Seasons of the Witch: Perceptions of Witchcraft in Movies and TV

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 6, 2013 — 48 Comments

Pop-cultural moments come and go, and the witch has had its share. Each time the figure of the “Witch” means something slightly different, though often focused on the power of women. In the 1940s and 1950s, films like I Married a Witch (1942) and Bell, Book and Candle (1958) showed a witch’s power conquered by their love of a “mortal” man; a trope that was subverted in the 1960s and early 1970s by the television series Bewitched, where it’s clear that Samantha is the smarter, more powerful, partner.

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“Samantha was representative of suburban domestic ideals. However, at a time when women were beginning to have their horizons broadened, Samantha’s supernatural abilities conjured up the promise of women’s liberation and the unleashing of female power that was to come.” 

However, this particular theme of housewife witches turned to darker territory in the late 1960s and the 1970s. You had the Satanic coven in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) trying for an Antichrist, and the evil witch coven in Suspiria (1977), perhaps reflecting the darker turn culture took during that era. When you start examining witches in movies, you’ll see the pendulum swinging back and forth, empowerment, and fear of that very empowerment. By the 1990s, the rising religious Witchcraft movement started influencing these films, blurring the lines between the fantasy witch and real Witches, most evident in films like The Craft (1996) and television shows like Charmed (1998) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). Still, the evil fantasy witch persisted during this time, most famously in The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Today, the figure of the fantasy witch, influenced both by religious Witchcraft, and the pop-cultural ups and downs of previous generations, seems more popular than ever. In an atmosphere where vampires, werewolves, and zombies are big box office, there seems to be an ongoing expectation that witches will join that pantheon of tortured pathos and veiled commentary about modern life. This time television led the way with witches (and sometimes Wiccans) regularly appearing in True Blood, (the now-canceled) Secret Circle, and The Vampire Diaries. This year, 2013, seems to be the biggest yet, with a variety of big-budget films featuring an assortment of good and bad witches heading to the screens, starting with the (by all accounts very bad) movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

That clunker of a film will soon give way to something even darker, Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem which seems very much an homage to the Rosemary’s Baby/Suspiria Satanic witch-meme.

Before that hits this Fall, we’ll have Oz The Great And Powerful in March, which updates the “good” and “bad” witches of that fantasy world, a prequel to the film version of The Wizard of Oz, perhaps the most famous film featuring witches (a film which has been reevaluated in recent years thanks to the musical Wicked).

Those are only the beginning. We also have The Seventh Son and Beautiful Creatures on the way this year, and another witch-hunting movie, The Last Witch Hunter, slated for next year. Television will also see a new witch-themed series in Witches of East End out this year, joining an already-impressive lineup of fictional witches and spell-casters on cable and network TV.

I’m commenting on this now because I think it’s important that we start discerning what all these witches are telling the viewers. What does the witch do? Is witchcraft evil? Good? A neutral technology? What theology, if any, is included in these works? How will it reflect on those of us who call ourselves Witches in the real world? As much as some of us would like to simply ignore pop-culture, we know first-hand that it does inspire people to seek out the “real” thing. Those of us who lived through the “Teen Witch” boom of the 1990s know how powerful films like The Craft were in making kids curious about Wicca and other forms of religious Witchcraft. 

A still from "The Craft."

A still from “The Craft.”

Organizations and groups that advocate for modern Witchcraft will have to be ready to field questions, to handle journalists that will inevitably want to talk to “real” Witches when these various films come out, and to deal with blatant self-promoters who want to grab this moment by the tail. As “witches” join the paranormal urban fantasy soup in greater and greater numbers, we will have to be savvier than ever, because these works  do shift perceptions, and we can’t ignore their magic.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://twitter.com/themediawitch Peg Aloi

    My media witch tip: don’t be fooled by reporters or radio hosts who act sympathetic and interested but, when push comes to shove, want to portray us as weirdos or evil or worse. You may find yourself blindsided by this tactic, especially with radio interviews. be prepared, be professional and stay calm. :)

    • Genexs

      Also, I always suggest that people ‘dress down’ for this sort of thing. Looking like someone who is in charge of their faculties can really throw a reporter off base, if they intended to set you up.

    • Avalon Adam

      You’re so right. Media doesn’t want to project an objective view of any minoirty group , but instead they want sensationalist car crash TV. THe only time i, as a PF committee member, have engaged in a TV show , is when it is one of those studio discussion shows with a good argument with the Christian, Muslims and Jews etc.
      I never trust a TV producer to set the agenda or the editor to edit correctly in a set interview.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=636701735 JoHanna M. White

    I have been anticipating the media blitz that will surround these films. I admit I ignore pop culture alot, but was horrified when my radio played a Hansel and Gretel ad stating “Some say not all witches are evil. I say kill them all.” A little direct that

    • cernowain greenman

      Yes, I too was shocked by the Hansel and Gretal “Witch Hunters” movie commercials. The first I caught wind of the movie was at the theatre seeing the life-size cut outs of the characters with the title “Witch Hunters”. That was unnerving for me.

