Witch Please: The Resurrection Of Witchcraft In Popular Culture
From 'Sabrina' to 'Charmed': witches are all the rage in 2018.
From The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to Suspiria, the witch is back and she’s not riding away on her broomstick anytime soon.
Once upon a time, there was an asshole sitting in the basement office of a film studio/publisher/television company who decided that a) there were such things as trends and b) they come in seasons.
In the post-Twilight world of 2008, there were countless hot takes about how ‘vampire season is back, baby’ (I may have added the baby). True Blood was the hottest show on television and with The Vampire Diaries racing into production, books like Vampire Academy and The Morganville Vampires were sucking up the best-seller charts, while every film studio was trying to expedite their vampire related property whether they were great (Byzantium, Only Lovers Left Alive) or not-so-great (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant).
And then … vampire season was done, put back in its coffin ancd nails hammered into the lid. The weirdest thing about it? It was all bullshit. Someone had already cried ‘VAMPIRE SEASON’ back in the nineties when Interview With The Vampire hit big alongside the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series of novels: that’s before we even dip into Buffy, Blade, Near Dark and so on. Earlier in the century, it had hit again with German Expressionist horror film Nosferatu in 1922 and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula arriving a few years later as part of the Universal monster movies.
The fake seasons are bullshit.
Yet the perception of them is important because it means stories fitting within that narrow trend bracket have an opportune window of time when it’s likely they’ll be greenlit. The unexpected success of The Craft in 1996 shaped a generation of girls who suddenly switched out games of spin the bottle at sleepovers for light as a feather, stiff as a board. Friendship bracelets were replaced with studded chokers and the first, proper, mainstream ‘witch season’ began off the back of Witches Of Eastwick in 1987, Roald Dahl’s The Witches in 1990, Hocus Pocus in 1993, Archie Comics spin-off Sabrina The Teenage Witch from 1996 onwards, Practical Magic and midnight margarita time in 1998 and culminating in Charmed, which ran from 1998 to 2006.
Things fell somewhat quiet after that: The Covenant – aka boy Craft — tried in 2006 and CW’s teen witch show The Secret Circle failed in 2011. It came a little too early. Yet those trend predictors are now claiming we’re heading back deep into ‘witch season’ again.
The Season Of The Witch
The signs were all there: Lifetime series Witches Of East End only lasted a season in 2013, but Hallmark had more success (which is a weird sentence to write). Their 2008 family-friendly rom-com The Good Witch snowballed into seven movies in as many years, cumulating with a TV series that has run four seasons and counting.
In 2014, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s eight-issue series — Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina — was set under the Archie Horror umbrella and earned a cult audience. So much so that we’ve also just gotten a much-hyped Netflix original series based on it.
Zelda at it again. pic.twitter.com/8AGFBXBAaN
— Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (@sabrinanetflix) October 17, 2018
“It seems the witch is finally getting her time in the sun, which is a nice gentle burn compared to the alternative,” says Australian author Nikki McWatters.
She’s not particularly surprised by the upswing in witch content. “We seem to be coming into a really ramped-up, witchy revival now and I put that down to the sudden swell and surge of female empowerment in the current social climate. Just like we arm-wrestled the term ‘slut’ into something of our own, to paint on our breasts and be proud of, ‘witch’ is becoming a term, a badge of honour, that we no longer shy away from.
In claiming the ‘witch’ it becomes ours to flaunt and fly with … As a term of abuse, it loses it’s power if we reclaim it as our crown.”
A Real American Horror Story
Some have attributed it to the lead-up to the ill-fated 2016 US Presidential Election, where Donald Trump and his supporters frequently used ‘witch’ as a slur against Hillary Clinton.
Women not only embraced this and flipped it, but Broad City dedicated a whole episode in 2017 to celebrating some of society’s most bad-ass witches including Clinton but also the likes of Rihanna, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama.
