Australian Media on Paganism
Every Witch Way
By Ruth Ritchie - Sydney Morning Herald, November 20th
There's a witch on the panel of Beauty and the Beast. I'm not insulting Ita Buttrose or Belinda Green. There's a real live witch with long blonde hair, handing out advice to troubled viewers on daytime TV. Fiona-the-witch joins the Ita-the-editor, and Belinda-the-beauty-queen, and Johanna-the-swimmer. A cross section of modern women. Nobody bats an eyelid. Not even Steve Zemanek.
What's happening here? Is Fiona Horne the type of witch who kills a few warlocks every week on Charmed? Is she the sort of witch who scares three young film-makers to death in The Blair Witch Project? No, but she is being handled internationally by Kylie Minogue's management. And while Horne vows she will never "charge money to talk about witchcraft" she is the first to admit it's becoming very big business.
The Blair Witch Project, an independent film made for $US35,000 (about $54,000) which grossed $US50 million in its first weekend, spearheads a popular cultural occult boom. Witches are enjoying their season in Hollywood. Teen movies have been so dominated by male action figures and special effects that a refreshing dose of witchcraft may be timely. Or are we seeing witches on the screen because there are more witches on the street?
In these tolerant times, magick, Wicca, druid circles and adoration of the goddess are more respectable than selling real estate or practising law. Hit the Internet and ask, "How do I become a witch?" and you'll find hundreds of sites pushing advice, potions, books and paranormal paraphernalia. (Witches have more accessories than golfers, and often dress just as badly.) From On the Witches Web: Your One Stop Pagan Shop, you can pick up a Book of Shadows, a pentacle, an athame and a barely seasoned cauldron - and pay for them with MasterCard.
Nothing scary here, folks, nor should there be. According to Enchanted: Tatiana's Book of White Magic (Hardie Grant, $45), "the philosophy of harming none is the only hard and fast rule in the practice of spell making". Try telling that to the hurt, the hexed and the just plain dead victims of witches who have hit the big time on TV and at the box office.
While Fiona Horne means well on Beauty and the Beast and Good News Week, witches in other timeslots are harming plenty. On Aaron Spelling's Charmed, three sisters reluctantly inherit their witchy powers from one dead mom, and spend one hour a week killing warlocks. On Buffy, Willow the witch is always helping her powerful vampire-slaying best friend. Sabrina the Teenage Witch is a cutie but not much of a killer. Joan of Arc recently revisited our screens and worked up quite a head count before burning at the stake. Major Bellows still suffers at the hands of Jeannie every day in I Dream of Jeannie, and who know how Darren survives Endora's hexes in Bewitched.
And there's no scientific explanation for the success of the Spice Girls and Girl Power. (I'm sorry, but those girls are dangerous.)
Small films such as The Craft have been successfully tapping the witchy vein, but Blair Witch has really hit the jackpot. It's the story of three collefe students who go missing in the woods while researching the legend of the Blair witch. The film is supposed to be compiled from the footage recovered from their expedition.
We never actually see a witch; our fear is fed by folklore of old hags and stolen children. As the students, Heather, Josh and Mikey, get more lost, hungry and frightened, they are driven over the edge by the possible existance of witches.
Plato wrote that witchcraft "persuades its victims that they are being harmed by those who are able to work magic". The real power of witchcraft, then, lies not with the spell-caster but the fear and the credulousness of the victim. Plato could have made a fortune at the box office this year. Smart move, not to show the witches.
Even smarter move to focus on the female lead, Heather, a young woman of bravery and determination. It is her film project. She puts the team in danger and ultimately takes responsibility for their demise. She's Captain Ahab with a ponytail and a Handycam. Heather's a kick-arse mortal girl, and that's probably scarier to most boys then a witch.
From crones to creamy beauties, imagery of witches changes with society's needs. Witchcraft is older than Christianity. The Greeks and Romans used voodoo dolls to undo enemies and entrance unwilling lovers. Such power is not gender specific, but the role of women in witchcraft since has often focused on the practice of culturally sanctioned scapegoating and the construction of women as marginal.
Women's intuitive associations with nature, ability to heal, or find lateral solutions has often been regarded as suspicious and dangerous.
Individuals who were neither Madonna nor whore could all be grouped under one antisocial label as witches to be feared, spurned or burned. Perhaps that is why, even now, the witch has no consistent representation. Not all outsiders look alike.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when most people were part of an agrarian economy, the failure of a crop or a diseased animal raised suspicion of witchcraft. In tight-knit communities, witch-hunting was a great way to dob in your neighbour. Innovations such as penicillin and even the pension removed the social need to point fingers at witches.
By the 1960s, in the suspicious days of women's liberation, the popular representation of witches changed yet again. Samantha in Bewitched and Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie were infinitely more powerful than their male counterparts or masters, buy they had only one desire: to fit in. To do that they could never use their powers. What an interesting time to discourage women from taking control.
