Fact Check-Alternating tread stairs were not historically built to ward off witches

Posts shared in early March 2021 claim that alternate-tread staircases are called “Witches Stairs,” allegedly built with the belief that “witches can’t climb up them.” This claim is false, as alternate-tread stairs are simply intended to save space, particularly in narrow homes. Such stairs have not been historically understood as an attempt to ward off witches.

Examples of posts making this claim can be found here , here and here .

As described here by the woodworking magazine Fine Homebuilding, alternate-tread stairs “can solve problems of limited space,” according to Scott Schuttner, author of “Basic Stairbuilding” (here).

“On each side of an alternating-tread ladder stair, every other tread is omitted,” Schuttner explained in Fine Homebuilding. As a result, “the distance between treads on a given side of an alternating-tread stair is actually twice the unit rise, which gives you more free tread area and therefore a safer stair in theory.”

In addition, the website for the popular home improvement brand “This Old House” states here that alternate-tread stairs and ladders are intended for “spatial frugality,” likening the design to a staircase that has “been compressed from front to back.”

A video of a builder explaining the construction and use of his alternate-tread staircase is available here .

Reuters spoke via email 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, circa 1500 to 1800 (here).

Briggs confirmed that he had never come across “any mention of stairs that could disable witches” in “the massive historical literature, nor the many manuscript sources” he has read.

While it is true that “people building houses do seem to have buried witch-bottles under the threshold, or incorporated dead cats in the fabric, as protection against bewitchment,” this claim about alternate-tread stairs “is indeed pure disinformation,” Briggs said.

“The nearest belief was that if you put a broom over the door lintel a witch who entered the room would be unable to leave it,” Briggs added, noting that the practice “crops up occasionally” in 17th century archives from the Duchy of Lorraine, whose witchcraft trials are the subject of his 2008 book (here).


False. Alternate-tread staircases and ladders are designed to save space and have not been historically intended to disable witches or other forces of the occult.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .