For most of my life, I didn't actually think that much of witches as monsters. As with mad scientists, they seemed more like an archetype of "villainous human" than a supernatural "creature," ranking automatically lower in my younger mind than any undead ghoul or supernatural phantasm. If Halloween monsters had a "boss," it was surely some kind of Dracula or Demon or giant, haunted pumpkin monster...right? A witch would be lucky to be one of the big bad's higher-ranking minions, and not just another part of those first-stage rank-and-file goons, before the hero makes it to the weird stuff.

I was, of course, extremely wrong to feel that way, but I was young, naive, and my standards were high. Ever fixated on the strangest, least human, most original monsters I could find, it took a lot of maturation for me to appreciate some of the subtler, simpler, more classic things in life. Sometimes you're in the mood for an undulating pile of eyes and tongues, sometimes you're in the mood for a green lady who can fly. There's room for everybody! And it's not as if witches can't be as outrageous and frightening as any other ghastly ghoul.

Obviously, the history of witches as a concept is a pretty expansive subject. Almost every culture has some idea or another of "dark magic," and women in particular were often suspected of practicing wicked sorcery whenever men weren't looking. If we consider this to be the basic criteria for a witch, then it actually encompasses a huge variety of mythical monsters and fairy tale villains. Even the Krasue here and related Southeast Asian monsters, often translated as "vampires," are just as often thought to be evil sorceresses who take these twisted forms through the power of their own diabolical spells.

Disney's Hercules conflated them with the three fates for some silly reason, but there's no denying it might be one of the coolest looking depictions of the Greek Graeae, or "Grey Women," three ancient sisters named Deino, Enyo and Pemphredo...which basically translates to Dread, Horror and Alarm. These three were also considered sisters to the three gorgons, and possessed a single eyeball that they had to share amongst themselves.

Over time, the Graeae came to be thought of as a trio of spellcasters, with many stories even giving them a bubbling cauldron and an appetite for human flesh.

Illustration by Roy Boney!

Another terrifying "hag" figure with magical powers is the Cherokee "Spearfinger," or more correctly U'tlun'ta, which translates to "She Had it Sharp." Her skin and clothing were said to be made of stone, and her right hand had an abnormally long, powerful, sometimes dagger-like forefinger she used to pluck the livers from her victims, the only thing she really ate. She could shape shift into anyone or anything so long as nobody was watching the transformation, she had power over boulders, ravens for allies and she would often dance up in the clouds, singing a song that went "Livers, I eat them, Su Sa Sai!"

U'tlun'ta's only weakness was that her heart lie in the palm of the same hand as her deadly finger, only protected as long as she was clutching the hand shut.

We could keep talking about monstrous magical women from all over the globe, and maybe one of these days we'll expand the subject into its own series, but I just wanted to give a few examples of how pervasive the idea has always been. As we all know, that fear and paranoia of eccentric old women reached a fever pitch in North America around the 1600's, when Western Christianity became fully convinced that witches were a very real, very serious threat to their entire way of life; minions of Satan himself who engaged in wild orgies with goats and cursed poor goodly churchfolk with pestilence and plague for the sheer spiteful fun of it. It was somewhere around this time that we picked up the idea of witches "flying" on brooms, which really had an entirely different meaning than we came to think, and it isn't at all work-safe. It was also decided, somehow, that cats were in league with these evil beings, and even they were rounded up and slaughtered on suspicion of being demonic familiars.

The list of reasons that a person, especially a woman, might be suspected of witchcraft could also include being old, being antisocial, being childless, being attractive, being unattractive, being rude, being hairy, not attending church enough, exhibiting any noticeable illness or disability, refusing to marry someone who had slightly more social clout, not being afraid enough of toads or snakes and basically deviating in any way whatsoever from the life of a quiet, obedient daughter or wife. Is it any wonder witches are seen today by an increasing number of people as icons of rebellion?

Illustration by Milo Neuman!

Almost a full century later and thousands of miles away, one of the mightiest witches in folklore exploded into popularity. Did you have ANY idea that the Slavic Baba Yaga was that much more recent in history than the Salem Witch trials? I sure as hell didn't. Though she likely coalesced out of several more ancient fairy tale figures, the earliest known references to Baba Yaga by name date back to only the 1750's. She's perhaps most famous of all for living in a magical hut - larger on the inside - that dances around on gigantic, living "chicken legs," but the woman herself is just as impressive. Said to be one of the most powerful of all magical beings, Baba Yaga varies from a kindly, misunderstood healer to a cannibalistic hag sometimes even within the same narrative, helping those who have truly earned it and terrorizing any who even unintentionally disrespect her. She commanded an entire legion of invisible spirits, she rode in an enchanted, flying mortar, she decorated her territory with human skulls and yes, sometimes she even carried a broom around.

Our most modern image of a witch shares a lot of features we've gone over here, but seems to have really solidified with the success of The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, is believed to be the entire reason we now think of witches as typically green skinned, and even why that pointy, black colonial-era hat is now branded exclusively in our minds as a "witch hat."

Scaring the pants off a generation of children, Elphaba was perhaps one of the last great holdovers from a time when these gals were still seen as immutably evil, menacing fiends, such that the idea of a "good" witch appeared more often as an ironic joke character, and even carried a fair share of serious controversy. Even as recently as the 90's, I was alive to see Harry Potter boycotted and protested relentlessly by a religious right still vehemently convinced that magic was not only real, but came straight from a literal devil who flooded the world with Pokemon cards and Disney princesses specifically to lure children to the dark side of the force, or something.

Thankfully, those goofballs failed spectacularly to convince generations of children that witches weren't the coolest damn thing ever, and today, it's almost much more common to see them cast in a strictly positive light, which is fine by me. Or WITCHES fine by me! Ha ha! But seriously, even Elphaba herself became the sympathetic antiheroine of her own wildly successful stage musical. People went from fearing to adoring witches practically overnight.

So what IS the Halloween witch, at this point? With the wacky skin colors, exaggerated features and limitless variety of powers, I think it just goes without saying that they're "monsters" in every bit the sense of a vampire, lycanthrope, hobgoblin or poltergeist; that they may start out human, but their constant magical experimentation slowly transforms them into something else.

The more I think about witches, the more they feel like they belong in the highest possible tier of supernatural monster and rival even pumpkins and skeletons themselves as the truest face of the Halloween season. They're not just people who learned a little magic and pal around with goblins; they're the very conduits between the human world and the spirit realm, with the potential for almost god-like power over creatures of the night, and frankly I accept and support them in all of their forms. Cute, kid-friendly witches, ghoulish and malevolent witches, Sexy Halloween Costume witches, I don't care, every single witch is valid and important.

And what those wacky fundamentalists somehow never, ever learned was that the harder you try to convince children that something is terrible and wrong and forbidden, the more they're only going to love it, and it was possibly only in a generation or two that witches went from almost exclusively nefarious characters to being just as often sympathetic, even idolized as underdogs of society and champions against the status quo, something I personally feel sums up the real fundamental appeal of Halloween - a season when it's more acceptable, even downright encouraged to be "weird."