For this writer, witches have been a lifelong obsession that hasn’t ebbed or flowed: it has been a consistent fascination. It was a combination of Dario Argento’s twisted 1977 horror film Suspiria and The Craft intersecting in my pop culture brain that led to a seven-year-old happily casting spells in the backyard. My Ken dolls were used as vessels for boys I didn’t like who had been mean to either myself or my friends, with various curses placed on them in order to relieve a sense of anger and injustice. It led to witch tattoos, witch clothing, writing witch books and obsessing over all forms of witches in pop culture.
It’s an obsession that fuelled New York Times best-selling comic book artist and creator Nicola Scott in her career as well, with the Sydney-based artist creating her own world of witchcraft was also a dream she spent her whole career working towards.
“I’ve been fascinated by witchcraft and the figure of the witch since I was a kid,” says Scott, whose witch procedural Black Magick with Greg Rucka is currently being developed for television. “When the opportunity came along to create our own universe and lore it was imperative to me that we ground everything in real, studied ritual. If I’d grown up with any spiritual discipline I would definitely be an actively practising witch. With Black Magick I was able to project my dreams and wishes and magical attitudes onto our characters, Rowan, Alex, their families and covens.”
A key part of this ‘witch season’ and making sure it endures long after the marketability of a trend, is intersectionality.
The usually divisive American Horror Story had a universally beloved third season with Coven, which focused entirely on witches in 2011, featuring the (most likely) immortal Angela Bassett as one of the key characters, Marie Laveau. It’s one of the rare occasions a woman of colour has been depicted as a witch in mainstream pop culture, with Rachel True in The Craft and real-life twins Tia Mowry-Hardrict and Tamera Mowry-Housley in Twitches being notable exceptions. The Charmed reboot features three Latina women as the sisters at the centre of the story.
One of the largest online hubs for modern, practising witches is The Hood Witch, run by Bri Luna, which has cultivated a dedicated following by being a safe space online and offering an alternative to the perceived Caucasian norm.
“When I initially launched The Hood Witch, this was roughly about five years ago, I wanted to create a safe space where our readers could come and find information that was accessible,” said Luna on an episode of The Witch Wave podcast. “I feel like there’s a lot of misconceptions when it comes to witchcraft and spirituality and I wanted to provide reliable information for people who were maybe just getting started on their path … I wanted to take these very abstract concepts and make them digestible and modern and interesting.”
The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina
The Witch, Neon Demon and The Last Witch Hunter are just a handful of witch movies that have been released in the last few years.
There’s also the exquisite remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria with Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Chloe Grace Moretz that drops early November and is sure to baffle some audiences while delighting others. There’s A Discovery Of Witches brooding its way through the first season in the UK at the moment, meanwhile Beyonce is being accused of ‘extreme witchcraft’ by a former drummer, Sephora wants to sell beginner witch kits and there’s no shortage of witch podcasts, witch comic books (like Spell On Wheels), witch novels and witch inspired fashion brands such as Killstar Clothing.
The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina has the best opening credits of any show I’ve ever seen and that might be because they feel like they were made specifically for me. Praise Satan.
— Maria Lewis (✈️on holiday✈️) (@moviemazz) October 14, 2018
Then there’s the Sabrina of it all, with the nineties version of talking cats and Bewitched-esque magic feeling worlds apart from the occult heavy — and at times genuinely terrifying — 2018 riff.
The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina is much more Buffy than it is Riverdale, which is what the target audience is after: they want a show with fangs rather than frills. They want a show where a young woman is empowered to take on a patriarchal supernatural organisation, and win. In a post #MeToo world where it’s still rare for men to suffer actual consequences for their many abuses of women, we’re ready to “praise Satan”.
“I think there has been a collective memory of the burning times since the middle-ages and this has been reflected in pop culture, fuelling our interest in witches and witchcraft,” says McWatters. “I think there’s a little bit of witch in all of us.”
Maria Lewis is a journalist, screenwriter and author of The Witch Who Courted Death and several other novels.