Oct. 2019 Witches


Halloween is here again. Homes, stores, and communities are adorned in the imagery of bats, pumpkins, black cats, spiders, and creepy things. Adults and children are busy with costumes, carving pumpkins, going to corn mazes, enjoying the brilliant hues of fall, and consuming pumpkin spice everything. It is the time of year for scarecrows, migrating birds, gray skies, and empty fields. But behind the holiday fun is a world of workers, oppressions, and historical wrongs.

While Halloween is viewed as a liminal time between seasons and life and death, it is usually quite estranged from social justice considerations. Perhaps it is time to pierce the veil between the superficial fun of celebration and the hidden realities of oppression. Behind the mask of every holiday is a hidden world of inequities.

Pagan roots

Halloween began as the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain. It was the day when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was weakest. It also denoted the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Samhain marked the beginning of a new year and was one of four major festivals observed by the Celts. Its celebration was marked with costumes, sacrifices of plants and animals, fortune telling, and bonfires to help the dead find their way and avoid humans. It was a liminal time to be sure.

Samhain was appropriated by the Catholic Church as All Saints Day (Nov. 1), with the evening before as All Hallow’s Eve—eventually Hallowe’en. This process began with Pope Gregory I, who in 601 A.D. proclaimed an edict that missionaries should try to incorporate the practices of pagans as they converted them. As such, almost every Christian site in Ireland was once a pagan place of worship. Ancestor worship continued through the veneration of saints.

In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV announced the holiday as All Martyrs Day, to commemorate Christian martyrs. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III expanded the holiday to include all saints, and it was thusly named All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day was a sanitized version of Samhain, as it was difficult for the church to reconcile what seemed to them a dark and evil holiday with Christian beliefs. However, old practices and beliefs were slow to die. Practitioners of the old beliefs were persecuted as witches.

In the 11th century, the All Saint’s Day holiday was expanded to include All Soul’s Day (Nov. 2) to commemorate the dead. Interestingly, the celebrations continued to feature some aspects of the original Samhain celebrations. It was observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades. Children would go door to door asking for soul cakes in exchange for prayers on behalf of dead loved ones. Soul cakes, which were sweets with a cross over the top, represented a soul being released from purgatory.

The assimilation of Halloween into Catholic holidays was part of the broader conversion of pagans to Christianity. This conversion to Christianity impacted women in a variety of ways. Even before the Christianization of Celtic people, there were attempts to assimilate them into Roman culture. By 43 A.D., most Celtic territories were under Roman control, where they remained for 400 years. Under Roman occupation, there were some efforts to stamp out practices such as sacrifices.

While Roman occupation was generally hostile towards Celtic people, they did add some of their own culture to Samhain celebrations. For instance, the Roman festival of Pomonia, which celebrated apples, may have added bobbing for apples to Samhain traditions. The Romans also had a fall festival called Feralia, which commemorated the passing of the dead.

Whatever the influence of Roman culture on Samhain celebrations, the influence of Romans on gender relationships was less positive. Roman officials also refused to work with female leaders and even attacked the kingdom belonging to Boudicca because they felt it was illegal for a woman to rule a kingdom. According to legends, her land was pillaged and her daughters were raped.

Despite Roman accounts of female rulers or priestesses, the exact role of women in Celtic society is unknown. Because Celtic people did not have a written language, information about Celtic pagans comes from Roman accounts and archaeological finds. In Roman accounts, Celtic women were viewed as angry, strong, promiscuous, and more equal to men than their Roman counterparts. In Gaul, Celtic women shared in their husband’s wealth, with either one inheriting it upon the death of the other. However, women could be interrogated if their husband died and taken as hostages or given away in marriage to cement alliances.

Women were not noted to be in positions of political power in Gaul, though some of the richest Iron Age burials in central Europe were of women, and there were two British Celtic queens in 1 A.D., implying some power or status. Various stories cast women into strong roles, such as the tale of Scathach (Sac-hah), a warrior woman who trained Cuchulain. There is also the tale of Queen Maeve of Connaught, who led a cattle raid of the Kingdom of Ulster to obtain a bull that was equal to her husband’s best animal. According to Roman accounts, women could serve as diplomats, judges, and intermediaries. And, if his account can be believed, according to Ceasar, some Celtic people were polyandrous and others polyamorous.

