A Radical Feminist Perspective on Witchcraft Movies: Movie-makers Throw Witches and Women a Bone

This post is a re-print from my private blog. Original post dates from June of 2014.

I wanted to do something a little lighter and fun because I really feel like a dark cloud has descended ever since the May 23rd murder spree by an MRA in Santa Barbara. It seems like the menz have really been frothing at the mouth in a lot of places and more men have revealed their true natures to such an extent that it can no longer be ignored. Frankly, the fall-out from that event and some other MRA-related goings on has been downright scary. I’ve had my fill of real-life horror, but I still enjoy fictional horror, especially movies about witchcraft and magic(k).

Ever since I read about trauma-bonding and the nature of female heterosexuality, I find myself looking at a lot of things through this newly discovered lens, including some of my favorite movies about witches and witchcraft.

What I’ve noticed in a really stark way is that movie-makers (men, almost all men and the money for movie projects comes from men) occasionally throw women and witches a bone by making a movie on this subject, featuring women, however, I’ve noticed that they are very careful to channel women’s innate interest in witchcraft in certain ways that benefit men and the patriarchal system. There is almost no exception to this. In fact, I can think of only two exceptions and both of those movies were either written and directed by women or written by a man, but heavily influenced by a woman.

I can think of a few different ways to interpret the concept of women as witches in movies through the warped minds of the patriarchs who make them.  They may see portraying women as witches as a way to demonstrate their view that women are other than human beings. Or, the portrayal of women as witches by male film-makers may be a way to perpetuate the myth that women secretly run the world from the shadows. These are ideas we see clearly in many of the movies about women as witches.

But, it may be a manifestation of men’s fear of women’s very real powers, which they want to assure is always channeled into the service of men.  We see that it is usually only evil witches who use their innate powers for themselves (to be beautiful, to enslave men, to live forever, to control others, to avenge themselves against men who have harmed them) and good witches use their powers to serve men, usually a single man to whom they are married (to boost his career, to pave the way for his success in all matters, to entertain his friends, etc.).

So, we see that whenever women’s power is acknowledged, it must be channeled into the service of the patriarchal establishment. Almost all witchcraft movies revolve around men or a man. Quite a lot of them probably fail the Bechdel Test, which is a pretty low standard to begin with.

The following are some of my favorite witchcraft-themed horror movies with a description of the film and my radfem analysis. I like most of them because they portray witchcraft, whether the do it well or not, at all; this is the bone – as you will see, we rarely if ever get a full meal. These analyses do contain spoilers.

(Note: Some of these movies are available at YouTube – they may be pirated or not because some are pretty old. They’re all good movies about witches and witchcraft despite the patriarchal devices used in them.)

abc1Practical Magic (1998), starring Sandra Bullock, Diane Wiest, Stockard Channing and Nichole Kidman: Lots of women have seen this movie, so the plot is probably very familiar. There are two aunts, who dabble in people’s love lives, bringing up two young girls. There is, also, a family curse set in motion by their ancestor, Maria Owens, during the days in which men hunted women as witches far more overtly than they do today. Although, in my radical feminist analysis, this so-called curse, which decreed that any man who purported to love an Owen’s woman would meet an untimely death,  may have been more like a protective spell placed over the generations of her female descendants to keep them from falling prey to the evils of men.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the men we crossed paths with dropped dead before they got a chance to beat and rape us and make off with our money? Well, that’s what happened to Sandra Bullock’s character, Sally. Her husband was killed by a truck while crossing the street.  She should have been grateful, but instead she felt sorry for herself and wished, once again, for a  man so that she could “be seen,” as if she did not exist, as if she were invisible, without the attentions of a man – which is how women are made to feel in patriarchal society, already, and which is promoted in this film. We get the impression that “happiness” is only possible for women if they center their lives around a man. “Maybe I’ve had my happiness,” Sally writes in her sad letter to Jilly, “…there is no man.”

At the beginning of the film, the two girls had very different reactions to the horrors of heterosexual attraction.  Jilly (played by Kidman) couldn’t wait “to fall in love,” while Sally was frightened by the desperation of the woman clawing at their door in the middle of the night, begging for a spell from the aunts to “make him want me so much he can’t stand it.”

