Waking the Witch
Originally persecuted as a threat to Christendom — pop culture made witches into sexy, powerful and rebellious women, appealing to a whole new era of teenaged Tumblr aestheticists.
February 23, 2016 | Cult | Fall 2015
Witches aren’t known for being dreamboats. For centuries, fairy tales have portrayed them as grizzled, gnarled old women with a better chance of wrangling up the still beating heart of the local virgin than wrangling up a date. The characterization of witches as hags was both a cause and effect of the widespread accusations of elderly spinsters during the American and European witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. This long-running stereotype of the ancient hideous witch swatting away death like a pesky fly has served as fuel for Western pop culture’s recent fascination with teen witches. Like a vampire with a soul or a Kardashian with a job, the concept of a beautiful young witch is such a fascinating oxymoron that we can’t help but watch, riveted.
For the past twenty years, teen witches have been omnipresent in pop culture; after taking a brief hiatus to let their fanged counterparts shine, witches are once again flying across our screens: shows and movies like AHS: Coven, The Witch, Beautiful Creatures, Once Upon a Time, The Last Witchhunter, Sleepy Hollow, Maleficient, The Vampire Diaries, and True Blood, to name a few more recent examples. Pop culture’s recent influx of witches barely on the other side of puberty has young girls everywhere once again infatuated with the idea of emulating witchy magic themselves. Walk into any Urban Outfitters and you’ll see clothes designed to make you blend in perfectly if Stevie Nicks ever invites you to a séance. Young beauty gurus on Instagram and YouTube seem less interested in creating natural demure disguises and more into curating striking ethereal looks that could maybe pass a girl off as immortal. Witchy musicians of the past like Kate Bush, Patti Smith, and Siouxsie Soux as well contemporary witchy idols like FKA Twigs, Lorde, and Florence Welch are currently inspiring new heights of spooky fashion in young women. This seemingly surface level fascination with occult aesthetics is perhaps rooted in something more meaningful. For one, it can be liberating to embrace a look that is not necessarily the most universally appealing to men. There is also a quiet power and independence strongly associated with witches—something no doubt appealing for teenage girls who feel like they have very little control over their own lives. The idea of a teen witch may not seem shocking today—it may even border on cliché—but it’s taken centuries to work up to this point. Witches haven’t had it easy.
It’s been a minute since the Salem witch trials and we’ve come long way, but even today if you visit any one of the hordes of Halloween megastores that litter every strip mall in America, you’re bound to spot witch masks equipped with a smattering of warts, a long hook nose, and a set of teeth that look like they’ve never been within shouting distance of a dentist. This popular image of witches is rooted in over a thousand years of folklore. When theater became more an accessible art form, witches began to appear regularly—especially in the 17th century after King James I passed the infamous Witchcraft Act of 1602—effectively saddling the crime of witchcraft with the extra weight of capital punishment. With few exceptions, witches on stage were portrayed as decrepit and malevolent—characters like the Weird Sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hecate in Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, and the various witches in Thomas Shadwell’s The Lancashire Witches, all which deviate only marginally from the stereotype.
Then came cinema.
In the first few decades following the inception of film in 1895, witches followed a similar vein of Shakespeare’s hags but with a more comical twist. In the early silent films and the first round of talkies, witches were more buffoonish than deceitful, acting as comic foil through trickery and mischief. In 1937, Walt Disney introduced the first prolific witch of cinema, the beautiful and deadly Wicked Queen in Snow White. Then a couple of years later, a film widely regarded as one of the most popular American films of all time was released—The Wizard of Oz. Oz starred a number of colorful characters, including Margaret Hamilton as the iconic Wicked Witch of the West and the ephemeral Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch. Glinda was a revelation—a beautiful, young, benevolent witch in a glittering pink dress was unheard of at the time. While not a teen, there is no doubt that were it not for Glinda and her influential glow, teen witches as we know them would not exist in pop culture today.
“The Wizard of Oz‘s ephemeral Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch was a revelation—a beautiful, young, benevolent witch in a glittering pink dress was unheard of at the time.”
The perception of witches started to shift and the public gradually began to realize their onscreen potential as protagonists rather than mere gag bits or pitiful villains. In 1942, American film noir star and immortalized sexpot Veronica Lake starred in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. The film, which has a shocking perfect critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, tells the tale of a young, beautiful witch who falls in love with a mortal man and eventually gives up her magical powers so she can play house with him. Lake’s father in the film is also a witch; although he is male, he embodies both the buffoonish and malevolent qualities of past witches. Lake, on the other hand, is earnest, sweet, and absolutely someone worth rooting for. Her character was also independent and defied her patriarchal, possessive father to chase her own aspirations. The movie was a critical darling and made a modest splash in the box office; the trial run had run successfully and made generous room for future witches to be multidimensional protagonists.
