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devils-playground1Author’s note: This post was originally an essay I wrote for an undergraduate-level religious studies class at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013.

The Amish church, founded in Europe in 1693, is known for being a traditional people, usually maintaining a separate culture from the rest of the population. Though alive in a world full of modern technology, clothing, and other conveniences, the Amish dress in traditional Pennsylvania Dutch garb, often speak Pennsylvania Dutch versus English, and choose to only partake in the usage of a few technological resources, such as a refrigerator and an occasional television. They choose not to allow themselves a potentially easier life through the use of contemporary appliances.

Their core values are centered around a Biblical passage in the book of John, reading, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” While they believe that material goods of the world are meaningless to them and the reliance and favor of materialistic items are not “of the Father,” there is an Amish tradition that allows every child to venture out into the modern world and experience things that are usually considered taboo in their culture. This process is rumspringa.

Literally translated from Pennsylvania German, rumspringa means “running around.” This tradition stems from the Amish belief that only an adult can freely adopt God and become baptized. When each Amish child turns 16, they are released into what they call the “English” world, able to interact with non-Amish people, operate a vehicle, dress in modern clothing, and live separately from their parents if they so desire. What this means for many Amish children during rumspringa is the exposure to sex, drugs, and alcohol. After an Amish child experiences life in the contemporary world, the choice is up to them whether to commit their life as part of the Amish community and accept a baptism, or to continue to live an English lifestyle. The unpopular decision can sometimes result in the excommunication of a child from the rest of their family and community.

The 2002 Lucy Walker documentary Devil’s Playground explores the traditional practice of rumspringa by showing the experiences of a select group of Indiana-based Amish adolescents and their lives during that time. The film identifies some of the main challenges Amish children face both when they enter the English world or if they choose to resume their old lives afterward. Studying the scholarly works of neurologist Sigmund Freud and cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, one can easily determine what the two would have thought of the circumstances in Devil’s Playground had they the opportunity to view the film.

Sigmund Freud on Devil’s Playground

Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud often groups religion with both illusion and obsession, sometimes even delusion. Many of Freud’s practices and case studies dealt with people, often women, acting out obsessive compulsions concerning religious practices. He conducted psychological analysis on these people through a variety of techniques, coming to a conclusion that the reasoning for these compulsions was a belief or event buried deep inside the person’s brain or psyche. “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived form human wishes,” says Freud. “In this respect, they come near to psychiatric delusions. But they differ from them, too, apart from the more complicated structure of delusions. In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality. Illusions need not necessarily be false – that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality.”

It seems that Freud would say, of the traditional non-materialistic beliefs and habits of the Amish seen in Devil’s Playground, that many of their actions are for illusory reasons. Freud might say that their beliefs that cars, alcohol, drugs, and even certain types of clothing are “of the Devil,” combined with their refusal to partake in the usage of various modern technological advancements past their time of rumspringa, are delusions based on a deeply-rooted fear of change; fear of the route away from tradition. Many of the Amish seen in the documentary mention their reliance and emphasis on tradition within their culture, but also admit that it’s easier to not question these traditions. “A deeper insight into the mechanism of obsessional neurosis is gained if we take into account the primary fact which lies at the bottom of it,” says Freud. In this case, Freud would likely say that what lies at the root of their “obsessional neurosis” is the fear of change, and how for them, that translates to the fear of God and the fear of the Devil.

When it comes to the rumspringa process and its close association with the wild behavior of Amish children, Freud might say that the tendencies to drink excessive amounts of alcohol, do drugs, and participate in sexual activity could be related to their wish fulfillment of experiencing highly-desired parts of life in the English world. “Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification,” says Freud. He also might call this expressive, boisterous behavior the “unwritten laws” of rumspringa; a ceremonial series of practices. “The performance of a ceremonial can be described by replacing it, as it were, by a series of unwritten laws,” says Freud.

Victor Turner on Devil’s Playground

While Freud focuses on the psyche and how one’s internality drives religious compulsions, British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner focuses on puberty rites and the notion of communitas. To Turner, these puberty rites relate to rites of passage, with this transitional time coming in three phases: separation, margin (or limen, meaning “threshold” in Latin), and aggregation. The Amish rumspringa is a rite of passage that especially relates to Turner’s three phases, with an emphasis on the liminal “threshold” period. “During the intervening “liminal” period, the characteristics of the ritual subject (‘the passenger’) are ambiguous,” says Turner. “He passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state.”

This signifies that Turner might believe an Amish adolescent exiting the Amish community and breaking into the English lifestyle would be an example of this liminal period, and that this new “cultural realm” could be represented by modern culture. “The attributes of liminality, of liminal personae (“threshold people”), are necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space,” says Turner. “Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions.” Turner might say that these attributes and symbols are simply the sex, drugs and alcohol; the forces that are “of the Devil” in the Amish community and act as temptations in the English world. Because these are things that none of the adolescents have previously experienced, the symbols are considered Turner’s definition of the “unknown.” They are also so commonly practiced during rumspringa that Turner would most likely call them “ritualized” in the Amish rumspringa society.

Turner’s notion of communitas fits into this liminal period, as well, and in this case has much to do with the Amish adolescent rites of passage. “I have tried to eschew the notion that communitas has a specific territorial locus, often limited in character, which pervades many definitions,” says Turner. “For me, communitas emerges where social structure is not.” When Turner mentions this absence of social structure, it immediately relates to rumspringa in that way: an absence of any kind of structure. Turner might say that the Amish adolescents during rumspringa make up a communitas within the experience. “Communitas breaks in through the interstices of structure, in liminality; at the edges of structure, in marginality; and from beneath structure; in inferiority,” says Turner. “It is almost everywhere held to be sacred or ‘holy,’ possibly because it transgresses or dissolves the norms that govern structured and institutionalized relationships and is accompanied by experiences or unprecedented potency.” Turner might say that the Amish, during rumspringa, form a communitas and that their practices are so patterned and so often acted out that they form into a kind of sacred ritual.

While the psychological beliefs of Freud and the cultural views of Turner differ when applied to the Amish tradition of rumspringa, both views are strong enough to make it fairly easy to determine what the two scholars would have said about the Amish adolescents seen in Devil’s Playground.


1 Lucy Walker, director, Devil’s Playground, Stick Figure Productions, 2002, DVD.

 2 Sigmund Freud, excerpts from The Future of an Illusion, translated and edited by James Strachey (New York; W.W. Norton and Company, 1989), 15, 31.

 3 Sigmund Freud, Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices in Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IX, translated by James Strachey (London; Hogarth Press, 1959), 124-127.

 4 Victor Turner, Liminality and Communitas in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, NY; Cornell University Press, 1977), 94, 95, 126, 128.

 5 Sean McCloud 2600 Lecture (October 19, 2013).