Melanesian initiation cults frequently incorporate rites that instil a profound and lasting terror in the initiates. This article surveys several contemporary theories of these traumatic ordeals, and argues that these theories establish generalities only at the cost of adequate engagement with the cognitive and affective processes entailed in ritual performance. I propose a new approach, based on theories of 'flashbulb memory', which penetrates more deeply the religious experiences engendered in traumatic ritual, and also accounts for certain recurrent patterns of political association in initiation systems. 'Rites of terror' are here envisaged as part of a nexus of psychological and sociological processes, dubbed the 'imagistic mode of religiosity'.
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