A Short History of Witches on Screen

We live in particularly witchy times. And not just because it's nearing the end of October. 

Chilling Adventures Sabrina

From a widely documented rise in witch-themed fashion trends to witch-centered entertainment, with the remakes Suspira and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina both debuting just this past week, to the huge rise in practicing witches, Wicca, and neo-pagans in the U.S., witchy-ness has become kind of a big deal.

Considering the barrage of articles out there about the rising prominence of witches, on screen and off, in recent years, this article will take a stroll down memory lane to lay down the basics of how we got here, cinematically speaking. While technically the term “witch” is considered relatively gender-neutral, in popular usage it has come to mean specifically female and quite often overtly feminine magical practices and supernatural dabblings, contrasted to the masculine “wizard” or “warlock,” so that’s how it will be used here (see: Harry PotterThe House with a Clock in Its Walls).

Witches have remained eternally popular Halloween costumes and Wicca has grown quite steadily since the mid-20th century, but the prominence of witches on screen has ebbed and flowed over the past century or so. A truly cohesive and exhaustive investigation of witches in film and TV through the years would be less of an article and more of a book (and unsurprisingly, there is indeed at least one book on the subject), so what I have put together here is more of a sample platter, exploring a handful of major themes and associated works.

But first things first, a brief overview to set the stage.


The Basics

Wizard Of Oz Wicked Witch

When it comes to witches on screen, things really get going in the late 1930s with two classic films: Disney’s seminal Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the equally iconic The Wizard of Oz (1939). In the former, Disney established itself as a major player on the movie witch stage, while the latter set a standard for good witch vs. bad witch conflicts that continue to echo decades later.

Particularly when looking at American films and TV series, certain trends emerge. The peak times for witch-centric content can be seen around the late 1950s and early ’60s, in the late 1980s and ’90s, and the past five years or so. The first wave produced such titles as Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Bewitched (1964 – 1972), and was generally speaking a mix of drama and comedy. The second wave, which included titles such as The Crucible (1996), Practical Magic (1998), Charmed (1998 – 2006) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996 – 2003), kept some of the drama alive but put an emphasis on comedy with a side helping of horror. Though continuing certain trends and themes, recent on-screen witchcraft has taken a decidedly dark turn, from American Horror Story: Coven (2013 – 2014) to The Witch (2015) and even Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018 -), which, as the title suggests, is darker and edgier than the original.


The Salem Thing

The Crucible

‘The Crucible’ (1996)

Let’s just get this out there: the obsession with the Salem witch trials is a little odd. While it’s not surprising that such a gruesome tale has managed to capture our collective imagination for so long—just think of how people slow down to gawk at car wrecks—the Salem witch trials, as they are popularly remembered, never really happened. First of all, it wasn’t really one narrative so much as a wider spread hysteria that engulfed multiple villages, and more people in Andover were accused than Salem Town and Salem Village combined.

Also, while it is true that academics still debate what exactly sparked the trials—though they are pretty sure it wasn’t that people were tripping on ergot—in terms of either gore or body count, the Salem witch trials have absolutely nothing on some of the stuff that went down in Europe. Feel free to do some independent research if you like, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just say that some people got pretty creative in the most sadistic ways and leave it at that.

Still, thanks to its witchy associations, the city of Salem has become real-life Halloweentown. As the Boston Globe one put it, “Salem owns Halloween like the North Pole owns Christmas,” and Hollywood has certainly helped with that. It was actually the filming of several episodes of Bewitched in Salem in 1970 that kickstarted the city’s spooky tourism industry far more than the public memory of the 17th century witch trials.

American-set witch stories reference Salem more often than not, and while a handful of narratives treat the accused witches as targets of wrongful persecution (most notably the two film adaptations of The Crucible), most fictional recountings of Salem have depicted the accused as actual witches in possession of magical powers.

The earliest screen depiction of Salem witches on screen appears to be the 1937 romantic melodrama Maid of Salem, an almost entirely fictionalized account of a young woman caught in a whirlwind romance with an adventurer who is accused of witchcraft. Her beau then comes to her rescue, of course. The far more entertaining I Married a Witch came next in 1942, in which a witch executed in the (loosely disguised) Salem trials (Veronica Lake) curses her accuser (Fredric March) and his descendants, only for her spirit to be reincarnated (after a fashion… it’s complicated) in the present day, where she intends to torment her accuser’s direct descendant, Wallace, only to fall in love with him instead. The film became the prototypical “powerful witch marries a pleb” romantic comedy, a general formula that would continue to prove marketable in the 1958 Bell, Book and Candle and, of course, Bewitched.

Intriguingly, while a French-language adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible made it to screens in 1957 (and penned by Jean-Paul Sartre, no less), Americans didn’t get around to turning the Award-winning play into a film until 1996. That said, the wait meant we got Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor, so sometimes patience pays off.


Good Witch vs. Bad Witch

Maleficent Sleeping Beauty

‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959)

When it comes to defining what evil witches look like on screen, the vast majority of the credit should be handed to Disney, which has basically equated “evil woman” to “witch” since Snow White, with the occasional exception of a cheerfully stout fairy godmother or a sassy pixie sidekick (and, you know, Elsa from Frozen). Interestingly, while historically-set witch narratives have largely ignored historical realities, Disney’s evil witches actually resemble descriptions from many of the most influential anti-witch texts.

