What the History of Witches Reveals About Our Own Fears

Our fascination with the witch throughout the ages tells us more about ourselves than the history of Halloween.

Town at dusk

Holidays that promote and celebrate the bending of cultural norms have a special allure, and few of them that cross national borders freely. It is no wonder then that Halloween has become increasingly popular globally as a day to celebrate the crossing of boundaries, often as costumed wanderers, between the realm of the living and the dead. It is a celebration that has become increasingly elaborate, commercialized and secularized. Witches are central to how we conceptualize the symbols of the holiday, but our fascination with the witch tells us more about ourselves than the history of Halloween.

Donning the pointy hat stands the test of time for good reason. There have been witches as long as there have been civilizations. Call them social outliers, heretics, deviants or call them witches. They are always there.

When Persecutions Become a Craze

We often associate witches with the European Middle Ages. And yes, it was an epoch when the devil freely roamed the earth as a nuisance, but he did not have much power. The Reformation, the separation of the Protestant faiths from Catholicism in the following centuries, increased the fear of the power of the devil, so witches were suddenly everywhere and a cause of great concern. Between 1450 and 1750, thousands were tried for the crime of witchcraft. Tremendous stress and confusion created a craze. It was easy to find yourself labeled as an "other" and an enemy of the social order in the midst of a violent cultural revolution.

Burning of Three Witches 1555
This engraving depicts the burning of three witches during the Reformation, in 1555. gameover2012/Getty

It is no surprise that modern historians are interested in studying persecuting societies and witchcraft has the superficial allure of the macabre. Beyond the stereotype of the broom, the elderly woman, the pointy hat, and the black cat, there is an archival mire. There are no specific statistics on how many were tried, how many were tortured, how many were executed. A witch craze was rare, but it devastated communities.

Identifying the Witch

Men, often clerics, identified witches. Manuals were created to aid those on the lookout. The most notorious of which was Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of the Witches, written in 1486 but the Dominican inquisitor Heinrich Kramer. He focused attention on the feminine identity of subjects, although witches historically were not gender-specific. More than 80 percent of those accused of being witches in the early modern period were women. These willful females were often independent professionals, healers and midwives. The fear of female power often targeted elderly women who were marginal in society because they had often lost the oversight of male kin and their reproductive role after menopause.

Jonathan Corwin House Salem MA
The Jonathan Corwin House (also known as the Witch House) in Salem, Massachusetts, was the residence of Judge Corwin, who presided over the Salem Witch Trials in 1693. xeni4ka/Getty

From mass executions to narrow attacks on individuals a seeker of this history can find a multitude of examples of the historical memory this witch hunt on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Witches of Europe

In Germany, the Wurzburg Witch Trial, which ended in 1631, was marked by the murder of more than 200 women, men and children for the crime of witchcraft. Interestingly enough, there is no identifiable memorial space, but it is impossible to look at the Marienkapelle Catholic Church without thinking of the many who died there under false pretenses. In Bath, England, there is a rather apologetic, albeit very simple, sign to the last Devon witch to be accused and murdered in 1685. It promotes ending intolerance. In Italy, Venetian courtesan Adriana Savorgnan who convinced a nobleman to marry her, drew the attention of the inquisition and was accused of practicing magic. She is remembered by historians, but no memorial stands in Venice to acknowledge her fate. This is a part of history that many in the West are happy to set aside rather than to commemorate.

Maggie Wall Memorial
The site commemorates the burning of accused witch Maggie Wall, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1657 in Dunning, Scotland. ilaskey/Getty

The Witches of Salem

Salem, Massachusetts, on the other hand, has a rather elaborate memorial consisting of 20 stone benches identifying the 14 women and six men accused of witchcraft in 1692. The city is one that has pridefully embraced this legacy. It outdoes itself each Halloween with a celebration met with mass tourism. But there is nothing romantic about class conflict and political factionalism in the community in the late 17th century which led to the people of Salem to falsely accuse their neighbors of fraternizing with the devil. Vivid in the American imagination, the witches of Salem are an atypical model. Pressures of a puritanical and patriarchal society in this colony, set the stage for repressed teenage girls to find themselves happily, and oddly, at the center of attention for the first and only time in their lives. Embracing the limelight, they proved quite theatrical in the courtroom. There were no witches in Salem, but there was fear, hatred, envy and repression.

Salem Witch Memorial
The Salem Witch Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts. sphraner/Getty

Witches Reveal Our Own Age of Anxiety

Calling someone a witch is an insult most often directed at women. But powerful women? No. It reflects the fear of women who do not conform. Those that might snatch power like doctor's jealous of midwives, clergy driven mad by stricter celibacy, and religious authority trying to destroy cults in which women had power. Witches are a sign of increased social and political turmoil and economic stress. We are a society under such stress. Think of that the next time you see rows of pointy hats in your local drug store.

Those accused of being witches were not likely witches, but it doesn't mean that the possibility of magical ability doesn't prove fascinating. We want to romanticize the other, to empower them, but modernity leaves little room for accepting the supernatural and its twin the unexplained.

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn was an often romanticized character in history. She was beheaded in 1536 by her husband, King Henry VIII, for charges of incest, adultery and witchcraft. photos.com/Getty

Witches were the product of an age of great anxiety, but aren't we anxious too? Before we are so quick to judge the past, did you check your horoscope today or google herbal remedies to treat your ailments? Although, in an age of #MeToo we are equipped look with a more critical eye to the gendering of past persecutions.

The idea that only girls are witches is alive and well in American. While Halloween itself has long been seen as a dominantly American holiday, in recent years has arrived quietly in Italy. There it is celebrated without extravagance. The overwhelming majority of Italian children, girls and boys, who dress up, present themselves as witches. In a heavily commercialized holiday overflowing with ghosts and ghouls, witches are not monsters, they are human. And apparently, boys can be witches, too.


Christine Contrada earned a Ph.D. in history from Stony Brook University. She is a professor specializing in Italian history and women's studies who writes about intersections between history and popular culture. As Bernini had the temperament of a Neapolitan and the precision of a Florentine, she has the heart of an Italian the mind of a New Yorker.