Film Commentary: Witches are the Rage

Pop culture visions of witches and witchcraft are growing, signs that a looming age of superstition and scapegoating is on the way.

Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Witch."

Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Witch.”

By Peg Aloi

Please forgive the double entendre in the title, given all  the disturbing imagery of this sort we’ve seen during this year’s presidential election campaign. The “woman as witch” trope has permeated popular media for decades, but the backlash to Donald Trump’s “nasty woman” comment directed at rival Hillary Clinton during the presidential debates prompted many women to double down and lovingly embrace  the characterization. Author Leo Braudy, in his fascinating new book Haunted (Yale University Press), points out that the witchcraft hysteria in Europe largely coincided with the religious and political conflicts between Catholic and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Initially, accusations of “crone,” “hag,” and “witch” were intended to be insulting; the liberal reclamation of the word “witch” began in the 1960s in the midst of the occult revival and the burgeoning new spiritual movement known as neo-paganism. The feminist movement eventually co-opted it. The stereotypical portrayal of witches in movies and TV often defaults to the original meaning: the mean-spirited old loner in the woods, the devil-worshipping harpy, or the wily seductress waiting in the shadows to wreak chaos.


Recent film offerings have dabbled in all three of these personae. First, we’ve had Blair Witch (slyly titled The Woods when it premiered at Comic-Con), a tired retread of the brilliant original The Blair Witch Project, which since its 1999 incendiary debut has inspired a lackluster franchise. The re-make offers a spooky figure who is unseen and yet seems to curse, with confusion and violent urges, all those who trespass into her forest to come looking for her. Then there is The Witch, Robert Eggers’ impressive debut, a stunningly produced historical drama that left some horror fans cold but garnered rave reviews. This film follows a Colonial family who blames their troubles on witchcraft, specifically the power an old black goat wields over an impressionable teenage girl and her bratty twin siblings. The film’s subtle yet powerful exploration of witch stereotypes is grounded in an authentic narrative that slowly turns gruesome and visceral. It is one of the best films of the year.

Finally there’s Anna Biller’s hot new release The Love Witch (opening in Boston on November 18th at the Kendall Square Cinema; watch for my review here this weekend), which offers an erotic, satirical take on the sexploitation and horror films of the 1970s. The lead character is an alluring sex kitten who uses sex magic and witchcraft to attract the man of her dreams, all the while creating chaos in her life  and in the lives of others. The film pays clever moments of homage to such iconic feminist films as The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Accused (1989); self-conscious reminders that filmmaker (Anna Biller, writer, director and editor) is crafting, among other things, a commentary on male fantasy and female empowerment. The film provides insider details about the workings of a real witch coven, which may cause some controversy with real witches (although I loved every minute of it). I spoke with the director about her intentions regarding the main character and the other witch characters. “For me, the witch is a really interesting figure, because she embodies all of the stereotypes and contradictions of female consciousness,” Biller said on the phone. “Female witches are a projection of the weird male fantasies of what is evil in women; so she becomes a scapegoat or a container of what men want. I wanted to make realistic characters but also use psychology to explore these fantasies and misunderstandings of what witches are.”

A scene from "The Sisterhood of the Night."

A scene from “The Sisterhood of the Night.”

I want to give a brief mention of a fourth example: that of the innocent adolescent whose exploration of her identity and power brings accusations of witchcraft. The world of social media offers a harrowing stage on which scenes of witchery can be played out. A subtle and worthy example is The Sisterhood of Night, based upon a short story by Stephen Millhauser. It’s a stunning adaptation, given the original story had no dialogue (nor any mention of social media), and boasts an excellent cast.

Witches are also lighting up our TV screens: American Horror Story devoted an entire season to them called Coven (it had flashes of brilliance but was extremely uneven). The recent season Roanoke (which had its finale last night) also had a number of references to witch texts, specifically The Blair Witch Project and The Witch (the show does tend to cannibalize other TV shows and movies, as it did with Freakshow, emulating the mise en scene of Daniel Knauf’s HBO series Carnivále). Jenji Kohan (creator of Weeds and Orange is the New Black) is planning a new series about the Salem Witch Trials. It’s beyond the scope of this article to trace all of the popular media expressions of witches and witchcraft, but, given our nation’s urgent need for escapism, and a looming age of superstition and scapegoating that seems poised to descend in a couple of months, we may be seeing a whole lot more of them. Watch this space.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for called The Witching Hour

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