The Healing Power of Witch Burning

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his inaugural address in 1933 by affirming that “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself”, he expressed an idea that fear had become its own object. Today, the irrationality of this ‘fear of fear’ defines our culture and leads to a sense that we are overwhelmed by an endless procession of threats we can’t cope with. Without an object other than itself, fear becomes the driver of what the poet W. H. Auden called “The Age of Anxiety” from which escape feels out of our control and where relief requires therapeutic or pharmacological intervention.

‘Fear of fear’ also lays us open to any ideology or charismatic leader that can re-anchor our fear as a ‘fear of the other’. When we can specify the object of our fear, both as cause of our emotional distress and object of our retribution, fear brings order into the chaos of our lives and becomes a justification of our identity and our values. The fact that the object may be a result of pure projection or fantasy doesn’t negate either its moral dimension or our belief in its reasonableness.

This is the fear the historian Malcolm Gaskill dissects in Witchfinders, his brilliant book on the seventeenth-century witch-hunt in East Anglia, led by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and his accomplice John Stearne. Gaskill writes that “in the confines of a moral world now made strange by time, the unspoken fears and transgressive fantasies of an entire parish might converge on a single individual: her life-force become a death-force, her emblems in nature no longer the sunrise and the harvest, but the chill of winter and the midnight moon”.

The “single individual” was typically, although not exclusively, a post-menopausal woman, a widow or spinster whose infertility created what Gaskill calls “social ambiguity…which brought anxiety to youthful, productive households”. This anxiety is precisely the type of generalised, non-specific fear that, in the absence of a moral, rational dimension capable of specifying cause and exacting retribution, leads to what Freud would call a “nervous illness”. 

In How Fear Works, the sociologist Frank Furedi, quoting C. Wright Mills, describes this social anxiety that exists in the absence of any moral values: “Suppose, finally, they are unaware of any cherished values, but still are very much aware of a threat…That is the experience of uneasiness, of anxiety, which, if it is total enough, becomes a deadly unspecified malaise”. 

It is as a way out of this malaise that witches were defined, hunted, hanged and burned. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Gaskill concludes that “the witch was plebeian fear made flesh”. The earthiness of this definition captures the essence of what it takes to alleviate fear and to transform it into violence. “Fear,” wrote Gertrand Russell, “is the parent of cruelty” and Matthew Hopkins soon turned suspicion into interrogation, conviction and execution. By the time Hopkins died in 1647, he had hanged and burned more witches than any previous Witchfinder. He also profited handsomely with some towns having to levy additional taxes to pay his fees. 


The world of the seventeenth century may now be strange to us and, at least in Europe, we are less fearful of God and less moral in our projection of that fear onto those who stand as our other. However, the psychological bridge that links fear to cruelty is very much intact. Prophetically, Gaskill concludes Witchfinders by saying:

“The truth that many find unpalatable, even inconceivable, is that in our ideas, instincts and emotions, we are not very different at all. Without peace and prosperity, liberty and welfare, and the political and economic stability on which those things depend, the thinking of the next generation in the West might swerve off in an altogether more mystical and malevolent direction.”

It was among the rural poor that Hopkins found greatest support for his assault on post-menopausal women. Where deprivation is greatest, contagion will flourish if leaders emerge capable of directing and directing the flames of fear. In anchoring malevolence to the collapse of stability and prosperity, Gaskill knows how easy it is to tear at the social fabric when economic and political conditions are ripe for doing so. 

According to the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, we are not fallen angels as the Bible would have us believe. We are, he says, “risen apes” and while Yuval Noah Harari attributes our extraordinary success as a species to our capacity to co-operate “flexibly and in large numbers”, that is only part of the story: the descent into barbarism is never far away.

The first signs of this descent are linguistic. When we brand as “treasonous” or “treacherous” people who, a few months ago, were friends, colleagues and strangers with whom we had no reason for conflict, then we need to be aware that the social and psychological landscape of our lives is beginning to shift. 

For those whose lives are wrecked by uncertainty, confusion and despair, whose lives are defined by an “unspecified malaise”, the idea of escape, of greatness even, is forged when fear finds its object and attacks. The spectacle is ugly. It also has great healing power for those whose lives are bound by impotence and fear: it takes unmanageable emotions, gives them structure and makes them meaningful.  The tale of Matthew Hopkins and the witch hunt in Eastern England is, concludes Gaskill, “a tale about feeling anxious and vulnerable in an indifferent world – a sensation of humanity”. As such, it’s a tale we must learn by heart, just in case we find ourselves written into the fabric of it and need to find a way out.