Witch-Hunting: Why Everything Becoms Fuel

(This is a reprint from my Medium blog, while I edit the new book. I felt it was worth stating here.)

One of the first things a witch-hunter learns is that a witch-hunt is very much like a fire. Perhaps you already have the conditions and tools to get it light; perhaps it even starts with an existing blaze, something big and crackling and scary that attracts attention.

And witch-hunts are, in essence, a fear of the dark. I don’t mean that poetically. I mean the premise of any witch-hunt is:

“There are those among us who profess to be like us, but secretly, they’re monsters. We need to get rid of them, because we’re unsafe until we do so.”

Because if they’re visible enemies, it’s not a hunt, it’s a war. If someone stands up and says, “I am here to do you harm!” — then, if you oppose that person, it’s a fight. Witch-hunts are defined by the fact that you are accusing someone of planning, in secret, to hurt you — when someone says, “I do not mean you harm, I am not your enemy, I am one of you, I am a friend, I am an ally”, and the witch-hunter replies, “No; you’re secretly a monster.”

It’s not that there’s never such a thing as a hidden enemy; it’s not that every hunt for secret malefactors is a witch-hunt. (Bank robbers do not wear t-shirts saying, “Hi, I rob banks”; people running nonprofits with the goal of taking the money for themselves do not send out donor letters saying, “I asked you for money to feed the hungry with the intention of using your dough to buy a fancy car; they just raised the prices on Ferraris, so please send more checks”.) But there are a number of characteristics of witch-hunts which are less often employed by sincere attempts to avoid harm. To give a few examples, with-hunts are notable for using weak proof to justify harsh penalties; for practicing guilt-by-association; for punishing criticism; for preferring to attack hiddenhypothetical enemies over visible, serious, known enemies — and for being deeply, intensely cannibalistic.

And that brings us back to the fire. I’m going to use the fire metaphor a lot in these discussions. It’s partly because fire is a well-known tool of witch-hunts — book-burnings, witch-burnings, temple-burnings, to name just a few — and partly because, with one major exception, it’s a pretty good metaphor.

Because witch-burners want a big, bright fire. Looking at a fire makes you night-blind; that’s great for those who want to deepen the aforementioned fear of the dark. The bigger your fire, the more people can hear its sound, see its light, feel its heat; and the more power is in the hands of those who build and maintain that fire. Fire is one of humanity’s first and most basic tools; and we still know it as important to survival. And fires are hungry; they need fuel, or they get smaller, and burn down.

And in my mind, that’s perhaps the most critical place where the metaphor breaks down. Because real fires are fueled by objects which are reasonably dry and have a reasonably low flash point — firewood, say. A person who feeds a fire could get hurt by it, could even die in that fire, but it won’t do that fire a lot of good.

Witch-burning fires are fueled by “those who are called witches”.

And that could be anyone.

And once you run out of easy outside targets, witch-hunters start throwing each other into the fire.

It’s natural.

Being good at witch-hunting means being good at spotting secret enemies. And the more you look for anything, the more you will see it. Did you know that the number five is everywhere? It is. Take some time today looking for the number five; I bet you’ll see it in more places than you thought. It could be part of the time on your screen, or a number on a receipt; you could have five of a piece of fruit on your counter, you could suddenly realize how often it’s on license plates. Sure, it was always already there, but if you try hard to look for it, you will notice it more often. (Sound obvious? It is. Now imagine someone who’s decided that a certain set of symptoms tend to indicate the presence of a witch. Unsurprisingly, that person will start seeing those symptoms all the time. The existence of confirmation bias is pretty well-proven at this point.

And what all these things mean is that the more successful a witch-hunt is, the more cannibalistic it becomes. The more you “prove” that there are witches everywhere, the easier it becomes to believe that there’s a witch right next to you. The more people who believe this, the more some of them will start spotting witches in their own midst. Witch-hunts tend to insist that those who are not with the witch-hunt are witches. This really helps the size of your hunt grow, since it ups the stakes pretty hard. And once you’ve established that witches are everywhere, then it’s impossible to believe that your own group is free of witches. The more you establish that witches are everywhere, that they’re devious, that they hide, that the most seemingly-virtuous person could be a witch…

…the more those who lead the witch-hunt become potential fuel for the fire. And they know it — consciously or otherwise. They know that if there aren’t external enemies, people will look for internal enemies.

And that’s just assuming that everyone in that group of humans has sincere, positive intentions. And the larger your group gets, the more that’s unlikely. There are ambitious, unscrupulous people in the world. And if you live in a situation where very little proof is needed, and very few denials will be heeded, all it takes is one person who starts to whisper.

It’s much worse, though. The ugly undercurrent comes into existence of its own accord. Have you ever been a part of any organization which was free of rumours? I doubt it. Rumours are a part of human communication. And they’re not fatal — until and unless you live in a world where rumours can become accusations in the blink of an eye.

Got an ex-boss, an ex-spouse, an ex-friend, an ex-member of your model train society? That person doesn’t have to be evil or malicious in order to dislike you. And in ordinary circumstances, that’s normal; we accept that, after a divorce, sometimes people are amicable, and sometimes people hate each other’s guts. It doesn’t mean that one or both parties is suddenly a monster; just that the ending of most human relationships is painful.

Witch-hunting organizations are based on the belief that the world is full of secret enemies.

Witch-hunting organizations need to keep finding new enemies, or they die off.

I don’t pity any witch-hunter or former witch-hunter, myself included. But I’ll offer a warning to those who haven’t already realized it:

The fire that warms you today will consume you tomorrow.

~Jeff Mach


My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities, put on events, and make stories come into being. I also tweet a lot over @darklordjournal.

I write books. You should read them


A Little Ignition

Once there was a town that found a witch, so they set out to burn her. Only it seemed wise also to burn her house as well, for it was known to be the center of a large collection of books of forbidden lore. No-one had seen them; but one doesn’t need to see these things; what else would a witch read?

So they sent a team of villagers into the forest to collect more wood to make sure that they could burn both the witch and the house, because parts of the house were stone, and would need some encouragement—not every wall would melt, but presumably all perishable things would be destroyed. Only, once in the woods, one of the wood-gatherers clearly heard another mention to a friend, in what he presumably thought was a private voice, that it was a shame; she’d always seemed like a nice old lady.

Instantly, the hero confronted the witch-lover, who immediately denied having ever said such a thing; but her companion verified that it was so. She said that her so-called ‘friend’ was always going around saying nice things about witches, and she had just been hanging around to keep a close eye on the situation. One of the wood-gatherers struck the witch-lover from behind, and they dragged her back to the town square. Soon both witches (oh, they were both witches; do you know what they found in her house? Books)—both witches were tied to large, sturdy stakes, in front of the first witch’s house, but there was a problem: they didn’t live next door to each other, and there was a third house in-between. This was going to be inconvenient. Unless…

The house’s owner wasn’t home, and there were no books inside, but he had, it turned out, drawn some scurrilous pictures of some of the town’s most prominent figures. So he was quickly found, and caught, but there was a wrinkle: he said that one of the town’s most highly-placed figures had paid him to make those drawings. The councilwoman wasn’t in the crowd, but by sheer good luck (of course) her ex-husband was, and he explained to the horrified onlookers that, indeed, his ex-wife had been a witch, and, of course, the moment he found out, he left her, but he feared her too much to reveal the truth, until now, in this moment, when at last witches were being revealed…

It was then that the first witch’s house began to smoke.

“Sorcery!” cried the townspeople—but no; it was simply someone who’d grown impatient with talk. And the crowd might have debated the wisdom of this act—some started to say it was rash, some started to say it was overdue—when they smelled smoke. The Council Hall was on fire. The crowd rushed over, and standing in front was the woman who’d almost won the election three times. “They’re witches all!” she screamed. And some began to question her, when, again, they smelled smoke.

It turned out that many had gone into the witch-burning, house-igniting business, because they realized they could finally reveal all the witches among them. Did they realize that, while they scorched the homes of monsters, someone else was bunching kindling around the homes they’d just left?

Who would have thought the whole town was made of witches? But it was, and it’s a good thing that they burned it down.

For so, too, were all the farms on the outskirts of town, feuding since time immemorial, each witches, under careful watch by others, and so was the tax-collector, and so was the nearby Embassy, and the whole town up the road had always been suspicious, and…

…it’s fortunate that this is just a story. For human beings are rational, and they hate Evil and its ilk; they are not petty, not driven by little grievances, not sly or obscure about their motives. Whoever would burn down a neighbor’s house falsely? No-one, for they would surely know that, in such a world, someone could, in the very same way, burn your house.

This was the town that burned the witch; this was the witch-burning that burned the town; this was the town-burning that set the countryside aflame; this was the flaming countryside that consumed the cities; these were the smoldering cities that blew huge sparks in all direction; that was the kingdom that burned to the ground, and the survivors had learned a valuable lesson: There must be a lot of witches in the world.

Never had so many flames lit the night; but never had visibility been so poor, for in every eye, and in every set of lungs, there were great fistfuls of soot.

And if it’s hard, so hard for the survivors to breathe, at least it’s a cleansing blackness in the center of their lungs.

Jeff Mach


My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities and create things. Every year, I put on Evil Expo, the Greatest Place in the World to be a Villain. I also write a lot of fantasy and science fiction.. You can get most of my books right here. Go ahead, pre-order I HATE Your Prophecy“. It may make you into a bad person, but I can live with that.