“I Put a Spell On You” Witches in a Film and Television Context

Following on from my analysis on Vampyr-ism I have made the decision to look at another supernatural creature in a similar vain. The concept of witches has both terrified and fascinated me over the years as the idea of what a Witch is is not simple or clean cut; In this review I want to analyse how the media has portrayed these creature’s through a number of different and varied film and television texts. The notion of Witchcraft has been present since as early as the 14th Century, it has been viewed and associated with the concept of the devil and controversially implied that it has been set out as an antagonist to Christianity; however witchcraft can also be associated with Wicca practice, using witchcraft in a safe and good intended manner. In this review I’m going to look at how witches are portrayed now and whether they are still viewed as figures of fear or empowering creatures that could be considered role models for women and a comment on feminism.

An Example of Good Vs. Evil in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939)

Let’s begin with Disney; with early films such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (1937) and “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) Disney has taken on the traditional stereotype of what a witch may be, cruel with a hidden agenda, malicious with intentions of bringing harm to others, the witch back then was Disney’s main villainous character especially in the “Princess” films; the witch was in place to depict jealousy and loathing against the heroine of the piece. The original typical imagery Disney presented us with was that of an ugly, old, hag, draped in black, residing in a dark castle, conjuring spells presumably for evil use.

An Evil Representation: Snow White Hag

However Disney also portrayed “good” witches, supporting the wicca idea, characters such as Mary Poppins from the character-titled-film in 1964 practised magic in a positive light, through encouraging children to do their chores and taking them on wonderful adventures; she also does not resemble the conventional image of a witch, she appears friendly and doesn’t carry around the expected iconography such as a broomstick; she does fly but the “broomstick” idea is replaced with an “umbrella”. Returning to “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) contrasting against the evil Malificent is the three “good fairies or witches” who use their magic against evil; the perfect example here would be when they transform all Malificent’s deathly spells into images we associate with goodness e.g. thorns into flowers; there is a strong contrast between dark and light in that film with good ultimately prevailing; on another note I feel that children learn something through this, all children aspire to be the protagonists and heroes of Disney films and fairytale’s not the villainous characters, its a lesson demonstrating that if you behave wickedly a comeuppance is never far off. The Mary Poppins and Good Fairies characters represent wholesome, middle-aged, parental figures.

Good Witch: Mary Poppins

Interestingly the live-action film “Hocus Pocus” (1993) portrays each witch differently, the witches do display the atypical iconography of possessing broomsticks and a black cat. Bette Middler’s character is the traditional old hag stereotype, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character is an example of modern female empowerment, she uses her sexuality for manipulative gain, she is again different from the previous witches discussed as she adds glamour and doesn’t take on the conservative or hag image. Finally; Kathy Najimy’s character is in place to portray the more humours, bumbling witch for comedy value. Another example of different traits incorporated into the villainous witch character would be that of the Sea-Witch Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” (1989) she is horrid and uses her power for her own benefit however also uses her sexuality in order to take control and pursue what she wants by transforming into Vanessa. In all fairness Disney does demonstrate the different stereotypes and ideologies surrounding witches, showing the opposing sides.

3 portrayals of witches: Hocus Pocus

What has always interested me about witches and is mostly highlighted through various adaptations of the Salem Witch trials is the idea that witches acted as figures to represent moral panics and fear amongst society, unlike other “Supernatural Monsters” witches are real people who choose to dabble in the occult and it is in place to challenge what people already think they know, hence me previously stating witchcraft was viewed as the “anti-Christianity”. I am now going to look deeper into the portrayal of witches in a film context, from the mythological perceptions we have of them e.g. “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) to the outcry of fear they posses e.g. “The Crucible” (1996) and whether witches ever existed in the first place or were they simply a scapegoat for society’s flaws?

"Haxan" or "Hexen" ("Witchcraft through the Ages") (1921)

In 1921 Danish director Benjamin Christensen presented a silent documentary-styled film titled “Haxan” or “Hexen” or alternatively “Witchcraft through the Ages”; he demonstrated the deep research he accumulated on witchcraft prior to beginning the film. The director appears in the film himself discussing demonic cultural beliefs and his study of “Malleus Maleficarum”, the infamous treatise on witches that refuted all scepticism as to whether witchcraft exists. The discussion in “Haxan” suggests that disease and illness were to blame for the hysteria surrounding witchcraft; along with fear and lack of understanding towards mental illness. The film was considered perverted and graphic combining the thin line between sex and death or sex and sacrifice and witchcraft associated with all things demonic and the devil himself.

Regarding the Salem witch trials the notion of witchcraft is ultimately evil as false accusations and word of mouth resulted in the deaths of the innocent. The 1937 film “Maid of Salem” and later “The Crucible” (1996) delved into these themes. Some people used the Salem Witch trials in 1692 to their advantage and for their own personal gain; however even if witchcraft was never used and it was just pure hysteria, the idea is still indicated that witchcraft or the notion of it is all about power and manipulation linking back to the initial portrayal of the Disney witch. It was believed that these “witches” were making pacts with Satan himself; although because of the fear and hysteria that were clouding judgements in society, usually the innocent were being wrongly accused of practising. I realise that in my introduction that I depicted witches as “creatures” just like other mythical entities such as werewolves or vampires, but looking at the realism of witches and what went on in Salem, I am now going to use this term loosely as it could be argued that these “witches” are simply just power-craving humans. It is further questioned through this as to whether witchcraft was real or simply hysteria.

I realise along with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003); I discuss “The Wizard Of Oz” (1939) to a great extent, but I think in terms of this review its essential I talk about the Wicked Witch of the West character as she reinforced the stereotype of the evil hag witch; complete with the iconic broomstick. Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch is responsible for the archetype of how we perceive witches to look like. The Land of Oz also has its “good witches” as well as “bad witches”; despite appearing more fairy like with a wand in place of a broomstick, Glinda is titled “The Good Witch of The North” and uses her power in order to write the wrongs of the Wicked Witch of the West’s harmful attacks on Dorothy and co; the witches of Oz demonstrate that if you are horrible and wicked you will look ugly but if you help others and do good deeds you will be viewed as beautiful. We are presented with imagery of what a witch should look like however “The Wizard of Oz” still portrays that not all witches are evil and ugly; it was a very influential film in developing the popular witch stereotypes and borrowed concepts for Hans Christian Anderson and the Brother’s Grimm.

The Classic Interpretation of a Witch

Going back to more “realistic” interpretations of witchcraft and the occult, I recently watched a screening of  Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” (1960) which again brought back the panic and fear of the Paganism VS. Christianity argument; the film implies that the rape and murder of the young daughter Karin (played by Birgitta Pettersson) was willed by Ingeri (played by Gunnel Lindblom) due to worshipping the Pagan God Odin. More than anything the biggest theme in this film is that of morality. Its indicated that paganism is associated with evil and the contrasts between the hardened, realist Ingeri and the optimistic, virginal Karin help demonstrate darkness and light,and to an extent evil and good. However when it comes down to it the focus is on Karin’s parents (Played by Max von Sydow and Brititta Valberg) who are Christians and decide to act on vengeance and commit the sin of murder anyway but later begs God for forgiveness. This film made me question whether Paganism was actually the evil side as God allowed the horrific nature of Karin’s murder happen when she was ironically on the way to church; therefore again is this ideology of witchcraft we have misunderstood?

An Image of Ingeri in "The Virgin Spring" (1960)

“The Wicker Man” (1973) despite being one of my all time favourite horror films is considered to be the most accurate and respectful portrayal of Paganism; the film wanted to portray the authenticity of witch covens complete with human sacrifice. In “The Wicker Man” the witchcraft practices are carried out by the whole community, suggesting that paganism is the majority and Christianity the minority in this instance. The Pagan’s were seen praying to their God’s in order for their crops to harvest however they still manipulated Sgt. Howie (Played by Edward Woodward) for their own gain and are still depicted as “murderers” through this film. The audience’s empathy remains with our Christian protagonist.

