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Part of the development of a socially maladjusted teenage girl — right around the same time she starts carrying Sylvia Plath’s Ariel with her everywhere she goes, scribbling in the margins; hacks at her own hair with dull kitchen shears; and discovers a copy of Hole’s Pretty on the Inside — is an obsession with the Salem Witch Trials. The more she learns about the 19 women and men who were executed in a little over a year, the more it reinforces her cynical theories about society — specifically that, as a woman, if you refuse to conform you will be left vulnerable.

The targets of these trials were not just those women who were unable to fulfill their womanly duties — the postmenopausal, the barren, the spinsters and widows. Women who stood up for their rights — along with women who were perceived as being too brash, too forceful, or too flirty — might just as well have put on a pointy hat and started riding a broom. And of course it was not just Salem, Massachusetts, involved in the prosecution. All across Europe and the colonies, women were brought up on charges of witchcraft, tortured for confessions, and then executed over a span of 300 years.

The idea of witches — women in league with the devil, doing his bidding and causing considerable harm to their villages — had certainly been around for a while. But it wasn’t until 1460 or so, when 12 witches were burned in the center of Heidelberg, Germany, that an occasional accusation became an outright craze. Americans might think of Salem when they hear “witch hunt” (probably thanks to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible’s showing up on so many high school English syllabi) but it ran much deeper, and deadlier, than that.

The total number of people executed has never been agreed upon. Not all of the courts and witchfinders left detailed records. Some guess a modest 100,000, others a staggering nine million. Scholars estimate three to four times as many women were charged and tried (and possibly tortured) during the hunts. In Würzburg, girls as young as 7 were executed; in Lorraine, the children of “witches” were beaten while forced to watch their mothers burned alive.

For generations, women were forced to check what they did or said to prevent suspicion. Friends turned on friends when tortured long enough, and not even a husband could protect his wife. Men were executed during this same time, although the accused were usually the husbands of convicted witches. The practice eventually wore itself out, but there were still the occasional trials and accusations. In Ireland, a young woman was burned alive by her husband in 1895 for being a fairy (in other words, flirty and headstrong) — an incident retold in Angela Bourke’s gripping The Burning of Bridget Cleary. The last witch mobbing in England was in 1945.

For something that lasted so long and claimed so many lives, witch-hunts are not well-understood. You can read half a dozen books on the subject and come away with two dozen explanations, none of which seems like the whole truth. There’s the anxiety of the Reformation; the feminist idea that men were afraid of women’s power (which sounds nice, but it wasn’t just natural healers killed in the rampage — large numbers of the elderly and children were targeted); a feeling of powerlessness when religious leaders started to crack down on “sorcery,” from the high magics like alchemy to folk magic like spells and curses, all of which had remained blended with Christianity through the Renaissance. But none of these reasons is satisfying considering the scope of the problem.

Perhaps it’s just something in our nature that makes us turn against our community and loved ones. John Demos has written about witch-hunts before, specifically in Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England. Whereas in that book he looked deeply into specific trials at a particular time, with his latest book The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World, he attempts to put the entire impulse into perspective and show a larger pattern. Demos thinks there is something within us that causes us to search through our towns, our government, our babysitters looking for witches and Satanic cults and communists.

It’s not, however, the same impulse that set off the Holocaust or Darfur. “Witch-hunting, large as it is, belongs to a still more capacious terrain that also includes racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, as well as pogroms, lynchings, genocide, and ethnic cleansing,” Demos writes. “To such patently downside matters, witch-hunting bears an obvious similarity — and even perhaps some dynamic connection. But one crucial element divides them. While the goal for all is separation from a despised ‘other,’ witch-hunting alone finds the other within its own ranks.”

For the first 228 pages, Demos gives us a history of the “witch-hunting panorama,” at least the one that targeted Devil-worshipping women. It’s a lot of territory to cover, and he’s perhaps best when moving from generalities into specific trials. Demos skips around a lot, jumping from a case study to a strange FAQ about the witch trials to a dissection of the Malleus Maleficarum, the instruction booklet on proper witch identification and trial procedure. His writing chafes under this speed, only lighting up again when he’s allowed to slow down a bit and get into details.

The last 70 pages or so deal with the 20th-century version of witch-hunting, from the McCarthy trial to Satan-worshipping day care centers. Demos has a point that the structure of the hysteria is the same, but reading about how a number of people’s careers ending in the 1940s after first reading about women having their breasts ripped off with red hot pincers until they confess to “riding” their neighbor “like a beast of burden” is rather like watching Bruce Springsteen open for some pub band: It just pales in comparison everything the came before it.

In trying to prove his thesis that the act of the witch-hunt is universal, Demos downplays some of the more interesting aspects. He even tries to de-emphasize the role gender played in the atmosphere leading up to the hysteria. “[T]he woman-accusing-woman aspect of witch trials is worth underscoring; for this, more than anything else, undercuts arguments centered on simple patriarchy.” I’m not sure he understands what patriarchy means, if he thinks women do not or cannot participate in it. He gives his own reason for the original witch-hunts, some psychoanalytical babble about how the witch represents the mother we must all reject to become individuals. Frankly, it’s embarrassing how little sense this reason makes and it casts a shadow on the rest of the book.

By including 20th-century examples, Demos tries to expand the idea of the witch-hunt, but what he does instead is diminish the original witch-hunt. There does seem to be a reflex that takes over when a society tries to investigate and root out evil from its ranks. But Demos is unable to identify it, and the enormity of the original witch-hunt doesn’t transfer over to smaller and comparatively insignificant examples like the anti-Mason movement. Never before had the human race ordered the widespread execution of an entire gender. Demos admits, “For witch-hunting was, and is, a cross-cultural, transhistorical phenomenon — an attacker, a killer, of women almost everywhere.” Yet by trying to remove gender from the equation, his theory loses traction.

Demos also includes stories that do not fit into his boundaries of the witch-hunt, like the persecution of Christians in Rome (more of an attack on “the Other”), and the wiping out of the Knights Templar (more to do with financial gain and fear of their growing power than to root out evil). These other examples also do not include one very large motivation behind the original witch-hunts: to punish nonconformity. It was the women who stepped out of line who set off these crazes. “Didn’t she sometimes seem too querulous, too ‘forward,’ too quick to anger, too slow to sympathize?” From there it grows to, “Hadn’t her neighbors suffered strange ‘losses’ and difficulties, now and then, after dealing with her?”

Until we understand what happened before and during those 300 years, and not just the 10 or so of the Salem Witch Trials, it will be difficult to make much sense of the later day witch-hunts. That would include a full accounting of what made the powerful half of Western society turn on the more vulnerable half. Demos asks at the end of his book, “Is a world without witch-hunts achievable, or even imaginable?” Probably not until we know where the compulsion comes from, and unfortunately, Demos brings us no closer to discovering the source. • 6 November 2008