The Witch in Pop Culture
The witch has had numerous faces over the centuries. She’s gone from the village wise person to the heretic burnt at the stake, and back again. Today, the witch’s image is changing slowly. The perception of the witch as an archetype has a lot to do with how he or she is portrayed in Hollywood.
Think about your favorite Hollywood witches. Are you a fan of Maleficent? Ursula? Queen Ravenna? Let’s take a look at the witch in popular culture and think about how this image affects society’s beliefs and reactions to modern witchcraft practice.
When I think of how the witch is portrayed by the media, I realize most of it is fantastical. Either the witch is a frightening, monster-like creature or has unwieldy supernatural abilities. Take for example the first witch characters in Hollywood: Samantha Stephens in the 1960’s sitcom Bewitched and Gillian in the 1958 film Bell, Book and Candle. What do Samantha Stephens and Gillian have in common?
Though they don’t necessarily frighten us, we understand they have superhuman abilities. Which inevitably paints the witch as fiction. This is the first way in which society has been fed a misconstrued image of the witch. A fun persona to watch? Absolutely, but most modern witches don’t have the ability to fold laundry with the twitch of a nose. This image is perpetuated time and time again through the last
six decades in shows and films like the Harry Potter Series, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Practical Magic, Charmed, and The Witches of East End (to name just a few). And while this seems innocent enough, I’ve had quite a few people ask me to mentor them, and their expectations are to be taught Harry Potter-style abilities. Then they are shocked when I explain what witchcraft really is.
As for the witch being a child-eating, powerful denizen of darkness, this image is ever-present in Hollywood too. Admittedly, I watch horror movies with the witch as the main antagonist, and I enjoy them! But deep down I know this image of the witch is complex and confused. As fun as it is to watch horror movies with witches, it feeds into the idea of the witch being an untrustworthy, bad person. Being a person to fear and punish. It keeps the witch in an easily understood box: one that witch hunters crafted in the Dark Ages. And yet I’m conflicted, because we have such famous pop witches as The Sanderson Sisters in Hocus Pocus, Nancy Downs in The Craft, and Elaine Parks in The Love Witch.
We are drawn to their style, spunk, and inevitably to their power. As Winifred Sanderson sang, “I’ve put a spell on you. And now you’re mine.” There’s a reason Hocus Pocus has such a cult following. It’s because the malevolent witch is a terrifying AND ENTERTAINING character, whether we as modern witches want to admit it or not.
Have there been any movies or television shows that represent modern witches in a realistic way? I had to think about this for a while. I couldn’t come up with a lot of decent examples, because the pop witch is either always evil OR has supernatural powers. However, when it comes to showing how modern witches actually practice, the 90’s movie The Craft comes pretty close.
Levitation and walking on water aside, the cult movie shows a small sliver of real witchcraft: calling the quarters, invoking spirits, burning candles, honoring the elements, and a belief that nature is divine. If you want to see examples of real modern witchcraft, I recommend watching documentaries and interviews with real witches. American Mystic is a 2010 documentary filmed by Alex Mar in which a modern witch, medium, and Native American are interviewed and followed. The Californian-based witch Morpheus Ravenna tells us what it’s like to be a witch in modern times: we hear her story of “becoming” a witch as an adolescent, we are given glimpses into her sacred rituals, and watch her build her dream of a pagan
Ultimately, it’s up to modern witches to change society’s perception of us. Unfortunately, unless a few of us can break onto the Hollywood scene as writers and directors, the distorted image of the witch will continue. The supernatural, powerful witch archetype is deeply ingrained in our minds - purposely orchestrated by the Church in the Dark Ages. And has continued since. And honestly, it’s not that I mind watching a horror movie with the witch as the antagonist, but it would be nice to see witches portrayed in a realistic light. This way when someone asks us if we fly on broomsticks or shoot lightning
from our fingertips, we can point them to an educational film on real modern witches.
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