Harbingers of Halloween

Perhaps no other icon is associated with the coming of the Halloween season more than the image of the cackling witch. Whether stirring a bubbling cauldron or jutting across the sky on a broom, the witch has become a mainstay of the spooky holiday, appearing as a Halloween ambassador in everything from decorations and commercials to seasonal and horror movies.

How this came to be involves numerous theories, some of which are actually fairly innocent. The most logical explanation for the witch’s association with Halloween involves the simple practice of witches gathering in the fall to celebrate the coming of the harvest and the changing of the season.

But if the witch’s association with All Hallows Eve is much more mundane than you might guess, even more surprising are the reasons for the creation of witches flying on brooms and brewing up potions in the ever present cauldron.

The cauldron is likely associated with witches for no other apparent reason than centuries ago, some women cooked meals for huge groups of people in their villages and cities. Shakespeare himself is probably the biggest reason that people came to put the imagery together, when he wrote the famous “Double double, toil and trouble” sequence of the three witches in Macbeth. With such eye raising ideas presented as a witch toiling over a burning pot adding ingredients “eye of newt and toe of frog”, is it any wonder that people became so fascinated?

The witch and broom has an even more innocuous origin, according to historical speculation. Women who were sweeping the yard outside their houses and wearing long skirts often used the broomstick as a means to keep their skirts out of harm’s way while walking over puddles or running out of the rain. To a person passing by, it may have looked as if they were attempting to ride the innocent household items!

Legends and myths surrounding witches date back to the medieval era. Because of this, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where some of the iconic Halloween witch folklore originated. For instance, before the black cat came to be seen as a witch’s foreboding sidekick, many cultures actually considered them to be lucky. The black cat’s journey to becoming a mainstay of Halloween began with people believing that witches could turn into black cats, and thereby communicate with the dead.

But no matter where these legends started, one thing is for sure: they have gained immeasurably in popularity. Witches have been represented in Halloween inspired entertainment for decades.

Disney’s cartoon short “Trick or Treat” (1952) features a very popular rendition of the ugly hag-like sorceress of Samhain, complete with warts and pointy black hat. Donald Duck comes to regret crossing paths with this Witch Hazel, who also wields a magic broom and cauldrons of bubbling potion. In homage to Shakespeare, Hazel concocts her magic anti-duck brew by amusingly adding the ingredients “eye of needle” and “tongue of shoe”.

The most popular vision of the modern Halloween witch is almost certainly from the 1931 classic “The Wizard of Oz”. Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is memorable to millions of children and adults alike as the prototypical witch, with her pointed nose, high pitched cackle, green skin and crystal ball. She is so closely associated with the part that she rivals Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and Lugosi’s Dracula in terms of sheer recognition. She reprised the legendary role on television in the seventies via “Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special” and an episode of “Sesame Street”, of all things. Hamilton so relished her malevolent role in the legendary film that she reportedly dressed up like the witch to answer trick or treaters at her door on many Halloweens until her passing in 1985.

A more recent example also comes from Disney, via the very popular “Hocus Pocus” film from 1993, about three witches who are brought back to life into modern day Salem after 300 years of rest. The witches, ably and memorably played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, live up to virtually every stereotype of the Halloween enchantress. It’s become a perennial seasonal favorite for many.

As fun as those cultural icons are, there is a different kind of witch who appears in Halloween mythology; ones that people claim to be purely supernatural, ghostly apparitions and personifications of evil.

One such popular legend is the saga of the Bell Witch haunting. What’s significant about this tale is the notion that there appears to be forms of proof substantiating the story by way of eyewitness accounts and sworn statements and testimony. That has led to the Bell Witch haunting often being referred to as “America’s Greatest Ghost Story”, and one that is repeated during the Halloween season year after year.

The legend goes that in Tennessee circa the early 1800’s, John Bell shot at a bizarre looking animal out in the corn fields next to his family’s large house. Bell described the creature as a hybrid of dog and rabbit; the scared animal ran off. That night, the family heard a beating sound on the outside of the house, but Bell and his sons were unable to catch the culprit in the act. That was only the beginning. As the nights went by, the noises on the log cabin walls continued, and the Bell children were terrorized by an unseen hand, tearing off their blankets, throwing their pillows and banging on the bedposts.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Bell Witch haunting is the apparently specific terrorizing of Bell’s youngest daughter Betsy, who was the victim of having her hair pulled and being slapped repeatedly, sometimes hard enough to leave marks on her face. She would lie in bed and hear an old woman singing barely audible songs. The witch ghost’s malevolence increased after young Betsy became engaged, and she reportedly instructed Betsy not to marry her suitor. The entity continued to torment Betsy so much that she eventually broke off the marriage, but the haunting of John Bell continued.

One account appeared in a book written in the 1860’s called “The History of Tennessee” and recounted the tale of the Bell Witch, saying that the invisible sorceress could even shake hands with visitors to the Bell house. Yet another chronicle, “The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch”, claims that the ghostly hag was known as Kate Baggs when she was alive, and that Andrew Jackson himself was so intrigued by the Bell story that he visited the house, only to be scared off. Whatever her origins and to what extent the story is true isn’t certain, but the influence of the Bell Witch on modern paranormal research, horror culture and Halloween itself refuses to go away.

Regardless, in any incarnation, be it cackling green hag, kindhearted lovely enchantress or even sinister unseen apparition, the iconic Halloween witch appears to be here to stay. Every year, untold numbers of children dress up in witches’ garb to parade the streets with their little brooms in search of sugary Halloween treasure, their pointy hat silhouettes and long black robes and dresses hinting at the artistry spawned by centuries of ever evolving – and bewitching – Halloween imagery.