By: Frances Molina
With plenty of blood, naked women, and Puritanical hysteria, The VVitch did more to disturb and delight me than any film I’ve seen in a long time. The movie centers on a Puritan family exiled from their colony, living in the wilderness and on the edge of oblivion. Until the very last minutes of the film, the audience is forced to wrestle with a disquieting ambiguity: is there really a witch – or witches – living in the woods and preying on these people? Or is the family simply deteriorating into madness and resorting to fierce suspicion and patriarchal violence in order to survive?
According to the film’s ending credit sequence, the story of The VVitch was inspired by a collection of different historical accounts and American folk tales. Although the events of the film predate the infamous Salem Witch Trials, it’s interesting to note how the fears of the central family mirrored the emotional experiences of hundreds of actual colonial Americans. Experiences of struggle, death, and sickness only reinforced popular Puritanical ideas about the nature of God, the constant threat of evil, and the fear of divergent individuals. This fear focused especially on women who challenged or disobeyed social and religious expectations.
These ideas were largely what motivated the fear and hatred of witches in early European and American history. Thousands of accused women were burned alive from the 14th to 17th century. The existence of witches – whether they were lay healers in the community or willful, political women or just uneducated innocents caught in the crossfire – represented a political, religious, and sexual threat to the Church and the State.
But the charge of witchcraft was more than just an accusation of spiritual infidelity to God; it was a misogynistic statement of oppression. Women who were accused of witchcraft were usually also accused of sexual crimes, political organizing, and practicing medicine. A lower class woman who operated with any level of autonomy or indifference to the laws of Church and State was likely to be accused and executed.
In the wake of the 17th century, the mania would quiet down and restitutions would even be made to the families destroyed by murder and false accusations. However, the hyper-religious and misogynistic ideologies that inspired the hunt and hundreds of executions would continue to haunt American history. The nation’s Puritan ancestry had established a hierarchy that placed women not much higher than male children in status. The age-old binary also aligned them with Eve, the weak woman who caused the fall of mankind. As such, women in spirit, mind, and body remained suspect.
However, the hyper-religious and misogynistic ideologies that inspired the hunt and hundreds of executions would continue to haunt American history.
So when did the culture see a change? When did witches become incorporated into pop culture as fearless, sexy, autonomous individuals? When did witchcraft transform from a damning allegation into a deeply spiritual religious movement practiced by both men and women all over the world?
To continue my discussion of witches in film, I believe this transition into the mainstream can be traced through film and cultural context. Over the last 80 years, witches have had all different kinds of faces.
In the 60s and 70s, there were simply good and bad witches. The bad were evil, demonic, and ambitious in their pursuit to possess and destroy younger, innocent women (Black Sunday and Suspiria). The good were chipper, modern women who mostly used their powers to keep house and find a man (Bewitched and Bell, Book, and Candle). In the 80s and 90s, movies like The Witches and Hocus Pocus featured witches that were almost clownish in their presentation, feared only by younger children. Meanwhile, The Craft and The Witches of Eastwick established the witch as the hero of her own story. These films featured women who were almost ordinary (high school students, single mothers, artists, loners, etc.), who were able to claim and exercise their powers both as individuals and as sisters in a coven. Similarly, television shows like Charmed and American Horror Story reached a younger audience and made witches into young women who were sexy and chic.
Through popular American media, we’ve seen idea of the witch in evolution. Slowly –and notably in conjunction with two of the major modern women’s movements – the witch has transformed. No longer the alleged wife of Satan, she became a semi-serious caricature, and then a complex individual that is sometimes good, sometimes evil, but undeniably powerful.
So where are all the real witches? The Wiccans and the pagans? If they’ve been ushered into the mainstream and assimilated into popular American consciousness, why aren’t witches and Wiccans themselves more visible?
Despite the benefits of newer, more positive representation, these films only manufacture an image that is false and distorted; the performance of this image, whatever the message or intention, is political. This kind of media often ignores and minimizes the spiritual realities of many actual self-proclaimed wiccans and pagans for the sake of sensationalism and sex appeal. As a result, misconceptions about Wiccan and pagan practices are only replicated.
In many ways, the witch has made little progress in American history. She remains as she was before: a creature of fantasy, silenced by the majority who claim the power to define her. In order to undo this silence and suspicions that have slandered and restrained her for centuries, the witch must speak for herself.
She remains as she was before: a creature of fantasy, silenced by the majority who claim the power to define her.