When I was a boy, I used to go witch hunting in the woods across the road from my house. It was one of my favorite activities, witch hunting. I would go with my neighbor, Ryan. Together, we’d head out into the woods — with a Polaroid camera (mine) and two bats with nails in them (his) — in search of witches hiding out there.
This all happened in rural Pennsylvania. I was a city kid, but when I was about six, my parents — worried about raising kids in the city — managed to buy a small weekend house in southern Pennsylvania. The house was rustic, built in the 1940s — more like an expanded cabin, tucked deep in the woods, on a small lake. We’d go there every weekend possible, and spend long weeks there in the summer.
Our neighbors had a boy my age, Ryan, and we became fast friends. I’d cross the woods to his house and we’d play Nintendo, D&D, we’d trade comics… we were both geeks, imaginative kids. It was around age 11 that we started going monster hunting in the woods.
The woods were thick and deep and we concocted all sorts of stories for ourselves about the creatures that lived out there.
But, having both recently read Roald Dahl’s The Witches, we were both particularly interested in the notion of witches living in the woods. Men and women who worshipped Satan! Sacrificing animals and worse, deep in the trees across the road! Other monsters fell away and we became all about witches and warlocks. They were out there and we would find them.
To be fair, these woods were pretty rich with things we could cite as witch “evidence.” Once we found an old graveyard — seriously, a graveyard. We found a box of false teeth another time. And on one trip, deeper in the woods, we found an old car, a meat truck from the 1940s. From then on, the truck became our base, and we would walk out to it with lunch, and then explore the woods in various directions. We marked areas we’d explored with tape. We put pieces of string across paths, to detect witch crossings. Any old bone was a sign of witchcraft.
One windy day, we were hanging out by the car, eating and joking around and all of a sudden, Ryan jumped to his feet. “Who the hell are you?” I remember him saying, literally reaching for his bat. Terrified, I turned and looked and didn’t see anything. I asked him what was the matter and he said he saw someone, or something, peeking out from behind a tree. But the person was big, he said, like taller than a normal man or woman. Way taller than we’d thought a witch would be. “It was huge,” he said, “just watching us.”
Nervously, we explored the area but, of course, found nothing. The witch must have been a tree, swaying in the wind, and we laughed about it afterwards, on the way out of the woods, how he’d nearly shit himself over nothing, what a pussy, and so on, but I think both of us walked a little faster than normal that day.
Ryan and I didn’t make many trips in to the woods after that. For one, his mother found his nailriddled bat. And soon after that, the district built a school across the road, which blocked the old path we took into the woods. We’re still friends though, Ryan and me. He’s married now with kids, and lives in Ohio, but still. We actually joke about going back there, witch hunting in the woods. My folks kept the house all this time. We came here through my teenage years. I brought friends during college. I got engaged here, down by the lake. Now my wife and I bring our kids up here.
Anyway, about a year ago, I went for a run along the road by our house, and I decided to take a peek into the woods. I hadn’t been back there in 15, maybe 20 years, but for some reason, I figured I’d just take a look to see if our old trail was still there.
I stepped off the main road, started walking through the ferns and brush towards the taller trees and that’s when I saw the witch. I kid you not, something leaned out from behind the trees — something tall and skeletal and dark and I froze. I froze and that strange hot chill of terror shot through me and I was a kid again, deep in the woods, and that thing was looking at me through the trees. It had been waiting here all along, hadn’t it? It had known I’d come back and it had been patient…
Of course, a moment later, the sun shifted and the witch vanished, somehow changed into a tree, a freakishly human looking tree, but still, and my body relaxed and I turned and walked away.
Later that night, I found myself haunted by the image of the witch, peeking out from the behind the tree. I knew what had really frightened me wasn’t the “witch” in the trees — sure, the sight had scared me — but what had really gotten me spooked was the idea that this witch had always been there. That all the years in between were nothing to it. Because it knew… it knew one day I’d come back and it would be waiting. And why had it waited? What did it want?
For hours that night, I kept on with these questions. I knew that there was a story there for me. Something more than scary, something personal, something terrifying in that special way that gets at the deeper fears, the fears below.
And so the next day, I started working on Wytches, a story about an ancient evil waiting out there in the woods. Now as you may have guessed, our witches aren’t the kinds you’ve seen before. No brooms or pointy hats. In fact, forget everything you know about witches, because in our world, all the people assumed to be witches, the people burned and drowned for witchcraft, all of them were just the human worshippers of witches. The witches themselves — the wytches — are more like that thing Ryan and I saw in the woods. They’re huge and ancient and primal and deeply evil. They have a knowledge of natural science that surpasses the limits of modern medicine. They have great power. They can give you almost anything you want. And they’re out there, waiting for you to come ask. But first, you have to give them what they want… They have to eat, after all. So who would you give them to get what you want? To cure a sick loved one? To cure yourself? To get what you’ve always wanted? A neighbor? A loved one? Who would you pledge?
In the end, for me, Wytches is a book that’s been in the making for a long time. A book that has waited for me to write it. And in the end, sitting here writing this — in the upstairs room of my parent’s lakehouse, the woods right outside this window — I like to think that if this book waited, maybe the wytches are out there waiting, too.
Now as a final note, just before starting this essay, I decided to head back into those woods once and for all and see if our old car was still there. I had to cross the school property and make my way over a fence and hedge, but still, I managed to do it, and though it was less pronounced, I did find the old path Ryan and I always took into the woods. I walked back there, a quarter mile, a half, the trees growing thicker and taller, and there it was: our old car. Still there, 20 years later.
So…who would you pledge?
Scott Snyder is an Eisner-award winning comic book writer who has written Detective Comics, Batman, Swamp Thing, American Vampire, The Wake and Severed. Wytches, written by Snyder and illustrated by Jock, goes on sale 10/8 and comic shops near you and Comixology. He tweets at @Ssnyder1835.