In early October, I received the following text from a friend: “I’m gonna be a sexy witch for Halloween?? And I was like??? Is this very unethical????”
She had reached out to me because my 11-times-great-grandmother was hanged for witchcraft in the Salem witch trials of 1692, and I’ve been studying witch hunts for years. I focus mostly on Salem, but I’ve also studied the great witch hunts of Europe and I track witch hunts happening today. Modern witch hunts are rampant: In the last 30 years, an estimated 30,000 people have been killed in witch hunts on every continent except Antarctica. That divides out to 1,000 people per year, or two to three people per day, and that’s a conservative estimate.
I started to text my friend back, but it was more complicated than a yes or no answer. Of course it was: The witch has never been a simple being. Depending on context, she can be a cultural archetype, a historical figure, or a current corpse; she is a fictional character and the excuse for the torture of hundreds of thousands of people; she is the ultimate scapegoat and a feminist lightning rod of resistance. Also, she’s one of the most popular costumes in a Halloween industry on which Americans are projected to spend $8.8 billion this year alone.
With so many ethically questionable Halloween costumes, where does a sexy witch fit in? Actually, let’s take out the “sexy” part, because that’s a whole other cauldron of newts’ eyes, or what have you. So: Why might it be complicated to dress up as a witch for Halloween?
First, at its most basic, because it is a privilege to pretend to be a witch and not die. We live in a world where people are murdered on a regular basis because others in their communities believe that they are witches. They are killed by individuals, kangaroo courts, or mob violence, in a variety of torturous and horrific ways. In a world where “witch” is a label used to excuse the murder of marginalized women, children, and more than a few men across the world, it is a privilege to embody that label for a fun night out and suffer no consequences—and those of us in the United States who are considering dressing up as witches for Halloween are mostly not in danger of being killed for it.
“But Alice,” my friend might have texted back, “I’m dressing up as the character of the witch, the archetype. Nobody’s getting killed for dressing up as a Disney witch.”
It’s true that the people who are killed for witchcraft today are not killed for dressing up in a costume; they are killed because of intersecting economic, political, and social factors. Silvia Federici, a leading voice in witch hunt analysis, considers these factors to be largely connected to colonialism, gender hierarchy, economic inequality, and Christianity. But the Western archetype—embodied by the classic Disney witch—is still rooted in massacre. Our modern image of the witch was distilled during the great European witch hunts that took place from the late 15th to the 17th centuries, in which thousands of people, the vast majority of whom were women, were tortured and executed. (It’s quite possible that hundreds of thousands were killed; the numbers are debated.) The witch that you’ll be dressing up as—broomstick, big nose, pointy hat—was forged in the crucible of thousands of burnings.
The great witch hunts are notoriously understudied, but what scholarship exists potentially complicates the witch costume even further. Some academics have suggested that the pointed hat and the witch’s hooked nose both derive from anti-Semitic stereotypes. There may also be a connection between the “flying ointment” that witches were said to spread on their broomsticks to achieve flight, supposedly made from Christian baby fat, and the anti-Semitic myth of blood libel. (Jews and witches have always been linked in the European imagination; “Witches’ Sabbaths,” the nighttime gatherings where witches were said to meet and copulate with the Devil, were also referred to as “Witches’ Synagogues.”)
In short, the archetypal image of the witch may be a mix of anti-woman and anti-Jewish stereotypes that were used to justify the torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent people for hundreds of years, and people are still being killed for the same accusation today, although the victims and cultural associations vary.
But I didn’t give my friend a hard “no” on the costume. There’s a reason dressing up as a witch has appealed to generations of feminists. The witch is the scariest, oldest female monster. She is angry rather than agreeable, uncontrollable rather than submissive. She can be disgusting or unapologetically sexual, or sexual and still unavailable, or simply old. She can be everything that women are instructed never to be.
There is power in dressing up as what you have been told never to be. To embody the witch can be a liberatory act—particularly because witch hunts are always embedded in a political context, and many who were executed for witchcraft were in fact killed for representing a challenge to power.
Academic work suggests that throughout history, women who were scapegoated as “witches” were actually killed to uphold male and white supremacy. Killed to redefine women’s work and put reproduction and labor power at the service of capitalism. Killed for owning land or for outliving their husbands. For providing abortions. For participating in medieval peasant rebellions.
Like most people who have been executed for witchcraft, my ancestor, Martha Carrier, did not die because she was “witchy” in any modern sense of the word. She was accused of witchcraft because she got pregnant before she was married, was known for her temper, and took an equal share in running her farm with her husband. In other words, she was accused because she bucked social and economic expectations for women. And she was killed, crucially, because she refused to accuse anyone else of witchcraft, even though it would have saved her life.
There is a rebellious power in the idea of being a witch, but it is not a cosmetic rebellion. It is a political act that requires interrogation of the past, active struggle in the present, and the refusal to scapegoat others. If we want to be witches, we have to act like them all the time, not just on Halloween.
Oh, and my friend? She’s going as Lady Macbeth instead.