Tuesday, June 30, 2009


"The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World"
By John Demos
Viking, hardback

In modern society, there's nothing especially scandalous about practicing witchcraft. In the eyes of many, it's just another lifestyle choice - a hip, holistic alternative to participating in dowdy old organized religions. Certainly, the 'rents might not be thrilled that the apparent soulmate you're bringing home for dinner is an avowed Wiccan with a back tattoo of the sea-god Neptune - but they're less likely to outright disown you for shacking up with somebody whose ancient VW sports a "My Other Car Is A Broom" bumper sticker.

The world has changed so much that it's easy to forget that, once upon a time, accusations of spell-casting could equal death sentences. In The Enemy Within, historian John Demos explores the literal - and to a lesser extent, figurative - manifestations of witch hunting in microscopic sociological detail.

Demos roots the origins of witch hunting in the Middle Ages, as Christianity rose to prominence and sought to define itself by honing a "God vs. the Devil" dualism. A pre-Age of Reason pattern establishes itself: practicioners of magic, actual or accused, tended to fall under suspicion in periods of great societal upheavel, in towns or villages more often than in urban areas. More often than not, the accused were women the accusers knew well, and the singling out of sorceresses often followed a personal setback, calamity, or crop failure.

In the young American colonies, witch hunting was essentially perpetuated by the settlers' Puritanism, and transformed from a phenomenon based on wrongs-done into something more performance-based. As illustrated in The Crucible - Arthur Miller's acclaimed play, which Demos idenifies as Red Scare parody and defining Salem witch trial simulation rolled into one - trials become spectacles in which accusers are driven into convultions at the mere touch of the accused.

To his credit, Demos stays in scholar-mode throughout, allowing readers to draw our own skeptal inferrences in cases where dots might have been connected - or citing passages from the small mountain of related texts he absorbed prior to sitting down to write this book. It would have been easy - very easy - to dismiss the resulting tortures, convictions, jailings, and executions as the runoff of collective hysteria - or to condemn the visions and beyond-the-grave visitations reported by teenaged accusers in hundreds of New England witch hunts as psychosis taken at face value.

The Enemy Within winds down with a trawl through assorted nineteenth and twentieth century "witch hunts": the anti-labor aftermath of the Haymarket Riots, the Sen. Joseph McCarthy-perpetuated Red Scare, and a notorious child sex-abuse fright that continues to reverberate to this day. But, Inquisition-like horrors aside, what lingers is Demos' droll description of present-day Salem, Mass. "Witchery is the lifeblood of local commerce," he notes, singling out businesses like Witch City Repo Services, the Witch Brew Café, and the Witch Dungeon Museum. Everything, finally, can be reduced to some form of commerce.

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