By Michaela Barton
Throughout history, the symbolic nature of witches in art has transfigured. Originally, witches represented old, ugly, cruel women who lived outside of normal social parameters. The real-life witch trials of the past were often used as opportunities to purge villages of women that threatened female ideals defined by men. These “witches” were perceived to possess great power and were therefore dangerous; often their only power was to revolt against patriarchal standards.
However, with the recent resurgence of witchcraft in media and culture along with a wider accepted adoption of feminist values in society, witchcraft has now donned a more bewitching and even cool guise. Witches still represent female power but that power is no longer framed in a judgemental perspective; instead it is celebrated. However, the villainization of witches in art still occur, especially in horror. Throughout the genre there are a varied coven of witch examples, ranging from the typical depiction to a more modern interpretation and all examples possess a significant symbolic reflection of feminism.
The traditional “vengeful hag” depiction of witchcraft is a favourite in horror as it is ripe with villainess opportunity. These witches often live isolated from society and prey on the innocent souls that cross their path. Infamous horror witch film, “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), is a perfect example with the witch luring young students into her forest and tormenting them. The Blair Witch’s history involves possessing a hermit to murder seven children.
Interestingly, she is not the only witch of horror with a past of slaying children, with another example of this being Bathsheba from “The Conjuring” (2013). It is revealed that when Bathsheba was alive, she conceived a child with her husband and tried to sacrifice said child in a ritual for the devil, who she claimed to love. When discussing Bathsheba, the protagonists theorize she never wanted to be a mother and only conceived to use her child for the ritual. The use of child death in horror’s witchcraft rituals is likely rooted in the male fear of women refusing to fall into traditional roles of motherhood. This behaviour is an extreme contrast to the usual portrayal of acceptable and desirable women – caring, nurturing, honourable mothers – and they instead represent the death of traditional female roles.
“The traditional “vengeful hag” depiction of witchcraft is a favourite in horror as it is ripe with villainess opportunity. These witches often live isolated from society and prey on the innocent souls that cross their path.”
The symbolism of witchcraft and the patriarchy go hand in hand. In “The Lords of Salem” (2011), the patriarchy is represented by Christianity whereas witchcraft is a protest against this. As it was the Zionistic spread of Christian beliefs that first repressed the spiritual movement of witchcraft, this symbolism is apt. The main figure of religion in the film – a priest – is even portrayed through a vision as sexually abusing the main female-lead, while spouting religious sentiment and declaring women-kind as whores rejected by God.
Another way male oppression of witchcraft and women is shown in this film occurs early on in this film. Witchcraft is dismissed by Francis – a self-proclaimed expert of witches, having published a book about the history of witchcraft – when he announces during a radio interview that women who believe they are witches are often psychotic. This declaration can represent the history of men oppressing women and preventing their expression by simply labeling them as “hysterical” or “mad”.
“Recent portrayals of witchcraft in art has noted this fault and is now working to dismantle the dynamic.”
Despite the popular interpretation of witchcraft representing a dismissal of patriarchal standards, the symbolic value of this may be confused in art. If the rejection of God (almighty patriarchal figure) in favour for witchcraft represents an escape into feminism freewill, then the inclusion of Satan poses a problem as, technically, this group of women are not rejecting male figure worship but only swapping one out for the other.
As already discussed, Bathsheba in “The Conjuring” declared her love for Satan and killed herself, sacrificing her mortal body for him. In “The Witch” (2015), protagonist Thomasin endures emotional trials at the hand of the devil, forcing her into isolation before she eventually sacrifices herself to Satan, only then is she gifted power. These power dynamics suggest witchcraft does not represent female freedom as they are still under the influence of men.
Recent portrayals of witchcraft in art have noted this fault and are now working to dismantle the dynamic. In “The Chilling Adventure of Sabrina” (2018 – present), witches can only be gifted their powers if they sacrifice their free will to Satan, a male figure who represents both their father and spiritual husband (ultimate daddy). If they refuse to bow down to their patriarchal figure, they are chastised – as was the case with Sabrina in the first season.
As well as this, in the Church of Darkness, the head figure is a man – Father Faustus Blackwood – who despises the power that witches have so much, he forms his own male following inside the church of darkness to try sabotage witches and put them in their place. Sabrina represents the new era of feminism, still raging against the restrained confinements of womanhood by men. Despite women gaining power in society, men still predominantly hold more positions of power and, it could be argued, possess the influence to “grant” or “revoke” power from women.
“As feminism evolves, so does the symbolic nature of witchcraft in art. Now that the typical and rather sexist image of witches is starting to fall out of fashion, it’s exciting to think what new interpretations and perspectives may be concocted in horror.”
The altering symbolic perspective of witches can be tracked between the original and remake of perhaps one of the most famous horror film depictions of witchcraft – “Suspira”. In the 1977 version of “Suspiria”, the traditional representation of witchcraft is present, with our innocent, young and attractive heroine (representing ideal female standards) up against the coven of cruel and ugly witches, who she eventually defeats by burning to the ground (a direct mirroring of actual witch-trials that burnt witches at the stake).
However, in the 2018 remake, although this depiction of witches still exists in the form of high priestess Markos, they are shown to be corrupted outliers and our protagonist is revealed to be the true mother of witches, Mater Suspiriorum. Instead of representing the male ideal of womanhood up against the evils of witchcraft, she is the mother of witches and is shown to be powerful yet nurturing, caring for her followers rather than using their life-force for her own needs. She could perhaps represent a modern form of feminism that is free from a tainted male interpretation that condemns powerful women as “evil”.
It also depicts a more inclusive portrayal of feminism as the ideal practice of witchcraft is women supporting one another rather than using bodies to climb to the heights of power. As the leader of the coven is also a woman, rather than a male figure like Satan, it again represents a modern form of witchcraft symbolism that actually presents powerful women free from the patriarchy.
As feminism evolves, so does the symbolic nature of witchcraft in art. Now that the typical and a rather sexist image of witches is starting to fall out of fashion, it’s exciting to think what new interpretations and perspectives may be concocted in horror. Perhaps when horror starts to platform even more female talent behind the camera, feminist symbolic witchcraft can truly come into power.