Hex appeal: how witches charmed the cinema

Witches are not just for Halloween, or for horror movies. We celebrate the screen’s sexier, more sisterly sorceresses: symbols of divine feminine magic and healing rather than bloodthirsty she-devils.

Words by Charlotte Richardson Andrews, video by Leigh Singer.

Charlotte Richardson Andrews , Leigh Singer
Updated:

Enchanting: uncanny women Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock in Griffin Dunne’s Practical Magic (1998). Click to play our accompanying video

“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

— Pat Robertson, American televangelist

For a growing number of us in Britain and Europe, it’s October, not December, that marks the most wonderful time of the year. As summer greens fade to deep umbers and the evening shadows lengthen, we prepare for Halloween, basking in our favourite witch flicks and relishing that liminal quality that suffuses the witches’ New Year. Pound-shop ghouls fill the night streets, high on mischief and sugar, and Jack Skellington is crowned Pumpkin King.

But who truly presides over Samhain, as it was known in pagan Britain, when God – indigenous, matrifocal and polytheistic – was a woman? Before Christianity raised churches over her temples and mapped its holy days over her ancient, agricultural calendar (Eostre to Easter, Samhain to All Saints Day), who ushered in the ‘the dark half of the year’? Who drew down the moon and honoured the dead on behalf of the living? Why, of course: the witch.

Our fascination with the witch – who abandoned the broom closet some time back and can now be found online, hexing Big Pharma price gougers and campus rapists, or rolling through NYC coven-deep on skateboards – is aeons old. She exists historically in almost every culture across the centuries, and continues to occupy a complex, paradoxical place in the West: seen but unseen, feared but coveted, dismissed (as New Age fiction) but stigmatised (as a feminist threat).

The screen, like history, has rarely been kind to her. Once the pagans were supplanted and a male clergy reigned, the state decreed that witches, real or imagined, were Devil worshippers – a brutally effective way of silencing the women (and men) who challenged or inconvenienced monotheism’s patriarchal authority.

Cinema has propagated this lie – consistently, and with prurient enthusiasm – ever since, casting witches as handmaidens of the Antichrist rather than adherents of the feminine divine. Sandra Bullock’s Sally Owens does her best to debunk this in Griffin Dunne’s enchanting 1998 feature Practical Magic, explaining quite plainly: “There’s no Devil in the Craft”, a nature-based religion that predates Christianity’s crude good/bad pantheon by centuries. Yet decades of cinema would convince us otherwise.

 

The wickedness of women

Tangled (2010)

Tangled (2010)

From Hammer Horror monstrosities and wart-crusted Disney beldams to the never-ending Blair Witch saga, cinema is bloated with hysterical, bastardised visions of uncanny women, archetypes rooted in age-old misogynist anxieties around women’s power. We (think) we know her well – as the mad, reclusive hag; the petty, vexatious enchantress; the scheming, hex-casting stepmother figure. She’s the femme fatale – beautiful, deceptive and cruel; and the crone – not ancient and venerated but shrivelled and reviled (just ask Meryl Streep, inundated with hag roles the minute she turned 40). Often, she is one and the same – Carice van Houten’s Melisandre in Game of Thrones, or Charlize Theron’s pauper-to-queen in Snow White and the Huntsman, a coffin-dodger in false skin, tricking her way to seats of power.

These are powerful, persistent stereotypes, corrupted images of female agency that decades of feminism has worked to dissolve and, where fitting, reclaim. Yet centuries on, as Deborah S. Esquenazi’s Southwest of Salem (2016) reveals, women – witch or no – are still on trial. This documentary, which left its Tribeca Film Festival audience in tears earlier this year, recounts the injustice endured by a circle of Latina lesbians, victims of the West’s Satanic Panic in the 80s, which linked gay people with devil-worship (sound familiar?) and child abuse. The group, who have been all but vindicated by evidence in subsequent years, are still fighting for official exoneration.

