This Halloween many American children will dress up as witches. And we'll hear their laughter and see their smiles as they joyfully go door-to-door trick-or-treating.
But in some places across the globe children would never pretend to be witches because the consequences are deadly.
For example, nine-year-old Nwanaokwo Edet of Nigeria was accused of being a witch by the family pastor. Nwanaokwo's father forced acid down his throat as an exorcism, burning away his face and eyes. Nwanaokwo died a month later.
Eight-year-old Shilua Salifu of Ghana now lives with her grandmother after being accused of being a witch. Shilua's mother tried to saw off the top of her skull to let the demons fly away.
Organizations like the United Nations Children's Fund, Africa Unite Against Child Abuse, and Save the Children have stepped in where they could to stop the witch-hunt. But the phenomenon of "witch children" is so widespread throughout Africa these organizations have set up "witch camps" as shelters for children who cannot be safely place with a relative like Shilua.
Throughout history people described as witches have been tortured, persecuted, and even murdered. And it is usually society's most vulnerable who are targeted.
The rapid growth of Evangelical Christianity throughout Africa, however, has exploited the problem. With these churches in competition for parishioners, some clerics establish their unique godly credentials by claiming to have special powers in recognizing and exorcising these "child witches."
The role religion has played in witch hunts is not new, always targeting children, the most defendless, before targeting marginalized adults.
Take, for example, the Salem Witch Trails of 1692.
This haunting history of the Puritan's execution of innocent women, and certain men, is a window into how their religious fanaticism, misogyny, and homophobia destroyed not only the moral fiber of their town, but how it also decimated its own Christian zeal, all to become a "city on the hill."
Clerics' sanctioning of Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" not only gave men biblical legitimacy to control women, but it also gave them a legal license to kill them.
Homosocial circles of women threatened the Puritan's paradigm of male dominance, giving rise to the charges of witchcraft, because of the theological belief that women ought not be in the company of each other without the presence of a man. And without the presence of a man, of course, women could not help but engage in sorcery, paganism, and lesbianism.
While today new light is being shed on the Salem Witch Trials little is still known about the first woman accused of witchcraft that sparked the trials - Tituba, a black slave.
As the house slave of the Rev. Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village, Parris' daughter and her cousin accused Tituba of witchcraft. Allegedly, while assisting Tituba in preparing a "witch cake," the girls experienced unexplained "fits" and "symptoms."
Forced to confess that she was a witch, Tituba was known throughout Salem to tell tales from her African folklore tradition that both frightened and fascinated children and adults alike, stories later seen as evidence of her personal witchcraft.
"Hell Houses" are today's contemporary form of witch-hunting. Created in the late 1970's by fundamentalist pastor, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, "hell houses' are religious alternatives to traditional haunted houses. They are tours given by evangelical churches across the country design to scare people away from sin. And one of those sins is homosexuality.
In 2006 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) put out a report titled "Homophobia at 'Hell House': Literally Demonizing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth" explaining how hell houses specifically targets youth.
"Instead of spooking youth with ghosts and monsters, Hell House tour guides direct them through rooms where violent scenes of damnation for a variety of "sins" are performed, including scenes where a teenage lesbian is brought to hell after committing suicide and a gay man dying of AIDS is taunted by a demon who screams that the man will be separated from God forever in hell," the NGLTF stated.
A study published in the Journal of Psychology stated that a strong belief in Satan is directly related to intolerance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.
Religious leaders who support Hell Houses believe that by scaring LGBTQ youth into "heterosexual" behavior they are saving their souls. However, the message that "homosexuals" are going to hell can have a deleterious impact on our youth. For example, the NGLTF report tells the story of Bobby Griffith, a gay teen who wrote in his journal that he was afraid he was going to hell and committed suicide.
Witch-hunts have always created moral panic, mass hysteria, and public lynching of society's most vulnerable and marginalized.
This Halloween, as I think of the children in African and of LGBTQ children here at home, I am reminded of our present and past witch-hunts.