Witch-hunting did not end in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 17th century: it came back to haunt us 300 years later, in the 1980s, with serious allegations of Satanic ritual abuse throughout the English-speaking world.

In the UK, millions were spent investigating claims of Satanic networks. Those investigations confirmed that there were a few deluded and sadistic individuals who had abused others, but the great conspiracy of Satan – last spotted in the 17th century – withered to nothing under close examination.

Among the most extreme cases was that of the Ingram family. Paul Ingram – who worked in law enforcement – was convicted of hundreds of cases of abuse against his own daughters. There was no confirming evidence. Under direction from one of his daughters, police dug extensively in the attempt to find the buried bodies of infants sacrificed to Satan. They found nothing.

Although the daughters made multiple accusations and had shared a bedroom throughout their childhood, neither confirmed the other’s allegations. One even accused the whole poker party from the Sheriff’s department of raping her.

Ingram – a committed Christian – prayed after each allegation was made, said that he had no memory of it and then signed confessions, because he was sure that his daughters would not lie. I don’t think they were lying; I think they were more likely suffering from false memory syndrome.

Psychologist Richard Ofshe presented Ingram with a trumped-up allegation made by his son, to which Ingram duly confessed. A judge rejected Ofshe’s compelling evidence, on the grounds that Ingram had confessed and entered a guilty plea. So Ingram served a prison sentence.

Similarly, the Salem witch trials relied upon the procedure employed 80 years earlier in Pendle, in England, where a child’s accusations led to the execution of members of her own family. The judges did not know that King James I himself – author of a treatise on witches and once a passionate witch-hunter – had rejected these procedures after he had been shown how easy it was to force false confessions from children.

In the US and the UK, at the time of the Ingram case, not only were there many allegations of Satanic ritual abuse, but thousands of people – mainly women in their mid-30s, accused their parents of abuse during their childhoods.

The vast majority of these claimants had undergone ‘recovered memory therapy’. Psychotherapists claimed that they were recovering ‘repressed’ memories, which fitted in nicely with Freudian ideas, but the American Psychological Association almost burst apart as sides were taken and daggers drawn.

Distortions of reality often play a major role in abusive and totalist relationships. Some cults and psychics even induce memories of ‘past lives’ – I’ve spoken with hundreds of people who claim such memories over the years, but not one has offered even a shred of proof, beyond their own conviction.

Even more common is the reconstruction of the past to induce guilt. An abusive partner will extract confessions that can then be exaggerated in later retelling. In some cults, systematic interrogation is used and careful notes are kept of responses. These confessions are easily exaggerated into dangerous fictions.

Curiously, this is a fundamental technique in the Chinese thought reform or ‘brainwashing’ camps that processed millions of people (and according to some accounts, still do so to this day). A confession would be extracted – often by use of torture – and then exaggerated to bizarre proportions.

Any admission could form the starting point. So, a Catholic priest saying that he had surreptitiously taken a sip of the communion wine would be humiliated and degraded over days and weeks, until he admitted that his ‘sin’ was because of loyalty to the ‘imperialist running dogs’ who were the enemies of China.

Eventually, many priests admitted themselves to be part of an entirely fictional espionage ring. Through humiliation, these confessions blossomed to fulfil the paranoia of the investigators. Many of those involved lost their grip on the past and came to believe themselves sinful and shamed.

The remarkable Robert Jay Lifton called this the ‘cult of confession’, but he explains that it is more likely the ‘cult of false confession’, because the revealed ‘sins’ were fanciful beyond belief.

It is startling how easy such memory manipulation can be. In one experiment, a group of adults were shown Photoshopped images of themselves as children riding in hot air balloons. The experimenters had made sure that none of the participants had experienced such a journey at the outset, yet most of those shown the photos believed that they had.

In one of his many intriguing performances, showman Derren Brown convinced a man that he’d been in a hot air balloon with a short conversation. In another performance, he convinced a lifelong atheist in ten minutes that she felt the presence of God, even though he had made no mention of either God or religion.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at recent discoveries that prove just how highly manipulable the human mind is.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s book? Do you have a story about false memory that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Series NavigationLet’s Make Some Memories, Part 2