"Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog" are ingredients recited as part of one of the most famous witchcraft spells in Western history. Perhaps it's more recognizable by a phrase repeated later, "Double, Double Toil and Trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble." When Shakespeare penned these words in 1606, he was not copying verbatim a local magical spell, but rather he was mockingly representing assorted popular witchcraft lore, or so modern academics now believe. It wasn't a real spell, but it was real-ish.
Similarly, American film and television writers have also relied heavily on lore and their imaginations to define witches and their craft. "Filigree apogee pedigree perigee" is a charm that turns men into rabbits, according to the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Gillian of Bell, Book, and Candle simply hums while holding her cat in order to cast a love spell. No cauldron is needed.
While all of this fictional magic can be fun, it doesn't correlate to the genuine practice of magic. The fictional and often flippant representation of magic often frustrates modern Witches and other magical practitioners. Movie magic, so to speak, is often confused with real practice, muddying the waters for seekers.
"Magic doesn't work quite that way," teachers are often heard saying.
These representations also de-legitimize the practice of magic in the eyes of the general populous. Calling yourself a witch, in this case, is akin to calling yourself a Sith lord, a hobbit, or any other fictional character. Take your pick.
However, most modern Witches take this all with a grain of salt, knowing that what they do is not what is on the screen. They know that its more effective to have a friend call your lost phone than to pull out a wand and yell "Accio iPhone." And, nobody is wriggling their nose to clean house.
Despite the proliferation of fake spells and rituals, there are in fact elements of actual spells and practice found within many productions across time. Like Shakespeare's own work, these representations are real-ish, based on contemporary witchcraft lore and trends.
In Silent Era, the serial Mysteries of Myra (1916) centered its narrative around an evil secret society that practiced ritual magic. Its leader was modeled on the famous occultist Aleister Crowley, who founded Thelema. Additionally, Myra's creator was Hereward Carrington, a paranormal investigator and Spiritualist, who was acutely interested in Crowley's work as well as other esoterica and folk magic practices. He wove these interests directly into the Myra film serial from characterizations to ritual acts to Crowley's famous triangle hat.
Moving forward 60 years to the 1970s when occult practices were once again bleeding into mainstream culture, modern witchcraft reappears in film productions. This was the same period in which the Pagan community emerged alongside other progressive counterculture movements.
Within that climate of change and exploration, horror films also saw a rebirth and, for the first time, fully embraced general witchcraft themes. As such, script writers turned to modern Witchcraft publications for source material, including Paul Huson's Mastering Witchcraft and the books of Gerald Gardner and Raymond Buckland.
Many of these works had only just been published, making witchcraft more accessible to producers and writers. At the same time, modern Witches were asked, for the first time, to consult on part of productions. Buckland was a adviser on films such as Necromancy and Huson was a script writer by trade assisting with various productions.
The influence of the modern Witchcraft movement is evident in films such as Mark of the Witch (1972) and Hungry Wives (1973). Characters use phrases such as, "Blessed Be" or "So Mote it Be", and throw around terms like high priestess, coven, and the Craft. They invoke goddesses and depict rituals such as "the five-fold kiss."
With that said, early 1970s horror films were mostly focused on sensationalizing what was perceived as ritual witchcraft, based on a mash up of ceremonial magic, folkloric Satanism, and age-old fictional expectations. These films are more or less witch-spoliation, to borrow a term from the period's film history. Witchcraft depictions provided an easy path to horror and female nudity; nothing more.
While the representations of the witches themselves is far from faithful to any modern reality, the elements of real practice were there.
Eventually, writers began to incorporate other aspects of the growing Pagan movement as it evolved and became more public. Hollywood writers, particularly those in television, became increasingly aware of witchcraft as a religion and a spiritual path. Witchcraft wasn't all hocus pocus and conjuring demons anymore. In a B.J. and the Bear episode titled, "B.J. and the Witch," (1980), the witch is an herbalist who practices what she labels the oldest religion, for example. There are no cauldrons, wands, or dark cloaks.
However, it isn't until the 1990s that American film and television fully explores the spiritual side of modern Witchcraft. Television shows like the X-Files were first on the scene to distinguish between Wiccans as "good witches" and Satanists as "evil witches." For better or worse, new lines were drawn using Wicca as a morality marker and the witchcraft religion quickly became a symbol of the new girl power movement.
It is The Craft (1996) that encapsulates this notion, although it is not alone. The film was not only one of the first to successfully embrace Wicca as positive in teen horror; it was also one of the first of this era to have a modern Witch on set to consult on the representation of magic as well as ritual. Modern witches will easily recognize the calling of quarters during the first big ritual scene in the forest. Wiccan language and even spiritual concepts penetrate the entire narrative.
The Craft's success, along with other witchy productions, helped Wicca continue to grow in popularity and that only helped script writers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's witch, Willow, called a bunch of teens, "Wanna Blessed Bes" and Charmed's first episode was titled, "Something Wicca this Way Comes." That same year, the film I've Been Waiting for You used a 1995 Hecate poem written by Wiccan Priestess Katlyn Breene.
By 2000, teen audiences knew what Wicca was and, according to the movement, it was all good.
While there is certainly fantasy woven into these television shows and films, the representation of witchcraft is closer to reality than found in past productions. These productions offer more respect to their witch representations than past films and shows, despite the vampire slaying, monsters, and talking cats.
The creators attempted not only to include witchcraft language but also to represent the spirit and religion found in the practice. The teens of The Craft weren't simply conjuring to conjure; they wanted to improve their lives.
This trend continued, even with the re-emergence of the paranormal and high fantasy. Witches represented, if not entirely, a positive aspect of girl power and Wicca was a stand-in for good magic. Magical secondary characters often appear in teen-based films like Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. And, in television, this theme predominantly shows up in crime and law dramas, such as CSI, JAG, and The Mentalist.
Since that time, modern Witches have continued to serve as consultants on films and televisions. The Craft: Legacy had three advisers who not only shared their magical knowledge with writers, but also assisted in boosting the production itself through ritual and magical workings.
In addition, witchcraft scripts have slowly abandoned the Wicca-dominate language and are now exploring the diversity of magical practice, paralleling modern practitioners. Television shows like American Horror Story: Coven, Salem, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina express a non-binary morality that is resident in modern Witchcraft practice. The horror films The Spell (2020) and The Witches (2020) share an awareness of folk magic and Motherland: Fort Salem represents witchcraft as a Goddess religion.
While the interjection of modern spell work or spell language is not quite as uniform as it was in the 1970s or 1990s, the representation of witchcraft is now diverse, historical, and spiritual. This follows the journey of the modern Pagan community.
Regardless of the sensationalism, comedy, and fanciful dressings found in many films and shows, there is always a bit, sometimes just a sliver, of real magic in many of these representations. Like Shakespeare's witches from years ago, their spells were based on folklore which had, at its heart, a bit of reality. They were real-ish. That is true for Hollywood too, even in the most cringe worthy of representations.
Whether or not this is good, or bad for modern Witches is another debate entirely, however, it's the story of the witch and her magick in Hollywood.
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Heather Greene is a freelance writer, journalist, and editor. She received a B.A. in film at Wesleyan University and an M.A. in film studies from Emory University. She also studied film and theater at Cornell University and ...