Now that Eli Roth’s THANKSGIVING has been released to theaters, fans of blood, splatter, and gore can now celebrate that pretty much every holiday on the calendar has now been the subject of a horror movie*. While Christmas may hold the record for most holiday-themed horror films (with a whole sub-genre dedicated just to Santa Claus), eponymous holiday entries like MOTHER’S DAY (1980), APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986), FATHER’S DAY (2011) and, of course, HALLOWEEN (1978), are just a few of the many (mostly slasher) movies that come to mind. But what about the real-world horrors that have happened on Thanksgiving? Does the gathering of family and friends set off something violent and horrible in some people?
One report from 2018 showed incidents of domestic abuse in Los Angeles were up on Turkey Day. Albuquerque recently saw a rise in domestic violence, too, as evidence in this 2022 article. Some point to stress during — and unrealistic expectations of — the holidays as possible reasons for an increase in violent behavior. Even seasonal affective disorder might play a role, or so says ABC News, citing SAD and all other aforementioned reasons why the holiday season is a tough time for families.
Some worse than others.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Take the case of Ayalis Clay Oliver, 76, of El Paso, Texas, and the anger he felt toward his son Keith Oliver, 49, over the younger man’s refusal to help out around the house on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A .357-caliber revolver settled their argument, with father shooting son to death.
Also in 2009? Di riguer “Florida Man” Paul Michael Merhige killed four of his relatives in a Thanksgiving Day shooting rampage after he finished his dinner, left, and returned with a handgun. It was a premeditated murder twenty years in the making. Why he chose Thanksgiving Day for the atrocity is a bit of a mystery, but it is suspected that the gathering of family (albeit different locations for some), afforded Merhige the opportunity to commit his mass atrocity.
Then there’s the unique case of Omaima Nelson, the Egyptian model who killed, castrated and ate her husband on Thanksgiving Day in 1991. In Orange County, California, the unassuming Omaima repeatedly plunged a pair of scissors into the chest and stomach of Bill Nelson, her husband. Then she pummeled him to death with an iron. Why? She claimed Bill had subjected her to horrible sexual acts — including forcing her to have sex with other men for Bill’s personal gain (including a new car!). When Bill died, Omaima butchered his body in the kitchen. She boiled his hands in oil to remove fingerprints, and stuck his head in the freezer so she could later more easily pull out his teeth. Fittingly, Omaima castrated her husband, as well. She cooked and ate pieces of him for dinner.
Writing in The Huffington Post’s “Psychologists Explain How To Deal With The Nightmare That Is Thanksgiving Dinner,” journalist Kristen Aiken argues that “Every Thanksgiving…your kitchen can become a microcosm of your deepest insecurities.” Though the rest of her article is essentially advice for dealing with holiday stress, it is curious to note that the paragraph which contains the quote above ends with the almost menacing “Thanksgiving has the uncanny ability to zero in on your vulnerabilities and hammer away at them with brute force.”
Does it come down to vulnerabilities? It is curious to note that the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin noun vulnus (“wound”). The Latin verb vulnerare? Means “to wound.” And in this light, the aforementioned quoted from The Huffington Post takes on an even more sinister tone. Vulnerabilities are wounds that leave us open to emotional AND physical damage.
For many the emotional damage comes down like a hammer at the dinner table. Insecurities about the meal, years of unresolved issues coming to the fore, annoyances of character and personality, or familial tensions over past fights, slights, or differences of opinion. Very few people let the stress of these vulnerabilities get to them beyond the need for a valium or a trip outside for a clandestine cigarette. Some, however, seem to snap. The result of a deep-seeded trauma, a long-standing grudge, a diabolical premeditation, or even a blink-of-an-eye reaction to something as mundane as doing the dishes, violence at Thanksgiving is real. The wounds are deadly.
And despite what movies like THANKSGIVING may have you think, it’s not the mask-wearing serial killer that you have to fear this time of year. It’s the person sitting next to you at the table.
Or the one in your own seat.
