With Samhain/Halloween quickly approaching, and Halloween decorations appearing everywhere, I have been thinking of how witches have been portrayed in the media, on TV and in film, and if perceptions have changed at all about how the average person (not motivated by organized religion or culture) views those who call themselves witch, wizard or wiccan.
Only moments ago I was down at the corner coffee shop waiting for a pumpkin spice latte, and while I was waiting, I glanced up at the Halloween decorations. Right above the register where I had placed my order, there was hanging a green-faced, warty-nosed witch. A flood of images and thoughts ran through my head in rapid succession, the first being “How appropriate, a witch is hanging above a witch ordering coffee”, but then I caught myself. NO. Not appropriate at all. First of all, there’s that subliminal message of “hanging witches” (remember the Salem witch trials?), and then there’s the false notion of witches being evil, with warts on green faces. This stereotype is still part of the collective consciousness, especially where Halloween in concerned, due largely to the maligning of witches by the Christian church and popular media.
As much as I love the word Witch, this is a word that means different things to different people, depending on where they live, the culture and environment they were raised in, and their level of education (Education being the key word). Witch means something entirely different in South Africa than it does here in the USA. There are some places in the world where the mere suspicion of being a Witch could get you killed, because in those places Witches are associated with evil and misfortune. When bad things happen, the uneducated seek a scapegoat and the “witches” get blamed. This may sound familiar. (Again, remember the Salem witch trials?)
While other parts of the world still have a falsely negative view of witches and witchcraft, here in America attitudes are not so harsh. Well, maybe in some conservative parts of the country, but not everywhere. Most educated, intelligent people know that witches revere nature and use their gifts to bring healing and restoration. Wicca (the modern interpretation of the old religion of Witchcraft) has been legally recognized as a religion since 1972. Here in America, Witches are embraced and celebrated, both in real life and in the media.
This is the first of a two-part series of articles about witches and witchcraft in the media. This section will focus on TV witches and wizards. Wizard is a word that is not used often, and even though Witches can be both male and female, a Wizard is also a male witch. Warlock is another controversial word, which I will address a bit later.
There are many examples from television that present witches and witchcraft in a positive light. These are witches as they are meant to be, good and kind, helpful and healing. I own many of these TV programs on DVD and I think they are good for any witches’ video library. Here is my list of favorites:
BEWITCHED is the story of a young witch named Samantha who marries an unsuspecting mortal (non-witch), Darrin Stevens. When he finds out she is a witch, he has second thoughts at first, but his love for her is priority and the two are wed. He forbids her to use her witchcraft, much to the chagrin of her flamboyant mother Endora (also a witch), who is completely opposed to their marriage. Samantha does use her witchcraft in many comedic situations that made this long-running TV series so popular. There are many colorful characters, such as Samantha’s relatives Aunt Clara, Uncle Arthur, and nosey neighbor Gladys Kravitz. The first actor who portrayed Darrin left the show due to severe back issues and was replaced by another actor. During the series, Darrin and Samantha had a daughter, Tabitha (also a witch) and a son Adam (not a witch). In the 1970’s there was a spin-off series featuring the grown-up Tabitha, but it was short-lived. Samantha Stevens was kind, caring and supportive of her community, a refreshingly positive image of the Witch. I know a lot of people think of Bewitched as “that old TV show I watched as a kid”, but I think folks need to seriously revisit this series. Both Bewitched and Tabitha are available on DVD. Incidentally, there was a movie version of Bewitched that was released in theatres, but it was absolutely horrible.
CHARMED is the story of three sister witches, Piper, Prue, Phoebe Halliwell (and later, Paige) who discover their destiny to use their witchcraft to fight evil demons and warlocks. The sisters find their family Book of Shadows (with a Celtic triquetra symbol on the front) hidden in an old chest in the attic and throughout the series learn how to work the spells written inside to fight the forces of evil. At the end of the third season, one of the sisters is killed and they magically discover another sister who becomes part of the family to restore “the power of three” for another five seasons. The story is set in San Francisco, and watching the show was always nostalgic for us since we lived there for awhile, and they frequently showed clips of various landmarks around the city, places that we recognized and had visited many times. The Halliwell sisters are good witches, fighting evil and restoring peace. Some real witches have criticized the show, because the girls are often wearing skimpy outfits. I say SO WHAT. Speaking as a gay male, if I had a hot body (which I DON’T), I think I would show it off too. I see nothing wrong with that. My only complaint with Charmed (besides the entire Billie/Christie storyline) is the concept that “you can’t use magic for personal gain”. This is not true with real magic. If you don’t have your own immediate needs met, how are you going to help others? The whole banning of magic for personal gain may have been true for “The Charmed Ones” but it is not true for everyone who practices Witchcraft. There was one episode where a Wiccan was described as “Not a magical Witch but a Witch Practitioner”, also false. All witches are magical. These are minor beefs that I have with the show, which I still think is excellent. The first few seasons had many Wiccan references, Phoebe quotes part of the Wiccan Rede and you hear them using the phrases “Blessed Be” and “So Mote It Be” in numerous episodes. Throughout the series you will see both male and female witches, mythological creatures, leprechauns, faeries and the like. The Halliwell Sisters are cauldron-stirring, spell-casting, potion-making witches who use their gifts and abilities to fight evil spirits, demons and warlocks. There’s that word again, Warlock. In the series, Warlocks are evil, as that is the definition, after all. Oath-Breaker, Evil-Doer. Some people are trying to re-claim the word as a positive thing, using creative semantics and trying to spin the definition to their liking. Those who identify as ‘Warlock’ tend to do so with an air of defiance and a “challenge me” attitude, saying it “really doesn’t mean” what we’ve known it to mean for centuries. You can keep the Warlock title, I still prefer to be called Witch. There have been recent rumours of a new Charmed series, but nothing definate has appeared yet…we keep hoping!
