Halloween, Gothic and Witches: What Scares Us as a Society?

The hypermetropic vision becomes particularly sharp to look at the spooky after September.  Ours doesn’t happen to be a nation located in the Halloween celebrating half of the globe but in a globalized world, October is marked by the invocation of images of ghouls, Jack- O- Lanterns, Bath & Body Works autumn fragrances, and horror movies. However what cuts through cultures is the brimming pool of horror narratives in form of traditional folklore, homegrown movies, art, and literature. That is largely because human existence has always resonated with certain emotions of- fear, anxiety, darkness, and curiosity for the unknown. These emotions have articulated themselves in varying forms according to the cultures that represent them. So for instance, Djinns or anglicized genies that originally come from Arabian regional mythology were claimed to be residing in deserts, changing forms, and causing diseases and sand storms. The Djinn is deeply rooted in the geography and time period. Back then, perhaps the biggest concern of residents of the Middle East and Arabian region would have been diseases or sandstorms. What we fear as a society is attributed to the times we live in and the cultural and social backdrop. This fear finds representation in the literature, oral narratives, and visual media content of a culture and it changes with time.  Honestly, a microscopic virus Halloween costume shouldn’t come as a surprise to us this Halloween. Just bring it on already and save us the dread.

An utmost favorite character in visual and written narratives has been that of a witch. Vaguely, the broom- riding, potion brewing, cat-woman is the popular image for the witch in the West, often seen in older Disney stories. The magic-using women of the Disney universe like Mother Gothel, Evil Queen, and Maleficent are embodiments of evil as their names suggest. Dramatically dressed in majestic Goth outfits and marked by a certain excessive, potentially threatening power; they often use ‘unnatural’ ways to sustain their beauty. The idea of women using mechanisms to undo the ‘natural’ has been condemned by patriarchy for ages. In Europe, a plethora of midwives were branded witches for using medicinal herbs to reduce the pain during childbirth, in the Middle Ages. It went against the dominant Christian idea of the pain women must bear during childbirth as retribution for the sin of Eve.  Sabrina from ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ and Marnie from ‘Halloween Town’ are revamped, prettified, and nicer versions of this prototype. The former particularly has been popularized as a symbol of resistance against patriarchy in the Witch World. Sabrina is embedded in a niche that is extremely palpable to the contemporary world- a sixteen-year-old girl struggling against the established norms and wishes to retain both freedom and power against them. In a world where a feminist understanding of equality, institutions of power, and female solidarity have made its place, we end up rooting for Sabrina.

In India this character manifests itself as the child-consuming, immortal seductress- the Dayan. It is just curious how the deeply loaded word has its roots in the Buddhist term ‘Dakini’ which has the ‘sacred female’ and the ‘wise one’ amongst its other meanings. Multiple sociologists have built on the idea that perhaps it was actually the wise, powerful or the transgressive women which were eventually branded as evil. Perhaps, that is what an essentially patriarchal society has always been scared of and we people have consumed on innumerable myths, tales and Bollywood movies premised in this fear. Innumerable Bollywood movies like ‘Ek Thi Daayan’, ‘Makdee’ and other less pleasing narratives have made huge profits out of this thrilling idea of the witch. With cinema evolving, we see a certain unpacking of the myth in terms of the justification of the witch’s vengeance which ties back to systemic oppression in a patriarchal society. The 2018 ‘Stree’ or Netflix’s latest ‘Bulbbul’ could be considered genuine attempts of unveiling the actual evil in societal institutions. Both these movies portray strong and spine-chilling scary episodes but also lead to certain speculation regarding branding people as outcasts only because they asserted their aspirations. It might look cool to associate with witchy aesthetic in contemporary society, but history has witnessed women literally being burnt on stakes for associating with symbols that mark them as transgressive.

The beauty of written narratives is such that they can be revisited by different generations across cultures. Stories like Jane Eyre and The Yellow Wallpaper are still widely read, adapted into films and plays. But where is the spooky, right? Precisely. We read books like Jane Eyre as a fairytale romance between Jane and Rochester but it has Gothic elements like the castle and the mysterious. The castle is a must when it comes to scary plots. The cattle or the mansion has been consistently igniting fear in the audience through its Dark Alleys and tormented history. From the classic Count Dracula to the Netflix ‘Haunting of the Hill House’ it almost becomes the most essential character in the story. But in Jane Eyre, the castle hides the mysterious Bertha Mason- “The Madwoman in The Attic”. Not once does she speak in the entire book but her ‘hysterical’ and ‘mysterious’ laugh constantly punctures the narrative. She yearns for liberation and only in her death she gets freed. She has been literally confined and erased by the power in the institution of marriage. In this case, a non- English, ‘hysterical’ wife is what could successfully scare people. We have fragile social systems and a collective opinion of what scares us as a society and perhaps unconsciously it always gets etched in the stories of our times.

The article was first published in M.Etch Newsletter, Miranda House, University of Delhi.

© 2020 Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.

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