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.
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.