Witch hunters are way worse than witches

The tagline for the 2014 TV series Salem was that “There’s something worse than a witch-hunt: a witch.” Which as slacktivist Fred Clark has pointed out, is bullshit. Witchcraft and black magic don’t kill people. Witch hunters have killed hundreds, maybe thousands. And they’re still destroying lives in the modern world.

In the Satanic panic of the 1980s, innocent people went to jail for years on charges they’d abused small children in Satanic cults, operating through daycares. Part of the problem was inept therapists believed that if you demanded toddlers tell you they were abused, they’d refuse unless it was true (this is inaccurate. At that age, they’ll say whatever the grownups want to hear). And police and prosecutors who proceeded to accept this at face value, even when the tales got more outlandish (the cult killed my dog, then brought it to life!) or accused people in law-enforcement of being in on the cult. Like the investigation of the Massie rape case, the problem wasn’t just a false accusation but the police refusal to say Stop.

Author Judy Byington claims the existence of a Satanic cult indistinguishable from the lies Mike Warnke told 40 years ago. And of course, it’s now spilling into politics as conspiracy theorists Liz Crokin and Alex Jones, among others, make the same claims (which segue into paranoia about The Storm) only focused on Clinton (and whoever else is in their spotlight) as one of Satan’s agents, just as they and their listeners and Trump are in the crosshairs.

Evidence? Schmevidence. Slacktivist again writes about Alice Tallmadge, who recounts how her entire family swallowed one relative’s claims of being abused by a cult. Evidence? The complete lack of evidence just shows how the cult is so subtle and powerful it covers up everything! As Slacktivist points out, it would be easy to check whether Tallmadge’s niece had actually suffered some of these tortures, but the family didn’t.

As Clark says, some of the people promoting these theories are undoubtedly hucksters, no different from the peddlers who once offered pieces of the true cross or vials of Mary’s breast milk (yes, seriously). Some of them are gullible or religious enough to believe it; I’ve known people who could have a perfectly serious discussion about how their friend’s recent accident was obvious Satan tampering with his brake line (but his guardian angel saved him from serious injury).


And others make up the kitten-burning coalition: they want to believe, because if there are evil Satanic cults molesting children, committing human sacrifice and trying to take over the country, just by opposing them they prove their own virtue. Supporting Trump isn’t simply racist or knee-jerk Republican, it’s fighting to protect little children from Satan! In that context, nobody wants to worry about evidence. Evidence would spoil their fun. Or interfere with what they “know” is true.

I don’t think this is a new thing. If the people who heard Mike Warnke confess to being a Satanist priest or read his book The Satan Seller really believed him, they’d have to believe he was a willing participant in human sacrifice — a murderer. So far as I know, that never stopped him being acceptable in good Christian circles, nor did anyone suggest investigating. Five seconds research would have proven Warnke couldn’t have been a freedom rider in the late 1960s, as the Freedom Rides happened in the Kennedy years.

At some level, as Clark says, maybe they don’t believe, but they just excise those inconvenient thoughts. They’d sooner believe in a world run by Satan in which they’re champions of virtue than a world in which The Other isn’t all evil. And as the Satanic panic shows, that can have ugly consequences. A couple of times recently I’ve heard a TV show or movie say that no witches were burned at Salem — they were all hanged. No. No witches were hanged, either.

#SFWApro. Image from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights


Filed under Politics

5 responses to “Witch hunters are way worse than witches

  1. Zosimus the Heathen

    *Witchcraft and black magic don’t kill people.*

    They don’t?! Damn, that’s hundreds of hours of my life spent reading moldly old tomes bound in human skin and written in the blood of unbaptized babies wasted!

    On a more serious note, you’re right that witch-hunts still destroy countless lives. One contemporary example I’ve heard a bit about is witch-hunts in Africa, which have seen far too many women and children cast out of their own families (or worse), simply because people have fallen for the lies of some truly evil people who have made millions from stoking other people’s superstitions and fears. Interestingly, I recently read a book about economics which stated (among many other fascinating things) that researchers had discovered a lot of witch-hunts (in the Third World at least) were motivated more by poverty than misplaced piety – apparently, when you can’t afford to feed everyone in your family, convincing yourself some of its members are really witches makes it easier to justify throwing them out and making them fend for themselves (or simply enlisting a mob to kill them).

    • The book Witches and Neighbors shows how the Western European witch hunts were often influenced by having bad blood between the accused and accuser for years, or by guilt feelings (“Sure, I denied her something she was entitled to, but then she hexed my cattle! So now she’s the evil one!”).
      A good point about witch hunting being an ongoing thing in parts of Africa.

  2. Zosimus the Heathen

    Re the Satanic Panic, while we were thankfully largely spared that here in Australia, some of the hysteria it generated did still manage to spread over here (even without the Internet!). Back in the late ’80s, for example, I recall the local trashy Sunday tabloid doing a lurid, two-page spread on the alleged rise of “Satanic” crime in my city (with some police spokesman claiming he’d encountered a worrying number of juvenile delinquents espousing such sentiments as “Hail Satan!”), and there was also a bit of a media furore surrounding the Matamoros murders in 1989 (remember those?) and their alleged links to Satanism. A lot of people also seemed to be *very concerned* about such things as heavy metal music and Dungeons & Dragons. My parents were among them, as they weren’t too thrilled when I started showing an interest in both things myself[*].

    During my time at university, I also encountered a few people who seemed to take the idea of grand Satanic conspiracies seriously. Most of them were probably members of some fundamentalist Christian group I got suckered into joining in my first year on campus (mainly because I was far too nice and polite to say, “Fuck off!” to the overly friendly member who came up to me during Orientation Week and asked me if I’d be interested in joining). One of the highlights of that particular “experience” was attending a two-day lunchtime presentation on the alleged links between rock music and the occult, which entailed the showing of a documentary entitled “Hell’s Bells”. In hindsight, the whole thing was rather hilarious (said documentary even found a way to argue that Whitney Houston’s music promoted devil worship, though sadly I don’t remember the convoluted logic it used to arrive at *that* particular conclusion!), but at the time I was very young and naive, and found it all very convincing and frightening[**]. A lot of other people in the audience, though, were a lot less credulous than me, and one actually asked the presenter at the end if he recorded everything he said and then played it backwards at night to make sure he hadn’t inadvertently said anything diabolical (because, not surprisingly, the whole “backmasking” thing was something that the documentary went on about at considerable length). While most of the other people in attendance naturally found this question quite funny (and in hindsight, it raised a very good point!), one of the “true believers” came up to me afterwards and said, in all apparent sincerity, “I think Satan put that person in the audience.” So, yes, as you say, some people really do seem to believe this rubbish!

    *While I still listen to heavy metal, my interest in D&D would unfortunately suffer an untimely death after just one game, mainly because said game was played under the supervision of what had to be The World’s Worst Dungeonmaster (TM).

    **I didn’t know, for example, about the notorious fundamentalist fondness for quote mining (which made all the “admissions” by rock musicians in the aforementioned documentary that they were really Satanists, suspect to say the least), nor that the argument “Everything we say is right because any argument you might come up with against it is a lie put in your head by Satan” is a classic example of unfalsifiability (and therefore bad).

    • Fundamentalists also do that with scientists. The head of the Genome Project (devoutly Christian) was quoted about his belief in God. Without his knowing it, this was inserted into a documentary quoting him as a scientist who accepts creationism (he doesn’t).

  3. Pingback: Real witch hunts (and other political links) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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