While the specific gender roles of Celtic women is unknown, generally speaking, Celtic societies were diverse, united by a related language and religious beliefs, warrior centered, yet different in geography and economies. Central to these societies were Druids, or pagan priests, who acted as bards, overseers of sacrifices, leaders of rituals, philosophers, and intermediaries between gods and goddesses. Because of this diversity, it could be assumed that the role of women differed from place to place or over time, with some evidence of more power than their Roman counterparts.

Still, it is important to note that Iron Age Celts were patriarchal. As such, the role of women in Celtic society should not be idealized. Nevertheless, even after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, some remnants of female power persisted in that there were two female bishops in the 5th century: Bridget of Kildare and Beoferlic of Northumbria. Roman bishops protested their participation in the sacrament and eventually, as more missionaries were sent to the British Isles from Rome, women were ousted from positions of power within the church. By the Middle Ages, women could only become abbesses and nuns.

Whatever the role of women in Celtic society, Christian views of women leave much to be desired. Consider the following quotes:

Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil’s gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die. — St. Tertullian

What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman. … I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” — St. Augustine of Hippo

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.” — Thomas Aquinas

“If they [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that’s why they are there.” — Martin Luther

The selection of quotes demonstrates the dismal role of women to Christian thinkers. Women were the originators of sin, inferior to men, and useful for little more than breeding. With the conversion of Celtic people to Christianity, powerful female religious figures from stories and legends were recast as witches. Feminists argue that Christianity actively suppressed female knowledge of herbs, medicine, contraceptives, childbirth, and nature in general. This suppression of female knowledge and experience was continued through scientific and medical institutions.

Feminists also often argue that witch hunts were a means of controlling women and their knowledge. Silvia Federici argued that the persecution of witches forced women out of the public sphere into private households as part of the development of capitalism.

Interestingly, despite stories of witches and powerful female figures, Ireland had relatively few witch hunts, with only four to 10 recorded witch trials. Britain and Wales, on the other hand, had about 300-1000 witch trials, of which 228 were recorded. Scotland recorded 599 witch trials. This is still low compared to Germany, which had 8,188 recorded witch trials and an estimated 17,000-26,000 trials altogether. France, Germany, and Switzerland had the largest number of witch trials. In all, 40,000 to 100,000 people were killed for being witches. Of these, 20% were men, though the gender ratio varied from country to country.

The witch hunts were the bloodiest after the Reformation. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore the various theories regarding the cause of these witch hunts, but it is at least safe to assume that notions of gender and female sinfulness were convenient tropes that could be drawn upon to justify the threat of witches.

In summary thus far, Halloween originated from the Celtic holiday of Samhain. The Celts were converted to Christianity, and Samhain, like other pagan holidays, was Christianized into All Saints Day. The conversion to Christianity resulted in a diminished role for women in the public sphere and the denigration of female legendary figures as witches. However, it was the trade of one patriarchal society for another, albeit one with codified hyper misogyny through religious texts and religious thinkers who believed women were little more than sinful broodmares.

Modern Halloween

Today, most people do not spend Halloween praying for the souls of people in purgatory or honoring saints. Modern Halloween was made possible by several social changes—the advent of capitalism, the secularization of society, and the invention of childhood.

With the advent of capitalism, the world became more interconnected and globalized. This interconnectedness resulted in massive shifts in populations around the world. Within the United States, this resulted in an influx of immigrants. As a result of the potato famine, 500,000 Irish immigrants came to the United States between 1845 and 1850. In fact, half of all immigrants to the United States were of Irish origin at that time. Between 1851 and 1860, 2 million Irish immigrants came to the United States to escape poverty and disease, or join relatives who had come in the 1840s. These Irish immigrants helped to popularize Halloween celebrations in the United States, sharing such traditions as wearing costumes while going door to door for food or money and fortune telling.

Rather than the earlier Catholic traditions of exchanging prayers for food, 19th-century children would exchange songs, jokes, or poetry in exchange for money or fruit. This represented a turn away from religious traditions as the public sphere allowed for more secularism. Another tradition brought by the Irish was that of Jack-o-Lanterns, which came from custom of carving turnips for Halloween and the story of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was believed to roam the earth with a lantern, as he was denied entrance to both Heaven and Hell. But the immigrants to the U.S. used the more plentiful pumpkin for carving rather than a turnip.