Technically, THANKSKILLING is the first movie with dedicated death on the Thanksgiving holiday, but it was released direct to video in 2009, and not to theaters (what was it with the year 2009????). And Eli Roth’s own mock trailer for Thanksgiving in GINDHOUSE (2007) — the inspiration for his 2023 release — certainly counts.
The image of the Wicked Witch of the West in both Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) — and the arguably more famous 1939 MGM film of similar name — is what most people associate with the witch in popular culture: a creepy old crone wearing a pointed hat that may or may not be sitting on a broomstick. But for a time in the mid-twentieth century, a decidly different witch gained popularity, melding the trappings of witchery and Halloween with the then ubiquitous pinup girls that graced calendars and magazines during World War II… and well into the nineteen fifties and sixties.
The transformation, however, wasn’t so much a sudden shift from a prim and proper nineteenth century into a more sexually permissive twentieth. It was a gradual transformation from centuries’ old suspicion to modern fascination.
Depictions of witches in Fin de Siècle and early twentieth century popular culture — perhaps best studied in picture postcards (which became quite popular as a result of their 1893 Columbian Exposition) — mostly show the crone.
In fact, in the years that sending picture postcards through the mail were at their most popular (“The Golden Age of Postcards” from 1907 to 1915), the majority of those meant for Halloween showed the witch as an old woman.
There were exceptions, of course. The witch postcard at left, for example (circa 1910) shows a young woman. And a cursory examination of many online postcard libraries online* reveals that, in addition to young woman and old crone, there are also children depicted in witch costumes. So postcards obviously do not tell the whole story. While we do not have the massive Halloween industry of today that cranks out hundreds of styles of plastic, paper and metal decorative items, there is evidence in ephemera other than postcards that fills some gaps in the history of depiction of witches.
FIN DE SIECLE CULTURE, ART NOUVEAU, AND THE NEW WOMAN
An ad for Pears Soap from 1889, for example, shows a naked witch riding a broomstick, with very little context for why she was there beyond being “a fair maiden” in the sky. Other ephemera from the 1880s and 90s similarly depicted young, attractive witches (see, for example, this Sapolio ad in Collier’s Magazine from 1899 [again, a soap ad!].
Over a few short decades, this New Woman was being described (at least in this excerpt from “Feminine Values” in the March 1930 issue of The Chicago Tribune) as “[getting] what she wants. The vote. Slim sheaths of silk to replace voluminous petticoats. Glassware in sapphire blue or glowing amber. The right to a career. Soap to match her bathroom’s color scheme…” [again with the soap!] …and this odd mix of liberation and materialism suited the times: a period of American history known for its focus on glamour, leisure, and yes, sexuality. It was a time of the flapper, the Ziegfield Girls, and, curiously, the Ipswitch Hosiery witch.
THE “MODERN WITCH” AND IPSWICH HOSIERY
Founded in 1868, Ipswich Hosiery** became one of the largest hosiery makers in the world between 1916 and 1919. The company name — taken from the town in Massachusetts where their mills were located … a town where a woman was hanged for witchcraft in 1692 — inspired their logo. A silhouette of a witch riding on a stocking instead of a broomstick, it was used in some advertisements and on some product packagaing in the nineteen twenties.
Some ads from Ipswich Hosiery touted “The Modern Witch,” and they are curious as some of the art harkens back to a Victorian sensibility while others show the “New Woman,” free of her petticoats. It was as if the history of the company and its advertising ran along a parallel track with both the depiction of women AND of the witch in the nineteen tens and twenties.
The two Ipswitch witches shown here reveal a push and pull of artistic sensibilities — perhaps reflecting the company’s perception of the wide range of styles (and expectations of representation) among customers themselves. How did the women of the nineteen tens and twenties see themselves? Which version most appealed to these women? And which versions appealed to men… for these ads, designed for women, were almost certainly done by men — with their conflicting desires to depict both the “girl next door” and a highly eroticized woman.
It is, perhaps, in those conflicts that the pinup girl finds her origins.
THE HOLIDAY CALENDAR
Although some might argue that the Gibson Girl of the turn of the century is the first of the pinups, “Petty Girls” and “Varga Girls” are perhaps the best known and truest form of holiday pinup art. The term “pinup girl” entered the language in 1941***, and the witch was pretty much there from the beginning in many calendars and advertisements produced from the nineteen forties onward.
