Halloween is and always has been my favorite holiday. I love dressing up, I love the chilly autumn nights, and I love the spookiness that hangs in the air throughout October. I love driving through my neighborhood and seeing houses that have been transformed into haunted mansions, seeing lawns transformed into graveyards with plastic skeleton hands reaching up through the dirt. It is this element of Halloween that I love the most: transformation. On Halloween, nothing is quite what it seems to be. A garish, illuminated grin is no more than a pumpkin. A fearsome monster is only a child wearing a mask. Everything is just a bit darker, but all the more thrilling for its magic.
Perhaps the most magical (and the most transformative) Halloween figure in contemporary times is the witch. Over time, the witch has seen a number of iterations and transformations. The witch has been an old hag, a beautiful enchantress, a dark figure, a friendly figure, an ugly crone, and a sexy temptress. So which witch is which? (I’m sorry; I had to.) How can the witch inhabit all of these identities at once?
The image of the witch we know today was originally created by the patriarchy as a way of ostracizing independent women. Thinking historically, women persecuted in witch hunts in Europe and North America were often women who lived alone and had knowledge of things they shouldn’t. As Kristen Korvette writes, “These were healers and midwives with intimate knowledge about sexual reproduction and the human body who threatened to educate a highly uneducated populace” and were thus punished. In addition to knowledge, these women also “raised suspicion by amassing too much land, wealth, or influence,” things that women at the time were not supposed to have. As Chloe Germaine Buckley says, the label of witch was used “to delegitimise powerful women and locate them on the outside of society.”
In contemporary popular culture, we tend to think of the witch in one of three ways. Korvette opines that the witch “…is all at once wizened hag, poison apple in hand; learned spinster, married to her books; and enchanting seductress with bared breasts and hypnotic stare.” (I will discuss later a fourth category of the “fun” witch.) The first witch—the “wizened hag”—might be what we think of as a “classic” witch, an old woman with warts, green skin, and snaggled teeth. The wizened hag witch draws her power from a rejection of society and its values, instead putting stock in what she can do to harm others.
The second witch—the “learned spinster”—lives alone, often on the edge of town or in the woods since she has been ostracized by her community. The spinster witch is often called upon for a magic favor (like a potion or spell) from the protagonist, who must make the journey to her far-off dwelling to receive help. While this witch is often not portrayed to be as violent as the wizened hag, the audience is still expected to be wary of her because she is a woman who lives alone and commits herself to books (in this case, spell books), rather than having a family or a husband; thus, she is not to be trusted.
The third witch is the “enchanting seductress.” This witch draws her power from her overt displays of sexuality as part of her plan to seduce men, in particular the male hero, into submitting to dark magic against their will. The seductress witch has knowledge of sex and magic that the “average” woman wouldn’t, making her intriguing to men. The seductress witch is also often depicted as having a sexual relationship with the Devil, making her sexual appeal even more deadly.
These three types of witches possess traits that originate from the patriarchal fear of independent women. The patriarchy fears the wizened hag because she has knowledge of things he doesn’t (magic) that she can use to take away men’s power. Patriarchy may also despise the wizened hag because of her old and ugly physical appearance, which refuses to cater to the male gaze that desires young, beautiful women. The patriarchy fears the spinster witch because she lives alone and is invested in literacy and education. Any woman who would choose this kind of life over a traditional one where she plays the role of wife and mother is a deviant. Her interest in education is transformed into an obsession with magic. Perhaps the most direct tie to the patriarchy’s historical fear of witches is illustrated by the seductress witch. Much like those that feared midwives and healers for their knowledge of sexuality, the patriarchy fears the seductress witch because not only does she have knowledge of sexuality that the “average” woman shouldn’t, but she uses it against men. Women who express their sexuality and sexual desire, then, are cast as witches who prey upon men’s “natural” sexual urges and turn him to a dark path.
While the image of the witch has historically been built on patriarchal fear of independent women, a surprising trend has emerged in recent years. In addition to the three types of witches described above, a fourth type of witch exists, the “fun” witch. The fun witch is seen most often in children’s and family movies like Harry Potter, Matilda, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Rather than seeking to harm, this witch uses her powers for the betterment of others. This witch is often seen as different from her peers, but she is not ostracized. In fact, after a period of time, she is accepted by her community after they see the good that her magic can do. Importantly, the fun witch’s independence is not something to be suppressed or feared: it is to be celebrated.
The witch is all of these women at once. As Halloween is all about transformation, it is only fitting that the witch is one of Halloween’s most prevalent images.
Buckley, Chloe Germaine. “Hag, temptress or feminist icon? The witch in popular culture.” The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/hag-temptress-or-feminist-icon-the-witch-in-popular-culture-77374
Korvette, Kristen. “Witches are some of the most enduring feminist icons of our time.” Quartz. https://qz.com/535433/witches-are-some-of-the-most-enduring-feminist-icons-of-our-time/