Jilly embodies the alleged wanton slut nature of witches. According to the Christian men who wrote about witches in the Miiddle Ages, we are all debased whores who just can’t get enough of a man’s penis. I suspect this was not just a device for scapegoating women for men’s desire to rape and kill us, but to plant this disgusting notion in our heads.  In fact, “sexy witches” abound in modern film and literature and even some non-fictional witches have taken on this persona to sell books.  Often, sexy witches or beautiful young witches are good, as long as they serve men’s desires, of course, while old hags who are sexually undesirable to men, are evil, jealous poisoners and diabolical schemers. But, Practical Magic is about sexy witches, who serve the ends of men. Even the aunts are very glamorous and serve as agents – “pimps,” essentially – hooking up desperate women with men for their sexual benefit.

Jilly enjoys the party life and while she has lots of male friends, there is one, in particular, to whom she appears to have trauma-bonded – Jimmy Angelov.  It turns out that Angelov is a serial killer of women, but the sisters manage to kill him first. But, they’ve got a problem because they know that the patriarchal system will not be on their side, Sally will lose her children and they will go to prison for life, for defending themselves against a man. This is the world we all know – no magic there.

So, they bring him back to life by means of witchcraft. Of course, this doesn’t go well, so they kill him a second time and bury his body in the rose bushes. Now, there may be some symbolic significance to rose bushes, since roses are traditionally a symbol for romantic love and we see that the evil spirit of Jimmy Angelov seems to be making these poisonous flowers grow, even out of season.

The best part of this movie is when all the women of the town come together, and old feelings of ill-will toward the witch family are healed, as they work together, as one, to banish the spirit of Jimmy Angelov and rescue Jilly, whom he is still trying to kill, even from the grave.

Unfortunately for Sally, the spell she cast as a child to ward of a man’s “love” backfired – as love spells so often do, especially in the movies – and she ends up attracting a special investigator from out-of-state, to whom she trauma bonds in a very obvious way. Any woman in her position given the two options – let the “nice” policeman fuck you or go to prison for life – would probably experience similar Stockholm Syndrome under these circumstances, which we, the viewing audience, are supposed to find sweetly “romantic.” I find it deeply disturbing and always did, although, previously I did not have the terms to describe why exactly that was.

By the end of the movie, all is well. Angelov’s death is ruled an accident, the town finally accepts the women as witches and everybody is okay with that, plus the policeman comes back to sweep Sally off her feet and we are to presume that they live happily ever after. We don’t know the rest of the story, but disbelief in curses does not negate them, no matter what the skeptics think.

If there were a sequel, what would it look like? Would Jilly have to rescue Sally this time? Or would Sally luck out, again, as her policeman husband, unable to find a job in this small town, blamed her and her infernal witchcraft for all his misfortunes and drank himself to death in some way before he completely re-arranged her face and put her 6-feet under. (I know how this goes because I once dated a cop.)

By the way, I read the book this movie is based on and I have no idea how they pulled this movie out of it. It’s completely different and deals very little with witchcraft. Also, the Jilly character seems much more psychologically damaged, pathetically so, in fact, and neither women are very glamorous, at all.

abc2Night of the Eagle or Burn Witch Burn (1962), starring Janet Blair:  This film is pretty closely based on the novella, called “The Conjure Wife,” by Fritz Lieber, published in the magazine, “Unknown Worlds,” in April 1943. The story demonstrates a remarkably good knowledge of the homeopathic nature of witchcraft, which is really lost in the movie. But, it’s still a very good film.

The film is, at times, a little hard to follow, especially when the action speeds up near the end.

The jist of it all is this:

Norman Saylor (Taylor, in the movie) is a skeptical professor of anthropology at a British university. His wife, Tansy, has been practicing witchcraft behind his back ever since an incident in Jamaica, in which she witnessed witchcraft being used to save someone’s life.