George Petty — of the “Petty Girls” — began work Esquire in the 1930s. His early work would be more cartoonish, featuring scantily clad women and a character called “the old codger” (or “old duffer”) but as people begain responding positiviely more and more just to the illustrations of women, Esquire commissioned Petty to work almost exclusively on pinups — with their annual pinup calendar of the 1940s selling particularly well. Petty’s work was so popular in the thirties and forties that he was in high demand in the world of advertising — which paid better than magazines. Eventually, he began to want more money from Esquire. Although he continued to do work on and off for the magazine until 1956, Esquire often turned to his unofficial successor, Alberto Vargas, for pinup illustrations instead (as Vargas would often work for less).
Vargas’ career began with illustrations for the Ziegfield Follies and Hollywood posters (like Sin of Norma Moran). By 1939, blacklisted by Hollywood for “walking off the job” in solidarity with union advocates at Warner Brothers, Vargas found himself in need of work. He would turn to pure pinup art, and especially became known for his work on the “Esquire Girl” calendar. The first was in 1940. Each month would feature a different girl, dressed for that month’s most prominent holiday.
Gil Elvgren also worked during the same period. In 1937, Elvgren began his pinup career for Louis F. Dow, one of the U.S.’ biggest publishing companies at the time. His pinup witch from 1958**** is still used today on many a Halloween decoration that one can easily find on Etsy. Online and available for sale, Elvgren’s witch is just one of a variety of pieces one can find (apparently out of copyright) by so many other pinup artists of the period (Earl Moran, Michael Silver, and Harry Ekman, just to name a few).
It is in Vargas’ work for the Halloween holiday, however, that the evolution of the depiction of the witch in popular culture is perhaps best seen. His illustration of a witch for a deck of playing cards, for example (below), reflects how Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and even the Gibson, Ipswich, and Ziegfield girls all come together in an illustration that is equal parts ethereal and earthy.
But it’s not just the painted pinup that became popular in the forties and fifties. It could be said that Hollywood had already perfected the pinup in the famous photo of Betty Grable from 1943.***** And the pinup witch? From the nineteen forties through the nineteen fifties in Hollywood cheesecake photography, she found her heyday, replete with fishnet stockings and a pointy hat.
Film and television would further influence the public perception of the witch. 1942’s I MARRIED A WITCH saw Veronica Lake looking very much the pinup in promotional materials for the film. And while 1958’s BELL BOOK AND CANDLE eschewed the trappings of witch, it and I MARRIED A WITCH heavily influenced “Bewitched,” the beloved television series which ran from 1964 to 1972.
But the printed pinup calendar and witchy women in Hollywood photos, film, and TV fell out of favor by the nineteen seventies. Images of the highly sexualized witch would continue in men’s adult magazines. Playboy, for example — for whom Vargas also worked (through the late sixties) — found continued success through to the eighties and nineties, even while the traditional pinup girl (now downright innocent by comparison) would ultimately go into decline.
But the early 21st century would find yet another change: as print images and other traditional forms of media were pretty much becoming a thing of the past, social media and smartphones would democratize the taking and sharing of digital “pinup” photos. Say what you will about their proliferation, today’s Instagram photos put much of the power over the image directly into women’s hands. Many of these women have discovered the “retro” pinup look. What’s old is new again.
As for the witch? One could find in the history of depictions of the witch in popular culture a thread that finds its source in the neopaganist, Jungian archetype of the Triple Goddess (Maiden, Mother, and Crone). But that’s a blog entry of a completely different kind. For now, it is best to end here with a simple observation: popular culture of the last one-hundred-and-fifty odd years turned what was once wild, supernatural and usually repulsive into something tamed, earthy and societally attractive. The Pinup Witch had arrived, and she remains a staple of Halloween to this day.
* For those interested in holiday postcards, here’s just one example of the online libraries you can browse: New York Public Library.
** Click here for a detailed history of Ipswich Hosiery.