It all started, innocently enough, with January’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Okay, okay, strictly speaking, that’s not true: it started in 2008 with the premiere of True Blood, HBO’s contribution toward a renewed pop culture fascination with steamy vampire romance. If hemo-gobblers made up the show’s central focal points, then the repositioning of the witch in movie monster vernacular can just be chalked up as nothing more than a happy accident, one that—intentional or not—has helped patch the gaping hole left behind by the finales of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2003, and Charmed in 2006 (which may get rebooted thanks to CBS).
Surrounding all of these series are the outliers—the Harry Potters and the Wickeds, all of which point to the sustained power of the witch as a centerpiece in contemporary folk tales and mythology. That said, though, it’s kind of hard to discount the nagging suspicion that cauldrons, potions, spellcraft and broomsticks—and the women who use them—have started to stand out more of late, and to such an extent that we’re building up to a real glut of witch media on big and small screens alike.
Just look at 2013: Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton spent an hour and a half blasting evil hags to smithereens nine months ago. In February, Alice Englert made doe eyes at Alden Ehrenreich in the misguided YA cash-in Beautiful Creatures (whose magic-using ladies are dubbed “casters”). Come August, The Conjuring posited that everyone involved with the atrocities of the Salem witch trials actually stood on the right side of history. Subsequently, the 2013 Fantastic Fest saw the debut of Álex de la Iglesia’s gender war horror romp, Witching and Bitching.
That brings us to the present, where the third season of American Horror Story, dubbed Coven, and the first installment of Lifetime’s Witches of East End are both in full swing. By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes—that’s a lot of witching to fill out one release year, and on top of that, most of their appearances take place in respectably high-profile projects. (Save for De La Iglesia’s film, but he’s not exactly a household name in the States.)
We’ve always been fascinated with witches, of course, but to a narrower degree than, say, zombies and vampires, which pretty much have the horror movie monster market cornered. During its eight-season run on ABC from the mid ’60s to early ’70s, Bewitched was a popular and well-liked TV show that still garners consideration as one of the greats; meanwhile, the AFI pegged the Wicked Witch of the West (who got an origin story courtesy of Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful this past March) as the fourth greatest villain of all time, trailing only behind the likes of Darth Vader, Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter. (This is without delving into region-specific folklore, where witches are most prevalent, and bringing up legends like the Baba Yaga.)
In other words, characters like this have haunted our imaginations for a very, very long time; they aren’t new fixtures of our nightmares and dreams. But that doesn’t explain the growing concentration of witches mulling about in our contemporary horror media. Coven, to date, is the most significant production to call on the images of witchcraft to fuel its basic conceit, but why witches, and why now?
Certain trends have obvious starting points. The explosion of Young Adult fare we’re seeing lately, and the ubiquity of vampire books, films and TV series can all be traced to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise, which showed studio executives that there’s money to be found not only in blood suckers, but also in tweens desperate for stories that speak to them. It’s no accident that green-lights have gone out for The Hunger Games, Vampire Academy, Divergent, The Vampire Diaries, and The Mortal Instruments—and many, many others—in the wake of Meyer’s success. (Maybe J.K. Rowling deserves true credit as the progenitor behind YA’s burgeoning popularity, but that’s another argument for another time.)
But there’s no clear-cut reason behind the 2013 screen rise of the witch. If Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures novels had quite the same visibility and relevance as Meyer’s work, we could probably point to them as the progenitor event in the sudden interest in witchery. This isn’t the case, though; the Caster Chronicles amount to second-tier YA stuff at best, so the answer must lie elsewhere.
As far as it concerns Witches of East End, the simple answer is counter-programming. Stacked next to American Horror Story’s more graphic and twisted Coven—which, three episodes in, has featured more weird sex and gratuitous violence than you can shake a broomstick at—Witches of East End is a toothpaste commercial, alternative viewing for sections of the mainstream who don’t cotton well to incest, ritual sacrifice and coarse examinations of racial attitudes in America, past and present. Admittedly, though, we’re only talking about a very specific response to the pattern, one that still doesn’t address why witches are having their day today.
It might be tempting to write all of this off as coincidence, but there’s more to it than that. If the Internet is to be believed, we’re living in a world that’s growing more and more feminized, one where movies about women, for women (if not necessarily by women), are gaining traction in our cultural consciousness, though that claim is half true and half poppycock. Math, my sworn nemesis, shows that women’s representation in film has been on the decline since 2011’s Bridesmaids promised to boost the popularity of female-inclined narratives, while also emphasizing that it hasn’t been great for the last two decades or so. At the same time, films ranging from Afternoon Delight, The To Do List, and In a World… to the more recognizably mainstream The Heat have all put female characters and stories at their forefronts.
Shifting focus toward horror specifically, we can see this dichotomy at play in films like You’re Next and We Are What We Are, which both tell tales of female leads struggling against male violence and control, and in the Evil Dead remake, which can basically be treated as an examination of rape politics, the trauma endured by victims of sexual violence, and the way we ignore their suffering or misinterpret it entirely. And this only scratches the surface of gender-oriented horror pictures.
It’s tempting to buy into specific movies as examples of the feminist surge in contemporary film, and there’s a lot of validity to the argument that women are indeed carving out their rightful place as audible, prominent voices in cinema and in television—even if statistics prove that there’s still a lot of ground for them to cover before they close the gender gap. More to the point, though, if we take all of these ideas into account, then the unexpected newfound currency enjoyed by witches in visual mediums starts to make more sense; it reads as a reaction to, or a direct consequence of, dialogues about equilibrium between the sexes in film. When conversation trickles down to genre, after all, what trope better corresponds to the discussion than the witch?
Women have always played a not-insignificant role in horror, but turning to this character archetype allows purveyors of the genre to address female-specific issues—fears of domesticity and matriarchal servitude, feminine unrest felt toward patriarchal repression—in very different and potentially more direct ways. Coven alone paints a rich mural of what witches can embody on the screen; they’re heroes, anti-heroes and villains; they’re young girls dealing with the changes in their bodies; they’re victims and victimizers; they heal and they destroy. No single heavy in the horror pantheon offers so complex a vehicle for exploring matters of womanhood as the witch.
Of course, witches might end up falling off of the radar once more when the year turns and interest wanes. Maybe 2013 is just an anomaly, a series of unintentional studio and network decisions that led to release slates weighed down with more than half a dozen new stories revolving around witches for public consumption. But showrunners and filmmakers alike would do well to embrace this ages-old archetype in horror; considering how firmly they’re anchored in cultural backgrounds and historical contexts, witches feel very much like the perfect modern monster.