Some scholars think that within in the half-century of active witch-hunting, as many as nine million people, mostly women, were executed, and countless more tortured. At the height of the craze, "witches" as young as seven were killed; in other cases they were forced to watch their mothers burned alive. The last documented witch-mob took place in England in 1945. In most cases, the women were believed to be in league with the devil — although often, a new book argues, this became a catch-all for any behavior society frowned upon.In The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-hunting in the Western World (reviewed by Bookslut's Jessa Crispin), John Demos studies the psychology of the witch-hunt, and finds it to be all-too prevalent in society and human nature. As Crispin puts it,
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.
Demos makes connections between literal witch-hunts and such obvious analogies as the Army-McCarthy hearings, buts as Crispin says, "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." To diminish the notion of witch hunts as a phenomenon which largely targeted women — who were turned upon by both men and women alike — is to miss one of the most essential and chilling historical lessons. For the witch hunts, paradoxically, accorded women an implicit power they did not actually enjoy — certainly not in 15th Century Heidelberg, where the hysteria started. The fact that the hunts themselves accorded frequently disenfranchised accusers a similar measure of power — and that this was sufficient to undermine notably regimented societies — is doubtless part of the phenomenon's enduring fascination and, somewhat chillingly, its thrill. We all like to believe we would have stood apart from hysteria like this, but can we really know? Sometimes it's comforting to be able to shiver and just turn a page. Bewitched [The Smart Set]