The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014)

No wonder, then, that scrolling through the #witchcraft hashtag on Instagram, you’ll see a much-loved meme cropping up: “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” The Craft – which lives on today in neo-pagan form as Wicca – is a natural home for othered women and their allies, people who embrace the witch as a symbol of resilient, crafty outsiderdom and a lifeline through the void left by mainstream, patriarchal faith.

We are hungry for her magic, on screen and in real life. We are hungry for the transformation it offers and, at Halloween, for what writer-activist Aya de Leon describes as “a loving connection” between the living and the dead – something that’s “deeply missing” in Western culture. Its this deficit that compels so many in the west to appropriate and co-opt the rich, poetic emblems of Día de Muertos, the indigenous Mexican festival to which Jorge R. Gutiérrez pays homage in his glittering, colour-soaked The Book of Life.

“You arrived at the Dia de los Muertos ceremony shipwrecked,” reflects De Leon, “a refugee from a culture that suppresses grief, hides death, banishes it, celebrates it only in the most morbid ways – horror movies, violent television – death is dehumanised, without loving connection, without ceremony.”

 

A new broom

The Craft (1996)

The Craft (1996)

The witch offers us a way back to those lost ceremonies, a return to an indigenous practice that honoured death with more than e-numbers and landfill-bound plastic props. It’s why so many of us crave the gentler, sweeter enchantments of the Craft on film when Halloween rolls round – the supernatural hijinks and delicious deviance of witches in comedy, drama and romance. We want nuance, not gore; healing, not violence; complex, compelling screen queens rather than carnographic avatars delivered via the male gaze. We want bonfire-bright witches, working spells for the revolution.

That struggle to stay connected to our intrinsic, witchy roots in a God-fearing man’s world is the crux of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, adapted to curiously flavourless ends in Lasse Hallström’s 2000 outing. Our protagonist, Juliette Binoche’s Vianne Rocher, is a single mother and kitchen witch, a wild flower planting roots in the carefully manicured flowerbeds of a provincial French town. Her pagan panaceas, on sale in the middle of Lent, have a sapid and salutary effect on the locals, causing radical ripples, but make an instant enemy in the town’s starched, judgemental curé, Reynaud.

Vianne is that rare thing in cinema: a witch we can believe in, and love. Authentic, modern, daring, transgressive and fun, she sidesteps dogma and pirouettes past the confessional, choosing to dance widdershins to her own, wild tune. There are no slimy potions bubbling away on her stove, just bottomless pots of hot, spiced chocolate laced with enough influence to mend a whole village.

Chocolat (2000)

Chocolat (2000)

Vianne’s magic is an inspiring, everyday authenticity, a quality that horror and fantasy dispense with almost entirely. TV in particular has offered us an embarrassment of disappointments in recent years, from Alan Ball’s egregious portrayals of modern Wiccans in True Blood to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s voodoo versus Salem clusterfuck in American Horror Story Coven, a mess of racist, sexist clichés and botched plots that’s less #covengoals than power-mad, matricidal bitchcraft.  

The message, unconscious or otherwise, is ages old and beyond tedious: uncanny women are dangerous women – and even worse when they unionise, a topic George Romero reflexively mines in 1973’s Season of the Witch. Jack Nicholson’s audacious monologues as Daryl Van Horne in 1987’s woefully overlooked The Witches of Eastwick are real-talk of the highest order on this subject, even if he perverts these truths to seduce Cher’s witch-in-the-making, Alexandra Medford:

“Men are such cocksuckers, aren’t they? You don’t have to answer that. It’s true. They’re scared. Their dicks get limp when confronted by a woman of obvious power and what do they do about it? Call them witches, burn them, torture them, until every woman is afraid. Afraid of herself; afraid of men; and all for what? Fear of losing their hard-on.”

The witch should be feared – and for much, much more than her powers of boner-kill. She’s formidable, partly because her survival has depended on it. Female rage, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us, can be purifying: “A curse from the depths of womanhood / Is very salt, and bitter, and good.”

