There are the old hags in America, vengeful and miserable. There is the Kalku in Chile, beautiful and terrible.
There are witches in films such as Fear Street, old hags who are reminders of what beautiful young women become due to mass hysteria and wrongful persecution. There are the sexed-up witches, the girl-next-door who comes into her femininity through witchcraft. There is Jadis, Lewis Caroll’s beautiful White Witch who freezes Narnia as revenge for banishment.
Before those portrayals were the healers in medieval times and the “witch doctors” (Inyanga and Isangoma) in South America.
And, through that–the steadfast pagan religions, some that identify with witchcraft and some that don’t, have endured. (see my previous article).
I think it’s about time we talk about the influences and implications of all these witch archetypes and maybe even make an effort of diversifying our portrayals of magic/magick, faith, and witchcraft in both our realistic fiction and fantasy worlds.
The first pro-writing witch argument would be that witches are feminist and powerful the way we see them already. Wielding the power to simply will terrible or magical events into existence is so much power, and surely, there is something to be said about that power being associated with women.
Something I loved about the new The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was how it acknowledged that all these women were witches in service to men.
When reading The Crucible in class, many of my classmates also brought up the fact that Abigail Williams–the girl who accused hundreds of people of being witches–was a very powerful character whose power was fully reliant on whether or not men believed her. In fact, Abigail actually ran away from Salem at the end of the play because she was afraid that the court would be overturned, and she would lose all her power because the men would not believe her.
Powerful witches gaining power through servitude to a man, to the Devil is sexist. So is the punishment, the justice-bearing of witches relying on men. No matter what historical portrayal, no matter what interpretation of witches you look at, there is a clear vision of men having authority over powerful women. And this portrayal is not okay.
But, you argue, I can write about witches as powerful characters without bringing the Devil or any sort of servitude into it. I can write about cruel powerful women practicing witchcraft without bringing male-dominance into it.
And, you’d be justified in that! However, the portrayal of witches, even as “powerful” fantasy and horror beings is part of a system that consistently targets and ostracizes people who simply don’t conform. And as author wysewomon says, “This includes the rationalist belief that witches and magic aren’t real. I can’t see a much better way to erase a minority than to claim they don’t exist.” The author even goes so far as to compare it to how people believe that LGBTQ+ identities are “disorders,” which invalidates their very existence.
Powerful witches–even in more “progressive” witch representations–are driven by a sense of unfairness, a woman scorned, a woman seeking power. And there comes the question of comfort–is it really ethically okay to take this group of very real religious beliefs and cultural practices and deeming them as negative? If all today’s witches intend to do is put good into the world, then how do we feel about continuously taking away power and representation and blackening the name of a minority community?
And here, you could say, well it’s always been like this! Horror has used witches as antagonists for centuries.
But that’s been said about hundreds of tropes and archetypes–from male authors unnecessarily using rape as a plot device to “burying your gays.” Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to retire the old crone, the hypersexualized magical twenty-something, the woman scorned.
*Note that whenever I talk about witches, I am strictly talking about the traditional spell-casting, broom-riding, bitter caricature.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.