Lord Summerailse (Played by Christopher Lee) unveiling "The Wicker Man"

Noticeably both “The Virgin Spirng” (1960) and “The Wicker Man” (1973) still support the idea that witchcraft is a harmful practice.

Later films such as “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987) showed the relationship between witches and the devil himself; for me this questions the feminist aspect of witchcraft if ultimately their purpose is to serve and commit evil deeds for a male figure. However the witches (played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon) eventually come to realise his corrupting influence. The film also gave the sense of witches being a part of a sisterhood culture. “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) also dealt with the themes of the seduction of the devil displaying human greed for wealth despite the consequences and witchcraft was acted out in a community setting.

"The Witches of Eastwick" with the "Devil" (Played by Jack Nicholson)

I have touched on witches in children’s films through discussing their portrayal in Disney and arguably “The Wizard of Oz”; while many still consider The Wicked Witch of The West or The Evil Queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” to be films scariest witch my opinion turns to that of Angelica Huston’s portrayal of the “Grand High Witch” in the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” (1990). As a child I feared this character as she is the perfect example of the horrid, evil, ugly witch; there is nothing positive about this character and I find it even more creepy that all the witches in this film’s main goal is to set out and harm children out of hatred, again through manipulation; the film also demonstrated the witches transforming humans into animals an example of curses. This film opens the question as to whether we go through childhood viewing witches as figures of fear; luckily television programmes such as “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch” (1996-2003) (which I will discuss shortly) redeems this assumption by showing magic used for good. The portrayal of witches presented in this film is downright eerie and terrifying as well as conveying a monstrous appearance; and still scares me beyond any single horror film I have ever watched.

Pure Scariness: The Grand High Witch

Moving into the mid-to-late nineties; teen-witch horror film “The Craft” (1996) came out and delved into the idea that witchcraft is an inheritance gift. Sarah (played by Robin Tunney) inherited “witchcraft” from her mother; after beginning a new school in a new town, she comes across others like her; consisting of wicked Nancy (Played by Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Played by Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Played by Rachel True); the witchcraft again in this film is used for darker purposes as the girls curse or hex anyone who slightly angers them. “The Craft” could be considered as an earlier, darker version of “Charmed” (1998-2006); the film used the song “How Soon Is Now?” performed by “The Smiths” for its soundtrack which later became the theme song for “Charmed”. The Witches were portrayed darkly and this was demonstrated by their gothic style (especially Fairuza Balk’s character); the film also held up the theme of “sisterhood”, binding together each of their gifts in order to create something incredibly powerful. “The Craft” still suggested and portrayed the dangerous nature of witchcraft.

Gothic, teen witches; "The Craft" (1996)

“Practical Magic” (1998) was a much lighter take on the subject; depicted as a “family film”; starring Nicole Kidman (Gillian Owens) and Sandra Bullock (Sally Owens); the film continued with the idea of witchcraft being a part of the family environment. I would argue that “Practical Magic” is a feminist film as the witches outlive any man they have a relationship with due to the family being cursed. Like “The Craft” possessing witchcraft in this film is viewed as a gift. The witches conform to the stereotypes of traditional witches through the use of symbolism e.g. a pet black cat and broomsticks and especially when they are draped in halloween costumes at the end of the film. Sandra Bullock’s character Sally attempts to live in normality but this is not the case as the community around her judge and treat her differently due to her heritage. “Practical Magic” was more about Wicca and took a more comedic approach at the lore. Still; even though they were being portrayed as “good witches” with good intentions and just wanted to protect themselves they still ended up committing the ultimate sin of murder even though it was against an unsavoury character. The audience does share a lot of empathy with these characters especially Sally as she strives for a normal life and has to contend with constant stigma in her town. “Practical Magic” deals with the subject of conspiracy, its a metaphor for accepting difference and to me is a modern adaptation of the stigma and lack of understanding witches faced just like in Salem; while still depicting the classic iconography of hexes and curses.

