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, https://qz.com/quartzy/1411909/the-explosive-growth-of-witches-wiccans-and-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, https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/history-witches-facts-burned-hanged/. 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.

Just Ask #instawitch

It might have been difficult for the aspiring medieval witch to learn much about her craft. But contemporary witches have the benefit of the Internet and all the oversharing it facilitates. Veterans of witchcraft are welcoming enough to publicize their magical methods on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter with hashtags like #witchstagram and #instawitch.

It is not surprising that a population so forthcoming about its trade secrets bills itself as progressive. As sociologist Helen A. Berger observes in her 2019 study Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone, pagans trend left. The varied religions to which they subscribe have no central tenets, but disciples are nonetheless linked by their shared commitment to an ethic of radical empathy. They thus cultivate loose ties with the ecofeminist movement, which elevates goddess figures over gods, and with feminist advocates of the “ethics of care,” an emotive alternative to the coolly rational approaches that have dominated traditional moral philosophy.44xHelen A. Berger, Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2019).

Some witches are more explicit about their political commitments. Recent years have witnessed the reincarnation of W.I.T.C.H., a diffuse organization that models itself on the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, a long-defunct series of interlinked feminist groups responsible for hexing Wall Street in 1968. (Was it coincidental that the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell about 1.4 percent—the equivalent of about 400 points on today’s Dow—the following day?) The website of my local chapter, W.I.T.C.H. Boston, instructs members to remain anonymous. Its values include

ANTI-RACISM—ANTI-FASCISM—ANTI-PATRIARCHY—INDIGENOUS RIGHTS—GENDER SELF-DETERMINATION—WOMEN’S LIBERATION—TRANS LIBERATION—ANTI-RAPE-CULTURE—REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS—SEX WORKER SUPPORT—LGBTQIA RIGHTS—ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION—RELIGIOUS FREEDOM—IMMIGRANT RIGHTS—ANTI-WAR—ANTI-CAPITALISM—DISABILITY JUSTICE—PRIVACY RIGHTS—WORKER’S RIGHTS.55x“Our Values,” W.I.T.C.H. Boston, accessed January 6, 2020, https://www.witchboston.org/.

If the witches who ostensibly terrified Heinrich Kramer in the 1400s were a harrowing reminder of our susceptibility to sin, today’s witches are symbols of egalitarian promise. W.I.T.C.H. is a rejoinder to the elitism of satanic cults and alchemic orders that have long been rumored to practice in secret, like so many creepy fraternities. Today’s witches are no longer experts in the “occult”—a word that has come to connote impenetrable arcana of all kinds. Instead, they rush to aid the downtrodden—and, of course, to publish their potion recipes in best-selling how-to guides.

Hexes and Yoga Pants

W.I.T.C.H. is thrilling because its members look genuinely scary. In the few photos of them floating around online, they are clad entirely in black, wearing pointy hats and veils that obscure their faces. They look as though they really could shrivel your crops, or at least punch your fascist enemies in the face. But many of the witches who have gone mainstream have sacrificed much of their revolutionary verve in the interest of marketability. Pacts with the devil have given way to pacts with the maleficent forces of glib commercialization. In 2019, hexes are of a piece with yoga pants and “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” bumper stickers. A curse or a crystal is just one more thing you can buy.

Many of the guides to witchiness that have come out over the past few years are essentially works of self-help, with titles such as The Witch’s Book of Self-Care: Magical Ways to Pamper, Soothe, and Care for Your Body and Spirit, Bitchcraft: Simple Spells for Everyday Annoyances and Sweet Revenge, and Wellness Witch: Healing Potions, Soothing Spells, and Empowering Rituals for Magical Self-Care. Like most books in the self-improvement genre, these grimoires focus not on the coven but the self: It is you, not your feminist collective, that is the appropriate object of pampering. Bitchcraft cursorily encourages the reader to “gather [her] gals for a self-care coven,”66xKerry Colburn, Bitchcraft: Simple Spells for Everyday Annoyances and Sweet Revenge (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), 3. but by far the most common exhortation in the spate of recent spell books is to release the witch already languishing inside you. Books like Inner Witch: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Craft and Witchery: Embrace the Witch Within imply that to be a woman is already to be a witch. A sorceress is not, as she once was, an insider who chooses to become an outsider by violating the repressive norms of her community. Now, she is just another normie, albeit one who gets into more direct touch with the structures that have buttressed her normalcy all along. As Bitchcraft assures us, “We all have the power within.”77xIbid., 1. All we have to do to actualize it is keep buying the right accessories.

