When people talk about “witches” in 2015, they are most likely talking about “Pagans,” members of a movement that consists of as many as 1 million Americans. Alex Mar spent much of the last five years immersed in the American Pagan community -- first as a journalist, and then also for a time as a student and active participant.
Her new book, Witches of America, is a true-life account of witchcraft practice all around the country today, as well as a memoir of her own spiritual searching and questioning. On the eve of Halloween, Mar breaks down some of the major portrayals of witches in television and film, what they get so, so wrong (spoiler alert: witches aren’t out to destroy you) -- and what they actually get right.
1. The Craft (1996)
"This movie opened at No. 1 and went on to become a true cult phenomenon. According to some Pagan friends, it even inspired a wave of cute young girls to start showing up at local rituals in the Bay Area (the more serious witches dismissed them as 'Craftlings'). And there are plenty of scenes in this film that evoke real Pagan practice.
When this high school coven (led with extreme goth intensity by Fairuza Balk) stands in a circle surrounded by lit candles, each taking turns calling out to 'the guardians of the watchtower!,' they’re 'casting' a magical circle using some of the real ritual language of Wicca. And just like so many of the Craft-curious back in the early days of the internet, these girls make repeat visits to their local occult shop to learn more and collect tools for their magic. But the filmmaker gives their ringleader Nancy (Fairuza) such over-the-top supernatural powers -- such as the ability to hurl furniture, or other girls, across the room -- that this quickly leaves the realm of recognizable witchcraft."
2. Game of Thrones (2014-)
"For many Pagans, the magic they practice is often connected to devotional work for a particular god or goddess like offerings and prayers. The more magical work you do in the name of the god you’re focused on, the closer your relationship to that god becomes (that’s the belief).
In Game of Thrones, Melisandre worships a god named R’hllor, the 'Lord of Light.' Unfortunately, he’s a god who requires a heavy dose of human sacrifice. (I probably don’t have to say that Pagans don’t play like that.) We also see her give birth to a terrifying Darkness-baby that emerges from her body in a swirl of black smoke. This is completely out-there (obviously) -- but it is connected to real-life 'sex magic' and the idea that, through a magical sex act, a witch or occultist can 'conceive' and give birth to the desire they’ve prayed for. But while real-life witches often follow an ethical code --basically, do what you want, as long as you don’t harm others -- Melisandre is a clear villainess. As one witch I know put it, 'That woman is a psychopath.'"
3. Snow White (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939)
"Even though they were made in the '30s, Disney’s Snow White and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz are still required viewing for most American kids. And most still walk away with that image burned in our minds of a witch (or, in Snow White, a 'wicked stepmother') plotting to warp our heroine’s future over a crystal ball. While both these films fall back on folktale caricatures of what a 'witch' might be, the use of a crystal ball to tell the future -- or, more often, to have a spiritual vision -- is a real practice known as scrying. This can also be performed using other kinds of smooth, reflective surfaces, like a 'black mirror' or a bowl of water."
4. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
"I love this movie to pieces, even though it is largely responsible for reviving the idea that witches are just dying to give your baby to the Devil. (This film actually inspired a string of seventies B-movies that ran with the same idea -- a kind of 'Satanic' witchploitation cinema.) What they get right: Witches often do practice in 'covens'; rituals do involve standing in a circle, to create a sacred magical space within; and, more specifically, some witches do practice naked, or 'skyclad.' A side note: Going skyclad isn’t about sex -- it’s considered a way of freeing the power in your own body, and a way of symbolically leaving the normal world behind and preparing yourself, psychologically, to do magic."
5. True Blood: Season 4 (2011)
"Marnie was one of the most irritating characters on the True Blood series (and there were a few), thanks to the self-serious, scenery-chewing performance of Fiona Shaw. Marnie’s a witch and a medium who owns a local occult shop where she holds rituals with her coven -- and it’s realistic enough (the circle, the candles, the chanting).
But things take a fast turn when Marnie becomes possessed by the spirit of a malicious, centuries-old witch: cue witches-versus-vampires, etc. (Like Melisandre, Marnie’s ambitions transform her into a sociopath.) Points, though, for the inclusion of necromancy: in one scene, drawing on the dead witch’s skills, Marnie successfully raises a bird from the dead. Necromancy is a real practice that goes back to ancient times: the attempt to predict the future, or gain powerful information, through communication with the dead -- and often through the use of dead bodies for the magic. (I write about an extremely rare present-day form of this kind of magic in one chapter of my book.)"
6. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
"This movie remains, for me, one of the most punishing, torturous experiences I’ve had in a theater. (The too-real sense of what it would be like to become utterly lost in the woods, doomed to die, definitely ruined my dinner plans that night.) That said, specific witchcraft is almost non-existent in the film -- and that may be why it’s so effective. Instead of seeing the witch herself, we only discover small fetishes arranged in the woods as the characters come across them in their hopeless wandering -- deeply creepy evidence of some form of local folk witchcraft. These collections of twigs wrapped together with twine and left hanging from trees do look like the remnants of a sort of folk spell that might be used today -- though Pagans don’t have any interest in moving into the woods just to wait for the opportunity to hex some clueless hikers. That’s not a thing."
7. American Horror Story: Coven (2013)
"In my experience, while New Orleans has a strong occult scene (which I write about in my book), the city is more about Voodoo than modern-day Pagan magical practice. (Points to AHS for casting Angela Bassett as the reincarnation of legendary Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.) That aside, I had more of a problem with the specific magic: Why show people blowing up buses with their minds when so much of witchcraft practice is already pretty compelling, specific stuff? These women’s powers were rarely based on real-life magical work. Similarly, the intricacies of running the coven were based on nothing in particular: everyone’s competing to become the 'Supreme' -- which is not a true magical title. Then again, what’s to hate about a well-dressed witchcraft academy run by Jessica Lange out of a Victorian mansion in a famously decadent, haunted city?
Fakery aside, Lange makes a fantastic modern-day witch. And I’m confident that cameo appearance by Stevie Nicks (as herself, complete with shawls) scored high with real-life witches."