The Vocal Local: Scream Like A Girl this Halloween

Reclaim Blackpool and the SLAG Collective have been raising their collective voice against a culture of silence around sexual harassment and violence. This Friday we ask you to join us to Scream Like A Girl – a Halloween fundraiser at Bootleg Social. If you’re stuck for ideas on what to dress up as, don’t dismiss the witch – she’s a centuries-old favourite for a reason.

The enchantress and the hag. These representations of witches are two sides of the same coin – metaphors for the two things society, both then and now, fears most in women – sexual liberation and ageing. When the sexy witch ages she becomes all the more fearsome. Even more disturbing is when the hag, bereft of youth, dares to be sexual.

As early as 1486 Heinrich Kramer, a German Catholic clergyman, explained in his handbook for witch hunters that witchcraft is a woman’s crime because woman is “more carnal than man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations… witchcraft came from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”.

The charges levied against these insatiable women included making men’s genitals disappear, or stealing them – keeping them in nests or boxes and feeding them oats and corn. This, wrote Kramer before providing detailed methods to catch the temptresses, was a matter of common report.

Far from being written off as the god-fearing misogynist he was, Kramer gained a bit of a following. An estimated 40,000-60,000 people were executed during the witch trials of the early modern period. Of course they weren’t all women – only around 85 per cent.

Burning witches was favoured in Europe because it was more painful (Wiki Commons)

Execution by burning – evoking hellfire and flames of passion – was deemed appropriate punishment for such crimes. In Europe it was the preferred way to kill a witch because it was more painful. The confessions that led up to it were often elicited through sexually humiliating torture techniques, such as in Italy, where women were forced to sit on red-hot stools so they would not be able to perform sexual acts with the devil.

It’s easy to see why modern feminism claimed the witches as its martyrs. Today witches have been reclaimed by every corner of culture – they’re on the clothes we wear, the series we binge watch and the books we read. Their story of marginalisation and persecution is one that women have long identified with.

Matilda Joslyn Gage, a writer involved in the suffrage movement, published a book in 1893 that claimed witches were pagan priestesses worshipping the Great Goddess. In 1973 second wave feminists Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English put forward in a pamphlet the idea that the persecuted women were traditional healers and midwives.

Both publications suggested that the witches were a threat to the patriarchal institutions of the church and what passed for orthodox medicine, and were brought down accordingly. Largely because both used the inflated claim that there were nine million victims of the witch trials – an estimate made by German scholar Gottfried Christian Voigt in 1784 – they were condemned for historical inaccuracy and metaphorically burned at the stake.

Much like women internalise misogyny as they’re pitted against one another today, Chattox and Demdike were both marginalised and in competition.

In fact, the image of the burning witch is inaccurate in these parts. In conservative England and later in New England during the Salem witch trials of 1692-1693, hanging was preferred to burning which was not considered humane by protestants. And while witchcraft was much more sexualised on the Continent, representations in Britain were more puritanical. But the hag was no less fearsome than the temptress.

At the centre of the Pendle Witch covens tried in 1612 were two elderly widows in their seventies – Anne Whittle (aka Chattox) and Elizabeth Southerns (aka Demdike), who, lame and blind, appear to come straight from the pages of a fairytale.

Hanging witches was favoured in England – it was seen as more humane (Wiki Commons)

Uneducated and poor, Chattox and Demdike were most likely wisewomen, common in isolated village life, making small sums as healers, using charms or ointments when doctors were not readily available. It’s safe to assume that if they and their neighbours believed they had powers for good, they would also believe those powers could be used for hexes and wrongdoing against those who aggrieved them.

These women became an obvious scapegoat during a time of religious and political upheaval. In remote areas like Pendle, Catholics continued to practise openly during the English Reformation and stories from the town soon reached King James I, who had two intense interests – Protestant theology and, after a visit to Denmark where he’d attended a witch trial, witch hunting. His book Daemonologie instructed his followers that they must prosecute any practitioners and in his native Scotland witch hunting reached far more brutal extremes.

One of the arguments against feminist interpretations of the witch trials is that women were often the accusers. But, much like women internalise misogyny as they’re pitted against one another today, Chattox and Demdike were both marginalised and in competition. It is logical that they would be ready to accuse one another when the witch hunters began paying attention to Pendle. Their competition ultimately led to each others’ and the their associates’ demise.

In addition to duplicity among the Lancashire witches many believe they were coerced into confessions through starvation, sleep deprivation and other torture techniques. But perhaps we shouldn’t remember them as victims this Halloween. For the Lancashire witches, and the many thousands of others like them, believing in themselves as evildoers and confessing to the most fear-inducing acts as possible may have been a way of reclaiming some power in horrible circumstances.

This Halloween, as we dress up as something fearful, we raise up our own fears and face them in a way that is celebratory and joyful, reclaiming our power too.

Scream Like A Girl is a halloween fundraiser for Reclaim Blackpool, the project mapping sexual harassment on the Fylde Coast. Hosted by the SLAG collective, there will be a raffle and market stalls by local creatives and a DJ set by female collective Her House. Fancy dress and encourages and witches welcome!

Main illustration by Amy Evans, published with the artist’s permission.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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