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

It’s why we relish the Furies of the screen, Gorgons like Nancy Downs from that perennial favourite of goths, grrrls and punks, The Craft (1996). Andrew Fleming’s classic hit a good handful of targets in its dark tale of young women coming into their power. It offers a potent vision of teen agency and the diabolical femme, of girlhood – always such a vulnerable, formative passage – supernaturally transformed, and in Nancy, a Hecate-like avenger meting out punishments on the abusive, violent men who orbit her teen world.

The rituals the quartet performs – forest sojourns, shoreline ceremonies, bedroom games – honor modern Wiccan practices, offering delicious glimpses of coven life at its best: nurturing, empowering, co-operative. But the Goddess, once again, is inconspicuously absent, replaced by the fictional Manon – yet another male proxy for the divine feminine. And as in True Blood and AHS, the coven implodes in a maelstrom of toxic jealousy and power grabs: because women, eh?

She enjoys precious little screen time in The Craft, popping up in just a handful of scenes to offer gentle, sage council by candlelight in her occult shop, but Assumpta Serna’s Lirio proves that the friendly neighbourhood witch can be just as formidable as the avenging kind. They’re familiar to us, and beloved, because we’ve grown up with them; we’ve entertained them in our living rooms since the 60s, from the generation-spanning women of ABC’s creepy, kooky brood The Addams Family, and the Technicolor queens of Oz, to Elizabeth Montgomery and Agnes Moorehead’s kitsch, wise-cracking mother-daughter act in the iconic sitcom Bewitched.

 

Domestic goddesses

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins (1964)

Retro children’s cinema is particularly rich with remarkable women. Mary Poppins, with her flying umbrella, magical medicines and carpet bag of tricks, is a witch in all but name – one foot briskly tapping commands on the nursery floorboards, the other stepping off into sodium yellow wonderlands via London’s chalk-dusted pavements. As the brilliant Wild Hunt blog points out, Poppins is a fiction born out of the same collective consciousness and spiritual community that modern-day Wicca sprouted from. You’d never know it from the swinging 60s zeal of Disney’s opus, but Poppins’ creator P.L. Travers moved in the same circles as Wicca’s main players, and shared many of the same interests.

Those influences, mystic and esoteric, birthed the Poppins we recognise and love: a PG icon with arcane roots. She’s the rosy-cheeked, “practically perfect” domestic goddess, dispensing discipline and sugar in glorious tandem. But her power, as the wrenching, bittersweet Saving Mr Banks later revealed, is more brittle barley sugar than pliant marshmallow. She may appear at the request of her unruly charges, Jane and Michael Banks, but it’s the family patriarch – David Tomlinson’s starched, bowler hat-sporting banker – she’s really here to reform.

Poppins may readying a reincarnation as Emily Blunt for a millennial audience, but her origins remain thoroughly witchy and quintessentially British, much like Angela Lansbury’s Eglantine Price, “apprentice witch” in 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks – another book-to-screen witch flick that shared a shrewd amount of overlap with its predecessor, thanks to studio savvy. If Poppins is fastidious and marvelously efficient, Price is her butter-fingered opposite: all wobbly broom rides, lopsided spectacles and muddled, slapdash spells – the kind of make-do ingenuity that ration book-era Brits could approve of.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

Price, like Poppins, is inclined to action over sentiment, guiding her cockney evacuee charges into the Age of Not-Believing with a firmly benevolent hand. She protects her wards and her country with the same admirable daring, not an angel in the house but a witch on the battlefield, cutlass in one hand and wand in the other. Decades on, the long-rumoured links between witches and the war effort have been firmly established, in large part thanks to Bletchley Park asset Doreen Valiente – a woman described by many as the mother of modern witchcraft.  

Price may have retired from the Craft once she had sent the Nazis packing, but the hocus-pocus she and Poppins gilded our childhoods with – magical rides to fantasy islands, gravity-defying tea parties, substitutiary-locomotion singalongs – proved indelible. By the late 80s and early 90s the witch had transformed to become a full-time friend and family member, going from authority figure to teenage bestie. She was a scrunchie-wearing screwball in Sabrina the Teenage Witch; a beloved school pal in Mildred Hubble’s proto-Hogwarts world The Worst Witch; the dream babes next-door in Charmed; and, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow and Tara, our first openly queer coven-couple.

