THE WITCH is a horror sensation and I’d love to talk about the film’s fascinating intersection of fact & folklore, and the Salem witch trails that eventually proceeded in the decades following the time period in which the film takes place. AMA!

I'm a New York Times bestselling novelist, historian, and expert on early American witchcraft and folklore. This year I'm a visiting scholar at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where I'm writing a new novel with a Southern magic element. I'm the editor of "The Penguin Book of Witches" from Penguin Classics, and hosted the Expedition Week special "Salem: Unmasking the Devil" for the National Geographic channel.

EDIT: Thanks everyone so much for stopping by to talk about THE WITCH with me today! I had a great time. I really enjoyed the film, and if you haven't seen it, go check it out. IF you want to read up on true-life witchcraft like we discussed today, check out THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES at your favorite local independent bookstore, or here:

Thanks again, and I hope y'all know what you'll be for Halloween this year! Best, Katherine Howe

Comments: 84 • Responses: 26  • Date: 

fapnea698 karma

How would you say the baby killing scene lines up with witchcraft practices or beliefs? Based in fact or pure fiction?

KatherineHowe10 karma

The short answers is - fiction. Baby killing for the purposes of witchcraft did not (as far as we know) ever occur. The long answer is - what happens in the film is a pretty compelling representation of what early modern Europeans thought witches might do. If you look at early modern witch trials, very often there's weirdness around the relationship between accused witches and children. Accused witches were typically women at middle age, and so they would be at the peak of their social power, and the role of mother was a vital one in a culture dependent on family labor in the home for survival. In fact, the family in THE WITCH would, on average, have had many more than five children, or would have lost several in infancy. But sometimes women who were accused as witches were suspicious because of their unnatural interest in other people's children, or because they were childless themselves. One really heartbreaking example from the years between the setting of THE WITCH and the Salem trials 60 years later is the case of Eunice Cole, an isolated woman who tries to "entice" an orphan named Ann into coming to live with her. When Ann refuses, Eunice hits her over the head with a rock in the middle of a cabbage field. So you see - weirdness with children is a common theme.

music4airports7 karma

What should we do if we suspect one of my neighbors of being a witch (occult/Black arts)? She talks to her cat in a language that's not English and more than once when I was coming back from Costco she said something over the milk and after a few days the milk went bad. Is there anything good Christian people could do that's lawful to address that this neighbor can be a witch?

KatherineHowe10 karma

Well, the devil does go about like a roaring lion, seeking what he may devour. But in this instance, given that we are fortunate enough to live in a post-consumer revolution age of abundance, I propose smiling beatifically and buying more milk.

Godzig4 karma

Salem, Stanford or the South — who's got the best witches?

KatherineHowe5 karma

Duh! Salem witches FTW! (Though the South has some kickass witches too.)

Genericusername6731 karma

Where do the UK witches rank? Pendle witches were in my neck of the woods.

KatherineHowe6 karma

Pendle witches are also quite kickass. Though strictly speaking, Salem witches are... UK witches. Yes?

moviefan13134 karma

How well did THE WITCH depict the time frame?

KatherineHowe11 karma

In general, I think that the film took the time frame very seriously. The farm would have been much, much larger, the garden much bigger, and the family most certainly would have had a pig or two before they had goats (though the goats certainly have a narrative role to play). The material culture is pretty close, though. The early modern period was a time of great scarcity, before the consumer revolution of the 1700s made middle class people much more comfortable. The idea that there might be one particular special cup of great value - that's very period accurate. For most families living in colonial New England their most valuable possessions would have been their linens and bedclothes. The layout of the way the family sleeps was accurate. I would think the barns would have been bigger and better built - building crafts and furniture making was not the primitive stuff you might expect, and if you're curious to see examples of American furniture from the 1600s, there are many fine examples at the Met museum in NYC, at the MFAB in Boston, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. But overall yes, the film took the material culture of that period very seriously.

fantasyexpert0013 karma

Where did the notion of witches flying come about? Just from the fact that these women possessed supernatural powers and could achieve a feat such as that or something else?

KatherineHowe7 karma

Witches flying shows up in several medieval woodcuts for one thing, and seems to have been a widespread belief, though the origin for that belief remains unclear. Many witch hunting manuals from the 1400s 1500s and 1600s mention witches being able to fly, either by changing themselves into spirits, or by riding upon sticks. In fact, in Tituba Indian's examination at Salem, when asked how she gets to the meetings, she answers "we rid upon the stickes and are there presently."

folkloremaniac3 karma

How often/likely was it for people to sell off their children for goods like in The Witch?

