Shocking footage has emerged on YouTube of a magician being attacked and badly injured by the host of a TV show on which he was a guest. In an apparently spontaneous gesture, the man (who has been named as Franklin Barazarte) who is both host and producer of a talk-show in the Dominican Republic, doused 29-year old Wayne Houchin with a flammable liquid and set it on fire. Reports suggest that Barazarte may have been intending to perform a "blessing" on the Las Vegas-based magician: the substance used, Agua de Florida, is a type of cologne but is marketed as being used by South American shamans for healing and cleansing rituals. Houchin sustained serious burns on his head, face, neck and hand.
At first there were fears that Houchin's injuries might prove disfiguring or even life-threatening. The quick intervention of his own team may have saved him. Happily a few hours later he was feeling well enough to update Twitter followers from his hospital bed. The doctors, he said, were "cautiously optimistic" that he would fully recover with no scars, but he would be extending his stay in the country while he underwent further treatment. He thanked well-wishers for their "humbling and overwhelming" support and described the Dominican Republic as a "beautiful country full of beautiful people."
He was also able to confirm that the attack on him, which he described as "criminal" and "intentional", was not part of a stunt and that he was unaware of what was going to happen. So what provoked it? The Las Vegas Weekly connected it with a culture in which, "for many people, witches and witchdoctors are very real". Their report notes that two years ago in neighboring Haiti, "around a dozen suspected witches were hacked to death by machetes and stoned in the streets. So it’s possible that the TV host thought he was doing a good thing in burning Houchin."
But Houchin has never posed as a witch or witchdoctor. Like many magicians, he sometimes uses his knowledge of trickery to expose claims of psychic or miraculous powers, and he's currently associated with a Discovery Channel show Breaking Magic which reveals some of the secrets of the conjurer's art. Even more strangely, the programme he was appearing on is described in some accounts as one specialising in astrology and other "psychic" matters. There are also suggestions that another guest on the show, who normally hosts a different programme, described the attack as "divine justice" for the sorcery supposedly practised by Houchin and his colleagues, but there's no confirmation of that. Nor is there any word on the fate of the attacker, or whether there are questions about his mental state.
We shouldn't jump to any conclusions about this one incident, although it if *was* an attempted exorcism, it would not be unique in involving violent and dangerous practices. To take two examples from different parts of the world, in 2007 a Romanian priest was jailed for 14 years for conducting an exorcism that led to the death of a nun, while in Japan last year a 13-year-old girl suffocated after being strapped down and doused with water by her father and a Buddhist monk who were trying to expel an "evil spirit".
In both those cases, the exorcists were presumably trying to help their unfortunate victims. The attack on Wayne Houchin doesn't appear to have had such a benign motivation, although it's possible that the attacker was unaware that the liquid would cause severe burns when ignited. Not all flammable substances do, of course, which is why fire-eating is a performance art rather than a method of suicide. But whether it was a terrible accident, a cultural misunderstanding or (most likely, perhaps) was a random act of insanity it does demonstrate the danger inherent in hand-wavy religion.