Witches In Contemporary Cinema and Television: A Radical Feminist Aesthetic

The portrayal of witches and witchcraft in film, television and new media is a very specific and effective framework for a radical feminist ideology. The content within this framework is inclusive of age, gender, ability, etc. The application of a violent, dark tone to this content acts as an aesthetic tool to convey a feminist ideology with radical intent to a post 9/11 audience.

In the last decade, the female voice, the feminine form and the emblematic presentation of the Witch in television and cinema suggests a societal conflict between the sexes, a reignited focus on the natural world and a desire for a deeper understanding of the spiritual Self. “Witch,” in popular usage, has come to refer to the female and the feminine, and the “wild” of nature has always been referred to as She. Nature can be understood as a symbol of the wild and feminine, which sits in opposition to a society which embodies infrastructure and the masculine. By entering a symbolic pact with Satan, the witch symbolically escapes institutional and patriarchal control. The rise of the dark and powerful witch in popular culture stems from the need for female role models capable of fighting the ugly and violent reality of the world they live in.

The patriarchy has always been aware of this feminine machination and has attempted to undermine this social maneuver through the uglification of the image of the witch and the creation of the “good” versus “bad” witch dichotomy. The physical look of witches on screen today as “evil woman” can be credited to portrayals by Disney. This began with Snow White and can also be attributed to the resemblance of descriptions from many of the most influential anti-witch texts. Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hunter), the definitive witch-hunting bible, was the most popular book of its time, second only to the Christian Bible. St. Thomas Aquinas defined witches as lustful, shape-shifting women with the ability to fly, who performed their magic through the help of demons. The first two movies to show witches on screen and match Aquinas’ damning descriptions are Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). These two films solidified the “good” vs. “bad” witch standard in popular entertainment and by extent, stripped the witch of her representational significance as a powerful, independent figure in entertainment and media. This standard progressed throughout the second half of the 20th Century, but it also underwent a subtle and ever growing reclaiming of representation. During the ’50s and ’60s, a conservative mix of drama and comedy e.g. Bewitched, was the societal norm. In the ’80s and ’90’, some drama was introduced to the content as well as subversive comedy with a side-dash of horror, e.g. Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Craft.

As we come to the end of the current decade, a decidedly dark and even satanic turn has been introduced into the political zeitgeist of televisual and cinematic representation of witches and by extent, women at large (e.g. American Horror Story, The Witch, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and the remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria). The dichotomy of good/bad witch may still live on, but the recent trend in arthouse horror has helped feminists to reclaim the narrative of the feminine/witch by placing the “bad” witch in a starring and sympathetic role. Witchcraft offers women an alternative to prescriptive definitions of what it means to be a woman and challenges Christianity’s questionable history. This is a radical feminist politics that pierces deeper than any social media hashtag; it cuts straight to the dismantling of the patriarchy and its implicit misogyny. Today, witches are more Gothic, darker and edgier, pointing towards a more radical, feminist politics. The genre that has helped motivate and fuel these transgressions is, of course, Horror. Horror narratives always concern the retrogression and eradication of boundaries between inside and outside: the body, the community, the home. It is also the perfect genre to encapsulate the mystery of history and the fear of the “natural” as well as the “unknown.” The wilderness (like the witch) is a haunted place to be controlled and tamed.

Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) perfectly conveys the eradication of these symbolic boundaries within the mystery of a dark, violent history under patriarchal control. Thomasin’s witch’s spirit (played with aplomb by Anya-Taylor Joy) although haunted, is like the wilderness that surrounds her, unable to be controlled or tamed. Thomasin is reluctant to hear the “call of the wild” which beckons to her (via a coven of witches devoted to Satan) at first, because her father’s puritanical hold on her and the responsibility she feels towards the well-being of her siblings is incalculably strong. Her resolve eventually gives way to temptation, as the guilt of being blamed for the loss of the new born baby and the consequential anger directed to her by the family becomes too much to tolerate. Once Satan enters the scene (potentially having watched the entire scene play out through the eyes of familiar Black Peter, the goat), Thomasin is ready to embrace her inner witch and walks off into the trees that border the family homestead, to join the coven and finally hear the call of the wild. As witch and co-founder of The Satanic Temple, Jex Blackmore states: “The Witch is more than a film; it is a trans-formative, satanic experience….I speak to you as a satanist, an individual who embraces her pariah status and actively challenges arbitrary authority in defence of personal sovereignty. To the Satanic Temple, Satan is a symbol of defiance, independence, wisdom and self-empowerment and serves as an affirmation of natural existence.”

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) is an excellent example of the eradication of political boundaries and the coded significance of the witch as “Mother” through the physical lexicon of contemporary dance. Susie Bannion, a young American dancer, comes to Berlin in the 1970s to audition for a place in the acclaimed Helena Markos Dance Co.

With relatively benign intentions, Susie prepares for and executes her audition merely to impress renowned choreographer and head artistic director, Madame Blanc. Accepted into the academy, due to a malevolent criteria she is oblivious to, Susie begins to unravel a spiderweb of secrecy weaved for millennia and maintained through acts of murder executed through the dance she is commissioned to learn for a public performance. The “inside” scenario shares an uneasy relationship with the political unease exploding in the “outside,” being West Berlin during the violent heyday of the Red Army Faction’s guerilla campaign. In every corner of the movie, the past leaks in. The old Germany is not dead, and down in the basement, amid the monster-mothers, the new world struggles to be born. Once the history of the dance academy, and the truth of how it continues to persist amidst the destruction of a crumbling German Autumn, is revealed to Susie, she reacts in a very nontraditional fashion. Instead of reviling and rejecting the violent, satanic coven she now finds herself in, she embraces her role as witch and monster-mother. “Three mothers, three gods, three devils, Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum and Mother Suspiriorum, Darkness, tears and sighs.” As Susie says to Dr. Klemperer, “We need guilt and shame but not yours.” The moral of Suspiria may be ambiguous or indeed nonexistent, but this is a structural device which emphasizes the mystery of history and the power of the feminine mystique, the wild of She.

There is no lesson in Suspiria. No moral hangs over your head in the hours after the film ends and its themes attempt to permeate your everyday life. The film is a vicious, bloody mystery; a haunting story with no moral ground to lay. And that is actually a truly remarkable and important gift.

Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996) was the birth of the teenage witch in film. Through the portrayal of four teenage witches establishing their own coven, teenagers were able to embrace their own “outsider” or “weirdo” status while simultaneously facing gritty realities such as divorce, racism and suicide. With strong Wicca undertones throughout and the unforgettable characterization by Fairuza Balk of the radical and tormented Nancy, The Craft helped to set the stage and tone for the morally ambiguous and undeniably popular show Charmed (1998). What The Craft and Charmed have in common is that they both normalize witches in popular culture and in particular, youth culture. Witches were no longer seen as weathered hags, characters securely within the reference framework of the elderly. Witches were now young, fashionable and more often than not, highly attractive.

The sexualization of the witch in entertainment can be seen as an act of co-opting by the main stream to pacify feminine unity, but I would argue that is a deliberate act to bring the feminine voice and image into a society, focusing on progression as the new millennia approaches.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina started off life as an American comic book series published by Archie Horror circa 2014. The series was a dark re-imagining of Sabrina The Teenage Witch; a far more palatable representation of a teenage girl as a witch, cute and benevolent. The important thing to remember is that Sabrina (in whatever manifestation) is shown to be half-witch. The half-witch persona acted as a gateway of acceptance for mainstream society. Half of Sabrina is mysterious, dangerous and alluring, while the other half is familiar, safe and sexualized in an acceptable fashion. The dichotomy of Sabrina’s character was emphasized in her most recent manifestation, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018), developed by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa . Sabrina Spellman (played to an overwhelming positive response by Kiernan Shipka) attempts to reconcile her dual nature while living simultaneously in the mortal and magical world. She attends mortal school, has close mortal friends and even has a deep, loving relationship with mortal boyfriend Harvey. But she also attends witch school, develops magical friends and is required to sign Satan’s book at her Dark Baptism on her 16th birthday. Sabrina rejects her dark calling in the first half of the series and chooses to stay in the world of light, the safe world of the mortal. As the series progresses however, Sabrina is faced by a choice to accept her dark side to keep her mortal world and friends safe, to which she complies and attends witch school and signs Satan’s dark book.

Halfway through the season, the show starts to dig deeper into the darker side of Sabrina’s nature, and the show begins to tear away at the quirky and sometimes one-dimensional characterization of the witch world that Sabrina operates in. That’s when it starts to get good, because then it becomes gray and nuanced, and the obvious progressive politics of the show get questioned and it starts delivering the hard messages.

The interesting thing about Sabrina is that even though her character is very nice and caring, she still finds companionship and belonging in her dark world. The stereotypical dark image of the witch is also seen as a figure with problems, who also needs to be protected and cared for. Whatever world Sabrina occupies and whatever company she may keep, the audience sympathizes with and likes her, a witch, and that is vital to my argument. A new feminine image has come into the world of popular entertainment and has therefore effected culture at large.

Thanks to shows like Charmed and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and movies like The Craft, the image of the witch is no longer regulated to the wild, to the old and what is seen as ugly in society. The new witch is hip, fashionable, attractive and lives with us. She is not restricted in her decision-making by a binary morality, she is free to make her decisions based on what is at hand and can find good even in the darkest corners of society. This is a radical politics of a feminist ideology that continues to grow in contemporary society. As society becomes darker and more deranged, and the voices of minorities (including women) are being pushed to the fringe, the witch and all that it connotes grows more popular. It represents a voice of reason among the wilderness, and allows the voice of the female to be heard, no matter how dark and dangerous the context, and I myself could not be happier about it.  

So mote it be.

Gene Banyard

Gene Banyard is a cinephile and an avid fan of horror and the macabre. He has been obsessed with the darker side of human creativity since he was a teenager reading the works
of Stephen King, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman and horror and arthouse such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Gothic.
Gene has also been acting on stage and screen and creative writing since youth and is currently studying towards a
Bachelor of Film Production. He hopes to start his own horror entertainment production company in the future.
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