The belief in witchcraft and sorcery was widespread in the ancient world, and mythology is filled with stories about those who practised it. In Greek mythology, Circe was an enchantress who had the power to turn men into wild beasts, while her sister Pasiphaë cursed her husband so that he would ejaculate snakes, scorpions and centipedes if he ever slept with another woman. These stories were intended to illustrate the dangers associated with sexually liberated women, and were clearly damning of those who refused to follow the socially accepted religion of the time. But not all of the myths associated with witchcraft were used to denigrate sexual women. In Slavic folklore, the Baba Yaga was a hideous hag with a taste for eating children, and in the Bible, an ancient crone was said to have practiced necromancy for the then king of Israel. In this way, the various representations of witches have consistently relied on cultural stereotypes about women, particularly those that were outlined in early religious discourse. In each of these early examples, the moral of the story is always the same – that women who misbehave should be feared, avoided, and in some cases, put to death.
In modern times, the witch that has most captured the collective imagination is the Wicked Witch of the West, the green-skinned villain of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Not content with presiding over a quarter of Oz, the Wicked Witch desires total sovereignty, using the ruby slippers to supplant her sisters and make the citizens her slaves. As a character, the Wicked Witch isn’t particularly two-dimensional, nor is her sister Glinda, but the moral and instructive qualities of the film imply that these characters are paradigms of acceptable and unacceptable female behavior: namely, that Glinda’s simpering gentility is preferred to her sister’s ambition and resourcefulness. But unlike the ancient Greek myths of Circe and Pasiphaë, the Wicked Witch is entirely nonsexual, wearing a black dress that discloses only her hands and face. This is also true when we consider her Kansan counterpart Miss Gulch, the elderly, puritanical socialite. These women may be repressed and domineering, but their respective representations are still clearly reflective of society’s fears about strong women.
In contrast to this, many films look at witches from a sexual perspective, examining the relationship between witchcraft and sexual liberation. One example is Ursula the sea-witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Based on legendary drag queen Divine, Ursula was designed to be equally grotesque and seductive, relying not only on deceit and deception to achieve her goals but her body as well. Like other witches, she lives outside of society, and is referred to as a demon and a monster from the opening of the film. In this way, Ursula is an exaggeration of the dangerous aspect of the feminine, a warning to the audience of what can happen by rejecting the traditional roles that are acceptable for women.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988) is the antithesis of this idea, exploring sexuality from a decidedly feminine perspective. Although she has a penchant for low-cut dresses and salacious one-liners, Elvira is established as a curious example of the feminist heroine. She is generally oblivious to the way men react to her, and as such, is constantly surprised when they misinterpret her friendliness. She is sexually harassed on three separate occasions in the film, but it’s never once suggested that she deserves it for dressing revealingly. But what’s more is that Elvira takes a great deal of pleasure in who she is, in the way she dresses and behaves. She isn’t trying to impress or seduce anybody, but she also refuses to conform. Though Elvira gets the guy, defeats evil and narrowly evades getting burned at the stake, she never feels the need to change who she is; her power comes entirely from self-recognition.
The Witch (2015) pushes this idea even further, using witchcraft as a metaphor for sexual maturation. Utilising traditional fairy tale imagery, the film charts Thomasin’s journey towards adulthood, a journey in which she casts off her familial ties in order to become a witch. In the final scene of the film, Thomasin discovers a coven of witches around a bonfire, and after stripping off her clothes, makes the conscious decision to join them. Levitating above the trees, Thomasin’s expressions are almost orgasmic, a clear indication of her sexual awakening. But it is also important to note that Thomasin is never presented as the villain of the film. Yes, she kills her mother in self-defence, but the metaphors here are overt: that forging your own path away from others’ expectations is the only way to attain self-actualisation.
But not all modern representations of witches are explicitly sexual in nature. Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy – Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007) – is a good example of this, in which the eponymous mothers are feared purely for their powers and abilities, rather than for what their sexuality intimates. In Argento’s universe, these women created witchcraft at the dawn of the 11th century, and not only do they rule the world, but claim to personify death as well. In Inferno, Mater Tenebrarum says, “Men call us by a single name, a name which strikes fear into everyone’s heart. They call us death! Death!” These are obviously not positive representations of witches, but neither are they misogynistic ones, with two of the three mothers being defeated by major female characters. In addition to this, the final hero of the trilogy, Sarah Mandy, is a witch herself, and having been descended from a long line of white witches, is able to kill the final mother once and for all.
