Belief and Behaviour

Louis Franzini and John M. Grossberg. Eccentric and Bizarre Behaviors. Wiley, 1995.

Hans Sebald. Witch Children; from Salem Witch-Hunts to Modern Courtrooms. Prometheus, 1995.

A brief overview of a range of strange behavioural disorders ranging from 'autoerotic asphyxia' - sexual stimulation by strangling oneself - to trichotilomania or compulsive hair-pulling. A number of these will be of interest to Magonia readers. We have discussed before the extremes of Munchausen's Syndrome and Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy. The account given here is brief but underlines the remarkable lengths that MHS and MHSP personalities go to to draw attention to themselves, including physical mutilation, self-poisoning and attacks on children and others. These case histories should prevent us ever taking at face value the bland statements that we hear in connection with the abduction phenomenon that such-and-such an abductee "had nothing to gain" by telling and reliving a story of personal terror.

Another chapter looks at 'Capgrass Delusion' in which the sufferers become convinced that people close to them have been replaced by identical-looking importers who are engaged in a conspiracy against them.

Some of the behaviour patterns discussed are closer to rumour-panics than individual psychopathology. The remarkable koro syndrome, in which men are possessed with fear that their penises are shrinking into their bodies seems to be a social phenomenon in some south-east Asian cultures. It perhaps provides a model for other culturally-bound behavioural anomalies such as the abduction syndrome in Western, largely English-speaking, societies.

The 'Stockholm Syndrome', in which people held by a group of bank-robbers eventually came to sympathise with and support their captors, perhaps also provides a model for the curious way in which the apparent terrors of the abduction phenomenon are increasingly being written about as a 'positive' and 'transformative' experience.

This book is intended for the general reader, and the topics are presented fairly superficially; occasionally the tone is perhaps rather flippant for the dark subjects being discussed - vampirism and necrophilia for instance - but it provides some insight into the strange patterns of behaviour that can afflict people who in other respects are totally 'normal'. As the' say in the home of UFO Magazine "there's nowt so queer as folk!" -- John Rimmer

Until very recently academics were likely to remark that the last writer to express a belief in Witchcraft was Richard Boulton in 1715, failing to notice the modern spate of books by vicars saying that witches make pacts with Satan. It is therefore refreshing that Sebald, a professor of sociology at Arizona University, draws parallels between modern stories of Satanism, such as those told in the McMartin child abuse case, and the witch-craze. In Mora, Sweden, in 1669, for example, there were mass trials in which children stated that the devil would carry them through the air to the Blockulla, a sort of fairy-tale realm where he had sex with them, and encouraged them to have sex with each other, as a result of which they gave birth to frogs and snakes. Confessions like this should be required reading for those who today maintain that "children never lie about abuse".

Sebald's book is based around one particular case, from Bamberg in Germany, in 1629. Due to a rule granting anonymity in the records to those who confessed freely, the name of the boy concerned is not known, so Sebald calls him 'Witchboy'. He made elaborate confessions to the Inquisition, saying that he and other boys had worshipped the devil, flown through the air on metal pitchforks, turned themselves into mice, laid curses on crops and cattle, and so on. Sebald speculates - he admits he cannot be certain - on the true background to all this. Partly it was based on what the inquistors wanted to hear, perhaps mixed up with real memories of pranks committed by a gang of boys he had belonged to. He also suggests that, since belief in Witchcraft was then universal, they may have actually tried to practise it.

At one point his interrogators demanded to know what special prayer Witchboy had been taught by the devil. He kept hesitating, and the scribe declared that it was `obvious' that the demon was telling him to keep quiet and not give further information away. One can fairly suppose that in fact he was wondering what to say, since in reality he knew no such prayer. In a subsequent session he recited what seems to have been a nursery rhyme with the words "in the devil's name" added, and this satisfied them. This is similar to modern child therapists who hear children recite rude versions of nursery rhymes, and conclude they were taught them at Satanic rituals.

"When children today talk about Satanic ritual, the enjoy almost as much credibility as during the classic era of the witch-hunt." Sebald concludes that but for the separation of church and state the modern persecutions would be far more severe. -- Gareth Medway.

Both reviews from Magonia 55, March 1996.

No comments: