A friend once told me about a girl who wore a solid yellow unitard and pointy hat on Halloween, claiming to be a “naughty crayon.” I’ve since adopted a healthy cynicism toward modern Halloween costumes. But there’s one popular costume that seems to persist from year to year and is far scarier than any sex-worker + inanimate object combo: the witch costume.
Men and women, children and adults alike seem to have a particular propensity for dressing up as the ugliest witches they can imagine – old, discoloured, hunchbacked creatures of the night. Irony and jest aside, the message seems to be clear: witches are evil, powerful, and potentially water-soluble. I think we need to seriously reconsider how we create and respond to these stereotypes, even if they’re not intended to be taken seriously.
This week, five Muslim women, including three widows, were stripped and tortured in the Deoghar district of Jharkhand, India. According to local news channels, they were lucky to come out alive. Their crime? They were accused of practicing witchcraft.
In Tanzania, the belief that tragedies and social ills are caused by witchcraft has grown widespread of late, leading to surprise attacks on hundreds of elderly women. In Nigeria, roughly 15,000 children have been tortured or murdered in the last decade for the same reasons.
While we might not consider witches to be a serious threat here in North America, accusations of witchcraft are unfortunately not a thing of the past. Across the world, in situations of disease, poverty, or oppression, ordinary women and children continue to be scapegoated into this role and tortured until they admit relations with the devil. Given that there are still people today submitted to this terrifying reality, it’s more than insensitive to make light of it in Halloween stereotypes.
Witch hunts also shouldn’t be seen as in any way alien to the West. Accusations of witchcraft constituted a prevalent and serious form of female oppression in 16th- and 17th-century Europe that has only recently been recognized in history books. Contrary to popular belief, the witch hunts of the Middle Ages were not about paranoid minorities accusing people who actually subscribed to heterodox religious beliefs. Instead, women who owned land and those who actively confessed Christian faith were targeted. Their property seized, these women were tortured, murdered, and subsequently forgotten.
Halloween costumes may be in good fun, but they have a very real impact on the formation of children’s worldviews and what we deem acceptable as a form of entertainment. Perhaps Mary Malone, a feminist Christian historian, puts it best: “Although the actual experience of being burnt at the stake is unimaginable for us, the issues of denying women’s ideas, experience, and very personhood are still shockingly familiar.” Not only does propagating this stereotype reflect a serious ignorance of our own past, it is cruelly indifferent to the suffering of people who continue to be oppressed across the world today. We don’t like when people dress up as Stalin for Halloween: we’d think it seriously offensive to dress up as victims of female genital mutilation: we shouldn’t dress up as witches.
Riva Gold is one of The Daily’s weekly columnists. Send her your hexes at firstname.lastname@example.org.