Sisterly Bond: "Practical Magic"

For the past decade witches and wizards have been at the forefront of the film world; yes I’m talking about the “Harry Potter” (2001-2011) series of films. Hermione (Played by Emma Watson) is a perfect role model of a “good witch” that genuinely conjures her magic to help others; she is also depicted as incredibly smart. The themes regarding witchcraft in these films are very stereotypical with the characters seen wearing pointy hats and flying around on broomsticks. “Harry Potter” ensured that witchcraft could be viewed as acceptable, despite a few campaigns that banned the books in America; I honestly cannot see anything anti-Christian about the witchcraft conveyed in these books and films when they are shown using their magic for good against evil and are looking out for each other- isn’t that what the Christian religion is meant to be promoting anyway? Many Christians panicked at the thought of “Harry Potter” prompting young children to practice any form of paganism due to the symbolism in the books and films; which I personally think is ridiculous; I think its important to have an imagination and indulge in that and also defy the villainous stereotype witches mainly posses; If people want to practice paganism I think its important to be open-minded and look into other religions and Christianity needs to accept that its not the be all and end all. The hidden sub-text in “Harry Potter” is misinterpreted and J.K Rowling herself stated that she did not use “Harry Potter” as a way of promoting occultism or wicca; but still as far as the films are concerned its nice to see witchcraft used as a metaphor in a positive manner.

Good Witch Role Model: Hermione

I am now going to move into television territory and see the similarities and dissimilarities between how witches are portrayed in comparison to film.

During the 1960’s “Bewitched” (1964-1972) was a popular sitcom that told the story of Samantha Stephens (Played by Elizabeth Montgomery) a witch who marries a mortal and reveals on their honeymoon that she possesses magical powers. Samantha came from a family of witches just like in “Practical Magic” (1998) that I previously discussed; supporting the argument of witchcraft indeed being inherited instead of learned. Samantha uses her powers against her husband’s wishes by twitching her nose, an iconic feature of the show. “Bewitched” was a light-hearted, feel-good sitcom that showed a positive stereotype of witches and used as a metaphor for family chaos. As it was set during the 1960’s Samantha’s character took on the role of a traditional housewife, her magic was in use to demonstrate efficiency and perhaps a comment on the fact women of that era had the luxury of new labour saving devices in order to contend with housework. “Bewitched” was a fun show and reinforced the positive stereotypes surrounding witchcraft. It was also the longest running “Supernatural”-based genre sitcom of its time.

Desperate Housewitch? Samantha (Played by Elizabeth Montgomery)

Another light-hearted television show featuring the theme of witchcraft was “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch” (1996-2003). Sabrina (Played by Melissa Joan Hart) was a regular teenager who again inherited the gift of magic; the majority of the series focused on Sabrina discovering who she really is with magic as a metaphor for growing up; Sabrina contends with the day-to-day trails of teenage life from high school to dating; eventually the character of her boyfriend Harvey (played by Nate Richert) learns of her special abilities. “Sabrina” looked into the possibility of there being a separate witch realm from the physical world; she lives with her Aunts; Hilda (Played by Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Played by Beth Broderick) who try to teach her more about the craft usually ending in humorous results; “Sabrina” was also in the style of a sitcom just like “Bewitched”. In regards to atypical iconography Sabrina owns a talking black cat fittingly named Salem (Voiced by Nick Bakay). The moral of “Sabrina” was all about her learning from her actions which was an important message for its young viewers; again indicating she is a strong role model. “Sabrina” overall supports the argument that witchcraft can be used in a positive light.

