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Halloween isn't so thoughtless for me anymore

This time of year, I find myself getting excited. Something about the sudden chill in the air (or this year, the sudden deluge in the air!) gets me nostalgic for apple cider, pumpkin lattes, and Halloween costumes. I always enjoyed the dark trappings of the holiday.  

But something happened a few years ago to dampen my embrace of all-things-Halloween. I learned that in 1656, my 11-greats grandmother Mary Bliss Parsons was accused of witchcraft. Her neighbors blamed her for their small Massachusetts town's typical bad luck: livestock dying, sickly newborns, painful falls in the forest. They also fingered her for some bizarre things, like being able to walk into the river and come out dry.

Mary was able to get enough witnesses on her side to be acquitted. The court ordered her accuser to pay a fine and publicly apologize. But her village's size meant that she was not able to "fade into the woodwork" and resume a normal life; there were only 32 houses in Northampton, Mass. at the time.

And sure enough, 18 years later, neighbors accused her again. This time the charge was more grave: magical murder of a young woman.

Mary spent months in prison awaiting trial (this at a time when prisons had dirt floors and no planned food - family members had to bring food or pay the jailers so the prisoner wouldn't starve). She was transported to Boston for a more serious trial, with the governor in attendance. Incredibly, she won her freedom again.

Her story ended "happily" (as much as is possible when one's neighbors believe the court freed a devil worshipper in error)... many weren't so lucky. New England mostly hanged its witches, while those in continental Europe burned at the stake. It is difficult to imagine a more painful, terrifying death.

Sadly, witchcraft persecutions continue today. Dungeons in Europe gather dust, but in other parts of the world, people still face torture and even death for the mistaken belief in witchcraft. In just the last two years, I've blogged about disturbing events in modern-day India, Papua New Guinea, and the African countries of Gambia, Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Congo and Congo Republic. And those are just the news stories I picked up without heavy research.

Take a look at a few of the ridiculous accusations.

Soccer fans in eastern Congo became convinced a player was a witch; the resulting panic left 15 people, many of them teens, trampled to death in September 2008.

A mob in Congo attempted to lynch male "witches" who had stolen their penis (I'm not joking) in April 2007. Those victims fared better than five accused of the same thing in Benin six years earlier: four of them were doused with gas and set on fire; the fifth was hacked to death.

In January of this year, a young woman in Papua New Guinea was set on fire for spreading AIDS through witchcraft.

In March of this year, Tanzanian women were killed for causing a child's death of diarrhea. This accusation rang old bells for me: my ancestor was accused of the very same thing in her first trial.

We're used to the idea of the old, female crone as witch; modern-day accusations are just as often leveled at children. In a single Angolan town, over 400 children were pushed from their homes to live on the streets because their families felt they were witches. A shelter has been set up to house these witches, children as young as four years old.

The accusations arose out of desperation, as war-torn families found themselves with limited food supplies. If one person is pushed out of the house, there is more food for those doing the accusing.

You can see why a holiday that makes light fun of a woman on her broomstick doesn't have the same thoughtless appeal it once did. But that doesn't mean I won't happily hand out candy to your kids as they ring my doorbell. I can remember my ancestor and those like her at the same time that I'm grateful that the U.S. is a relatively safe place to live.

Erika Mailman blogs about witchcraft issues at www.erikamailman.blogspot.com. This column appeared in slightly different format in the Gilroy Dispatch. She's the author of the novel The Witch's Trinity. 

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This was a truly interesting read. Here, in San Antonio, Halloween is celebrated like Christmas, lights on homes and parades downtown. But in Mexico Dias de los Muertos is on November 01st & 02nd, and it embodies a completely different, far more respectful and lovely interpretation of the time; it's about honoring the dead.

I have really enjoyed this shift. Growing up in the Midwest, I saw more of the rather demonized view of Halloween. Of course, Trick or Treat night goes down the same way in most American neighborhoods. But, after reading your blog, Halloween itself seems far more complex in my mind. (That said, I'm thirty years old and I'll be dressing up this year.)

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Thanks for responding, Jen.

Thanks for responding, Jen. Halloween is actually one of my favorite holidays, even given what I know... I think it's healthy to remember death and celebrate our still-living status. That's why Dias de los Muertos is so compelling to me.


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Hello Erika

A very, very warm welcome to you to Red Room!

