Exploring Halloween. Part I: Witches

Creative influences, Female Artists, Iconography, Poetry, Uncategorized, Women / Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Halloween didn’t really mean anything to me until I moved to Los Angeles. It lies in the nature of Tinsel Town – with its density of people working as horror movie directors, set- and costume designers and make-up artists – that Halloween has turned into a field-day for many. It gets people’s creative juices flowing. The annual costume ball at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum) has turned into a major “Muse” event and the recently launched Blumberg’s House of Horrors are some of the most obnoxious and “classier” examples. But is has also become a very commercial holiday…

I hosted a Dracula party when I turned 11. For hours after school I would design scary bottle labels, create spider web table decorations, cut out ghost costumes from old bed sheets – everything that can now be so easily purchased even at 99-cent stores. But this year it has come back to haunt me and I using it as a good excuse to do some playful decorating and to invite some friends over. Last year I had three pumpkins and a bag of cobwebs. But this year I decided to expand my repertoire and started doing some browsing on the web for some inspiration and forking through some stores for decoration. So in this blog, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on one popular Halloween image with you:

Part I: Witches

Witches are fabulous for Halloween not because of the fairly simple costume requirements and the availability of prefabricated hats and noses but because of all of the rich images and quirky accessories connected to them. I found an especially suitable and for decorating purposes inspiring poem. It is by the great writer and poet William Shakespeare and surrounds the witches’ cauldron. It’s a fragment of the witches scene in act 4 of the famous play Macbeth.

Song of the Witches
by William Shakespeare

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Macbeth: IV.i 10-19; 35-38
Source: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (1983)

When witches themselves are depicted nowadays, there are usually two sorts: The old, scrawny looking, large-brimmed, and hooked-nosed women or the scantily clad, oversexed blonde with large eyes, breasts and wigs. Both bear the same accessories; brooms, cauldrons, cats and owls. We now see stereotypes of the witch. Either horror-fied, romanticized or sexy-fied versions.

Obviously because Halloween is a very commercial and not a political holiday. So the connection is rarely made to those women in history, who were outcasts. They were the wise-women, the first healers and somewhat feminists. Because they believed in their own powers and not in those of husbands, the church or their rulers. During the time of the witch-hunts in the middle-ages, it was actually believed that Christianity was engaged in an apocalyptic battle against the Devil who had entered into a diabolical pact with a secret army of witches.

This is why I especially like this piece by the American poet Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974). In Macbeth the three witches personify without any ambivalence the darkness and depravity of the human soul. But in Anne Sexton’s poem the witch is more a metaphor for those women opposed to being a stereotypes and living up to the expectancies which are projected onto them in a male-dominated society. It is this struggle of feeling rabbit-holed and misunderstood:

Her Kind
by Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

Anne Sexton, “Her Kind” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr. Reprinted with the permission of Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.
Source: The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981)

A Poetry Compilation, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series, 2005
Brooks Kalzwedel, Tendril
In his resin cast work, Los Angeles artist Brooks Kalzwedel examines this dichotomy of urban development versus wilderness. This piece has something very haunting to me.

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