Some Signs and Symptoms of Cult Torture, and How To Help
By Cheryl Rainfield, 2022
Please note: If you are a cult torture survivor or think you might be, there is a LOT of information here that could be very triggering. Please make sure that you are in a safe place to read this, read this with someone safe like a therapist, and stop any time you need to. Taking care of ourselves is so important.
Since cult torture (aka ritual abuse) involves extreme, repeated physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and torture, survivors often display signs and symptoms common to those types of abuse, as well as signs that are specific to cult abuse and torture. For a more detailed look at what happens in cult abuse, see this article.
Once a survivor gets safe and begins to heal some of the signs, symptoms, and triggers will dissipate, but there are often long-lasting mental health issues as a direct result of the torture including but not limited to DID or OSDD, c-PTSD or PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, self-harm, eating disorders, etc.
I’m writing from my experience as a cult torture survivor. My parents and extended family were part of intergenerational, interconnected cults including Satanic, KKK, and neo-Nazi, among others, which shared victims and resources including torture and mind control techniques, weapons and drugs, and victims for child prostitution and child pornography. Many cult torture survivors have similar experiences, but different cults may use different ideologies, abuse and torture techniques, and/or mind control.
As with any signs of abuse, look for multiple signs.
Cult Torture Survivors may shows signs of:
Sexual Abuse and Rape:
The child or teen:
- has frequent or repeated Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs), yeast infections, rashes around private areas, or sexually transmitted diseases;
- vaginal or anal tearing, bleeding (that is not related to periods), etc.;
- blood or semen in underwear;
- jumps at, freezes, or avoids touch and becomes scared, watchful, or dissociated, or may desperately seek safe touch, or a combination, or goes to the opposite extreme and touches others sexually or offers sexual acts;
- is overly compliant to adults and/or authority figures, especially men;
- becomes pregnant or has repeated pregnancies and/or abortions if they have a uterus and have had periods;
- has trouble talking about private parts, sex, or rape, and can only write, draw, or act out what they need to say;
- talks about, writes, draws, or shows discomfort or pain in their anus, vagina or penis, and mouth or throat, or when urinating or defecating;
- has low self esteem and a lack of confidence;
- has poor body image, deep body shame, hides their body (baggy clothing, long sleeves and pants even in the summer, curves their body inward or crosses their arms over their chest) or goes to the opposite extreme and wears revealing and sexualized clothing;
- plays with their toys in sexual ways;
- talks about, writes, plays out, or draws out sexual acts in a way that is much more sophisticated than others their age, knows about specific sex acts and/or unusual sex acts in detail;
- regresses in behaviour (bedwetting, peeing their pants, pretending to be a baby, rocks back and forth, etc.);
- acts (and feels) much older than children their age and prefers the company of adults. They are often called mature, an old soul, or old for their age;
- as a teen gets involved with a much older adult (which is abuse in and of itself);
- is wary of others, mistrustful, withdrawn, often isolates themselves from their peers;
- has frequent nightmares and night terrors, is afraid to go to sleep or to bed, wants their bedroom door locked;
- has a lot of shame, guilt, embarrassment, self-blame and self-hatred;
- seems frightened of a parent or parents and doesn’t want to go home;
- runs away from home, talks about running away, or attempts to;
- uses self-harm (cutting, burning, head banging, breaking their own bones, etc.). Self-harm usually stems from abuse or trauma. I used self-harm to: stop overwhelming emotional pain when I didn’t think I could survive it another second; stop overwhelming abuse memories flooding me; to keep from talking; to punish myself; as a silent cry for help even though I hid my self-harm, and to keep from killing myself. Please note that self-harm is not related to suicide;
- has depression and/or anxiety;
- has attempted suicide.
The child or teen:
- jumps at or tries to avoid touch, shrinks or backs away from adults, and/or has f earful body language;
- has frequent and/or unexplained injuries such as bruises, burns, rope burns, head injuries, broken bones, etc. (However, cult abusers usually make sure to keep these hidden beneath clothing or in places folks won’t see.);
- the story from the child or parent about an injury doesn’t seem to make sense or line up;
- hides their body, wearing long sleeves and long pants even in the summer to hide injuries;
- is called accident prone, but doesn’t seem to be clumsy;
- seems frightened of a parent or caregiver and doesn’t want to go home;
- talks about, draws, or writes about harsh discipline from a parent or caregiver.
