Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween Iconography: the Witch

DISCLAIMER: Despite what people who have known me for years might think, this is not going to turn into one of those rants where I draw the ire of every alternative religion community on my head.  Probably.  This is more a look at Halloween witchery with a little history thrown in.  The concept is far too complex for a mere blog post.  I promise to be civil.

Depending upon your point of view a witch is a practitioner of an ancient nature religion, a pagan, a crone capable of riding brooms and casting spells, or a suburban house wife who is actually a member of an immortal species divided along gender lines.  The latter works magic primarily with nose twitching.
In the days when men were men, women were women and mothers-in-law could turn you into a monkey by using "jazz hands"
Pop culture witches, as seen today in America, are a product of a few centuries of historical witchlore, plus modern sensitivity toward Wicca, plus witch-oriented television shows such as Bewitched, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  In the current genre climate it is hard to find a monster show without at least one witch in it.  While the previous shows did, at times, feature creatures like faeries, goblins, demons or monsters, it is the current crop of MONSTER MASH shows that really work with this concept.  Vampire Diaries, The Gates (cancelled after one season), and True Blood are good examples of this sort of show.  Comic books have had such monster mix-ups for a very long time and are a good source for our Halloween witch purposes.
EC Comics's "Old Witch" the host of the Haunt of Fear horror comic
Witches have been associated with Halloween in America for quite a long time.  Vintage Halloween postcards employ witches that are ugly, scary, pretty, happy, and various points along the line.  It is clear with just a little research that concepts of witches are varied, but certainly associated with Halloween.
It takes me literally minutes of blood sweat and tears to churn out these diagrams for you folks
Witches make for a popular choice in Halloween costumes and have for decades.  With a wide variety of masks, costumes and make-up kits (including prosthetic choices) available, it is easy to conjure up a witch costume.  Admittedly some witch costumes barely look like witches at all (I am speaking of the popular Halloween witch concept).

So what makes a Halloween witch?
Glad you asked.  The Halloween witch could have any number of characteristics, but we need a visual shorthand to tell us, instantly, that we are seeing a witch.

No questions there, right?  Now what tells us she is a witch?  Pointy hat, dark garb, hag-like face, broom.  All "classic" witch characteristics.  How did that happen?  I've seen plenty of artwork on the internet showing witchcraft studies through the ages and what I don't see is pointy hats.  I see mostly uncovered heads or head scarves.  Black garb?  Again, not so much.  Brooms I see in a fair supply, but mostly from middle ages onward with the witch hunting manuals and demonology books.  Stripey socks seem a good characteristic as well.  Again, not sure how, but stripey socks are cool.
The problem with an accurate witch costume is that it is dependent upon time period, location, belief system and ultimately explanation.  That's right, you'd end up having to explain yourself to everyone.  That's no fun.
Halloween costumes should be funny or scary.  Yes, many people like slutty costumes, but the idea is to scare away or blend in with the spirits, not get them all hot and bothered.  Of course some people in their slutty costumes would scare a ghost to death, so maybe that's fair.  While the Wicked Witch of the West up there may be "insulting" to Wiccans, I would ask that we not make a sodding political issue out of every single thing we see and just enjoy the spooky.  Funny or scary, spooky or ooky, that's what Halloween is all about today.

See, go to a Halloween party as any of these witches and you will spend the whole night explaining yourself.  And what about the Puritan "witches" in Salem?  Or other early American witches for that matter?
Me?  I am Sarah Good, unjustly accused and executed during the witch trials in Salem.  Hey, where are you going?  Okay, no I'll just wait here.  Damn, lost another one.
See, again you are going to be called Pilgrim at best and "that weird girl over by the punch bowl" at worst.  Trust me, I know.  One Halloween I decided to make a fairly accurate, but cool, Highwayman Outfit.  Yeah, so I combined elements of two different costumes with a shirt my friend stitched up.  I had a waistcoat, puffy shirt, knee breeches, long socks, buckle shoes (I still have the socks and shoes), a cape, hat with feather, rapier, tied off mask to cover my forehead, eyes and nose (you know, a Dread Pirate Roberts affair), and black powder pistol.  What did people think I was?  Go on, you'll never guess.
Of course you will.  Pirate.  A sodding, bloody, pirate.  Hey, I love pirates, but I was being a highwayman.  Even my "stand and deliver" line did not help.  I kept having to explain it.  Not good.  I thought I was giving the visual shorthand cues, and maybe I was, but the audience was not clued into it.  The same thing is true with a witch costume.  The pointy hat and broom are visual cues that instantly tell us what the costume is.  Now with the Harry Potter crowd this could also mean Wizard and females in the Wizarding World are called Witches, so that's fair, but Harry Potter costumes are fairly easy to spot.  So when Halloween rolls around if you are looking for a witch costume, I'm afraid that playing to stereotypes is your best bet, lest your joy be drained away by small-minded folk who have already made their decisions based on less than a second spent looking at your hard work.
If I sound bitter it is probably because I really thought I was on to something with that highwayman thing.

Anyway, Witches and Halloween, a classic combination.  I love the movie Hocus Pocus and consider it a Halloween classic along with those Halloweentown films.  You know, maybe you can get away with a witch look without having to use the pointy hat.  Witches are the official "magical representative" of Halloween appearing in cartoons, poems, songs, movies and books.
Loony Tunes own Witch Hazel

Oh sure, the odd wizard may show up now and then, but I'm afraid the ladies really have the magic act cornered when it comes to Halloween time.  In this way the witch gets to be good and evil, scary and comforting, she gets to be our protection and the villain that causes all the trouble in the first place.
But then there are warlocks...

Eh, maybe next time.
Keep your pumpkins lit and your cauldrons boiling.  Oh yeah, I forgot about cauldrons...


  1. Ya know, the idea of creepy ole witches gets to me. When I do the haunt there is always a witch and demon in there somewhere. Enjoyed this post.

  2. Frau Punkinstein made herself up as a truly creepy Wicked Witch of the West type of witch one year when we volunteered at a charity haunted house. It was most effective. Thank you for reading.

  3. I dress every year as a witch and have a blast doing so. I'm 5'11" in bare feet so when I add my high heeled pointy shoes and my high pointed hat a become rather imposing. I seem to always get my own way when dressed as a witch...I wonder why. Great post!

  4. Thanks very much.
    5'11" before the shoes, eh? I imagine you do cut a rather imposing figure as a witch. Of course hat size is always a determining factor in these cases.

  5. Why does it not surprise me that Art Bliss dresses as a Witch every year? She and I were somehow separated at birth. I too dress as a witch every year. And at 5'9" in heels I can be pretty tall too...but she's got me beat. Maybe I just need a taller hat!

    Sure wish I could master that nose wiggling thing though! That's been a dream of mine forever! Mainly as a child watching Bewitched...I would have given anything to have been able to wiggle my nose and have my room cleaned up!

    Great post Herr Punkinstein!