Thrills of Participating in High Risk Rituals

By Jeanne Sarson | Nov 14, 2011


Last week as I stood over my kitchen sink washing my dishes I was multitasking—washing dishes, cleaning up my kitchen and watching the program Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel which got me into thinking. The TV program had caught my attention because it was showing the excitement and thrills that accompany the ancient summer solstice ritual of fire walking of the residents of a northern Spanish community.[1] Demitris Xygalatas, anthropologist, who studies the high risk ritual of fire walking was in the community doing research, measuring the heart rates of the fire walkers, their spouses (wife) who participated by watching, as well as the heart rates of the non-related spectators including outsiders who had gone to the community to watch the fire walkers travel over the prepared bed of hot coals, pictured here. To carry out his study Demitris strapped participants from these three groups—the fire walkers, their spouses, and the non-related spectators—with belts that measured their heart rates during the summer solstice ritual of the fire walk. The heart rates of the fire walkers and their spouses sky-rocked in unison—a physiological effect of synchronized arousal—but the heart rates of the non-related spectators and the outsiders did not likewise respond. This study demonstrated “that a collective ritual may evoke synchronized arousal over time between active participants and bystanders.”[2]Or, the heart rates revealed the emotional arousal and the togetherness experienced by the fire walker and his spouse even though she was just watching.  

The fire walking summer solstice ritual started me thinking about comparisons. Comparing how summer solstice and ritualism are used for different purposes depending on the intentionality of a specific grouping of peoples. I started comparing how the fire walkers organized and used the summer solstice for their fire walking ritual to non-state torturing families/groups that opportunistically used the summer solstice and an accompanying concept of rituals to cover-up the organized ritual drama themes they incorporated into their violent gatherings. Ritual dramas add deeper dimensions of pleasure and thrills to the horrors, terror and torture such like-minded families/groups enjoy inflicting. This is how my thinking about the comparisons unfolded. What were the similarities and the difference and the benefits for each group?

The similarities:

  1. The fire walkers were/are intergenerational, as spoken of by an 80 year old fire walker who fervently talked of the importance of intergenerational fire walkers. Since 1993 Linda and I have learned that non-state torture (NST) is perpetrated by like-minded families/groups which frequently have intergenerational links.
  2. Fire walkers organize their ritual to occur at midnight on the summer solstice; Linda and I have been told by some who have survived NST victimization, as children and/or into adulthood, that the summer solstice, ritualism, and nighttime were used by NST families/groups as cover-up opportunities that helped hide their violent organized gatherings.
  3. The only people who could actively participate in the fire walking itself were the fire walkers themselves—this was also the limitation set by NST families/groups, only the like-minded perpetrators participated.   
  4. Fire walkers and spouses (the insiders) shared similar excitement, this showed up in their physiological spiked heart beat responses as synchronized arousal. Based on the descriptions of the torturers’ behaviors given by victimized women, the torturers expressed high excitement and thrills during the organized family/group summer solstice torture ritual. Torturers were described as having great “pleasure” and they often went wild with excitement during the torturing. There were some participants who seemed voyeuristic during these violent gatherings so it might be realistic to suggest that some observer participants might also share similar physiological excitement responses such as high heart rates that would correspond to that of the person doing the torturing. Although the victims were insiders—captive insiders—in that they were generally related to the perpetrators, their heart rates, we suggest, would have escalated out of terror and horror.
  5. The unrelated spectators and outsiders heart rates, which spiked at about 90 beats per minute, did not register high emotional excitement in comparison to the fire walkers and their spouses which doubled to 180 beats per minute. It is fair to assume, I believe, that non-violent persons would never have an elevated heart rate caused by excitement arousal from watching a person, child or adult, being actively tortured.

 The differences:

  1. The fire walker community was/is an open one, welcoming of outsiders to attend their summer solstice ritual—the perpetrators of NST have kept/keep their summer solstice ritual and all their torture crimes under totalitarian control as it is a closed organized crime system, open to insiders only and the victimized are tortured and terrorized into never revealing the secrets of the NST families/groups.
  2. The fire walker summer solstice ritual is not used to harm and the fire walkers apparently do not suffer—the NST perpetrators who use the cover of a summer solstice ritual do use fire to harm and the victims do suffer grave and painful harms.
  3. The fire walker summer solstice ritual does not force others into participation—the victims of NST families/groups are forced to be present and also forced into believing they are participants which they are not; they function under a state of captivity.
  4. Fire that turns into a bed of coals is the tool used to carry out the fire walking ritual and not used to cause harm—fire and smoldering pieces of wood were also the tools for some torturers; however, these were used for harming as women have frequently told us their feet were placed to the fire and scalded, or that a smothering camp fire stick was inserted into their vagina or placed on their skin to inflict burning torture.

The benefits?

But then there is the reality that rituals in general, if looked at from the perspective of both the fire walking community and the NST perpetrator community, both derive similar group benefits. Why? The reason is ritualisms are generally considered to strengthen a sense of like-mindedness, a sense of belongingness, and group cohesiveness. These elements come together to knit a sense of relational togetherness within a specific group/community. Tragically this means that NST families/groups develop like-minded togetherness bonds by inserting ritual drama into their criminal gatherings.

Good folk and bad folk.

It is people and their behaviors that give meaning to the benefits of any group event including that of summer solstice and a behavioral ritual such as fire walking. If the participants are good folks their intentions will be to do no harm; conversely, if the participants are bad folks their intentions will be to do harm. When the bad folks are NST families/groups, they can/do steal the night darkness to hide their crimes; they steal words to develop their coded language which also helps to cover up their organized crimes. For example, they might say they are having a summer solstice “party”; to an outsider this statement would be considered normal. The word “party” though has a very different meaning to the NST insider bad folks and to their chosen victims. To the bad folks it means a time of intensifying their torture pleasures; for the chosen child/woman victim it means increased powerlessness, pain and suffering as she endures dehumanizing family/group rapes and other tortures. These bad folks steal every social opportunity they can to cover their criminality. They steal holidays, they steal week-ends when children are out of school, and they steal whatever social event—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, Labour Day, winter solstice, Christmas—any day, any opportunity, that will help them cover their crimes and at the same time increase their pleasures.

I’m finished, for now.

So, as I finished my dishes and turned my TV off, I was left with these thoughts. From what I was shown on TV I believe the fire walking community is made up of good folks, although it is a ritual I am not interested in observing. But the NST families/groups are very bad folks. I will never be able to test their heart rates to gain a measure of their pleasure and excitement as they organized, participated in and relished the high risk thrills experienced during their corruption of summer solstice by adding pseudo ritualism to the NST they inflict. But knowing what they do, exposing what they do, puts reality out into the open so in this way the secrecy and the silence is broken—and this is a good thing!

[1] BellMedia. (20011, November 4). Fire Walk. Daily Planet.

[2]See Demitris Xygalatas. Available


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