Monday, January 12, 2009
monday book review - the enemy within: 2,000 years of witch-hunting in the western world, by john demos
Like most of us, I first read The Crucible as a sophomore in high school; but unlike most of the sophomores in my present-day classroom, I found it fascinating.  It wasn't the supernatural aspect that hooked me so much (Although I won't pretend I didn't have a strong interest in the occult.  I did, however that's another post for another day...), rather I was fascinated by how an entire community could go so stark raving, murderously mad - finding witches and wizards where there clearly were none.   It was at first easy enough for me to shrug it off as a sign of the times.  Puritans, I had learned, seemed predisposed to neurosis.  But when I later learned that Arthur Miller had intended his play to serve as an allegory for the Red Scare of the 1950s, meaning that "witch hunts" remain a concern for the modern world, I was newly intrigued.  After all, it's not as if I hadn't already figured out by that point that human beings could be crazy, but I was pretty curious as to what extent we could collectively lose our minds.  It's a curiosity I hold to this day, and if anything its only strengthened over time.

And so, I was drawn to John Demos' book.  I already knew a considerable amount about the literal witch hunts in both Europe and America, however I was curious what connections a historian could make between the literal hunts of the past and the figurative hunts of the modern era.  I was hoping for a readable synthesis of the topic as well as a psychological explanation for the phenomenon.  In retrospect, I'll admit that this was a pretty tall order indeed.

John Demos' The Enemy Within is a "broad-gauge summary and synthesis of the entire subject" of witchcraft, and is divided into four sections: an overview of the European witch hunting crazes of the 16th and 17th Centuries, an overview of witch hunting in Colonial America, a deeper look into the Salem witch hunts, and a broad look at figurative, modern-day witch hunts such as the anti-Mason movement, the child abuse scare of the 1980s and, of course, McCarthyism.   Demos clearly knows his stuff, and I got the sense that the scope of what he was trying to do was so broad that he could only really touch on the tip of the iceberg.  For someone new to the topic this book will serve as a nice introduction, however I couldn't help but feel frustrated that I came away from it without having learned more.  Furthermore, I found myself wishing he had spent less time on Colonial America and more on the figurative witch hunts of the modern era. 

In sum, if you are looking for a crash-course in the history of witch hunting in the Western World, then The Enemy Within is the book for you.  However, be warned that it's a bit like a poorly-prepared holiday turkey - dry, and will leaving you wanting more.

John Demos
2008, 318 pages

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