KatherineHowe4 karma

Good question, folkloremaniac, and the answer, rather chillingly, is that it was quite common indeed. At Salem, we've all heard of Abigail Williams, who was dramatized in The Crucible. Well, the real Abigail Williams was only about 11 years old, and had been bound out to service in Samuel Parris's household. Oftentimes families who could not care for all of their children would bound them out in this way. In fact sometimes young women are hard to track in the historical record because of this practice - they move around too much, their names are too similar, and their names are imperfectly noted. There's a real ablation of women's experience in the past.

ImAfraidOfHeights3 karma

What do you think was one of the weirdest ways people used to do a " test " to see if someone was a witch or not?

KatherineHowe9 karma

Oh, so many weird ways, it's hard to know where to start. Sometimes they might do a "touch test," i.e. have the bewitched person close her eyes, and then bring in a few suspects and see if their touch proved malignant on the sufferer - a case of confirmation bias if ever there was one. Another infamous test was that oftentimes a woman on trial would have her body searched for a "witches teat." They believed that witches were attended by spirit familiars - like the hare in THE WITCH - and those familiars had to be cared for and suckled like babies. The teat could be anywhere - between the fingers, on the ribs. Most notoriously, the description of Rebecca Nurse's examination at Salem indicates they find what can only be her clitoris. Damning evidence for a woman indeed. Less common, though more famous courtesy of Monty Python, was the ducking stool. Though I know of at least two instances in which a ducking stool was used - one in Connecticut and one in Virginia. In Virginia, though, they got the idea out of a book and then had no idea how to interpret the results.

fapnea693 karma

Are YOU a witch?

KatherineHowe9 karma

I'm a novelist and historian. Same dif.

UncannyX-Man3 karma

Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

KatherineHowe3 karma

Depends. What are the terms?

UncannyX-Man2 karma

Historically, what did people consider as "living deliciously," as in, what did people think the witches typically got in return for selling their soul?

KatherineHowe9 karma

Actually, when the devil offers Thomasin butter, that is one temptation named by several confessed witches. It gives you a sense of how much we have and take for granted today that was a rich luxury only a few hundred years ago. Also "fine cloaths," "freedom from work," and in her (likely forced) confession, Tituba Indian, the first accused witch at Salem, who was a slave from Barbados, was offered that she could go home. Some of the temptations named by confessed witches are surprisingly poignant for how small, and yet impossible, they are.

Living in the past, guys. It was a hard row to hoe.

Nos-Punk3 karma

Hi! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. I only have a few.

1) Oftentimes depictions of witchcraft intersect with issues of feminism and the persecution of women. What fascinated me about THE WITCH is that while its depiction of witches is every bit as sinister and Satanic as the Puritans believed them to be, the narrative seemed to convey a feminist message overall and condemned the paranoid accusations that they made against their own. What is your opinion on this curious reconciliation between a negative depiction of a quintessential female archetype and a positive feminist message? Is this in fact what is achieved by the film, in your opinion? Or do you feel that it accomplishes something else?

2) The film's dedication to period accuracy is definitely worth praising, however I was also reminded of other works of literature that deal with similar themes. For instance, the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne was in the back of my mind, particularly "Young Goodman Brown" and the one everyone knows, with the big A. As an author yourself writing on such themes, do you draw on similar influences for your own work? Or are your sources of influence primarily historical?

3) In parts of Europe, things we identify as unique folkloric creatures or "classic monsters" were not so cleanly divided. A person accused of witchcraft may also be called a werewolf, for instance. That person may even be suspected of being a vampire after their death (by execution or otherwise). Do you have any particular theories about why such elements were not so popular when the witch phenomenon reached early America?

4) The Salem Witch Trials are a well known staple of popular culture, and many depictions of witches will refer to those events. However, the New England vampire panic of the late 18th and 19th century is not nearly as well known. With vampires rivaling witches in popular media, why do you think this aspect of American history has never been exploited?

Bonus Question) Where did the pointy hat thing come from? I love it when witches have a big black pointy hat.

KatherineHowe6 karma

Such great questions, Nos-Punk. Thank you! Let's see how many I can address for you.