Psychological and emotional abuse:
The child or teen:
- is overly compliant to rules, adults, and authority figures, or is the extreme opposite and acts out aggressively;
- is very withdrawn, considered extremely shy, and/or passive,
- has trouble trusting others;
- is very anxious or depressed;
- has low self-esteem;
- is either very mature and overly adult or displays regressive behaviour or seems overly immature for their age;
- frequently apologizes or thinks they did something wrong before anyone says they did;
- rushes to please adults;
- is desperate for praise and affection;
- is not attached to their parents.
In addition to these signs, cult survivors will also show signs specific to cult torture:
Abuse specifically meant to discredit the child if they talk:
The child, teen, or adult talks, writes, or draws:
- about being hurt or raped by famous, fictional, or fantasy/mythical creatures or characters such as aliens, ghosts, or vampires, Elvis, Santa Claus, Bigfoot, etc. (Cults periodically dress up in costumes and use props during group rape and torture to convince the children that these things are real so that when the children do tell no one believes them, and they are discredited.);
- about having lived past lives, especially as either a victim or perpetrator and usually involving some kind of abuse or persecution such as an Egyptian slave, a high priest/priestess, Jesus on the cross, etc. (Cults create elaborate abuse scenarios with costumes and props to abuse and torture the victim, often incorporating mind control to convince the child of their role in cult—as a victim or a perpetrator—and to discredit the child if they talk.);
- about having died and came back to life. (Cults periodically pretend to kill the child, drug the child so they can’t move, arrange them in a coffin with flowers, pretend to mourn for the child, then pretend to bring the child back to life through the power of Satan, god, etc. and have the child be “reborn.” This is to bind the child to the cult, keep them from talking, and make them think the cult is all powerful.).
Physical abuse and torture:
The child, teen, or adult:
- has a high pain tolerance, and shuts down or withdraws when in physical pain instead of verbalizing or freely reacting. This is because the survivor has already endured so much torture and had to numb themselves to it or dissociate from it;
- has faint needle marks from needles inserted beneath fingernails, and needle marks or small precise cuts on their scalp, in armpits, mouth, nose, ears, eyes or eyelids, vaginas or penises, and anuses, and/or on the soles of the feet;
- has teeth that show signs of having been drilled or dug into that is not dental work;
- has faint burn marks from electroshock and electrodes usually on the torso beneath clothing, especially on the vagina or penis, anus, nipples, stomach, and chest;
- does not know or remember how a physical injury happened (Victims usually dissociate the abuse and repress the memory to survive);
- has a startle response, fear of, and/or aversion to sirens and alarms, especially police, ambulance, and firefighter;
- has a fear of being in crowds, groups, and/or circles of people;
- is reluctant to go to the bathroom or holds it in for long periods. (Cults force victims to ingest feces and urine, so the survivor may be afraid that if they urinate or defecate they’ll be forced to ingest it.);
- acts out violence on stuffed toys, dolls, or action figures, especially murdering, torturing, disemboweling, raping, impregnating, gagging, tying up or chaining, hanging, decapitating, stabbing, dismembering, drowning, strangulating, suffocating, burying alive, or shocking their toys, or putting their toys into cages or jail, or removing the eyes, ears, or tongues, penises or breasts.
- shows exhaustion or obvious weariness—although victims can also hide this or push past it, since the abuse and torture pushed them beyond endurance and they are used to it. (Cults use sleep deprivation as part of the torture and mind control, and also perform most of their rituals and ceremonial torture and abuse at night, with less formal abuse in the day.);
- is claustrophobic, does not like being in small spaces, or talks, draws, or writes about having been trapped in closed coffins, cages, crates, or other small spaces;
- fears consuming or being injected with drugs and other medication, and/or has detailed knowledge of the effects of a specific drug/s that a doctor did not prescribe them, or has a substance abuse problem. (Cults drug victims during certain cult abuse ceremonies and some mind control and torture.);
- fears that they ingested flesh (human and/or animal), urine, feces, blood, and/or ground up bones and that it makes them bad, evil, or sick, or talks, writes, or draws about having done so, or mentions taste or texture, and uses the proper terms such as urine and feces instead of childish terms;
- fears or assumes they will die because of something grotesque that they were forced to consume (flesh, feces, urine, blood, bones, insects especially maggots, etc.).
