If you’ve hung around folklore for long, you’ve probably heard of the witching hour. In occult terms, 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 uses in different areas. So the time your baby might cry every night, or even stock market
It seems the journalists of old enjoyed the mystery associated with the phrase.
But for the purposes of this post, we’re sticking to the occult version. We’ll look into what the witching hour is, when the witching hour is, and whether it may exist.
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So what time is the witching hour?
Some people believe it begins at midnight with a new day. This would make it the hour between midnight and 1 am. Look at the fairy tales in which a spell breaks, or wears off, by midnight.
A simple news article about a heavy snow storm in Cheshire refers to “the witching hour of midnight” (Chester Chronicle 1857: 6). They’re pretty definite on when they think it happens.
But a short piece in the Shields Daily Gazette from 1890 by Blackwood’s Magazine disputes the idea of a witching hour. For them, it lasted far longer. According to the piece, “[t]he witches of the olden times had a much longer time to themselves – clearly up to sunrise” (1890: 4).
The article disputes the idea that witches “are nearly always represented nowadays as fleeing at the midnight hour” as being “a very modern notion” (1890: 4). For them, the witches actually have from sunset to sunrise. Depending on the time of year, that could be a pretty lengthy period!
Bear in mind the article doesdraw its ‘facts’ from the legend of Tam o’ Shanter and the apparent folklore knowledge of Robert Burns. So we can potentially take their argument with a pinch of salt.
Possibly not midnight then?
Others believe the witching hour 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.
The trouble with this interpretation is that 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.
The trouble with saying the witching hour is 3 am is this confuses witches with the Devil. The Devil, or Satan, whatever you want to call him, has nothing to do with witchcraft.
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, if you’re sticking to the Devil version). 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.
Lucy Worsley explains the theory first put forward by historian Roger Ekirch that before the industrial revolution, people largely slept in two instalments (2011: 95). It’s unsurprising since heating and lighting was scarce, so spending time in bed was a good way to pass the cold winter nights.
That said, “[t]he British night lasts fourteen hours in winter, and human beings simply don’t need to sleep for that long” (2011: 95). Hence the first and second sleep, with a break in the middle. Growing urbanisation and better forms of artificial light meant people could dispense with the two-sleep model.
So many people could have been up and about at either midnight or 3 am, doing very mundane things indeed!
Does the time 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. If something wakes you during the night, your first instinct is usually to check the time.
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, if not sooner. Were the ghosts finding it harder to manifest because we ran out of energy?
Or we were just too tired to see them? I’ll leave that one with you.
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 from 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?
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Blackwood’s Magazine (1890), ‘The Witching Hour’, Shields Daily Gazette, 25 September, p. 4.
Chester Chronicle (1857), ‘A Wise Sheep’, Chester Chronicle, 18 April, p. 6.
Worsley, Lucy (2011), If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, London: Faber and Faber.
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