Satanism from a psychological viewpoint

by Eugenio Fizoti

Professor of the psychology of religion,
School of Education, Pontifical Salesian University, Rome

The mysterious and disturbing world of Satanism and related phenomena can be observed and examined from different psychological perspectives. Eloquent witness to this is given by the abundant and varied literature which, in recent years, is to be found in the windows and on the shelves of every type of bookstore.

Two perspectives, however, seem to be particularly important: the first seeks to understand the meaning of behaviour which, in popular opinion, and in a limited way by observation, are attributed to the influence of demonic forces (one speaks, in such cases, of possession). The second aims at investigating the motivational world of the subject who subscribes to a doctrine in which the demonic becomes the central and dominating element.

This double perspective obviously presupposes both the existence of a demonic reality (whose demonstration does not belong to the specific competence of the psychologist), which can manifest itself in forms which are often extravagant, unforeseeable and disturbing, and the multiplicity of human behaviour which can not always be deciphered with the normal interpretive categories.

Psychology and true or false possessions

Physical disturbances, local "hauntings" or infestations of houses, objects, or animals, obsession and personal impulses up to the point of attempting suicide, vexations which cause loss of consciousness and lead to deplorable actions or to pronouncing phrases of hatred towards God and the sacred, are some of the expressions which raise the question as to whether the person is possessed by Satan or suffers instead from psychological dissociation or hysteria.

Frequently, in fact, behaviour attributed to demonic influence can be interpreted, without any shadow of doubt, as situations with a pathological background. Other cases, however, present a clear antithesis to the plan of salvation that God has for his creatures, and therefore the sole use of psychological or psychiatric tools fails to provide a sufficient and convincing explanation of these phenomena.

The border between psychotic situations and true demonic influence, however, has been poorly identified and is difficult to identify. Furthermore, the information, frequently manipulated and distorted, does not do justice to the phenomena in their complexity and in their real substance. For this reason, what is really only the expression of profound psychological disturbances too frequently passes for diabolical possession, or the membership statistics of satanic groups are swollen to create a sort of reverential fear or a witch hunt.

Pio Scilligo, professor of psychology at the Salesian University and at La Sapienza University of Rome, maintains that each of us has the experience of conversations in our mind or heart, which are "signs of small doubling of the personality, more visible when the 'you' form is used, and less evident when one uses the 'I' form". After having finished a job, for example, we say: "Well done, you did that just right!", or, after having done something inappropriate, we say: "I'm a fool; I must go right away and apologue!". Experiences of this type can be explained without necessarily having recourse to "talking spirits". It is sufficient to speak of relatively autonomous "thought patterns", "introjections" or "ego states" which the normal person can make use of, because such automatisms represent little "demons", good or evil, which each of us carries within the complex structure of his own psychology.

According to Scilligo, however, there exist much tougher defense mechanisms created by the person, stemming from traumatic experiences or from relational behaviours prolonged over time and assimilated from the outside with distorted interpretations of reality, which produce behavioural islands which seem to be alter egos.

In such cases, it can happen that some manifestations, such as the expression of anger, speaking in tongues, grasping in a surprising way the internal experience of the exorcist, can find a natural explanation in the psychic processes of withdraw! and projection, technically defined as borderline behaviour, or at the edge of normality. At the same time, it is possible that sometimes we find ourselves faced with manifestations that elude the metaphorical explanations of a psychological or psychiatric nature, and cannot be explained on the basis of what is known in the scientific world. In this case it would make sense to have recourse to the hypothesis of forces external to the subject, which exercise an unfortunate and destructive influence on him.

The core of the problem, therefore, which psychological and psychiatric research has not resolved yet, and is unlikely to resolve, consists in a correct distinction between pathological behaviour of a psychic nature and demonic invasion. It is my absolute conviction, contrary to what is bandied about, that only in two or three cases out of a thousand are we faced with true diabolical possession. In this perspective, clearly, only a serious scientist with an open mind, able to transcend his limited field of expertise, can recognize the possibility of diabolical possession.

The motivational world of Satan worshipers

The analysis is more complex regarding the motivations of those who declare themselves in favour of Satanism and express their convictions in criminal behaviour, frequently with legal consequences (for example, desecrating Graves, macabre rituals with the killing of animals, rape of more or less consenting virgins, and procedures causing loss of self-control In psychologically vulnerable subjects).

In this case it is useful to refer, as interpretive criteria, to a few concepts developed by the famous psychologist Erich Fromm. Investigating the human relationship to various types of religion, Fromm shows that some people manifest towards the divinity an attitude of absolute dependence, of blind and irrational obedience, of a passive acceptance of any norm. As a result, they think of themselves as inept and wretched creatures, capable of acquiring a certain strength only to the extent that a supreme and unchallenged power reaches out to them.

Such an authoritarian and inhuman vision of one's relationship with the divinity and, in the case of Satanism, with evil beings, although encouraging the loss of independence and moral integrity, offers the advantage (so to speak) of feeling protected by a formidable power which one somehow comes into contact with and becomes part of. Furthermore, this helps create the image of a despotic and terrible supreme being, jealous of his supremacy, arrogant and opposed to any relationship based on solidarity and on the promotion of values.

What are the personality characteristics of those who are devoted to divinities with satanic features?

The first consists in a clearly masochistic tendency, manifested by a weak temperament, by the inclination to self-deprivation, by the need to feel weak and impotent, by the voluntary renunciation of all sense of freedom and personal responsibility. The basic tendency, then, is one of self-destruction: damage to oneself becomes preferred, caused or tolerated either to prevent hostility on the part of others, or to encourage others to have positive feelings or pity towards oneself. In this regard, one need only think of the passive and irrational acceptance of "unquestioned leaders", whose orders are obeyed without any resistance.

A second feature is a profound sense of guilt' due to the difficulty in becoming aware of the ambiguity of the human situation. In a very explicit manner, Fromm maintains that "in the authoritarian sphere, recognition of one's own sins produces fear above all, because one knows one has disobeyed a powerful authority which ... will spare no punishment Moral failure is an act of rebellion, and the only way to make reparation is an orgy of self-humiliation. The sinner feels himself depraved and impotent; he entrusts himself to the mercy of the authority and in that way hopes for forgiveness. To repent means to tremble".

A third characteristic is tied to the introjection in strong, imposing terms, of the demands of one's surroundings which leads one to perceive the world of law and, in a more general way, the world of culture, society, and the family as tyrannical. On the one hand, these lead to the fear of destruction, and on the other hand, paradoxically, to the relentless drive to act in negative and self-destructive ways.

The fourth and last factor is the orientation towards death and dead objects which is an expression of a longing to; a continual transformation of self, society and the surrounding world into a cemetery or an automated factory. The use of black funeral curtains in the meeting hall, the presence of skulls and terrifying images, the wearing of hoods during ritual actions, the sacrifice of animals and, unfortunately, sometimes also of humans, are the more vivid proofs of this necrophilic tendency.

For the psychologist, then, the worshiper of Satan represents a pressing and often tragic warning bell. In fact, he appears in no way oriented towards personal growth, towards a sincere and authentic relationship with others, towards a commitment of service to others. Rather, he shows strong, worrisome self-destructive tendencies, made even more evident by hiding and flight, and by the voluntary renunciation (it is difficult to determine up to what point) of his own will in favour of an authority which demands only blind obedience and rigid behaviour with obsessive involvement in formulas and magical rites.