Talks about, writes, draws, or play acts:
- that they have been hung by their limbs from ropes, crosses, trees, ceiling beams, or been stretched across a pit;
- that they were forced to take suppositories or enemas to empty themselves or forced to ingest something that made them vomit, and then were forced to eat their own feces or vomit;
- that they’ve been in graveyards at night, isolated remote areas, abandoned factories or buildings, cages or prisons, church basements, other basements etc. where they were hurt or scared.
The child, teen, or adult:
- may refer to their body as “the body,” which is a dissociated way of speaking and thinking about themelves.
Talks about, writes, draws, or play acts:
- gang rape, or rape by several people at once in various orifices;
- rape on an altar, rape by cloaked figures or figures wearing masks or costumes, rape using daggers or weapons;
- being forced to have sex with other victims;
- being forced to have sex with dead bodies;
- being forced to have sex with animals (such as oral sex with a male dog);
- being urinated, ejaculated, or defecated on, or having urine, blood, feces, or semen smeared on their bodies during sexual acts.
The child, teen, or adult:
- believes that they are evil, inherently bad, worse than their abusers, deserve to be punished, that if they do something wrong other people will get hurt, or if they talk about the abuse other people will get hurt or murdered;
- does not like or isn’t attached to their parents, yet fears being taken away from them. (Cult abusers threaten victims that if they tell and are taken away it will be worse than what they’re surviving, or that they will be tortured more or murdered, or that someone they love will be.);
- feels guilty for the abuse, torture, and murder and fears that they are just as responsible for it as the cult abusers. (Cults repeatedly tell child victims that the abuse, torture, and murder is their fault and that they caused it to ensure their silence.);
- is subservient to adults and rules (Cults torture victims or others present for the victim not following or immediately obeying rules, and blame it on the victim.);
- has frequent dissociation, dissociates easily or goes into a trance-like state by staring at a fixed object, pattern, stone, moving sparkles, toy, or at specific phrases or sounds;
- has trauma-induced mental health issues especially dissociation related such as DID and OSDD, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, etc. (Extreme dissociation is necessary to survive ongoing torture and mind control, and cults actively encourage or induce it.);
- shows signs of DID with huge memory gaps and frequent memory loss; abrupt changes in behavior, personality, body language, style and pitch of voice and speech patterns, likes and dislikes; has different handwriting or artistic styles; insists on being called another name or that their given name is not their name; forgets having conversations or interactions with others; etc. (DID is an intelligent and necessary survival strategy for ongoing extreme torture and mind control.);
- has eating disorders, disordered eating, or hoards food (Cults frequently starve victims for periods of time and then force feed them, especially during the summer when out of school. It can also be a form of self-harm or the survivor trying to exert control over their own life.);
- mentions “my other mother/mommy,” “my other father/daddy,” “my other family” that is not related to the way the family is structured such as divorced parents, queer parents, adoptive parents, etc. (Cults emotionally separate the child victim from their family and claim the child as their own, calling themselves the other mother or other father to increase the bond with the child and to keep the child from telling.);
- has an aversion, fear of, or preoccupation with authority figures especially in uniform, and especially doctors, nurses, police, nuns, priests, ministers, and religious professionals, military, judges, and also child protective services, counsellors, and teachers, or is excessively compliant and submissive with them. (Cults use the costumes and roles for those professions during abuse and torture to keep kids from trusting or talking to those professionals, and some members of the cult are actual members of those professions.);
- can’t hear, take in, or believe good things about themselves to an extreme, shrugs off or deflects any compliment, or even says something bad about themselves in response to the compliment. (Cults deliberately teach victims to deflect all positives about themselves and only take in negatives, though it is also common among trauma survivors, just not to the same extreme.).
