Archives For Hollywood

On Oct. 28, Time magazine published an article called “Why Witches on TV Spell Trouble in real life.”  It was part of the avalanche of articles on Witches and Witchcraft that typically appear in October. As suggested by the title, the article’s intent was to examine the social factors surrounding the popularity of TV witches. After publication, Time and the writer, Jennie Latson, were hit with a wave of backlash from Pagans and Witches.

time logo og

The article contains two sentences that became the target of those reactions. The first is a quote from Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University. He writes, “Witches, like terrorists, ‘threaten to wipe out everything you believe in.’ The article’s second offending sentence is “The difference, of course, is that terrorists are real, while witches are not.”

On Oct. 30, Silver Ravenwolf published a brief response:

I am shaking my head.  I am wondering what rock these people are crawling out from under.  How about you actually take the time to interview a real Witch, to live their life for 30 days, and then I dare you to come back and tell me that I’m a terrorist.

Jason Mankey posted a longer response titled “Dear Time magazine, Witches are Real!” on his blog Raise the Horns. His tempered response included:

 I don’t think Ms. Latson’s article was intentionally insulting. She was simply trying to rationalize the explosion of Witch-themed shows on cable television. Fair enough, that’s the kind of article we all expect this time of year, but her execution was exceedingly poor.

Adam Osborne of Salisbury, North Carolina began a petition asking Time magazine to apologize. He wrote,”The article, although seemingly benign, puts Pagans and those who practice witchcraft in a bad light, and could encourage others to “punish” us as they would deem fit.” The petition has received 5,078 supporters to date.

While Pagans sent angry tweets to both the magazine and writer, several online media outlets reported on rising tension. The International Business Times wrote, “Many practicing Wiccans were not amused, and some accused the magazine of comparing witches to terrorists.” The Inquisitor published an opinion piece on the subject and Religion Dispatches posted a reaction from religion professor Joseph Laycock. On Nov. 10, Latson linked to that response in a tweet:

Although the backlash was notable, Pagan reactions were not uniform, and many felt the article wasn’t a problem. Osborne’s petition has yet to receive the requested number of signatures. Why? Because the Latson article focused on fictional witches and the legends surrounding Salem. When she said, “Witches aren’t real,” she was referring to the type of witch found in most Hollywood representations (e.g., Maleficent,2014; Witches,1990; The Chronicles of Narnia, 2005).

The word witch is, and has always been, a very loaded term. Outside of fictional representations, the word has many meanings, each of which evokes a very different culturally-dependent reaction. When someone says “witch” in a small Nigerian village, the meaning is entirely different from a person using the word while relaxing at Treadwell’s Bookshop in London. It means something different within the walls of the Vatican than it does at a Pagan Pride event in California. And, it means something different today than it did 100 or 500 years ago. Contextuality is everything when using the word “witch.”

Considering the reactions, Latson’s article failed to adequately contextualize its subject matter in order to avoid criticism. The sentence “Witches are not real” was not encased in language that demonstrated an understanding or sensitivity to the term’s varied contemporary usage. This resulted in outrage.

Limiting her statement to Hollywood cinematic language, Latson’s statement about witches is mostly true. However, the article makes other claims, beyond those two statements, that prove problematic from a cinematic and historical viewpoint. The article suggests that fictional witches are more popular during times of trouble. This statement is not supported by film research. As with the word “witch” itself, the iconic meaning of the cinematic witch needs better contexualization in order to understand its popularity.

Dorothy Neumenn as Crone Meg Maud. Courtesy of

1957, The Undead. Dorothy Neumenn as Meg Maud. [Courtesy of]

Quoting Baker, the article compares current U.S. social climate to that of colonial Salem. It posits that the interest in witches:

…may have its roots in the post-9/11 panic over terrorism and what could be seen as a Salem-like erosion of civil rights in the name of security — or, more recently, in the revelations that the National Security Agency seems to be spying on ordinary citizens as stealthily as neighbors spied on neighbors in colonial Salem

However, fictional witches were not only popular in times of trouble. Witches were prolific in American films at the turn of century because filmmakers, who wanted to showcase a new entertainment product, used popular stories, such as fairy tales and histories, to draw in audiences (e.g, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1910; In the Days of Witchcraft, 1913; Joan the Woman, 1917). Similarly, witches were popular in times of economic stability such as the 1950s and 1990s.

Film scholars believe the popularity of witches is less about social instability and more about the negotiation of gender roles. When discussing witch films, theorists focus on female agency and sexuality. As noted by Tanya Krzywinska in A Skin for Dancing in, “Witchcraft [in film] has become a language of resistance to the cultural norms of femininity…” (Krzywinska, p.117) These norms include beauty, family roles, career paths and power held within society.

While this very specific cinematic codification is consistent across time, it doesn’t explain everything. The use of the filmic witch as an icon of radical femininity is wholly dependent on time and genre. In the 1920s, when women were experiencing unprecedented social freedom, witches nearly disappeared from the American screen. In 1934, witches returned as the Depression took hold and traditional family structures were celebrated. At the very same time, the Catholic-based censorship office began its control of the Hollywood production (e.g., The Wizard of Oz, 1939; Spitfire,1934; Maid of Salem, 1937). In this case, witches were an example of what not to be.

By the 1970s and after the social revolution, the horror film began incorporating versions of the witch figure. In these films, the focus is more on aberrant female sexuality than conventional social roles (e.g., Rosemary’s Baby, 1968; Carrie,1976; Witches of Eastwick, 1987; The Craft, 1996). And, in today’s market, the narrative positioning of the Hollywood witch trope has changed again as society plays with the acceptance of non-traditional cultural modalities. This can be seen in thematic and narrative complexities playing out in recent shows such as Salem, American Horror Story: Coven, the Witches of East End and others.

WGN America's Salem Poster

WGN America’s Salem Poster

In addition, most discussions of cinematic witches, like the Time magazine article, fail to take race into account. Most Hollywood cinematic witches are white. The female, brown-skinned witch has a very different role and cinematic meaning within Hollywood language. Analysis of this type of witch reveals threads of racism, colonialism and the unfettered objectification of the “other” (e.g., The Devil’s Daughter, 1939, The Crucible, 1996; Salem, 2014)  This is an entirely different story.

The popularity, or the lack of popularity, of the witch in TV and cinema proves to be as complicated as the use of the term “witch” itself. In both cases, scholarship is not complete without acknowledging those complexities even on a small scale. Muddling this matter further are the many blurred lines between the various meanings – both fictional and real. There are shared details, such as black hats, cauldrons, magical work, healing and aspects of the Occult, that underlie our cultural understanding of the witch. These elements are often what lead to frustration and anger for those that identify as modern-day real Witches. Many people, non-Witches, don’t or can’t see the distinctions between the purely cinematic and fictional, the historical legends, the accusations in Africa, and the real, genuine practice of Witchcraft around the globe.

UPDATE 11/17/14: Prof. Emerson Baker, who was quoted in the original Time article, did issue his own apology on his site for the confusions that were generated by Latson’s story.

On Friday, March 28, Paramount Pictures will release Noah into U.S. theaters after a flood of controversy. Noah, dubbed a biblical blockbuster, was co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, the award winning director oBlack Swan (2010.) Noah has an all-star cast including Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connolley and Emma Watson.

Almost any time a biblical story is adapted to film, there will be controversy. Does the movie adhere to the original narrative? Does it represent its characters and thematics accurately?  Are the creative elements born of the spirit in the original text? These are some of the questions that circle around all biblical films. Realistically these are the same questions that arise with the adaptation of any famous text. However when religion is the story’s birth-mother and caretaker, the questions are far more poignant and the debate more heated.

“Noah’s Ark” is arguably one of the most well-known Old Testament stories and is often used as a children’s tale. It has been re-told in so many formats that it almost transcends its biblical roots becoming a mythical story in our over culture. “Noah’s Ark” has even found its way into the whimsical world of Disney cartoons (Fantasia 2000) and Broadway musicals (Two By Two).

Considering the amount of creative license needed to produce a Broadway or Disney rendition of the story, it may seem surprising that anyone would consider protesting a live-action adaptation by an award-winning director. However that is exactly what has been happening.

To date the film is banned in four Islamic countries (UAE, Indonesia, Bahrain and Qatar) and is expected to be banned in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait. Their objections are based upon the Islamic rejection of “any acts depicting the messengers and prophets of God.” as reported by Reuters.  Paramount expected these bans.

Paramount Films Noah 2014

Paramount Films Noah 2014

Back here in the U.S. viewer complaints center mostly on Noah’s characterization as well as its sub-themes. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a group of Christian viewers invited to test market the film “questioned [its] adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character.” One interviewee described Noah as a “crazy, irrational, religious nut who is fixated on modern-day problems like overpopulation and environmental degradation.” In response, Russell Crowe  has told an ABC interviewer, “This is a dude who stood by and watched the entire population of the planet perish. He’s not benevolent. He’s not even nice.”

Similar complaints have been pouring in since the movie’s inception. In 2012 Brian Godawa coined the now famous title “Noah: Environmentalist Wacko.” After reading the script, he wrote “This movie will be rejected by millions of devoted Bible readers worldwide because once again it subverts their own sacred narrative with a political agenda of pagan earth religion.” Godawa has also been quoted  as saying, “the director had transformed a scriptural story into ‘environmental paganism’ by blaming the great flood on man’s “disrespect” for the environment.”

It is no secret that Hollywood breathes contemporary issues into its adaptations. Was this film project born after an executive finished reading a report on global warming and the potential drowning of populated coastal areas? It is conceivable. The international media has billed Noah as “the original disaster story.” Interestingly enough, a 1928 Warner Brothers version of Noah’s Ark is largely considered the first melodramatic Hollywood disaster movie. There is an undeniable narrative correlation and, realistically, disaster movies are hot box office fodder.

Returning to 2014, Aronofsky’s Noah is just that: Aronofksy’s Noah. As filming progressed, Paramount became increasingly nervous that his creative license would not appeal to its target audience – conservative Christians. They began to test market various cuts of the film at the risk of straining the producer-director relationship. In the end, Paramount has opted to release the director’s cut despite viewer concerns.

According to the Washington Times, Aronofsky calls his film a mythic,“dark parable of sin, justice and mercy.” He also said it is the “least biblical Bible film ever made” calling Noah the “first environmentalist.” However Aronofsky also notes that biblically-based details directly informed the film’s development including the shape of the Ark and Noah’s drinking bout. In a recent ABC interview he said, “You don’t want to mess with it [the story]. You just want to bring it to life and … breathe life into it.”

Although Paramount will be releasing Aronofsky’s version, they are doing so with the following message attached:

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

Paramount’s decision to add this disclaimer was based upon a request from the National Religious Broadcasters, “a non-partisan international association of …Christian communicators coming together to spread the life-changing Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through every electronic medium available.” Having spent a reported $130 million on the biblical blockbuster, Paramount felt the disclaimer was fiscally prudent.

There are many Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders who have come out in support of the film. Most recently, the Pope himself granted Crowe an audience after three requests.  According to several reports, he blessed the film’s release.

Paramount Pictures Noah (2014)  Starring: Russell Crowe

Paramount Pictures Noah (2014) Starring: Russell Crowe

Despite Papal approval, viewer objections still haunt the film. Creationist Ken Ham has asked his followers to see Ray Comfort’s Noah film, being released the same day, “instead of wasting money by supporting a pagan Hollywood Noah movie that really makes a mockery of the account of Noah, the Ark and the Flood.”

Once again the primary accusation is one of fostering “paganism” (lowercase intended.)  In most cases, the word is simply used to refer to “secularism or environmentalism.”  However in many of these reviews, the writers are in fact referring to what they call “pagan earth religions.”

This begs the question: Does the film have Pagan themes?  After hearing such complaints, did Paramount ask the opinion of people practicing “Earth Religions?” If so there are no such indications or media reports.

Will you go see the film? Pagan blogger Jonathan Korman is looking forward to its release. He wrote, “I have been joking that Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming film Noah is a film for which I may be the only audience. I’m ethnically Jewish, a former atheist, and a Modern Pagan, with a fascination with the whole range of religions and myth.”

He may be right in its very eclectic appeal. Compressing the flurry of mainstream articles and reviews, here’s a glimpse at the global scope that has and still is surrounding the film and its production. In the mythic style of Lord of the Rings, Aronofsky’s Noah is a creative retelling of a beloved biblical story written and directed by Jews; containing contemporary Pagan Earth Religion themes; marketed specifically to a conservative Christian audience and banned by the world’s Islamic community.

And they call Hollywood secular.