These witches were all about Levis, pastel lipstick and justice, on the mundane and magical planes. They’re a major shift away from the vampish WWII-era witch who favoured dark velvets and mischief: to name but two, Kim Novak’s diabolically glamorous Gillian Holroyd in 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle, a smouldering, cape-clad vixen with a feline familiar, Pyewacket; and Veronica Lake’s sultry, impish Jennifer in 1942’s I Married a Witch, all peek-a-boo vintage waves and wicked razzle-dazzle.

 

Love spells

The Addams Family (1991)

The Addams Family (1991)

In pre-60s cinema, before free love and first-wave feminism untangled norms around sex and gender, witches were a guilty pleasure: subversive and sensual but naturally flawed; women who would forfeit their powers when they fell in love with mortal men. It’s possible that this was a mandatory plot caveat, inserted to comply with the Hollywood Production Code. Until its demise in 1968, the code had policed all representations of ‘evil’ on film – an umbrella that included the deep taboo of (gasp) female sexuality. “No plot should present evil alluringly,” decreed the code – something Novak and Lake did in a major way. They got away with it because magic, these films preached, was intrinsically incompatible with heterosexual love, the latter powerfully cancelling out the former.

Thankfully, this narrative disappeared post-Bewitched. By the 1990s, witches could have it all, as the delightfully eldritch femmes of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family diptych proved with their arsenic and BDSM and ghoulish, unrepentant happiness: Morticia, with Gomez (“Don’t torture yourself darling – that’s my job”); Wednesday, with her awkward, feeble beau in Addams Family Values; Granny, a cheerful, gummy spinster married to her meat cleaver and spell books; and even Joan Cusack’s marvelous, murderous would-be widow, Debbie Jellinsky: “So I killed. So I maimed. So I destroyed one innocent life after another. Aren’t I a human being? Don’t I yearn and ache and shop? Don’t I deserve love… and jewellery?”

In Practical Magic, witchiness is boon rather than blight, not something to be ‘cured’ by romance or the nuclear family, but rather a precious and innate quality that requires nurturing. It’s what makes the sweetly imperfect Owens sisters (Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and their liberated, cackling aunts (Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest) so marvelous. These are women who eat brownies for breakfast, throw midnight margarita parties and always have each other’s backs.

Veronica Lake and Fredric March in I Married a Witch (1942)

Veronica Lake and Fredric March in I Married a Witch (1942)

The film was marketed as a romance, but the male love interests in Practical Magic are secondary plot devices. The relationship at the heart of this film is sororal, a love letter to blood and family and Craft. The sisters save each other, and through that, themselves – a motif that has proliferated in recent years, particularly in YA cinema, from Frozen (which gave us the best coming-out anthem since Calamity Jane’s Secret Love) to Maleficent, where Sleeping Beauty’s saviour isn’t the usual steed-riding fop but rather her horned, winged, sorceress gothmother. Even ABC’s Once Upon a Time, with its porridge-slow arcs and high-camp aesthetics, has contributed to this queering of the witch, this unknotting of the good/bad binary that leaves no room for anything in between.

Slowly but surely, we are sloughing off the supernatural stereotypes that have smothered the witch, dissolving archaic and obsolete ideas of what she can be and do and offer, in order to portray something more authentic, more extraordinary. This is a necessary shift – one that reflects both the Craft’s growth and the rising role of identity politics. It resonates with those of us whose childhoods – real and extended – continue to be coloured by uncanny women: the daring spell-casters and mighty hex-breakers who fill the mundane with magic, or at very least the possibility of it. We’re learning to honour the witch – and about time too. As Jean Marsh’s Princess Mombi laments in Return to Oz: a witch denied her powers is a miserable creature indeed.

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