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.
“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.
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.