The case i chose involved a woman named Jane Kent who was accused of witchcraft and the Diabolical arts, supposedly by the family of those she apparently harmed. The evidence levies against her included the bewitching of his daughter and his wife, causing the ultimate death of his daughter, the bewitching of his swine after a failed exchange, and other witchlike occurrences like the testimony of her physical state (holes in ears and a teat on her back, very witchy stuff) as well as the recollection of a failed carriage ride that was the result of witchcraft. She was able to provide accounts of her piety and her churchgoing activities that ended up being sufficient enough for the jury to find her not guilty, which means the original accusation was probably levied as a result of a personal dispute or disagreement (i’m willing to bet it was those pigs).
This trial happened in 1682, so the diffusion of the type of mindset that would cause these kind of accusations was becoming a widespread phenomenon at this point. The paper by Ankarloo, Bengt, and Clark carefully outlines the methods through which this state of mind was achieved. “This making of the mind-set of the human sciences – the basic expectation that social action is to be understood by impersonal, universal, natural and social law – went with a multitude of day-to-day indications that polite and propertied society, when confronting adversity, was less disposed than before to look to the Hand of God, and certainly not to the meddlings of Satan” (Ankarloo 205). Even though there were deep religious sentiments around at the time (of course there would be in 17th century England), most of the time these religious sentiments were more of less the paths through which disputes of a more mundane flavor were brought to fruition. The hyper-spiritual and religiously fundamentalist viewpoints of the time did less to stoke the fires of witch hunting that it did to provide an avenue of exploitation through which disputes, usually with little real legal ground, could be decided through the power of the church rather than law, an avenue that is extremely conducive of hearsay and other forms of questionable evidence and testimony, as i imagine happened with poor old Jane Kent.
Yet, in retrospect, we look back on these events with condescending disdain because we’re so advanced now. Oh we have science, we know ghosts and ghoulies and witches aren’t real, these people are just superstitious idiots right? Right guys? Then why are we still so fascinated by the macabre and the unholy? Sure we don’t call anyone witches anymore (we’ve replaced the exploitation of superstition with new methods, most of them having to do with sex), but we’re still fascinated by them. And demons and zombies and vampires and aliens and serial killers and crazy madmen and all sorts of things. Why? Well it’s pretty simple really.
We know so little about everything. Granted we know a lot more that we used to, but we still don’t know anything at all. Sure, people like to hide behind the facade of scientific understanding to justify their own ignorance and fear, but while science has helped us understand many things it hasn’t explained everything. It might be able to, who knows, but science gets stuck in the same ideological loops as religion does when it comes to progress. Thinking about things in new ways is difficult if impossible within rigid and long standing traditions. Statements like this further reinforce the adamant preoccupation with understanding things the way we are comfortable with understanding them. “Modern superstition, surrounded by every influence to dispel it, can offer no excuse for existing at all. It has centered, more of less, around hypnotism and beliefs concerning coincidences, dreams, presentiments, apparitions, table rappings, and above all, spiritualism and clairvoyance” (Scaife 47). But i bet that guy would still be scared as shit trapped in an abandoned asylum for a night.
There’s still all this stuff we don’t understand, and we manifest it in things we can form images of but still cant quite decide what they are. That’s why all the ghouls and zombies and stuff. Hell, even those things are products of other fears. Zombies were the result of a deep fear of nuclear technology after the cold war. Slasher villains and serial killers were the result of fear of the suburban, modern family life being invaded by unwanted ideological influence after the Reagan era. All the things we know and imagine are synthesized from things we’ve experienced. There is no such thing as a unique thought.
So are these things simply the manifestation of mundane fears or are they expressions of strange phenomena that modern science and human logic can’t understand (as of humans were capable of objective logic in the first place)? I’m not saying that these things exist, but i’m not saying they don’t exist. All i’m saying is that we manifest our fears into substantial realities, whether they be influenced by real life or hyperreal life. We create the world we live in through the filtering of experience through perception, and sometimes that filtering happens at the source, or beyond it. Maybe ghosts are simply the result of the conservation of mass and energy failing to be 100% efficient and leaving behind trace samples of untamed energy that manifests itself in the form of strange phenomena that modern science refuses to explain. Maybe schizophrenics all have enlarged pineal glands and are evoking extra senses that we aren’t accustomed to using and are able to see far past the veil of reality we live behind into some indescribable and unknowable dimension that has no tangible substantiation under current physical models and only catch glimpses of this otherworldly realm. Maybe the only thing we have to fear is each other, and we refuse to face that fear and create barriers of fiction to resolve these conflicts. Who knows, but superstition still exists, and will probably always exist, whether we like it or not. Or maybe it won’t. Who cares.
Witches will always be cool though.
Ankarloo, Bengt, and Stuart Clark. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Vol. 5. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1999. (read p. 197 to the bottom of p. 206.)
Scaife, Hazel Lewis. A True Ghost Story, or Three Nights in a Haunted House and a Brief Sketch of Superstition. Louisville, KY: Press of R. H. Carothers, 1895. (p. 42-52).