Mexico: Four homeless men stagger into a remote forest clearing at night. Firelight casts eerie shadows on a makeshift stone table. There is no sign of the vodka they were promised to warm them against the freezing cold.
That is no table. Instead, it’s an altar, and the new friend who promised them free booze has a far more sinister plan.
One by one they are sacrificed on the altar before satanic rituals are performed on their mutilated bodies.
These are the appalling murders allegedly carried out by former police officer Arsen Bairambekov outside the remote Russia town of Verkhnyaya Pyshma, 900 miles east of Moscow.
Bairambekov is accused of burying the bodies then returning “some time later” to dig them up, believing the sacrifices had given him occult powers.
It is said he planned to use his victims to build his own zombie army. Investigators said: “He tried to bring the dead back to life and turn them into zombies. However, all his attempts were futile.”
Bairambekov is also charged with dealing firearms and assassinating two businessmen in 2002 and 2010.But a psychiatric evaluation ruled he was fit to stand trial, and he was canny enough to plea bargain to ensure he faces a maximum jail sentence of just 12 years, despite his horrific crimes.
The killing spree is the latest in a list of crimes inspired by Russia’s deadly obsession with the occult.There are reportedly 400,000 professional occultists in the country, fuelling a black-magic black market worth £24billion a year. In 2008, the interior ministry warned satanism was a bigger threat to national security than Islamic extremism.
That same year, a devil-worshipping gang of cannibals murdered four teenagers, stabbing them each 666 times – the number revered by satanists.
Anya Gorokhova, Olga Pukhova, Varya Kuzmina and Andrei Sorokin, all aged 16 or 17, went missing from the Yaroslavl region, 300 miles northeast of Moscow.
Police believe they were forced to drink alcohol before they were attacked. They were then hacked to pieces, roasted over a fire then eaten by the cult.
Police found the remains in a pit near the home of cult leader Nikolai Ogolobyak. Eight people were arrested. One told police: “Satan will help me to avoid responsibility. I made lots of sacrifices to him.” Another said: “I tried to turn to God, but it didn’t bring me any money. I prayed to Satan and things improved.”
Neighbouring Belarus experienced a spate of cases in the late 1990s. Satanic students burned down the Church of the Holy Trinity in the city of Brest in 1995.
The following year, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit in Minsk was desecrated by cultists.
Also in the capital in 1996, a satanist was arrested for a ritualist murder. He confessed he had prepared for his horrific crime by executing 666 cats.
And teenagers in a cult were arrested in Crimean city Simferopol after police found the dismembered body of a young woman in a cemetery.
One of those held confessed to having practised Satanism for several years. They had removed a skull and bones from two graves to perform “magic rites”.
Back in central Russia, in 2010, police in Saransk learned a devil-worshipping cult had encouraged its members to infiltrate the force to extend its evil influence.
It is not known how many were successful. Either way, it has sparked fears of Russia returning to the dark days of the early 20th century, when occultists infiltrated the innermost corridors of power.
A Frenchman called Monsieur Philippe held seances to help the royal family contact the dead and prayed with the Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra.
But the most famous was the mystic monk Grigori Rasputin. Born to a peasant family in the frozen wilds of Siberia, it was said he could read minds and heal animals by the time he was 10.
Rasputin joined a Russian orthodox cult that believed its members needed to experience sin, which suited his love of drinking and violent sex at bath houses.
Eventually, he captured the attention of Alexandra by supposedly healing her son Alexei Nikolaevich’s life-threatening haemophilia, where the blood doesn’t clot normally. There are numerous theories on how he did this, from hypnotising the young prince to giving him herbs.
Others believe Rasputin used inside information leaked by Alexandra’s ladyin-waiting to time his treatments for when the prince was already recovering.
The Tsar was less impressed, but dared not dismiss Rasputin. Historian Pierre Gilliard observed: “He did not like to send Rasputin away for, if Alexei had died, in the eyes of the mother he would have been the murderer of his own son.”
But the people feared Rasputin had led the Tsar and his wife astray. After numerous failed assassination attempts, he was murdered in 1916. His killers hoped this would save the Romanov royal dynasty but public support for the Tsar was low, stoking the flames of the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The idea that the royal family turned to the occult to help them rule the country may have contributed to their downfall, but many Russians still embrace it as part of their own lives.
The collapse of the Soviet system in the 80s led to such a surge in occult beliefs that one in five Russians has seen a psychic or mystic at least once. Witches will cast a spell to bring back a lover, or help an alcoholic relative back on track. Businessmen admit to using clairvoyants to help them make vital business deals.
There have even been organised zombie events in Moscow and St Petersburg. After the fall of Communism, psychic healers got a public platform on stateowned TV on the authority of President Boris Yeltsin, who was captivated by the paranormal.
The most successful was psychiatrist and psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky, dubbed the new Rasputin. The former weightlifter regularly beat Yeltsin into second place in popularity polls before claims his show led to a wave of suicides.
His great rival was Allan Chumak, who claimed to charge jars of water in his viewers’ homes with healing powers.
Yeltsin also approved projects such as hiring psychics to security agencies, funding schemes to extract energy from stones, and reportedly employing 127 psychics to search for a plane that disappeared in East Russia in 1995.
Its wreckage was found when the authorities began using their radar systems. The days of state-sponsored psychics seem to be over, as Russia has introduced laws to stop mystics advertising in the mass media. Dispelling the country’s obsession with the occult may prove rather more difficult.