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Halloween witches: ladies not for burning

By Owen Davies


Why is Halloween associated with witches? Look back beyond the twentieth century and you will find few connections. The 31st of October has long been a day of great religious significance of course. It is All Hallows’ Eve, the build-up to the Catholic All Saints’ Day, and then All Souls’ Day on 2 November. This was a time when the worlds of the living and the dead were at their closest. Protestant authorities dismissed this ritual period as Catholic superstition, and some states re-designated 31 October as Reformation Day in commemoration of Martin Luther’s momentous initial challenge to the Papacy. So nothing to do with witchcraft or suspected witches, who were very much alive and thought to be wreaking misery for their neighbours. Look at the witch trial records from across Europe and Colonial America and we find little association with Halloween. So if there is no venerable historic link between witchcraft and Halloween, we must look for more recent developments and we must look to America — for it was here that the Halloween tradition the world knows today was forged.

It is no surprise, perhaps, that part of the answer lies with the rise of modern marketing and branding. How does one dress up as a witch for Halloween, as many thousands will be doing this 31 October? Basically you stick a black pointy hat on your head. Depictions of witches with pointy hats began to appear in children’s books in eighteenth-century England, probably inspired by earlier black steeple hats worn in stereotypic depictions of seventeenth-century Puritans. By the end of the nineteenth century the pointy-hatted witch had become a widespread image in print. It was at this moment that Salem, Massachusetts, comes into the picture. It was there that a jeweller named Daniel Low began to produce souvenir spoons depicting a witch with a pointy hat and broom. Their success kick-started the transformation of Salem into the marketing creation ‘Witch City’, and the pointy-hatted witch was replicated on numerous ‘Witch City’ products.

Hallowe'en. Holiday postcards. Raphael Tuck & Sons, ca. 1910. Courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery.
Hallowe’en. Holiday postcards. Raphael Tuck & Sons, ca. 1910. Courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery.

At the same time as this witch image was proliferating in marketing and the mass media, the nature of American Halloween custom was changing. With its roots in Irish mischief night, American youths had traditionally marked Halloween by performing such malicious acts as greasing railway tracks, smashing windows, and overturning outdoor toilets. But from the 1950s onwards the sanitised American trick-or-treat and costume bonanza we know today was beginning to spread. The remarketing of Witch City into Halloween City by local entrepreneurs from the 1980s onwards was a significant element in this transformation. “It’s America’s biggest Halloween party and you’re invited!” one promotional site proclaims today. The now inseparable link between witchcraft and Halloween was forged.

There is another link in the story though. One of the most active players in creating Halloween City was a Wiccan named Laurie Cabot. In 1971 she set up a ‘Witch Shop’ in Salem selling witchcraft paraphernalia. The Wiccan religion, founded by the retired British civil servant Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, adopted the ancient seasonal calendar of the pagan Irish Celts, where 31 October was celebrated as Samhain, one of four key calendar celebrations. This festival marked the beginning of winter, a time of feasting but also when the spirits were most likely to intrude on the world of humans. So for modern pagan witches like Cabot the link between witchcraft (as a re-invented modern religion) and Halloween was perfectly obvious. But how did knowledge of this association reach the wider American public?

Modern pagan witchcraft was first impressed on America’s consciousness by a larger-than-life English Wiccan named Sybil Leek, who was, in the words of one US newspaper in 1968, “America’s most famous resident witch.” From her first visit to the United States four years earlier the vivacious Leek became a popular television and newspaper figure, promoting her life as a witch and explaining the ways of her coven. It became something of a press tradition to ask Sybil Leek what she had prepared for Halloween. Asked in a syndicated piece in 1969 what she was up to on 31 October, she replied: “Halloween is our major religious holiday … It is our New Year’s. I never heard of trick-or-treat until I came to this country.” A year later another feature running with the headline, “Modern Halloween Myths Join Centuries-Old History,” ended with the punch-line, “The new look in witches is being promoted by British self-styled witch Sybil Leek in New York, surely ‘a lady not for burning.'”

Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and has written extensively on the subject of magic. His new book America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem is the first full history of witchcraft in modern America.

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