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The Monsters Are Real! SEL Fall Exhibit: Witches

The Science behind our favorite Halloween Monsters; “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ― Stephen King




“Each year they parade her about, The traditional Halloween witch. Misshapen green face, stringy scraps of hair, A toothless mouth beneath her disfigured nose. Gnarled knobby fingers twisted into a claw protracting form. A bent and twisted torso that lurches about on wobbly legs.

“Most think this is abject image to be the creation of a prejudiced mind or merely a Halloween caricature, I disagree, I believe this to be how witches were really seen.

Consider that most witches were women, were abducted in the night and smuggled into dungeons or prisons under secrecy of darkness and presented by the light of day as a confessed witch.

“Few, if any saw a frightened normal looking woman being dragged into a secret room filled with instruments of torture, to be questioned until she confessed to anything that was suggested to her, and to give names or say whatever would stop the questions.

“Crowds saw the aberration denounced to the world as a self-proclaimed witch. As the witch was paraded through the town, in route to be burned, hanged, drowned, stoned, or disposed of in various, horrible ways, all created to free and save her soul from her depraved body.

“The jeering crowds viewed the result of hours of torture. The face, bruised and broken by countless blows, bore a hue of sickly green. The once warm and loving smile gone, replaced by a grimace of broken teeth, and torn gums that leer beneath a battered disfigured nose.

“The disheveled hair conceals bleeding gaps of torn scalp from whence cruel hands had torn away the lovely tresses. Broken, twisted hands clutched the wagon for support. Fractured fingers locked like cropping claws to steady her broken body.

“All semblance of humanity gone. This was truly a demon, a bride of Satan, a witch.

“I revere this Halloween Witch and hold her sacred. I honor her courage and listen to her warnings of the dark side of humanity.

“Each year I shed tears of respect.”

Author unknown


Please be sure to see the exhibit of USC’s own copy of the Malleus Mallificarum and other rare materials pertaining to the “Burning Times” – the Witch Hunts that plagued Europe and the British Colonies in America from the 13th century to the 17th century:

There are many possible reasons given for the Witch Craze in 17th Century Salem Massachussetts. Four young women began acting strangely, having “fits,” and accusing their neighbors of witchcraft, based on spectral evidence (specifically, they complained of being "bitten and pinched by invisible agents"). One reason is ergotism.

Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. When ingested, it can cause hallucinations, dizziness, headaches, convulsions, psychosis, coma, nausea, vomiting,  and abdominal pain. These symptoms overlap the symptoms of the “fits” the “afflicted” girls suffered.

Another possible cause of the girls’ symptoms, according to Saxon, is undiagnosed encephalitis: 

“One of the more controversial theories states that the girls suffered from an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, an inflammation of the brain spread by insects and birds. Symptoms include fever, headaches, lethargy, double vision, abnormal eye movements, neck rigidity, behavioral changes, and tremors”  (Saxon).

Economic inequity, politics, delusions, and mass hysteria are also postulated as possible reasons (Oster, Boyer & Nissenbaum). In fact the only theory that isn’t given is actual witchcraft. Non eof the nine people executed were witches. Eight women and one man died in Massachusetts until the governor put a stop to the madness. Not one was an actual witch, or even a practicing pagan.

Witchcraft Victims’ Memorial

Modern Witches

Actual Witches exist, though not all witches are Wiccans and not all Wiccans claim the title “Witch.” Wicca is a nature based religion which honors the divine nature in all creatures. Within the Wiccan religion are many separate traditions, or “trads” which have different practices. Essentially, they all follow the Rede, “as long as you harm no one, do as you will.”

Modern Witches:  Z. Budapest, Margot Adler, Selena Fox, and Starhawk


According to Adler,

IN THE LAST FORTY-FIVE YEARS, alongside the often noted resurgence of “occult” and “magical” groups, a diverse and decentralized religious movement has sprung up that remains comparatively unnoticed, and when recognized, is generally misunderstood. Throughout the United States there are thousands of groups in this movement, each numbering anywhere from several to several hundred. Eclectic, individualist, and often fiercely autonomous, they do not share those characteristics that the media attribute to religious cults. They are often self-created and homemade; they seldom have “gurus” or “masters”; they have few temples and hold their meetings in woods, parks, apartments, and houses; in contrast to most organized cults, the operations of high finance are rare; and entry into these groups comes through a process that could rarely be called “conversion.” While these religious groups all differ in regard to tradition, scope, structure, organization, ritual, and the names for their deities, they do regard one another as part of the same religious and philosophical movement. They have a common name for themselves: Pagans or Neo-Pagans. a They share a set of values and they communicate with one another through a network of newsletters1 and Web sites, as well as regional and national gatherings. Most Neo-Pagans sense an aliveness and “presence” in nature. They are usually polytheists or animists or pantheists, or two or three of these things at once. They share the goal of living in harmony with nature and they tend to view humanity’s “advancement” and separation from nature as the prime source of alienation. They see ritual as a tool to end that alienation. Most Neo-Pagans look to the old pre-Christian nature religions of Europe, the ecstatic religions, and the mystery traditions as a source of inspiration and nourishment. They gravitate to ancient symbols and ancient myths, to the old polytheistic religions of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Celts, and the Sumerians. They are reclaiming these sources, transforming them into something new, and adding to them the visions of Robert Graves, even of J.R.R. Tolkien and other writers of science fiction and fantasy, as well as some of the teachings and practices of the remaining aboriginal peoples (Adler, pp. 20-21).

