Horror & Dark Fantasy



The H Word: W Is for Witch

Growing up, I never remember fearing witches. Instead, I feared the men who burned them. As a strange, bullied child who always took magic for granted, I tacitly assumed if witch-hunts ever started again, I wouldn’t be safe. Somebody would quickly recognize me as “wrong” and tie me to the nearest pyre.

Witch hunts were the stuff real nightmares were made of. Men would yank you from your bed in the night and lock you up in a dark cell. Your chance of a fair trial was non-existent. And they did this ostensibly for the good of your neighbors and your family, to protect them from you. They did it for your own good too. Repent prior to your execution, even as the flames seared your flesh, and your soul would be redeemed, they said. They would murder you to “save” you.

I comforted myself it was better to know of this risk. Fairy tales taught us that anything can be defeated, right? If a wolf was at the door, I would recognize it for what it was, and I could do my best to lock it out.

So the question swirled in my mind: who were these inquisitors? How could I spot them in a crowd and be on my guard against them? (As if, in my child’s logic, identifying them would be enough to protect me.) The witch-hunt illustrations from the Middle Ages revealed very little. The inquisitors looked so ordinary, just like average men. This didn’t help. After all, men were everywhere, and they couldn’t all be inquisitors lying in wait.

Could they?

• • • •

At its most basic, witchcraft is about power. It’s about finding strength, even when society has denied you everything. As such, magic has historically been a refuge for women. During the European witch-hunts, which claimed somewhere between 30,000 to 100,000 lives, men were victims too, but the majority of those executed were female. Witch-hunts were, above all else, a matter of misogyny. Women who became too strong, who ventured too far outside the parameters of what was “good and normal,” had to be stopped by any means necessary.

Because of its inherent dread, horror has long plumbed the depths of witchcraft. But the genre hasn’t always done a great job with its depictions. All the way back to Shakespeare, the Weird Sisters are blamed for leading Macbeth into his murderous rampage, as though he were such an innocent from the get-go. In cinema, Witchfinder General is often considered a classic, but it’s told almost exclusively through the male gaze, with the only major female character relegated mostly to the background of what should have been her story. And sorry, Christopher Lee, but human sacrifices in wicker effigies almost certainly never happened. This was a fabrication Julius Caesar repeated based on a second-hand account. Yes, it was the old friend-of-a-friend urban legend that firmly established that lie in the popular mindset.

In more modern cinema, 2015’s The Witch serves up a biting critique of religious hysteria, but also presents the eponymous character in an entirely standard fashion. That is, a godless woman left alone in the woods could only end up a lascivious monster. And while I love Black Phillip as much as the next horror fan, Thomasin’s signing of his book at the end is typical Inquisition propaganda: that all feminine strength was satanic in origin, and not even inherently feminine at that. Because a woman can’t have power on her own; she must borrow it from a man.

Of the film’s inaccuracies, however, it’s an early scene that sticks with me most. After the witch kidnaps the family’s baby, she takes him back to her hut where she strips his fat and makes a flying ointment. This boldly perpetuates a lie the Inquisition used to condemn innocent women. Some witches did make flying ointment or similar-looking salves—out of, among other ingredients, lanolin. Even if you weren’t practicing magic, this gelatinous cream might have been on hand in your house. Because of its strange consistency and its ubiquity, the inquisitors could use this as go-to evidence of infanticide. No matter that no babies were missing; they had their “proof” and that was good enough.

It might seem easy to dismiss these erroneous images in horror films as all in good fun, but there’s a danger in such logic. Denying women’s experiences has been second-nature to us since the dawn of civilization. In using the baby fat myth, the real-life implication is clear: a woman can tell the truth—that it’s only lanolin—but they’ll call her a baby killer and burn her anyhow, all while repeating their false accusation until it’s accepted as the only reality. The lies of witch hunters make more sense to us than the truths of women.

And these falsehoods gain power the more they’re repeated. As a rule, we elevate stories that replicate familiar narratives, in part because they make us feel safer. We know these tales. The world is a chaotic and uncertain place, but at least we have predictable stories to guide our way.

But there’s no safety in lies. Continuing to reproduce these myths—without commentary, without adding anything new to unravel the fallacies that created them—borders on reckless. It maintains a status quo, even as it might pretend to challenge it. And now, in an increasingly dangerous world, we can’t risk being even a small part of the problem.

• • • •

This past year, I finally got the answer to that question from my childhood. Our modern-day inquisitors have been revealed, with their hate-filled tweets and their endless barrage of cruel legislation against anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow definition of “what’s right.”

Like wolves, they’re at the door now.

But something else is happening too. In the midst of these uncertain times, as grassroots activism is flourishing, people are returning to witchcraft. As if it’s comfort food, they’re seeking it out as a refuge. A month after his inauguration, thousands of witches across the country made news when they united to perform a binding spell on Donald Trump (one of the components: an orange candle). What made fewer headlines is that many witches continued to perform this spell every month as part of a growing faction who sees political activism and witchcraft as not being so far apart. And why not combine the two? After all, during a protest, is chanting together not a form of magic spell, of hoping to change the world with the power of words?

It’s not too late to reclaim our lost narratives. We no longer have to accept the lies that have stripped us of our power, stories perpetuated once by the likes of Caesar and the Inquisition, now perpetuated in different though equally damaging permutations by a presidential administration that never should have existed in the first place.

Even today, when witch-hunts are considered ancient history, there are those who continue to openly malign witchcraft. In some countries, practicing magic remains illegal, and women are still stoned to death for showing the vaguest inclination toward anything occult.

There are also those who malign it not due to moral panic, but for intellectual reasons. Witchcraft is foolish, they say. It’s pseudo-science, it’s New Age malarkey. But whether or not the magic objectively works is almost beside the point. Witchcraft is for the lost, the forsaken, the Other. It’s about synergy even in the darkest times. It’s women—and men too—coming together and refusing to accept a society that won’t acknowledge everyone as equals belonging to this same planet. Witchcraft is resistance, plain and simple.

And there’s nothing more powerful than that.

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Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing; And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; and the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. Find her online at gwendolynkiste.com.