It is significant that the wife’s name is Tansy, since the flowering plant of the same name might be regarded as an herb of women’s power. It is an emmenagogue and has a history of use as an abortificant. Norman’s name is, also, somewhat significant, since it sounds like “normal” and this name is often used for clueless-dude characters in paranormal-themed movies. For instance, in the movie, “What Lies Beneath,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s murderous science professor husband is, also, named Norman. Characters named Norman are usually men who do not believe in witchcraft, ghosts or psychic abilities until it is proven to them in some way by the end of the movie.

Norman arrogantly believes that his rapid advancement at the university is all his own doing. This is a reflection of the world men live in, in which they take credit as their just due, even when they do not deserve it – especially when it is women who do the real work without acknowledgement, as if this is simply the natural order of things.

The sexist adage, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” is not a compliment, but a life sentence to the women in this movie.

As Norman finds out, not only is his own wife a witch, whose spells and “protections” are responsible for his quick rise to success, but all the women at the university are witches, who work their spells and magic behind the scenes to help their husbands get ahead.

True love, according to the movies, is when a woman uses all her powers to help her man, sacrificing herself, her own desires and – in the case of this film – even her life, to rescue her man from his own folly. No matter how abusive he is – and Norman is a domineering abuser who ridicules Tansy and throws her objects of witchcraft into the fire – she loves him and is willing to sacrifice her life -not just her desires and her ambitions – but her very life for his.

The message of the patriarchal establishment is clear: If women have any power – something these men must greatly fear – then, they must use it for men’s purposes. Only then can women and their infernal powers be tolerated, only then can women be allowed to live, at all.

I’ll only briefly discuss the next two films because while they are significant, they are pretty much the same theme as the previous one. Beautiful young-looking women (even if they may be centuries old), who could do anything at all with their lives and their extraordinary abilities, are powerless in the presence of an unattractive, middle-aged man. The movie-makers want to make sure that we understand that no matter how beautiful or powerful we are, we must serve men. In both instances, the women use a love spell or potion, which backfires and they fall in love with a mere, mortal man.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958), starring Kim Novak:  Gillian is an immortal witch, happily living with her cat, who falls in love with a publishing man and casts a love spell on him. Soon, she is happy to give up her witchcraft (her ambitions, powers and abilities) and her immortality (her very life) for the man.

This a beautiful movie, fun to watch for its foreshadowing of the “Bewitched” television series upon which it was obviously based.  But, the message is clear: Women, even the most powerful women who could choose anything at all in their lives, must sacrifice themselves for a man.

abc3I Married a Witch (1942), starring Veronica Lake: This movie is really cute and I love watching Veronica Lake, the wardrobes of the actors and the often luxurious settings. The special effects are, also, nifty and comically just right for this movie. There are lots of nice things about it, but the theme is the same. A beautiful witch comes back from the grave (with her father this time) to get revenge on the descendants of the man who sentenced her to death for witchcraft. Her revenge fails and she falls in love with her persecutor’s great-great-great-great-grandson – yet another unattractive, middle-aged man – we can pretty much imagine what these movie-makers must look like!

The message here seems to be that middle-aged men are irresistible – even to remarkably beautiful women, who just can’t wait to seduce them, for some unknown reason. For the men, this is a fantasy. For women, it appears to be instructional.

The Witches of Eastwick (1987), starring Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon: I had not seen this movie in years. I’ve been scrounging around not only for movies about witchcraft, but for movies centered around women’s lives and interests. This movie is a remarkable failure in that sense.  It had the potential to do so much for women, but clearly that’s not the point of this movie. It’s another instructional for women as to how their powers, if they happen to possess any, should be channeled; women’s interests, all their thoughts, their conversations and their very lives, must be centered around a man – preferably the most hideous, balding, puffy-eyed, paunchy creepy looking fellow central casting can dig up. In this case, it’s Jack Nicholson – and this might be truly comical, except that we’ve seen it over and over, again, in movies with young women and witches since, at least, 1942.

What I remembered about this movie the first time I saw it was the witchcraft. I loved the portrayals of magic in this movie. It is visually stunning and the women are beautiful. In the beginning of the movie, they have a relationship to each other that looks like a lot of fun.

