She’s transformative and transforming, a shape-shifter, a mutant. A fixture of storytelling for centuries, the archetype of the witch naturally found her place as a character in film. When she first appears or takes form, the camera typically closes in on her face so that the viewer can experience her moment of conversion (and maybe also so that the filmmaker can economize on special effects). A witch is a being of trickery, then, both in terms of what she can do and in terms of what cameras and computers are capable of creating.
But we recognize her first and foremost as a villain: a malevolent woman who uses dark forces to bring about death and destruction. A helpful mission statement is offered in Dario Argento’s Suspiria:
Suzy: What do witches do?
Professor Milius: They’re malefic, negative, and destructive. Their knowledge of the occult gives them tremendous powers. They can change the course of events and people’s lives, but only to do harm. You don’t believe me?
Suzy: No, I…
Professor Milius: Their goal is to achieve great personal wealth, but that can only be achieved by injury to others. They can cause suffering, sickness, and even the death of those who for whatever reason have offended them.
She’s the embodiment of evil: a magical murderess and a stand-in for anything that goes bump in the night or lurks in the woods, waiting to get us. At her tamest she’s merely homicidal, one of Disney’s many sorceresses.
Among so-called family-friendly witch flicks, the regaining of youth and preservation of beauty is a recurring theme, from the Sanderson sisters in Hocus Pocus (93), to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Lamia in Stardust (07), to Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman (12). These particular witches seek out children, usually for their dewy life essence rather than out of a sense of hatred. They are basically the stereotypical hags of old, and their downfall is their vanity. One exception is Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches (90) by Roald Dahl. While she hides her true Henson-esque hideousness with a mask, a wig, and some killer outfits, she mainly wants to turn children into rodents, if not kill them outright. The self-conscious grotesqueness of Dahl’s story is enhanced by Roeg’s manic, typically fractured style, which makes use of overlapping editing, low angles, and handheld camerawork, to punctuate the actors’ gestures and elastic facial expressions.
More often than not, villainous witches in cinema are literally diabolical. In the Scandinavian silent film Häxan (22), a series of vignettes—most tinted in hell-fire red—depict wicked women gallivanting with the Devil and attending Witches’ Sabbaths. Häxan posits that the witch hunts were rationalized in their time by religious anti-Antichrist fervor.
A gruesome witch-hunt scenario kicks off Mario Bava’s 1960 film Black Sunday. It opens with the witch Asa (Barbara Steele) being hammered to death through a spiked, metal mask. She’s resurrected centuries later having decidedly vampiric predilections, drinking blood to regain her vitality so that she can seek vengeance on the line of ancestors who murdered her. Here we again see the witch positioned as an anti-Christian figure, as she can only be destroyed by the power of the holy cross.
The reigning modern example of the diabolical witch in cinema remains Rosemary’s Baby (68). Witchy next-door neighbor Minnie Castevet—played by Ruth Gordon with her usual relish—feeds Rosemary (Mia Farrow) the world’s most devilish chocolate mousse. Rosemary falls into a hallucinogenic stupor. Polanski’s camera floats around her body, either following her far too closely or caressing her like an invisible hand. Wherever Rosemary finds herself in the impossible geography of this dream, the naked coven that manufactured her vision remains only partially identifiable. They’re shrouded in near darkness, save for the face of the demon who rapes her.
Something interesting happens, though, when the witch isn’t the adversary in the film, but actually gets to be the protagonist. In these instances, our heroine usually starts off meek or repressed, and often a victim of abuse. The 1972 George Romero film Season of the Witch begins as a study in suburban ennui. Housewife Jan White leads a life of boredom, polyester, and standard-fare surreal dreams of dissatisfaction—until she discovers the dark arts. Using her new powers, Jan conjures a steamy affair with her daughter’s professor, takes revenge on her domineering spouse (and then some), and eventually gets inducted into her community coven. Feminine mystique indeed!
As in Rosemary’s Baby, the Devil himself is a catalyst for many of these female metamorphoses. In The Witches of Eastwick (87), Jack Nicholson’s Daryl van Horne reawakens vitality in three initially depressed women whom he describes as being victims of the three Ds: “death, desertion, and divorce.” Cher’s artistic Alex, Susan Sarandon’s instrument-playing Jane, and Michele Pfeiffer’s fertile housewife Sukie embark on a journey of sexual liberation and spell craft. They follow Daryl’s lead in enjoying hedonistic pleasure and power—and projectile cherries—before realizing things have gotten severely out of hand.
In a similar vein, the Devil brings magic and mastery to the life of the utterly devastated Jeanne in the 1973 Japanese animated adult film Kanashimi no Belladonna (Belladona of Sadness). Serially raped and, to put it mildly, downtrodden, Jeanne is the protagonist of this extremely trigger-warning-worthy but gobsmackingly gorgeous Japanese take on the seminal 1862 French treatise on witches, Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière. After communing with the Devil in one of the trippiest scenes ever committed to celluloid, Jeanne becomes a witch, erotic and chthonic in equal measure, bringing healing and revelry to her village. Until, that is, her own inevitable fiery downfall corrects this gender imbalance once and for all.
