May 302012
 

After the turbulence of the ’60s settled into a kind of depression in the late ’70s, Witches disappeared from the Pop-Culture scene for awhile. Curiously, it was not until the happy prosperity of the ’80s that another notable set of Witches made an appearance in American film.

Derived from John Updike’s 1984 novel updating the classic New England Witch-Story (Witches covenant sexually with the Devil, gaining Powers of Witchcraft as consequence), 1987′s The Witches of Eastwick introduces a number of significant elements, such as the fact that there are Three Witches (Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher), who work together as a Group. As the film is based upon the Puritan assumptions that underlay the Salem Witch-Trials- that Witches will align themselves with the Lord of Evil and Darkness- Witches of Eastwick features a hilarious Jack Nicholson as the Devil (watch for the scene when he stamps his “hoofed” foot on the floor, in an argument with Cher). However (here’s the thing): Witches of Eastwick plays a twist upon the Puritan Witch-Trope, and shows how the three Witches wise up to the ways in which “Daryl Van Horne” is using them. In a very Modernist, Post-Feminist manner (and in an unprecedented display of Cultural Empowerment, Witch-Wise), they turn the tables on him. In short, in this film, these Witches out-Witch the Devil. As a Women’s Lib metaphor, it’s genius; as a display of Witches’ Moral Conscience, it’s admirable. As a metaphoric “throwing off” of the weight of 300 years’ Burning Times: Witches of Eastwick is notable.

It also makes viable significant actresses playing Witches, something that Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy discover in 1993′s Comedy-Witch movie Hocus Pocus (well, Witches of Eastwick is a comedy, too, but of a different sort), as well as Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, and Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, in Practical Magic. (Well, Nicole Kidman discovers this twice, once in the movie-remake of Bewitched: but that’s another decade.)

Given some time for the idea of Empowered Witches to settle: American Pop-Culture underwent a veritable explosion of Witches in the latter 1990s (often in configurations of Threes). The gateway Witch-Movie, the one that purposefully opened the box on Wicca, was of course 1996′s The Craft. Famed as the “Teen Witch Flick,” it concerns alienated Goth-Girls, who turn to Wicca Witchcraft, in order to blast the school’s Mean Girls with hexes- and in order to get rid of some unfortunate burn-scars, and to lift their family out of poverty, and in order to find true love (or at least to make that really cute boy from Homeroom fall in love with one of them)- and then to bind the psycho-Witch from harming herself or others. The Craft may be a little short-sighted, in adolescent manner, but it presents the Craft as a means of Transformation and Life-Change: as long as you keep yourself grounded and don’t try to go nuts with it (don’t go all Nancy). For all that its milieu is very High School (and High School Horror-Flick), it does offer a Witchcraft-Parable about young people empowering themselves and their lives through Witchery- a cautionary tale with both the do’s and the don’ts.

The Craft nevertheless ushered in the Rise of the Witch, in late 1990s-2000s Pop-Culture. Making its debut that year was a television show (derived from Archie comics), also about an adolescent Witch: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. A bit more grounded than the girls of The Craft, Sabrina receives the tutelage of two Witch-Aunts, as well as an enchanted Familiar-Cat named Salem; the show ran until 2003. Starting in 1997 was one of the most phenomenal TV series of the ’90s/ early 2000s: Buffy the Vampire-Slayer (which ran until 2003). A very Supernaturally-themed affair about a teen-aged girl who slays Vampires (and other assorted Demons) with the help of her friends, Buffy took a Witchy turn in the fourth season, when Willow began to study Wicca, commencing in the process one of television’s more notable Lesbian romances. As with The Craft, a certain strangeness began to settle around Wicca through Buffy, as the show’s more fantastic aspects appeared to encourage the perception that not only was Wicca a form of Magickal Earth-Worship, but apparently a means of acquiring Supernatural Powers as well (I doubt that any other religion can be incorporated so well into Supernatural story-lines, as “Wiccans” can represent a modern form of “Witches” of old). As with The Craft and Sabrina, Witchcraft in Buffy serves as a dramatic metaphor for the period of female adolescence.

Witchcraft becomes literally a Sisterhood affair in 1998, with the movie Practical Magic and the TV show Charmed, in a metaphoric reading of a very post-Women’s Lib sensibility (Cue Ms. Franklin and Ms. Lennox, in the ’80s: “SISTERS! Are doing it for THEMSELVES!!”) Both shows present a generational past to Witchcraft; Practical Magic (derived from Alice Hoffman’s novel) is most charming in its depiction of a Witches’ Coven at the end; in its depiction of Witches with brooms; and in its delightful showing of subsequent Generations of Witches (presented in the archetypal fashion, in black, with peaked hats). Charmed (which ran until 2006, and which is credited as the longest-running hour-long series that features a Trio of women in Television History) represents best the incursions of Pop-Culture (specifically comic-books; Sabrina is literally derived from a comic-strip) into the depictions of Wicca/ Witchcraft on television: both Buffy and Charmed basically present Witches as Super-Heroes. Like The Craft and Buffy before it, the undeniably Supernatural elements to Charmed (perhaps the first TV show to identify itself by means of a Celtic Mandala, or to the eyes of the uninitiated, an Occult Symbol) places Wicca into a kind of surreal light, presenting just enough “Wicca” (such as the Book of Shadows inherited by “the Charmed Ones” from their Ancestor-Witches; the first episode was titled “Something Wicca This Way Comes,” a pun on the Witches’ line upon greeting the Scottish Thane in the Cauldron Scene [IV.i], in Macbeth) to suggest that Wiccans rouinely manifest telekinesis and astral projection, and as a matter of course, confront malevolent Ghosts and Vampires and Warlocks and Werewolves (well, I do, at any rate, but I don’t know about the rest of you).