The rest of the forties and most of the fifties were filled with witch characters as television became omnipresent in American lives. While nearly none of them were portrayed as protagonists, the witches were often more complex and interesting than the pre-Oz witches—they took on elements of wise shamans, religious satanists, and secluded hermits in various tales. The pointed hat and cauldron were largely stuffed in Hollywood’s closet as witches’ appearances slowly evolved more and more into creepy old women that you might see in your everyday life. In 1958, the Hitchcock blonde archetype Kim Novak played another beautiful, young, sympathetic witch in Bell Book and Candle alongside the likes of James Stewart and Jack Lemmon. The film, named after the infamous Bell Witch trial in the early 19th century, follows the same romantic comedy formula as I Married a Witch for the most part: Novak, a sweet sorceress, gives up her powers after falling hard for a mortal hunk. The movie was well reviewed by critics and audiences alike, paving the way for one of the most iconic pop culture witches of television to stake her claim.
In the sixties, witchcraft was as popular as undercuts. Wicca in particular gained massive exposure in the United Kingdom and the United States during this decade. Teens and other young people started dabbling in and actively practicing this neo-pagan religion after the popular book Witchcraft Today was published in England in 1954 by Wiccan priest Gerald Gardner. As witchcraft became less and less taboo in the public eye and with the precedents set by Billie Burke, Veronica Lake, and Kim Novak set in place, ABC went ahead and greenlit Bewitched in 1964. The half-hour single-camera sitcom starred Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, a new housewife and closeted witch. Sol Saks openly stated in interviews that I Married a Witch and Bell Book and Candle were direct inspiration for the series and the similarities are clearly evident. Like Veronica Lake and Kim Novak, Samantha was young, beautiful, and kind in nature; on top of her similar character, she also fell in love with a human man. However, unlike the witches before her, Samantha faced no moral quandaries about choosing between her powers and her man. In the world of Bewitched, the two were not mutually exclusive. And why should they be? Women have been violently oppressed since the inception of civilization—is it too much to consider that in these hypothetical fictional universes a girl might have the ability to contort the laws of nature to bid her own will and have a boytoy to curl up with at night? I think not. Samantha still went to great lengths to keep her magical abilities from her other half, though, with countless hijinks ensuing. The show was a massive phenomenon, running for eight seasons.
Elsewhere in the sixties, another pop culture witch worked her charms—and this one was still in high school.
Sabrina Spellman first appeared as a recurring character in Archie Comics in October of 1962. She eventually gathered enough of a loyal fanbase to justify starting her own spinoff series in 1971, “Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch.” The irreverent comics featured lovely blonde Sabrina lounging about in fabulous outfits, using her magical prowess to get dates and get out of doing chores. Shortly after her solo comics took off, she also landed a kids’ cartoon show of the same name, running from 1971 to 1974. The first volume of the comics ran until 1983, after which Sabrina faded to the back of public consciousness for the next decade.
By the eighties, the novelty of Wicca had largely worn off on the public. Bewitched was off the air and Sabrina had been discontinued by Archie Comics. A handful of witch comedies sprung up in the decade but it wasn’t until 1989 when the predecessor to nineties witches quietly bombed in theaters. Teen Witch portrayed the plight of sweet mousy Louise, played by a young Robin Lively (whose baby sis Blake would coincidentally grow up to play another onscreen teen witch of sorts: Serena van der Woodsen). In the movie, Louise is told by a seer that she is a reincarnated witch; soon, her dormant powers are activated on her sixteenth birthday by use of an amulet. She predictably uses her newfound magical abilities to snag cooler friends, prank cheerleaders, and get with the Hottest Guy in the Whole School (“I can make him love me” is the exact quote) to relatively disastrous consequences. Just by reading that synopsis, it probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that the movie struggled to earn back just one percent of its budget. But the pure unadulterated camp of the film aged well and it found its niche as a cult movie years later. I recommend checking out an interactive screening if you can find one nearby—it’s worth it, if only for the beautifully cringeworthy and out-of-synch original hip hop number “Top That.” We can’t, Teen Witch. No one can.
