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Wicked Are The Witches At Willimantic Museum

Something wicked this way comes. Something educational, too.

The Windham Textile & History Museum is marking Halloween with an exhibit on witches. Unlike haunted houses, which only want to scare the stuffing out of their visitors, the museum wants to creep people out but also teach them about the history of witchcraft, in real life and in fiction.

Even as education, the witch exhibit will be creepy.

"It's horrible, but it's based on history," said Andrea Ader, a Wiccan who lives in Coventry and who will work in the historical re-enactments. "In Europe, thousands of women were burned as witches. In the American colonies, they weren't burned, they were hanged. Men, too, and some dogs died, too. That doesn't count the [people] who died in jail."

The exhibit itself, which will be up until Nov. 17, is on the first floor of the museum that once was a textile mill. Historical dioramas feature props and mannequins to illustrate the history of witchcraft.

The historical segments include stories about ancient Greek magical women Hecate, Circe and Pythia; the biblical Witch of Endor; the Celtic shaman Hern the Hunter; Images of medieval woodcuts illustrating sorcery, magic and witch hunts, and a copy of notorious witch-hunting guide Maleus Maleficarum; the Salem witch trials; an explanation of Wiccan symbols; and reproductions of masks used by traditional cultures to ward off witchcraft.

The fictional segments include dioramas about the "Wayward Sisters" in Shakespeare's "Macbeth"; the Snow Queen from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"; a site dedicated to "Harry Potter"; and "The Wizard of Oz," including a flying monkey and a figure of Miss Gulch — later seen as the Wicked Witch of the West — hanging from the ceiling riding her bike, with Toto in the basket.

On four nights during the run of the show, the exhibit will be expanded to three more rooms. On the second floor of the museum, visitors will see a re-enactment of a 17th-century New England town whose citizens begin to suspect a community member is a witch. "They will be acting out a story about a woman who defies convention," says museum spokeswoman Bev York. "It's based on the Connecticut witch trials."

Ader pointed out that in the northern colonies, New England had a reputation for witchcraft hysteria. "Some people took for New York or Long Island to get away from it," she says.

On the bottom floor of an adjacent building, and in the courtyard between the two buildings, items will be on exhibit, accompanied by costumed actors, illustrating the history of witchcraft.

One feature of the nightly tours is that the still exhibits in the first floor of the museum will be manned by costumed re-enactors. "During the days, Shakespeare's witches will just be mannequins. At night, they'll come to life," York says.

WITCHES IN HISTORY AND FABLE is at Windham Textile & History Museum, 411 Main St. in Willimantic. Night shows will be Oct. 7, 8, 13 and 14 from 7 to 9:30 p.m., with groups of no more than eight starting at about 15-minute intervals. The exhibit itself will be up from Oct. 7 until Nov. 17. Admission to the evening tours is $10. Admission to the museum on non-tour dates is $7, $5 seniors and students, children younger than 5 free. The museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. millmuseum.org.

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