Hocus Pocus is fun. It is for children so the evil witches are more fun than scary. Yet, they follow the traditional cinematic construct of the evil witch as a bad woman, a woman who does not adhere to the accepted norms of female behaviour. The three colourful witches are outside the (legitimate) community physically and normatively. They live in the forest, away from the community, and harm the community. In line with the traditional image of the bad woman, they don’t like children. These entertaining witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy) kidnap children and plan to kill them. They also bewitch the entire community with a brilliant show.
More seriously and troubling, the accusations of witchcraft in the seventeenth century were very much about asserting male authority on women. Young and old unmarried women, who were not under the authority of a man, were feared. Witches were the enemy within, those who threatened the social order, which rested very much on a tightly regulated female sexuality. As Louise Jackson has shown, the construction of the witch reflected the opposite to the ‘good wife’. The good wife was associated with feeding, caring for her children, healing and giving birth. Her mirror opposite, the witch, was accused of poisoning, infanticide, harming, and causing death. “Laws against infanticide were reinforced in an attack on young single mothers whose behaviour was seen as deviant and suspect.” (Jackson 1995: 71). In their confessions, women judged themselves against the social expectations of the ‘good wife and mother’ and ended up believing that they were witches, responsible for making/letting their child fall ill.
In films, bad witches, by and large, are still constructed as being devious and killing children. Even films that ‘embrace’ witchcraft reiterate the dichotomy between ‘good woman’ and ‘bad woman’ in opposing a good witch to a bad witch. The good witch is the one who adheres to a construction of femininity around beauty, harmony with nature, sensitivity, and controlled sexual desire. The bad witch is the ‘other’, the one who does not adhere to social norms. She is often an ugly hag or, if beautiful, her beauty is deceptive and sexually provocative. Moseley (2002) makes a strong argument for teenage witches’ films reasserting gender norms. She points at the “policing of difference and the construction and validation of hegemonic femininities” (Moseley 2002: 405), which is particularly true in The Craft and Practical Magic.
In The Craft, in accordance with the traditional construction of women as ‘close to nature’ (see Ortner 1974), ‘good witch’ Bonnie (Neve Campbell) is a ‘natural’ witch. She has inherited her witchcraft from her mother, she is feminine and conventionally good looking. Femininity and (good) magic are constructed as communion with nature. The ‘bad witch’ is Nancy (Fairuza Balk) who sports a punk gothic look, seeks power, and has an untamed sexual desire. Bonnie triumphs over Nancy castigating the unconventional ‘other’.
In Practical Magic, the dichotomy is embodied by good witch Sally (Sandra Bullock), who is associated with nature and domesticity. She is a good wife, married with children, whose magic of recipes, spells, and candles is but an extension of her kitchen duties. In contrast, her sister Gillian (Nicole Kidman) is a witch who has ‘gone astray’. She is independent, single, has no children, but plenty of sexual desire. She gets possessed and therefore punished for not being a good wife and mother, as every woman (or good witch) should be.
Contemporary expectations about good parenting and the pressure put on women are presented in a haunting and effective manner in The Babadook (see post). Women need to control their children, yet they also need to fulfil their every wish. More empowered witches can be found in The Witches of Eastwick & American Horror Story – Coven (see my post on Coven).