The depiction of witchcraft in films and other media might as well have come right from the citizens of Salem at the start. Women with power were shown to be evil or ugly ( for example, the Evil Queen in Snow White, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, the bearded three in that Scottish play by Shakespeare). If they were good, they were bumbling, often postmenopausal, or not even referred to as witches at all (such as the three good “fairies” in Sleeping Beauty). If they were allowed to be good, young and beautiful simultaneously, practicing their craft often caused more problems than it solved. But as women began to reclaim some of the power that the patriarchy took away, witches in media began to reflect that. Though we still get depictions of power corrupting women, we now also get women owning the power and using it to conquer their demons.
Ask most women or non-binary folx to list their ultimate movie or television canon, and chances are there is at least one that focuses on witches. Whether it is the hopeful Practical Magic or the revenge fantasy of The Craft, witches in film resonate with women. They don’t even need to be particularly good witches for women/enbies to feel the connection – how many of us adore the Sanderson Sisters from Hocus Pocus? And while the type of magic and the source of it varies, and the focus of the stories isn’t the same, there are elements that tie all stories of witchcraft together – belonging to a sisterhood and finding your own power.
Once used to other, shame, and persecute women, the title of witch has been reclaimed by women and is often used when protesting anti-women policies and actions. Women are constantly working to reclaim their lost power, and looking to each other for support in the cause. Women accused of witchcraft were often so accused because they were stepping outside the place society set for them. The reverberations of the misdeeds done to those witches are still felt today. Along with past evils, many women and non-binary folx have had to form their own families because of the evils of today. The sense of relief and finding oneself that comes from a found family can’t be described. Finding your coven is finding your family, and we feel the slights against our ancestors still today; this is why movies about finding sisters in witchcraft strike a strong chord with women.
The Craft came out in 1996, billed as a horror movie. And sure, women banding together to punish their bullies and tormentors using witchcraft *is* horrifying for some – though they followed the guidelines for a PG-13 rating, it was rated R. But the main story isn’t a horror story. It’s outcasts finding their people, women finding their power, and friends coming together to find out who they really are. One of its strengths is that it is one of the more accurate portrayals of witchcraft in film, as they hired Pat Devin, a Dianic Elder Priestess, to consult on the film.
Each of the four witches has a reason for needing the power of the coven. Neve Campbell’s Bonnie is self conscious of her scars. Rachel True’s Rochelle is tormented by a racist teammate. Fairuza Balk’s Nancy is embarrassed of her home life, and has been othered for her sex life (Skeet Ulrich’s Chris is much more sexually active, but as is typical, Nancy is the one shamed for it). Robin Tunney’s Sarah is a self-harm survivor at a new school in a new city, also the victim of Chris’ rumors. They learn how to take their power back, how to turn the torment back onto the tormentors, and what it means to not be alone.
The Craft definitely suffers from lack of a woman’s touch – it is very clearly directed and written by men. Some of the group dynamic of Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle feels very much like a man’s idea of how women behave and not true to life. The god that the writer made up for them to invoke is a male deity (Devin insisted a real deity not be used, so teenagers wouldn’t be out invoking real power). Then there’s the standard horror trope of the good, virginal one being the last one standing – rewarded for her purity. But for its faults, it is still a movie about women finding their power, and what that means for those who would deny them it. Our heroines discover themselves, each other, and that being different doesn’t mean being powerless.
1998’s Practical Magic is often labeled as a romantic comedy, but I think that sells the central theme of the movie short. Yes, there is an oft mentioned curse that kills the men that any Owens woman truly loves, and the will they/won’t they between Sandra Bullock’s Sally and Aidan Quinn’s Gary Hallet, an investigator from Arizona. But the central relationship of the film is Sally and her sister, Nicole Kidman’s Gilly. Sisters are important throughout the film – from the delightful portrayal of the Aunts by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest to Sally’s young daughters, to the sisterhood of moms of the PTA in a small island town.
The main threat of the film is Jimmy Angelov, the abusive boyfriend of Gilly that Sally kills (a couple of times). It isn’t a knight in shining armor that rides in and saves the day here. Both Gilly’s possession by Jimmy Angelov and the centuries-old curse are broken by the connection Sally and Gilly have. It is a coven of women that provide the backdrop for two sisters to use their bond to overcome evil. Hallet doesn’t even factor in to the resolution of those storylines.
Practical Magic is lighter fare, to be sure. But it touches on important themes of women supporting each other, the bonds of sisterhood, and the power we have to overcome those who wish us ill. It also reclaims the title of witch – used as an insult at the beginning of the film, but a proud descriptor at the end.
With the themes witchcraft brings into media, and the historical treatment of accused witches in real life, it is no wonder so many women and enbies include a witchcraft movie in their canon. And the ratings and reviews of many movies in the Women’s+ canon often illustrate why having a bunch of old white dudes making up the majority of critics doesn’t work. Looking at the Rotten Tomatoes scores of both Practical Magic (20%) and The Craft (54%), it is clear we need more women and enbies getting chances at film critic roles. It isn’t a spell that makes women feel differently about stories focused on women (user ratings for both films are much higher). It’s the connection we feel to the material.
Today is the Spring Equinox, which modern Wiccans and other Pagans celebrate as a time for new beginnings and to find lost things. I can’t think of a better day to watch your favorite witchy movie – hopefully it will inspire you to continue to reclaim your lost power. Blessed be.