Podcast: The spellbinding world of witchcraft and the supernatural

10 September 2018

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘witch’? Most people will come up with a similar image: old, haggard, ugly, bent-nosed, broomstick-laden and, above all, female. But how accurate is this stereotype?

UQ ChangeMakers sat down with Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar, Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at UQ and the author of ‘Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England’, to delve into the dark arts of witchcraft and the supernatural.


Find out more:

Visit UQ Small Change to read a blog by Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar.


"So many people executed that this was part of a cultural belief system, so to really understand the past, you need to understand well how can people who were intelligent, educated people believe something that we now see as ludicrous. And I found that a really interesting way into the minds of the past.”

Belinda McDougall: Welcome to UQ ChangeMakers, a podcast series where we interview some of the most influential and inspiring members of the UQ community. My name is Belinda McDougall

Katie Rowney: And I’m Katie Rowney. In this spellbinding episode, we delve into the dark arts with UQ’s witchcraft and ghost expert Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar.

Belinda: Charlotte’s research interests lie in supernatural belief and gender topics, and she is the author of ‘Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early-Modern England’. Charlotte, welcome.

Charlotte: Thanks, it’s great to be here.

Belinda: Well we’ll go back in history, can you explain the role of witches in our past?

Charlotte: Sure, so a lot of people think of witchcraft as a medieval kind of thing, you know whenever we talk about something that’s awful or tortuous, we say it’s really medieval, it’s from the dark ages. But actually witchcraft really, it has the most strong history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so after the medieval period. I mean it’s really around that time that witchcraft became a crime that was enforced by state law, not just church law. So between about 1450 and 1700, about 50 000 men and women were executed for witchcraft. And those people were not witches, they didn’t identify as witches, but they were accused of basically being a part of this kind of anti-Christian sect that people believed existed and accused of working with the devil, basically, as ludicrous as that sounds, but they were executed for this crime in a lot of cases.

Belinda: So what sort of crimes are we talking about? Were they everyday things that they just pointed the finger and used it as an excuse?

Charlotte: Sometimes. So the sort of typical witch is usually female, although there are male witches, they’re usually quite old, particularly, so they’re over sixty or even over eighty, which particularly in that period is really old, the often poor and sometimes widowed so they’re not protected anymore. So they’re sort of on the fringes of society in a way. And often accusations can, they usually happen at a small village level, and they can fester for years. So people can dislike someone for say 30 years. And then there’s usually something like maybe a famine happens or some bad thing happens in the community. And people want something to blame, they want to understand why something has gone wrong. And then it’s sort of easy to think well that person over there, she seems suspicious, maybe she’s the one who caused this. So on one level, on the sort of village level, witches are accused of doing things that are really quite mundane, so things like killing animals or hurting children, or making men impotent as well, is another one. And then on the bigger kind of level, witches were accused of working with the devil and even meeting with the devil to sort of get demonic power to do those things like kill cows.

Katie: You said there were some men accused of being witches as well, but it mostly seems to be a women thing. Why is that?

Charlotte: Yeah, so I think that’s a – it’s partly truth and partly myth. It’s something we definitely think today; we think of witches as women. Firstly, when we’re talking about male or female witches in the past, they’re both called witches, there aren’t any wizards or warlocks; they’re all witches. I think that, we’ll say in England, 90% of accused witches were women, and 10% were male. So what historians are really trying to work out at the moment, and we’re still not sure is why some men were accused when there’s so few numbers. So some people have argued that these were men who were effeminate, and different in that way, but others have argued, I think quite convincingly, that both male and female witches are people who don’t do what’s expected of them gender wise. So whether for men that’s being effeminate, or actually being sort of hyperaggressively masculine, they’re both things they’re not meant to be doing, and they’re sort of outside a norm. So witches I think are often people who are outside of a normal standard of behaviour, and therefore become sort of suspicious. But then there’s other countries like in Scandinavia, where there are more male witches, and that’s often associated with a more learned, more educated style of magic, I suppose.

Belinda: Were there actual witch trials? We hear about this mentioned in TV and movies, have you had the opportunity to read some of the transcripts from the trials?