It is quaint to consider that many of our Halloween traditions came to the United States as a result of Irish immigration. However, it is important to point out that the tragedy of the potato famine was not caused by an unfortunate fungus. Instead, the true blight was British colonialism.

In 1801, the Act of the Union went into effect in Ireland. It was a free trade agreement, which sought to integrate Ireland into the British economy by reducing tariffs, merging currencies, ending the Irish parliament, and retooling the economy towards British needs. In the subsequent years, the Irish economy became centered on exports of barley, wheat, potatoes, linen, cotton, and livestock. As the economy shifted toward a cash crop export focus, poverty and unemployment increased across the country. At the same time, the land became increasingly overused. To enforce the subjugation of Ireland, there was one British soldier per 80 Irish persons, more than any other colony.

The extreme poverty of rural Irish people, resulting from the Act of the Union, increased their dependence upon potatoes. (Potatoes themselves were introduced to Europe by the colonizers of South America, and appear to have been brought to Ireland around the 1580s.) Thus, when the potato crop failed in 1844, one of several crop failures over the previous 50 years, it hit an already beleaguered population. The Irish themselves were blamed for this, as Thomas Malthus considered the famine a matter of “survival of the fittest” among an overpopulated people. Yet, even during the famine, more wheat and barley were exported to Britain than the three years prior to 1845 and livestock continued to be exported even as people starved.

During the famine, impoverished farmers were evicted from their land, and former slave ships were repurposed for carrying Irish immigrants to the U.S. Thus, the famine actually revitalized the shipping industry. In this sense, the spread of Halloween was made possible by the colonial plunder of the Irish economy.

Aside from the Irish contributions to the celebrations of Halloween, the holiday gained popularity during the Victorian Age with fortune telling, ghost stories, and parties. However, the biggest boon for Halloween was the commercialization of the holiday during the early 1900s. Magazines of the era told women how to host Halloween parties, and rotary clubs began hosting Halloween celebrations. In 1927, the words “trick or treating” were first used in the U.S. to describe children exchanging threats of pranks in exchange for treats.

The holiday became a family affair after World War II, and it was during the 1950s that trick or treating became common across the country. The 1950s also saw the explosion of the horror film industry as well as the manufacture of decoration and greeting cards. The commercialization and family orientation of Halloween in the post-World War II era was the result of several social trends.

First, the United States emerged from the war as a hegemonic power with little capitalistic competition in the realm of military, diplomacy, and economics. The Marshall Plan pumped $13 billion into Europe to rebuild it, but also refashioned the world as a consumer of U.S. goods. This allowed for an increase in living standards, wages, and employment, but also an increase in births and marriages. Of course, these benefits were not shared equally among society, as the United States was racially divided and actively persecuted anyone who did not share in the consensus of consumerism.

Thus, it is no wonder that Halloween emerged as a family-friendly consumer holiday during this time period. Furthermore, the period also saw the rise of youth culture. This was made possible by Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlawed child labor, as well as compulsory education laws from the earlier portion of the 1900s and the high school education movement. In other words, the spread of trick or treating represented a view that children should be enjoying candy rather than making it in factories, accompanied by living standards that did not require child labor.

Slut shaming and the rise of the sexy costume

The United States has long since lost its place as the only dominant economy in the world. Since the 1970s, the United States has had to once again compete with the rebuilt economies of Europe and Japan, as well as newly emerging economies. Despite diminishing living standards, the consumerism of Halloween continues.

At the same time, Halloween has shifted from its focus on kids and families to adults. This shift is best illustrated by the rise of the sexy Halloween costume. The sexy Halloween costume can be traced to Greenwich Village in the 1970s. Greenwich Village hosted a family friendly Halloween parade, but also was a center of gay culture. This was also true of Castro Street and Polk Street in San Francisco and West Hollywood. Halloween was often the only time when gay men could wear clothing and make-up traditionally associated with the other gender in public without being harassed by the police. The LGBT community pushed the boundary of sexualized, gender-bending costumes.

