profound symbolism. Fault-lines are symbolic liminal zones, gaps in reality where energies might enter.

Whether taken as fact or symbol, BOLs as earthquake lights, harbingers of wilderness, can also be interpreted as spirits of transcendence, reminders that reversion to, or coming of the wilderness is not just a degradation.



1. SIMMONDS, Marc. Witchcraft in the Southwest; Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande, Norland Press, 1974.
2. ROLL, William G, The Poltergeist, Star Books, 1976, (Chapter 6, Strange Lights in Clayton, North Carolina).
3. SMITH, J, ,The Case of the Messy Poltergeist’, Fate (UK), May 1967 p,42 ff.
4. LLOYD Dan, ‘Crawling Lights, a new development’, FSR vol, 13, no, 3, (May-June 1967) pp,29-30.
5. WEBB David F, ‘Humanoids at South Middleton’ FSR, vol, 27, no, 1, pp 23-28 and vol, 27, no, 2, pp. 8-12.
6. WESTRUM, Ron, ‘Phantom Attackers’, Fortean Times, no, 45, pp,54-58.
7. RICKARD, Bob ‘More Phantom Sieges’, Fortean Times no, 45, pp, 58-61.
8. EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. Witchcraft Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Clarendon Press, 1937.
9. PARRINDER, Geoffrey, Witchcraft, European and African, Faber 1963
10. WEISEMAN, Richard, Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
11. DEMOS, John (Ed.) Remarkable Providence, Braziller, 1972.
12, ROGERSON, Peter. ‘Taken to the Limits’, Magonia 23, July 1986, pp. 3-12.