Watch Out for the Witch Flick

A guide to the positive, negative, and complicated depictions of women as witches in movies, warts and all

Perhaps the most popular kind of Halloween movie is the classic witch flick. From the green-skinned warty ladies on broomsticks to earth-loving goddesses to housewives to students, the witch has cast her spell on popular culture. But while everyone enjoys a solid peanut butter cup-fueled Hocus Pocus viewing from time to time, witchy characters can get a little scary in terms of what they say about how we view women in general, without the bubbling cauldrons and pointy hats. Here is a handy guide to the positive, negative, and complicated depictions of women in some of the most popular witch films and TV shows of the past two decades.

The Sanderson Sisters, Hocus Pocus (1993)

A fun, goofy Halloween movie starring some seriously talented ladies, Hocus Pocus is a surefire favorite of the ‘90s kid. But behind the warm and fuzzy nostalgia it inspires, there’s a tried and true trope that deserves deconstruction.

The Sanderson sisters (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy) are prime examples of the prototypical vain sorceress. A pop culture staple (Snow White, “American Horror Story: Coven”, the Little Mermaid etc.), this particular type of witch is driven purely by her desire to be young and beautiful. She is jealous of the youthful, innocent heroine and has a fierce need to suck out her soul to feed her own vanity. This character, of course, stems from society’s valuing women only for their beauty, and a troublesome tendency to deem them useless once they age.

Hocus Pocus is still a great family film, but perhaps it’s time for modern media makers to lose the tired trope and give villainous witches something more important than youthful good looks to wreak havoc about.

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter (2001-2011)

Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger is by far one of the most positive depictions of a young female witch (and Watson’s no slouch in real life, either). J. K. Rowling’s courageous bookworm has inspired thousands of women to be brave, stand up for themselves, and aim as high as possible.

As a half-blood, Hermione is a minority in the wizarding world and the outspoken brainiac often has to fight for her rights. She battles the bad guys as fiercely as her male counterparts and is never the helpless princess locked in the tower. Instead, she is the dragon slayer rescuing her male friends from countless terrifying situations.

Additionally, according to Emma Watson, Hermione decided to keep her own name after wedding Ron Weasely. We salute you, Ms. Granger.

Sarah, Rochelle, Nancy, and Bonnie, The Craft (1996)

The witches of The Craft are certainly not naïve. They are not virginal, they are not pure, and they are not evil, either. These complicated characters manage to come across as genuine people with real world problems to deal with and that alone is a win for this teen goth cult film.

Sarah, Rochelle, Nancy, and Bonnie confront domestic abuse, date rape, slut shaming, racism, low self-esteem, and much more throughout the plot of this twisted film. Yet these gifted outsiders have a magic inside of them that transcends their troubles. It’s an empowering film—for women, for outcasts, for weirdos—that places gifted women in a complicated story line refreshingly free of romance.

Conversely, The Craft fails to guide its main characters towards positive change. Instead it pits covens against one another and makes the god that they worship a “He.” Nancy, a trailer park outcast with an abusive stepfather, is quickly cast as the Hollywood standby “crazy girl,” pushing a lothario schoolmate who rejects her out a window and growing jealous of her “prettier” coven-mate Sarah.

The Craft puts social outcasts front and center with well-rounded, relatable main characters, and for that it is still worthy of a watch. It’s just a shame that it had to succumb to girl-on-girl hate for a plot.

\nAmerican Horror Story: Coven (2013-2014)

Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” TV anthology includes several sex-positive, independent, and bold female characters who carry the weight of the show and sing defiant, patriarchy-smashing renditions of “You Don’t Own Me.”

That said, AHS’ “Coven” season left something to be desired, female-empowerment wise. While viewers are thrown a nod or 12 to the dangers of misogyny via the all-male witch hunter characters, confronted with date rape and its consequences (some would say too graphically), given a moderate amount of sisterhood, and blessed with Stevie Nicks, “Coven” also features the lame “vain sorceress” character in Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode. Additionally, as in The Craft, we get a group of intelligent, powerful women together only to pit them against one another. (Granted they end up “getting along” in final few minutes the finale.)

On the other hand, there’s Zoe, a young girl whose vagina kills any man she sleeps with, furthering the women-who-have-sex-are-evil stereotype. Yet, Zoe is able to harness her sexuality and tame its murderous tendencies by the end of the season, reclaiming her body and becoming the sex-positive woman she was meant to be all along. While Murphy relies on some terrible tropes in “Coven,” he is sometimes able to turn things around and use these all-too-common devices as meta-commentary on their problematic nature.

Now, go off, enjoy your witchy films, and eat a lot of candy.