The child, teen, or adult:
- believes and fears that the cult is all knowing, all seeing and hearing—that the cult can see and hear everything they do, especially if they talk about the abuse, through telepathic or technological means including implanted microchips, being able to access everyone’s cell phone cameras and speakers, etc. (Cults set up abuse scenarios with torture to “prove” this to the child, to keep them from talking about the abuse or trusting others.);
- fears that if they talk they will die through a bomb planted inside them, a microchip that electrocutes them, murder, etc, or that someone they love or the person they disclose to will die or be murdered;
- is sure that no one will believe them if they talk about the torture, since cult abusers repeatedly tell victims this through torture and mind control, and that if they do talk they’ll be jailed by police or committed to psychiatric institutions and restrained or tortured or hurt;
- believes that they are dirty, evil, or that anything bad that happens to someone they care about is because they care about them;
- is afraid of, cued into mind control programming or old abuse messages, or triggered by specific flashing images, numbers, or words; deep breathing, guided meditation, drumming, drugs, incense, chanting, words said in unison, staring at candles (Cults use all of these things to bring victims into dissociated states and combine that with torture to reinforce specific messages.); repeated hang up calls; and other specific triggers or cues;
- is reluctant or afraid to use phones to call others (Cults frequently couple calling on a phone with the phone exploding, or someone being killed or tortured, along with specific messages, to ensure that the victim does not reach out for help.);
- believes that they are “the chosen one,” or uses that phrase about themselves. (Cults teach victims they are the chosen one to make them feel special and bonded to the cult, so less likely to talk.);
- engages in high risk behaviors that could end in death, or engages and then abruptly is overly cautious. (Cults teach victims that they should kill themselves if they’re not still being abused by the cult.).
The child, teen, or adult:
- avoids or gets overly upset and triggered by hearing about or watching murder, death, or violence in conversations, movies and TV, the news, and books, or may be obsessed with it;
- may insist on being vegetarian, have an inability to eat meat, drink red liquids, or ingest anything that looks bloody, or have a gag reflex to them. (Cults frequently force victims to ingest murder victims, both animals and human.);
- fears that they will die, kill themselves, or be murdered, or that people they love will be murdered, or dismembered or eaten after they are dead, or conversely doesn’t fear death and obsesses over it. They may practice pretending to be dead and laid out in a coffin;
- fears or has an obsession with graveyards, tombstones, coffins, and that the dead will be dug up and dismembered, consumed, etc. (Some cults do this, especially Satanic.)
- fears or has an obsession with dead bodies (human and/or animal), skeletons, skulls, bones, and/or dismemberment.
Talks about, writes, draws, or play acts:
- murder or sacrifice of animals and/or people;
- that they are eating body parts, especially the heart, dismembered limbs, penises or breasts, eyes, or ground up bones, drinking blood from a skull, or ingesting blood.
The child, teen, or adult:
- fears or has extreme reluctance to being photographed or video recorded, tries to run away or hide their face or body from others’ cameras/video recorders/cell phone photos or frequently poses for photos and videos especially in a sexualized manner;
- has a strong discomfort, fear, and/or guilt associated with cameras, video recorders, cell phone cameras, large bright lights on tripods, or is obsessed with those things.
Talks, writes, draws, or play acts about:
- having their photo or video taken while nude, while only in underwear or with props such as a boa, collar, etc on, in sexualized poses, during (forced) sexual acts with other kids or with adults, wearing S&M attire or having S&M props, with an adult touching them, with large bright lights on tripods aimed at them;
- having had secret photos or videos taken of them, or a secret photo or movie studio they went to.
The child, teen, or adult:
- fears or avoids men or groups of men; motels or hotels; money being exchanged. They may have guilt, fear, or avoidance about receiving money, feel like they don’t deserve money, that money is dirty, or that they can’t keep money and must spend it all, or have a preoccupation with money;
- has detailed knowledge about varied sexual preferences, including causing pain during rape, S&M, costumes used by perpetrator or forced on the victim, etc. and may act out during play or write or draw about;
- believes that they are only good for sex or being hurt, and otherwise are worthless—which the cult abusers and/or their “clients” tell them.
