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Precisely speaking, a witchhunt is a search for witches.

Early Modern Europe

During an period of several centuries much of Europe and America believed that Satan was acting in concert with human servants, and there were extensive efforts to root out these supposed witches. These efforts included torture of the most horrific nature including hot pincers, the thumbscrew, the iron maiden, and a hundred methods equally frightful. Every region had its own methods, and individuals their specialties depending on its traditions of judicial questioning - of which torture was a usual component.

England at one point had a "Witchfinder General", one Matthew Hopkins, who led searches, and who claimed to be able to identify a witch using techniques such as witches' marks. Much of the public believed the victims were really witches, but today it is not believed that most of them were.

Research into the laws and records of the time show that the witchfinders often used peine forte et dure and other torture to extract confessions and condemnations of friends, relatives and neighbors. Virtually everyone today looks on this period of history as a very dark time.

The measured employed against alleged witches were some of the worst ever practiced in the Western world. In A History of Torture, George Ryley Scott says:

The peculiar beliefs and superstitions attached to or associated with witchcraft caused those who were suspected of practising the craft to be extremely likely to be subjected to tortures of greater degree than any ordinary heretic or criminal. More, certain specific torments were invented for use against them.

The witchhunts were part of a larger culture which was very religiously and socially intolerant.

See also the Inquisition.

Witch Hunters in African Societies

In many African societies the fear of witches drives periodic witchhunts during which specialist witch finders identify suspects.

Metaphorical Uses of the Term in the Modern West

Witchhunt in modern terminology refers to seeking out people opposed to a group either as a revenge mechanism or out of genuine fear or opposition, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence. An example of this would be United States Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist hearings in the 1940s, under the aegis of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The term is usually applied by the victims through the media to the hunters with parallel disregard to actual guilt or innocence; the revelations of the Soviet archives in the 1990s proved that the McCarthy investigations were pursuing real quarries in addition to persecuting innocent victims, if by horrible means.