Skip to main content

Of Witches, Women and Halloween

Witches, ghosts, goblins and all manner of scary and evil spirits have been a part of the Halloween tradition.  

Stephanie RichmondThe practice of Halloween, Dr. Stephanie Richmond, associate professor of history, explained comes from Northern European tradition around the autumnal equinox. “The idea was that on that day, the barrier between the world and the afterlife is thin and therefore spirits, both good and bad, could pass through on that night,” she said. “One of the ways to ward off evil spirits,” said Richmond, “was to dress up like them or like scary things, including witches, so that you would blend in and be able to hide from actual evil things.” To blend in, she explained, you would play tricks and would give spirits a gift or a treat to encourage them to leave your home and family alone. “In the 20th century,” said Richmond, “these traditions became trick or treating.”

Today, witches are highly associated with Halloween. Richmond whose research interests center on women and religion, explains why. “Our modern idea of a witch comes directly from fears over witchcraft in the late medieval period and from the inquisition,” she said. “Medieval and early modern people were very worried about the influence of the devil on the world around them, and religious tensions were high in Europe and eventually among Europeans in the Americas as well.”

That led, Richmond said, to accusations of witches and witchcraft among neighbors. Although men were accused and killed during the inquisition, women were more often accused of being witches. “Women were culturally less able to protect themselves against slander or rumor and also were more threatening to the social order if they did not fit within the traditional roles of women in European society,” said Richmond. The term, “witch,” Richmond observes has been used to harm women for centuries.

“It is important to remember that in most of history, women accused of witchcraft were almost always vulnerable women such as widows or the mentally ill whose position on the edge of society made them easy targets for the fears of the community,” she said. “Few of these women saw themselves as witches and only confessed under torture.”

In America between 1692 and 1693, hysteria over witches became heightened in Salem, Massachusetts. During that period, reports that more than 200 people were accused and 20 were executed. An enslaved woman, Tituba, who was half black and half Native American, was the first woman accused in Salem. Another black woman, Marie Laveau, was considered the voodoo queen of New Orleans.  Richmond notes that for black women who were accused of being witches most likely practiced what is considered ritual magic as part of creolized or indigenous religious practices.

Women Witches and Halloween

Additional Halloween Experts

Christy Frederick, M.F.A., Assistant Professor, Fashion Design
Expertise: Desire, Mystique and Horror: 90 Years of Redesigning Dracula

Sam Hughes, M.F.A., Director, James Wise Gallery
Assistant Professor Photography/Graphic Design
Expertise: Macabre Through the Lens

Bryan Tillman, M.F.A., Assistant Professor, Graphic Design
Expertise: Masks and Hidden Identities in Character Development

Marcia Neblett, Assistant Professor
Expertise: Portraits, Masks and Myths