It’s the season of the witch. At least on TV. Witches are hot, and producers are staking their cred on a current crop of witch shows, with new ones in the works. Right now there’s The Witches of East End [WoEE] and American Horror Story: Coven [AHS:C], with a reboot of Charmed being conjured. Coincidentally, Charmed just got dissed on AHS:C, when Queenie, played by Gabourey Sidibe, says:
I grew up on white girl shit, like Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Cracker.
Honey, we all did. And Bewitched. And we’ve all had to deal with Stevie Nicks stigma. (Nicks’s music is the constant companion of swamp witch Misty Dawn, another of AHS:C‘s fashionable friends of the Devil).
For the past six years, reality producers have been trying to get a “real witches” show cast. I know, I get casting calls regularly and even shot a teaser reel for one. When I worked in an occult shop, I was featured on a few shows (Blind Date, where I showed a famous comedienne and her hapless, annoyed staged-date dude how to cast a passion spell; and some episode of a history show about a cursed dress for which I did a snazzy flaring cauldron routine and discussed curses).
Thing is, unlike TV witches, what “real” witches, sorcerers, sorceresses, and (non-stage) magicians do is not all that flashy. Sure there are rituals, solo and in groups (I don’t belong to a coven and I’m a witch, not a Wiccan–more on that later), but unless you are participating and know what’s going on, on it’s pretty boring, though the set dressing can be awesome. Do we go “skyclad,” that is, naked? Uh, if I do do that, I wouldn’t on TV.
American Horror Story: Coven is way better than the tepid Witches of East End, which involves a mom and her twenty-something daughters–the sexy bartender daughter is engaged to a rich boy, but sexually attracted to his bad-boy brother; her uptight librarian, super-rational sister doesn’t believe in witches, even though she is one. Mom is trying to be normal, but she’s accused of murder (the soapy trope of the evil twin!) and the free spirited witch auntie makes peyote stew and walks around naked. WoEE’s cosmology is off, its spellwork is wrong, its characterization of witches is weak, of women is facile, and the acting and writing suck. It’s embarrassing. Like, the librarian witch decides to try casting a spell to help her friend get pregnant (even though she doesn’t believe in magic, but hey, here’s an old book, let’s do it because nothing else is working), and next day her friend gets the results on an over-the-counter pee stick that she is with child! Biologically impossible, even with magic. While it’s possible to test positive as early as seven days past ovulation, most likely a woman isn’t producing hCG at a high enough level to be detected by a home pregnancy test. The earliest you can test is 7 days after ovulation, and it’s recommended to wait until after you have missed your period. You can also be pregnant, not know, and have spotting that you mistake for menstruation. So either the friend tested too soon, was pregnant before they did the spell and the pregnancy test gave a false negative which the next test read as positive, or she mistook spotting for her period, and retested after the spellcasting–surprise!
And the barely a tertiary character token gay guy, is just that, a token.
Joanna’s daughters on The Witches of East End have been reincarnated since at least Salem–mom appears to have nine lives, or be immortal or something– and each time the girls are named Freya and Ingrid. No way in Puritan Salem would these names–especially Freya, the name of a Norse goddess–have been given! Those names struck such a strident note that, for me, the whole plot fell to bits.
American Horror Story: Coven, created by Ryan Murphy (Glee) with James Wong (X Files) delivers a rich, engrossing storyline with beautiful cinematography and a stellar cast. Plus, unlike WoEE there’s an effort towards historical and ritual accuracy. Wong says they do a lot of research (and it shows in the background of the evil Mme. Delphine Lalaurie, played with intensity by Kathy Bates, and in Angela Bassett’s sublime and powerful Marie Laveau who now in present day works the same gig she held in the 19th century, a hairdresser). The rituals so far have been pretty well-grounded in magic. My friends and I did spot some glitches in episode three’s voodoo ceremony–red clothes would never be worn, nor would be underwear! While there’s general acceptance in the occult community that rituals shown in fictional films and on television will not be 100% accurate in terms of words, signs and so on—kids don’t try this at home and if you do it won’t work anyway–the red dress was still way off base! We screamed at the wrongness. Plus it was sorta fugly.
Another inaccuracy: Characters constantly reference Tituba, the real slave who was tried for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials–she wasn’t hanged as many of the accused were, but rather imprisoned; she was eventually freed from jail and then from slavery. Tituba was not of African decent, but rather an Arawak, one of the indigenous tribes of the Caribbean. Her Arawak heritage is mentioned on AHS:C, but unless you know your tribes, the implication remains that she practiced West African magic. The magic, though, that Tituba has inspired on AHS:C is voodoo, a West African diasporic religion, and there is also an error in implying that Western witchcraft gained its gifts solely from the voodoo root, which is not the case.