Charlotte: Yeah, absolutely. So there were definitely witch trials, and in a, it depends on what country you’re in, I’m talking about Europe here, that’s my particular area. In, say, England which once again, my particular area, about 50% of people who were bought to trial were found guilty and executed. But about 50% got off.  So the trials, it depends what country you were in, in some countries, it’s a sort of top-down process, but in others, it’s more that people accuse their neighbours, and then convince someone to trial them. So we have transcripts from those trial records which are fascinating to read. So we have verbatim testimony from the witches and the neighbours and it’s also a really good way of hearing women’s voices in history, so we often don’t have a lot of historical writing from women, but here we do have their words recorded. There’s also a lot of printed pamphlets about witches, so these are kind of like early newspapers, where someone would buy the latest pamphlet, it would be very cheap, and they could read or have read to them the latest case of witchcraft that actually happened. And it would sort of be couched in this moral term that this woman or this man was not a virtuous Christian. They let their greed and their desire for revenge take over, they turned to the devil, they became a witch and now they’re being executed. So this is what could happen to you if you’re not good, basically. So it’s sort of entertainment and moralising at the same time.

Katie: Was it some kind of way of perhaps trying to keep those outsiders of society in line?

Charlotte: I mean yes and no. I mean I think that it’s tempting to say that but it’s slightly too simplistic, simply because for instance, some people have argued that witch hunting is women hunting, and we can’t really say that, because even though say in England, most people accused of witchcraft were women, most of the people doing the accusing were also women. And so it’s not a sort of man attacking women thing. A lot of witchcraft happens in a very female sphere, so women of course in the 16th and 17th century are very much in the home, and they’re very much in charge of food and child rearing. And often witchcraft acts are about somebody has poisoned my bread or my beer that I’m trying to make, or they’ve killed my child. And it’s sort of this, it’s really quite contained in that female sphere for a lot of the time, which is why it’s more complicated that sort of powerful men attacking women, I suppose.

Katie: And so as a result, did we see the things we accused witches of doing change as society changed?

Charlotte: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. Doing my PhD and my subsequent book I expected to see a lot of change over time from sort of the 16th century to even the early 18th century, but actually the crimes that witches were accused of stayed remarkably the same. SO one of the most typical ways we see witchcraft accusations playout is, say I’m an old woman and I come begging to your door asking for bread, which is quite a common thing to do, and I ask for bread and you say no. And as I go away I curse under my breath, which is something we all do today all the time. And the person who’s rejected me hears me curse and the next day her cow drops dead, because cows do drop dead, and you think ‘Well I’m feeling guilty because I didn’t give that woman any bread and I really should have, but she cursed my cow so she’s a witch.’ And this is the most common way, particularly in England, that these accusations get started, from these kind of neighbourly disputes. And as people have argued really witchcraft can only occur in small communities where everyone knows each other, because it’s built on these tensions that sort of eventually bubble up and overhaul. And that’s definitely what we see in England in the 16th and the 17th centuries. There is very very few Witchcraft accusations in London, it is really in much smaller centres.

Belinda: I always think of Salem because, I suppose Bewitched and all that sort of stuff, but was England actually a higher level accusations of witches and witchcraft?

Charlotte: Sure, so England is actually quite a small example within Europe. So basically in Europe the most witchcraft is sort of the strongest in the German speaking areas of Europe, so the Holy Roman Empire. It’s also quite high in parts of France, Scotland is relatively high, Switzerland surprisingly, England’s quite low. England has about a thousand accusations and 500 executions, but that doesn’t mean witchcraft isn’t a concern. It’s really more that the English judicial system is far more cautious than a lot of the other ones, so it’s actually harder to get prosecutions across. On Salem though, so Salem happens in the 1690’s and it’s really at the end of the Witchcraft era so it’s really settled down in a lot of Europe an so Salem is quite late but it’s what we think of. And Salem really happens because, to be very simplistic about it, it’s a moment of turmoil. Salem doesn’t have a charter so they can’t properly punish people or the legal system isn’t working basically, and there is also a lot of attacks by Native Americans, so really there’s really a high level of stress and that’s where a lot of this witchcraft accusations come out, in those moments of turmoil.

Belinda: It’s interesting that you talk about the trials and the system, the judicial system, because it’s portrayed in the movies as sort of this mob that go and grab some little old lady and carry her away. So it wasn’t like that at all?

Charlotte: It does happen, it absolutely does happen. But generally it is something that happens within in a court system. So in England it happens in the Assizes Court which come around four times a year, so you are held until you can get to one of those courts but it is a travelling court that comes and visits your little place. And so that’s what happens in the English system so it is, sort of, goes through those courts. People always think of the Inquisition with witchcraft, I think Monty Python is to blame for this, in Spain. But really the Inquisition actually keeps a bit of cap because it is in control. So really the point where we see accusations get out of control in places like Salem where there isn’t a proper legislative thing in place or in England during the Civil War where there’s really is no control at all, and so actually the system controls rather than encourages. It’s quite funny.

Katie: We were talking a little bit earlier about those myths we all have when it comes to Witches. What are some of the more common ones?

Charlotte: So definitely that witches are women, but I think the ones that is quite pervasive is that people in the past identified as witches, which is one that is difficult because people in the past really didn’t. I mean the closest you get to being a witch in the 16th and 17th century is you might identify as what’s called a ‘cunning man’ or a ‘cunning woman’, like a Wisewoman or a Wiseman. So it’s somebody that people would go and visit when they’re sick. Often people would see a doctor and a priest and a cunning man, they would see those different types of people and they might offer some kind of herbal remedy or sometimes a charm. And so that’s the closet you get to that that witchy magic stuff. But those people would still identify as Christians, not as some sort of anti, heretical, devil worshipping person. And so I think that’s a big difference that people seem to think, that this was a group of people that were persecuted for their beliefs and that’s really not the case.

Belinda: So where did those images that we’re used to seeing come into that timeline of, you know, the woman with the crooked nose and the wart or riding a broomstick?

Charlotte: So in terms of the woman with the crooked nose and the wart, I think that comes from the fact that most accused witches were aged, elderly woman, and if you are an old person in the 16th and 17th century you are going to have quite a lot of noticeable scars, you are going to be kind of disfigured in some ways. Also people used to, in England, search the body of the witch for marks of Witchcraft and we haven’t talked about familiar spirits, which I would like to talk about. Familiar spirits, they’re basically if you think if Sabrina the Teenage Witch with the little cat called Salem or Harry Potter with the Owl, you know basically they’re a little animal that’s sort of meant to help the witch, but what we’ve forgotten is that they were actually believed to be devils in animal form and so the reason that in England that people were physically searched is they were searched for a mark on their body that their little animal was believed to suck blood from as part of the pact. So it’s a whole different, I mean you think of this cute little cat but it had a very different representation at the time. So that’s I think the marks come from the idea that the witches body being kind of implicated in the Witchcraft.

Katie: You talk about often the witches being portrayed as an older woman and that they were the most frequently accused, but we also see a lot of historical drawings, and paintings, and things that have sort of a young, almost sexy witch.

Charlotte: Yeah absolutely, that’s a really good point. So there’s definitely some great examples by people like Dürer and Baldung-Grien, quite big painters, Dura particularly, were the witches are portrayed as you say often naked, often in this very voluptuous, sexy kind of way and that’s sort of the flip side of the witch, and those paintings are really interesting because what they’re doing, so in those painting often the naked woman is looking at you and making really direct eye contact with you, and there’s this real seductiveness about it, and I think this comes down to the idea that witches and the devil are going to try and seduce you. So it’s this whole idea, it’s a very different way of looking at the world, that God and the Devil are real things and we have to get into that mindscape to understand it. And so God has his followers but the Devil is trying to recruit followers, and that’s what witches are. And so there’s this idea that the Devil takes nice little shapes, like the cat, to try and seduce you, but also that these women are trying to seduce you away from Christ into the Devil’s clutches, so it’s kind of this dangerous sexuality. And also there’s this idea that these women are being deviant sexually as well. They often have flowing hair, which is always a symbol of lust and a lack of control, and so really it’s sort of this dangerous unfettered woman.

Katie: It’s interesting that you talk about the sexuality of witches because a lot of people tend to argue that Witchcraft and sexuality go hand-in-hand and that perhaps these trials were part of the Patriarchy and trying to keep women down, but that hasn’t been your finding, is that correct?