MERLIN was a BBC series now on DVD about the young mythological wizard that lasted only five seasons. I loved everything about this show, I had grown so attached to the characters and was very sad when it ended. Merlin was a delightful character and we especially loved Gaius, Merlin’s mentor. This is the story of young Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, Morgana and Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon. Uther has forbidden the use of magic in Camelot, and anyone found to be using magic is put to death. Merlin takes a job as an apprentice for Gaius, the Court Physician. Gaius gives him a book of magic that contains spells, potions and how to use herbs and plants for magic. Gaius knows that Merlin is a wizard and is a father figure to him as he guides and protects Arthur on his many quests, and finally as Arthur becomes King. This series is filled with magic, mythological creatures, Arthurian legend and adventure. A joy to watch, but with a sad ending that stays true to lore and legend.
MYSTS OF AVALON was a TV mini-series, now available on DVD that tells the Arthurian legend from the perspective of High Priestess and Witch Viviane. This is a hugely popular program in Wiccan circles, as it portrays a line of hereditary Witches with ties to the ancient past, a concept held dear to many modern witches. Whether one agrees with this idea or not, the film is highly entertaining, beautiful music and scenery. It is rather long, just over three hours, and is based on the book by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
THE LEGEND OF EARTHSEA was another TV mini-series now available on DVD, based on a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is a story of a young wizard in training who is called upon to restore peace and balance to the world when the Amulet of Peace, which has ensured harmony between humans and dragons for centuries, is broken and a piece of it disappears. This was hugely entertaining, with Harry Potter-like themes.
LEGEND OF THE SEEKER was another TV mini-series on DVD, a story of a young man whose father is killed by a tyranical leader. With the aid of Kahylan, a “Confessor” with the ability to recognize when others are speaking truth, and eccentric wizard Zeddicus, they fight the evil leader, and overcome dangerous situations and creatures they encounter. Filled with witches, wizards and magic in a story of good against evil. This series only lasted two seasons.
ROOM ON THE BROOM is a delightful animated story on PBS about acceptance and friendship. The witch and her cat are flying on her broom as they make several new friends who ask to join them on the broom. I love the line “Is there room on the broom for someone like me?” The moral of the story is, yes, there is room for everyone, regardless of who and what you are. A heartwarming story of tolerance and acceptance. This is not only available on DVD, it is also a book, there are plush figures, coloring books and other activities for the kids, and a live stage-play version in the UK.
HALLOWEENTOWN is the first of a series of TV movies about a family of witches who must travel to Halloweentown to fight the evil forces who seek to take over the town. These are family films, and are often broadcast in October on the Disney channel. The residents of Halloweentown are always in costume, the town is populated by witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins and all manner of typical Halloween creatures. Debbie Reynolds is the matron of the family, a powerful witch who assists her grandchildren as they use their magic to fight the forces of evil. Good family fun!
Witches of East End
WITCHES OF EAST END was an unfortunately short-lived (two seasons) series on Lifetime, now available on DVD, about a family of witches haunted by an ancient curse. The Beauchamp daughters are destined to die in their late 20’s or 30’s (I can’t remember which) and then be reborn to start the cycle over and over again for eternity. Their mother and their aunt do all they can to break the curse while teaching them how to use their magic and embrace who they are as witches. I really loved this show, and I was very sad when it ended. This show had a lot of fans when Lifetime cancelled it. What were they thinking?? I hoped that another network would pick it up, but that did not happen. There was no ending episode to tie up the loose ends, viewers were just left hanging.
THE GOOD WITCH is a popular series on the Hallmark Channel. There were several movies before it became a regular TV series, all of which are available on DVD. To be honest, I had a tough time getting into this, despite it’s large fan base. In all of the episodes I’ve watched, (and I will admit I haven’t seen them all), she never actually said she is a witch. She runs a holistic shop called ‘Bell, Book and Candle’, (a nod to the movie of the same name, about a witch). I never see her touch a cauldron, cast a spell, mix a potion, etc. You know, typical things that witches do. Her magic seems to be more of the New Age, holistic, self-help/counseling variety, which are subtler forms of magic in their own ways and not as obvious as I would prefer. Maybe I just need to watch more of it…
You will notice I didn’t write anything yet about AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN. That is because I have only seen parts of about three episodes, all of which were a bit disturbing. I can’t really make an objective opinion until I watch more of it, but I have some doubts about whether I will like it. People have said to me, “yes, it’s intense but just look at it as entertainment”. It kind of hard me to do that when I know that alot of people form their opinions about witches and witchcraft by what they see in movies or on TV, and if what they see is disturbing…
Part Two of this series will be about good witches in film, there may be a few you haven’t seen…