Ceremonial cult abuse:
The child, teen, or adult:
- gets especially afraid, depressed, upset, or has suicidal or self-harm thoughts around many religious holidays including Christmas, Easter, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, and/or major secular holidays including Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, as well as their own birthday, and/or some Satanic holidays including winter and summer solstice, Spring and fall equinox, new and full moons, Candlemass, Beltane, and Halloween, and/or major Nazi dates such as Hitler’s birthday April 20, Hitler’s death April 30, Beltaine, etc. See this calendar and this one for more specific triggering dates and holidays. (Cults increase rape, torture, and mind control around these dates and holidays, which can go on for days.)
Fears and avoids, has an obsession with, or talks, writes, or draws about:
- cloaks (red, black (Satanic), white (KKK), black or white (witches), etc.) and/or military uniforms, usually black with swastikas and/or lightning bolt;
- chanting, anything said in unison, repetitively, or backward, as well as some specific nursery rhymes and religious songs, meditation, and/or hypnosis;
- masks, horns, and voice changing equipment and/or technology;
- altars (usually stone, but can also be wood, cement, even earth);
- candles (especially black, red, and white), chalices, goblets, daggers, ceremonial knives or blades;
- specific symbols used in cult abuse, especially pentagrams, upside down pentagrams, 666, Baphomet, upside down crosses, ankh, black Sun, full moon, all seeing eye (aka The Eye of Providence), evil eye, swastikas, and other hate symbols or symbols used by the cult/s;
- satan, the devil, Lucifer, goats with horns;
- being restrained, or gags, rope, or restraints, S&M equipment;
- weapons especially knives, guns, rope, needles, surgical blades, dentist drills, electroshock and cattle prods, whips;
- noises from weapons, especially guns, knives, swords, saws, ropes groaning, etc.;
- drugs and/or needles;
- being confined in small spaces, especially coffins, cages, wood boxes or crates, closets, the trunk of a car, etc.;
- being hung from a cross, tree, roof beams, etc.;
- drumming, chanting, incense, chalices, blood, etc (ceremonial cult abuse);
- religious symbols and ceremonies, religions especially Christianity and Satanism, places of worship, religious employees, religious artifacts and paraphernalia, the Bible and religious texts, religious songs;
- urinating or defecating;
- being buried alive in earth or sand, or drowned;
- rape, torture, murder, severed limbs or body parts, skulls, bones, and skeletons;
- mice, rats, snakes, and insects especially maggots.
If you are talking with the child or teen to investigate or confirm abuse, or to provide therapy/counselling, it helps to:
- Have repeated, regular meetings. Cult torture survivors struggle to truly trust, and have been frequently threatened with the death of themselves and those they love if they talk. Cults also frequently have designated abusers such as the other mother and other father who appear to show some kindness or compassion and then hurt or torture the victim more. Building trust and showing you are a safe person takes time. Often cult survivors have had no safe person or true safety;
- Be aware that because dissociation and repression of memories is used by cult torture survivors to survive, and encouraged by cult abuse, the memories they open up to with you are likely only the very beginning, and the least traumatic. If they feel safe with you and trust you they will uncover more traumatic memories over time.