Teenage Witch: Sabrina and Salem

“Charmed” (1998-2006) has been referred to in this review on a couple of occasions and now I’m going to look into the themes of this popular television programme. Admittedly; I’m not a fan and didn’t stick to it after the first four episodes therefore I am reliant on research for this section of the review. “Charmed” supports the theme of sisterhood and family that we have previously seen in films such as “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Practical Magic” as well as in “Sabrina”. The show revolves around actual witches not practitioners who posses what is known as “active powers”; each witch possess a separate power such as telekinesis and premonitions. “Charmed” is based on the idea of Wicca and they battle against demons and again use their powers for good use protecting innocents; “The Charmed Ones”  lives are split between the “Community” of having a normal life and the “Magical Community” indicating the idea of two different realms. The whole concept suggests that they have to keep their identities a secret possibly due to the lack of understanding witches have faced throughout history. The “Charmed Ones” add glamour to witchcraft and appear as normal young women; therefore not complying with the stereotypical witch we saw in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). Similarly to other texts in this review the “Charmed” portrayal of witchcraft is overall positive and gives out the message of helping others for the greater good.

"Charmed" Sisterhood

Now I am going to discuss probably my favourite fictional witch of all time; Willow Rosenberg (Played by Alyson Hannigan) from my favourite “supernatural” television programme “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003); when the series began Willow was not a witch, it was something she learned contrasting with the concept of it being an inherited gift and part of a sisterhood; Willow was a shy but smart young girl who contributed massively and helped Buffy save the world. A lot. It wasn’t until the third season that Willow began practising her magical talents before becoming a fully-fledged witch later on. Witchcraft was used as a metaphor to transform this shy bookworm-ish character into a confident young woman; she had now found herself. Willow began using her strength and magical powers for good, battling demons with Buffy and restoring evil Angelus’s soul; however hints of her darker side were seen in Season four when werewolf boyfriend Oz (Played by Seth Green) cheated with fellow wolf Veruca (“Wild at Heart” #4.6) but due to her sweet nature she couldn’t go through with casting a harmful spell on him; her meddling with magic has often got her into trouble e.g. (“Something Blue” #4.9) and (“Tabula Rasa” #6.8). One of the most powerful feminist relationships portrayed on television was between Willow and Tara (Played by Amber Benson) using the concept of witchcraft as a metaphor for exploring her sexuality; Willow however became more powerful and used her magic for her own gain by attempting to control those around her mainly Tara (e.g, “Once More With Feeling” #6.7); eventually creator Joss Whedon used magic as a metaphor for addiction and Willow really hit a low point after the death of her lover and exacted out gruesome revenge and murder; she was eventually redeemed and saved the world. Willow possesses traits of a good witch and the wicca practice but also the darker side of black magick; her story is in place to demonstrate the harmful nature of addiction and that an individual must hit rock bottom in order to get better; therefore I would argue despite later being portrayed as a dark witch, Willow does grow and develop as a character so I would say she is a strong role model for women.

Dark Side: Willow

In “Supernatural” (2005-Present) third season; we were presented with Eric Kripke’s perceptions of what witches are. Sam (Played by Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Played by Jensen Ackles) evidently battle evil, therefore the witches conveyed in the episode titled “Malleus Maleficarum” (#3.9) are set out to cause harm to others for personal gain. I liked how they kept the suburban housewife concept and used the cover of “book club” for these women to carry out their practices with gruesome consequence’s (teeth falling out anyone?). “I hate witches. They’re always spewing their bodily fluids everywhere…it’s creepy. Y’know, it’s downright unsanitary” as Dean nicely put; indicating negative aspects surrounding witches or maybe the thought of powerful women who are in control of the supernatural intimidates our favourite hunters! That line indicates the amount of blood witches spill for sacrifice; the episode also suggests the dangers of practising magic and women being dragged into the coven are in way over their head.