Thanks for such a fascinating post. What an amazing retelling about Mary Bliss Parsons. Astounding that she managed to survive twice.

It is heartbreaking to read more accounts of how ignorance, superstition and fear still prevail today. Over two decades, I have spent a lot of time researching as many belief and non-belief systems, religious and philosophical, around the world. This search for knowledge has brought me into contact with many wonderful people. In relevance to your post, a few I have spoken to were very brave to speak to me as they were witches who privately practiced their much misunderstood Pagan beliefs in third world countries where witches are still hunted and killed by 'witch hunters' and mobs.

With this in mind, I'm even more amazed and grateful that your ancestor survived such accusations.

I look forward to your future blogs and welcome you again to Red Room.

All the best to you.

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Thanks Ryoma

Thanks so much for your response, and your work sounds very fascinating! It is indeed a scary world for people who choose to practice "misunderstood" rituals, as you put it, that could easily be construed as witchcraft. And a good thing in safe countries, that neo-pagans can actually use the term "witch" without fear of reprisal.

Thanks again!

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Hi Erika, the information you must have unearthed for your novel must have been fascinating.

My own research was/is just a personal quest for knowledge which I see as philosophical. This point of view is usually outside the the belief systems of groups/individuals that I have spoken to. Surprisingly, I have been welcome with open arms in what many people would view as 'closed' groups but rejected violently by religionists from the wider practiced belief systems. From the latter reactions, it is a little easier for me to see how suspicion, dogmatic belief, fear of the unfamiliar, personal agendas and paranoia can lead to the murder and displacement of innocent people (as you've described in your post).

How hard was it for you to research the Witch trials for your novel? It must have been a challenge to research Medieval times.

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It's fascination to read your blog. I really enjoy Halloween and we celebrate it in both France and Denmark as well, but not in the Congo. Halloween like Christmas is about being together and having fun. It's about learning about some evil fiction characters we find in many religious books and wear their masks to scare others. Halloween is joy,peace,fun and love.

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Thanks again, Ryoma, and

Thanks again, Ryoma, and hello, Balthazar.

Balthazar,you sound like you know France, Denmark and the Congo well...have you seen evidence of witchcraft persecution in the Congo? Would be very interested to hear more. I appreciate your comment!

Ryoma, you ask a great question. While there's a lot of material on the medieval period, I had a hard time finding information specifically on Germany. Of course, after publication, I was able to get my hands on some great sources (sigh)! Isn't that always the way? Your point about your being welcomed by smaller, closed groups is very interesting!

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Hi Erika,  It sounds like a

Hi Erika,

 It sounds like a new idea and I will publish a blog about witchcraft persecution in the Congo this week :-) Thanks for the idea. 


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"Of course, after publication, I was able to get my hands on some great sources (sigh)! Isn't that always the way?"

Perhaps for another novel?

"Your point about your being welcomed by smaller, closed groups is very interesting!"

Yes, I also find it amusing to be able to be able to make the claim of being damned in what must be record time for someone who has just met me. I was told I would burn in hell for eternity within seconds of meeting someone for the first time. The young (very enthusiastic) 'damner' was practically licking his lips and rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of me roasting away in his belief's less desirable areas of real estate. Just the kind of guy who would have been very comfortable at the witch trials. Hmmm.

Your other title looks fascinating too, by the way, about a lady of ill repute during the Gold Rush. 

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Let me know when it's up and I'll link to it from my witchcraft blog (www.erikamailman.blogspot.com).


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I will

I promise you, Erika that it will be published and I will do the best I can to make it interesting.

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Halloween isn't. . .

Hi Erika (love your last name by the way)!

I'm new to the Red Room too and I wanted to add my compliments.

I also noticed you are a fan of YA (as am I) and this reminded me of the Sunfire series - here is the wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunfire_%28series%29

The third book is Elizabeth by Willo Davis Roberts about the Salem Witch Trials. It's out of print but it can be found. I really enjoyed this series and this book.

I'm an expat in Thailand so I hope I can find your book. You never know. Congratulations by the way.

Looking forward to future posts.

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Hi Lani

Thanks for the steer towards the Elizabeth book! I know the Witch of Blackbird Pond was probably instrumental in my witchcraft interest early on.

And thanks for the comment on my last name. I caught tons of jokes for it all my life, but when push came to shove, I kept my maiden name when I got married! You can't turn your back on a name like that. :)