The Witchcraze, which peaked around 1600 in Europe, was an attempt, according to some, to consolidate Christian religious power by “conquering” the heathenism of the peasants. As struggles for religious power often do, this one was waged on the backs of those considered the most threatening: unattached, especially older women. Women were targeted in much greater numbers than were men. Most of them were older, widowed women, wise-women, and midwives. They were accused of “mischief making” — of souring milk or making men impotent.
The accusation of mischief making was only enough in the early years of the Witchcraze. By about 1560, those in power had made it about sex. Accused witches were said to be sexual slaves of Satan, participating in orgies and “perverse” sexual acts. The Witchcraze was not just about consolidating power by terrorizing the poor and women, but by projecting the culture’s fear and loathing of sex onto the least powerful amongst them. Neighbors and families turned in others in an attempt to rid their lives and towns of “evil.” The more elaborate and heightened the fears about sex became, the greater the percentage of women amongst the accused, up to 80%. Women were seen as the “weaker link” — that lured Adam in the garden. As the culture shunned sexuality in an attempt to become more religious and more “pure”, witches became the holders of the “unnatural” — of taboo sexual acts. (From Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witchhunts by Joseph Klaits)
In Western culture today, the witch hunts go on. They’re now in the form of terrorizing children about the “horrors” of homosexuality. They’re in the form of “exorcising” gay demons from young men and women in often violent ceremonies.
Rev. Irene Monroe writes for The Bay Windows on the use of “Hell Houses” by evangelical Christians:
Hell houses” are today’s contemporary form of witch-hunting. Created in the late 1970’s by fundamentalist pastor Rev. Jerry Falwell, “hell houses” are religious alternatives to traditional haunted houses. They are tours given by evangelical churches across the country design to scare people away from sin. And one of those sins is homosexuality.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force issued a report in 2006 entitled “Homophobia at ‘Hell House‘”. It describes scenes depicting young lesbians committing suicide and burning in hell, a gay man dying of AIDS after getting married with a demon at his side, laughing maniacally. Not only do these scenes do uncountable harm to LGBTQ youth, but they misinform all youth and encourage further harassment toward youth for their real or perceived sexual orientation. There is no question in my mind that witnessing violence and terrorizing images such as these would leave any youth with residual trauma. The Hell Houses are about keeping youth and sexuality “in their place” just as the witch hunts of the 1400’s and 1500’s were about keeping women, paganism and sexuality in their places.
The witchhunts go on: it is still about anxiety about sex and gender, distortions and projections by a culture on it its most vulnerable. They are about turning people against one another out of terror and fear of “going to hell.” Now, instead of targeting women, the new “witches” are those who do not fit sexual and gender norms. Instead of neighbors turning in neighbors, youth bully children at school who don’t fit gender norms. This results in trauma, physical injuries and at times, death. Some things don’t change. Is it not time to stop terrorizing one another, and harming the most oppressed amongst us in a useless effort to export our own fears onto others?
Read more: New York Times article from 2006 on Hell Houses
An episode from NPR’s This American Life on Hell Houses.