Arts and (Witch) Crafts: Why Witches Still Fascinate Us
by Angelica Aboulhosn
As Halloween nears and familiar tropes of ghosts and goblins resurface, one question that arises is why sorcery in general, and witches in particular, still arouse our collective curiosity.
The Salem Witch Museum, for instance, remains the most-visited attraction in Salem, Massachusetts, to say nothing of the city’s Witch Trials Memorial and archive of trial documents at the Peabody Essex Museum. This popular fascination with witchcraft extends to the theater, where Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible evokes the witch trials as part of a broader social critique. In fact, when singer and collector John Allison compiled his collection, Witches and War-Whoops in 1962, he did so with an accompanying forward on the trials. Even today, we see evidence of our enduring fascination with witchcraft. The 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, for instance, included a performance by the Basque band, the Sorginak, an all-female group whose name loosely translates to “witches.”
One explanation for witchcraft’s longstanding appeal is the skillfulness of these sorcerers. As Allison explores in the liner notes to his collection, witches implicated in the trial were regarded as “Satan’s agents,” imbued with “the malefic power to torture.” These descriptions, among others, evoke a skill or deftness synonymous with the beings. Roberta Goldstein’s The Wood Burns Red and Other Poems includes a telling poem on just that craftiness. In it, a witch is regarded simply as “the sorceress with the magic icicle.” In Sierra Leone, accounts exist of individuals with medicinal powers and control over the elements of fire and water. Similarly, the Haitian merengue is characterized by its tambour or “voodoo” drum that forms the pulse of the country dance. For Dominican musician Nicolás Gutiérrez or “Mano Bruja” (witch hand), his seemly noxious nickname is used as a term of endearment, referring to the artist’s rapid technique as he plays the traditional merengue.
The allure of these nefarious beings also owes to their mysterious nature. In Allison’s liner notes, the collector considers the Salem witch trials as an instructive case study for psychologists, many of whom reasoned that adolescents, when subjected to “unusual restraint,” will act out with “tricksy behavior.” This interest in the causes of sorcery, and with it, its victims, wasn’t an isolated case. In fact, psychologist Linnda Caporael published a study in Science in 1976 which attributed witch-like abnormalities to the fungus ergot, which is typically found in rye and wheat-based foods.
Even parodies of witchcraft reveal much about the human condition and its shortcomings. Commentary of this kind rests squarely on the limits of superstition, such as the Ancient Roman belief that witches met in groups of thirteen, for twelve worshipers and the devil. Miller’s The Crucible, for instance, critiques McCarthyism paranoia and the consequences of superstition left unchecked in its exploration of the witch trials. The appeal of witchcraft, then, gets at a larger interest in fearmongering and its discontents.
Witchcraft, albeit nefarious in its iterations, remains a part of the public discourse in part because of the skill it involves, its enigmatic nature, and what it reveals about untethered superstition. What the Sorginak and Mano Bruja’s names elegantly capture is that our longstanding fascination with witchcraft, for all its noxious undertones, remains a fixture in our cultural zeitgeist.
This Halloween, dress up as Dorothy or the Wicked Witch, and join the Smithsonian American History Museum on its journey to #KeepThemRuby.
Arts and (Witch) Crafts: Why Witches Still Fascinate Us | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings