By Lewis Robertson
The family Halloween flick “Hocus Pocus” (1993) became a cult hit due to its iconic New England aesthetics and the flamboyant performance of Hollywood veteran Bette Midler, but didn’t charm a huge audience at the time of its release. Moviegoing youths of the 1990s were more primed for darker materials, snatching up tickets to see a teenage coven of goths rock the dark arts in “The Craft” (1996). Both films have stood the test of time, and make great autumnal rewatches; But how drastically do their spellbinding stars differ in terms of feminist appeal? And have our pop culture perceptions of witchcraft changed much since the turn of the century?
“It’s easy to overlook the goofy writing of the villains in a film as family-friendly as “Hocus Pocus” and enjoy the earnest Midler’s performance; But the plot plainly draws power from an old trope, a double-standard that has been held for centuries – Women are demanded to be beautiful, but the pursuit of beauty is a corrupting thing.”
Perhaps one of the reasons “Hocus Pocus” didn’t terrify and titillate theatres was because of the one-dimensional attitude of the antagonists; a more cartoonish and kid-friendly demeanour that the Craft would hope to reimagine. The cackling trio of villains wish only to gobble up the souls of children and steal their youths, achieving beauty for all eternity. The comical necromancers act as a stand-in for elderly women, embarrassingly incapable of accepting their approaching age – It feels less like an attack on the stereotype forced upon older women because of their childish bickering and squabbling, whereas a more straight-faced portrayal of these wacky witches would have been a more scathing mockery of women’s pursuit of beauty; An ideal forced on them by a patriarchy as all-powerful as the dark forces that Midler and co. obey.
The girls of “The Craft” have a more complicated relationship with their mystic patriarch. Dubbed “Manon” in their summoning rituals, the film’s heroes receive great gifts from this mysterious male force. Using Manon’s power, the girls all break free from the troubles of teenagerhood; One invokes a terrible vengeance on bigoted bullies, one banishes the extensive body scars that make her feel ugly, and protagonist Sarah places a love spell on a terrible date, making herself irresistible to him. Each wish returns with unforeseen consequences; The now beautiful witches are debilitated by their avarice, and incapable of fighting off the unwanted advances of their hexed superfans.
Many of the teens of “The Craft” escape with their honour intact, learning the errors of their ways and respecting Manon as more than a wish-granting genie – But the desire to be beautiful and eternally beloved by peers takes the teens through a brush with evil. Had they not been redeemed by the unfortunate irony of their spells, they may have ended up like the laughable coven of “Hocus Pocus”, a supernatural worst-case-scenario of feminine greed, where the sickly obsession with beauty overcomes all morals; Even the affection for children so stereotypically associated with womanhood can be conquered by the desire for paranormal beauty.
Have popular culture’s beliefs about women become more enlightened as the years have gone by? “Stardust” (2007) shows a decrepit coven bickering over which witch may use their youth potion and enjoy the refreshed physique necessary to carry out their dark deeds. The Doctor Who episode “The Shakespeare Code” (2007) also depicts beautiful maidens who transform into vicious hags, only after enticing male suitors to their lairs. It seems the implications of beauty as a selfish goal, and tool for evil, have stuck around – At least, until A New England Tale took viewers back to colonial times, to confront the historic roots of hatred towards women.
“Patriarchs of the pre-modern world knew how oppressive their treatment of women was, and feared that their daughters and wives would turn to the devil to seek what men refused to provide.”
In Robert Egger’s “The Witch” (2015), the lustful temptations of a maiden tear a pubescent boy from his pious family. The true form of this stranger is revealed in the film’s crux, as a squealing, naked hag is found drinking milk from the household’s goat. This perversion of maternal nurturing highlights the old woman as an otherworldly creature, one whose ranks are joined by young protagonist Thomasin in the mystic finale of the film, after a mounting paranoia that her family will banish her from their homestead. Tempted to “live deliciously” by the swarthy, male spirit that has destroyed her apathetic family, amongst her listed rewards are “a pretty dress”, but more significantly, she may become one with nature, and excel in the New World in a way her devout parents were failing.
Thomasin becomes a bride to the Devil in exchange for “the taste of butter” and other splendours, representing the anxieties of evangelical settlers to early America. Patriarchs of the pre-modern world knew how oppressive their treatment of women was, and feared that their daughters and wives would turn to the devil to seek what men refused to provide. The paranoia that fuelled the fires of events like the Salem Witch Trials is a reckoning of man’s own cruelty to their female relations. Much like in “Hocus Pocus” and “The Craft”, one of the great goals of the dark arts is physical attractiveness; But it’s temptation is less of an evil in the Egger’s horror, and characterised instead as an unfair standard to which women are held. Driven mad by the desire to belong, who else would Thomasin turn to, but the wicked orchestrations of an inappropriate, manipulative male deceiver?
It’s easy to overlook the goofy writing of the villains in a film as family-friendly as “Hocus Pocus” and enjoy the earnest Midler’s performance; But the plot plainly draws power from an old trope, a double-standard that has been held for centuries – Women are demanded to be beautiful, but the pursuit of beauty is a corrupting thing. At best, those who turn to the supernatural world for more tempting looks are concealing a hidden hideousness, and at worst, they are forbidden from society, unfit to mate with, because their hunger for youth is so extreme that it endangers children; their matriarchal charge in the eyes of the patriarchy.
This Halloween, keep an eye on the classic pointed hats and broomsticks so beloved by horror aficionados, and wonder why we’ve always been told these sorcerers are so scary. To us spooky feminists, the answer may be even more frightening than we were raised to believe.