But maybe here’s the thing; maybe the Zeitgeist (which often manifests itself in LA) needed to “come to terms” with Wicca in the late ’90s, by first imagining it in its most Supernatural “Witch-Like” light; while simultaneously reassuring itself that Witches (Wiccans), like Willow and Tara, and the Charmed Ones, and the Witches of Practical Magic, are basically Good, and can be counted on to utilize the Forces of Ancient Witchery for the benefit and protection of the Good: should the situation come to that.

We see the incorporation of many Traditional Witch-elements in these latter ’90s representations of Witches: the Ancestral Background of Witches is a feature in Sabrina, Practical Magic, and Charmed; the tutelage of older generations is seen in the Witch-Aunts of Sabrina and Practical Magic. Witches operating in Threes is seen in Witches of Eastwick, Hocus Pocus, Sabrina, and Charmed. A Coven performing Magick through Broom-work is notable in Practical Magic; an association of Witchcraft with Candle-Magic is noted all over the place.

Unlike the very threatening depictions of Witches in ’60s films: Witches in ’90s Entertainment represent primarily Women achieving Empowerment through Witchcraft: a perfect media-metaphor for the post-Feminist Female.

At the absolute last of the decade, however (the last decade of the 20th century), there is another Witch-Movie, that is a throw-back to the Malevolent Witch-Movies of the ’60s, as well as back to the Grimms’ Tales and antique European Faerey-Story.

Making its debut in July 1999, after its showing at Sundance, was a strange, quirky indie-film called The Blair Witch Project. It has been imitated so thoroughly, both in professional film and in innumerable parody videos put up on YouTube, that it is difficult to remember how auteur seemed its premise and execution at the time. I promise (cause I can remember) how totally this film took the cinema-afficionado crowd that summer of 1999; I remember sitting in the local film art-house, rapt with an audience at the Horror of the Blair Witch.

Of course, the question might be: why did this film hit such a chord? An answer might be that, by July 1999, we were all anticipating the Turn of the Millennium, a dramatic change, bringing we knew not what. A certain urban-myth regarding the Y2K virus was making the rounds, alleging that the computer-grid of the world would deconstruct, and all but the most hardcore of Survivalists would be thrown back into the Dark Ages; a fear that failed to arise, but nonetheless perhaps prepared us a bit for 9/11, and the start of the Age of Terror, wherein the Bush/ Cheney administration never tired of warning us darkly that- like the Blair Witch- Evil, Malignant Forces Out There were plotting without cease to Harm Us and Destroy Our Ways (so kind of medieval, actually, in regards to the historical Witch-Hunts): the Pop-Culture place of The Blair Witch Project should not be underestimated, and demonstrates how necessary to Human Story-Telling is the Witch who can serve as the Malign Force that can strike Existential Terror into Humans; for something about confronting Terror in a Supernatural vein can prepare us for the sometimes Terrors-of-Life. Hare Krishna, and Blessed Be, ye Gods of Paganism and Witchcraft- keep the Terrors away, and bring Happy Fortune only!!

Looking away from The Blair Witch: do we not see something remarkable in all these Empowered Femmes of Witch-Entertainment of the 1990s? At least since the violent repression of Witchcraft by the Dominant Culture Christian Churches, in the Burning Times of the 1400s-1600s: when have we seen women connecting with the Magicke Female Power of Witchcraft- other than this period, which perhaps coincides with the Rise of Wicca in the Popular Consciousness?

  2 Responses to “Witches in the ’90s: Movies and Television”

  1. In re: “The Witches of Eastwick”, you have the storyline backwards for both the book and the film, and I think that pointing this out is important to your premise of illustrating the portrayal of witches in media. The three sisters had their powers long before the devil came to town, indeed, it was use of their powers that inadvertently summoned him. In the book the sisters knew they had power, used it and discussed it, but that is glossed over in the movie. They did not need the devil to empower them as witches, although in both media the sexual relationship empowered them as women, enabling them to divorce themselves (figuratively speaking) from their mourning/longing/regrets for the lack of men in their lives (one is divorced, one is widowed, one never married).

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