Arts & Pop Culture

The Evolution of Witches in Popular Culture

By TYLER BREITFELLER

Even as humanity grew more organized, ideas of a mystical force didn’t disappear, but were merely tamed—adapted for society and turned into regulated cultural instruments. As certain religious institutions gained ground, other belief systems and ways of thought were given more negative connotations. Somewhere along the way, magic became chaos. While witchcraft always seemed to be a scapegoat for misfortune, early modern Europe saw it as the perfect villain to their hero—the church. Witches were thought to breed pandemonium and provoke failure, with some old conspiracies claiming outright that they were agents of the Devil. As the Bible fervor calmed in the coming centuries, so did the notion of sadistic witches—for the most part. Today, the world’s favorite antagonists have remained relevant enough to earn their spot in what has become the literary canon.

Aurora Rojer / Kitsch Artist

Aurora Rojer/ Kitsch Artist

As humans, we revel in disorder. Pass through a plaza, café, anywhere really, and you’ll be subjected to mindless gossip that surrounds you in droves. Someone screws up? Hilarious! Your best frenemy falls down the stairs? No way! Who should we tell next? We live for mistakes and the people who make them. Look at any movie, show, play—no one cares about a character that’s flawless. Where’s the fun in that? There is nothing better than a tragic downfall, figuratively or literally. And when a play opens with thunder and lightning and scheming and maniacal laughter, well, we know not to expect anything too uplifting.

Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and tells the story of immoral pursuits of power and the effects, both psychological and political, that it casts onto its participants. Dark ambition is the characters’ drug of choice, and the dealers are none other than a trio of pot-stirring witches. At the beginning of the story, the witches act as prophets, telling Macbeth of his destined success. Once he takes the throne, they return to tease him with prophecies of his downfall. Their actions are contradictory and their motives are undisclosed. So, why witches?

The answer is simple. They were seen as traitors in Shakespeare’s day, rebelling against spiritual norms, and so it’s easy to cast them as the defiers of logic. Shakespeare leaves no clues as to whether Macbeth would have actually taken the title of king had he not pursued it so aggressively, and therefore whether the witches created his fate or simply reported it is impossible to know. These witches come with no clarification, and each time they appear havoc lays in wait. Put simply, they are chaotic plot tools. The three witches had no goals but to cause trouble for those around them, and this pretty much sets the tone for the portrayal of witches in popular media for the next few centuries. On a scale of undeveloped chaos-causers to complex characters, these witches are at the far left, and it is not until the iconic Wizard of Oz that their place begins to shift.

 

Fast forward a couple hundred years and say hello to everyone’s favorite wand-waving, sparkling sorceress, Glinda. The Good Witch of the North staked her place in modern witch history as a benevolent force of magic in Oz. L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, clearly did not create his witches with a sadistic alliance in mind.

As the film’s prominent good witch, Glinda welcomes Dorothy to the world of Oz and sends her off to see the Wizard in her first appearance and, later, also rescues Dorothy from the poppy field and reveals the secret of the shoes. Despite her limited appearances, Glinda plays a crucial role in the protagonists’ adventure. Although she knew the magic of the shoes, she still sent Dorothy on her mission to Oz, an act of either carelessness or, more likely, quick wisdom. The shoes withheld an immense power, and of course Dorothy had to be tested before she was taught to harness it.

On the other hand, we have the Wicked Witch of the West. Green-skinned and clad in black robes, this witch is a vengeful force to be reckoned with. While she seems to be in line with the Shakespearian troublemakers, it is made clear that she is acting out of greed and revenge. She wants the slippers, she wants the power, and she wants Dorothy to pay for dropping a house on her sister. She is chaos, but with purpose.

