Salem, MA (PIX11) — Every October in the U.S. is relatively the same – the spooky decorations start to pop up, horror movies come out, and the Halloween ambiance begins. And there is one character who seems to be the face of the season: the witch. 

But when did that connection happen, and how accurate is it? As it turns out, the answer is not a simple one.

Do witches really exist?

“It depends,” said Dr. Emerson Baker, an archaeologist and history professor at Salem State University. “In the 17th century, we are talking about people accused of making a satanic pact, where they were believed to have been given power in return for their soul. Power to harm and even kill people. But there really is no direct connection in any way between those people accused of witchcraft in the 1600s and the modern days’ practitioners of Wicca or various other related neopagan faiths.”

At a time when communities across Great Britain and New England predominantly shared Puritan values, it was not uncommon to use supernatural phenomena to explain societal problems, like bad crops or diseases. In what would later become the United States, one infamous episode became a legend regarding the practice of witchcraft – the Salem Witch Trials. 

“It was by far the largest outbreak of witchcraft in American history,” said Dr. Baker. “During 1692 and 1693, over 150 people were accused, resulting in so many trials, with 19 people being executed, one died during questioning, and five more died in prison.” 

At the time, judges would hear nearly anything during these trials, including testimony from children and unrealistic accusations: 

“I was taken very ill again all over & felt a great pricking in ye soles of my feet, and after a while I saw apparently the shape of Margret Scott, who, as I was sitting in a chair by ye fire pulled me with ye chair, down backward to ye ground, and tormented and pinched me very much (…) In some of the fitts that I had afterwards, I was sensless and knew not that I saw who it was that afflicted me”

Original transcript of Mary Daniel, a 19-year-old who accused widowed Margaret Scott of casting spells onto her. 

Such testimony ended with Scott being condemned for witchcraft and sentenced to death by hanging in 1692, according to the archives at the University of Virginia.

Home of Judge Jonathan Corwin in 1692. He presided over examinations of witchcraft accusations during trials (Credit: PIX11/Geovany Dias)

The public scrutiny faced by those accused of witchcraft in the 1600s and 1700s had a long-lasting impact on how society perceived witches, leading to centuries-long misconceptions. 

“Part of the misconception is that witchcraft is essentially a gender crime,” said Dr. Baker. “Throughout time, we’ve seen that about three-quarters of those accused have been women, and many of the men were either related to those women or were those who dared to try to defend them.”

The history of Halloween

Halloween is not an American tradition, nor is it fundamentally connected to Salem and the witch trials, even though the city is now a national hotspot for Halloween enthusiasts from all over the world. The holiday falls on the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, which is a holy day according to the pagan calendar.

“That is really the Samhain, according to the modern-day Wiccan holiday,” said Dr. Baker. “In pre-Christian pagan tradition, that is one of the most important days of the year. That is supposed to be seen as the time when the boundary between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, so it’s the time to communicate with one’s ancestors.”

The celebration of October 31 as All Hallows’ Eve – followed by All Saints’ Day on November 1, according to the Christian calendar – has been reported in different cultures all over the world. Dia de Los Muertos, observed on Nov. 1 in Latin American cultures, is one of the most well-known festivities honoring the dead.

File – A woman dressed as a catrina participates during the parade of the “Day Of The Dead Festival” in Guanajuato, Mexico as part of the ‘Day of The Dead celebration on Nov. 1, 2021. (Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images)

Halloween in Salem

Salem’s connection to Halloween — and the holiday’s connection to witches — could be seen as the result of a rebranding effort. 

“[In the] 1970s, early 80s, the Salem Witch Museum helped sponsor the Haunted Happenings in Salem,” said Dr. Baker. “At the time, there wasn’t a community event associated with it, so that’s when the city connected the ‘holiday’ to the witch trials.” 

Haunted Happenings is a month-long celebration of Halloween organized in Salem that brings nearly 1 million visitors – and millions of dollars – to the town. 

Wiccans also gather in Salem on October 31 to celebrate the Samhain. They walk up Gallows Hill, where the witches were hung in the 1600s, and hold a parade in their honor.