Emmy Rossum in Beautiful Creatures

DIng, Dong…

15th March 2013

Ding, Dong, The Witch Is… Alive And Well

The witch’s time has come, says Jennifer Lipman, as she takes us on a whistlestop broomstick ride through a contemporary cultural trend

In the late 1990s, for fans of American television drama, a battle raged between two incarnations of very powerful women. In the blue corner was Buffy, vampire slayer extraordinaire; in the red corner were Prue, Piper and Phoebe Halliwell, known collectively as the Charmed Ones. Vampires or witches? Bloodsuckers or conjurers? Dusk till dawn or the witching hour?

Lately, pop culture has opted for the former, with teenagers and grown women alike embracing the Twilight saga of Edward and Bella. But 2013 could well be the year that Twilight is finally pushed out of the spotlight. Last month (13 February) saw the release of Beautiful Creatures, the story of a teenage ‘caster’ forced to choose between the dark arts and the pure ones as she approaches her sixteenth birthday. The film, adapted from a bestselling book and with a cast including Viola Davis and Emma Thompson, has been widely dubbed ‘the new Twilight’ for its combination of star-crossed teenage romance, sorcery and stunning sets.

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton

Hot on its heels came Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a reworking of the classic fairytale, pitting the adult breadcrumb-followers (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) against an evil sorceress planning another sacrifice of innocent children.

And then, only last week, the hotly-anticipated contemporary take on Dorothy’s story, Oz The Great and Powerful, hit cinema screens. Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz are the trio of witches – both good and evil – with whom Oz must work in order to become the great commander of the Emerald City. Seventy-four years after Glinda the Good floated away on her bubble carriage, the witch is taking her seat once again on the throne of the entertainment industry.

It’s easy to see why so many books, films and cultural offerings have avowedly embraced the witch, from the Nazi-defeating Eglantine Price in Mary Norton’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks to Lois the Witch in an unlikely 1861 novella by Elizabeth Gaskell. Anything but passive, the witch – powerful, mysterious, wise, able to control her surroundings and not bound by mortal concerns – is surely a feminist icon, not least because in classic understanding witches have tended to challenge the patriarchal order. Nowadays we’d always rather watch a woman in charge than a simpering damsel in distress, although historically, of course, it was the damsel who was favoured over the sorceress. In fairytale lore – and in most Disney versions – the witch is the villain, ugly and gnarled, just waiting for her comeuppance. Remember that scene in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, when Anjelica Huston and her minions peeled off their human faces to reveal their true grotesque and terrifying forms? Or the comedy Hocus Pocus, in which Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler and Kathy Najimy camped it up as three squabbling, pathetic old hags? Though they were caricatures, scheming in urban America and riding around on vacuum cleaners, they were undoubtedly the bad guys.

Art, in that respect, has imitated life; for centuries, witches were blamed for society’s ills and viewed as heretics, accused of cursing the sick and corrupting the innocent, and often burned at the stake as a result.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the ‘weird sisters’ are harbingers of doom; it is their presence that alerts the audience to impending tragedy. A more modern portrayal of a coven, 1996 horror film The Craft likewise depicts witches as both sinister and dangerous: four teenagers meddle with dark forces in order to settle old scores, including a rivalry with the most popular girl in school, only to suffer terrifying consequences. As the credits roll, the leader of the coven is in a psychiatric institution; the moral of the story being that no good can come of the use of magic.

The Hangman’s Daughter, a 2010 novel by the German author Oliver Pötzsch, set in 17th century Bavaria, makes clear how the term ‘witch’ was traditionally used as a byword for any woman who was perhaps inquisitive, or different. The midwife, guilty of little more than medical skill and a useful knowledge of herbs, becomes the target of a pitchfork-carrying mob after a group of orphans are found to be missing.

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, by far the most famous example of how such women were treated, saw dozens of witches – both men and women – killed or tortured for their alleged magical tendencies. Such cases were not limited to America; Mary and Elizabeth Hicks are believed to be the last women hanged as witches in England in 1716, with another murdered in Scotland 11 years later.

The Salem trials, as is well-known, formed the basis for Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning 1953 play, The Crucible, which used the witchhunt as an allegory for the persecution of other minorities, in particular suspected communists. Adapted countless times on stage, made into an opera, studied in schools and universities around the globe, it has been filmed twice: a 1957 French adaptation written by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Nicholas Hytner’s 1996 version starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis.

But times are changing. In the long-running musical Wicked – an adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s novel – we side with green-skinned witch Elpheba as the victim of persecution, not the persecutor. The show, which has enjoyed international success and won myriad awards, is part of a more general shift away from the idea of the witch as child-murderer, cold-blooded manipulator and pockmarked scare-story.

As society has become increasingly secular and less male-dominated, the focus has turned to a more benign conception of a woman with magical powers as seductive and forceful, rather than necessarily dark or menacing. Think of The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike’s novel-turned-film about lovestruck housewives messing not so much with the power of darkness as with their romantic lives. Or Practical Magic, which saw Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock as beautiful and mysterious sisters, forced to cast spells as a matter of survival. They weren’t wart-covered witches cackling over a cauldron, they were outsiders fighting for their future. Their magic had ramifications, but they – not their adversaries – were the ones who deserved the happily ever after.

Charmed, which aired between 1998 and 2006, continued this theme. Not only were the Charmed Ones neither dangerous nor demonic, they were the heroines, saving the world one gruesome creature at the time. And, crucially, their magic was less a burden, more a desirable additional personality trait. These were young, glamorous women able to do battle with evil and do it backward in high-heels, all the while keeping their paramours interested.

At the turn of the 21st century, television embraced the idea of the girl power witch. Admittedly, it wasn’t hardcore feminism – one critic dubbed the show ‘Charlie's Angels with a Ouija board’ – but by the time Charmed ended it was the longest-running American series with female leads.

If the witch has been both feared and fabulous, she has also been funny, as in Hocus Pocus, or Bewitched or the children’s series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In the former, Samantha Stephens, the housewife with abilities that enabled her to far outshine her affable but perpetually disaster-prone husband Dick, could twitch her nose to make almost any problem go away, save those caused by her tempestuous mother.

An episode of Bewitched from 1968

Bewitched, meanwhile, ran for years as the good-natured teenager sorceress disentangled herself from numerous unfortunate – and invariably supernatural – scrapes. For Sabrina, surely an heir to Mildred Hubble of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch stories, power came with responsibility. As for Elizabeth Montgomery’s nosey Samantha in the 1960s, magic could be wonderful, coming with the ability to instantly change one’s outfit or avert an awkward situation, but using it for personal gain was bound to end badly.

So from the wicked to the wonderful and the wisecracking, popular culture has offered up an astonishing array of supernatural stars, and 2013 looks set only to build on that tradition. But 21st century witches are not quite the caricatures of days gone by, embodying both dark and light, good and evil. After so many black and white incarnations, perhaps it’s time for the witch to choose a pointy hat in a shade of grey?…

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