This weekend, chances are you’ll open your front door to a little witch or two demanding candy. In modern American culture, a black pointy hat instantly means “magic.”

But while we have plenty of visual symbols for magic, we can’t see magic itself – just its supposed effects. Similarly, we can’t see smells, but they certainly affect us, whether it’s bringing on nostalgia or bringing on a headache. So it makes sense that scent and sorcery have often been linked, as they were in ancient Rome and Greece. Witches in ancient literature wielded smelly potions and seductive perfumes, Arizona State University classics professor Britta Ager explains, reflecting their societies’ views of women – which were often both unflattering and fearful. Those ideas continue to shape views of witches in the West today.

And we’ve rounded up several more stories about magic and treats in time for Halloween: from modern-day Wiccans to a 15th-century guide to witchcraft to how to trick-or-treat in a pandemic. (Hint: no, you don’t need to quarantine your candy.)


Molly Jackson

Religion and Ethics Editor

Perfumes, potions and witches have been entwined for centuries. Frederick Stuart Church/Smithsonian American Art Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Smells like witch spirit: How the ancient world’s scented sorceresses influence ideas about magic today

Britta Ager, Arizona State University

Scent and magic have been entwined in our imaginations for centuries – right up to today’s witch-inspired perfumes.

How do you spot a witch? This notorious 15th-century book gave instructions – and helped execute thousands of women

Melissa Chim, General Theological Seminary

Witch trials relied on a medieval text called the “Malleus Maleficarum” – a book this reference librarian can hold in her hands.

How commercialization over the centuries transformed the Day of the Dead

Mathew Sandoval, Arizona State University

A Mexican-American scholar writes that in the 1700s, Day of the Dead generated the largest annual market in Mexico City.

From Black Death to COVID-19, pandemics have always pushed people to honor death and celebrate life

Nükhet Varlik, Rutgers University - Newark

Halloween, with its mix of the macabre and the playful, provides a moment to reflect on how closely life and death are interwoven – especially in 2021.

More ‘disease’ than ‘Dracula’ – how the vampire myth was born

Stanley Stepanic, University of Virginia

The past century’s vampires have often been a bit dashing, even romantic. That’s not how the myth started out.

Wiccans in the US military are mourning the dead in Afghanistan this year as they mark Samhain, the original Halloween

Helen A. Berger, Brandeis University

Samhain will be particularly poignant this year for Wiccans who are members or veterans of the US military as they process the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Halloween isn’t about candy and costumes for modern-day pagans – witches mark Halloween with reflections on death as well as magic

Helen A. Berger, Brandeis University

For members of the minority religion of Wicca and witchcraft – part of contemporary paganism – Halloween is not just a children’s holiday: It is both a celebration and acceptance of death.

Simple safety tips for trick-or-treating after Fauci greenlighted Halloween 2021

Meg Sorg, Purdue University

There’s no need to pull out the candy catapult this year, but a few reasonable precautions can keep COVID-19 transmissions in check.

When Halloween became America’s most dangerous holiday

W. Scott Poole, College of Charleston

In the early 1970s, rumors about poisoned candy on Halloween led to mass paranoia. A historian explains why such fears emerge – and what, in reality, feeds them.