Witches in Popular Culture

Steven Posch has a brief article on what he calls witchsploitation.

You know the genre. Wicker Man I (“the one without Nicholas Cage,” as a local movie marquee put it during the midnight Samhain run last year), To the Devil a Daughter…so many to choose from. Somewhere off in the sticks there are (bwa-ha-ha) still real, live witches (or left-over pagans) and they still practice…(shudder)…human sacrifice. Whoa, dude, way scary.

A coven-sib recently confessed to me that her bookshelves are filled with trashy novels with the word “witch” in the title. Magenta, you’re not alone. I resemble that remark myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The most amusing are the ones written by people who have done just a little research. Remember that 1964 cauldron-boiler Book of Shadows? In the opening scene, police are called to a gruesome murder in NYC’s Central Park. A man has had his belly ripped open, his guts nailed to a tree, and he’s been forced to walk around and around the tree wrapping a grim maypole with his own intestines.

Okay, this is a thing. Witches and magicians have always been portrayed according certain stereotypes in popular media. A lot of times the results can be entertaining. Other times they can be horribly bad.

But are they exploiting magic users?

My friend and colleague Frebur Moore put his finger on the pulse of why Witchsploitation is important. Part of the power of the witch is that anything they say about us—no matter how scurrilous, ridiculous, or trivial—becomes ours, and we can avail ourselves of it. Just by claiming this identity, we enter a treasure-house filled with goodies that we can make use of, laugh at, or throw at each other at will. This is the laughter of those so secure in identity that they can afford to laugh at ridiculous stereotypes. How good is that?

It is always useful to be able to find amusement in the stereotypes that people assign to us, and to find fodder in those stereotypes for our own benefit. And the growing popularity of Pop-Culture Paganism shows that we are making great use of popular media images of witches and such.

But are some of these images detrimental? Are some of them offensive?

Well, perhaps. But we’re taking ourselves too seriously. Because most people in the US still think that magic is fantasy and that witches aren’t real. That in no way should minimize the persecution that many pagans suffer at the hands of the ignorant, but it needs to be taken into account that these popular media images of witches are fantasy, and are not meant to depict the reality of witchcraft or magic or paganism. These are not the Blaxploitation films that served to propagate racial stereotypes: they are fantasy images that strive to evoke fear in the audience for entertainment value.

And quite honestly, the most offensive ones to me are those that do their research, and that put as much genuine and accurate information in them as possible. Because then when the fantasy kicks in, and the blood flows, those lines blur, and the uneducated audience conflates the fantasy they saw with the accurate that they heard (in film) that is being confirmed (in real life).

We have a lot of work to do to decrease the ignorance about our religions and practices. And a lot of those stereotypes need to be fought bitterly. But instead of criticizing fantasy for “not being accurate enough” we should acknowledge it as the fantasy it is, and enjoy its entertainment value.

The problem isn’t that American Horror Story: Coven was inaccurate. The problem was that people were asking if it was. And we should respond very simply and gently: “Are you fucking serious? It’s fantasy!”


One response to “Witches in Popular Culture

  1. Pingback: Witches in Popular Culture | Practical Pagans

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