      I have since heard that (possible spoiler) it is revealed that Gretal is a “good” witch, descended from a line of good witches. I don’t think it makes the film any better, though, having witches kill each other. Fortunately the movie reviewers have mostly given “Witch Hunters” bad reviews, so there likely won’t be a sequel.

      I agree that we have to be aware of what is going on in media and how the term “witch” is being defined by the world at large, in order to respond intelligently.

  • Anne Johnson

    Any time there’s hyperbole (“Kill all witches”) the speaker or concept loses credibility in the minds of thinking people.

    • cernowain greenman

      Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who don’t think critically and accept what they hear. And there are a lot of the sheeples out there. And the next Sarah Palin/witch hunter is waiting in the wings.

  • _stag

    As a pagan I don’t take the portrayal of “evil witches” to heart. This is the media and any character can be given good or bad qualities. Let me make a comparison: The Police. How many movies, tv shows, books, webisodes, comic books and other form have given us the image of the corrupted cop that kills because “he is evil”, or “he is a bigot”, or “he’s in on the take”, or name your reason? And how many of those same media forms give us a “good cop” image?
    And the real cops in our world have to show how good they are at protecting the public despite any and all good and bad images presented to the world.
    And we have to take the good with the bad. For every “Harry Potter” there will be a “The Craft”.
    The only answer is the show what a real pagan/witch/alternative faith person looks like to our communities and let them understand who we are.

  • Luminous_Being

    Personally I love witch films of the pointy hat variety. I do prefer to have a few good witches in the mix but it’s not necessary. If The Craft had been about four young women going into the forest, connecting with the elements nature and empowering themselves via meditation and lots of reading… it would have been a boring movie.

    One thing I do wish pagans would consider is that those of us who identify as witches don’t own the archetype of the witch. When we claim (or reclaim) that title we are borrowing from the same folklore that the makers of these movies are borrowing from.

    I know this gets sticky when modern writers borrow from current pagan practices (Athames, sabbats, invoking elements) but these portrayals generally split the good witches and bad witches down the middle. OK maybe not the Wicker Man but that guy had it coming.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I always though that sergeant Howie was the bad guy, anyway.

      • Laila Hart

        Ha! I love that. He was such a prig.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          That was less concerning to me than the constant condemnation and seeming desire to destroy their cultural community.

          To me, the story seemed to be a parable against evangelistic fundamentalism.

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186404199 Crystal Hope Kendrick

            Exactly. It’s a morality tale. Don’t be a jerkwad and a fundy and you won’t be burnt alive.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Well, less likely, anyway.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    These movies are annoying but aren’t really hate speech. There’s no objective correlative — there are no witchcraft trials or Kristallnacht against occult bookstores. Yes, we do have our problems with real hate, but at a level that, as Luminous Being points out, would make a boring movie. (Not that we don’t need to fight the hate!)

    • http://www.facebook.com/ezelnio Erin Zelnio

      True story–my local occult bookstore was targeted one Halloween by some protesters. They were annoying, yes, but non-confrontational. They stood across the street with their signs and made a bunch of noise. In retaliation, the owner had his employee buy them all hot chocolate from the neighborhood Starbucks. They’ve never been back.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186404199 Crystal Hope Kendrick

    Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters could’ve been really funny. As a comedy it had potential. It’s really sad that they didn’t take it that direction. In fact, it makes little sense to me that it turned out to be an adventure/drama. How seriously can one take a film with that title?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186404199 Crystal Hope Kendrick

      Lords of Salem looks kind of disappointing too. When did horror films become so kitschy?

      • Hex Parker

        Rob Zombie is a HUGE fan of B-rate horror and has always claimed that his music and movies are a homage to that adoration. Don’t know about the other ones out there, but his are purposefully kitschy. :)

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186404199 Crystal Hope Kendrick

          Well, that’s good to know.

      • cernowain greenman

        A lot of movies now, especially the action movies, have as little dialogue as possible so that the movie can be more easily translated and dubbed and shipped out to the International market.