Charlotte: No I think that’s it’s definitely something people used to argue, particularly in the 1990’s there were quite a lot of works published on sort of the idea on that that patriarchy oppressing women and that’s what Witchcraft was – the witch hunting as woman hunting. And I think that scholarship came from a place where really before sort of the 70’s and 80’s no one had looked at the gender aspect of Witchcraft. Even though they were all women gender history wasn’t really a way in which we looked at things. So it was kind of a correct that we needed to take the fact that so many women were accused really seriously and try and understand what that meant. But since the 1990’s there’s been a lot more published about how really a lot of women accused by other women and it’s a lot more complicated than that. So I think in terms of sexuality there was definitely, definitely women had to be controlled in their sexualities, so did men but women had to more so. And there’s this definite idea that if women are unmarried or widowed they are sort of out of, they’re not wives and mothers and that’s what women are not meant to do in this period. And that’s where a lot of anxiety towards these people come from. So one of the anxieties we see a lot of is women accusing other women of Witchcraft because sort of rivalries around children. So for instance when a women went into labour she had her female friends and neighbours with her and there were cases where someone didn’t invite a particular female neighbour to the birth and then their child died, because unfortunately children did die more often in that period. And so that woman blames the woman she didn’t invite and decides she’s a witch and has hurt her child. So there’s definitely the idea that ‘this woman doesn’t have her own children so she’s attacking mine’ or, ‘she’s not married so she’s attacking my family’. The domesticity I think is really important. Also with the familiars I mentioned before, sucking the blood out of witches bodies, they actually, those marks are often in really in sexualised places on a woman’s, a witches’, body. We think now actually quite a lot of them were probably hemorrhoids and marks like that, that were actually there but they… they did know what hemorrhoids were but they interpreted in them in this demonic way. So the idea that a witch’s body is sexualized is absolutely there and you see it in the painting you’ve described, also there’s was a belief that witches went to the Sabbath with the Devil. So I think we’ve all probably heard of the Sabbath, but it’s a sort of night time meeting where witches are believed to meet the Devil. This obviously never happened but people believed that it did, and at those meetings people believed that witches had orgies with the Devil. So there really is this deviant sexuality attached to witches and to women’s bodies.

Belinda: So what was the catalyst to see the end of this period? What changed?

Charlotte: It’s such a big question and it’s one we’re debating a lot. I think one thing that happened is that it wasn’t that people stopped believing in Witchcraft necessarily, some people did, particularly educated people who started to question it more, but the big move was really that it wasn’t that people thought they couldn’t, didn’t exist but they couldn’t prove it. So in the English case a lot of magistrates stopped trialing Witchcraft cases because they through, ‘Well how can we possibly prove this persons’ a witch’, and so they didn’t say they couldn’t be, but that, yea, wasn’t legally provable particularly once you get rid of torture as well, you get rid of a lot of confessions. In Europe there were never really torture in England but in most of Europe there was, and the confession was really seen as proof. So once you get rid of the confession it becomes increasingly hard to prove. So for instance, in England the law against witches was repealed in 1735 but the last Witchcraft execution was 50 years earlier, so really the law sort of, it had already changed before the law was changed. So I think it’s really a sort of idea of that ‘we need more evidence and that we can’t prove this’, rather than changing belief. Belief continues and then waters down as well.

Belinda: Does any country still actually have a law against Witchcraft?

Charlotte: Yeah so, I’m not an expert in modern Witchcraft but I do know that in parts of Asia, say Cambodia and in Papa New Guinea they have a lot of issue s with Witchcraft and Witch Hunting. In some countries people think, ‘Well now there’s no law. I have to take the law into my own hands.’ So you have a lot of mob killings of witches in Papa New Guinea and Cambodia, and I believe in Saudi Arabia there are witch hunts but I’m not sure. But yeah no, absolutely. It’s definitely an issue. Children are killed under suspicion if Witchcraft in parts of Asia. Yeah. And it’s the same kind of thing where people are looking for an explanation for something that they don’t understand, and it might seem quite simple. Say if someone dies we can say, ‘Well they had cancer. That’s why they died’ and people will sometimes accept they had cancer, but their question would be ‘Well who gave them cancer?’ And that’s where the Witchcraft comes in.

Belinda: What about the modern witches? How do you feel about that? The portrayal of, we’ve got Samantha from Bewitched, even Harry Potter has changed that perception.

Charlotte: Yeah I love all those. I loved Harry Potter as a child and growing up I found out it was actually banned in places in America, Harry Potter, because they thought it was demonic which I found really strange. I think that there are sort of two things. There is Witchcraft in popular culture, which really seems to be having a resurgence, there seems to be so many witches around. Charmed was around when I was a teenager, everyone was obsessed with it, and it really portrays these strong female witches, which is great and they’ve definitely gone back to the sexy kind of witches there. And then of course there’s people who today identify as witches as well, which is quite separate. But I think in terms of the fictional depiction of Witchcraft it’s really interesting the bits that come through, so Harry Potter, they do seem to have the animals but the animals definitely aren’t the Devil. And for instance Philip Pullman’s trilogy they have animals that are called Daemon’s, but then there’s no Witchcraft. So these sort of things filter through a little bit, which is interesting.
Katie: And we see a really strong link now between people that identify as witches and feminists as well. Do you think there’s a reason for that?