The Witches (1966) is an oft-forgotten entry from Hammer Films. It still has all the common tropes that we’d expect to see – a ruined church, a quintessentially English setting, and a melodramatically gothic script – but the film is closer to the folk-horror movement than the studio’s other offerings in the 1960s. A sort of predecessor to films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Witches is centered around the character of Gwen Mayfield who, after arriving in a seemingly idyllic town, discovers it to be the home of a coven of witches. Stephanie Bax, the high priestess of the coven, works as a journalist by day, and is both practical and intelligent, offering some interesting insights into the psychology of modern witchcraft. The reveal that she is a witch is designed to shock the audience, who is led to believe that she is too worldly to believe in folklore and superstition. Though the film soon descends into something rather rote and predictable, it does successfully subvert our expectations, forcing us to question exactly what a modern witch should look like.
Outside of the horror genre, Pasolini’s Medea (1969) also explores witchcraft from a nonsexual perspective, focusing instead on its historical and mythological connotations. Medea, a priestess of blood magic on the coast of the Black Sea, spends most of the film trying to reclaim her power after fleeing with her lover Jason. Seen as a savage by the people of Corinth, she is no longer able to hear the voices of her gods, describing herself as “a vessel full of knowledge that is not [her own].” It is only when Medea decides to stop being passive that her powers return, taking revenge against those who have wronged her. Pasolini’s script – which is both opaque and oneiric – avoids blaming any character for the act of filicide that closes the film, but instead, emphasises Medea’s divine function within the narrative. Like other witches in popular culture, Medea – an outcast from society – finds actualisation from the act of finding herself again, reclaiming her power for herself.
In more recent years, witches have begun to be reinterpreted, with filmmakers taking famous witches and telling stories from their perspectives, displacing them from the one-dimensional role of evil villain. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Wicked Witch of the West, whose story has been reappropriated to suit the needs of modern audiences. In Wicked (2003), based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, the Wicked Witch is a product of her rivalry with Glinda, fuelled in part by the fact they are in love with the same man, and In Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), it is revealed that the witch is evil because she has suffered a broken heart. This technique of reappropriating villains can also be seen in Disney’s Maleficent (2014). Here, Maleficent is a fairy who was betrayed by her lover Stefan. It is only when Stefan cuts off her wings, thereby mutilating her, that she becomes the villain we remember. Although it is understandable that modern audiences want to see a more psychological aspect to their villains, this reappropriation is not always successful, stripping some of the power away from these characters. It is interesting to consider the inherent misogyny of their initial incarnations, and there are certainly ways to subvert this, but the idea that a modern witch can only be created by the rejection of a male lover makes them even more passive than they were to begin with.
Similarly, as society’s perspectives on women have changed over the years, witches have also become appropriate role models for children and teenagers, the most obvious example being Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996). Beginning in the middle of the Girl Power phenomenon of the mid-1990s, Sabrina represents the ideal teenager – she’s smart, pretty, has a committed boyfriend and loving family, as well as an almost infinite amount of magical powers. In this way, Sabrina acts a sort of wish fulfilment for teenage viewers, viewers who can’t make the mean girls turn into zebras or their boyfriends into toads. At the same time, Sabrina was also a show filled with strong, capable women, with most of the male characters reduced to comic relief or, like Mr Kraft, the villains of the series.
A darker version of the same principle can be seen in The Craft (1996). Here, a girl at a new high school falls in with a coven of witches, and whilst their intentions begin innocently enough, the film soon becomes a parable about the misuse of one’s power. Nancy, the self-proclaimed leader of the cult, wants to harness this power for herself, and like an addict, soon finds herself incapable of stopping. Sarah, on the other hand, wants to learn what it’s like to have friends, sharing an equal amount of the power between them. Although the film contains scenes in which the girls murder boys and coerce people into killing themselves, The Craft still operates in much the same way as Sabrina, as a narrative about reclaiming your own power and learning to be yourself, even when the odds seem to be against you.
Witches have long since appealed to those who feel marginalised by those around them, and it’s no wonder that so many women and members of the LGBT+ community are able to see themselves in these characters. Outcast from society and often punished for being different, witches are able to become self-reliant and self-confident, harnessing their powers to find the courage they need to be themselves. Instead of conforming to societal ideas about who or what they should be, witches are able to find strength in those qualities that were traditionally seen as unfeminine – assertiveness, aggression, ambition. Though these qualities have changed over time (and will continue to do so in the future), there’s still one thing these witches have in common: they all believe they have power, even when the world insists they don’t.