Magic for the modern women has been purged of its danger and repackaged in the anodyne patois of the TED Talk, and many of the latest handbooks read just like therapeutic tracts. The Witch’s Book of Self-Care opens with a lengthy excursus on how to indulge yourself without feeling guilty. Ad copy for Wellness Witch promotes the book’s inclusion of “intention-setting spells” that aren’t so different from the normal intention-setting practices that counselors and yogis recommend. (The book also includes unremarkable recipes for breakfast bars and reasonably healthy muffins.) After all, spells are not unlike the lifehacks so many wellness programs promote as panaceas. Neatness expert Marie Kondo’s highly popular 2014 book raves about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and the Harvard Medical School Health Letter gushes about “the magic of mindfulness.”88x“The Magic of Mindfulness,” Harvard Health Letter, September 2013, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-magic-of-mindfulness. Wellness witches like Kondo prescribes simple rituals—a mantra repeated, a question reiterated—that promise to effect a wholesale metamorphosis.

It is easy to empathize with protesters waving “Hex the Patriarchy” signs at anti-Trump rallies and even Kondo acolytes: Who wouldn’t like to wave a wand and wake up to a different life? Who doesn’t hope to recite an affirmation and remake the entire world? Nell Scovell, the creator of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and executive producer of Charmed, told the New York Times that “so many women feel powerless that it’s fun to think about flinging Bill Barr into a wall with the flick of a finger.” She continued, “The same way some women took to wearing ‘Nasty Woman’ T-shirts after Trump used that label on Hillary Clinton, women have embraced the ‘witch’ label.”99xJessica Bennett, “When Did Everybody Become a Witch?,” New York Times, October 24, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/24/books/peak-witch.html.

But wearing a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt or taking a decadent bubble bath is a fairly low-stakes gesture. Gluing shut the doors of the New York Stock Exchange, as W.I.T.C.H. protesters did in the 1960s, is another thing altogether.

Domesticating Witches

Over the past century, most fictional witches have succumbed to the same assimilationist impulses that defang today’s mass-market spell books. Since Richard Quine’s 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle, a romantic romp that features Kim Novak as a lovable if bungling enchantress, most witches on the big screen have done their best to fit in. The trend reached its apotheosis in the 1960s with the bubbly sitcom Bewitched. For the most part, the show’s star housewife, Samantha, uses her powers to discharge her domestic duties without exerting much effort.

On the one hand, these fictions reinforce the idea that any woman could be a witch, or even the idea that all women are secretly witches. This implicit premise burgeons into explicitness in Conjure Wife, an ingenious 1943 novel by Fritz Leiber that has been adapted for the screen three times. The book follows a highly rational anthropology professor whose dissertation, “Parallelisms in Superstition and Neurosis,” debunks beliefs in magic. But his condescension evaporates when he realizes that all the women around him are in fact “carrying on their savage warfare of deathspell and countercharm, while their reality-befuddled husbands [go] blithely about their business”—and when it emerges that he owes most of his professional coups to his wife’s magical interventions.1010xFritz Lieber, Conjure Wife (New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, 2009), 26. First published 1943. Some version of Conjure Wife’s diagnosis is likely apt, and the book has genuinely subversive undertones. Still, the primary effect of later depictions, such as Bewitched and its offspring, has been to render witches relatable, thus unthreatening. Who cares if all women are witches, if all witches do is curse their husbands’ professional nemeses and jinx the household appliances into heightened efficiency?

