Why the Sudden Fascination with Mad, Bad Witches?


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.

The FX series “American Horror Story: Coven” stars heavy-hitters Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett along with a crop of feisty young actresses who like their witchcraft edgy and often obscene. It’s as if the cutesy witches of “Charmed” suddenly ripped off their headbands and jumped into a mosh pit. These witches are dangerous, and they don’t take kindly to offense.

What’s behind this sudden interest in irascible witchery?

War on Witches

“Coven” starts with the premise that mysterious attacks against witches have been escalating in America, forcing young girls to seek shelter in a special school in New Orleans to learn how to defend themselves. The Supreme witch, Fiona (Jessica Lange), explains how things stand to the neophytes: “We are under siege, ladies…know this, or face extinction. A girl’s not safe.”

That siege mentality is not difficult to grasp. Even as women rise in power, and the first serious female presidential contender captures the country’s attention, a nasty spate of misogyny plagues the nation. Politicians who seem to have crawled out of a dim Neolithic cave deny the logic of the female reproductive system and demand humiliating rituals for those who seek a doctor’s care. Groups of schoolboys terrorize their female classmates with sexual violence, then broadcast their acts for the world to see.

When people have been abused and denied agency and redress through the normal channels, magic becomes a pathway to power; a route to revolution.

It’s vicious out there, and “Coven” seems to conjure up all the anger and indignation felt by females beaten down by everything from the brutality of men to the straightjacket of prescribed femininity. On the show, each witch confronts some particularly grueling aspect of being female in a patriarchal world. Fiona, an aging beauty, launches a murderous quest to find the potion that will restore her youth. Queenie, an overweight teen portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe, transcends the limits of her physicality and punishes her enemies by using herself as a human voodoo doll. Fertility challenged Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) ditches hopeless medical treatments in favor of ecstatic, goat-blood-spattered rituals, while Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) explores her budding sexuality by literally screwing guys to death. Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau carries a centuries-ripened rage at the abuse of black women.

These witches are mad and bad, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

When Zoe and fellow teen-witch Madison (Emma Roberts) sneak into a frat party, the latter is viciously gang-raped in an episode recalling the notorious Steubenville High School rape case of 2012. In response, Madison deploys her telekinetic powers to crush the boys in a bus crash, and then the girls use the body parts to assemble their very own Franken-boyfriend—a macabre mockery of the eternal teenage quest to find the perfect guy.

The women live out the fantasy of turning potent forces toward the fulfillment of their desires, usually ambition or revenge. They do it all by secret and untraceable methods. When policemen come a-calling to investigate the fraternity deaths, Fiona gleefully uses her magic to squeeze the brain of one until the blood dribbles out of his mouth like a baby’s spittle. Witches = 1. Cops = 0.

“Coven” reveals the festering wound of women’s shattered trust and revels in its avenging. It shows a world where the institutions of civilization have failed girls who have no choice but to rally dark powers to protect themselves. The war on witches is America’s war on women turned up to ghastly Technicolor.

Witches of the World, Unite!

"Coven" mirrors contemporary ills, but also deals with the historical wounds of slavery and Puritan persecution. Winterson's tale picks up the thread of cultural memory and goes back to the scene of a horrific crime that took place in a remote corner of England over four hundred years ago.

It is a startling fact that up to half a million Europeans between the 15th and 17th centuries were convicted of witchcraft and put to death, as many as 85 percent of them women. Since a death sentence required a confession, torture was standard, the more painful, the better. Skin was peeled away, tongues excised and flesh set ablaze.

During this period, the social and economic systems of the Middle Ages were dissolving. The trials, which peaked between 1560 and 1630, were stoked by religious clashes between Protestants and Catholics, climate-driven crop failure, and devastating economic upheaval.

In his book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, anthropologist Marvin Harris proposes that Church officials and secular lords scapegoated witches in order to divert public anger away from themselves during hard economic times. It was, and remains, an effective tactic.

Women were particular targets for many reasons: Rural landed estates were built on patriarchal structures that focused on the special value of male children and strict division of labor. Clans emphasized a warlike culture to defend systems of land tenure that kept women degraded and placed them at the mercy of men and under the constant supervision of male relatives. As feudalism declined and economic conditions shifted, women began to move from rural, agricultural work to urban service jobs and market trade. Rural men became alarmed—and violent. This is happening in India today, and women are similarly brutalized as they transition from the country to the city. It is happening now in South Africa, where accused witches are hunted and killed.

When people think that the natural order of things is slipping away, women and witches are marked as the culprits. Attacking them is an attempt to hold onto old sources of power.

The famous Pendle witches of Lancashire, upon whom Winterson bases her novel, were desperately poor and illiterate, scratching out an existence during the time when witch-hunting had reached its fever pitch. The one exception was Alice Nutter, a rich widow whose position and power made her execution as a witch seem improbable, but she was nevertheless hanged along with 10 others (including two men) in 1612. Possibly the examining magistrate, a neighbor, wished to see Nutter convicted because he had been at odds with her in a boundary dispute.

Winterson conjures a world in which men rape women as casually as they guzzle beer. Human beings are so degraded by abject poverty that there is little left of their spirit but a cunning survival instinct that makes them grasp at anything that will get them a meal for the day, like selling a love spell or offering to hex a farmer’s cow.

Witchcraft in this period was a way for the poor and downtrodden to try to exercise a little power, but it was also a handy weapon for the powerful when they wanted to abuse their underlings. It was mainly the most vulnerable who felt the brunt of this, but not always. The case of Alice Nutter shows that being rich could be just as dangerous for a woman as being poor — especially if she was a widow. (The famed 16th-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory, also a widow, was accused of witchcraft and walled up in her Hungarian castle because, many believe, the Church wanted her property.)

In the hands of an astute observer, supernaturalia like witchcraft provide a language for critiquing modern life. They draw upon the rivers of cultural memory where past horrors are buried deep in the mud, but not forgotten, and certainly not redeemed. Winterson's novel bears witness to all the painful ways an oppressive society has always kept its lower classes writhing in poverty and made women afraid for their lives. Yet both The Daylight Gate and “Coven” are quintessential witch tales for our time: crucibles of still-festering class and gender conflict that we ignore at our peril.

Because whether by witchcraft or not, you can be sure a storm is brewing out there.

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