Mary McGill: The Season of the Witch – ‘The Craft’ Revisited

Ours is the magic

Ours is the power

Ritual chant from ‘The Craft’

As a teenager, female friendships were my north, south, east and west. My entire world, which was admittedly tiny at the time.  The intensity of those days still burns white hot while other phases, people, places have long since faded. This is the triumph and tragedy of teenage girlhood: it shapes but never fully leaves you, its lessons and heartbreak revealing themselves, kaleidoscope-like, in different ways as life unfurls. You learn, as Ms Morissette sang or perhaps warned, but part of me still holds tight to the idealism, the giddy, delicious expectation, however misplaced or naive, that defined those wonder years.

The ‘90s were my teenage playground, a decade kept alive in the present day by a never ending deluge of online nostalgia, which seems to be as click-tastic for content makers as LOL cats or porn. ‘90s omnipresence and good old deadline-fast-approaching- procrastination led me to recently re-watch The Craft, a 1996 high school film about a group of teenage girls who practise witchcraft, with predictably chaotic results.

Lest you did not know, all practising witches need a coven. The Craft’s consists of the sexually active, trailer-park-dwelling Nancy (Fairuza Balk), badly scarred shy gal Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True), a victim of racist bullies, and new girl Sarah (Robin Tunney), a natural witch with a dead mother and a history of suicidal tendencies. In contrast to the dull Catholic high school they inhabit during the day, the girls begin to cast spells and develop their powers, with highly entertaining, often empowering results; at least at first. When Nancy decides to ‘invoke the spirit’ however, things escalate and the group begins to implode with lethal consequences.

The Craft was wildly popular upon release, topping the US box office and spawning witchy fashion trends of which onyx nail varnish and knee-high Doc lace-ups were my personal favourites. The film has since gained cult status, particularly among females with a penchant for sisterhood and the supernatural. The Craft’s appeal was a no-brainer for my teenage self, a lanky, spotty, brace-wearing bookish theatre nut who didn’t regret her outsiderness in the least. On the contrary, I revelled in it. ‘Popular’ was precisely what I defined myself against and here, at last it seemed, was a film that celebrated female outsiderdom.

If teenage me read The Craft as a celebration of female friendship and a rejection of the popular, watching it now as a grown woman with a critical, feminist gaze reveals something altogether more complicated and uncomfortable. The potency of teenage friendships rarely lasts for a variety of reasons – but girls in particular are subjected to toxic social conditioning that urges them to treat each other as competitors and to privilege male approval over female. I would love to be able to say that The Craft still felt as subversive to me as it did when I was fifteen, but that would be a lie. Now I see not a celebration of female bonds but a problematic cautionary tale about the dangerous power of female rage and the necessity for ‘good’ femininity to vanquish ‘bad’ femininity. Because the last thing this world can handle is an angry young woman.

~

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The Craft opens with the arrival of Sarah in Los Angeles, an event which initially improves the fortunes of would-be witches Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle. Until this point, Nancy had been the leader, dominating the altogether more biddable Bonnie and Rochelle. While Sarah provides the vital ‘fourth’, thereby completing the coven and enabling the girls to practice proper magic, her talents as a natural witch challenge Nancy’s position. The two are very different. Sarah is straightforwardly pretty and feminine, a nice middle class white girl in the grand tradition of this dullest of tropes. Nancy on the other hand wears thick black lipstick, studs and piercings, carrying herself with an unapologetically snarky air. Her home life is marred by poverty, an alcoholic mother and lecherous stepfather. 

Both Nancy and Sarah are troubled, but their distress is articulated in two different, significant ways. Nancy’s invoking of the spirit, her desire to claim power as a way of fighting back against circumstances which have belittled and hurt her, is focused outward. Sarah’s expression of anger – her suicide attempt – is focused on the self. The film treats Nancy’s rage as abnormal, repulsive and terrifying but the scars on Sarah’s wrists earn her a look of knowing approval from the group when they initially begin to bond. Female anger, it seems, is permissible when directed at the self and the flesh but becomes deranged as soon as it dares to extend beyond the corporeal.  Be Millais’ Ophelia, ladies; milquetoast, delicate and drowning. Rather that than a Suffragette with a brick in her hand.

~

Nancy and Sarah’s relationship is further complicated by the presence of the despicable Chris (Skeet Ulrich), a jackass in the grand tradition of high school jock-type jackasses. Attractive in a superficially unthreatening, boy-bandesque way, Chris makes it his business to woo Sarah, her new girl status marking her out as fresh terrain to plunder. Nancy, who had slept with Chris in the past, caught an STD for her troubles and subsequently been humiliated by him and his greasy little cronies, warns Sarah to steer clear; good advice that goes ignored.  Although she does not sleep with Chris, he tells the entire school Sarah is the worst lay he has ever had.  Distraught, Sarah still wants to be with Chris, casting a spell to make it so. The other girls roll their eyes and guffaw as she makes her wish but sadly, it isn’t their approval Sarah craves.

As the girls’ powers grow, the owner of the mystical bookshop they frequent warns them that whatever they put out into the universe they will receive back three times three. This caution takes on a particular significance after Sarah’s spell turns Chris into a love sick puppy or stalker (depending on your viewpoint; I’m plumping for ‘stalker’ given his outright obsession with Sarah, sitting outside her house at night, following her around school, phoning her incessantly; typical loopy rom-com behaviour that becomes deeply uncomfortable when viewed through the prism of reality).