    • Northern_Light_27

      For extra “absolutely nothing new under the sun” points, there’s going to be an action/adventure film about Jack and the bloody Beanstalk. The title is something like Jack: Giant Slayer. I kid you not. It’s open season on fairy tales in Hollywood right now, this “reimagined fairy tale” thing is a really hot trend.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186404199 Crystal Hope Kendrick

        Which would be fun if Hollywood was even a jot creative. I saw the trailer for Jack the Giant Slayer and it looked positively eye roll worthy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dsalisbury David Salisbury

    By far the most important media tip that I always give to witches and pagans: Say what you ARE about and not what you’re NOT about. Example: Do not ever say the following in an interview, even if directly asked: “Wiccans do not worship the devil.” Guess what a viewer leaves with after hearing that? “Witches DO worship the devil.”
    Statements should always be made in the positive, even when the question is stated in the negative. It can be fun and easy to be a media-savvy Pagan but we gotta get those basics right first.

    • Northern_Light_27

      ^This so very much. Sticking to this guideline also limits the possibility of talking outside your scope of knowledge. I’ve seen so many instances where Pagans have answered questions about practices beyond their religion/tradition and talked out of the top of their head and the results were… lamentable. (This is particularly true when making comments about Satanism, but Wiccans talking about Heathenry and Heathens talking about Wicca has an equal tendency to end very badly.) Sticking to positive statements about what you know well is the best way to go.

    • Jay

      Personally, I wish that more diaglogue in general among Pagans was about what you are about rather than what you’re not. It gets tiring otherwise.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    The most common theme in these witch-based shows and movies is power.

    Being a witch grants power (best example has to be the 2006 movie ‘The Covenant’), is what we can posit from these movies. Not many link ‘witch’ with theology, but most that do are looking for a magic using monster, thus giving us the devil worshipping witches (of Eastwick.)

    Should any misconceptions be a concern? Depends on how seriously the majority of people take the movies. I doubt if most even think of witches as existing.

  • Nicre

    Well, what do you expect from as director whose name is Rod ZOMBIE?

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      *Rob. He also does fun music.

  • Genexs

    <— What about "Curse of the Demon" (aka: Night of the Demon), with that great HP Dr. Julian Karswell, played to the hilt by Nail MacGinnes?

    But my favorite is "Horror Hotel" (aka: City of the Dead). The coven sure had some decent robes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1186404199 Crystal Hope Kendrick

      I love Horror Hotel- the original one- and watch it every Candlemas Eve. I haven’t seen Curse of the Demon but I’ll have to look for it. I’m always looking for new witch flicks.

      • Genexs

        That’s very cool that you watch it at Candlemass! Do indeed check out “Curse…” The fellow who wrote the screen play, George Baxt, penned some other great horror flicks as well. Perhaps the best is “Shadow of the Cat”, about a cat who seeks revenge against the people who killed her owner. Saddly, the film is hard to find.

  • Northern_Light_27

    I think of fantasy witchcraft impacting actual witchcraft about as much as “Thor” was about, well, Thor. Urban fantasy witches are fun, with occasional eyerolls for glaring instances of Did Not Do The Research.

    There are only two ways media portrayals bother me. One, is with the double standard. Our mythology and our archetypes are media fodder in a way Abrahamic ones never are. (“God” was 100% off-limits in Stargate SG-1. The Ori were fantasy evil Christianity, but you’d never, ever see YHVH or Jesus Christ as a Goa’uld– and yet they felt perfectly free to outright demonize the gods of not only ancient polytheists, but more disturbing to me, modern religions most often practiced by people of color.) I’ve got a sense of humor about media portrayals, but that larger narrative bugs me. A lot.

    The other is when there are media portrayals of Witches and Pagans on shows that aren’t urban (or otherwise) fantasy. For instance, case-of-the-week characters on cop dramas. These are watched by a very different audience, oftentimes an audience who may have never heard of us any other way. When *those* get it wrong, fail to do the research, or otherwise screw up, that really upsets me. There is no “it’s fantasy” out for characters who are supposed to be real-world plausible.

    • Bor1am

      This is why I don’t watch The Mentalist, for the first year it was on there was an episode dealing with a supposed “Wiccan” who was a definite nut case. When they insult us, I boycott them.

      • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

        Because television and movies never portray Christian nutcases too? The fact of the matter is there are nutcases in all kinds of walks of life. We can’t expect television to portray any spiritual genre as perfect and in their right mind. That would still be a fantasy. Hawaii 5-O had an episode in Oct that was frustrating as heck, but the one person they went to during their investigation was a Wiccan. Their first impression of her was through their own suspicions and paranoia, but she settled their fears with facts and they listened to what she had to say and it helped them solve their case. I agree, tv shows don’t do their diligence in research. Even in that show they had some info wrong. But at last they showed the Wiccan as being truthful and helpful to them. Movies show villains of all kinds from Catholic Priests to Cops and everything in between. No one likes to be portrayed badly, but the truth is that there are nut cases everywhere.