Charlotte: The feminists stuff has been really interesting lately politically. So say with Julia Gillard and Hilary Clinton, both of them were called witches in the news, and I found that a really interesting association that we still, firstly female politicians who are called witches – no male politicians are, and calling a woman a witch seems to really imply that she’s old and somehow dried up, and kind of past it, I think. It’s this really nasty insult, and it’s funny we still have that at the back of our mind. But then at the same time we have all these, kind of, powerful witches on TV, but maybe that’s why it’s happening. People don’t like the kind of powerful feminine witch. They’re turning it around and attacking people.

Belinda: Here’s a question. How did you ever get interested in this topic?

Charlotte: That’s a hard question because I always just think it’s fundamentally interesting. But I suppose I really was into, I was always into stories about witches and fantasy things when I was little and I was very into Harry Potter and I was into all things like that, then I got to Uni and there was a subject called “Witches and Witch Hunting in European Societies” at Melbourne Uni, and there’s one at UQ as well. And it was doing that subject that made me realise that is was a historical topic, that so many people were executed, that this was part of a cultural belief system. So to really understand the past you need to understand, well, how could people, who were intelligent educated people believe something that we now see as ludicrous, and I found that really interesting way into the minds of the past. And so I really just went from there, did a PhD with the person who taught that subject, and yeah. But I always think that it’s far more interesting to be able to learn about how a ghost appeared to someone and gave them a knife and then disappeared, and then they were accused based on the ghosts’ testimony. I mean it’s just strange as opposed to saying ‘I studied the Economic Crisis of 19…’ I mean it’s just far more interesting.

Belinda: Oh my god. 

Katie: I was interested that you had written about nightmares, and I’m a person that gets sleep paralysis so I find it fascinating. So is that for you, studying nightmares, is that sort of the path crossed between ghosts and witches because people see both?

Charlotte: Yeah I think that’s really interesting. So the nightmare article for me was a little stepping stone, I suppose, because I was looking at some Witchcraft cases where witches seem to be describing the nightmare, so the sort of the sleep paralysis nightmare where you wake up and they thought a devil… well you don’t wake up, you think you’re awake, and they saw devils on their chests, and I sort of was talking about how this was part of a process of demonic temptation, that these witches feel that the Devil was appearing to them. Today it’s far more common to see UFO’s appearing in sleep paralysis. So it really affect what we fear as a society and the Devil at that time was absolutely terrifying. And then I think, I sort of got interested in the ghosts stuff because a lot of the ghosts intersect with demons actually in a way we don’t think of today. But a lot of ghosts sightings in the 16th and the 17th century was often are ‘you don’t know if it’s a ghost or a devil’, and so I guess that’s where I followed my nose to.

Katie: It’s interesting to me when I was younger I used to see a witch with my sleep paralysis, and when I was older I saw a robber. So obviously my fears changed to ‘I’m much more scared of a guy with a knife than an old lady hanging out in my room.’ That’s fine, they can do that. So you’ve looked at early ghost sightings, that’s the area you focused on.

Charlotte: Very recently, yeah. So that’s definitely a new thing for me.

Katie: And what have you found?

Charlotte: So far, well what I’m finding really interesting so far is, I’m mainly looking at the 17th century in England and so when I talk about ghosts sightings, ghost sightings is a good way to say actually because if I say ghost stories people assume they are meant to be fictional but these are actually meant to be real writings that people have seen. So it’s sort of the start of the 17th century, a lot of the people see things that are a lot more like demonic animals or more sort of blurry, ‘is it a devil or is it a ghost? What is it?’ A lot of black dogs appear and sometimes they’re familiar spirits or sometimes they’re ghosts. But then when we get to sort of the mid-17th century ghosts start becoming far more like we think of them, so humans basically, and that they’re believed to the dead souls of actual people who have existed. But I think what I find really interesting it that basically because I’m looking at England, England in the 17th century is Protestant and it used to be Catholic. And basically in Protestant England ghosts shouldn’t exist because ghosts are the souls of people who have come back from the dead. That shouldn’t exist because Protestantism gets rid of the idea of purgatory, so ghosts really shouldn’t be coming from anywhere. So what a lot of Protestant reformers and priests and preachers try and argue is if you see a ghosts it’s actually the Devil disguising himself as a ghost to trick you. So it’s all about the Devil trying to trick you. But what I’m finding is that people really don’t subscribe to that view, they see what they think is the ghost of their mother. They don’t think, ‘Well that’s a demon.’ They want to think it’s their mother. And so there’s a lot of tension between is it a ghost or is it a devil, and you get a lot of cases where someone believes it is the ghost of their mother but they seem to have become like a demon mother, and it’s really really strange.

