Last October, my neighbor stretched synthetic cobwebs among the branches of her tree. Against this creepy backdrop, she hung a broomstick and a badly-made female figure, clearly a witch. The sight made me wince.
How did we evolve to find this display lightly amusing? Our forebears did hang women from trees. I imagine the devastation a time-traveler might feel as she realizes people crudely pantomime the appalling circumstances of her death each Halloween.
I may take this more personally than some. Townspeople accused my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons of witchcraft in Massachusetts, three decades before the Salem hysteria. The court acquitted her, but neighbors pointed the finger at her again, 18 years later. I imagine she never relaxed in the interim. When the woman in the next cottage averts her eyes because she believes you know the Devil, you can’t exactly run over to borrow a cup of sugar.
Surprisingly, the courts freed her a second time. Our stereotype of witchcraft times presumes that once someone is accused, they are sure to hang (or burn, if in continental Europe. England and New England were the only places that did not burn their witches.) But magistrates acted fairly reasonably, releasing more than a quarter of the accused in 17th century New England, according to author John Putnam Demos. Due to luck or power, my ancestor walked past the tree that might have hanged her.
Scholars argue about how many executions occurred during Europe’s 400-year holocaust (consider that the United States has not been a country for that long.) In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown caused great controversy when he put the number at five million, describing it as a relentless effort by the Roman Catholic Church to subjugate women. Far fewer died, but this at a time when miniscule Europe was repopulating from cyclical scourges of the Black Death. We do know that two German towns slaughtered their women until only one per town remained.
How much time must elapse before these tortures ripen enough to be entertaining? Several summers ago at a carnival, I watched kids gleefully glide down an inflatable slide in the shape of the Titanic…isn’t that funny, kids? Ooh, they struggled to swim in water so cold it produced icebergs! In his novel The Last Witchfinder, James Morrow mocks Salem, Massachusetts’ annual Haunted Happenings. This month-long “festival” capitalizes on the famous witch trials where 19 people hanged, one suffocated by rocks piled on his chest, and five perished in prison. Currently, the Haunting Happenings website promises “a month of fun for the entire family.” To that end, will we someday see the Auschwitz Adventure or the Hiroshima Mushroom Cloud Ride?
Today parts of Africa still persecute witches, with attempted lynchings in Congo as recently as April 2008. Last month, police fired shots into the air at a soccer game in eastern Congo, attempting to break up a melee of rioters who believed one of the players was a witch: 15 fans died from trampling. The latest “trend” is penis theft, where witches either steal outright, or render smaller, a male’s member. Déjà vu. The Malleus Maleficarum, the famous witch-hunting bible from 1400s Germany, spends an inordinate amount of print on this issue, concluding that the best remedy is to ask the witch to restore the phallus. And then, of course, burn her.
In the western world, we battle to imagine thinking someone could work evil spells or creep out at night to meet Satan. Harder still to imagine testifying about that spell-casting, knowing the result could be death. Instead of a stuffed, painted pillowcase, my neighbor down the block could’ve wanted me in her tree swinging.
So while spirits run high at Halloween—actually one of my favorite holidays—please consider those who were not of green tint, with wart-ridden noses, cackling maniacally while riding a broomstick straight into a tree (another “funny” decoration where the witch breaks her skull in an accident that would not be survivable if real) …but who suffered incredibly for the same word: witch.
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Erika Mailman lives in Gilroy, California, and is the author of The Witch’s Trinity, a novel containing a detailed Afterword about Mary Bliss Parsons. www.erikamailman.com.
Causes Erika Mailman Supports
Amnesty International, Oakland Heritage Alliance