Did a TV show host set a magician on fire because he thought he was a witch-doctor?

Nelson Jones investigates the attack on Wayne Houchin on Dominican television.

 

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.

 

The attack on Wayne Houchin.
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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era