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Is it bad taste to dress up as Matthew Hopkins (Witchfinder-General) for Halloween?

October 31, 2014


This is not a hypothetical question.  I mean, I’ve actually made myself a big black hat out of cardboard and tape.  I’ll tuck my trousers into my long socks, put some silver paper around some buckle-shapes, paint a big fake book marked “The Discoverie of Witchcraft” and I’m away.  You see, it occurred to me that it’s really rather hard to scare people at Halloween.  And then it occurred to me that if half the town are out dressed as witches then the scariest thing you can do is dress up as a witch-finder.  I’ll go out in my hat and fake book and point at them, shouting “Witch!” at the top of my little lungs.  Especially when those little witches ring on our doorbell chanting “trick or treat” and expecting sweets.  A witchfinder is the last thing they’ll expect to open the door.  Chortle chortle.

But I’m aware that witchfinding was a cruel and nasty business.  Particularly in places like Scotland and the Netherlands.  If you were a grumpy old woman living alone with a cat in the seventeenth-century, you didn’t want to be doing it in Scotland or the Netherlands.  But at what point does a costume cease to be offensive and start to be funny?

This invites a larger discussion about the nature of history and comedy and bad taste.  When I give lectures on bad behaviour in theatres, I do tend to reflect on a certain event that disrupted a performance in Ford’s Theatre in 1865.  I note that “Our American Cousin” was, when all is said and done, a really terrible play – an Anglo-American romcom trading in stereotypes that were already stale in the 1860s, the sort of thing that would nowadays be scripted by Richard Curtis and star the likes (or dislikes) Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.  In fact (as I tell my students) I bet old Abe was stuck up there thinking “ANYTHING to get me out of here.”  A few people always wince at that and I have to fake  apologise and and ask “too soon?”

If it’s too soon for Abe, what about Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder-General, two hundred years earlier?  I’ve read my Keith Thomas like a good boy (although many years ago) and I’m aware of the complex and often local contexts of witchfinding.  You’d be selling some fruit and vegetables in the town square and some grumpy old woman would ask you for credit.  You’d refuse and as she turned away she’s mutter something under her breath.  That night you don’t sleep well at all – you toss and turn with unfamiliar aches and pains.  And the next day a witchfinder rides into town asking if you know about any witches… local grievances, see?

However, we need to put our serious faces on and collectively agree that it’s wrong to incinerate our neighbours just because we don’t like them very much.

Suppose we go much further back.  One day I’d like us to make a trip to Rome as a family.  Our son is interested in ancient history – so why not?  Doubtless we’ll visit the Coliseum (of Flavian Amphitheatre as I will pedantically call it).  Who wouldn’t visit the Flavian Amphitheatre?  And yet this, the most magnificent structure in the world’s greatest empire was (let’s be honest) a theatre devoted to the performance of carnographic obscenities.  It was a theatre for live snuff porn.  It was a very very disgusting place altogether?  Now, I admit that live snuff porn has not been performed there for 1600 years.  Would I go there if live snuff porn had not been performed there for just 16 years?  Definitely not  What about 160 years?  Hmmm – there might still be photographic evidence – so – no.

But at some point, clearly the horrors of history become marketable “Horrible History”.   Will this happen one day to the horrors of twentieth and twenty first century?  I feel rather glad I won’t be there to see it.  And I dare say any 400 year old people still wandering around would be concerned about me having fun with witchfinding.

I haven’t answered my own question.  As I type, my big black witchfinding hat is peering at me from across the room, grinning as it leans at a rakish angle to the CD tower.  “Wear me” it says.  “Have fun with me tonight!”

Well, we shall see…


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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    I’ve found my Halloween “look”.

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