The first witch I ever met was 14 years old and shivering. Clarice was brought before me—tiny, frozen, and swaddled in a wide white cardigan—in a church in the wreckage and rubble of the Congo war, as irrefutable proof of the cause of the catastrophe unfolding all around us. Her priest, Papa Enoch Boonga, explained before a gravely nodding congregation that the girl had been possessed by Satan, who would drag everyone around her into the abyss until he and his Armies of Evil were starved, burned, and whipped out of her.
In a dull, blank rote, Clarice told me how she had let the demons enter her at the age of 12. One night, her late grandmother had appeared before her, at the end of her bed, and offered her a biscuit to eat. She promised Clarice that if she only swallowed it, she would become more powerful. But it was a trick. As soon as she ate it, she was betrothed to Satan and forced to do his work on earth. He forced her to jinx her father, making it impossible for him to get a job. Satan forced her to kill her little sister by giving her a deadly fever.
Clarice had at first denied her intimacy with the devil, Papa Enoch told me disapprovingly. She protested it wasn’t true. But he finally made her “admit” it, through a process of starvation and torture. I asked Clarice softly whether she really believed she had done all these things. “Yes,” she said. “I do.”
Across Africa, I have witnessed witch hunts. I have stood in a hut deep in the Tanzanian bush where the blood of an 80-year-old woman was still wet on the walls, after her “evil” had been hacked out of her with a machete. I have been lectured in the Central African Republic by men who explain the collapse of their country is due to “these wicked women.” I have played with rejected child witches living on the streets in Congo and been told by anxious locals that I would soon die from their curses.
Every time, I am struck by the sense I have seen this movie before. The African witch hunts—a hidden war on women—seem to be a direct rerun of the European and American witch hunts of our forebears. So how did societies so different become infected with the same psychosis? For answers, I turned to two excellent new books studying the witch-crazes of our past—John Demos’ The Enemy Within and Thomas Robisheaux’s The Last Witch of Langenburg. As I pored through them, it became clear that this desire to project all our fears and hatreds and panics onto a specific person—so that we can wipe her from the earth and imagine we are free—is embedded deep in our DNA as a species. It is part of who we are.
The story at the heart of The Last Witch of Langenburg would be familiar to Clarice. One afternoon in 1672, a woman called Anna Schmeig baked some cakes and wandered around her neighbors’ homes in her German village, handing them out. One of them, Anna Fessler, thought the cake tasted foul and couldn’t eat much. She threw it away after only a few bites—but she died soon after. The villagers—already traumatized by the failure of crops and mass hunger across Europe caused by the Little Ice Age —concluded she must be a witch. Anna was arrested and tortured. Her daughter eventually “admitted,” under the pressure of fists and torture implements, that her mother was a witch. So Anna was strangled and then burned.
The process, then and now, follows a strikingly similar arc of discovery. There is an unexplained death. A woman is blamed. Some local Jack Bauer is at hand to make her “confess.” She is forced to name other “guilty” women. (Clarice’s grandmother was accused; Anna’s daughter was roped in.) And, lo, a conspiracy is discovered. The conspiracy spreads like a bloodstain outward ever further.
You might think the spread of science would cure the plague. But literal witch hunting still recurs in the most backward and fundamentalist parts of even the Western world. Sarah Palin has boasted about being blessed by a Kenyan preacher called Thomas Muthee, who called on Jesus to protect Palin from “the spirit of witchcraft.” It turned out Muthee took this very literally—he boasted of driving elderly “witches” out of their communities back in Africa. The Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, drives out “evil spirits” himself. In the Catholic journal New Oxford Review in 1994, he claimed that a “demon” possessed his “intimate friend” Susan—and that he personally cast it out through a process of prayer and exorcism. He even wondered whether, in the process, he cured Susan’s cancer.
The allure of witch hunting can grip any of us if we abandon our adherence to reason and evidence. As a tribal, poorly evolved species, we are very vulnerable to believing that we are surrounded by secretive, wicked people who might seem like us at first glance but who are, in fact, conspiring against us—and must be rooted out and destroyed. John Demos explains how this differs from other forms of persecution: “Witch-hunting alone finds the other within its own ranks. The Jew, the black, and the ethnic opposite exist, in some fundamental sense, ‘on the outside.’ … The witch, by contrast, is discovered (and ‘discovery’ is key to the process) inside the host community.”
