What Can Witch Movies Teach Us About Adversity?
The TV witch – complicated, powerful, and finding new ways to assert her agency. She empowers her audience from one generation to the next.
The popular TV series American Horror Story kicked off its ninth season in September 2019, with Emma Roberts once again holding a leading role. However, Brooke Thompson (her AHS:1984 character) may not receive the same level of acclaim as Roberts’ most well-received role on AHS — that of Madison Montgomery, a powerful young witch. Madison first appeared in the third season, Coven, in 2013 and was resurrected in the series’ seventh season, Apocalypse.
Interestingly, Madison Montgomery has been widely touted as not only the best AHS character portrayed by Roberts, but also the most iconic character in American Horror Story as a whole. And it’s easy to see why. Roberts’ Madison is confident, cunning, outspoken, and an extremely powerful witch. And Madison isn’t afraid to use her powers against those who have wronged her, from the frat boys who sexually assaulted her in the first episode of Coven, to Fiona Goode (played by Jessica Lange), the coven’s Supreme witch.
Despite its status as a small-screen iteration, AHS: Coven followed in the footsteps of several notable films about young witches who band together to fight against adversity. For instance, witchcraft became a popular phenomenon among teenage girls in 1996, especially misfits and outcasts, thanks to the blockbuster horror-drama, The Craft. And while this film wasn’t the truest representation of what being a modern witch means, it showed many women a new means of reclaiming confidence and inner strength through magic. Feminism and girl power served as prominent themes within the movie, and The Craft helped usher in a wave of powerful female witches on both big and small screens. Ultimately, films and TV shows such as The Craft, 1998’s Practical Magic, and AHS: Coven, when the more fantastical elements are stripped away, celebrate feminism and self-discovery in the face of adversity.
TV Witches and the Feminist Movement
On-screen witchcraft features copious fantastical elements, but feminism plays a substantial role as well. In fact, a “Stylist” writer in 2018 declared Practical Magic to be the “ultimate feminist film” of all time. Like most other films featuring fictional witches, Practical Magic passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, addresses historical crimes against women, and puts power firmly in the hands of female characters.
On a societal level, it’s important for young women to see feminism on screen, in the form of powerful women who take charge of their own life and their own sexuality. Feminism is needed in order for women of all ages to gain sexual independence in a world where women feel a lack of control of their own bodies. Anti-abortion regulations are increasing in frequency around the world, for example, and hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untested in the U.S. alone.
Untested rape kits can lead victims of sexual assault to feel as though they were left behind by the criminal justice system, and that they don’t matter in the eyes of society. Those feelings of alienation add to the various emotional traumas experienced by sexual assault survivors, which can manifest as depression, substance abuse, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts. Not only do witch-based movies illustrate the traumatic power of domestic and sexual abuse, they also give female protagonists the power to defeat them, but usually only by teaming together.
Mental Health, Agency and Internal Strength
Mental health is another prominent theme in movies and TV shows that feature witches — and one doesn’t have to be a sexual assault survivor like Madison Montgomery to experience symptoms of emotional trauma or poor mental health. What’s more, it’s important to note that all witches don’t inherently suffer from mental illness, and mental illness does not inherently lead to a person practicing witchcraft — but witchcraft, in its many forms, can offer people suffering from mental illness with a means of self-care and internal strength that they need to support themselves, and seeing characters on screen doing exactly that is what makes these films so important and enlightening for those who watch them. For example, the group of misfits in The Craft serve as a shining example of the various forms of trauma and adversity faced by modern women, and it’s easy to see why teen girls readily empathized with the film’s characters.
In The Craft, Sarah is the new girl at school who recently survived a suicide attempt. Audiences aren’t given the reasons behind Sarah’s suicidal ideation or attempt, however, which is ultimately the weakest piece of the film’s plot. The oversight is especially detrimental considering that suicidal ideation disproportionately affects young people. Rounding out the coven of witches in The Craft, Rochelle is a racial minority in a school full of white girls, and Bonnie feels so self-conscious about her burn scars that she wears baggy clothes and avoids most forms of human interaction.
Meanwhile, the coven’s de facto leader, Nancy, is poor, unconventional-looking, sexually active, and somewhat volatile. She uses witchcraft as both a coping mechanism, in the form of escape, and as a tool for revenge — all as a means of regaining her power and showing people that she is not to be messed with. While these same fantastical, Hollywood effects aren’t to be expected in real life, the emotional and internal outcomes for real witches might be the same — the feeling of empowerment that comes with tuning into oneself and using that energy to manifest what one wants, needs, or is seeking out. Fabulous outfits are a plus.
Witchcraft in the Real World
As Nancy effectively demonstrates, escapism is intrinsically linked to on-screen portrayals of witchcraft, and nature plays an important role in witches looking to escape from the pressures of daily life. For instance, each of the coven members in The Craft are associated with, and derive power from, one of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.
Witchcraft has always sourced itself in the power of nature, and it’s for a reason. Nature gives women a tangible way to isolate one’s self from the problems that society creates. Everything from building a simple garden to moving to a remote location in the wilderness can give anyone this power. Nature is directly correlated with happiness, and spending time in natural environments can positively shape our attitudes and lifestyle choices.
The majority of on-screen witches have a deep understanding of the harmony that nature brings, even when they reside in urban areas. Modern women looking to foster that connection don’t have to resort to witchcraft or join a coven: Many women find joy in natural environments, and can create a witch’s garden in their backyard. Conversely, taking regular hikes through the woods with other like-minded women is an inspired way to celebrate feminism, fight against adversity, and harness the power of nature.