Some of the most famous Halloween movies feature witches and witchcraft. From Hocus Pocus to The Blair Witch Project, witches have remained a pop-culture craze for many years. Where did the popularity come from?
Literature has long been the cause of the fear surrounding witches. This perhaps began in 1487 with the publication of Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches. Author Heinrich Kramer encouraged the prosecution of witches and brought about the idea that it was mostly women who practiced witchcraft. This book spread rapidly after the invention of the printing press and was largely cited during the Salem witch trials1. This fear of witches lasted for centuries. It wasn’t until 1727 that Janet Horne became the last woman executed for witchcraft.
Even after the Salem witch trials ended in 1693, witches continued to be portrayed as old, monstrous women. The brothers Grimm wrote the story of Hansel and Gretel in 1821, included in Grimms’ Fairy Tales. In this tale, the witch is not just unappealing– she is a cannibal.
The immense fear of witchcraft had certainly died down before the 1900s. The persecutions of supposed witches was considered a “dark time2” in history. This is displayed in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1951) where the killing of witches is a metaphor for mass hysteria.
In is only recently that literature has begun portraying the female witch in a positive light. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series highlights the strength and morals of Hermione Granger along with other witches. Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel Wicked takes the Wicked Witch of the West (Elphaba Thropp) and transforms her into an empathetic, justice-seeking individual. The musical based on the novel works toward the same goal: making “evil witches” more human.
Today, it is rare to see an inhuman witch in literature. Authors condemned witches, and now, they are working to rebuild them as strong, independent women.