Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Thematic—Monsters

Season of the Witch

Today’s witches are no longer experts in the “occult.” Instead, they rush to aid the downtrodden—and to publish their potion recipes in best-selling how-to guides.

Becca Rothfeld

The Sorceress (detail), 1897, by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer (1865–1953).

For many seasons now, it has been the season of the witch. Friends I never rated as superstitious check their horoscopes with fresh credulity, validated by the not-quite-jokes Twitter celebrities make about solstices and moons in retrograde. Books with titles like The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present and Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power crowd the shelves, and tarot decks and crystals join the usual temptations (pencil cases, fancy lip balms) beckoning at the end of the checkout line. The number of Wiccans and pagans has grown exponentially (as has the number of people I’ve heard describe themselves as “not religious but spiritual” at parties). In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that there were between 1.0 and 1.5 million practicing Wiccans and pagans in the United States alone.11xSangeeta Singh-Kutz and Dan Kopf, “The US Witch Population Has Seen an Astronomical Rise,” Quartz, October 4, 2018, pagans-in-the-us/. In 2018, dozens convened in a Brooklyn boutique to collectively hex Brett Kavanaugh. Since then, at least two have pressed plastic cups into my hands and asked me with moist earnestness if I believe in enlightenment.

This uptick in real-life witchcraft and its quirky appurtenances fuels and is fueled by a surge in witchy fiction. The past two years have brought lukewarm remakes of the 1990s TV series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, and Dario Argento’s high-camp masterpiece, Suspiria (1977), the first film in Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy. New versions of Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 film The Witches (itself a cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book of the same title) and the popular ’60s television show Bewitched are in the works. Most of the witches subject to revival are a far cry from the bloodthirsty Satanists warned of by Alsatian clergyman Heinrich Kramer in his now-infamous 1487 witch-hunting manual, the Malleus Maleficarum. Those witches, though undoubtedly innocent in reality, were supposed to have consorted with Satan, cursed their enemies’ livestock, killed children in the womb, and magicked men’s penises off.

But if there had been witches in fifteenth-century Europe, who could blame them for slaughtering their children and dashing off to dance with the devil? A woman saddled with child-rearing responsibilities in a medieval village could be forgiven for wanting to strangle her brood and prioritize her own lusts for once. What is pregnancy if not a kind of demonic possession—one that women in the Middle Ages did not have much hope of refusing, often despite their most vehement (and violent) attempts at self-induced abortion and infanticide?22xRoberta Wollons, “Abandonment and Infanticide,” The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion, ed. Richard A. Schweder (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2009), 1–4. If the Malleus Maleficarum is to be believed, at least Satan gave his concubines some choice in the matter of their eternal damnation.

Today’s witches have ample cause to curdle the milk and hex the cattle—but they have proven themselves a deflatingly conciliatory bunch. Most of them are high school or college students with lightly feminist leanings and chokers that evince a fashionable nostalgia for the 1990s. In Warner Brothers’ The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, now approaching its third season, gratingly plucky Sabrina Spellman defies the devil out of love for her dull human boyfriend. In the 2018 remake of Charmed, one witchy sister rushes a sorority.

In the days of the Malleus Maleficarum, when some 40,000 were brutally executed, witches were already presumed to enjoy closer ties to humanity than other creatures in their supernatural cohort.33xSuzannah Lipscomb, “A Very Brief History of Witches,” BBC History Magazine online, October 2, 2019, Witch-hunts succeeded in stoking paranoia precisely because anyone could make a deal with the devil (although women, given their dissolute temperaments, were more likely to do so—or so the pernicious mythology went). Unlike the vampire or the werewolf, the witch has never been a member of another species; she has always just been a person, albeit a person with an unusual hobby and perhaps an advanced herb collection.

In the Internet era, witchcraft is yet more accessible. Anyone can, as I did, make a day trip to Salem, Massachusetts, where the October foliage flames and the houses resemble confections. Anyone can purchase a $19 witch kit and a few essential oils. There are WikiHow articles on both “How to Be a Witch” and “How to Practice Witchcraft.” And thanks to Google, you, too, can build an altar and incant vaguely Latinate phrases.

As placebos go, you could probably do much worse.

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