Miranda Barbour, a teenager arrested along with her husband, Elytte, for the murder of a man she allegedly met for sex through Craigslist, has confessed to killing countless others as part of a Satanic cult.

According to an NBC News story, “A teen satanist in a Pennsylvania prison claims she has killed nearly two dozen people in different parts of the country, according to a report in a local newspaper. ‘When I hit 22, I stopped counting,” Miranda Barbour said in an jailhouse interview with local newspaper the Daily Item in Sunbury. She added in the interview that ran on Saturday that she just wanted to be honest.’”

In the interview Barbour claims to have killed people in five states. Barbour’s sensational claims have of course made national news, with salacious details of sex, murder and Satan. But are they true? Many experts, as well as Barbour’s father, doubt it.

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False Confessions

But why confess to something you didn’t do? Sometimes criminals will falsely confess to crimes they didn’t commit in order to confuse police or as a stalling tactic. Some do it for the notoriety, or simply to taunt police. By giving or withholding what police investigators want — in this case, information about other crimes, whether true or false — a criminal can have a measure of power or control.

Serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who is known to have killed about a dozen people before being caught, gave wildly varying numbers when asked about how many people he’d murdered, ranging from dozens to hundreds to thousands. In the end it is not known exactly how many murders Lucas actually committed, but it is clear that he confessed to killing far more than he actually did.

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False confessions can also be elicited, intentionally or otherwise, from suspects under interrogation. One example of this is the infamous Central Park Five case in which five teenagers were arrested for the brutal 1989 rape and assault of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. The boys, who were in the park at the time of the assault, were rounded up and arrested. All of them denied attacking the woman, but later confessed after hours of interrogation.

The confessions were very persuasive to the jury and all five were convicted sentenced to prison for between six and eleven years. Yet the men were finally exonerated in 2002 when a convicted rapist and murderer admitted that he had assaulted the woman, acting alone. But what about the false confessions that led to their convictions? Confessions need not be beaten or tortured out of a person; sometimes they can come after hours of psychological pressure and exhaustion. They were scared teenagers who were promised that they could go home if they just told police what they wanted to hear.

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Some people have even falsely confessed to crimes without even being asked or even questioned: In 2006 an Atlanta man named John Mark Karr confessed to the unsolved murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey, whose 1996 death became a sensational homicide case. Karr was arrested by police but soon released when they realized that the details of his confession were implausible, and in some cases impossible. Whatever caused his false confession — whether a mental illness, a desire for attention, or other factors — he could not have committed the crime he confessed to.

It is plausible that Karr sincerely believed he killed Ramsey, and that Miranda Barbour sincerely believes she killed dozens of people.

In their 2004 article in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, researchers Linda Henkel and Kimberly Coffman analyzed this type of false confession: “Suspects who offer coerced-internalized false confessions do so for crimes that they are innocent of but come to falsely believe that they committed. These suspects sometimes come to ‘remember’ their participation, later relating the events in vivid, mental scenarios.

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“Although the precise frequency with which such false confessions occur has not been officially determined, the literature is replete with case studies and compendiums of reports showing that innocent people can come to believe in their own guilt and even create ‘memories’ for their alleged crimes, with their innocence established later through additional evidence, such as DNA tests or confessions by the true guilty parties.”

In other words, some people confess because they really think that committed the crime, or mistakenly “remember” it from seeing television re-enactments or descriptions of a crime. Sometimes these individuals have learning disabilities, though not always; under the right conditions (for example being exhausted, denied sleep, or interrogated for hours) just about anyone could potentially come to believe that committed a crime they did not.

In fact, as Henkel and Coffman note, “Both victims and eyewitnesses can have vivid and detailed recollections that they are quite confident about, and yet these recollections are erroneous … memories for entire events that never took place can be ‘implanted’ through suggestion and other manipulations and be remembered with confidence and vivid detail.”

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The Satanic Panic

The fact that Barbour claims to have committed the killings as part of an organized Satanic cult severely damages her credibility. While Satanists do exist, they bear little resemblance to the evil, bloodthirsty cults that populate Grade-B horror films. Satanism encompasses a variety of beliefs, but most forms of Satanism are related to pagan traditions similar to witches (practitioners of Wicca, officially recognized as a legitimate religion in 1986) in their worship of nature, magic and many New Age beliefs.

James Lewis, a religious studies professor at the University of Wisconsin, notes in his book “Satanism Today: An Encyclopedia of Religion, Folklore, and Popular Culture” that “A significant aspect of the stereotype of Satanism is that it always involves some kind of blood sacrifice — often animal, but also human. Most modern Satanists, however, are completely opposed to such acts. In the influential ‘Satanic Bible,’ for example, Anton LaVey describes this stereotype and rejects it as part of Satanism.”

Thus it seems that Barbour’s ideas about Satanic cults came not from any personal experience in one, but instead from watching false, stereotyped caricatures of them horror movies and sensationalized television shows. For another excellent in-depth look at Satanism in popular culture, see folklorist Bill Ellis’s “Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media” (2000, University Press of Kentucky).

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Not only is Barbour not the first person to claim to have killed far more people than she likely did, but she’s also not the first to have falsely claimed to have participated in Satanic serial killings.

A woman writing under the name Lauren Stratford authored a best-selling 1991 book titled “Satan’s Underground,” in which she described, in gory confessional detail, her first-hand experience inside a Satanic cult. Stratford admitted to horrific acts, including torture killings and killing babies in the name of the Devil.

The book was enormously popular and influential, especially in Christian circles, during the “Satanic panic” hysteria that swept across America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Later investigation revealed that Stratford’s confession was completely false; she had never joined any Satanic, serial-killing cult. It was all made up for attention.

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Did Miranda Barbour really kill too many people to count, as part of a multi-state serial killing spree of Satanic sacrifice? Police are investigating, but the information so far casts considerable doubt on her “confessions.”