In the wake of Harry Potter, witchcraft has become ever more institutionalized: The majority of recent movies and TV series are set in schools and universities. The Craft, a 1996 cult-classic film that predated the first Harry Potter book by a year, follows a gang of rebellious teenagers who form a coven in an effort to exact revenge on the popular kids in their high school. Willow Rosenberg of Buffy the Vampire Slayer awakens her inner witch only when she sets off for college. In The Order, a Netflix series that premiered last spring, an exclusive secret society at a prestigious college trains its elite initiates to practice the dark arts. And in the remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Sabrina attends an academy for witches, where she makes conspicuously spunky attempts to implement predictably progressive reforms.

Some of these witchy artworks are genuinely good, and the rest are trashy enough to be absorbing. But like the spell books that demote sorcery to self-care, all of these artifacts have gone some way toward domesticating the once-wild figure of the witch. What has become of the vision celebrated in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s exquisite 1926 novel Lolly Willowes? Warner’s Laura, a middle-aged spinster who rejects the doldrums of family life in order to practice witchcraft in a remote country village, delivers an impassioned speech to a kindly, paternal Satan:

When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them, wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members, and blacksmiths, and small farmers, and Puritans. In places like Bedfordshire, the sort of country one sees from the train. You know. Well, there they were, there they are, child-rearing, house-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking together in the way that men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way that women talk, and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness.… It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by the by the dust is age, settling down…. Some may get religion, then they’re all right, I expect. But for the others, for so many, what can there be but witchcraft? That strikes them as real. Even if other people still find them quite safe and usual, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are.1111xSylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman (New York, NY: New York Review Books, 1999), 211. First published 1926.

Laura does not turn to witchcraft for comfort or recipes for gluten-free muffins. Instead, she hopes her magic will scythe through the routines that harden around her and scab over the vital wound of her life.

The Crouching and the Dirt

When I joined the ranks of the awkward, interstitial creatures called “’tweens”—hideous amalgamations of children and adults, sharp with edges yet to soften—I also dabbled in witchcraft. My spells were never successful, but my failures were not dispiriting enough to prevent me from spending several months attempting to perfect my procedures.

For Halloween, my parents gave me a spell book—a stylish volume, bound in black leather and brightened by embossed silver lettering. Affixed to its front and back covers were two strings, which could be used to knot it shut, as if its secrets were at risk of seeping out. I always tied it closed when I had finished reading it: I wanted to protect it from the world, and I relished the obscure certainty that I had to protect the world from its dangerous emanations.

The tome in question was not especially revelatory, but it had the merit of predating the collapse of witchcraft into salable feminism, and its contents were inoffensive even by my present standards. The most enticing chapters were devoted to love spells, which I attempted to perform on my string of sixth-grade crushes without apparent avail. The ritual I liked best involved braiding various ribbons together and writing my beloved’s name on a piece of paper, which I ended by burying beneath a full moon. I think my parents are still unaware of how many scraps of paper bearing the names of sixth-grade lacrosse stars are decaying in their flowerbeds.

But their ignorance was, of course, the point. For the first time in my life, I felt the need to carve out a poisonous privacy. Concealment took on a lavish texture, sumptuous as velvet. Even as I felt myself starting to covet glosses for my lips and powders for my eyes, even as an alien need to be pretty started to inhabit me, I wanted to skulk off and wriggle my hands in the mud until grit grimed under my nails.

I’m not saying I wanted to kill anyone’s babies or spoil anyone’s harvest, much less charm anyone’s genitals off. (What good would the sixth-grade lacrosse stars have been to me without them?) All I’m saying is that what I liked about the love spells was the crouching and the dirt—and that I would prefer, even as a novelty or a coffee-table curiosity, a book that taught me how to sacrifice an animal or run around naked and howling.

