Witches in Movies and on Television

Witches in Movies and on Television

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

It is no secret that witches are usually depicted as the antagonists in movies and on television. Presented with all the misconceptions foisted for so many centuries by the Church, the witches of the screen are nearly always the witches of the Middle Ages—working evil spells, practicing black magic, throwing curses, worshiping the devil; things which, were they attributed to Jews, Buddhists, or other religious groups would not be tolerated for an instant. Yet, despite the work of true Witches over the past fifty years to straighten these misconceptions, studios still get away with it.

Many of the tired screenplays follow the story of a curse made by a witch as she was being burned at the stake. Interestingly, many such movies feature the witches of Salem being burned at the stake (e.g., Maid of Salem and Burned At the Stake) even though not a single person in New England was burned (they were hung), typifying the little if any research that goes into the writing of most scripts.

There was a small break for screen Witchcraft in the 1960s with the television series Bewitched. A witch was finally presented as an ordinary person—a housewife living, or trying to live, in normal circumstances. This was loosely based on the Thorne Smith novel The Passionate Witch (which in turn inspired the 1942 Paramount movie I Married a Witch, directed by René Clair). It also rode the coattails of John Van Druten's stage comedy (later Columbia movie, directed by Richard Quine) Bell, Book and Candle. In it, the Witch, Gillian Holroyd, was much closer to normal, even if she did use her magic to make someone fall in love with her.

There was a "Good Witch" in the L. Frank Baum 1900 classic, The Wizard of


, but was balanced by a "Wicked Witch of the West." These were featured in the

1939 MGM movie directed by Victor Fleming.

The popular children's books by Mary Norton, Bonfires and Broomsticks and The Magic Bedknob, were made into a BBC radio series in the 1950s and featured an otherwise ordinary, elderly, children's aunt, Eglantine Price, who was a witch. The books were combined into the successful Disney movie of 1971, Bedknobs and Broomsticks

. The theme of the not-very-successful witch-in-training was also picked up in The Worst Witch, a 1986 comedy movie directed by Robert M. Young and based on Jill Murphy's children's story of a witch's academy run by a sorceress and her assistants who teach the magical arts. In 1998 a (UK/Canada) television series based on the books began.

More recently, with such movies as Practical Magic and The Craft, and television series like Charmed and Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch, there has been more of an acceptance of witchcraft, even Wicca in everyday life. Practical Magic was a 1998 Warner Brothers movie directed by Griffin Dunne and was based on Alice Hoffman's novel about two sisters who are part of the Owens family of Witches. Raised by two aunts, the sisters, Sally and Gillian Owen, had always accepted magic as being practical until, as adults, they find it carries a curse. The original novel is a lighter story, but the movie is simplified into a romance with horrific overtones. Typically, Hollywood couldn't resist adding spooky special effects. However, Practical Magic does treat Witchcraft and magic as normal practices not associated with Satan.

The Craft, a 1996 Columbia/TriStar movie directed by Andrew Fleming, presents four teenage girls as Witches, yet the film is more about working magic than about practicing the true Craft, the Old Religion. There are snatches of Wicca with athamés and a Circle held on the beach and talk of the god Manon (a fictitious deity created for the film), but again Hollywood gets carried away with special effects. There was a true Wiccan consultant for the movie, Pat Devin (an officer of the Southern California local council of the Covenant of the Goddess), but as this author has found, there is only so much pressure that can be brought to bear on filmmakers to present an accurate picture. The movie did, however, inspire the television series Charmed, which is a lot closer to true Wicca than The Craft ever was.

Charmed, started in 1998, produced by Spelling TV and directed by John T. Kretchmer, is a story of three sisters, Prue, Piper, and Phoebe Halliwell, who discover that they are Witches and learn from an old Book of Shadows that belonged to their grandmother. Although there are special effects, the stories follow closely the true nature of Wicca, presenting a Witch as someone who is not evil and must not use her powers for negative purposes. There are many true Wiccan points presented in this series, which is probably the high point of true Witchcraft's climb into public acceptance.

Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch is a youth-oriented ABC sitcom. The feature length pilot was introduced in 1996 and directed by Tibor Takacs. Again, the emphasis is on working magic and not always for positive purposes. But once again, it shows Witchcraft as being a part of everyday life.

Unfortunately, Hollywood cannot let go of its negative approaches to witchcraft. The Witches, a 1990 Warner Brothers movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, was an adaption of Roald Dahl's novel about a "Grand High Witch" leading a convention of witches in an attempt to turn all the children of England into mice! Worse still, if only because of its pseudo-documentary approach, was 1999's The Blair Witch Project

and its even worse 2001 sequel, Book of Shadows. One critic (at www.calendarlive.com) said of the original movie that it "is perhaps more amusing and satisfying as a cautionary tale deflating a certain kind of filmmaking arrogance than it is an offbeat horror show."

It is certain that Hollywood will continue to make movies that blatantly malign Witches, but there is some small hope that along with these, there may be a few that present the Craft for what it is—a true religion of nature with respect for all life and desire for harm to none.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.