But, of course, the women are not satisfied with their girl’s nights in, during which time they learn some new skill together or share some town gossip over wine. And, of course, because it is men who write these scripts and films and try to cram their patriarchal ideas down the throats of the vulnerable viewing public, what is lacking in these beautiful, powerful, talented and educated women’s lives is – of course! – a man.

The one thing about this movie is that if you watch very closely, and read between the lines maybe just a little bit, you see a real message from the men who made this movie, in which they tell us exactly who they are.

Daryl Van Horne knows what each woman wants to hear. It’s as if he’s in each one of their heads, as if he knows everything about them from what size dick they prefer to their most vulnerable insecurities. At first he’s flattering. He’s charming and seductive, despite his paunch, his balding head and his revolting smell.

But, while Van Horne praises and flatters the women to their faces, he later goes on an insane, misogynistic tirade about women that would make an MRA (say John “head like a dick” Hembling or the Santa Barbara killer) give a standing ovation to his sexually offensive prose and villainous laughter.

Moreover, Van Horne isn’t just any old devil, he’s Beelzebub, himself – an annoyance who will never go away, especially since he manages to impregnate all three women and by the end of the movie, which is really pretty creepy and sad, they each have a son who Van Horne tries to influence. Despite Van Horne’s evil acts upon these women, in which he makes all their worst fears come to life, at least, one of them still longs for him at the end of the movie.

The message is that men are truly devils. They make women’s worst horrors, our worst nightmares real. And, like Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, they are a disease-ridden pestilence that never, ever completely goes away. Men do to women exactly what Felicia warns about in her vision when she says, “He’s going to take their love and use it to destroy the world.”  And, of course, he does this by impregnating them and causing them to bear him sons.

We should all definitely take heed because our natural enemy is really uncloaking himself in this film.

There are a few movies I’ve run across, all of which I really like a lot, that seem much more kind to witches and women.  The Craft, for instance, is not as bad as most others, although, there are definitely some patriarchal messages for girls and witches. The last two on this list, Eve’s Bayou and Season of the Witch, were both written by or heavily influenced by women and, not surprisingly, they are the best and things go pretty well for the female characters in the end.  The Craft was written by men, so it could be better, but it could be a lot worse, too.

The Craft (1996), starring Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell and  Rachel True: Like Practical Magic, this is another movie that is very popular with women and, chances are, you’re pretty familiar with the plot.

Three outcasts, Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie, have been studying witchcraft, but their spells aren’t working very well until Sarah, a “natural witch” arrives, at their Catholic school. (All the fun stuff with witches and devils happens at Catholic schools, at least, in the movies.)  Despite being warned about “the bitches of Eastwick,” Sarah soon finds herself part of their little clique and she, too, is studying and practicing witchcraft.

abc4One thing really appealing about this movie is that these girls have power. They don’t seem to have much to fear. They are wonder women who can go into isolated places or go out at night, which is a dream for all girls and women. For instance, in the scene where they they get off the bus (see the still shot to the left) and a creepy bus driver warns, “Watch out for the weirdos,” Nancy (Fairuza) gives a Cheshire cat grin with the retort, “We are the weirdos, mister.”

Something interesting about the girls’ power, probably because men made this film, is that as their power grows, the girls’ hair gets bigger and fluffier and their skirts get shorter. This is commented upon in the supplemental material on the DVD for the film. The message here might be that women’s power, no matter how amazing or miraculous,  always lies in her ability to be sexually attractive to men – that certainly seems to be what they’re saying, anyway.

Each of the four girls makes witchcraft work for her. Bonnie gets rid of her scars, Rochelle gets revenge on a mean girl at school, Nancy’s abusive step-father keels over and she and her mother inherit a sum of money, and Sarah gets the boy she has a crush on to pay attention to her.

You’ll notice that when Sarah does this spell, Nancy is very sympathetic. She seems to really feel sorry for  Sarah that she has such an obsession with this boy, whose bad character she is already familiar with. It’s too bad the girls didn’t do a different kind of spell to break Sarah’s obsession and allow her to see the folly of this endeavor, but then, of course, we wouldn’t have had a patriarchal establishment-serving script and this film would probably not have been  made at all.

