Witchcraft and Television

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 29, 2011 — 79 Comments

Not since the 1990s has witchcraft been such a popular subject matter within pop-culture. Wicca and Brujería mingle with more fantasy-oriented versions of witchcraft on the HBO series “True Blood,” while  the CW is set to launch “The Secret Circle” this Fall, a teen-oriented show based on a series of books that focuses on a coven of genetic witches. To top it all off, there seems to be plans for a new take on the 1960s classic television show “Bewitched”.

“In the latest classic TV title getting considered for a reboot, CBS and Sony are developing a script for remake of the classic sitcom Bewitched. This is still in very early stages, but it’s definitely a project worth keeping an eye on.”

Several media critics are skeptical of such a relaunch, but could this be a great opportunity to have a truly subversive show about witchcraft (or capital-W Witchcraft) on television? With the current craze of shows set in the 1960s (ie “Mad Men,” “The Playboy Club,” “Pan Am”) you could even make it a period piece with little trouble, thus avoiding much of the meta-horribleness that was the 2005 movie.

Witchcraft in television and movies has often worked best when it’s a signifier for something else. In the 1958 movie adaptation of “Bell, Book, and Candle” (of which, I have many strong opinions) witchcraft stands in for 1950s-era bohemia, women’s empowerment, and the gay subtext of Jack Lemmon’s Nicky. Much of this subtext was adopted, though further sanitized, when “Bewitched” launched five years later. By this time, real-live Witches of various stripes were making news in England, though it had yet to penetrate the American consciousness. Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha seemed to be embodying the bubbling tensions over feminism in the early seasons as she struggled to be the good wife while denying her innate power (much to the chagrin of her liberated mother).  While there’s no trace of religion in the show’s depiction of witchcraft, it did feature a eerily prescient episode in the first season where the witches decide to protest their depiction as ugly old Halloween hags.

“The Witches Are Out” from season one is the first episode where witches are presented as a minority group. They are referred to as such in the episode in which one of Darrin’ clients (portrayed by Shelley Berman) wants his Halloween candy represented by a wart-nosed, broom-riding witch. Meanwhile, Samantha and her witch committee are trying to actively combat the negative images associated with witches during Halloween.

A decade later figures like Laurie Cabot would be making the news for staging similar protests. So “Bewitched,” in a way, set the stage for real-live Witches while using the show’s “witchcraft” as a stand-in for other issues.

Today we exist in a world where Pagan religions and Witches are a reality, not a fantasy. The temptation to bring some of that into a fantasy setting can be overwhelming, though it often just produces confusing mish-mashes as seen in shows like “Charmed” or with characters like Willow in “Buffy”. You also see terribly overwrought metaphors in shows like “Camelot,” where magic=drug abuse. As seen with “True Blood,” such portrayals don’t endear you to those depicted. I think there should be a clear firewall between fantasy witchcraft, and modern Pagan religion. Let Samantha be Samantha (or let Willow be Willow), and let us decide what her magic means to us.

The minute you make a character Wiccan, you’re treading into theological waters that are best left alone. If a television show or movie wants to incorporate Pagans and Wiccans into a script, it should strive to portray them accurately instead of merging them with already well-established fantasy tropes. If you want Wiccans in a television drama, why not adapt The Bast Mysteries, or perhaps the work of MR Sellars? I think they’d work great on the PBS series “Mystery!”.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

Posts