ATLANTA — Almost four decades after the Wicked Witch of the West plagued Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the green-skinned, bushy-browed one lost her broom on, of all places, Sesame Street. Actress Margaret Hamilton reprised her famous role in an episode of the children’s TV series that aired on Feb. 10, 1976, writes Heather Greene in her new book Bell, Book and Camera: a Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television (McFarland, April 2018, 234 p). “With the exception of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, the inhabitants of Sesame Street are visibly frightened of Hamilton’s character,” Greene writes. The Wicked Witch also scared the hades out of young viewers, just as she had done for decades since the release of Oz in 1939.
Traditionally pop culture portrays witches as Halloween novelties, manifestations of horror or comedic social tricksters. On occasion there are kindly witches and even inconsequential ones. However rarely is there ever a traditional, pointy-hat wearing pop-culture witch who has been constructed as a childhood role model. That is exactly what has been done by the National Social Climate Center (NSCC). In 2010 the Center’s BullyBust Program teamed up with the Broadway Cast of Wicked to develop an anti-bullying educator toolkit.
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.