Despite the utter critical and financial failure of Teen Witch, witches started taking over during the latter half of the nineties. In 1996, a movie adaption of the Sabrina comics starring an unknown Melissa Joan Hart hit theaters, followed only a few months later by the premiere of the sitcom everyone knows and loves. There was something so sweet and charming about Sabrina’s simple, almost trivial uses of magic. To have supernatural powers capable of bending dimensions and defying nature but choosing to use them mainly to refill cokes and change outfits with a snap—it’s just so endearing. In the same year as Sabrina’s debut, a film called The Craft came out, starring not only one but four teen witches, most notably Fairuza Balk as the diabolical Nancy Downs. Although she was one of the few teen witches in pop culture who wasn’t benevolent in nature, this punk rock predator still maintains a secure place in teen witch history. Unlike Sabrina, who rubbed elbows with and tried to blend in among the mortals, Nancy rolled with a whole crew of teen witches, each as cool and kick-ass as she. Together they cast love spells on finicky boys, revenge spells on nasty bullies, and beauty spells on themselves—truly the golden trio of teen witch hijinks. Of course if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know Nancy soon jumps from frivolous teenage folly to racking up a body count—but hey, being a teen witch is mad stressful! You try manipulating the energy of the universe and still getting to algebra on time! Despite her homicidal tendencies, Nancy Downs is still endlessly stylish, inspiringly sinister, and memorably responsible for the immortal line, “We are the weirdos, mister.”
Meanwhile, Joss Whedon can’t just let shit go. The major flop of his debut film Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992 obviously plagued him so much that he spent the next five years vowing to redeem himself and did just so in 1997 when the television show of the same name premiered on the now-extinct WB. The show had a glowing cast brimming with other layered, witty, kick-ass female characters; among them was a young witch named Willow Rosenberg. In the early aughts, Willow was everyone’s flame-haired, secularly Jewish, computer hacking, sexually fluid, best witch friend. Played by the eternally adorable Alyson Hannigan, Willow was wicked smart, unfailingly kind, and always ready with a seemingly endless stream of witty quips. Her openly lesbian identity was endlessly important to so many young queer women, myself included. At the time, gay characters were rare on television, and even more rare was seeing them complexly. To see a young gay woman who was open and content with her sexuality, whose friends lovingly embraced her, and who was able to sustain multiple happy relationships—it was revolutionary. And she definitely takes the cake for best coming out line— I’ll never forget seeing that scene at thirteen— “I’m so evil and skanky… and I think I’m kind of gay.” And a single tear rolls down my cheek.
Witch frenzy fazed out considerably after the start of the new millennium, but several memorable teen witches still managed to make a name for themselves. Starting in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Emma Watson graced our theaters as Muggle-born witch and resident Clever Girl Hermione Granger every year for the next decade. Hermione was the sharpest student at Hogwarts from the moment she stepped on campus and continued to excel at nearly everything she attempted, including saving her friends’ asses on a weekly basis. Unlike Sabrina, Louise, and Samantha, Hermione didn’t use her powers to change hairdos and skirt chores—on the contrary, he preferred to save the world with pious regularity and quietly return to her dorm to finish her homework.
The early two thousands also saw the rise of another witch raised by mere mortals—Marnie Piper. The young heroine of the Halloweentown series, played by Kimberly J. Brown in the first three movies and inexplicably replaced by Sara Paxton in the final installment, hopped back and forth between the eponymous spooky realm and the boring earthly realm, both of which are filled with overbearing maternal figures and cute boys to make eyes at. The movies aren’t for film purists, but if you’re partial to the brand of camp embodied by Disney channel original movies circa-2000, then it definitely has tons of charm. Do yourself a favour and skip the last one, though—if for no other reason than standing in solidarity with Kimberly J. Brown. The popularity of Halloweentown prompted Disney to cast Tia and Tamara Mowry in the light fluffy romp Twitches (once again, please only venture to watch if you genuinely love Lizzie McGuire and can quote Sister, Sister). Twitches was unique in being one of the few movies to cast non-white girls as witches—side from Rachel True’s role in The Craft, teen witches in pop culture have been overwhelmingly white. It’s sad that the only movie about teen witches of colour in recent history is a tiny TV movie in 2006. Until this frustrating precedent is overturned, indulge in MisSpelled, an incredible web series about a group of cute witchy friends, all played by phenomenal actresses of color.
“In a world that repeatedly drills into young girls’ minds that their bodies are not their own, their opinions and interests are not valid, it’s important to see powerful young women taking charge of their own fates, controlling their own environments, and breaking the mold.”
Teen witches aren’t just fascinating to us because they’re magical beings with youth and beauty—their true allure lies in the fact that they’re teenage girls with power and autonomy. In a world that repeatedly drills into young girls’ minds that their bodies are not their own, their opinions and interests are not valid, and their futures are not theirs to decide, it’s important to see powerful young women taking charge of their own fates, controlling their own environments, and breaking the mold. It’s not just a novel idea— it’s vital.
We need more witches. We need more queer witches; we need more witches of colour; we need more witches that represent all girls. The more powerful and unapologetic teenage girls appear on screen and within the pages of books, the more real-life girls are empowered to speak up, act out, and take control of their own lives—save for bringing about the actual apocalypse.
Angelina Martin is a writer and artist currently growing out an unfortunate undercut in the least hip part of Paris. She's been banned from both Uber and Lyft and now works hard every day to make them regret that decision. Creep on her twitter: @sendmeurnudez.