by Issa Perez de Tagle
This generation’s cinematic images of supernatural beings have certainly evolved since the days of their caricature predecessors. Vampires, for example, are no longer like Nosferatu with his billowing cloak, distorted features, and undeniable thirst for blood and pain. Now, they are depicted as brooding, conflicted creatures that get butterflies in their stomachs, crave normalcy, and, at times, shimmer in the sunlight. Werewolves have also radically changed from the days of Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man or even Jack Nicholson’s Wolf. They are now beautifully tanned teenage boys with ridiculous sets of abs. It would make sense then that witches, who share much of their mythological territory with these creatures, would also undergo a similar revamp.
Perhaps the first time any of us encountered a witch would be in our story books and the Disney films that adapted them. They were usually fearsome queens who had some major attention issues. If you looked better than them or forgot to invite them to a party, that was it: you were cursed to eternal slumber. You have to give these ladies points for being hardcore bitches through and through. They were so evil that parents even used them to scare their children into eating their vegetables.
My personal favorite from this brood would have to be Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty. I’m not going to lie: she totally gave me nightmares when I was three. There was just such a delicious vindictiveness to her character that no other Disney villain has quite measured up to. The voice work of Eleanor Audley was so flawless and the animation was so perfect that if there ever were a witch who could kill just by staring at you, I’d put my money on her.
Another enduring witch stereotype comes from the largely successful 30s film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West single-handedly changed the way witches looked for decades of Halloweens that followed. Her trademark green skin, pointed black wardrobe, and menacing cackle helped create such an iconic character, which inspired a book and a Broadway musical that were written almost 70 years later.
But because witches back then were just supposed to be bad, they didn’t need exposition to tell us why they did what they did. They were simply a key element of any fairytale to oppress the pure-hearted princess or the hapless traveler for no apparent reason but because they could and the story needed conflict.
There was, however, a more comical portrayal of the silver screen spell-caster; one I like to call the “house witch.” She’s basically your average struggling Stepford wife with a special bag of tricks to keep things under control. Probably its most popular incarnation was Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha in the 60s sitcom Bewitched. (Nicole Kidman took on the role for the 2005 film adaptation).
I also fondly remember the 1942 romantic comedy I Married a Witch, starring the gorgeous Veronica Lake. Her character Jennifer is burned at the stake by the pilgrim Wooley family. In return, she curses them so that all the men from their line would marry the wrong woman and be miserable. (Because, of course, the worst thing in the world is to have a poor marriage, right?) Things change, however, when Jennifer is reincarnated only to fall in love with the latest Wooley descendent played by Fredric March.
It wasn’t until the 80s that witches got a little more exciting. They acquired something very vital to their persona: sexuality. The first film that comes to mind is The Witches of Eastwick. Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher, play three strong vixens, who are seduced by the devil and end up forming some sort of polygamous Mormon household. All women use their powers according to his bidding. That is, until the ladies decide to turn the tables.
Then of course there’s the cult classic Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, where Los Angeles TV horror hostess Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) quits her job after being sexually harassed by the station’s owner. She inherits a very special recipe book from her late Aunt Morgana before moving to Fallwell, Massachusetts. There, plentiful laughs and mishaps occur as the sexy and brazen Elvira creates an instant uproar among the town’s repressed teenagers and conservative citizen after she discovers that her aunt’s book is more than what it appears.
But possibly the most drastic change to the Wiccan image came from the 90s. Courtesy of 1996’s The Craft and 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, witches gained a disturbing sense of dark realism. It was almost as if that girl who wore too much black lipstick in English Lit class was really putting hexes on people or that the abandoned house down the road wasn’t all that abandoned. The idea of witches no longer just belonged in story books and whimsical movies. They felt real. They became real. They were now part of our society, and we had better not piss them off.
However, my favorite incarnation belongs in the 2000s, thanks to one J.K. Rowling. With her books on the big screen, she was able to highlight what fascinates us the most about these gifted people. She was able to take magic—like the ability to move objects or to fly—and spin a story so fantastic yet so relatable that it revitalized literature, cinema, and witch lore in the most phenomenal of ways. The term witch is no longer an insult hurled at you by a bully at school; now it can mean sexy, fierce, or just downright awesome.
Which witch are you?