Witches are tricky figures in horror fiction. It’s indisputable that witch hunts are a blight on human history, yet we’re still fascinated by their subject as instruments of terror. Maybe we fear an ability to interfere in our lives while hiding in plain sight, or maybe they still tap into uneasiness with feminine power. Look no further than staple comics like Hellboy, which has come up with a number of witches that fit comfortably into typical “crone” and “seductress” molds.
But some recent stories are trying to break free of traditional depictions: Scott Snyder and Jock’s Wytches are new creatures whose gender has little to do with their powers, and Black Magick by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott has been carefully portraying modern Wicca while tying it to historical witch trials in America. And for a generation that grew up with Willow Rosenberg and the Halliwell sisters, there’s an appeal in stories that depict magic as an agent for feminine empowerment and self-discovery.
Witchcraft can provide an opportunity for fictional women who feel disenfranchised to gain more power, but these powers are often also dangerous. So what are these narratives saying? At what point does gaining unnatural abilities or control surpass empowerment and reach something more threatening? By showing the destructive potential of witchcraft, do these narratives argue that oppressive and poisoned society forces to look elsewhere for fulfillment and satisfaction? Or do these stories court with justifying historic persecution of women?
Some recent reviews of Robert Eggers’ celebrated The Witch: A New England Folktale wondered if the world of the film, where witches are a real threat, comes close to suggesting that the American witch trials were justified. Within minutes, witches are established not only as real, but as baby murderers who are unambiguously allied with Satan. In Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Jason Crook, witchcraft is a bit more complex. We meet Hester Beck as she is burned at the stake by “murderous friends and neighbours” when her magic begins to threaten their community. While the story doesn’t use an expressly Christian framework, it’s clear that Hester’s powers were unnatural and destructive, at least when they went beyond healing the sick and wounded. The series’ teenaged protagonist, Emmy, learns quickly that she is Hester reincarnated and has to navigate which parts of witchcraft she rejects and which she embraces. Emmy doesn’t want to follow in her “mother’s” footsteps by harming the people of Harrow County, but Emmy’s natural magical abilities give her the power to help the community (as well as the various monsters or “haints” that live hidden around the town). Haint and human alike expect Emmy to be Hester’s mind and personality in a new body, like when a man in the town hopes Emmy will supernaturally punish his wife for being unfaithful or a monster is angry that she doesn’t recognize him. Emmy struggles to renegotiate how she sees herself and her abilities, as well as with her community’s expectations of her, while she tries to forge an identity separate from her past life.
Like Thomasin in The Witch, Emmy is on the cusp of adulthood, a difficult time to navigate for all young women. The teenage years are a transitional period when young people are expected to leave childhood behind and join the adult world. But societal standards and expectations further complicate this liminal period; Thomasin, in the 17th century, is expected to help to support her isolated family until she is traded away to a new family as a wife or servant. She is blamed when her infant brother is mysteriously stolen away, but her mother openly dislikes and distrusts her before this even happens.
In the early 20th century, Emmy is also living a simple, rural life, but seems more optimistic about her future. She is eager to “see the world” and “try to meet a boy,” to follow the path of a normal girl who wants to become a woman. Once she learns the truth of her heritage, she is forced to confront her community’s expectations of her destiny, and her father nearly kills her to quell her potential for evil. Once she makes peace with who she is (including her natural abilities), she does her best to use her magic for good. She heals the sick and tries to find compromises for the haints and townspeople to coexist peacefully. These monsters are the most adorable in comics right now, and while they want to help Emmy, many of them are still hoping that Emmy maintains Hester’s darker ambitions (and many townspeople fear the same). Emmy feels confused and lonely as a result, but she’s briefly given the promise of someone who could truly understand her when she meets Kammi, Emmy’s twin sister who is also Hester Beck reincarnate. When she learns that Kammi has embraced the darker side of their abilities, Emmy rejects her twin, summoning the corpse of their mother to drag Kammi down to a shared grave.
Emmy and Kammi represent the two halves of Hester’s legacy: Emmy, her healing powers, and Kammi, her desire for power and destruction. Hester Beck was first a healer and gave life to a number of people, creating them from the dirt. Many of her unnatural children still live full lives in Harrow County, and one paints Hester in a different light:
“When Hester first appeared among the folks of Harrow County, she was not welcomed. If she offered to heal the sick, they recoiled from her touch. If she delivered a sermon, they refused to listen. She took to the woods … and there, in order to keep company, she called up the haints from the dark places. Even though the ghosts and goblins protected her … even though they obeyed her every whim … she still felt alone. And so she set about shaping new followers for herself. She raised men and women from the mud …”
While calling these beings “followers” is a bit more sinister than calling them “children,” Hester’s loneliness makes her more sympathetic here, particularly because these beings were given free will and turned on their creator—and now Emmy is subject to the same persecution. Even some of the haints begrudge Emmy for being forced to hide in the shadows, but Emmy is kind to them and to the townsfolk, even after they try to kill her. She’s not weak-willed, since she essentially kills three people by reducing them back to the mud they were made from, but she lacks Kammi’s lust for power. Kammi arrives in Harrow County and reaches out to the darker, more vengeful monsters lurking in the deeper shadows with a willingness to perform dark magic. When Emmy rejects her sister, she rejects her own potential for destruction, symbolically burying Kammi with their shared past.