The 1970s also saw the increased commercialization of Halloween. The 1940s and 1950s saw the commercialization of children’s costumes and trick-or-treating, but the 1970s expanded this into the adult market. Sexy costumes have become so popular that since the early 2000s, they have made up 90-95% of the female costumes. As a whole, adults in the U.S. spend $1.4 billion on Halloween costumes.

As mentioned earlier, costumes have long been a part of Halloween celebrations. Originally, Samhain costumes were not sexy, as they were meant to confuse the souls of the dead. Nevertheless, the holiday has a long history of testing boundaries. For instance, young male choristers in churches dressed like virgins on All Hallows’ Eve. The supernaturally obsessed Victorians dressed as creepy characters, such as bats and ghosts, but also exotic characters such as Egyptians and gypsies. However, these parties were mostly for the upper class who had the leisure and means to host Halloween parties.

The sexy maid costume also originated during this time period among an upper class who actually had maids. Maids themselves were sometimes expected to perform sexual duties as part of their employment, so the sexualization of the profession was not much of a leap.

After World War II, when Halloween became more of a children’s holiday, adult costumes weren’t particularly sexy. This matched the conservative atmosphere of the day. In reality, the 1950s version of Halloween was an aberration from the more adult-centered history of the holiday.

The social space for sexier costumes was really opened up by the feminist movement. Legalized birth control and abortion enabled greater exploration of sexual boundaries in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, costumes began to push the boundaries of sexiness, but also violent gore, as these things appeared in popular culture. Since then, the sexy costume has exploded to the degree that sexiness has moved towards irony, with costumes such as sexy lobsters, sexy peeps, or sexy sesame street characters.

As many women have embraced revealing costumes, this has resulted in slut shaming. Halloween itself has been nicknamed “Slutoween.” Slut shaming is calling a woman a slut or “ho” as a punishing identity for perceived promiscuity. At the same time, heterosexual women are expected to be sexy as part of the gender performance. While women are expected to look sexy, they are blamed for dressing sexy when they are assaulted. Women are expected to be sexy and not sexy. This is the Catch 22 of being female.

Shaming is a way for men to control the conduct of women, and for women to police the conduct of other women. For some women, it might be liberating to wear sexy costumes, as it allows for escapism from everyday life and an opportunity to be someone different. On the other hand, some women might object to being objectified and regret that there are social pressures to look sexy. Certainly, the over-sexualization of girl’s costumes is also concerning.

Irrespective of how a woman chooses to dress, she should not be slut shamed because what she wears does not reflect her sexual desires or ask for sexual advances. Slut shaming is harmful to women because it justifies the sexual assault of women. At the same time, embracing “slut” isn’t necessarily empowering either. Once again, this is another catch 22 of being female. It can be disempowering to embrace “slut” and shaming to reject it.

Halloween should be approached in a nuanced fashion. Feminists should absolutely stand up to the slut shaming of women who wear sexy costumes. Nothing is to be gained by shaming women for conforming to an expected gender performance, for escapism, or for expressing their sexuality in this fashion. At the same time, feminists should also critique the narrow expressions of female gender expressions and the social consequences of costumes that turn women and girls into sex objects. The glorification and trivialization of sex work, which ignores the social conditions of sex workers—who are oppressed like all workers—should also be called into question.

Halloween and women’s labor

On the other end of the oppression spectrum is the oppression of women who are mothers. Certainly, many adults have fond memories of creative costumes, trick or treating, and parties. The majority of these memories are possible because of the invisible and unpaid labor of women. Mothers are not paid to make or purchase costumes. They are not paid to take children trick or treating. Women are not paid to make Halloween candy, caramel apples, or cookies or spend time purchasing them. These are the labors of love that women do for children because it is expected of them.

Children can rarely appreciate the magic of these memories because childhood is simply created by women to consume and enjoy. Often, these cherished memories represent the exploited labor of women.

According to Social Reproduction Theory, the unpaid labor of women serves a purpose of perpetuating capitalism. This is accomplished through reproducing workers (the children who are raised to be the workers of the future) and maintaining current workers (through the care of men who are presently workers). Women provide a service to capitalism by caring for children, the sick, elderly, and husbands. This unpaid service in the private realm of the household means that capitalists can enjoy greater profits in the public realm.