Our last stop on this cinematic journey was 1937 with the release of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Up to that point, the Hollywood witch had already evolved from a turn-of-the-century “clown witch” to a stereotypical cartoon “hags in rags” and finally into an animated femme fatale.

Throughout that early period, the witch was contained within the framework of fantasy.  Even those few outliers created a wall of separation between reality and the witch. MacBeth (1916) is just a retelling of a Shakespearian drama.  In the Witch of Salem (1913), the “witch” is a victim of hysteria. In film studies speak, the witch never threatens to enter into the viewer’s world.

The next period stretches from 1939 to 1950. It ends just as television begins its golden age. In 1947, the number of home televisions was in the 1,000s. By 1960, that number was well into the millions. That change presents yet another major technologically-based shift in entertainment consumption and production. (Mitchell Stephens,“History of Television,”)

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Courtesy of

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Courtesy of

The period begins with MGM’s release of The Wizard of Oz (1939) – another retelling of L. Frank Baum’s first Oz story. Both Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West are significant to this study.  However, the Wicked Witch is by far a more powerful cultural icon and quite possibly the most famous of all Hollywood witches. She is even ranked #4 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Best Film Villains.” Since her birth in 1939, the Wicked Witch of the West has impacted, if not defined, what it means to be a “witch.”

MGMs’s Wicked Witch is an evolutionary step from the “hags and rags” cartoon motif.  She has all the common elements including a broom, angular chin and nose, black clothing, a crystal ball, long fingernails, and a pointed hat.  However, she’s much more intense and frightening. She was constructed as a bitter turn-of-the-century spinster who hates dogs and young girls.  Her clothing is reminiscent of that era.

What about her green skin? Up to this point, there has never been a witch with green skin.  Actress Margaret Hamilton recalls:

Black next to your skin seemed to give rise to a thin line of white on the edge of the black, which did not look like edging but rather like a separation. But with Oz the problem was solved… that was why they chose green makeup for my face, neck and hands. (Aljena Harmetz,  The Making of the Wizard of Oz )

The green-skinned witch was born.  Why green?  The color references other monstrous figures such as Frankenstein and suggests sickness, envy and even the undead.

In the original story, Baum described Oz’s other witch as an oddly-dressed old woman wearing white. But MGM changed Glinda into a younger angelic creature with a fairy-like appearance. She descends gracefully from the heavens in bubble that surrounds her like a golden halo.  Always appearing in soft focus, her face is perfectly framed in blond curls. Glinda sparkles as symbol of purity in pink, silver and tulle.

Billie Burke as Glinda Courtesy of

Billie Burke as Glinda
Courtesy of

The film version of The Wizard of Oz (1939) is only a loose adaptation of Baum’s original story. The visual appearances and narrative roles of both witches were altered in order to increase drama and remain within the Breen Code. The film’s witches are the polar extremes of good and evil.

Interestingly MGM interjected a bit of religion into the story in order to develop character. Auntie Em calls herself a “good Christian woman” when defying Mrs. Gulch. This statement an example of an old Hollywood technique that was prevalent during the Production Code days. If something is defined as being Christian, anything counter to that must then be bad.  As such, Mrs. Gulch (a.k.a. the Wicked Witch) was set-up as evil right from the beginning.

When the film was released, The Wizard of Oz received only mixed reviews. Regardless, the Wicked Witch left an immediate and indelible imprint on American entertainment. In 1942, Sky Princess, a a stop-motion, Puppatoon short contained the next in a long-line of green face witches. In Comin’ Round the Mountain (1951) actress Margaret Hamilton makes the first of many reappearances as a witch. Since 1939 there have been countless films, television programs, books and even Broadway shows that have, in some way, drawn from that one single movie.

Aside from The Wizard of Oz and The Sky Princess, there were only five other “witch” movies released from 1939-1950.  Three of these films are shorts containing a typical Halloween style “hag in rags.” One of these is a Mighty Mouse cartoon called Witch Cat (1948).  The second is another animated short called The Bookworm (1939).  The third is a live-action film called Third Dimensional Murder (1941) which showcased early 3-D technology. These latter two films are the first to directly associate the witch with classic monsters such as Frankenstein or Dracula.

