Three goofy, haggard witches prance around a bubbling cauldron. A young girl is bewitched, frozen in a chair, a blank expression on her face. The head of the group consults an enchanted book bound in wrinkled skin. “…add a dash of pox, and a dead man’s toe. Dead man’s toe, and make it a fresh one!” These hags have used magic to lure the young girl away from home in order to accomplish a sinister magical act.
“Winnie… I smell a child!”
“And what dost thou call that?”
Unbeknownst to the witches the young girl’s brother has snuck into the cottage to try and rescue his sister. He watches the witches from the rafter above as they brew their green, glowing potion.
The head witch sniffs the completed potion with satisfaction. “One drop of this, and her life will be mine—I mean, ours.”
The witches surround the young girl, putting the ladle of potion to her lips.
“No!” shouts the older brother, distracting the witches. He jumps to the floor, grabs the cauldron, and empties its steaming contents onto two of the witches. The third witch, however, without missing a beat, zaps the boy with lighting from her hands, and he falls unconscious.
Suddenly the witches notice a change in the girl. She begins to glow with a smokey light. The drops of potion which touched her lips seconds before have already taken effect. “Sisters, prepare thyselves. ’Tis her life-force! The potion works! Take my hands, we will share her…”
Together the witches suck every drop of life-force from the young girl, and realize that each of them have transformed to look younger than they were.
The young girl is dead.
The hilarious, campy and colorful 1993 Disney movie “Hocus Pocus” easily hides its dark undertones under layers of punchy comedy. The witch-sister trio Winnie, Sarah, and Mary make the most lovable of villains! Somewhat ironically, it seems the witch is perhaps the only archetypal character who can be laughed at and loved as they kill children… perhaps we must laugh at such a horrific idea in order to fully understand it. Witches were once seen as the source of demonic activity in the world, the untimely death or disappearance of children, the poisoners of water supplies, and the casters of curses. Witches used to be seen as harbingers of pestilence, murderers of children, cannibals, devil worshippers, and conspirators. Today witches are seen by popular culture not as something to be persecuted, but celebrated; whether it be “Charmed,” “American Horror Story,” or the upcoming “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” the witch is often the good guy, the person who uses their magical abilities to save the day. Perhaps this great shift in Western society over the last several hundred years from utter terror at the idea of a witch, to joy and festivity at the idea of the witch, is indicative of a slow overcoming of the fears which were once pinned upon the sorcerous heretic. One thing this shift is not indicative of, however, is an end to social bigotry and intolerance which indeed caused the systematic murder of thousands of people. Today we will explore these phenomena and seek to address the darker acts attributed to perceived witches. What can “Hocus Pocus,” and other depictions of the classic Halloween-Hag-Witch, teach us about our society?
It is an often undermined fact that the means that enabled the murder of thousands during the witch hunts was not the fear of Satan, death, pestilence, or curses: it was the hatred and subjugation of niche social groups, minorities, and those with the least amount of power in a hierarchical and highly conscientious society. In an interview with www.eurozine.com Carlo Ginzburg, the acclaimed historian, states, “In 1348 Jews all over southern France were massacred after being accused of spreading the Black Death. Early in the fifteenth century, this conspiracy model re-emerged, though in a different guise. This time it was the practitioners of the Black Arts who were supposed to be behind the veiled attack on Christianity. They were no longer in league with the Muslims [or Jews], but with the Devil. Conspiracy had thus become omnipresent.”
In (his perhaps magnum opus) “Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath” Ginzburg devotes a chapter to the mass persecution of lepers, Jews, and Muslims in Western Europe which continued through several centuries, ever evolving to find a new group to accuse of conspiracy. Many common elements were shared by these accusations: the poisoning of wells, the meeting in a secret place in the woods, the secret practice of revelrous heresy, the blighting of crops, the spread of disease, and the stealing and murdering of children—heresy being arguably the most commonly accused crime of all of these. The idea held among people at the very top of society was that non-Christian, non-powerful people must be in league with evil forces and against the power structure of society. The lepers, outcast from society, were accused of attempting to poison water supplies and cause leprosy to spread. The Jews, holding non-Christian beliefs, were seen as against Catholicism and thus must not respect the Monarchy’s “divine authority.” The Muslims, seen as foreign and placing faith in non-Christian Mohammed, must also be against the Church. Finally women, treated and seen as subservient to men and easily led astray without their husband holding a tight leash, were slowly lumped in with the mistrusted, and the idea that the least powerful in society were farther from God and closer to Satan led society to eventually believe that all of these segregated groups held a sinister, and indeed Satanic agenda. By then destroying these groups their funds, resources, and land could be snatched up by those holding the power: if the lepers were jailed their charitable funds could be seized, if a widow was called diabolic her land could be taken by the government. Those holding “Pagan,” “outsider” religious beliefs could be effectively erased from society, bolstering the influence held by the Church. It was a simple and nefarious process directed by the powerful and aided by the majority of society who benefited from the powerful overruling systems.
We see the “Halloween Witch” idea explored through the 2015 horror film “The Witch.” Although less light-hearted than “Hocus Pocus” the same events occur at the beginning of both films: a witch steals a child, takes it back to her cottage, and in killing it uses its essence in her magic. Why were witches, predominantly (though never exclusively) women, accused of doing this? It is hypothesized that the fear of women, their reproductive abilities, sexual power, and biblical attributions caused religious fundamentalists with pent up desires to target vulnerable or disliked women with the threat of witch. Although this is obviously a large factor, as evidenced by the misogyny recorded in the Malleus Maleficarum, it was not the cause. As I spoke about before, the cause of the long-standing series of persecution of social groups was put into action by social hierarchy, kindled by subjugation of niche groups, and the flames were then fanned by corrupt people in positions of power, taking advantage of the main fears of the average person.
It is undeniable that a hatred of paganism helped motivate the witch hunts. The image of the Halloween witch with pointy hat and broomstick links specifically to pre-Christian religious beliefs. The pointy hat was at one time believed to be old fashioned and was associated with country dwellers and people behind in the times. The broomstick of the witch arose out of pre-Christian fertility rites where witches would ride large stalks of fennel or other sacred plants. Sexism, agism, and ablism can be found along side the pagan intolerance; during persecutions people were seen as extra suspicious if they were a woman living alone, elderly or disabled men and women were often cast out and thus seen as living in the shadows, and because these people predominantly held less social power they were easily attacked. Folk magicians were rarely targeted with accusations, but the fact that they were Christian and did not work in groups meant conspiracy and heresy could not be pinned upon them, so they were free to sell their charms. The message here is obvious: if you were involved in powerful institutions such as the Church and were not suspected of conspiring against powerful figures within a niche social group, you were quite unlikely to be labeled as a witch, heretic, or conspirator, and thus killed.
We hold in our past a history of murder, oppression, and subjugation of niche social groups and those who hold less power in society. These groups were accused of bringing disease, crime, terror, and evil into the society. They were seen as a risk to the integrity of many cultural beliefs and societal structures. Conscientiousness (as opposed to openness) within the society allowed this fear to spread across the society and result in the Western European witch hysteria of the Early Modern period which destroyed so many lives.
In our modern society we must look back at our past and realize that we are not removed from it. In the aforementioned article Carlo Ginzburg asserts the same when it is suggested that the same form of paranoia influenced the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. “…yes, today the comparison is striking. It’s one of those things that can happen when you work as an historian - those sudden flashes of contemporaneity. The last couple of years has, at least, clearly demonstrated that the fear of conspiracy still is a powerful force today. It belongs to those central historical ideas that help to determine our view of reality. I see it as part of my challenge as an historian to draw attention to such historical accretions – to dispel the belief that our own lives are separated from the past. In truth, anything that can rid us of our illusion of historical autonomy pleases me.”
I believe it is our duty to look at the world around us and ask if the atrocities of the past are being repeated. In our respective cultures of today, do we accuse minority social groups of conspiring against us? Do we shun people who don’t believe the same things we believe? Do we label people as evil for holding onto old fashioned beliefs? Do we mistreat those who are weak, diseased, physically disabled, or mentally unwell? Do we steal the land and resources of people who hold the least amount of slices in the pie of powerful governments? Most importantly, will we silence people who are lesser heard, or will we let them speak? Will we defend freedom of religion or call certain ones evil? Will we stand up and defend the right to personal liberty, or will we toss another stick onto the blazing fire?
Whether we are laughing at a comedy or trembling at a horror, there are often potent lessons to be learned, whether about real magic, or of important world history. Movies, whether horror, comedy, or action, are not the enemy: they are often the hero. They teach us about our own feelings and thoughts when presented with horrors based in reality. When a movie sticks with us it allows us to eventually question why certain characters are portrayed a certain way. Because of stories we question why Little Red Riding Hood encountered the Big Bad Wolf, why Santa Claus gives toys to children, why mermaids drown sailors, and why witches steal children. When we dig down under the surface we discover worlds of reason behind the timeless stories and characters we grew up with as children. The lessons we learn then are all the more profound. The story is simply the messenger, it is up to us to read deeper.
We are lucky now as witches to be presented with a plethora of media and art forms that present witchcraft as positive and beneficial. No longer is it seen as heretical, immoral, and criminal by most of western society. We can watch many witch-characters presented as a positive force in the world. But we can also see many witches interpreted as villains; and it is up to us to understand why.
This entry in Austin Shippey’s “Magic in the Movies” series, where he will be exploring the historical beliefs and events that influenced our favorite magical movies, first appeared in the October 2018 edition of Witch Way Magazine.
Image belongs to Disney.