If you’ve hung around folklore for long, you’ve probably heard of the witching hour. In the occult, it’s apparently that time when witches and demons are at their most powerful. It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘chime hour’.
The phrase does also have usage in different areas. So the time your baby might cry every night, or even stock market volatility, is sometimes called the witching hour.
But for the purposes of this post, we’re sticking to the occult version.
So when is the witching hour?
Some people believe it begins at midnight with a new day. Look at the fairy tales in which a spell breaks, or wears off, by midnight.
But yet others believe it to be the hour between 3 am and 4 am. So it’s a time when most people are safely tucked up in bed, fast asleep and ostensibly dead to the world.
3 am is sometimes known as the Devil’s hour. Christ is believed to have died at 3 pm, so naturally, the Devil is an inversion of that. Or could it be the fact that the demonic likes to do things in threes to mock the Holy Trinity? That really depends how much you want to listen to Ed Warren in The Conjuring.
Commentators noted the fact that Butch DeFeo (of Amityville Horror fame) murdered his family at 3:15 am. (I’d also point out I was born between 3 and 4 am…make of that what you will)
While researching this post, I did find some people disputing the time. The rather amusing New Zealand horror comedy Deathgasm even sees the hapless heroes tasked with performing the Black Hymn during the Devil’s Hour to avoid the ascension of a demon. They (quite logically) ask if the Devil observes Daylight Savings Time.
But we’re not going to split hairs about the time of day. We’re just going to look at what it is.
So where did the witching hour gets its name?
Some believe it was because witches were more active at midnight (or 3 am). According to this theory, the forces of darkness are more active during the night. They make it a more powerful time to do magic.
I’d venture to say “hogwash” to that. Given the persecution of those labelled as ‘witches’, it’s hardly surprising they’d conduct their activities under the cover of darkness. Not to generate more power – but to simply work without interruptions.
If you were mixing up a love potion for a client, would you want all and sundry gawping at you?
(Read Willow Winsham’s Accused to learn more about the persecution of witches).
Also, patterns of sleep were very different in earlier times. The concept of going to bed and sleeping for 8 hours is relatively recent. Many labourers might sleep for four hours, get up to do some chores for a time, then go back to bed until it was time to go to work.
So many people could have been up and about at 3 am, doing very mundane things indeed!
Does it affect ghost stories?
Sometimes. Many believe that ghosts are more active at this time because the veil between the worlds is thinner.
Apparently mediums are more active during the witching hour. Precisely because the ghosts are.
Perhaps that theory might have more credence if ‘psychics’ like Sally Morgan held their seance stage shows at 3 am, instead of 8 pm.
But I digress.
It’s possible that ghosts are more active at this time purely because people notice the time when they’re startled during sleep.
When I did paranormal investigations at sites like Newcastle’s Castle Keep, we often finished up at 3 am. Everyone was tired and any activity had often calmed down by 2 am.
So does the witching hour actually exist?
Popular culture would have you believe that it does. Personally? I don’t think so. When even Martha Stewart is getting on the witching hour bandwagon, you have to start asking questions.
Time zones make things difficult, as they always do. I’m in GMT so my witching hour will be different to that of EST. Don’t forget the problems associated with clocks going forwards or back to suit the season. Although that could lead to some comic encounters among the dead.
“Oh Stan, you went out early again! Did you forget to put the clocks forward?”
I don’t think supernatural entities restrict their activities to a certain time of night. I also don’t think that witches were only active for an hour.
The folklore is surprisingly scant. Much of it relates to the supposed activities of witches, demons and ghosts. But I did find one incredibly interesting reference in American folklore. Candi K. Cann discusses La Mala Hora, translated as ‘The Evil Hour’. Naturally, that becomes ‘the witching hour’.
But here’s where it gets interesting. The Evil Hour is not a time of day, but rather an evil spirit. She wanders country roads and haunts lone travellers late at night.
La Mala Hora often appears at the crossroads, and seeing her is apparently an omen of death. She doesn’t actually kill anyone – she just reminds people that they will die at some point. (Well, she’s right. We will). Here, La Mala Hora is essentially a warning to avoid lonely places late at night.
I think I prefer that interpretation of the witching hour. And there’s a lesson there to be learned by us all.
How about you? Do you believe in the witching hour?
Did you enjoy this post? Add your email below and you’ll never miss a folklore article. I’ll even send you two folklore-inspired stories as a welcome gift!
Want more folklore in your inbox?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get 2 free creepy tales inspired by the folklore of changelings!