Dean and the Witch-Demon "Maelleus Maleficarum"

Finally; I am going to discuss the latest episode of “True Blood” (2008-present); I have yet to watch this show as a whole however I  viewed the episode “Spellbound” (#4.8) as part of my research. I thought the concept of having witches using their powers against vampires was an interesting dynamic, powerful witches controlling vampires causing them to walk out into the sun. I thought this hybrid idea was interesting. The coven of witches showed both men and women acting on the craft which is expanding the lore out to both sexes more as witchcraft is mainly portrayed by women and extremely feminist. It is indicated in the episode that witches are walking a dangerous line mixing with vampires so are they possibly viewed as lesser creatures as they are not supernatural beings?

Witches Vs. Vamps- "True Blood"

Well; here we are at the conclusion; I hope the examples illustrated have helped gain an understanding of the different concepts surrounding witches and their practices. I think overall that all the texts discussed do give a balanced argument of the different styles of witches that are out there; in both film and television, a lot of similarities are present. Each text reinforces the witch stereotype with its atypical iconography. Magic almost always even the wicca side is shown as being used for personal gain and the results are mostly negative unless its for the good of others. The concept of witchcraft can be positive and negative and I believe if a judge from the Salem Witch Trials had a time machine and saw the influence and positive aspects that witchcraft has progressed into today, they would have a better understanding and viewed things differently. I would like to add that witches are empowering examples of strong female characters and role models for women.

Thanks for reading and look out for this review in next month’s “Independent Voice E-Zine” (http://www.theindependentvoice.org)

Hayley Alice Roberts.

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4 Responses to ““I Put a Spell On You” Witches in a Film and Television Context”

  1. Good comparison.

    Could have mentioned that the more modern the movies/tv shows are the less evil witches are portrayed. In Practical Magic, The Craft, Charmed, Sabrina, etc witches are not being portrayed as evil. In “The Craft” they’re simply out of their element. The Wizard of Oz, and Disney movies aren’t as modern and therefore hold the more stereotypical depiction of witches and witchcraft. The modern stereotypical depiction was created by movies such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Snow White”.

    Please don’t buy into this, you said in the beginning that you are both “terrified and fascinated” of witchcraft, that is because of the stereotypes. Witchcraft has been around a long time, long before the 1692 hangings in Salem. It’s a peaceful tradition to worship nature and the God and Goddess there is nothing related to the “Devil”.

    The witch is not a clear cut image due to movies, due to reality it is. It’s a peaceful religion with an unjustified stereotype.

    I’m not criticizing, I’m just saying and just picking at certain, little things. Basically, if someone claims to be a “witch” but they practice something of a dark manner, then they’re mistaken in what they claim to be.

  2. Thank you for your response and thank you for taking the time to read my analysis/review.

    I’m in agreement with you on what you have just pointed out; as modern society has become more accepting over the years the notion of witchcraft has been represented in a positive light in comparison to the older movies I mentioned e.g. “Snow White”; “Wizard of Oz”;

    Yes I am aware witchcraft has always been in place and from the beginning of time humans worshipped the sun and the moon; the point I was trying to reach regarding Salem was that society began to fear anything difference that challenged their Christian ideologies.

    In reality I do believe paganism is a peaceful religion and for me more believable than Christianity.

    Thanks again for reading;

    Hayley Alice Roberts.

  3. I really want to finish reading this but I’m too scarred by past experiences involving spoilers for shows I’ve come to love but haven’t finished yet – the one in this case being Buffy as I’m only just about done with season four. Factor in the Angel seasons as well and… I guess I’ll get back to this in a few months.

    all good so far though 🙂

    • Thanks for reading as much as you have. What do you think about Buffy so far? I also have a few episode reviews on it on the blog. My most recent being an analysis of “Nightmares” (#1.10) and “The Wish” (#3.9) which as you’ve seen you can read; I don’t think I have revealed any major future spoilers. Keep me posted on your opinions and thanks again.

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