In 1948, Orson Wells remade the classic play MacBeth with an interesting new twist. This film marks the first time a witch is equated with a real religious practice outside the bounds of Christian iconography. In his book This Is Orson Welles, Welles wrote:

The main point of the production is the struggle between the old and new religions. I saw the witches as representatives of a Druidical pagan religion suppressed by Christianity – itself a new arrival… the witches are the priestesses.  (Welles, pg 214-215)

poster20-20i20married20a20witch_01This takes us to the final film of this segment: I Married a Witch (1942). In this film, the witch steps out of the fairy tale or Shakespearian play to become a part of the mortal world. Its two evil witches, a father and daughter, take on the appearance of normal humans. The only typical witch icon used within the film is the flying broom. The daughter, Jennifer (Veronica Lake) is a coy, sexy femme fatale and her father is the male version of the clown witch.  He’s both the comic relief and antagonist.

I Married a Witch is unique because it was made specifically for female viewers. It’s a variation on a theme prevalent during the World War II era. As Jeanine Basinger states, “..the woman’s film juxtaposes in unrealistic ways two contradictory concepts:  the Way Women Ought to Be and the Other Way.”  These films gave women the opportunity to temporarily step out of societal expectations and explore the “other way.”  However, they always end with marriage and the acceptance of traditional roles. (Jeanine Basinger, A Women’s View)

In I Married a Witch, the “other way” is “witchcraft” and the “Ought to Be” is love and marriage. In the end, Jennifer proclaims “Love is stronger than Witchcraft” and, as a result, is lead from a sinful immortal existence to a traditional life of family and marriage.  In the final scene, she is shown quietly knitting with her long tresses piled neatly on her head. The father, who never accepts the proper role of the “good father,” is forever trapped in a liquor bottle.

The Hollywood witch is slowly transforming into a symbolic representation of femininity, but only the sexual, the independent, the free, the powerful and the creative side. The only way that she is allowed to live is through the acceptance of goodness through marriage, tradition and children. Even Glinda’s power is limited to the care of the munchkins and a child. Although the witch still appeared as a cartoon anecdote, she developed this new side – one that will continue to evolve as society changes.

In the next period, we enter the days of television.  Let the battle for viewers begin…




I am starting this journey in the early days of American cinema; from its inception in 1895 through its development into a viable culturally-influential industry. I’ve dated this period as “pre-1939.”  Many of you will recognize 1939 as being the release date of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM)’s classic film The Wizard of Oz, a film that contains the most iconic Hollywood witch in American cultural history.

From 1895 to 1916 moving pictures were just a technical novelty. As film historian Jeanine Basinger said, “No one really took movies very seriously. It was thought that they were a fad.” Most early movies depicted actual events, landscape photography, historical re-enactments or popular stories. (Basinger, American Cinema, 1994)

During these first two decades, only nine American films contained a witch.  Of these nine, five were dramatizations of beloved fantasy stories. The list includes The Magic Sword (1901), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910), His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mary PIckford in Cinderella (1914), and Snow White (1916).

In all of these films, the witch is a non-threatening, non-theological fairy tale construct. Her appearance and behavior recall the circus-clown or court jester with a big round collar and colorful patchwork clothing, or a heavy wizard cape and cone hat.  She plays the role of the buffoon.

William Wenslow's Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

William Wenslow’s Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Because this is the silent film era, filmmakers primarily used visual cues to define character. To do so, they had to draw from pre-cinematic cultural sources in order to speak to their viewers.  The witch as clown motif can be found in still renderings from that time period. It is even a common element in Mother Goose drawings. Additionally, all of these stooped, elderly witches are surrounded by other non-cinematic icons such as brooms, cauldrons, and pointed hats.

The concept of magic focuses on transformation and trickery. For example, In His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mombi the Witch transforms her three ugly companions into beautiful maidens. In Snow White (1916), the witch transforms the Queen from bland to beautiful. The use of magic in this way is reminiscent of something you might find in a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity (e.g. As You Like It)

Of the earliest nine films, the remaining four did not recreate fantasy stories. However, they have very little influence on the construction of the Hollywood witch. These include a lost animated experimental short called Bewitched Matches (1913). The first filming of Shakespeare’s MacBeth (1916) and an historical narrative called The Witch of Salem (1913).

The fourth film, The Mysteries of Myra (1915), is the most interesting of these early witch movies. The popular seventeen part film serial recounts the tale of Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. In each episode, the narrative tackles an Occult subject with no mention of witchcraft until episode thirteen. In this aptly numbered episode, a cloaked witch helps Myra escape the satanic Order.