Sarah initially finds Chris’s obsession hilarious and evidence of her growing prowess as a witch. Bonnie and Rochelle are impressed; Nancy, resentful. This leads to heightened tensions within with the group. Eager to talk about the situation with someone other than her friends, Sarah goes for a night time drive with Chris, who repeatedly tells her he is in love with her but has no idea why. These assertions of helplessness take on an ominous tone when Chris tries to force himself on Sarah, sending her fleeing from the car and scrambling through the scrub, where she falls.

Chris bears down on top of her as she fights and squirms. Over the attempted rape Beth Gibbons sings in a quiet, impassioned voice, “I just wanna be a woman.”

What is the viewer supposed to absorb from this exchange? Sarah kicks Chris in the groin and runs through the dark Los Angeles hills, sobbing, bewildered. Her three times three has led to violation and assault, but because she cast the spell the narrative seems to imply Sarah has no one to blame but herself, having driven Chris wild by her own hand.

This kind of rationale is eerily reminiscent of the kinds of justifications offered by perpetrators of sexual violence. To find such thinking neatly wound into the plot of a film aimed squarely at a teenage female audience under the guise of female empowerment is chilling.

Sarah’s assault provokes the penultimate showdown between herself and Nancy, who has grown more unpredictable and power-ravenous since the group invoked the spirit. During the rite, Nancy had begged that Manon, the force of all creation, ‘fill her’, language which further underscores her sexuality in contrast to the more chaste Sarah who stumbles away from Chris’s clutches. Since then, Nancy has indirectly murdered her stepfather, leading to much improved circumstances for her and her mother. She is far from appeased, however, and when she hears about Chris’s attack she takes off to find him at a nearby house party – despite Sarah’s insistence that she leave the situation alone.

Vengeful Nancy succeeds in getting a drunken and predictably horny Chris alone in a bedroom.

the craft nancy

He initially refuses her advances, saying with customary charm,

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 To trick and ultimately terrify him, Nancy uses a glamour, a spell which creates illusions, to make her appear to be Sarah. Chris and ‘Sarah’ begin to get physical until the real Sarah interrupts, whereupon things turn deadly. 

“The only way you know how to treat women is by treating them like whores,” Nancy roars, the tips of her black boots scraping along the floor as she edges towards Chris, bug-eyed, electrified, but speaking the truth. “You’re the whore – and that’s going to stop.”

Chris’s body flies through the air, a window shatters, revellers scream. In the space of a second, our noxious Romeo is dead.

~

Chris’s demise irreparably fractures the group, isolating Sarah who believes things have gone too far and consolidating the bond between the other three with Nancy reinstated as leader. By rejecting her sisters, Sarah risks death, as Nancy reminds her – a warning which marks the beginning of the final face-off between the ‘good’ Sarah and the ‘bad’ Nancy. Throughout the film, Sarah’s natural femininity has been contrasted against Nancy’s supposedly unnatural femininity, with all its rage, bile and violence.

The finale brings this contrast to a depressing (if unsurprising) conclusion: Nancy, who had so much to be righteously angry about, who became corrupted by the power she longed for in the face of a world which refused to grant her any, is lying in a straightjacket speaking hysterical gibberish into the camera as a nurse sedates her. 

The triumphant Sarah, on the other hand, is shown in the driveway of her lovely home, picking through bags of shopping in the back of her father’s car, pretty as a proverbial peach. For someone who wept over the death of her attacker, she seems oddly nonplussed by the catastrophic demise of her friendships.

In the same scene, Bonnie and Rochelle visit Sarah supposedly to apologise, but in truth they are checking if she still has her powers. Girls are duplicitous like that, you see. As with witches, you just can’t trust them. Sarah sends them away with a final warning. “Be careful. You don’t want to end up like Nancy.”

These words have application far beyond the rattled expressions of Rochelle and Bonnie as they scuttle off after nearly being crushed by a branch Sarah made to fall from a tree and land near their heads. None of us want to end up like Nancy; abandoned, alone, undone by our rage. And yet we live in a world so ravaged with bullshit, unfairness and discrimination that rage is hardly an illogical response.  Sometimes, often, it seems like the only response.

The Craft presents female anger and power-lust as aberrations, destined to ruin women who dare seek them. What I loved about the film as a fifteen-year-old – sisterhood, strength, magic – are the very things I now see the story exalts only to ruthlessly undermine. In the end, it is Sarah alone, the good girl, who retains her powers. She has emerged victorious, the archetypal Queen Bee. This conclusion relies on lazy ‘natural’ ideas of how women are – bitchy, competitive and so forth – rather than exploring this type of behaviour as a manifestation of how young women are socialised to be in a world that has very specific ideas about what is and is not permissible.

For a film that boldly proclaims its support for female weirdos, The Craft’s resolution is disappointing, gutless even, as Nancy might hiss. Despite its potential and undeniable allure, the film belongs in the vast pantheon of female-centred entertainment that dances with subversion, only to reject it for good old fashioned feminine values, leaving little room for viewers like me, who want to be a woman – just not like that.

Mary McGill is a writer, journalist, contributor and rabble-rouser. She was recently awarded a Hardiman Scholarship for her research into gender performativity in the selfie phenomenon.  She blogs here and tweets at @missmarymcgill

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