Zoë Coleman: A Short History of Witches in Pop Culture

A coven is a gathering or community of witches.

In the canon of art history, with the invention of the printing press in Europe (1450), brutal, ugly images of witches were used to spread misogynistic imagery of women. This is particularly apparent at the height of puritanical hysteria during the Salem witch trials. Women learned to look among themselves for community. By the nineteenth-century, the Pre-Raphaelites were bewitched by the idea of these women, on the fringes of society, like the fallen women they used for their models. Their paintings lent a new sensuality and sexuality to depictions of witches.

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886
The Magic Circle, (1886), John William Waterhouse,

The witch in popular print media became a creature of fairytales, something that surfaced at Halloween, using the familiar imagery of a woman with a black pointed hat and cloak. With the medium of cinema, and restricted by the rigid Hays Code, Hollywood seized upon the ‘otherness’ of the witch, as something alluring, and a little camp, but ultimately as something that could be controlled.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Victoria Lake in I Married a Witch (1942)
Veronica Lake in I Married a Witch (1942)

From the mid-century onward in mainstream media, the witch became a popular trope for romantic comedies like Bewitched (1964-72), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), and teen dramas including Teen Witch (1987), The Craft (1996) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003). These women harness their supernatural powers to achieve a sort of balance of apparent ‘normalcy’ in their lives – using it to complete household tasks, resolve familial issues or to make them fit in at school.

With power comes responsibility, and relationships can become volatile – their supernatural responsibility acts as a metaphor for the challenges facing a young woman coming of age in a complicated and confusing world. Even if you are endowed with magic powers, it’s an added complication instead of an instant magic solution. You have to deal with everything being a teenager brings: mean girls, school, exams, and trying to conceal your secret from your close friends, when you most need their support.

Sometimes supernatural abilities can make matters of the heart (and friendship) more complicated. In The Witches of Eastwick, three women (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) living in the small New England town of Eastwick, united by the loss of the men in their lives, form a coven. As yet unaware that they are witches, they meet weekly and talk about topics the career women of the eighties are supposed to talk about (sex and dating, duh). The unity of the coven is temporarily disbanded when a grinning warlock in the devilish form of Jack Nicholson comes along and seduces each of them. The coven resumes its support structure once they cop on to his game.

There’s a great scene though where Jack Nicholson’s angry warlock realises his game is up:

“Men are such cocksuckers aren’t they? You don’t have to answer that. It’s true. They’re scared. Their dicks get limp when confronted by a woman of obvious power and what do they do about it? Call them witches, burn them, torture them, until every woman is afraid. Afraid of herself… afraid of men… and all for what? Fear of losing their hard-on.”

The Crucible, released in the same year as The Craft (1996), could be a puritanical Mean Girls (2004). Set in the theocratic town of Salem, Winona Ryder plays the central character Abigail, a young woman, whom upon being jilted by her married lover (a brooding Daniel Day Lewis), seeks revenge by using the closeness of the coven to her own manipulative ends. Abigail manipulates the young women of Salem, and by extension, the wider community of the town, into falsely accusing John Proctor’s wife, and the older women of the town of practising witchcraft. Their fits of hysteria strike fear into the male elders of the town. Arthur Miller’s play, originally published in 1953, is a partially fictionalised account of the infamous Salem witch trials.

The Crucible was intended as a commentary on the repressive McCarthyism of 1950s America. This was the first screen adaption of the play and like the text, using hysteria and witchcraft as central themes, it challenges the belief systems of a patriarchal society. Both the film and text appears to be a commentary on how the oppressive heteronormative structures of a white capitalist society to dictate how we treat and think of other women, as a consequence it may tear female bonds apart irrevocably. This is evident in the advertising industry, a visible product of a patriarchal system, from the 1950s onward. Despite the seventeenth-century setting of The Crucible, its contemporary appeal owes much to Winona’s performance and her popularity as the “it girl” of the early decade.

Indeed, sex appeal and the supernatural appear to be intimate bedfellows. In the nineties, the biggest actresses of the decade depicted some of the sassiest onscreen witches we’d seen yet – Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic (1996), Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus (1993), and Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan and Holly Marie Combs as the Halliwell sisters of Charmed (1998-2006).

The unconventionality of the coven permits more diverse relationships to be expressed onscreen – Willow and Tara’s relationship in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was one of the first queer pairings I’d seen on mainstream television. Willow Rosenberg put up with most of the bullshit that nerdy, wallflower girls had to tolerate in high school with the added challenges of getting on with the business of living in a small town that just happens to be on top of the Hellmouth. Willow’s high school years were a little rocky (to say the least) – there was her unrequited love for her childhood best friend Xander, then her first boyfriend turned out to be a werewolf, who would later cheat on her with another werewolf. What a blessing then, when bookish Willow ‘discovered’ witchcraft, the Scooby Gang survived high school (just about), then college came along, and with it, fellow witch Tara came into her life.

Much of twentieth-century pop culture has romanticised the coven for generations of young women and teenage girls, which is no bad thing, as they are a positive affirmation of how female friendships should be – mutually supportive, (mostly) non-judgmental, and the freedom to be yourself. I particularly love the tongue-in-cheek happy ending of Practical Magic, where the sisters dress up in capes and pointed hats, frequently associated with the stereotypical image of the witch:

The screen’s fascination with the witches’ coven endures – American Horror Story: Coven, Witches of East End, and The Falling are some recent examples. The closeness of the coven acts as a metaphor for burgeoning womanhood, young women discovering the power (and perils) of their femininity, coming of age and learning to cope with the hostility of the world outside. Many of these young witches are ill at ease with their powers, uncertain how to control and utilise their powers in a modern world, where there are rules of ‘normalcy’ to play by.

What does a coven mean to you? For me, the term ‘Coven’ conjures up an image of a strong and intimate community. It is a term I have in recent years used affectionately to describe certain close groups of friends, particularly ones I have met through social media who consume the same media, read the same websites and share similar opinions. In popular culture, the coven has been utilised to reflect the anxieties of the modern age. Now with the magic of the internet, our individual voices count among the communities we’ve made. The Internet has made our communities more connected than ever. Also, they’re more diverse. With this, we have become more aware of our privilege and the necessity of being an ally.  The virtual communities we have are our own media, where we gather to plot and to create a strong community.

Zoë Coleman is an events and programming professional. She tweets at @acertainsmile.

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