A generation of little girls grew up wiggling their noses and trying to redecorate their bedrooms as the inside of a velvet-lined bottle/prison. Yet Darren and Major Nelson always came out on top, taking the credit for the magic they banned.
Witchcraft seemed to go underground in the '80s. Women had power suits and shoulder pads - perhaps we didn't need a broom as well.
So what's happening now? In a time of perceived equality, women work, smoke and drink as much as men. By losing the connection with the stove, garden, nursery and nature, women are finding new ways to empower themselves. Yet they are not turning to the church, a traditionally male-dominated domain.
So women are dabbling in ancient arts of such a wholesome variety that a witches' coven sounds less scary than a Tupperware party. In popular culture, the powers are dangerous. In 90210, Shannon Doherty was a mortal bitch, but harmless. As Prue of the good little witch in Charmed, Doherty is sweet but lethal.
The Charmed sisters are all single, sweet and sexy. The viewing audience cheers every time they knock off a bastard. The witches in Sex and the City, who lack the Charmed sisters' Wiccan powers, drink brew from frustration instead of making it.
So if real witches can't freeze time or hex with hate, what's the point? Fiona Horne doesn't advocate hexing because it attracts too much "karmic detritus" and so "is not worth the effort". Yet she maintains that "a witch who can't hex can't heal".
Her latest book, Witch: A Magickal Year (Random House, $24.95), is full of karma-free spells including one "guaranteed to get rid of that neurotic ex-boyfriend and the annoying work/classmate who keeps pinching all your pens". The spell requires handy household items such as rusty nails, candles and ice-cube trays. The unwanted one's name ends up in the freezer.
No treachery here, unless you find the notion that a woman can't defend herself without mystical intervention treacherous. It's not exactly my idea of empowerment, but perhaps it's more positive to stop waiting for a knight in shining armour by turning ourselves into witches on shiny broomsticks.
Surely these powers, real or imagined, are dangerous in the hands of a lot of pissed-off young girls. Deborah Gray, known as "Australia's Good Witch", says: "The dangers of witchcraft are a complete fallacy. There's no danger in searching for knowledge."
Horne and Gray seem to know their stuff, but what about amateur followers?
Horne's book outlines the case of a witch's experiment with home birth. "My mother had three Caesareans. My sister had two. I really wanted a home birth." She wrote words on white candles to ensure the baby's safe passage, and hooked up with a mid-witch-wife. (She recalls with relish the way her ancestors gave birth in the fields, neglecting to mention the high mortality rates of those halcyon days.)
She got a Nanto bag, something "Italian witches carry around so they can do a spell wherever they are. So I made myself a little Nanto bag so I could focus on the little Pagan inside me."
Naturally, after the baby was born, they salted the placenta and kept it attached to the baby for seven days. Unfortunately, by then it was deemed not quite fresh enough to eat. Is this responsible advice for readers whose classmates keep pinching their pens?
The mother, says Horne, had regular medical check-ups throughout her pregnancy, and the routine with the placenta was traditional. For herself she'd choose a hospital and drugs. "Witchcraft is not about eschewing the benefits of modern medicine."
While it is tempting to take the piss out of our local witches, some of them seem very bright and articulate, tossing around words such as "eschewing" with total confidence.
Deborah Gray, author of the Nice Girl's Book of Naughty Spells (HarperCollins, $14.95) includes spells to help a girl get a good price for her car or attract butterflies to her garden. There's a How to Dump Him spell, requiring the dumper to write the dumpee's name three times on blue paper at midday on Saturday. No ice-cube trays necessary. Again these spells evoke outside help to achieve something a woman should be able to do on her own.
Presumably most young viewers don't really believe the girls in Charmed can freeze time (although Horne maintains that the "manipulation of time" is quite feasible), but how much faith do they place in Horne's How To Be Irresistible spell? The line between fun and faith is blurry. The power and/or fear is only possible when you believe.
This very blurry line is at the core of The Blair Witch Project's success. The accompanying book and Web site appear to be documents of fact. The book, A Dossier (Macmillan, $19.95), introduces "an independently produced movie concerning the disappearance of three student film-makers while researching the legend of the Blair Witch, [which] was the surprise hit of the 1999 Sundance Film festival.
The book contains "official police files, transcripts of recorded interviews, exclusive archive photographs" of a completely fictional plot. Imagine Anne Frank up in the attic with a video camera instead of a diary and you've got the Blair Witch tone. Here we are asked not to believe that witchcraft is real, but that the mysterious demise of three students is real.
"Witchcraft is real," Fiona Horne said emphatically from her sickbed last week. I asked if she didn't have some spell to fix herself up. Of course, but she was just too sick for her powers to be effective. Instead, she spent three days in bed watching videos: The Crucible and The Witches of Eastwick. They probably didn't work, but they certainly couldn't hurt.
The Blair Witch Product opens nationally on December 9.