Witches in Literature and Popular Culture

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter series

The Wicked Witch of the West, The Wizard of Oz   

Glinda the Good, The Wizard of Oz

Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery), “Bewitched”  

Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), “Buffy”

Elphaba, Wicked

Sabrina Spellman “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch” and “The Chilling Adventures  

of Sabrina”

Winifred (“Winnie”), Mary, and Sarah Sanderson “Hocus Pocus”

Pru, Piper, and Phoebe Halliwell, “Charmed”

Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds), “Halloweentown”                     

White Witch, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The Witches of Eastwick

Wanda Maximoff, The Scarlett Witch

Endora (Agnes Moorehead), “Bewitched”

Sally and Gillian Owens, Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet, Practical Magic       

Alex, Justin, and Max Russo, “Wizards of Waverly Place”

“American Horror Story:  Coven”

Circe, The Odyssey

Morgan le Fay, Le Morte d’Arthur, “ The Sword in the Stone,” “Excalibur,” The

Mists of Avalon, Once and Future King

Mildred Hubble, The Worst Witch                              

The Three Witches/Weird Sisters, Macbeth

Just to name a few …

Speaking of Macbeth, what were they brewing in that cauldron?

“Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron 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 owlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble ...”

Well, the noxious-sounding ingredients listed were actually plants:

“Fillet of a fenny snake” = Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

“Eye of newt” = mustard seed (Brassica juncea)

“Toe of frog” =  buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

“Wool of Bat” = moss (division Bryophyta) or Holly Leaves (Ilex aquifolium)

“Tongue of dog” = Hound’s Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale)

“Adders fork” = Adder’s tongue (Ophioglossum lusitanicum L.)

“Blind worm’s sting” = knotweed (Polygonum arenastrum)

“Lizard’s leg” = ivy (Hedera hibernica)

“Owlet’s wing” = garlic (Allium sativum)


On the note of popular culture, the next time you feel the need to ridicule pumpkin spice lovers (or hide your own love of pumpkin spice to avoid such ridicule), you should know that the spices used in this delectable concoction are spell ingredients.

According to the folks at Green Witch Farm:

  • Cinnamon -- In addition to the fire element and a whole host of health benefits, Cinnamon has a high energetic vibration. It draws in abundance and adds a kick of energy that amplifies all other energies in the mix. Kind of like the Quartz crystal of the plant allies.
  • Nutmeg --  It offers a protective element, aids in meditation and as a plant of Jupiter, likes to call in good juju for money and luck.
  • Ginger -- Ginger is another heat producing spice that has it’s own health benefits and stimulates prosperity. It also increases personal energy, vigor and induces passion.
  • Allspice -- Allspice is fire spice that adds determination and energy to intentions and endeavors. It’s one of those uplifting and feel good spices and is also good for healing.
  • Clove -- Cloves not only smell good but stimulates the mind while relaxing the body. It is also used to boost self-confidence.



Bibliography and Recommended Further Reading

Bibliography and Recommended Further Reading

Adler, Margot. Drawing down the Moon : Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. Rev. and expanded ed., Penguin/Arkana, 1997. 

Boyer, Paul S., and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed; the Social Origins of Witchcraft. Harvard University Press, 1974.

  ---       The Salem Witchcraft Papers : Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692. Da Capo Press, 1977.

“Bridget Bishop Home and Orchards, Site Of.” Bridget Bishop Home and Orchards, Site Of, Salem Witch Museum, 2 Mar. 2021,

Budapest, Zsuzsanna E, and Masika Szilagyi. The Aquarian Holy Book of Women's Mysteries:  Rituals and Spells for Present and Future Witches. LULU COM, 2022.

“The Burning Times.” Films On Demand, Films Media Group, 1990,

Clark, Stuart, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1999; online edn, Oxford Academic, 3 Oct. 2011),

Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, MN, 1987.

Davies, Julie Anne. Science in an Enchanted World : Philosophy and Witchcraft in the Work of Joseph Glanvill. Routledge, 2018.

Daly, Donald R., and Bridget Bishop. The Tryal of Bridget Bishop: A Transcript of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. New England & Virginia Co., 1993.

