Happy haunting

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 31, 2009

Not too many years ago, children all across the United States celebrated Halloween on Oct. 31, by dressing up in costumes and going trick or treating.

Today, Halloween is not widely celebrated in such a way. Many people frown on Halloween as a pagan holiday and have opted instead for Fall Festivals, which have adopted much of the fun and games of Halloween. Children have shed the ghost and witch costumes and instead dress as Barbie and Batman.

“Oct. 31, was once a day of dread for our European forbearers,” said Dr. Milton McPherson, retired Troy University history professor. “ European Catholics honored all saints on Nov. 1 and Oct. 31was all hallow evening or Halloween.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“It was widely believed that witches and other evil spirits were especially active that night. Europeans locked their doors and pulled their blinds and prayed that no witches would call on them during the night.”

A witch, or wizard if a man, was believed to be one who had entered in to a pact with the devil. Witches were condemned in the Bible.

“Heresy, challenges to the Catholic Church, spread throughout Europe during the 15th century and in 1484, the Pope urged that witches be exterminate as heretics,” McPherson said. “True Christians were urged to fear the devil as well as to trust in God.”

McPherson said that most accused witches were women because the belief was that women are frailer than men so it was easier for them to be entrapped in the “snares of the devil.”

“Every witch was believed to have a ‘familiar,’ which was an animal form they could assume at will,” he said. “The black cat was believed to be the most commonly used familiar.”

Should a familiar be killed with the witch “in residence,” the witch would not perish.

“Only after nine such deaths would the witch finally die,” McPherson said.

“A perversion of this belief gave rise to the popular superstition that cats have nine lives.”

A common belief among the more superstitious population was that witches met once a week in a coven, which consisted of 12 witches and the devil.

Four times a year, including October 31, all witches and the devil met in a terrifying witches’ sabbath held in a “frightful” part of the countryside.

“Witches would arrive and a fearful orgy would follow with feasting on the flesh of new-born babies and dancing to tunes played by thousands of toads,” McPherson said.

“At the height of the sabbath, the devil would appear, large and hairy with a tail, cloven hooves and horns. He would initiate new witches and punish those who had not been wicked enough by whipping them with thorns or scorpions.”

In Salem, Mass. in 1692, several young girls began to have fits and accused several townspeople of having bewitched them.

“There was likely some reasonable explanation but a local doctor concluded ‘the evil hand (witches) is on them.’ Eventually, 200 were jailed, 55 were tortured and 19 people and 2 dogs had been executed as witches,’ McPherson said.

“The victims died alone, deemed the worst of criminals and shunned by their own kinsmen for to show compassion for a witch was to invite death.”

Many were victims of spite or plain mischief and many were possibly suffering from mild forms of insanity in an age when mental diseases were not recognized as such.

“But all were victims of the ignorance and superstition which still abounds in many parts of the world today,” McPherson said.