My in-laws have a place in Vermont, with a neat little treehouse in the back. It had fallen into rot and disuse over the years, but now that I have a kid, my father-in-law and brother-in-law decided to fix it up. But while it is technically safer now, there's something about the second floor (seen in the photo above) that still creeps me out.
No, not the tiny chair sitting the dusty darkness. I'm talking about the witch window, a term that I only just learned about.
According to Vermont Public Radio, it's not uncommon to find old (non-treehouse) buildings in Vermont and other parts of New England with these weird diagonal windows tucked into eaves. It is, apparently, a unique detail of the local architectural history! Devin Colman of the state's Division for Historic Preservation told VPR that these slanted portholes were supposedly designed to prevent witches from flying through them on their broomsticks. Think about it: you're cruising through the air on your broom, looking to kidnap some unsuspecting child to add to your witchy stew, then suddenly you have to lean over 45 degrees to fit through the window … at which point gravity takes over, and you embarrassingly tumble onto the roof, then slide off the shingles until you land smack dab on the ground.
"But, it's the only crooked window in the whole house," Colman added. "And if I were a witch, I would just use one of the other vertical windows." Touché.
Another theory for the witch windows — both in design, and etymology — is that they were used to transport coffins. Instead of trying to maneuver the wooden box awkwardly around a tiny staircase, you just push out the window, then let it slide down the roof, and hope that someone's there to catch it down below!
Colman was similarly skeptical about this. "You wouldn't carry a coffin upstairs to put a body in it," he told VPR. "You would bring the body downstairs and put it in the coffin on the first floor."
That's a fair point. So I'm sticking with the witches. Although Atlas Obscura does offer a slightly-more-rational explanation:
During the 19th century northern Vermont was very rural and dominated by small farming communities with limited or nonexistent access to things like factory-made mill work. If you were building a new house, you trekked to a hardware store and ordered things like mouldings, factory-built mantles, and windows from a catalog. The selections were limited and the best you could hope for was to find a premade and glazed window with a width that allowed you to fit the odd sloping space, which was a much better solution than trying to build something on your own. Vermont farmers have always been recognized for their common sense and ingenuity. It's likely they also reused windows that didn't fit above the new gable, so were installed at a diagonal to take full advantage of the sliver of available wall space.
I mean, sure. It could be a weirdly practical cost-saving tradition. Or it could be witches.
None of that explains why there's one up in the treehouse though.
What's The History Of Vermont's 'Witch Windows'? [Amy Kolb Noyes / Vermont Public Radio]
Witch Windows [Atlas Obscura]