These devil-made-me-do-it films seem to show female sexuality and agency as both desirable and deviant. They are cautionary tales, reminding us that, pan-culturally, we are not very comfortable with women who have power.
Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent (14) turns this hellish trope on its horned head. An origin story about the infamous Sleeping Beauty antagonist, Maleficent begins with its titular character being betrayed and physically violated by a male love interest when she’s young. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned—or in this case shorn—and she curses his daughter, the Princess Aurora, with a hex that will put the girl in a deathlike sleep upon her sixteenth birthday, with the caveat that she can only be awoken with “true love’s kiss.”
As the story progresses, however, Maleficent surprises herself and the audience by using the forces of nature—and the supernatural—to manifest her own protective, maternal instincts, ultimately showing that witches can be saviors and that forgiveness and love are spells in themselves. Throughout the film, we’re encouraged to identify with her not only by her good deeds but also by the score, which uses soaring or sweet orchestral pieces, instead of the ubiquitous, ominous tinkling in a minor key of most witch films, to underscore the triumphant tone of her magical acts.
The witch as healer, or helper, or just overall life-meddler is seen time and time again in film. She’s usually casting breathy, tricksy love spells, like Veronica Lake’s Jennifer does in I Married a Witch (42), or Kim Novak’s Gillian Holroyd in Bell, Book and Candle (58), or Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock’s witch sisters in Practical Magic (98), though in the latter case, there’s a hefty helping of vengeance for abuse in their brew as well. In the 1962 British film Night of the Eagle (released in the U.S. as Burn, Witch, Burn) a college professor’s wife turns to witchcraft to help with his career advancement, until mystical mayhem ensues.
And in The Craft (96), a sort of occult version of Heathers, four teens form a coven in order to seek ritualized vengeance against high-school mean girls and one smarmy boy, and to otherwise heal their own personal traumas. This Nineties entry is formally flashier than Night of the Eagle or Practical Magic with whip pans and wacko dolly zooms even in the non-magical moments. At first, their spells just feel like acts of comeuppance: the racist swimmer has her hair fall out, the smarmy boy is made to fall in love with the spell-caster who wants him. But then the witches get addicted to their powers and greedy for more, and these spells turn dangerous. Lead witch Nancy even begins taking lives. We’re shown that power is a corrupting force, especially in the hands of uncontrollable women.
My personal favorite variety of witch on film is the esoteric wisewoman. She’s a keeper of secrets, a scholar, a seer. She’s often seen flipping through a dusty old tome, otherwise known in witch lore as a “grimoire,” or a book of shadows, in order increase her knowledge and learn new spells. You may recognize this witch in the studious Hermione of the Harry Potter films, or the 15-year-old Lena in the underappreciated Beautiful Creatures (13), who gets to do her research in the subterranean library of my dreams. The wise witch, though, is more often than not a haggard old crone, like the ocularly challenged astronomer Aughra in The Dark Crystal (82), or most famously shown in hideous triplicate, such as the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. But that lack of beauty belies a deep inner well of visions and a reverence toward mystery.
Witches are endlessly fascinating because they reflect our ambivalent, complicated feelings about women with power. They can invoke the divine feminine while looking sexy as hell, as in the coven seen in Four Rooms (95), or they can be dark goddesses themselves, ushering in a new age, as Marianne Faithfull’s Lilith does in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (72). Anger was an adherent of Aleister Crowley’s religion, Thelema, and here he envisions a cross-cultural pantheon of deities collaborating remotely to call forth the next era of consciousness.
Lucifer Rising was surreptitiously filmed in Egypt, a land Crowley and other magicians considered to be the cradle of magic. The result is a speechless phantasmagoria of occult imagery playing over a soundtrack composed by the film’s star—and convicted Mansonite—Bobby Beausoleil. In Anger’s vision, the female is as sacred as the male. We see the names of goddesses such as Nuit and Babalon included in the ritual circle scene, and the proto-witches Isis and Lilith are as crucial to the enchanted equation as Osiris and Lucifer himself. Anger’s dawning era of miracles and metamorphosis simply couldn’t come without the force of the feminine.
Witches are alternately terrifying and destructive, or life-giving and light-bringing. They harm us, they heal us, they turn us on, they burn us up. They teach us to enforce our own personal boundaries, while remaining marginal—and magical—all the while.
Pam Grossman is an independent curator, writer, and teacher of magical practice and history. She is the creator of Phantasmaphile, a blog which specializes in art and culture with a mystical bent, the Associate Editor of Abraxas International Journal of Esoteric Studies, and the co-organizer of the Occult Humanities Conference at NYU. By day, she is Getty Images’ Director of Visual Trends.