Crazy Corn Children & Ritual Form

In 1977, Stephen King published his short story “Children of the Corn” in Penthouse. Seven years later, movie audiences across the nation were horrified by the ritual doings of small town Nebraska kids who worshiped something malevolent in the corn.

It surely was no coincidence that later in the year, Nebraska experienced a sharp drop in tourism and state troopers issued record numbers of tickets to drivers in a hurry to pass through the state. Who can blame people for wanting to avoid scythe-wielding Corn Children with a pagan penchant for ritual murder:

You know things are bad when post-apocalyptic berserker Linda Hamilton (aka Sarah Connor) cannot avoid a corn crucifixion:

Now that is a high intensity ritual! But if Quentin Atkinson and Harvey Whitehouse are correct, it is not true to form.

In “The Cultural Morphospace of Ritual Form: Examining Modes of Religiosity Cross-Culturally,” Atkinson and Whitehouse use the latter’s mode of religiosity theory to predict ritual forms. This theory proposes that two different kinds of cognitive memory systems — episodic and semantic — are linked to (and subserve) two broad categories of religion: “imagistic” and “doctrinal.”

The imagistic mode of religion is based on rare, climactic rituals that are extremely intense. The doctrinal mode revolves around frequently repeated rituals (or teachings) that are relatively sedate. The theory predicts that rituals associated with imagistic religions will be low frequency and high arousal, whereas rituals associated with doctrinal religions will be high frequency and low arousal.

To test these predictions the authors used a sample of 74 randomly selected societies drawn from the Human Relations Area Files, a well known and highly respected ethnographic database. They coded the rituals for frequency and arousal. As predicted, they found that ritual frequency is negatively correlated with ritual intensity. Ritual intensity levels were highest for once in a lifetime rituals and lowest for daily ones. There is a big arousal difference, in other words, between the Native American vision quest and attending Mass or performing Salah.

When the authors analyzed the variables associated with ritual intensity and arousal, they found that “reliance on agriculture is a key predictor of variation” and that agricultural intensity best predicts ritual intensity. Hardcore farmers prefer lowkey rituals. Hunter-gatherers, by contrast, tend towards the hardcore:

These findings are not surprising. If we suppose that “religions” can in fact be roughly divided into two types and follow Whitehouse’s division, it seems that “imagistic” religions describe the beliefs of most pre-state or small-scale societies, and that “doctrinal” religions entail the beliefs of most agricultural and industrial societies.

If this is the case, then religion-ritual variation (“imagistic” or “doctrinal”) might be better explained as a difference in political economy. The basic difference, in other words, is that pre-state and small-scale societies generally lack the kinds of elites, institutions, and technologies that promote “doctrinal” modes of religion. They also tend to lack writing and books, which may be prerequisites for “doctrinal” forms of religion.

We can also observe that until 10,000 years ago (i.e., before the Neolithic Revolution) all “religions” were shamanic and therefore imagistic. The domestication of plants and animals led to the development of city-states and resulted in a shift to more organized, systematic, and “doctrinal” forms of religion.

Thus while it may be true that “imagistic” religions draw primarily on episodic memory and “doctrinal” religions draw primarily on semantic memory, this cognitive association seems to be an historical effect rather than a biological cause. As Marx and Engels suggested long ago, a society’s mode of production generally determines its form of religion.

What does this have to do with deranged Corn Children? Assuming they planted the endless and eerie corn fields in the movie, we would predict their rituals to be mellow or even bookish. Ritual crucifixions and bloody murders don’t fit the predicted pattern. Either Stephen King missed the memo or he used the maize-loving Aztecs as his model.


Atkinson, Quentin D., & Whitehouse, Harvey (2011). The Cultural Morphospace of Ritual Form: Examining Modes of Religiosity Cross-Culturally. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32 (1), 50-62 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.09.002

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8 thoughts on “Crazy Corn Children & Ritual Form

  1. Eric M. Cherry

    Through most of this article, I kept thinking, “What about the Aztecs?”

    If I understand the study correctly, the idea is that a given culture’s way of getting food will shape whether its religious traditions have spread out episodes of high intensity actions (hunters might sacrifice someone) or more frequent, low intensity rituals (farmers might gather around to chant prayers).

    So we could look at a culture that grows most of its food, and we’d predict they have frequent, low intensity religion. And we look at the Aztecs, who weren’t hunting to feed their empire, but who engaged in lots of high intensity rituals.

    Is there a flaw in the reasoning, or am I not taking a sufficiently nuanced approach to assessing the Aztecs?

    – emc

  2. admin Post author

    Not exactly. If I understand Whitehouse correctly, he thinks that the two memory systems are driving ritual/religion, and that it somehow is a causal factor. This is the first study of his where he admits to a relationship, perhaps even causal, between mode of production, form of religion, and type of memory system. He may be backtracking in this study.

    There will always be counterfactuals and counterexamples for nearly any generalization, and the Aztecs are a case in point. Although they were agriculturalists, they were also empire builders who ate lots of people. Michael Harner’s classic article on ecology, protein shortage, and cannibalism among the Aztecs explains the circumstances.

    But as a general guideline and way to predict forms of religion, I think we start with the dynamics and logic of political economy before we begin using biological/cognitive causes as explanation.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Virtually all state religions involved sacrifices prior to literature, and only then moved slowly away is my understanding. Agricultural Brittan was still sacrificing humans when Caesar arrived 1 st. c. BCE, as was Carthage. Agricultural India abandoned it only reluctantly as vassals of the (now Christian) Brits in the 19th. century. Rome, itself, only gave up animal sacrifice with its Christian conversion. (The lions, rumor goes, were being fed, not ‘receiving sacrifice’)

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  5. admin Post author

    This is correct. There was a real turning point in the history of religions during the Axial Age, with state religions becoming “universal” and purportedly open to all people, regardless of state or ethnic affiliation. Animal sacrifices need not, however, be a high intensity ritual. Frankly, I don’t find the inquiry into ritual variation all that interesting or revealing; nor do I find the alleged connection to episodic/semantic memory that interesting or revealing. These don’t really seem to be causal mechanisms, but seem to be effects. I prefer studying possible causes, and then looking at effects.

  6. J. A. LeFevre

    I’m with you on that, but have noticed the pattern looking to justify/support the causal mechanisms uncovered. They do not seem to be related but as a secondary phenomenon. That said:

    There are three principal pastoral ‘tribes’ (roots) who, back in the day, worshiped war and sacrificed animals. There were many agricultural civilizations through the world (some) who worshiped fertility and sacrificed humans. All the agricultural settlements (tied to the ground) were eventually overrun by one or all of the pastoral tribes (food on the hoof along with horses or camels) and their cultures merged.

  7. J. A. LeFevre

    Another story from my dad was the man teaching his son to train a mule – told him all about how much faster the mule would learn when treated with kindness, them picked up a 2X4 and led the boy out to the mule. The boy asked about the ‘kindness’ and the father replied ‘after we get his attention’. I think the ‘mechanism’ is (nominally) universal, the ‘show’ is just to hold our attention and continues to evolve uniquely across small and large communities.

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