What Are Witches Stairs and Why Do They Even Exist?

Front view of witches stairs

Lindsay / flickr

You can come across some pretty crazy things on the internet and on social media platforms like TikTok. Content can go viral so quickly, which means that someone can tell a story about something, and people just assume it’s true. That’s what happened with the witches' stairs. Back in 2021, a TikTok video went viral—it racked up nearly 15 million views.

After it was posted and TikTok went crazy, people started to post videos and write articles about their theories on why the stairs got their names. Although witches' stairs may not end up on your For You Page anymore, you can Google the term and read plenty about them—something you definitely couldn’t do before this idea went viral. 

What Are Witches' Stairs?

Witches’ stairs are stairs that have alternating treads that are spaced out in what appears to be a checkered formation when you’re looking at them from far away. The staircase is designed this way to save space as it can be built steeper than a traditional one. You probably will have to think about how to walk up and down them the first few times you do it, but you will get used to it over time.

The myth surrounding these alternating stairs, which has led them to be known as witches’ stairs, is that they were built in old New England homes to ward off witches as they couldn’t walk up them. This theory went wild since the Salem Witch Trials took place in New England. 

This has since been proven false. According to a Reuters article where the writer spoke with Robin Briggs, an emeritus fellow at All Souls College at Oxford who has studied the history of religion, popular belief, and witchcraft in Europe, from 1500 to 1800—he had never come across any type of stairs that could stop a witch from moving up them. 

Additionally, according to an OSHA report on the alternating tread type stair in the 1980s, "This instruction recognized a newly developed alternating tread type stair not presently covered by existing OSHA standards." This information and the date it was published tells us that these stairs were probably not used to ward off witches at any point in history.

Still, if you search “witches’ stairs” on TikTok, you’ll see some funny videos of people who have come across one. Often the caption will say something about how they’re a witch and they’ve found witches’ stairs and let’s see if they can walk up them. So while the myth has been busted, you can always count on the internet to perpetuate it. 

Where Do They Come From?

Before they got their viral name, witches’ stairs were actually just known as alternate-tread stairs or Jefferson stairs. They were created to help save space in a small home and often take the place of a ladder. While you really won’t see these in most homes (unless it’s a tiny home), they can be found in commercial spaces leading to lofts, cellars, and storage spaces. The alternate tread makes it safer and easier to carry things up or down as you don’t need to hold onto a ladder with your hands to use them (although, you should absolutely use a handrail to help with coordination). 

And while they are considered safer than a ladder, you probably wouldn’t see these in many public places to be used as actual stairs. The staggered design makes them inaccessible for many people as you need to be very aware of what foot to start walking up or down the steps on before you start moving.

If they were used in a public place or a home, they would usually be somewhere that isn’t high traffic like a loft, attic, or mezzanine. However, if you do find yourself living in a tiny home you can certainly opt for some alternate-tread stairs to maximize space. People often use the large treads as a bookshelf—which is definitely possible as long as the stairs are built well. Plus, it leaves more room for practical things like a kitchen or bathroom. Just be aware that every day will be leg day from the moment those witches’ stairs are installed. 

Article Sources
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  1. The Alternating Tread Type Stair. OSHA.