Witches come across as a type of woman who is mightily pissed off. There is good reason for this. According to writer and historian Ellen Castelow, “Witchcraft was made a capital offence in Britain in 1563, although it was deemed heresy and denounced as such by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484. From 1484 until around 1750 some 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe.” To my mind, this is 200,000 reasons to be mightily pissed off.
In our enlightened modern times it’s easy to find the notion of diabolical witches as something risible. Some argue that the persecution of witches was one facet of a patriarchal hegemony, exercising pernicious control over wise women within a community. But, although we now associate witchcraft with the cruelty and inequity of bygone days, it remains a persistent trope in horror fiction.
The concept of the witch is repeatedly exploited in films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Harry Potter movies (2001 – 2011).
In the first of these the Blair Witch remains unseen throughout the story as aspects of her gruesome legend are revealed to the audience. Her relationship with witchcraft is tenuous and never fully explained but we come away from the film knowing she is certainly diabolical and clearly in possession of supernatural powers. She has made eerie things move in the dark. She has changed the landscape for lost travellers. And she has got amateur filmmakers to stand in the naughty corner of an abandoned haunted house.
The Wicked Witch of the West, Elpheba as she is known to those who’ve watched Wicked (1995), was the witch at the centre of the Wizard of Oz. She gave us the tropes of green skin, a pointy hat, and a penchant for dressing like a goth. Her supernatural powers were limited to broomstick flying, teleporting, spying on enemies (by using a magic ball), and controlling flying monkeys. However, one of the things we note about the Wicked Witch of the West is that she’s a bit shit. Her reason for wanting to get Dorothy is because Dorothy is wearing a pair of shoes that the witch wants. Even shittier: her mortal weakness is water. Perhaps it’s because I live in the pampered luxury of the 21st Century but, if I had a condition where exposure to water threatened my mortality, I’d be walking around in a diving suit 24/7.
Hermione, the final witch in the list above, is the genuine hero of each of the Harry Potter films. Without Hermione Harry would have died in the first book. Throughout the series Hermione is the resourceful one who uses academic research to get answers, makes intelligent deductions to identify problems and potential solutions, and generally seems to accomplish what Harry and Ron would want to do, if they weren’t fannying around on the quidditch pitch.
Looking at these three approaches to the witch in contemporary fiction, we can see that the attitude toward intelligent women with autonomy is constantly changing. The earliest of these, The Wizard of Oz, was a reminder that women with intelligence and authority are not to be trusted. Admittedly, Glinda, the Good Witch, has similar powers to Elpheba, but Glinda can’t really be described as ‘good’. Glinda was the one who put the dead woman’s shoes on Dorothy’s feet, making her a target for Elpheba’s revenge. Additionally, Glinda’s help was so bloody cryptic it was practically redundant. Rather than telling Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road that leads to the charlatan running Oz, a teleportation spell taking her back to Kansas would have been far more useful. Consequently, the Wicked Witch of the West in the film is portrayed as a psychotic bitch who wants to steal shoes and murder a teenage girl who hangs around with quirky strangers.
The Blair Witch is the most pernicious of these three. She has a history that involves torture, murder and relatively unsympathetic attitudes toward the local residents of Blair. She is thought to have done unspeakable things to children and she continues doing unspeakable things to amateur filmmakers as the story progresses. Once again, we watch this and see women being presented as evil. Even the ‘good’ female character in the story is shown to us as a single-minded idiot who puts the importance of her vanity project ahead of the safety of the rest of her filmmaking team.
It’s only when we get to Hermione in the Harry Potter stories that we start to see some improvement in the way witches are shown on the big screen. I appreciate that Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sabrina Spellman in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, both showed positive images of witches as healthily contributing members of society (OK – Willow got a little bit murdery, but there were reasons). However, Willow and Sabrina were both on TV rather than the big screen.
And, whilst Hermione shows us that witches can be powerful forces to represent good, and are capable of demonstrating laudable and heroic qualities, we’re still left with the strong impression that, regardless of how competent a witch is, she’s never going to achieve the recognition of her male counterpart.
It’s no wonder these witches always seem to be so mightily pissed.