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Newspaper article promoting the episode's broadcast.

0847 03b.jpg

Sesame Street Episode 0847 first aired on February 10, 1976 as the 52nd entry in the show's 7th season. The episode's "street scenes" consist of a serialized story featuring The Wicked Witch of the West as played by Margaret Hamilton, reprising her role from MGM's 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz.

Immediately following the show's broadcast debut, Children's Television Workshop and local PBS broadcasters began receiving letters written by the parents of children who were frightened by the witch and her interactions primarily with Big Bird and David. Many letters spoke of children leaving the room, crying, and subsequently suffering from nightmares coupled with refusal to sleep at night. A few letters were sent in after the episode had aired in re-runs.

One recurring comment referenced Hamilton's appearance on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood from May 14, 1975 in which the actor spoke with Fred Rogers on camera in detail about the work that went into the make-believe of the character using costuming and make-up. Despite the explanatory nature of that episode, viewers felt the depictions were representative of taboo subjects, some comparing it to a third PBS series too frightening for children: The Electric Company.

Other viewers wrote in less out of concern for young viewers, but in regards to their own fears concerning what they claimed was a threat to society from real witches. Lumping the witch's appearance into other references to "the occult" (such as crystal balls and Muppet character Count von Count), more than one letter compared these practices to Satan-worship and referenced several passages from The Bible.

In contrast, at least one woman wrote in objecting to the negative stereotypes of witches portrayed in the episode, and offered her services to help develop a Wiccan character on the show with redeeming qualities. Another viewer suggested bringing the Wicked Witch back to give the show's cast of characters the opportunity to "win her over."

The response to viewer mail led to a case study and subsequent memo issued internally within CTW.

Letters

Letter Excerpt
Witch letter Seattle WA.jpg
Seattle, WA

February 10, 1976

β€œMy two children (ages 3 and almost 5) found her simply terrifying, and we had to turn the set off, with both of them crying. Then last night they each woke twice, sobbing with nightmares about "the wicked witch on Sesame Street" and "I don't want her to turn me into a basketball". ... I have checked with eight mothers of other children this age, and all said they were horrified that Sesame Street would do this, and turned the program off. My children's preschool teacher said she has had countless complaints about it from upset parents.”

Witch letter San Diego CA.jpg
San Diego, CA

February 10, 1976

β€œI really disapprove of even some of the monsters you have β€” some are cute (Grover & Cookie Monster). But I let that pass & then came the day you added "the Count" to your program; & then the witch. It seems to me that one can dwell on a more positive side of life than all these occult symbols.”

Witch letter Venice CA.jpg
Venice, CA

February 10, 1976

β€œThe serialized-within-the-show story portrayed a female witch who stereotypically represented all the aspects of the phenomena that are threatening, sinister and untrue. I consider myself part of a world-wide community of women who are healers and creators variously within and outside the framework of witchcraft (a word, by the way, which means 'woman's wisdom, from "wicca."). From my experience of and with these women I feel I can say that 'we' are truly oppressed by such a negative portrayal. ... I also want to offer whatever help we might give to your people if you feel a different kind of witch, a real kind, should be introduced through the show. We do, and offer our energy to help develop her.”

Witch letter Canyon Park CA.jpg
Canyon Park, CA

February 11, 1976

β€œI was waiting for some redeeming value to come out of this show, but there was none. As a matter of fact, the show ended with the witch flying home and dropping her broom which landed back on Sesame Street. David picked it up, started whining and said, "Oh no, looks like she'll be back."”

Witch letter Dallas TX.jpg
Dallas, TX

February 12, 1976

β€œRecently, I've noticed a number of programs have had quite a bit dealing with witches, crystal balls, etc. The reason this concerns me is that witches are not "make believe" and they do exist in what is called Satanism and Satan worship. Possibly this fact was overlooked.”

Witch letter Renton WA.jpg
Renton, WA

February 13, 1976

β€œMany people feel that witches are merely a harmless childhood fantasy. Or the speak of witches as a symbol of Evil struggling against Good. In reality, witches are neither products of fantasy nor symbols but real, powerful, destructive, followers of Satan who put themselves and others under terrible bondages. (Exodus 22:18,[note 1] Leviticus 19:31;[note 2] 20:26,27,[note 3] Deuteronomy 18:9-14,[note 4] I Samuel 15:23.[note 5]) If we pretend that witchcraft is merely clever and cute (the television program "Bewitched") or that it something which we can rationalize as simple fantasy (the witch on "Sesame Street") then we are not teaching our children the real dangers of wandering into Satan's territory.

Here in Seattle we have one of the nation's largest and most powerful witches' groups. Many of these witches are in deep bondage to Satan and have caused deep psychological hurt to others in their influence. Won't you at "Sesame Street" who have done so much to foster good, wholesome attitudes in our children take a stand against the use of that which is evil and unhealthy for your viewers? If "In God we trust" is truly our nation's motto, let us seek to honor Him and not His enemies!”

Witch letter Farmingdale NY.jpg
Farmingdale, NY

February 14, 1976

β€œHaving had some experience with [Channel 13], working as an executive secretary to one of your trustees and also being a contributor to your annual campaigns, I was quite shocked that CTW would schedule something like this on what is usually a lovely show for children. ... That is why I would like to think that perhaps "somebody goofed" and a situation like this won't occur again.”

