Witches in popular culture

5 minute read
Like mother, like daughter: Agnes Moorehead and Elizabeth Montgomery in “Bewitched.” (© 1964, 1965, renewed 1992, 1993 CPT Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Like mother, like daughter: Agnes Moorehead and Elizabeth Montgomery in “Bewitched.” (© 1964, 1965, renewed 1992, 1993 CPT Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Never has there been a creature more reviled and misunderstood than the witch. Through the pop culture fish-eye lens, with a bit of history and reality tossed in for a soupçon of sorcery and enchantment, let’s look at how the image of the witch has changed.

We have all heard of the Salem witch trials, but Salem wasn't the only place where the seeds of terror and hatred were sown by the mere mention of the word witch. Sadly, the malicious whispering would begin, then leap from tongue to ear until neighbor was accusing neighbor, husband accusing wife, and children accusing their parents of practicing the dark arts. This flame spread across Europe and the Americas until thousands were burned on the pyre of religious bigotry and primal human panic and fear.

We have always feared what we don't know, and though our first instinct is to run, our second is to spread our terror until we can gather those of like mind to go and destroy that which causes it. Witches were drowned, burned, stabbed, crushed, and hanged, all at the word of the crowd. The Burning Times, as they are called, lasted for a long time, until fading into the shadows with the coming of the modern dawn.

Witches didn’t disappear, though; they reincarnated themselves as pop culture representations. Hollywood embraced the dichotomy of an ugly face equating to an evil soul with The Wizard of Oz in 1939. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, told Dorothy in no uncertain terms that “Only bad witches are ugly.” When we see the Wicked Witch of the West, we find this to be true, green skin, warts, and all.

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered

In the 1960s, we saw the rise of women's rights as the cry went up for equal treatment for all. A new show appeared on the air, a show that involved a headstrong witch named Samantha who defied her witchy family by falling for and marrying a mortal. Bewitched was a huge hit that spoke to its viewers on many levels. First, Samantha was a liberated woman, doing her own thing regardless of the ideals of her overbearing parents. Yet if you dig deeper, Samantha is only really a good witch when she obeys her mortal husband, Darrin, and totally forgoes the use of magic, her birthright. Her parents, as well as sundry other relatives, were dangerous witches because they practiced magic — teleporting, conjuring, cursing, and zapping their way through life. In every episode, Sam, too, would find a reason to use her magic, despite her promise to Darrin, often resulting in some sort of sitcom mayhem but eventually saving him from being fired. So really, Bewitched only seemed to be about a groovy witch who embraced personal freedom; she merely had a different type of leash.

Around the same time came a show called I Dream of Jeannie. Though the titular character is a genie rather than a witch, the show was obviously created to counteract the liberal messages that Bewitched seemed to foment. Jeannie almost always obeyed her master Tony, and the few times that she didn't, at least early on, were catastrophic. Jeannie, unlike Samantha, had no choice but to follow the rules Tony set out for her, being mystically bound by some unseen contract the moment he opened her little pink bottle and became her master. The fact that that is how she addressed him was another comment on the roles of blacks and women, suggesting that power of any sort really came from white men and that women had no power of their own that men did not grant to them.

In the ’70s, we had Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf, a Satuday morning kids show. Here again, ugly is evil and apparently stupid as well. Witchiepoo’s schemes never worked out, and she was always thwarted by a talking dragon and a young boy. I loved the show then, though it doesn’t hold up. All the witches in this era seemed to be for young tastes, perhaps because these bumbling beings would only be palatable to a child.

Image and “reality”

The 1980s and 1990s brought some great movie witches from the Sandersons of Hocus Pocus (a personal favorite) to Anjelica Huston's brilliant performance in The Witches. These two movies, though wonderful to watch, still hold to the tropes of warts and long noses. Only with the release of The Witches of Eastwick do we get a trio of beautiful, sensual, sexually liberated women who take on the Devil himself and win by giving him a taste of his own medicine. Great film and some wonderful performances.

There have been many witches in the past three decades. From Charmed, about three very powerful sister witches with an undeniable fate, which had an eight-season run, to Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who had the power to defy death itself, every TV show these days seems to have a witch on it. Just off the top of my head, these include Once Upon a Time, The Vampire Diaries, Witches of East End, American Horror Story, and Sleepy Hollow.

Perhaps the day is near when we will finally be accepted. There are so many different types of witches in pop culture these days; good and evil, ugly and beautiful, and everything in between.

Above right: Like mother, like daughters, 50 years later: Witches of East End. (Photo © 2014- Lifetime Television)

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation