Pathological Ritualization in Human Behavior

Karen Barna
6 min readJan 3, 2020


The Term Ritualization Defined

“We should … begin by postulating that behavior to be called “ritualization” in man must consist of an agreed-upon interplay between at least two persons who repeat it at meaningful intervals and in recurring contexts; and that this interplay should have adaptive value for both participants.” (1) Such “ritualizations” are seen in religious ceremonies throughout the world. However, it is important to note, that those suffering from psychosis also develop ritualizations that have maladaptive value. That is, when the ritualization of behavior between two or more people is carried out with the intended purpose of harming an Object Other as part of the re-occurring context of language and speech. Forms of these behaviors represent forms of psychosis. An example of some common types of “ritualizations” would be that of serial killers and serial rapists. They would display acts that are carried out in the same fashion with the same type of murder weapon which would display through symbolism and metaphor their chaotic, psychotic internal world. Uncovering the hidden meaning behind these “ritualizations” is part of the job of forensic psychologists. In reading silence of a ritualized crime scene one can potentially unveil the troubled internal world of the perpetrators. (2)

The Space in which One Lives

“Any habitation that one enters as a visitor or an observer always has its ambience, its tone (personal tonality). It is not readily analyzable but is a perception on the visitor’s part, Michael Polanyi has called this a tacit knowledge and appreciation of the values of those who have chosen the space, arranged the furniture, and designed the decor. The space inhabited by the individual is an investiture of preferences and usages. For what kinds of activities is it arranged? Is the interior planned as space in which to receive and to welcome others? Does it on the whole suggest dependence on others, or is the space clearly managed by its occupants? Is it full of memorabilia from the past, or does it perhaps immediately draw attention to the generational involvement of its tenant or tenants by displaying the current photographs of the young of the family? These outward signs of involvement are always on view…..with the social and personal need to make a statement.” (1)

I took the above paragraph from the book “Vital Involvement in Old Age” by Erik Erikson (1986). Although it was a discussion on a way to analyze the recipients’ living spaces which were part of Erikson investigation study into old age, it, nonetheless, also can be used to compare the remains of ritualized crime scenes. Spaces and locations are chosen carefully. Bodies, arranged like decore, which may offer insights to the criminal mind. Here I’m thinking of the Eastbound Strangler. The Eastbound Strangler is an unidentified serial killer believed to be responsible for the murders of four women near Atlantic City, New Jersey in 2006. Four dead bodies of women identified as prostitutes were found in a drainage ditch filled with shallow water on November 20, 2006 behind the Golden Key Motel on the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township, situated on the outskirts of Atlantic City, New Jersey. All of them were placed face down in a row, facing east, about sixty feet apart from each other. They were clothed except for having their shoes and socks removed. They were believed to have been strangled to death. Since all four bodies were arranged in the same fashion, in the same ditch, lying in close proximately to each other, an investigator would perceive this as a method of ritualized killing. These women may have possibly been attacked when they bent down to take off their shoes and socks. Most of the microscopic evidence was washed away by tidewaters and the case has never been solved.

The ritualization of pathological behavior is not solely found in acts of violent crime but is also found in the passive-aggressive acts of what French writer termed dangerous liaisons or Les Liaisons dangereuses. Sometimes played out on the schoolyard playgrounds where bullies target and harass students who may appear shy, non-aggressive, “weak”, or “stupid.” Les Liaisons dangereuses (in English: Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in four volumes by Durand Neveu from March 23, 1782. (3)

It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two narcissistic rivals (and ex-lovers) who use seduction as a weapon to socially control and exploit others, all the while enjoying their cruel games and boasting about their manipulative talents. It has been seen as depicting the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution, thereby exposing the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime. However, it has also been described as an amoral story. (3)

Les Liaisons dangereuses is celebrated for its exploration of seduction, revenge, and human malice, presented in the form of fictional letters collected and published by a fictional author. (3)

The Perverse Strategy

A perversion is a psychological strategy. It differs from other mental strategies since that it demands a performance. The overall strategy operates in the same way for males and females. What makes all the difference between the male and female perversions is the social gender stereotype that is bought into the foreground of the enactment. The enactment, or performance, is designed to help the person to survive, moreover to survive with a sense of triumph over the traumas of his or her childhood. The perverse strategy is unconscious. The actor, or protagonist, knows only that he feels compelled to perform the perverse act and that when deterred from doing so he feels desperately anxious, panicky, agitated, crazy, even violent. The protagonist does not know that the performance is designed to master “events” that were once too exciting, too frightening, too mortifying to master in childhood. The performer cannot, dare not remember those terrible events. Instead, his life is given up to reliving them, albeit in a disguised, symbolic form. An adult, male or female, who is compelled to perform a perverse ritual expends a great deal of energy and devotes a considerable portion of each day and night attempting to master and control emotions and affects that were overwhelming and uncontrollable in childhood. A perversion, for as long as it lasts — a decade or an entire lifetime — is a central preoccupation of the person’s existence. (4)

Forty-one year-old repairman Terry Oleson, who was being allowed to stay for free at the Golden Key Motel in exchange for repairs when the murders took place, was implicated by his girlfriend as the killer. They were reportedly having a domestic dispute at the time. In Oleson’s room, investigators found cameras set up and images of his girlfriend’s teenage daughter undressing. There have been no DNA matches to connect Oleson with the crimes and he was never named as a suspect.

“Women who make a man feel weak, who may bring to the surface the man’s fear of looking feminine or appearing like the weaker sex, might create a situation in which the man fears of ego defacement and thus may create a modulated form sexual sadism which may be played out as an enactment of dominated / dominator. The man thereby assumes the role of the powerful dominator and inflicts pain and suffering on to the dominated to prove his masculinity.” (4)

Some other forms of pathological ritualization in human behavior: transvestism, imposture status, Ponzi schemes (Bernie Madoff empire), bondage discipline and sadism and masochism, pedophilia (networking groups of men), prostitution, and pornography.

Source References:

(1) Erik H. Erikson, Joan M. Erikson, Helen Q. Kivnick. (1986) Vital Involvement in Old Age: The experience of old age in our time. New York. W.W. Norton & Company.

(2) Michelle Boulous Walker. (1998) Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading Silence. New York. Routledge. Chapter 2, “Philosophy: Reading Denial.”

(3) Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved online Janauary 3, 2020.

(4) Kaplan, Louise J. Kaplan. (1991) Female Perversions: The Temptations of Madame Bovary. New York, Doubleday.

Other Sources Connected to Pathological Ritualization:

(5) Amber Jacobs. (2007) On Matricide: Myth, psychoanalysis, and the Law of the Mother. New York. Columbia University Press.

(6) Nancy J. Chodorow. (2012) Individualizing Gender and Sexuality: Theory and Practice. New York. Routledge. Chapter 9, “Hate, Humiliation, and Masculinity.”

(7) Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel. (1984) Creativity and Perversion. London. Free Association Books.

(8) Lucy Holmes. (2008) The Internal Triangle: Theories in Female Development. New York. Jason Aronson.

(9) Danielle Knafo; Kenneth Feiner. (2006) Unconscious Fantasies and the Relational World. Hillside, NJ. The Analytic Press, Inc. Relational Perspective Book Series, Volume 31.



Karen Barna

I am a Targeted Individual suffering electronic harassment. I write about gender difference and object relations and feminism. I am Gen. X