This may seem to have little connection to Halloween, until one considers the ways in which holidays extract enormous amounts of unpaid labor from women, especially mothers. While holidays are meant to be fun, and may even result in time off of work, women do not enjoy time off of work if they are expected to create costumes, holiday meals, decorations, treats, or parties for children or family members. At the same time, society abounds with messages that women are expected to create. Pinterest perfectly represents this social pressure. It is no wonder that a survey of 7000 mothers on Pinterest found that 42% of respondents felt stressed by the image sharing social media site.

Pinterest, or for that matter Facebook, creates a fantasy of parenthood. In particular, it constructs motherhood and gender expectations. After all, in 2012, 60% of Pinterest visitors were women. One in five women over the age of 18 is a Pinterest user. It is an ideal world of perfectly carved pumpkins, cute costumes, fun party activities, pretty decorations, and delicious desserts.

The reality is that parenting in the U.S. does not look like this. In 2011, 40% of all births were to single mothers. In 2007, 1.5 million children had parents in jail. In 2012, there were 2.7 chronic neglect cases reported in the U.S. as parents increasingly struggle to meet the basic needs of their children. The U.S. does not offer paid maternity leave and is woefully deficient in available day care. In 2015, 20% of adults were in the lowest income tier, compared to 13% in 2003. In 2015, the middle class (as defined in non-Marxist terms as a household that makes 42,000 to 126,000), comprised of about 50% of Americans, which is down from 61% in 1971. While there were some gains in the number of Americans in upper income households since 1971, from 4% to 9%, the lowest income group increased from 16% to 20%. During this time, the wealth of adults over 65 increased, but young adults have become poorer.

If more “middle class” people are joining the ranks of the poor, arguably there is more pressure for women to care for and maintain the happiness of their families. Any penny-pinching costume ideas, party favors, or treats represent unpaid labor in the interest of diminished buying power and working conditions. Women are left to tend to the embers of the American dream. Without unions, home ownership, upward mobility, and nuclear families, women ameliorate the emotional toll of the crisis of capitalism.

While children have benefited from child-labor laws, public education, and legal protections in the United States, children in the rest of the world do not fare as well. They live as children in our own country lived a century ago. Two-thirds of the world’s cocoa beans come from West Africa, and while many countries and chocolate companies have promised to curtail child slavery in the production of chocolate, in Ivory Coast, chocolate child labor increased 51% between 2008 and 2014. Children in the chocolate industry are sold by poor families or simply kidnapped. They range from age 11 to 16 and work 80 to 100 hours a week. The chocolate industry is a $110 billion dollar industry.

Beyond the horrors of child labor are the ethics of Halloween costumes. Americans were expected to spend $8.8 billion on Halloween in 2019. The average consumer in 2019 will spend about $86.27. Some $2.6 billion will be spent on candy and $3.2 billion on costumes. In 2014, $1.1 billion was spent on children’s costumes, $1.4 on adult costumes, and $350 million on pet costumes.

These costumes have been critiqued as “fast fashion” or fashion that is cheaply made and quickly disposed of. Not only do the costumes end up in the dump. They are full of toxins like lead, tin, flame retardants, and PVCs. The costumes themselves are often made in sweatshops in places such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh, where there is little pay, no rights to unions, and long work hours. Women make up 90% of the laborers in sweatshops, where they are subjected to sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and physical punishment.


From sweatshops to slut shaming, modern Halloween is haunted by the horrors of capitalist patriarchy. Of course, the same could be said about Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and all the other holidays we hold dear. Further, this piece is missing important histories such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression. While this isn’t a comprehensive view of what lies behind the mask of Halloween, it should offer insight to how Halloween has changed over history and some gender and class issues related to the holiday.

Finally, it is not enough to uncover the child labor in Halloween chocolate, fast fashions, slut shaming, consumerism, and unpaid labor. Something must be done to change it. To this end, building social/labor movements is the best starting point. Within these movements, we can stand up against sexism and slut shaming and demand pay for unpaid labor, equal pay for paid labor, shame and boycott stores that utilize sweatshop labor, and consider consumer choices while putting pressure on producers to elevate the working conditions and improve the environmental consequences of production. Rather than being haunted by a world of horrors, the world should be haunted by the specter of revolution.

Drawing is from the on-line collection of the Smithsonian Institution.