Living Deliciously

By recent lights, a witch’s highest aspiration is to best her high school rivals or bake the healthiest batch of breakfast bars. Still, there are exceptions. In Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy, witches were frightening—and perhaps it is not accidental that Suspiria, rather than Bell, Book, and Candle, is the film in urgent want of resuscitation in this season of the commodification of the season of the witch.

The original Suspiria is a lush movie. Susie, an American ballerina, arrives at a dance academy in Freiburg, Germany, only to discover that her fellow students have been disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Several days of scheming later, she learns that her peers have been murdered by a centuries-old witch, Suspiria, the so-called mother of sighs, who lives (and breaths heavily) in a secret part of the building.

But Suspiria’s convoluted plot is secondary to its sylvan soundtrack and its rich spangle of colors. Every building in the film is impossibly ornate, endowed with the harlequin weirdness of a theater set. Suspiria is inescapable because she is in every piece of furniture, and all the deaths she occasions are melodramatic. Argento’s film articulates and perfects what remained unarticulated and imperfect in my ’tween fumbling, which was my desire for excess without mitigation.

There are many reasons why the 2018 remake of Suspiria, which deviates drastically from the original, is not a very good movie. But the way the film thwarts our expectations—and thereby reverses the dulling of witchiness—is to some extent redeeming. Susie, played by Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades of Grey ignominy, initially strikes us as a caricature of fragile femininity. A star dancer at an edgy Berlin company, she has escaped from her restrictive religious community to pursue a career on the stage. We think, of course, that Susie is the victim, and indeed she appears pliant in the hands of her dictatorial choreographer, Madame Blanc, whom we know to be a witch. As Madame Blanc prepares her protégée for sacrifice at the upcoming witch’s sabbath, Susie even readies herself for her own death with what looks like excitement, performing her toilette with reverent tenderness.

But in the final scenes of the movie, Susie reveals that she is possessed of a richer magic than that of the coven leader, an aged hag who kills off company members in an effort to remain youthful. As naked dance students writhe around her, she points at members of the coven and causes their heads to explode.

In this new version of Suspiria, the viewer’s worst terrors are realized—and the viewer celebrates. The orgy of carnage that Susie enacts is more satisfying than any confirmation of her helplessness could have been. We are accustomed to witches who mollify sexists by showcasing that they are sensible and sanitized. But what we have long craved is a heroine too concerned with sating her own appetites to bother denying the tired charges of lasciviousness. As it happens, Susie is lustful, and she doesn’t care if her lustfulness conforms to misogynist stereotypes.

In this respect, Suspiria echoes The Witch, a 2015 film about a family of Puritans living in relative isolation in colonial New England. When the family’s baby is spirited away by the titular witch, the family members begin to turn against each other—but their blame soon converges on Thomasin, the lost child’s teenaged sister. At first, the ease with which Thomasin’s family turns against her seems to expose their misogyny: What could be more familiar than the fear that the nubile young woman is, by dint of her burgeoning sexuality, on her way to becoming a witch? But at the end of the movie, when Satan approaches Thomasin to ask if she would like to “live deliciously,” she immediately disrobes and signs his book. In the movie’s final scene, she joins a circle of naked, blood-stained women dancing around a bonfire. As she begins to levitate, she throws her head back and cackles.

Thomasin is not especially interested in evildoing. But she wants to live deliciously, and she is willing to prioritize her ravenous sensuality at whatever cost. As Laura tells the devil in Lolly Willowes,

One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that—to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others.1212xIbid., 215.

Magic for the modern woman answers to a set of needs that have already atrophied. But the witch is an antidote to her own appropriation. She retains a trace of potency that her most facile promoters cannot flatten. Susie and Thomasin continue wanting in all the ways they shouldn’t. If we can never have what we want, at least not wholly, we can at least savor the image of our desires extravagantly fulfilled: a bloody woman, laughing and unrepentant, floating at least a little bit above the meager earth.