Witchcraft is a crazy quilt of beliefs and practices. Not all witches practice Wicca, a 20th century sect, which is the most well-known of the many branches in the forest of non-Christian Western esoteric belief systems. (There are some people who call themselves Christian Wiccans, which is a major oxymoron, but hey…it’s their souls, not mine!) And not everyone who is Wiccan, or a Druid, or an occultist does magic. The syncretic African diasporic religions, like voodoo and santeria, while very interactive with the gods, have believers who don’t cast spells (Hoodoo, the American melting cauldron, is a more action-oriented system, with a lot of “work” being done, sometimes with Jesus, Bible verses, and/or the saints as the whammy). Some people have a belief system, observe the seasons or moon, light candles, say prayers, and that’s that. Spellwork involving herbs and oils, “barbarous names of evocation,” sigils drawn on parchment, and such are not really everyone’s bag of tricks. Also, not all practitioners of non-Christian Western esoteric belief systems re purely Goddess worshipers, though one or more female aspects are acknowledged along with male aspect/s. That’s the religion part.
The “work” part, the spell casting, is not the nose twitching, the miraculous appearance of fur coats out of nowhere, or the sudden lighting of cigarettes from across the room seen on television. And it’s also not the positive affirmations of The Secret. It’s called “work” for a reason, though sometimes there’s a certain amount of fun involved. Television witches have a lot of powers–they can toss people across rooms with a subtle gesture, pop in and out of photographs, turn into and talk to animals, bring the dead back to life, grant the incorruptibility of flesh, and do all sorts of Jedi mind tricks. In real life (aside from spellwork and ritual which take time, effort and talent to cause change to occur in accordance with will) the latter is the only thing that works, and that’s because some people, witches or not, can just out-think other people, anticipating and adjusting as necessary, seeking to create outcomes in which all parties benefit. And I’ve noticed that the people who apply themselves, reading and studying (and by those verbs I mean more than just books on “how to do spells and set up your altar”), focusing on mental and physical exercises, engaging in lively discussions, who travel, avoid petty social drama and chaos, and again seek outcomes that are mutually beneficial, are the people who succeed in being happy. Which is really what it’s all about.
Yes, it’s possible to do spells for money, for youth (or the money to look youthful!), for love (though the best spell for that is loving yourself), and for health (which is to a certain extent our own responsibility–eating right, getting exercise to start with!). Magic can (and often does) work. Does magic meet a scientific, rather than anecdotal, proof? I did A and B was the result. I did A again and B was the result. So A works. For me. Life is not a reproduceable experiment; we are individuals; circumstances change. My A may not produce B for you, and under new and different circumstances may not produce B a third time for me.
Television witches are fun to watch, but they have done a disservice to real witches and women, providing role models who have denied our self-determination. We are stuck with watching Bell Book and Candle on late night movie channels (Kim Novak falls in love with Jimmy Stewart and loses her power, her glamorous wardrobe, and her groovy African art gallery, becoming a shirt-dress-wearing drab who sells faux floral displays made from sea shells). On Bewitched, mortal moron Derwood stifles Samantha’s natural talents, and stews in a state of mutual resentment with her witchy family. The girls of Charmed, the Halliwell sisters, have a guardian angel, Leo Wyatt a “whitelighter,” (In the series, a whitelighter is a former human mortal given a second chance at life in order to serve under an angelic group as guardian angels for good witches and other future whitelighters, who helped them out scrapes; in real-life magic a whitelighter, aka a fluffy bunny, is an uptight, self-righteous goody two shoes). Leo is also the Charmed Ones’ handyman, further reinforcing that women (and witches) are helpless little creatures who need a man. The sisters Halliwell also get a lot of (at times meddlesome) help from their buddy on the San Francisco Police force, who was a childhood friend and becomes one of the sister’s love interests. The series’ story arc involve fighting evil, working at cool jobs, trying to meet the right guys, and having a baby…
Sabrina the Teenage Witch originally appeared in the Archie comics in 1962. Like Bewitched‘s heroine, Sabrina is blond, but unlike Sam, she is only a half-witch. Her powers manifested on her 16th birthday (witch genes are strong; Samantha and Derwood’s daughter Tabitha also could do magic). Sabrina lives with her two full-witch aunts and Salem, a talking black cat (shades of The Master and Margarita!), a male witch who had been turned into animal form by the Witches’ Council for bad behavior. Salem gives Sabrina advice, often suggesting that she use magic to solve problems, usually with comically diastrous results.
Until this 2013 TV season, producers and their networks seemed to feel that TV witches needed a masculine authority figure. But so far, both the Witches of East End and the witches on American Horror Story: Coven have shaken off that superstition. On WWoE , witches don’t even seem to need to have a man to have a baby. Joanne, WoEE‘s witch mom, played by Julia Ormond, has reincarnated her daughters into her womb over the centuries and it’s unclear so far, who, if anyone, was responsible for fathering the girls–the book the series is based on may pony up that plot point, but it remains to be seen how firmly the series will adhere to the source material.
As the seasons progress for these two new witch shows, we’ll see how far both the supernaturally-blessed and everyday women have progressed in the last decade. Because what witch TV programs show, in hyper-focus, is how the public is perceived as wanting to view women. This perception is formed by the views expressed, by actions and reactions, in daily life. And at the same time, television programs provide modeling for how women should or should not behave. And that goes for witches as well.