Witch letter Eldbridge NY.jpg
Eldbridge, NY

February 15, 1976

β€œRecently, a thoroughly repulsive and obnoxious character called the witch has appeared, and as a result my sons are literally too frightened to watch the show. I can not imagine what educational value such a character can posess, which could balance the fear it arouses in young children.”

Witch letter Pittsburgh PA.jpg
Pittsburgh, PA

February 19, 1976

β€œThe witch that visits your program truly frightens my daughter. This particular character has been criticized by three different fellow parents. ... It upsets me to hear "shut up" used in these skits. We teach our children not to use this expression. Your program condones such language; this is an inconsistency that our children can do without!”

Witch letter New York NY.jpg
New York, NY

February 22, 1976

β€œI wish you wouldn't put that witch on Sesame Street anymore because I dream about that witch at bedtime. I have been dreaming that witch dream again and again and again and again, so much that I have been getting so tired of it that I can't think of anything else to dream about.”

Witch letter N Hollywood CA.jpg
North Hollywood, CA

February 23, 1976

β€œSince writing this letter, a friend told me that on Sesame Street there was a scene on spiritism recently. I SINCERELY hope that all of this occult will be taken completely off of "educational" children's programs, as it is very detrimental and could lead to grave results in the lives of many children in the future.”

Witch letter Groton MA.jpg
Groton, MA

February 24, 19746

β€œMy 3Β½ year old son has been very disturbed + frightened by the "witch episodes" he had seen it before + we talked about it. Then Mr. Rogers devoted an entire show to explaining her make-believe qualities. But her reappearing in a repeat today has reinforced his fear.”

Witch letter Agawam MA.jpg
Agawam, MA

March 9, 1976

β€œOur daughter is now afraid to view Sesame Street for fear that the witch will return. I know of two other families experiencing similar, however not as serious, problems. May I suggest a second look at this scene before it is shown again?”

Witch letter Lemon Grove CA.jpg
Lemon Grove, CA

March 13, 1976

β€œI was very disturbed recently when a witch appeared on "Sesame Street." There is much activity from witches here in San Diego and the result on people's lives is destruction and death. This is no subject to be dealt with on an otherwise edifying children's program and on any program they should only be presented for the evil force they really are and only because people need to be informed on how they can protect themselves from witches and all the occult.”

Witch letter Belfast ME.jpg
Belfast, ME

March 26, 1976

β€œThere is, however, one part of a recent show that has upset [my son] greatly and I fear that it may have had the same effect on many small children. The show that involved the witch that visited Sesame St. seemed to frighten him during the daytime and he awoke screaming from bad dreams about a witch at night.”

Witch letter Plymouth MI.jpg
Plymouth, MI

no date

β€œThe program contained...one witch. My 3 year old was pale as a "ghost" and so worried about "Big Bird" that he has had trouble falling asleep ever since. ... I would hate to delete "Sesame Street" from my child's day but the nightmares are not worth it.”

Witch letter Durham NC.jpg
Durham, NC

no date

β€œI think the witch was a bit too heavy for preschoolers. How can I explain she's not real when she talked with David & Maria who are real? All your other people are good. Please have her on again and let her be won over by the Sesame troop. ... Could you please detoxify her?”

Witch letter NY Ch13.jpg
New York Channel 13

no date

β€œI do not like that witch to be on Sesame Street. Please don't have it there anymore. I am scare of it.”

Witch letter unk01.jpg
Unknown (1)

no date

β€œOur four-year old was frightened by the witch and ran crying from the room. She had difficulty going to sleep that night because she was still afraid of the witch. We can see no educational value in purposefully frightening children. ...Please don't add fears to their already active imagination.”

Memorandum

On April 4, 1976 β€” less than eight weeks after the show aired β€” CTW researcher Ana Herrera issued a memo to the writers and producers of Sesame Street consisting of a case study in which twenty-six children were observed viewing the episode, and their reactions.

The tests showed that children were "exceptionally attentive during the Margaret Hamilton segments," and those who watched the episode in color were fascinated by her green face. The issue of fear was difficult to fully judge, due to confusing answers and the fact that the children were surrounded by their peers and adults, and not alone watching.

The memo's recommendation reads:

β€œDue to the parents' reactions, the contents of their letters, and our impressions from group observation data, we suggest that the Margaret Hamilton show not be re-run.”

The following addendum includes a collection of comments made by children while watching the episode, and their answers to a series of questions following its conclusion.

Notes

  1. ↑ "You shall not allow a sorceress to live." [1]
  2. ↑ "You must not turn to mediums or to spiritists and so become unclean through them. I am the Lord your God." [2]
  3. ↑ "You will be holy to me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the other peoples so that you belong to me. A man or a woman who is a medium or deals with the spirits of the dead must certainly be put to death. They must be stoned to death. Their blood is on them." [3]
  4. ↑ "When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to practice anything like the abominations of those nations. 10 Let no one be found among you who makes his son or his daughter pass through fire, or who uses divination, or who engages in fortune telling, or who observes omens, or who practices witchcraft, 11 or who casts a magic spell, or who consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or who inquires of the dead. Anyone doing these things is detestable to the Lord, and because of these abominations, the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You are to be blameless with the Lord your God. It is true that those nations whose land you are taking listen to fortune tellers and diviners, but the Lord your God has not permitted you to do things like that." [4]
  5. ↑ "For rebellion is the same as the sin of witchcraft, and arrogance is like having useless idols or consulting household gods. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you as king." [5]
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