Dombrowski, Kiki. “Pumpkin Spice Magic.” 8 Oct. 2019,

Drake, Samuel. “Annals of Witchcraft in New England and Elsewhere in the United States from Their First Settlement.” Sabin Americana 1500-1926, W. Elliot Woodward; (J. Munsell), 1869.

Gardner Gerald Brosseau and Paul Wylie. Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadows. 2016.

——— The Meaning of Witchcraft. London: The Aquarian Press, 1959.

  ———Witchcraft Today; Jarrolds, 2004.

Heron, Michelle. “Pumpkin Spice Witchcraft: Spell for Potency, Protection, Passion & Prosperity.” Witch on Fire, Patheos Explore the World's Faith through Different Perspectives on Religion and Spirituality! Patheos Has the Views of the Prevalent Religions and Spiritualities of the World., 1 Sept. 2018,

“History of Witches.”, A&E Television Networks, 30 May 2012,

Leland, Charles Godfrey. Aradia : or, The Gospel of the Witches. D. Nutt, 1899.

Lowery, Zoe, and Jennifer MacBain-Stephens. A Primary Source Investigation of the Salem Witch Trials. Rosen Publishing Group, 2015.

Machielsen, Jan. The Science of Demons. Routledge Studies in the History of Witchcraft, Demonology and Magic. Milton: Taylor and Francis, 2020.

Mar Alex. Witches of America. First paperback ed. Sarah Crichton Books- Farrar Straus and Giroux 2016.

“The Magic of Pumpkin Spice.” Green Witch Farm, Green Witch Farm, 9 Apr. 2022,

Matossian, Mary K. “Views: Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair: An Outbreak of a Type of Food Poisoning Known as Convulsive Ergotism May Have Led to the 1692 Accusations of Witchcraft.” American Scientist, vol. 70, no. 4, 1982, pp. 355–57. JSTOR,

Migliore, Sam. “The Doctor, the Lawyer, and the Melancholy Witch: European Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries.” Anthropologica (Ottawa), vol. 25, no. 2, 1983, pp. 163–163.

Mundra LS, Maranda EL, Cortizo J, Augustynowicz A, Shareef S, Jimenez JJ. “The Salem Witch Trials—Bewitchment or Ergotism.” JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(5):540. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.4863

Murray, Margaret Alice., and Moshe Lazar. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Clarendon Press, 1962.

Orion, Loretta. Never Again the Burning Times: Paganism Revived. Waveland, 1995.

Oster, Emily. “Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 18, no. 1, 2004, pp. 215–28. JSTOR,

Parramore, Lynn Stuart. “Opinion | Are We Entering the Season of the Witch? Let's Hope so.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 31 Oct. 2019,

Pearson, Joanne.  2002. “The History and Development of Wicca and Paganism.” In Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age, edited by Joanne Pearson, 15–54. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Prior, Moody E. “Joseph Glanvill, Witchcraft, and Seventeenth-Century Science” 30, no. 2. Modern Philology 30 (1932): 167–193.

Ray, Benjamin C. “The Geography of Witchcraft Accusations in 1692 Salem Village.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 3, 2008, pp. 449–78. JSTOR,

Ronca, Debra. “Is Eye of Newt a Real Thing?” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 13 July 2015,

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 1984.

“Salem Witch Trials:  Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.” Edited by Benjamin Ray, Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive, University of Virginia, 2018,

Sax, Boria. "The magic of animals: English witch trials in the perspective of folklore." Anthrozoos, vol. 22, no. 4, Dec. 2009, pp. 317+. Gale Academic OneFile,

Saxon, Vicki. “What Caused the Salem Witch Trials? - JSTOR DAILY.” JSTOR Daily, JSTOR, 27 Oct. 2015,

Schiff, Stacy. The Witches: Salem, 1692. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance : a Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 20th anniversary ed., with new introd. and chapter-by- chapter commentary., Harper SanFrancisco, 1999.

Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. 1st Harvest/HBJ ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Trevarthen, Geo Athena. "The Celtic origins of Halloween transcend fear." Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Vol. 90. No. 3. Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, 2010.

Valiente Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. Robert Hale 2007.

USC Libraries. “A Witchy Brew of Books in Special Collections.” USC Libraries, University of Southern California, 6 Oct. 2022,

  White, Ethan Doyle. Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Sussex Academic Press, 2022.

Wood, Rocky., et al. Witch Hunts : a Graphic History of the Burning Times. Illustrated by Greg Chapman, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.

Woolf, Alan. “Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials.” Journal of Toxicology. Clinical Toxicology, vol. 38, no. 4, 2000, pp. 457–60,

Young, Francis. “THE TRIUMPH OF THE MOON: A HISTORY OF MODERN PAGAN WITCHCRAFT.” First Things (New York, N.Y.), no. 316, 2021, p. 63–.

Zeller, Anne C. “Arctic Hysteria in Salem?” Anthropologica, vol. 32, no. 2, 1990, pp. 239–64. JSTOR,