For example, St. Thomas Aquinas defined witches as lustful, shape-shifting women with the ability to fly who performed their magic through the help of demons. Snow White‘s Evil Queen is characterized by her lust for beauty, and therefore desirability, and has a demon familiar who lives in her mirror. Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent takes things to a whole new level with her name (and arguably her literal horns, but I digress), which is particularly ironic when viewed through a historical lens, as “malefica” was a term frequently used for the evil deeds of witches, and the more or less definitive witch-hunting bible is titled the Malleus Maleficarum. (It’s worth noting that in early modern Europe that the Malleus Maleficarum was among the most popular books around, second only to the actual Bible.)

Generally speaking, where there are good witches to be found in addition to bad witches, they usually contrast with bad witches in a very particular way: they tend to be fairer in their coloring and of a traditionally feminine, domestic nature. Think of Maleficent vs. Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, with their cake and dress-making spells, or even the final showdown between Molly Weasley and Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter series.

While the good witch/bad witch dichotomy still lives on, one popular recent trend has been reclaiming this narrative to put the “bad” witch in a starring and sympathetic role, as can be seen in the television series Once Upon a Time and the 2014 live-action Sleeping Beauty retelling Maleficent.


Witchcraft, Power, and Sexuality

love-witch

‘The Love Witch’ (2016)

In witch-centric narratives, where supernatural power is coded as being specifically feminine, it almost always takes on particular subtext. Where “wizard” narratives that focus on magical men or magical groups of both genders tend to use magic as a plot device to be deployed as needed by the author and adapted to suit a wide range of themes, witch narratives tend to have an especially sexual bent to them.

The paranoia that fueled a lot of real-life witch trials has been connected to fears of both female power and sexuality, though other factors were often involved (political turmoil, economic trouble, etc.). Admittedly, the concept of female sexuality as a power that could be wielded, especially against men, is a thread that is present in the history of witch persecutions. One particularly hysterical variant involved tales of witches stealing men’s dicks and keeping their collections in boxes or birds’ nests—and yes, there are illustrations, and they are an incredible testimony to both the power and weirdness of the human imagination. Still, historically, the scary power of female sexuality was one thread among many, and my personal feeling is that explorations of female power and female sexuality, particularly in fantastical contexts, have become conflated to an unnecessary degree.

While back in the production code days these themes had to be restricted to subtext, later films of this nature were far more overt in this regard, as can be seen in 90s titles like The Craft (1996) and recent releases such as The Witch (2015) and The Love Witch (2016). Though I have some misgivings about the frequency with which the trifecta of womanhood, sex, and power are conflated, there are plenty of others out there who disagree with me on this, and the matter is most definitely not a hill on which I intend to die. I simply bring up my own reservations to illustrate that your own mileage might vary here.


Teen Witches

The Craft

‘The Craft’ (1996)

The late 1980s and ’90s were marked by a decided uptick in on-screen witches in general, from Charmed to Hocus Pocus to Practical Magic, but the output of this era leaned heavily towards one demographic in particular: teen witches. Why? Well, in addition to popular culture’s eternal obsession with high school in spite of the general consensus that it’s a rather unpleasant life stage, fusing witchcraft with a coming of age and/or sexual awakening tale naturally feeds into that beloved womanhood-sex-power trifecta I mentioned earlier. Some teen witch narratives play up this connection more than others. Regardless, this narrative is so strong that Carrie, in spite of not officially labeling its protagonist a witch, is

Perhaps the most significant entry in the 1990s teen witch trend was the popular television show Sabrina the Teenage Witch. While The Craft proved to be a surprise box office success upon its theatrical release in 1996, even those that did not fare so well, such as the 1989 Teen Witch, have gone on to achieve cult film status.


Black Girl Magic (Is Hugely Underappreciated)

Ahs Coven Angela Bassett

Angela Bassett in ‘American Horror Story: Coven’

While Hollywood has long found Voodoo and Hoodoo fascinating enough to feature it—admittedly in hugely inaccurate forms—in films for decades, like in the 1943 horror film I Walked with a Zombie, Black witches have been largely sidelined.

Other POCs haven’t really fared any better, and are generally stuck to peripheral roles on screen even when practices featured in the narrative in question borrow heavily from non-European traditions, such as American Horror Story: Coven and Doctor Strange.

While there have been some exceptions—most notably Eve’s Bayou (1997), though admittedly the supernatural plays a supporting role in the film—witchcraft narratives, especially the more mainstream ones, remain pretty white. A case could be made for some slight signs of progress in films like the recent A Wrinkle in Time, even if Mrs. Which doesn’t necessarily self-identify as a witch, but the larger trend still unfortunately remains.

But who knows, maybe now that Hollywood has seen that audiences will show up for Black superheroes and Asian ensemble cast romantic comedies, we’ll actually see a witch of color in a starring role? (And no, the green ones do not count.)

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.