Although these witches aren’t exactly the stars of the story, they’re much more developed than what Shakespeare gave us. The witches fill both roles, the background hero and the forefront villain, each hiding subplot beneath their sleeves. They have goals, and they act to achieve those goals. They make moves for themselves and are justified with more than a penchant for chaos. The Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West mark the ground where witches to come will carve their own niches, deeper than before, and act to achieve them. While the Oz witches still exist primarily as magical overseers, there is more depth to their characters. Unlike Macbeth’s trio, we know their motivations and enough backstory to establish reasonable justification for their actions. So, congrats Baum, your two wand-wavers make a decided move up the developmental scale.

 

Remarkably enough, the first real examples of substance over sorcery hail from teen sitcoms. When witches came to the small screen, they brought a more positive outlook on the mythos. Sabrina Spellman wasn’t after vengeance, or distress, or the toil of those around her. Witches began to be portrayed as normal people that just happened to be magical in nature, at no fault of their own. They didn’t seek power (well, most of them, anyway), they didn’t exact revenge, and they definitely didn’t lure the mortals around them to their own doom. These characters weren’t chaotic warnings from Hell, but good role models for the young audiences they targeted. Taking cues from the nineties’ success stories, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Craft, Disney Channel created a force to be reckoned with with Alex Russo of Wizards of Waverly Place.

Alex was reckless, headstrong, and stubborn, careless on the surface and wearing sarcasm like armor. She was also thoughtful, a good friend, ambitious, and insecure about her own abilities, stuck in the shadow of her overachieving older brother. Put plainly, Alex Russo was your typical teenage girl. Wizards of Waverly Place, set in New York City, avoided emphasizing the supernatural, and instead used magic as a means to convey morals and develop character. Noticeably void of flying monkeys, the spells in Waverly Place brought action figures to life, created comedic clones, and induced chocolate obsessions. The sitcom did to witches what diets do to desserts—took out all the worst parts and left something laughable. These were kids who grew up with us; their powers usually weren’t front and center, but when they were, it came back to bite them in the face.

Innocence characterized these witches, and for the first time in witch culture they were people we could really root for and empathize with. It took an approach designed for pre-teens to see where bewitching success really lied, and these shows set the groundwork for the witches of the following decade—the modern powerhouses, the practitioners of their own special bitchcraft.

 

As the self-proclaimed “baddest witch in town,” Fiona Goode repeatedly charmed audiences as she led American Horror Story: Coven, to rating success. The third season of the acclaimed anthology followed the story of Salem descendants at Miss Robichaux’s Academy, using witchcraft as a means of conveying themes of minority oppression, familial relationships, and racism. Apart from its occasional nods to gritty voodooism, the witchcraft in Coven was often effortless and gruesomely glamorous. Not halfway through the first episode we watch Fiona snort a line of cocaine and consume a man’s life force. Spell books and cauldrons aside, Coven presented us with witches who came ready to flip a party bus with the flick of a finger and look good doing it.

These new witches are running the show. And unlike the girls of Oz, they aren’t wholeheartedly good or bad. These modern day witches have depth and an unspoken emotion that leaves viewers wondering who the good guys even are (or if there are any anymore). We root unshakably against Macbeth’s trouble causing prophets, but something has happened since then. Miss Robichaux’s girls act with purpose, each coming with their own assortment of redeeming qualities, and before we know it, we find ourselves rooting for a supernatural serial killer. Using the power of Macbeth’s spell casting troublemakers and the increasingly complex character design of the pre-teen heroines as their foundation, the girls of Coven broke the scale, marking a divergence and innovation in the genre.

 

It’s virtually impossible not to notice this new breed of witch in mainstream culture, but why now? These witches are powerful women to match what could be America’s strongest feminist movement in decades. The males in Coven fall prey to the witches—no one is safe. The same people that watched Alex growing up are now at an age where questionable morals and superpowers are all the rage. Witches aren’t soulless villains anymore, existing only to stir the pot for the real stars. They’re front and center, complex and powerful, motivated and emotional. Over the years, witches have evolved to being worth more than just their magic. Instead, they have become a staple of fiction, portrayed as strong women first—and spell casters second.

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