Film restoration artist Eric Stedman, notes that episode thirteen is the only one to “introduce traditional fantasy – magic and characters rather than concepts derived from then – current spiritualism.”  What spiritualism? He is referring to  the public’s growing interest in Occult practice and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Some of the film’s Occult imagery  recalls the popular images of Crowley himself.  Interestingly, at the time of filming, Crowley was living in New England not terribly far from the production lots in Ithaca, NY.  .

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Despite the narrative proximity of witchcraft and Satanism in the serial, the writers clearly separated the two magical practices.  In this way, the witch remained a fantasy construction.  At some point in the pre-cinematic entertainment world, the witch was separated from her satanic connection and became trapped within a fairy tale.  As such, she is denied all theological relevance or esoteric meaning – good or bad.  Although it is outside my exploration, I would speculate that this is the result of Victorian cultural styling and the increasing dominance of rational thought.

Now, let’s move to the period ranging from 1916 to 1932.  During these sixteen years, there is only one Witch film – a lost animated short called At Rainbow’s End (1925).  Why did the witch disappear? At this time movies had transitioned from novelty to commodity. The new industry, now located in California, had to maintain viewer interest through realistic sensationalized marketing strategies.  Remember, this is before the Production Code. The fantasy witch had no place in salacious, adult entertainment and, therefore, disappeared.  (Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture, 1993)

However, by 1932, the world and Hollywood had drastically changed.  Silent films turned to sound (Talkies) and the Hayes Commission began enforcing its Catholic-based moral censorship code. Additionally, the country had lived through a World War, the free-wheeling roaring 1920s and was now in a deep economic depression. Hollywood responded with wholesome, upbeat and glittery escapist films. Not surprisingly the fantasy witch reappears.  From 1932-1939, Hollywood produced five witch films including Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), Betty Boop’s Snow White (1933), Betty Boop’s Baby Be Good (1935), The Greedy Humpty Dumpty (1937) and Disney’s Snow White (1937).

At first glance, these animated witches appear to be similar to the earlier variety.  They are “hags in rags” with cauldrons, brooms and pointy hats.  However, there is a difference.  In Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), the witch plays the buffoon, but she is more grotesque in form.  Her pointy face and emaciated body are gangly and sharply angled.  Her clothes, now dark and ragged, are topped with a flowing torn cape.  This iconic look is repeated over and over throughout the period.


Walt Disney’s Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Then in 1937 Disney released what would become his masterpiece – the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  In its wake, the film created a famous American Hollywood witch – the Wicked Queen. She is the first witch to step out of the side-show act and enter the realm of macabre.  Disney’s Queen is an amalgam of the early fairy tale witch, the 1930s animated hag and something new, something darker.  While she is still trapped within the fairy tale narrative, she is frightening and intense in both her forms:  “a hag in rags” and glamorous queen.

In addition, for the first time in Hollywood’s history, we witness the witch as a representative of “transgressive female sexuality.” Film professor Elizabeth Bell notes that Disney’s production papers describe the Queen’s “beauty as sinister, mature [with] plenty of curves.” The Wicked Queen is a femme fatale who is defined as “represent[ing] demonic natural forces that, like a cyclone, threaten to uproot man from himself.”  In this historic film, the Hollywood witch transmutes into what feminist film theorist Barbara Creed calls “the monstrous feminine.”  (Elizabeth Bell, “Somatexts at the Disney Shop,” From Mouse to Mermaid, 1995)

During the Pre-1939 period, the witch began her journey as a side-show act devoid of any esoteric or theological meaning.  By the end, she had transformed into an allegory for the powerful, independent, sexualized woman.  Was this a function of America’s need to reinforce traditional gender roles during the Depression? Or was it simply a function of Disney’s own conservative nature?

In the next post, we’ll move on and follow the transformation.  Next stop, the year 1939 with the release of The Wizard of Oz and the birth of the all-American Hollywood Witch.


I just got back from seeing the latest “witch” film, Beautiful Creatures. It is a supernatural love-story adapted from a popular young-adult novel of the same name by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  The story tells of Ethan, a mortal boy, falling in love with Lena, a young witch, or “caster” to use the film’s politically correct term.  Tension builds as Lena’s 16th birthday approaches, at which she will be chosen for either the dark or the light.

