The witch, from horror to girl power

“Ding dong, the witch is dead! » sing, overjoyed, the Munchkins of the Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) upon discovering that the house of Dorothy (Judy Garland), carried by a tornado, crushed the Wicked Witch of the East, who was persecuting them. But barely have they had time to rejoice when the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) appears with her green face, her thundering laugh and her raven black costume…

Hunt the witch, she’s coming back at a gallop! Ever since Macbeth crossed paths with “the fateful sisters”, these “mysterious and dark larvae of midnight”, they have haunted our theater stages and our screens, the pages of our books and even our streets.

However, the trendy witch of 2023 has little to do with her sinister ancestors. In the United States, the glamorous singers Lana Del Rey and Azaelia Banks boast of casting spells on their enemies; the heroine of the moment, the exquisite Wednesday Addams (in the Netflix series Wednesday), discovers a witch ancestor burned in a public place; and the New York Times proclaims: “We live in the golden age of witches! »

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In France, Celine du Cheneauthor of witches (Michel Lafon, 2022) and documentaries on the subject in the series LSD on France Culture, gives voice to those she calls the most authentic “white” witches, those who are on the side of benevolent spirituality. They are women in the shadows, healers, who never resort to advertising but rather word of mouth”. In short, the contemporary witch is “a superheroine” to use Mona Chollet’s formula in her 2018 bestseller, Witches. The undefeated power of women (La Découverte editions, 2018).

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What a tortuous path has taken us from the three creatures of the “Scottish Room” who concoct potions in their famous “boiling cauldron” to these feminist icons that are the very scholarly Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and the petulant Scarlet Witch of Wanda vision ?

Sabbath and potions

From the silent film, the cinema falls under the influence of these creatures of the twilight which give birth to Macbeth a “strange concern”. In 1925, Benjamin Christensen signs a film destined to remain legendary, Haxan – “witches” in Danish. The film invents docufiction with its theories on the link between mental illness and witchcraft and its horrific tableaux – including a satanic sabbath – nourished by medieval engravings and references to Fussli… Stuffed with innovative special effects, the film seems to be a precursor, so much so that in 1968 it was released in theaters with the voiceover of William S. Burroughs!

It must be said that the year 1968 was a prosperous year for witches with the release of Rosemary’s Baby of Roman Polanskyvery faithful to the horror novel by Ira Levin. Rosemary Preppy Catholic bride (Mia Farrow) is raped by the devil on a Sabbath that may be a nightmarish fantasy…or reality.

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While the magazine cover Time asks “Is God dead? », Rosemary finds herself pregnant with the child of the demon during a particularly difficult pregnancy. One day, she is struck by the evidence: “They are all witches! In the first place, her neighbor, the overly friendly Minnie Castevet (Ruth Gordon), who made her drink strange concoctions under the pretext of winding her up.

Polanski sketches his main witch, Minnie, as a delicious eccentric New York Jewess wearing a turban, fond of charms and grandmother’s recommendations. Which doesn’t make her any less frightening when she enters Rosemary’s apartment through a hidden door and invites her to take care of the baby who has – immortal retort – “her father’s eyes”.

Misogynistic nightmare

The witches of Polanski (who also directs a macbeth in 1971) inspire many nightmarish visions… We find in Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) the story of a dance school that hides a nest of witches, the same suffocating atmosphere of justified paranoia devoid of any black humor. Argento seems to really dread witches, those women who plot among themselves and display phenomenal power… and always destructive.

In 2019, the master of giallo confided to us by way of explanation “I don’t see witches as real women, but as cultural inventions. I like them at Poe, Lovecraft. Treatises on witchcraft are true artistic creations. I know what I’m talking about because I have often visited – and still do – a very special place here in Rome, the Biblioteca Angelica. It is near piazza Navona, next to the church of Sant’Agostino. In this library – which is huge, a work of the great architect Vanvitelli – there are no recent books, but rare, very old works, banned by the Holy Office in past centuries… did not burn! I spent whole days there studying alchemy, magic, witchcraft, satanism, in grimoires from the 13th century.e or XIVe century. I like symbols, mysteries, treasure hunts, and I have stuffed my films with discoveries that I glean from these strange, deeply disturbing texts. »

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In 1987, humor returned at a gallop with The Witches of Eastwick, the movie of george miller adapted from the novel by John Updike. In Eastwick, a fictional town in Rhode Island, it takes the arrival of one man – the demonic Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) – to unleash their full powers on the three witches played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon. . Despite the splendor of the three tigresses, a background of misogynistic anguish remains…

The lasting footprint of witch hunts

In The Witch (2015), Robert Eggers summons the imagination of Salem and witch hunts the time of an immersive evocation, staggeringly beautiful, of the life of a family of Puritans in the XVIIe century. We are immersed in this time when, as told by Stacy Schiff (in her untranslated story The Witches. Salem 1692), the darkest night engulfs the countryside from the middle of the afternoon, opening the door to the unleashing of the forces of Evil… or of the imagination.

During the film, the young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), confronted with a series of supernatural phenomena and the mistrust of the villagers around her, switches to the side of the witches. Is it society’s fault? Or was it from the beginning his deep nature? “All witches”, once again.

The trauma of the Salem events partly explains why the pop culture comes to give witches a more positive view. Between 1692 and 1693, more than two hundred people were tried in this Massachusetts town for witchcraft. Thirty are found guilty and nineteen are executed in public. History inspires Arthur Miller’s masterpiece The Witches of Salem (1953), a play anchored in its time since the witch hunt led by the Puritans serves as an evocation of the McCarthyist witch hunt.

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But the phenomenon of witch hunts is much broader. It is estimated that in Scotland they caused more than 4,000 victims in the 16e and XVIIe centuries. Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, recently issued an official apology from the Scottish Government for these crimes. Contemporary historians link these persecutions to out-of-control misogyny. It is on this vision of History that the essayists Mona Chollet and Céline du Chéné rely.

As Mona Chollet declares on France Culture: “Treating a woman a witch for centuries meant condemning her to death. There is a kind of levity in the way we treat this heritage which is really striking and which, I think, is linked to the fact that it was women who were executed and that the death of women is never very real or very serious. »

Restore the image of witches

From 1970, the series MA beloved witch proposes a rehabilitation of the Salem witches by shipping the spirited Samantha to Massachusetts. Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) is a true sitcom character, a benevolent and shrewd witch inspired in part by the lovely witch played by Kim Novak in The Adorable Neighbor (Richard Quine, 1958).

She goes to Salem with her husband (who does not have an ounce of magical power) and explains to him that in the XVIIe century “no real witch has been tried for witchcraft”. A little trip back in time allows him to teach the lesson to the puritans who destroy witches: “Those you persecute are innocent. You’re the culprits,” she says. And to disappear so dryly: a witch’s privilege.

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At the house of JK Rowling in the series of Harry Potter, as in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which has its Scarlet Witch, the persecution of witches remains present, even in the form of a distant memory. A paradox: a symbol of feminine power – the witch can act on reality thanks to her powers and her knowledge of books – she is also an archetype of the female victim.

In 2007, the designer Alexander McQueen dedicated his autumn-winter collection to Elizabeth How, his very distant ancestor, who died in Salem in 1692. Through spectacular dresses of severe beauty, the couturier combined the evocation of a supernatural power and the rehabilitation of an innocent. Paradoxical? Yes, and thus deeply faithful to the eminently ambiguous nature of the witch. “The beautiful is frightful and the frightful is beautiful”, says one of the witches of Macbeth…

The witch, from horror to girl power