- Show compassion and empathy, and also some of your feelings (but don’t overreact) such as that you are sad about what the victim went through;
- Listen actively and with compassion, and be patient. Let them know that they can work at their own pace, and that you will be there;
- Believe the survivor unconditionally when they tell you about the abuse even if it seems extreme to you or you think the perpetrator/s seems likable. Do not judge the survivor;
- Do not tell the survivor to move on with their life, to forgive and forget, that it made them stronger, that god doesn’t give us more than we can handle, etc.;
- Educate yourself about cult torture and abuse, mind control specific to cult torture, and dissociation and DID. Mind control can be countered. It helps to look at specific messages and then find counter messages or alternative actions, and work on ways to stay safe. And split-off parts of the survivor can be worked with and co-consciousness and inner co-operation can happen. It helps to build trust and to offer support and compassion;
- Repeatedly reassure survivor that they are safe with you, that the abuse, torture, and/or murder was not their fault, that they did not have a choice, that the only one who was at fault for the abuse is the adult abusers, that the survivor has good in them, that they will not die and neither will anyone else if they talk, that everything the cult told them is a lie, etc. It takes many, many repetitions to go in there, especially since victims receive repeated negative and abusive messages from abusers, often in conjunction with physical torture to make the messages go in deeper (mind control);
- Work with them to communicate however they feel safest to, or combinations of communication, especially when talking about details of the abuse. They may feel safer writing or drawing out the abuse memories, or telling you through play therapy;
- Meet the survivor separate from the parents even if you don’t have confirmation that the parents are the abusers. In cult abuse the abuse usually (but not always) involves parents and family members as well as others in the community. Meet in a neutral place, not in the child’s home;
- Try not to wear all black, all red, all white, or a combination of those colours when talking with a cult survivor. If you do wear those colours, know that the survivor may have more trouble trusting or feeling safe with you, or may fear that you are part of the cult or sent to report on them;
- Notice if the survivor goes into a dissociated or trance-like state or reacts with fear in response to something said, heard, or seen. It may be that something in your environment reminds them of cult abuse or mind control, especially some of the cult triggers mentioned earlier. A survivor may also get dissociated when abuse and torture memories are too overwhelming, or they feel that they’ve told too much when they were taught not to talk, and it triggers fear for their life. Ask if something scared or triggered them, and reassure them you don’t want them to be scared or triggered;
- If you meet in an office, classroom, etc, have books, stickers, pins, and/or posters that show compassion and empathy and show support for marginalized communities including queer, BIPOC, believe survivor, etc. This shows that you are a safe/r person, and open-minded;
- Have toys, fidget toys, and objects such as polished stones or shells that the survivor can hold and use to calm themselves down;
- Go at their pace. Don’t push the survivor to reveal more than they are ready to, especially names and details. When the survivor is clearly struggling or it is too much, back off and allow the survivor room and space;
- If there are clear signs of extreme abuse or cult abuse but the child or teen says that the abuse happened a long time ago or only a few times with a relative or person outside the home, there is likely much more. The abuser the child told you about may be the “safest” abuser to tell you about, not the one who they are the most threatened by or living with;
- Explain what you are going to do or what might happen (especially if you are a social worker or police officer). For instance, how many times you’ll meet with the survivor before engaging in next steps;
- Have clear limits and boundaries, but with compassion and kindness;
- If you’re a therapist, social worker, or teacher and you provide safe touch, that may be the only safe touch the child/teen receives;
- Have something for the survivor to hug like a pillow or stuffed animal that can help them feel a little safer;
- Provide crisis lines that they may contact if they don’t feel safe enough to talk to you yet;
- If you’re a therapist teach emotional regulation techniques, grounding techniques, ways to pause, stop, or contain a memory when it is overwhelming, etc.
Cult abusers are usually very good at masking, at saying and acting mostly the way society expects them to in public, but they usually lack true empathy and compassion. They function well, hold good jobs, dress well, etc. They will express false concern for the child or teen but always be sure to direct the blame of the child or teen’s symptoms on something else—a premature birth, being bullied at school, being shy or introverted, overly sensitive, mental health issues, anything but the truth. Cult abusers often act over protective of the child or teen, know where they are at all times and frequently check up on them, and isolate the victim or limit their contact with others.
Many people don’t want to believe that such extreme and horrific abuse happens in our society; they don’t want to believe that people are capable of such cruel, depraved acts. It may shake their sense of safety or belief in people or the world. But not believing the survivor hurts and shames them, reinforces the message that no one will believe them, and keeps them isolated and unsafe and can allow the abuse and torture to continue.
I hope that you will be a safe person in a cult torture survivor’s life, one who can help them escape the torture, remember what they need to, get safe, and work on healing. Believing them and listening with compassion is the first step.
Please note: I will likely update this over time, so check back at https://www.cherylrainfield.com/articles-cult-abuse/
© Cheryl Rainfield, 2022
Written by Cheryl Rainfield, award-winning author of SCARS, STAINED, HUNTED, PARALLEL VISIONS.
If you like this article, you may post it on your website or use it in your print publication, as long as you provide a link back to my site (http://www.CherylRainfield.com), and credit me. I’d also really like to know where you put my article, but you don’t have to let me know in order to use it.