UB College of Arts and Sciences opens lecture series with a talk on evil witches

Release Date: October 9, 2015 This content is archived.

Phillips Stevens.

Phillips Stevens

“There are representative studies that suggest it was advantageous in the evolution of human society to have a dangerous ‘other’ outside because people coalesced in opposition to that danger.”
Phillips Stevens, associate professor of anthropology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – “I’ll get you, my pretty.  And your little dog, too!” said the Wicked Witch of the West to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

That menacing line from the classic film served well as a plot device adding tension to the story, but that the threat was delivered to Dorothy, a child, also says a lot about witches, according to Phillips Stevens, a University at Buffalo associate professor of anthropology who has identified 14 attributes of witches that are rooted in fundamental human fears and fantasies.

Stevens discusses those visceral fears, which in fact are tied to our evolutionary biology, in his lecture “What do we fear and why?  A new look at the old witch,” which opens UB’s College of Arts and Sciences Scholars on the Road lecture series on Oct. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Jacobs Executive Development Center, 672 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo.

Now in its third season, Scholars on the Road features UB faculty discussing their research and areas of expertise with alumni, taking the classroom experience and sharing it with university alumni here in Buffalo and around the country.

“Scholars on the Road is a great way for the college to connect with alumni and friends, and for our alumni to engage with the scholarship that drives UB as a research institution,” says Bruce Pitman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The events are a fun evening, a chance to meet others connected with the university and to think about an issue in a different way.”

After Stevens’ lecture, the series moves to Midtown Manhattan, Princeton, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Rochester, New York, featuring UB scholars in romance languages and literature, physics, political science and art.  A complete schedule of events is available online at http://www.cas.buffalo.edu/alumni-friends/scholars-on-the-road/

Scholars on the Road events are free, but guests are asked to register in advance.

Stevens says the evil witch came into formulation in Europe in the late Middle Ages and became a popular subject for artists and writers.

Witches are nocturnal, cannibalistic, they suck blood and drain the life-force from victims. They are deviant and have a particular fondness for children – like Dorothy.  Ultimately, witches are responsible for death, and in some cultures, witches are responsible for all deaths.

Our reaction to this kind of abhorrent behavior is instinctive, and we recoil against cannibalism, vampirism and threats to children as survival traits that are linked to the idea of some dangerous “other,” says Stevens.

“There are representative studies that suggest it was advantageous in the evolution of human society to have a dangerous ‘other’ outside because people coalesced in opposition to that danger,” he says. “In the earliest societies, this danger was very real, usually a dangerous animal. It was only tight social cooperation that ensured the survival of the group.”

As societies developed that fear was easily transferred from predators to spirits or spiritual forces, including witches, says Stevens.

In addition to survival, some of these beliefs are fantasies and there are evolutionary benefits for them, too.

Stevens has written extensively on play and the psychological function of playing as a state of consciousness that allows the brain to refocus itself as it disengages from work, stress and anxieties.

Free social play is the root of fantasy, and elements of fantasy are among the evil witches attributes.

“Witches fly,” says Stevens. “The fantasy of human flight is found in all the world’s folklore. Witches transform themselves. They have supernatural pets that share their powers, allowing the witch to stay home with a perfect alibi as the bat, black cat or owl is out doing evil.”

Stevens is in the process of writing a book on this subject so he says the material is current in his thinking.

“The book was conceptualized long ago, but I have a publisher who is nudging me along,” he says.  If I don’t get distracted it could be out in another year.”

Stevens’ Scholars on the Road lecture, fortunately, is happening much sooner for all those interested in hearing his insights.

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