On my drive home from the theater, the wheels began spinning in my head – age 16, light vs. dark, young love. The narrative fits so perfectly into the allegorical language of Hollywood teenage witch caster films. My mind is still spinning.

For those of you who haven’t read my bio, I am a film scholar. I spent many years writing about the mediation and impact of visual imagery. The release of Beautiful Creatures has provided me with the incentive to dust-off an old dissertation proposal, Visual Representations of the Witch in Hollywood Cinema:  An historical analysis.  However, I can’t do this in one post.  Over some indeterminate period of time I will explore the topic, in-between news outbreaks and other stories. I’m thrilled to see just what this work will conjure.

(One important note, for my purposes:  A witch is a witch.  A caster is a little wheel on a piece of furniture. )

A few weeks ago, Jason asked, “What does the witch do?”  The answer to this question is complex because film art is complex. It’s a narrative form with a definitive language and particular mythology, which speaks to us through a variety of technical elements including; visuals, sound, and story.  Each film production unit has a slightly different language. For example, India’s film language is different from France’s.  American Independent films are different from Hollywood films.

So, let’s talk Hollywood. Since its inception, Hollywood has been an integral part of the American pop-culture paradigm, one that both reflects and informs our culture. Hollywood gives us what we want as well as attempting to shape our opinions. In the 1930s, musicals, such as Busby Berkley’s 42nd Street (1933), were an attractive distraction from the Depression. In the 1940s, Hollywood released war films, such as Flying Tigers (1941) or Casablanca (1943) , to encourage support for American involvement in WWII. Hollywood films are an excellent gauge of the “pulse” of the nation at any given point in time.

Casablanca (1942) Photo Courtesy of

Casablanca (1942)
Photo Courtesy of

Using an historically-based model, we can locate the witch’s place within Hollywood’s symbolic structure. However, before diving in, there is one very important piece of film history that is essential for understanding Hollywood iconography.  Most viewers recognize the extreme conservatism in early Hollywood films, but most don’t realize that it wasn’t just happenstance. In the 1930s Hollywood made a deal with the Catholic Church in order to ensure its financial future.

Prior to the 1930, Hollywood had absolutely no censorship and was free to show whatever it wanted, no matter how lurid, risqué or controversial. A good comparison is De Mille’s Cleopatra (1934) or Edward’s Cleopatra (1917) to Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).  The early films contain more “skin” and expressions of sexuality than the latter. While the two older films may not be X-rated by today’s standards, they did push the limit within their own historical context.

Cleopatra Photos Courtesy of

Photos Courtesy of

By the late 1920s, the Catholic Church had organized boycotts and petitions to protest the perceived indecency in Hollywood films. As a result, in 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) established a censorship standard called the Production Code and a watch-dog agency called the Production Code Administration (PCA).

The Code was meant to appease the Church and stop the outcry.  After the Crash of 1929, Hollywood could not afford to lose patrons. Regardless, from 1930-1934, the Code had very little effect on Hollywood’s output. So, the Catholic Church increased its pressure by establishing its own motion Picture watch-dog agency, The Legion of Decency.

Together with other religious organizations, the Legion pushed the PCA into hiring an enforcer, Joseph Breen. As noted by Film historian Thomas Doherty, Breen had been a “diplomat and publicity director for Chicago’s 1926 International Eucharistic Congress, a World’s Fair for Catholics.” Breen and the PCA became involved in all aspects of production from writing to editing. Doherty explains:

Breen demanded that American cinema obey a strict catechism of thou-shalt-nots. More than any single individual, he shaped the moral stature of the American motion picture.

From 1934-1968, the PCA was charged with “keep[ing] patrons from movies which offend decency and Christian morality.’” On the one hand, the Code probably saved Hollywood from the Depression turning it into one of the only industries to thrive in the 1930s.  On the other hand, Hollywood’s film language was shaped by this conservative Catholic moral sensibility. Doherty goes on to explain,

The code itself was meant to be almost Biblical, metaphors of print-based religiosity would waft around it like incense: the commandments, the tablets, and the gospel.

As a result, a highly-codified film language was born.  Here are just a few examples of the religious-bias written into the Code either directly or indirectly through language:  (Read more of the Code here)

Pure love, the love of a man for a woman permitted by the law of God and man, is the rightful subject of plots. The passion arising from this love is not the subject for plots.