One major thing I didn’t like about this movie (besides the condescending, goody-goody lady who owned the metaphysical book store) was how it ended for the girls and especially for Nancy. After all, let’s look at this thing, not from the perspective of Sarah, the good girl, the good witch, who serves the patriarchal structure, who thinks that the boy who treated her pretty badly even before she put a spell on him and he turned full-blown rapist “wasn’t such a bad guy underneath it all,” but from the perspective of Nancy.  Although, Sarah is the protagonist and it is clearly her perspective that the male movie-makers want you to take.

Nancy and Sarah are both powerful witches. From the patriarchal perspective Sarah is good, but Nancy is evil because she went against the patriarchal establishment and sought revenge on Sarah’s attempted rapist, the same boy who gave her (Nancy) a sexually transmitted disease.  Sarah doesn’t appreciate Nancy’s attempts to punish the boy, which result in him falling out a window – quite accidentally, really – to his death.  Here we see that Sarah is something of a handmaiden, of course, she is an ingenue and maybe she just hasn’t been kicked around quite enough yet to be able to see things from Nancy’s perspective. Nancy is young but she knows very well what it’s like to have an abusive male in the house.

Far from being grateful for Nancy’s intervention on her behalf, Sarah works binding magic against Nancy. Nancy is understandably upset about this betrayal, not only of herself, but of the coven. Sarah has betrayed her sisters and their sisterhood in every way.  Even though this abusive boy was going to rape her, the message here is that vengeance against your abuser, your rapist or attempted rapist, your attempted murderer – whatever men have tried to do to you or have succeeded in doing – is wrong and if you desire revenge, then you are an evil witch and must be punished according to the patriarchy’s established guidelines for punishing errant women.

In the final scene we see that the patriarchs of the film have allowed the good witch to keep her powers, but Rachel and Bonnie have lost theirs, maybe because they didn’t have much ability to begin with or maybe as a punishment for their transgressions against the patriarchal establishment as they followed Nancy’s lead.

In the final horrible scene, we see that Nancy not only has lost her powers, but has been committed to an insane asylum, historically the place where unrepentant women who run up against the patriarchy are sent to assure that they never pose a threat, again, and their fate serves as a warning to all other women.

The one nice thing we do see is that there is still an apparently strong bond of friendship between Rochelle and Bonnie, who seemed close to each other throughout the story.

Fortunately, too, in this film, no one in lives “happily ever after” with a man, which is a nice departure from the usual fare in witchcraft movies. I think this is a happier ending than usual, at least, for Rochelle, Sarah and Bonnie. So, you see, as bad as it was, it could have been worse!

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Eve procures a spell from the witch of the bayou: “I want him dead!”

Eve’s Bayou, (1997), starring Diahann Carroll and Debbi Morgan: This is an extraordinary movie, written and directed by two black women, although IMDB only gives one name, Kasi Lemmons, as both writer and director. It is visually stunning and features a star-studded, all black cast. As you know, overwhelmingly most movies are written and directed by men – very, very white men.  Maybe that’s why this movie delivers such a remarkably different and truly refreshing message, not only about women’s lives, but about black people’s lives, as well.

It is set in Louisiana in 1962. Eve and her sister, Cisely, are the descendants of a black slave woman and a Frenchman named Batiste and their estate on the bayou is their ancestral home and family legacy.  The Batiste women, also, seem to have some hereditary psychic abilities, referred to as “the gift of sight” or simply “the gift.”

The Batiste’s are well-to-do and Louis, the family patriarch, is an admired, successful physician.  This movie is a lot of fun for the authentic period clothing, the interiors of the homes, the exterior settings, including shots of the town and the bayous, as well as the period automobiles. The Batiste’s throw fun parties at their big manor house with two bathrooms – which is, apparently, a lot of bathrooms for 1962!

It looks like they’ve got it made, but there is one big problem: The doc is something of a ladies’ man and he likes his liquor a little bit too much, too.  One night during one of the house parties, 10-year old Eve catches her daddy doing something she doesn’t quite understand out in the carriage house with Mrs. Mattie Mereaux, who is the wife of a jealous man.

