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Why the Sudden Fascination with Mad, Bad Witches?

The vampire is a faddish figure, while the witch is primal and eternal.
 
 
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Why does the witch strike fear into the hearts of men? Because, like the scientist who controls nuclear energy, she might use her magic for good or for evil. With the correct rituals at the right moment, the hidden powers of the world are hers to command. Its boundaries are broken.

The 21st century, unleashing a fury of terrible and unpredictable forces on so many, from 9/11 to the 2008 financial meltdown and catastrophic storms, has sparked a renewed attraction to magic. When institutions fail and life seems cruel and uncertain, witches always return. The vampire is a faddish figure who comes and goes in the night; the witch is primal and eternal.

Lately the witch is pushing the vampire off cultural center stage. She's back — with a vengeance.

Girl power

Like many little girls, I desperately wanted to be a witch. I made fantastic messes in the kitchen, played dress-up and pestered my dad to buy me paperbacks like Ruth Chew’s tales of misfits and unpredictable objects, and my all-time favorite, Wallace Hildick’s The Active-Enzyme Lemon-Freshened Junior High School Witch, the story of a schoolgirl who stumbles upon a book of spells.

I craved secrets. Even more, I wanted power that my world did not yet afford me. Power to change things, to know things, to force people to do my bidding and attract them to me. No wonder my mother was alarmed.

Witchcraft belongs to every age and every culture. The great social anthropologist Sir James Frazer thought it was even older than religion. In a way, witches are more like scientists than priests: they focus on understanding the laws governing the universe and try to use that knowledge to alter them. The basic idea is surprisingly consistent, whether the practitioner is a queen or a tribesman, the manifestation dark or light: witchcraft is about sympathetic magic.

Sympathetic magic is to the witch what geometry is to the architect — the key to bending the world to your will. It’s the belief that you can influence people and things by using a symbolically associated object or gesture. Stirring a pot of water to produce a storm. Sticking pins in a doll to inflict injury. Tucking wedding cake under the pillow to attract a mate.

There is some evidence that the number of Americans involved in various traditions of witchcraft, including Wicca (modern paganism) is on the rise. A 2010 Gallup poll revealed that 21 percent of Americans believe in witches in the supernatural sense — presumably including Sarah Palin, whose Wasilla Assumbly of God church invites witchhunters to pray to Jesus to protect them from spells. The financial crash sent grandmothers and Wall Street traders alike hurrying to soothsayers, a traditional variety of witch, to help with money matters (this happened during the Great Depression, too, when fortune tellers became popular at arcades and fairs). There are even online courses for would-be witches.

While vampires may have hogged the cultural stage with the Twilight series and “True Blood,” witches are now taking over. The Weird Sisters are chanting toil and trouble at Lincoln Center’s star-studded production of MacBeth. Witches are popping up in TV shows like Fox’s “The Originals,” and they’ve even spawned multiple critical essays in a recent issue of The New Inquiry.

What's striking is that the latest witches are undomesticated, a far cry from suburban Samantha and her twitchy turned-up nose. Novelist Jeanette Winterson has just come out with a gripping tale of England's 1612 Pendle Hill trials in The Daylight Gate, featuring witches who seek bring-the-rafters-down lesbian sex, talk to putrefying heads, and bite off the tongues of young men who dare to attack them.