Belinda: So why do people want to see ghosts or what have historically you found?

Charlotte: Well I think that, this is a hard question because Australians still believe in ghosts in huge amounts. I think it’s 35 per cent of people admit to believing in ghosts, which means that probably more do and don’t want to actually admit. And I think most people want to believe. So I teach a course here called ‘History of the Supernatural’ and we look at lots of different supernatural creatures, sort of zombies, and vampires, and ghosts, and demons, and the only thing people believe in is ghosts. They think everything else is absolutely ridiculous but the ghosts are fine. And I find that really fascinating and I think that’s because

We do want to believe that, for our own sakes, there’s something after we die. No one wants to think they just vanish, and also that our loved ones are still around. But a lot of people, I mean I think in the past people were, they were just part of a religious belief, whereas now a lot of people who aren’t religious still believe in ghosts, so I think there is that today there is a desire to believe in something else. But also people in the past, a lot of them actually… so I expected to find that they really wanted to see these ghost but they really don’t.

Katie: They’re all really scared.

Charlotte: But really the ghost appears and people are terrified, and we have sort of bodily descriptions of people crying, there’s one where somebody apparently miscarried because they saw a ghost, but they don’t want to see them at all so I have to rethink how I’m thinking about that.

Katie: Have you in your studies on ghosts found that there’s a certain type of person who sees them, because we often hear about babies being able to see ghosts, or seems to be women that tend to have reported more than men. Is that what you found?

Charlotte: Well I’m still in the early stages of the research so I can’t really make any broad conclusions, but so far no. I think the main thing is that people, that the ghosts are very localised so people will see, people who’ve lived… So they’re in London say, but it is in a very small radius, maybe three streets, and a woman will come back and everyone know that woman and multiple people will see her. And then often when the person, the ghost, comes back something physical happens as sort of proof. So often they’ll say there’s buried treasure under those floorboards and they’ll dig it up and there is buried treasure. So on display is the treasure and everyone comes and looks at it to prove that the ghost is back, and that’s all sort of localised, this little area. So I think there’s a lot there about community sort of healing as well, through the ghost. So there was one woman who saw a ghost, the ghost was a former midwife who had died three months before, and she said that there were baby twins buried under the fireplace, and they dug up the fireplace and they found the bones of the babies under the fireplace and then everyone came and looked at the bones which seems really morbid to us but I think it was sort of a part of healing process, that the ghost always have a sort of purpose, they always come back to do something. So there’s never a ghost that never sort of wonders around not really doing anything. They always have a message or something that needs to be done and they can get quite aggressive if you don’t do what they want. They start throwing things and one poor person kept getting pulled out of bed all the time by the toe. And then sometimes they go and talk to Ministers and they say, “this ghost is tormenting me.” And funnily the Ministers actually says to do what the ghost says, they ghost clearly wants something. So the ghost has this healing role, this purpose, which I find really interesting. It’s sort of less that similar people see the ghost, but that the themselves seem to have really similar reasons for appearing.

Katie: I was really interested to learn, and I know that you only look at English history so far with ghosts, but it seems that different countries have different concepts of ghosts. So is it something that comes out of our religious background or our history?

Charlotte: Well I’ve heard it argued, and I’m not sure if this is true, but I have heard it argued that every culture has ghosts beliefs, that they are a universal phenomenon and they really seem to, they really are linked, that idea of the dead and where do the dead go. Everyone has belief systems about the dead, so I think that is in there but then it’s across so many different religious systems or different belief systems. So I think it comes back to that idea of just wanting something after death. But there’s also a lot of malicious, weird ghosts and so I can see that ghost fear of death as well. But you know, it does, it’s definitely that ghost definitely aren’t just sort of a question thing. They seem to be across many different cultures and faiths’ traditions.