The name of Jesus Christ should never be used except in reverence.

The effect of nudity or semi-nudity upon the normal man or woman, and much more upon a young person, has been honestly recognized by all lawmakers and moralists… Hence the fact that the nude or semi-nude body may be beautiful does not make its use in films moral.

In the end the audience [must] feel that evil is wrong and good is right.

Over time, the Code broke down due to competition with television and the onset of the Cultural Revolution.  By 1968, it was replaced by our current age-based rating system.  But the underlying Catholic sensibility had lasting effects.  For example, we still have movies with very strong good-versus-evil themes, as represented by Beautiful Creatures.

Wizard of Oz (1939)

Wizard of Oz (1939)
Photo courtesy of

Where does that leave the witch?  Early on, she* was saddled with a stigma common to any Catholic-based mythological system. As such, she is absent of any meaningful theology, other than the residuals from Christianity. In Hollywood, she is a fictional or mythological creation. She is not us – or those of us who identify as such.  While our paths may intertwine and even have common historical roots, we aren’t the same.  Why? In Hollywood mythology, the witch is not real.  

Has that changed or evolved? Now there’s my cliff hanger, to coin a Hollywood expression. We’ll see where this study leads. In the end, it may prove that not only does the witch inform and reflect mainstream culture, but she may inform our culture and how we, as witches, define ourselves.

To Be Continued…


*Using “she” for ease of explanation at this point.

Actress Gabrielle Anwar, star of such features as “Scent of A Woman”, “The Three Musketeers”, and the recent Showtime drama “The Tudors”, has outed her religious preferences during a interview hyping her new series “Burn Notice”.

Gabrielle Anwar

“Being married is something I don’t care to repeat because, for me, it’s been an idea of something that is an unfair ritual … I remember thinking, ‘That is not what my husband is doing, despite what a wonderful man he is. He was raised to believe this is woman’s work. And even though he participates and is incredibly supportive – compared to most fathers – I’m doing this work. I’m making dinner. I’m being a wife, trying to be as attractive as I can, trying to put out with my sexuality to the degree that will keep my husband interested in me and not in other women. I’m pulling my weight financially. I’m doing all this stuff, and I’m feeling this incredible inequality … And I’m a pagan. I’m a … pagan and this isn’t for me. This institution that was invented to control women and I’m not willing to be controlled any longer.'”

Anwar joins the very rare company of Hollywood celebrities who have outed themselves as belonging to some variant of modern Paganism. This includes Cybill Shepherd (who thanked the Goddess at a Golden Globes ceremony), and Fairuza Balk (star of “The Craft”, who studied Wicca and owned a occult store). But that number may be far larger, heck, I think that willingly starring in “The Mists of Avalon” miniseries must be a sign of faith in the Goddess considering the quality of the script and final product (I kid!).

India and Hollywood

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 18, 2007 — 1 Comment

According to some recent press it seems that India is the next big thing for Hollywood, with several American production companies and directors making films about or in the subcontinent.

“While the Walt Disney Company is all set to shoot a historical in India by the year-end, Bosnian filmmaker Danis Tanovic, of the Oscar-winning No Man’s Land, has planned a visit later this year for his next film that will supposedly include Indian actors. Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, was filmed across colourful Rajasthan three months ago.”

Also planned is a film starring Johnny Depp. The planned epic from Disney seems particularly ambitious since it aims to portray the entire history of the nation.

“Though representatives of Disney’s mega-budget film are not ready to make a formal announcement, the film, which will present a panoramic journey of India from the Aryans to Independence, will be shot at Nitin Desai’s picturesque Karjat studio.”

It should be interesting to see how much religion ends up in these films. Much of the Indian-influenced entertainment that is seen by Americans glosses over Hinduism (or makes jokes concerning it), often sticking to the much more relate-able issues of class and familial struggles. But I can’t imagine how Disney could make such a film without dealing with religion, a central part of life in India. Though it is important to note that the film will end with independence (most likely featuring a lot of Gandhi), and won’t try to tackle the thornier political, social, and religious issues that have developed since then.

In any case, it should be interesting to see how this rash of films will be greeted in America. Will Disney encounter any flack from the Christian right over making an “un-Christian” film, and could this trend spark a new interest in all things Indian?