B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S02E19 Witch Doctors

Witch Doctors. So the title makes me cringe, but let’s check out the episode. Could go either of two ways.

Witch doctor? Why this doctor!
…Well you try to come up with a funny caption every week.

We open on a Mayan Ritual, in which a patient’s ‘evil spirits’ are lifted by an old woman using a cloud of smoke. In another room a man waves a guinea pig at a woman to help her become fertile. Nimoy states that these rituals seem weird to us, but reminds us that many people around the world seek the help of ‘Witch Doctors’.

We cut away to some old black and white jungle movie, but we’re told that the stereotype of the witchdoctor promoted in these types of movies differs from actual tribal healers. In the studio, Nimoy lists a bunch of different types of tribal healer, and points out that the term ‘witch doctor’ was imposed by Europeans onto cultures they did not understand.

This gives me some hope for the episode. Then Nimoy ruins it by claiming that ‘witch doctors’ have been as successful in their cultures as physicians have in ours. Honestly, I’d like to see the raw data there.

Moving now to a festival in the Yucatan, in which the locals invoke a Mayan god, though their procession ends in a Catholic cathedral. Now in the house of a Mayan healer – the old woman from the introduction. A mother brings her daughter to the woman. The daughter is in love with a man that the mother disapproves of, so the healer needs to drive away this obsession. She makes a potion from alcohol and a mixture of herbs, chants in Mayan, daubs the potion on the girl and makes her drink the rest of the potion.

It’s pretty interesting to watch. Often, this show is at its most interesting when it stops trying to be convincing and just points a camera at something cool. We’re told that the cure was successful and that the girl lost interest in the boy. Nimoy wonders whether this was actually due to driving out spirits or simply a complex form of persuasion.

Looking at a Mayan pyramid in a jungle, then we’re looking at a Mayan guy in a hat. He’s hunting for herbs for making medicines. Now we’re looking at old botanical illustration while Nimoy talks about the medicinal properties of tropical plants — which is certainly true, in a broad sense.

Now we see the herbalist at work, looking through a small glass ball at a man suffering from persistent headaches. We see him cook up some herbs, then seal a bottle and hand it to his patient. We cut to a modern drug factory, while Nimoy talks about how many modern drugs come from tropical plants, discovered by ‘primitive herb doctors’. The footage of the man slowly making his herbal remedy contrasts nicely to the rapid, repetitive film of modern pill making machines.

Next up: the Andes. ‘Jagged domain of ancient Incan civilization.’ ‘Jagged domain’ — I like that. Macchu Picchu, lamas, electronic music that’s supposed to sound like Pan pipes. Hard on the ears. Nimoy claims that the Inca believed that illness came from the spider, the spirit of health in the sun.

An Incan healer and a Peruvian physician perform a ritual, offering leaves of the coca plant to the sun. (Thousands of miles away in Studio 54, a great disturbance is heard in the Force.) The physician is a doctor and psychiatrist, and uses the symbolism of Incan medicine to help his patients. He performs ancient ceremonies for his patients, believing that the way people deal with such symbols affects their mental state.

Proof of concept: his patient is a woman having trouble conceiving. Nimoy assures us that she has been cured of the physical condition that caused this issue, but still needs psychological reassurance, derived from her cultural beliefs. The doctor waves a healing rod around and invokes the power of the sun and moon.

Nimoy is back in the studio. He’s wearing a red shirt – you’d think he of all people would know better. He claims that in the nineteenth century, European physicians found that African and Asian patients sometimes didn’t respond to Western medicine. He neglects to mention that a lot of Western people didn’t respond to nineteenth century Western medicine. Nineteenth century Western medicine was kind of crap.

But anyway, Nimoy makes the point that culture affects attitude and that attitude supposedly affect healing. We’re in LA now, at a mental hospital, where a Mexican ritual healer comes in to help Mexican-American patients, to exorcise evil spirits. We’re looking particularly at this guy from a very tiny Mexican village, who freaked out when he got to LA and went catatonic. The Mexican healer says prayers, lays on hands and blesses the water that the patients drink.

At another clinic, the founder deals with curing mental illness among people who believe that such illness comes from evil spirits. He uses Mexican rituals to help his patients feel that some progress is being made on the spirit front. We look specifically at a woman who’s suffering severe emotional difficulties, who is aided with prayers and Aztec ritual. It’s less laid back than the other thing we’ve seen, involving her being whacked with a leafy branch and shaken. Nimoy assures us this has a cathartic effect, and sure enough the woman bursts into tears. So would I, honestly. The doctor talks about the effect of symbols on the mind. He also uses music, which has been helpful in the recovery of the catatonic guy.

Nimoy sums up. In our society ‘witch doctors’ aren’t up to much, but in different societies their mastery of herbal remedies are helpful, and their ability to encourage changes in attitude help to encourage healing.

Solid episode, without being mind blowing. The footage of the rituals is probably the best element. The claims of the efficacy of ritual healing aren’t grossly overstated. I’m not so sure about the central argument, though. The idea that attitude is essential to getting over illness was taken as gospel in the 1970s but my understanding is it’s taken a bit of a hit in recent years.


Going to skip on quotes this week. Nothing especially memorable, except for the ‘jagged domain’ line.

Summing up

Interesting anthropological footage: 9/10, Music: 6/10, Nimoyness: 7/10, Bizarre inteviewees: 3/10, Memorable episode: 5/10. Overall: 30/50. Pass.

4 thoughts on “In Search Of… S02E19 Witch Doctors

  1. Haven’t watched it yet, but when scanning through your episode list I saw

    “Witch Doctors – Oo ee oo ah ah…” and immediately started laughing out loud. For those who don’t get it, click the link.


    LMFAO. A total throwback to my childhood.
    I think it will be impossible to watch this episode without hearing this song in my head during the entire thing.

  2. I only learned recently that that song was written by the same guy who created Alvin and the Chipmunks. When he wrote ‘Witch Doctor,’ was experimenting with the same sped-up recording technique he used for them.

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B.G. Hilton - Author