For most of The Witch, though, Thomasin doesn’t have much of a darker side to reject. She’s frustrated by her family, particularly her creepy younger twin siblings and a mother who is casually cruel and untrusting, but her grievances are understandable. Real evil exists, but the witch isn’t what the film is about—it’s a family tearing itself apart instead of banding together to move on from tragedy. In fact, very little of the major blows against the family are necessarily the act of an evil presence. We see the witch, but the exact extent of her meddling isn’t explicit, so it’s unclear how much of their hardship is natural, but blamed on an outside presence out of need to make sense of heartbreak. It is clear, though, that tragedy causes the family to turn on one another, and when Thomasin is left with nothing, she’s not interested in returning to a life of isolation or to the society that bred her family’s severe Puritan beliefs. She then has to make a choice: To try to make a new life full of hardship and dissatisfaction or to embrace a life of hedonism and power.
This choice is what both of these stories come down to; Thomasin was raised to believe that it is predetermined who will enter Heaven, and the Devil (in the form of the family’s goat, Black Phillip) at least offers her the illusion of a chance to choose the direction her life will take. The film is sympathetic to Thomasin; it presents her future in normal society as bleak, as her parents’ lives were. Their religion was a source of terror and the basis for their accusing three of their children of witchcraft. Rejecting this for a life of material wealth and a coven of like-minded women feels inevitable, even when we’ve seen what horror witches can cause.
Emmy’s choice is more complicated, because she has access to both benign and dangerous powers and has to decide how to maintain hold of her own simpler life despite this new knowledge about herself. The townspeople make assumptions about Emmy and what she can do based on stories about Hester Beck, stories which vary depending on who is telling them. Emmy accepts her past life, but tries to forge a new identity for herself. And she’s not the only one—her friend Bernice learns that her grandfather was one of Hester’s creations and wonders how this affects her own identity. Bernice is a young woman of colour in a segregated society, so when she’s given the chance to learn some form of protective magic against Hester Beck’s lingering influence, she accepts without hesitation. Her teacher, Lady Lovey, never had Hester’s level of power, but she lives alone and has been labelled a fearsome witch—a label Bernice may have to accept herself. We haven’t seen yet how this will turn out or whether it will result in confrontation between the two friends, but Bernice has also begun a journey to finding herself through magic. She has begun to make her choices.
As discussed in my last piece, monstrousness comes from breaking social taboos. Witches are troubling figures—the most common form of female monster—because while they can be empowering figures, they are so easily cast as villains and monsters. Both The Witch and Harrow County cast witches as villains, but they are also symbols of the potential lurking in the hearts of the protagonists. Anything approaching monstrousness is meant to be especially unappealing in young women, who even today are expected to live up to impossible standards of appearance and behaviour. Witchcraft, while mysterious and potentially dangerous, offers these young women a chance to redefine themselves and to forge their adult identities and putting them at the centre of the narrative aligns magic with a journey toward self-actualization.
Hester Beck is framed as an antagonist, but she’s only seen in flashbacks narrated by other characters. In the series’ opening pages, we’re shown some of Hester’s viler deeds, like stealing and killing babies. But the unidentified narrator condemns the townspeople who burned her as “murderous friends and neighbours” who appreciated Hester’s healing magics enough to turn “a blind eye” to Hester killing their livestock, but also turned against her when she transgressed too far against their societal norms. What exactly she did isn’t always clear, though: Lady Lovey’s potential for magic threatened Hester, who poisoned Lovey’s friends against her, but that’s one of the only specific examples of Hester’s crimes that we see. The reader has to learn about Hester through other people’s eyes and to draw inferences from subtext, and it’s possible to read into descriptions to see Hester as a lonely outcast who was only tolerated as long as she was able to selflessly serve her community. The haints trusted Hester, and in Emmy’s time, they are mostly hiding away from humanity, not trying to hurt anyone—that is, until Kammi shows up. Kammi clearly states that she intends to rule the world, and her actions are the most concrete argument the comic makes for Hester’s essentially evil nature. But in general, we’re meant to understand that she was evil purely because she was a witch, and it is generally accepted that witches are evil without further explanation.
Thomasin’s antagonist isn’t afforded the same level of nuance, but she (and the other witches) likely had similar stories to Thomasin’s: Lives of hardship and unhappiness. These women are monstrous for their actions—they’re on record as stealing babies—but they’re never allowed to tell their own stories, evoked via the biased and fearful accounts of others. The film doesn’t leave much hope that Thomasin won’t commit monstrous actions herself one day, but it’s satisfying to see her happy for the first time surrounded by similarly ecstatic, defiant women. Emmy can choose a path of benevolence and healing, but she will have to continue to battle fear and prejudiced narratives that spring up around her. No matter how benign her powers, by possessing them and by defying society’s expectations, Emmy may spend her life being called a witch—a monster. But at least she will be living the life that she chose for herself.