If you ever hang out with 30-something pagans, you will quickly learn that The Craft (1996) was a lightbulb moment for many of them. When The Craft came out, it had a significant impact on the witch community, because it based the practices in the movie in real life practices. Pat Devin, a Dianic High Priestess and consultant for the film, modeled the spells and rituals after Wiccan practices and created the deity Manon so as not to offend practicing witches and have newbs invoking stuff they shouldn’t be invoking. This didn’t really curb the demand though that the film generated, nor did it prepare practitioners and magick shop owners for the onslaught of teenagers demanding more information about Wicca and witchcraft. The Craft, like many witch stories before it, had tapped into the power of the witch archetype and metaphor as a site of female sexuality and agency.
Act 1: “I’m Wanting Contact”
Because of the popularity of the witch in the mid-90s via movies like The Craft, the new age sections of bookstores were filled with books on Wicca, even in the Bible Belt, and this is where you could find teenage me on a regular basis. The collection of witchcraft books I amassed, more skimmed than read–to be honest, sat nicely on our family bookshelves alongside Anton LeVay’s Satanic Bible and a collection of science books on the origins of the universe. My family home was in many ways a haven from the outside world, and all my girlfriends wanted to hang there where we could do our own imitations of the spells and rituals we saw in the The Craft.
The Craft was what many on pagan paths refer to as their “calling.” Even when the aftermath of The Craft dwindled for most of my girlfriends and we stopped playing “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” at every slumber party, I continued to explore. Wicca, and more broadly witchcraft, and the exigencies of Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle that stuck in my guts and never quite went away.
I sit with my coven for full moon ritual. My hands are tingling and my rib cage hurts, because I am holding tightly to my anxiety from my newness, my excitement, my trepidation. I’m always looking for my people, my tribes as though my identity will ever feel solid and static, but the desire has never really changed–it always feels like static electricity.
Act 2: “Danger is Great Joy”
Prior to The Craft coming out, I found myself amongst the cool kids as a particularly charismatic girl took me under her wing. It was a few months of feeling the echo of this popularity as I stood close enough to be in their shadows. A new girl came along, I felt left out, and I said so. I still hadn’t learned that coolness is all about lack of desire, at least the presentation of it. You insist that you are fine, that you have control, that you can play with the boys. I did a binding spell on this girl–like Sarah did to protect herself from Nancy’s wrath for leaving the coven–hoping it would end the bullying.
We are supposed to identify with Sarah. She is a classic exceptional girl in the text of the film, set against both the popular kids that reject her and her fellow social rejects. She is the wealthier, natural witch, paler in feature and dress, compared to Nancy’s poverty, Bonnie’s disfigurement, and Rochelle’s blackness. Sarah is so super special that even the magick shop owner Lirio says Sarah is stronger than any witch she has ever known. Her magic requires no work, no effort, it’s “natural.” When everything else feels so hard to our teenage selves, this naturalness is incredibly alluring. There’s a way out of all this suffocating, overwhelming desire! You even get to be above the desire for popularity because you can unleash your power with a mere squint, provided you are the right kind of witch, which Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle are not.
My experience is not unique in my coven–we come together as outsiders to become insiders. Witchcraft is defined by its opposition, and it is that oppositionality that makes it potent to those who never really mastered the art of playing it cool.
Act 3: “I Just Want To Be a Woman”
Portishead’s “Glory Box,” the background sex song to the mid-90s, plays in the background when Sarah wrestles with Chris. You hear the sound of a zipper. I was probably a bit too young to explicitly catch the implication or more accurately already accustomed to this as the burden of womanhood. I burn a little when I see how the narrative manipulates us to echo Sarah’s victim-blaming, while Nancy’s desire for revenge reads like the witch flying off her broom handle. We know which witch is the right witch according to the narrative. I’m #TeamNancy these days.
I notice as a new wave of feminist consciousness emerges and shifts mainstream consciousness that a revival interest in witchcraft (along with internet culture and a healthy dose of ’90s nostalgia) emerges alongside it. Having grown up in the days of dial up, easily finding fellow pagans is still a rather new feeling for me, as is finding queer, people of color, and differently abled pagans writing about the intersections of these identities with their pagan identities. Right now, I feel a little like that young girl again when she first discovered The Craft.
I recently watched Sisterhood of the Night (2014). Like The Craft, it’s not horror in an overt sense, but it is horror because the cultural fear of teenage girls sexuality and agency. The film has its own shortcomings, but unlike The Craft, the power of the group, of a collective rectifying of internalized sexism, is the denouement of the film.
I felt hopeful watching this little indie film wondering about the new witches who will find their calling, too.