I like that you identify this tension between women-as-power-threat and women-as-paranoia-object. In a funny way, you're also speaking to a tension in how people thought about witchcraft during the 1600s. On the one hand, you had high ranking men (always men, of course) - like theologians, ministers, kings - writing long treatises on what witches were, how they operated, and what they were liable to be able to do. (To a feminist reader, some of the male anxieties about what witches were capable of are nothing short of hilarious.) The purpose of the witch figure from the high culture standpoint then was partly social, and partly political. But belief in witchcraft circulated widely among the common folk as well, obviously, and in that case anxiety about witchcraft as often as not had to do with interpersonal relationships, fear, lack of control, and scarcity. Without applying a strict value judgement here, I was interested to see that THE WITCH tried to grapple with these two sides of what witchcraft was - the threat from without, and the threat from within.

Certainly Hawthorne casts a long shadow over THE WITCH, in an intriguing way. A few years ago I wrote the introduction to the Signet Classics edition of THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, which is Hawthorne apologia for Salem to some degree; he even steals Sarah Good's actual gallows-curse "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, I will give you blood to drink" and puts in the mouth of a fictional wizard named Matthew Maule. For my own part, I spend a lot of time on actual primary sources. Historical fiction, even when beautifully researched (as Hawthorne is) is still a fictional lens on a given time that is forged by the time in which it was written.

For your last couple of questions, I think Salem looms particularly large in the American consciousness because it really happened. Nineteen people were really put to death by the state. In public. In front of all their friends and family. And their bodies were desecrated afterward. It really happened. And in a time and place which we have often been taught as schoolchildren to lionize. I think part of our cultural work is to figure out how such grave injustice could be carried out in flagrant violation of our shared ideals, and with the blessing of the rule of the law. In truth, the fact that Salem happened scares the pants off me.

I'm not so scared of vampires.

Nos-Punk2 karma

Thank you very much for your reply. Indeed, that such a thing could happen here in America is very frightening. In times such as these, where wars are fought against ideologies, where paranoia and fear of "the other" can be felt in every school, movie theater, and airport, and where the most hateful and violent of people are serious candidates for the most powerful office in the country, if not the world, the fear of what happened in Salem is all too relevant.

I still want to know about the pointy hats though, haha.

KatherineHowe6 karma

RIGHT, the pointy hats!

I have a theory about the pointy hats. If you take the component parts of the classical witch hat and break them down, you get two main elements - the cone, and the wide brim. The wide brim taken by itself looks a lot like a wimple (think of the hat worn by the Flying Nun in the 1960s TV show). This was common middle class women's headgear in the late medieval period. Then take the cone - that's a hennin, a medieval women's at that you see in tapestries and so forth, especially in France - think of a tall princess hat with a scarf dangling down the end. Essentially the witch hat today is just an abstracted representation of classic medieval middle class women's hats. It signifies woman, rather than witch.

theratpack63 karma

Hi Katherine, Is it safe to say not all witches worship Satan?

KatherineHowe8 karma

Completely safe to say, and a few ways to answer.

Answer #1: all women who were accused during the early modern period - like Thomasin - were Christian women. Every last one of them. They were Christian women who were at odds with their society in some serious way.

Answer #2 - Beginning in the 20th Century, a British folklorist named Gerald Gardner gathered together a body of knowledge about English and Scottish folk magic practices and beliefs, and codified them as a religion. This is what we now know as Wicca. Contemporary Wiccans refer to themselves as witches, feel strong kinship and solidarity with people tried as witches in the past, and practice a syncretic religion that has nothing to do with Satan.

fapnea692 karma

Are you familiar with like Santeria and other cultures witchcraft?

KatherineHowe3 karma

I'm actually studying up a lot more on Santeria, hoodoo, voudun, and other regions of folk magic and witchcraft at this very moment as part of my next novel. One thing that's been interesting is that many of the folkloric magic practices collected along the Mississippi River delta and along the Gulf Coast actually have many many points in common with English practices, but have been given their own significance and meaning. There's always so much more to learn!

thecroshow2 karma

Were the witches chanting a different language during the finale? Speaking backwards?

KatherineHowe4 karma

I think that would be a question for Robert, who wrote the film. I wasn't sure what they were chanting myself, but I thought it could have been Latin.

The bible had only been available in English for a generation or so during the time period of the film. The best-known English translation was spearheaded by King James I (we still read that translation today in some denominations), and partly as a means for him to consolidate his intellectual authority as head of both church and state. James also wrote "Daemonology," a treatise on witch hunting. Tricky stuff.

Andrew_Suck2 karma

The Witches or Hocus Pocus?