Belinda: So it sounds like a really fascinating set of topics between witches and ghosts. Is there the next phenomenon that you are going to chase as part of your research?

Charlotte: Yeah, it’s a really good question. So I meant to always be thinking ahead. I think that devils really stick with me and they appear in many different forms in different ways. And another thing I’m really interested in is Wonders. So these get caught up with ghost stories. A Wonder is something like, a Wonder appeared in the sky and it foretold the future. So people see things like, whole villages of people say they saw a lion fighting a ship in the sky and the battle went on for three hours, and it’s quite funny to think about how we understand this when there is multiple people saying they saw this lion fighting this ship. And there are other things. These are sought of believed to be prodigious signs, so signs that foretell the future, other things like monstrous births, so people giving birth to say a cow, sheep, and snake. And there are pamphlets written about these things and they say, ‘and this shows that England is dying and that we must do this’. So people always politicise these kind of signs. So I think those would be really fascinating to look at in a bit more detail and this sort of predictive supernatural. 

Belinda: Sounds absolutely fascinating that you’d always have a very full lecture theatre because it’s just intriguing for anyone. So how do people outside of the university react when you say what you’re studying?

Charlotte: I mean I think the battle is that it is fascinating, it is really weird and strange, but it’s also is quite serious because it really, I think beliefs tell you a lot about a culture. What a culture believes, what it legislates against, what it tries to do, tells you so much. So I used to get a lot of people assuming I was a witch, which I’m not. People seem to think that was logical. Somebody actually thought I was doing a PhD in practical Witchcraft once. That was strange. Generally people are really fascinating though. I think if you do ever, sometimes I encounter people who think it’s a waste of time and to those people I say about 50,000 people were executed, and that really changes there mind. SO I think as soon as people understand this was actually believed to be a crime then you do get somewhere. But the other thing I think you’re up against quite a lot is that a lot of people have a tendency to think that people in the past were stupid, which is something that happens across all areas of history that we have to argue against. And it’s not that they’re stupid, obviously. It’s that they have different systems of belief and different ways of understanding the world that we should try and understand. And also remember that in 200 years people are going to think that some of the things we do are really stupid.

Belinda: I just find that this is the topic that we could speak about for hours and throw so many questions at you, but unfortunately we don’t have that long but before we go we do have a final section that we call Spare Change. This is where we get to know you a little bit better with some rapid fire questions. Are you ready?

Charlotte: I think so.

Belinda: So the first question is what is the one fact that listeners wouldn’t know about you?

Charlotte: Oh so many. I think that I’m addicted to awful awful documentaries, like the latest one is Beard Wars. I mean they’re awful but really compelling.

Belinda: Someone’s put a spell over you. What is the one question that you are sick of being asked?

Charlotte: Are you a witch?

Belinda: I think that we all guessed that one. If you could go back in time by ten years what advice would you give your younger self?

Charlotte: I would say to try not to worry too much about the future. It wouldn’t work , but I would try.

Belinda: Who or what is your biggest influence in life?

Charlotte: Well this is where the advice comes in because I’m always trying to get to what the next thing is all the time. So I guess I always want to learn, so that definitely drives me, but also I always want to compete against something, so it’s sort of that competitive edge that drives me with a lot of things I think.

Belinda: And lastly if you had to choose one piece of music that would best describe you what song would you play?

Charlotte: This is so hard. There are so many weird lyrics in songs. I think that, you know Blondies song ‘One way or another’?

Belinda: Yes.

Charlotte: It’s a good song, but I like that song because I think it describes me because one way or another she’s going to get them and I always think I’m going to get somewhere. I just have to think about how I’m going to do it. So I’m quite determined and quite competitive and I feel that song represents that a bit.

Belinda: So it’s your go to song.

Charlotte: Yeah, it’s a good song to get pumped to.

Belinda: Well that’s the end of the first seasong of UQ ChangeMakers. If you want to learn more about Charlotte’s research into the supernatural, or revisit any episodes from Season One, visit uq.edu.au/changemakers, where you can also subscribe to ChangeMakers Magazine. I’m Belinda McDougall.

Katie: And I’m Katie Rowney. Our podcast was produced by Michael Jones and Jessica Mcgaw. If you enjoyed this episode, tell your friends and colleagues, or leave a review on iTunes. You can also email your episode ideas for Season Two at changemakers@uq.edu.au. If you want to create change, tune in next season when we interview more inspiring members of the UQ community. Thanks for listening.