Atrocity story
The term atrocity story (also referred to as atrocity tale) as defined by the American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 David G. Bromley
David G. Bromley
David G. Bromley is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. He has written extensively about "cults", new religious movements, apostasy, and the anti-cult movement.- Education and career :Bromley received his...

 and Anson D. Shupe
Anson Shupe
Anson D. Shupe is an American sociologist noted for his studies of religious groups and their countermovements, family violence and clergy misconduct.-Work:...

 refers to the symbolic presentation of action or events (real or imaginary) in such a context that they are made flagrantly to violate the (presumably) shared premises upon which a given set of social relationships should be conducted. The recounting of such tales is intended as a means of reaffirming normative boundaries. By sharing the reporter's disapproval or horror, an audience reasserts normative prescription and clearly locates the violator beyond the limits of public morality
Public morality
Public morality refers to moral and ethical standards enforced in a society, by law or police work or social pressure, and applied to public life, to the content of the media, and to conduct in public places...

. The term was coined in 1979 by Bromley, Shupe, and Joseph Ventimiglia.

Views and studies

The term "atrocity story" is controversial as it relates to the differing views amongst scholars about the credibility of the accounts of former members. (See: The reliability of apostates' testimony.)

Bryan R. Wilson
Bryan R. Wilson
Bryan Ronald Wilson, , was Reader Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Oxford and President of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion 1971-75.-Academic life:...

, Reader Emeritus of Sociology of the University of Oxford says apostates of new religious movements are generally in need of self-justification, seeking to reconstruct their past and to excuse their former affiliations, while blaming those who were formerly their closest associates. Wilson, thus, challenges the reliability of the apostate's testimony by saying that the apostate "must always be seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias with respect to both his previous religious commitment and affiliations, the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been first a victim but subsequently to have become a redeemed crusader." Wilson also asserts that some apostates or defectors from religious organisations rehearse atrocity stories to explain how, by manipulation, coercion or deceit, they were recruited to groups that they now condemn.

Jean Duhaime of the Université de Montréal
Université de Montréal
The Université de Montréal is a public francophone research university in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It comprises thirteen faculties, more than sixty departments and two affiliated schools: the École Polytechnique and HEC Montréal...

 writes, referring to Wilson, based on his analysis of three books by apostates of new religious movements, that stories of apostates cannot be dismissed only because they are subjective.

Danny Jorgensen
Danny Jorgensen
Danny Lynn Jorgensen is an American professor at the Department of Religious Studies of the University of South Florida, for which he also served as chair from 1999 to 2006....

, Professor at the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Florida
University of Florida
The University of Florida is an American public land-grant, sea-grant, and space-grant research university located on a campus in Gainesville, Florida. The university traces its historical origins to 1853, and has operated continuously on its present Gainesville campus since September 1906...

, in his book The Social Construction and Interpretation of Deviance: Jonestown and the Mass Media argues that the role of the media
Mass media
Mass media refers collectively to all media technologies which are intended to reach a large audience via mass communication. Broadcast media transmit their information electronically and comprise of television, film and radio, movies, CDs, DVDs and some other gadgets like cameras or video consoles...

 in constructing and reflecting reality is particularly apparent in its coverage of cults. He asserts that this complicity exists partly because apostates with an atrocity story to tell make themselves readily available to reporters and partly because new religious movements have learned to be suspicious of the media and, therefore, have not been open to investigative reporters writing stories on their movement from an insider's perspective. Besides this lack of information about the experiences of people within new religious movements, the media is attracted to sensational
Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers...

 stories featuring accusations of food and sleep deprivation, sexual and physical abuse, and excesses of spiritual and emotional authority by the charismatic leader.

Michael Langone
Michael Langone
Michael D. Langone, is an American counseling psychologist who specialises in research about "cultic groups" and alleged psychological manipulation. He is executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, editor of the journal Cultic Studies Review.Langone is author and co-author...

 argues that some will accept uncritically the positive reports of current members without calling such reports, for example, "benevolence tales" or "personal growth tales". He asserts that only the critical reports of ex-members are called "tales", which he considers to be a term that clearly implies falsehood or fiction. He states that it wasn't until 1996 that a researcher conducted a study to assess the extent to which so called "atrocity tales" might be based on fact.

Other uses

The term is also used as related to atrocity stories told as a form of propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

, and its power in the shaping of public opinion during wartime.

The term was coined by Stimson and Webb (1975) in discussing the ways in which patients talk about doctors. It has also been applied in health care contexts to examine the way in which such stories are used to assert and defend the character of an occupation against illegitimate claims to its work or social standing (Dingwall 1977).

See also

  • Deviancy amplification spiral
    Deviancy amplification spiral
    Deviancy amplification spiral is a media hype phenomenon defined by media critics as a cycle of increasing numbers of reports on a category of antisocial behavior or some other "undesirable" event, leading to a moral panic...

  • Moral panic
    Moral panic
    A moral panic is the intensity of feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order. According to Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics and credited creator of the term, a moral panic occurs when "[a] condition, episode, person or group of...

  • The Politics of Religious Apostasy
    The Politics of Religious Apostasy
    The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements , edited by David G. Bromley, presents studies by several sociologists of new religious movements on the role played by apostates The volume examines the apostate's testimonies,...

  • Yellow journalism
    Yellow journalism
    Yellow journalism or the yellow press is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism...

Further reading

  • Shupe, A.D. and D.G. Bromley 1981 Apostates
    Apostasy , 'a defection or revolt', from ἀπό, apo, 'away, apart', στάσις, stasis, 'stand, 'standing') is the formal disaffiliation from or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. One who commits apostasy is known as an apostate. These terms have a pejorative implication in everyday...

     and Atrocity Stories: Some parameters in the Dynamics of Deprogramming
    Deprogramming refers to actions that attempt to force a person to abandon allegiance to a religious, political, economic, or social group. Methods and practices may involve kidnapping and coercion...

    In: B.R. Wilson (ed.) The Social Impact of New Religious Movement
    New religious movement
    A new religious movement is a religious community or ethical, spiritual, or philosophical group of modern origin, which has a peripheral place within the dominant religious culture. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, such as Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, in...

    Barrytown NY Rose of Sharon Press 179-215
  • Bromley, David G., The Politics of Religious Apostasy
    The Politics of Religious Apostasy
    The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements , edited by David G. Bromley, presents studies by several sociologists of new religious movements on the role played by apostates The volume examines the apostate's testimonies,...

    , Praeger Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  • Julien Théry, "Atrocitas/enormitas. Esquisse pour une histoire de la catégorie de 'crime énorme' du Moyen Âge à l'époque moderne", Clio@Themis, Revue électronique d'histoire du droit, n. 4, march 2011

Dingwall, R. (1977) Atrocity Stories and Professional Relationships. Sociology of Work and Occupations, Vol4, No 4, November.
Stimson GV, and B. Webb (1975) Going to see the doctor. London: Routledge.
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