        • Northern_Light_27

          False equivalence bingo time! The problem is that there are Christians everywhere. Someone who watches a cop show with a disturbed Christian likely knows many people in their own real life who are examples of good, stable, kind Christians. They probably *don’t* know anyone in their real life who is an example of a good, grounded Wiccan because there are comparatively so few out Wiccans. Even though it’s just a televsion show, if “The Mentalist” is the only thing a person has ever seen about Wicca or Wiccans, it’s going to stick in their head, the same way all of those TV show characters who abuse prescription painkillers stick in people’s heads and give a deformed view of reality that is *incredibly* harmful to actual pain patients (I am one, I can readily attest to the reality of this).

          That, and like I said, there’s a different audience for procedurals than there is for teen-witch science fiction shows, often a much more socially conservative audience. One wrong portrayal there can amount to a lot of damage.

        • Genexs

          My favorite Christian movie nut-job was Rev Kane in Poltergiest II. To up the creep factor even more, he looks a lot like Fred Phelps of the real world horror show Westboro Baptist Church.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      You that the movie “Thor” actually increase the amount of people interested in Aesir worship?

      Worse than that, I have had people maintain (to a fundie level) that the movie is an accurate portrayal of the ‘Asgardians’ (these people don’t seem to like the term ‘Aesir’.)

      The same people that treat “King Arthur” and “Robin Hood” as historically accurate docu-movies…

      • Northern_Light_27

        Yeah, fanbrats exist. As I said to someone locally, I’m less concerned about the long-term effect of Marvel movies on Heathenry than I am on the well-being of the confused fans. I think most of the Loki fans (and most of the people getting into Paganism from Marvel fandom are Loki fen) will eventually drop out, as religion is work and this is especially true of Asatru. Some will read the lore, get a clue, and stick around. It’s just that there’s a group or two who do some very dangerous things IRL and are into Loki, and I worry that some of these kids will end up there.

      • LaurelhurstLiberal

        Thor wasn’t that bad. A kid watching that would learn about a lot of the main Aesir and Vanir, the Nine Worlds, that Odin is wise, Heimdall perceptive, Loki tricky, and Thor is really good at smacking down frost giants and is a friend to man. That’s not bad!

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          It was utter bollocks.

  • Avalon Adam

    Haxan, best witchcraft movie ever.

  • http://thehomespunlife.com Sisterlisa

    If people allow fictional movies to be their example of real life then they already have something wrong in their head.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sonny.gardner1 Sonny Gardner

    I’m looking forward to ‘Lords of Salem’ if only to see Patricia Quinn (Magenta from ‘Rocky Horror’). I love occult / Witch themed movies. These films are entertainment.
    Witchcraft has always had it’s weird and wooly dark side and, if we’re honest, is one of it’s most attractive features. Many VERY different kinds of people with VERY different ideas on spirituality have embraced the word “Witch” and identify with it. No one person or group on Earth can claim the title for themselves exclusively. Some very sweet and intelligent Witches peacefully and harmlessly adore Baphomet & Lucifer as well as Pan or Thor, Lilith and Hekate. Trance artist Rosaleen Norton is one of our modern, public “Witchy Saints” in her vanguard defense of freedom of occult religion and anti-censorship. Speaking out of Ignorance is most dangerous. We should always expand our knowledge of our own paths as well as those of our Witchy brothers and sisters. Inspiration is everywhere!

  • http://twitter.com/thelettuceman Marc

    It’s not even movies that target Witches as a trope that get to me. Shows like Paranormal State with their “I AM A THIRTEENTH GENERASION WICCAN” (slur intended) can do as much harm as something blatantly targeting a group. Anyone remember the Discovery Channel series ‘A Haunting’? Season 4, Episode 7 had a story about a woman who got into the ‘supernatural’ and ended up, towards the end of the episode, looking like something Hot Topic vomited out. Of course, her good Christian son (who was also enlisted in the Army, so you know his morals are clean) saved her in the end.

  • http://twitter.com/Phantasmaphile Pam Grossman

    I’ve been tracking this, too. Great minds, as they say… I think this is actually part of a much larger shift, though. You might be interested to read why I think 2013 is The Year of the Witch: http://www.phantasmaphile.com/2013/02/year-of-the-witch-explained.html

  • Torunn

    Have you heard the song behind The Lords of Salem? It focuses more on the power trip the group of girls experienced during the Trials, not Witchcraft (of either the skewed Christian view or others).

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    Samantha was very attractive, too — Darrin was a lucky guy. There’s a long media tradition of witches as good wives that’s existed in parallel to the scary witch image.