Eve tries to tell her sister, but Cisely paints another picture of the events and tries to lay Eve’s fears to rest. Cisely has a close relationship to her father and when she hears her father and mother fighting that night in the midst of a terrible storm, she goes downstairs to soothe him. What happens in those moments is in dispute throughout the film right to the very end.  In his drunken haze, Dr. Batiste may have tried to kiss his daughter and not in a fatherly way. When Cisely tried to pull away, he slapped her across the face, although why this happened is not fully understood. According to the directors, how that event in the movie is seen by viewers is often divided along lines of sex, with males seeing Ciseley as a sexual aggressor and females seeing the father as the sexual aggressor on his daughter.

Cisely is severely traumatized by something and after consulting with with some doctors, she and her parents decide it would be best if she went away from them for a while.

Eve and Cisely keep the secret of that evening between them, but Aunt Mozelle, who has the gift, is able to see what happened.

Eve seeks revenge on her father by means of voodoo. Was it really voodoo or simply the natural result of the doc not being able to keep it in his pants that leads to his demise? Eve feels responsible. In the end, even though she has the power to see what transpired between her sister and her father that night, she is as unclear as Cisely as to what really happened.

This movie ends pretty well for the sisters and their mother as the threat represented by their father is removed.

A side plot throughout the film is Aunt Mozelle’s gift and her bad luck with men – they keep dying! Again, is this really a curse – or is a it protection? She finally overcomes her reputation as a black widow when she meets, falls in love with and marries a drifter who  sought out her services.

All in all, this is a really nice movie.

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Jan White, “I’m a witch.”

Jack’s Wife, Hungry Wives or Season of the Witch (1972), starring Jan White: This may be my all-time favorite movie.  It was directed and written by George A. Romero, but his ex-wife was a co-writer and clearly some woman or other had a lot of  influence on this film from beginning to end. It is a rare film for a number of reasons, but mainly because it is one of the few that comments positively on the Women’s Liberation movement of the early 1970s.

The original title, Jack’s Wife, sums up Joan Mitchell’s situation. She is the wife of a successful businessman who is very disconnected to her and her daughter.  She’s in therapy and taking happy pills.

One night at a cocktail party – I love the cocktail parties, which are reminiscent of the cocktail party in “Rosemary’s Baby,” but if you watch closely, this one tells the real story of such affairs (hands on your ass while you’re trying to have a polite conversation, men talking to you like you’re a second class citizen, etc.) – Joan learns that a friend of theirs is involved in witchcraft. She and her friend Shirley make a visit to the lady’s house and Shirley has a very accurate tarot reading in which we learn that her husband is fooling around with a younger woman, which is only a minor point – but, you can see that none of the women in this movie married to successful husbands are happy.

Intrigued, Joan begins to take up the study of witchcraft while her husband is on his long trips out of town. There’s lots of fantastic symbolism in this movie, which is one of the reasons I’ve watched it over and over, again. While Joan is worried about being stuck in her old life, she’s also worried about making a new transition, which manifests as nightmares of being chased around her house by a man wearing a Green Man mask. Of course, the Green Man is a literary and artistic  motif, which represents the return to nature, a movement from the city to the country, from  Christianity to paganism.

Joan begins undoing her patriarchal mind control programming by reciting the Our Father Prayer backwards and performing the conjuration of the spirit of virago (“virago” means a powerful woman or a warrior woman), based on the summoning of Vassago (a Goetic demon) from Paul Huson’s book, “Mastering Witchcraft.” If you’re familiar with Huson’s work, you’ll definitely recognize it in the film, although no where is credit give to Huson that I can find.

Depending on your point of view, Joan’s witchcraft seems to be working. When her abusive husband returns home from work unannounced one night, Joan mistakes him for an intruder and blasts him with a shotgun. Free at last! In the last scene, we see that she has become a fully-fledged witch and has come into her individual power.  She is greatly admired by the other women in her social circle.

The patriarchy gets the knee to the groin in this film – and shotgun blast to the head. It’s dead by the end. I love this movie!

Related material:

RawStory published an article on June 5, 2014 on the subject of men’s violence against women in classical films: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/06/05/sorry-ross-douthat-but-old-hollywood-icons-of-masculinity-were-violently-misogynist/

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