We know that witch hunts break out most ferociously at times of trauma and stress. There was no concept of child witchcraft in Congo until the war began and 6 million people were killed. Now a broken and terrorized population has turned on its own children in a desperate, futile attempt to find some way to regain control. The first great witch hunt in Europe came after the Black Death killed one-third of the population. The second came between 1580 and 1650, when the climate cooled and crops failed. Similarly, witch hunting erupted in America—on the dirt-tracks of Salem, Mass.—at a time when 10 percent of the colonists were being killed and all lived in constant fear of the American Indians who were trying to defend their civilization from extinction.
Why, during times of horror, do humans inflict this further cruelty on their neighbors and themselves? Why do we so often choose witch hunting over solidarity? In those African villages, it always seemed to me that a belief in witches is—at the most basic level—a rebellion against the cold randomness of death. If you live in the Tanzanian bush—or in a German village in 1672—almost anything can kill you, and it probably will: a mosquito bite, a mouthful of water filled with invisible bacteria, a cut knee that becomes infected. Death is everywhere, random and sudden and final. In these circumstances, it is more reassuring to believe there is an evil out there that you can personify and hunt down and kill than to acknowledge the truth: that you are powerless.
The witch-killers always describe a feeling of sweet relief. All the guilt they feel—for snatching food from their starving neighbors, for taking part in atrocities—is channeled outward. The evil is somewhere else—in that child, in that old woman—and it can be killed. But there is always a nasty irony: They believe they are expunging “evil” when in fact they are enacting it.
Yet this doesn’t explain why witch hunting keeps taking the same form every time, with only mild variations. Why, in particular, is it almost always targeted at women? In 1486, a witch-killer called Heinrich Kramer wrote Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a staggeringly popular guide on how to identify, torture, and kill the female fiends. Every page drips with misogyny. It says a woman has a “slippery tongue” and is “a liar by nature.” Her “carnal lust … is insatiable,” and she will indulge it with Satan eagerly.
Demos believes there is a primal reason for this. “A mother—a woman—is the primal Other, the nonself from which the self is progressively distinguished; further, she disposes a kind of absolute power to meet, or reject, infantile need,” he writes. “As such, she retains forever afterward an aura of what a discerning psychologist has called ‘magically formidable’ qualities.” So when we begin to suspect all-powerful dark forces, we suspect women first—because our mothers once held all-encompassing powers over us.
I think this misses a starker and simpler explanation. Women are generally weaker than men. They are less able to defend themselves from braying mobs. They are easier to pin down and turn into a screaming, denying receptacle of evil. The mobs usually choose the weakest women of all—old women and little girls.
The psychological template of witch hunting lies deep in our brains—and recurs in our own societies, generation after generation. Demos offers a potted history of American witch hunts, from the panic about Freemasons in the early republic to McCarthyism to the hysteria about Satanic ritual abuse that crested in the 1990s. It is this last case that shows how vulnerable we are to working ourselves into these hysterias, here, now.
It began in 1984 in California, when a 37-year-old grandmother, previously diagnosed as paranoid and delusional, announced that her grandchild was being abused by a secret ring of Satanists. The children said it wasn’t true, and rejected it through hours of questioning. Yet the school became convinced it was—and the children were made to keep talking until they “confessed,” at which point they were slathered with praise for their courage. As before—as always—the accusations spread. Our panic about the vulnerability of children created a monstrous irony: In the process of trying to ease our fears, we turned our own children into witch-accusers—and panicked even more. Dozens of innocent people were jailed.
One of the most notorious cases happened barely a dozen miles from Salem. Now, 20 years later, there is a broad consensus it was all a fiction: There were no rings of Satanists raping children. But these histories show the hysteria will happen again. We don’t know yet who the victims are, but they are out there, oblivious. There is an enemy within—dormant in our own fragile minds and emerging with paranoid intensity at times of stress. Our only antidote is to insist on evidence. Whenever there are charges against a person or group, we must ask insistently: How do we know? Show me the proof. Show me three times. Show me 10.
The last time I saw Clarice, I tried to tell her softly that there was a long history of people across the world being accused of being witches, and now we all know it is not real. She didn’t say anything. She stared at me inscrutably, and a tear ran down her cheek.