KatherineHowe6 karma

The Craft!

thecroshow1 karma

Can you talk about some terms that may fly way over our heads? Like Job's wife (googled this, go through much suffering), a few other terms that I did not understand.

KatherineHowe4 karma

I'm happy to clarify any specific terms that you have in mind, though it might be hard for me to know which ones are confusing. True story - I've spent so much time thinking about the 17th century that things seem clear to me which any rational person today would be like, "Um. What?" One thing to know is that Puritans lived within a worldview in which religion was the organizing principle for everything, including family structure, health, crop success - everything. So they would make casual biblical references in everyday discourse in ways that even those of us who are very devout today aren't in the habit of doing. Also the grammar was slightly different then. One thing I learned while researching THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES was the way that we use apostrophe s to denote ownership - i.e. Black Philip's ears - is actually a contraction. It's short for Black Philip his ears. Were there any specific references, other than Lot's wife (who doubted, looked back on Sodom and Gomorrah, and turned into a pillar of salt - she's a Puritan paradigm for loss of faith, specifically loss of faith in a husband. The husband at this time period was believed to be the head of the household as Christ was the head of the church. Puritans lived in a very gendered, and very hierarchical society. Of course these elements appear very frequently in witch trials.

RyanBaxter941 karma

Hey Katherine, how would you compare 'The Witch' to your own novels? Did you feel there would some plot points you would've changed? Also thanks for being a great teacher back at Lenoir-Rhyne! I'm still writing thanks to you

KatherineHowe2 karma

Aw, thanks Ryan! Robert Eggers tells a wonderful story in THE WITCH. I live in a different imaginative universe about historical witchcraft, and those stories are found in THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE and CONVERSION. But I have tremendous respect for what Robert was able to achieve. Anyone who's excited to think critically about the past and tell a good story while doing so is one of my people.

theratpack61 karma

Is witchcraft still something that many people practice?

KatherineHowe6 karma

Check out my answer that talks about Wicca above, theratpack6. Beginning in the early 20th Century a British folklorist collected together many folk magical practices and beliefs and organized them into a consistent set of religious practices. Many people adhere for forms of modern day Wicca and paganism today, and feel a very strong connection with people who were tried as witches in the past. Salem, MA has a large community of Wiccans. They're lovely people.

shakybeats1 karma

Where did the idea of drinking animal blood come from?

KatherineHowe1 karma

Can you be a bit more specific, Shaky?

Haplo7811 karma

Of all the people accused, what was the general breakdown of age and sex?

KatherineHowe4 karma

The best source on this by far is a book by John Putnam Demos called ENTERTAINING SATAN (it's a history book). He does the math on who, statistically speaking, was likely to be accused as a witch, and it's fascinating to see. In general, your average accused North American witch was a woman, at middle age (40s-60s), and usually she was economically or socially vulnerable in some way - a widow, very poor, maybe mentally unstable, angry, argumentative.

Our culture has never had much room for angry, argumentative women. And almost every single man accused as a witch in early modern North America was accused because of his affiliation with a woman who was already accused - usually because he was married to her.

fapnea691 karma

Are you single and looking to mingle?

KatherineHowe3 karma

Oh, you. blushes

WillyWonnka1 karma

Have you seen American Horror Story: Coven? What did you think of it?

KatherineHowe1 karma

I didn't get to see more than the first episode, I'm sorry to say, as it's been a busy few years of writing on my end. What did you think of it? I know it was set partways in NOLA, which has plenty of magic of its own.

fapnea691 karma

Could ergot poisoning explain cases of bewitchment?

KatherineHowe6 karma

Ah HA! I'm asked this very often. In the 1970s a theory was promulgated that the strange behavior of the afflicted girls at Salem could have been caused by ergotism, a hallucinogenic effect from eating moldy rye bread. That theory was set aside almost as soon as it was advanced, but it has stuck around in popular culture, and I almost never give a talk without getting a question about it. In short - the afflicted people ranged widely in age (including grown adults), lived in several different houses, and ergotism also causes your feet to rot off. So, no. Not ergot. But it's an appealing theory in part because it's so tidy, so simple, and so easy to consign to the past. We're often uncomfortable with complex truths, and the complex truth of Salem is that a perfect storm of circumstances caused the Salem crisis, and many elements of that storm included issues of class, race, and economic scarcity. I explore some of this stuff in my 2014 novel CONVERSION, if you're curious.

Fullskee7070 karma

Are you a self proclaimed expert?