Witchcraft has an iffy history in film and television. When I first started doing my Firefly Witch stories, one thing I reacted against was the standard image of the pop-culture witch. Leaving aside the blatant “wicked witch” portrayals, it’s still hard to find anything remotely accurate, let alone sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though.
One of the earliest films about witchcraft, which unfortunately took the devil-worship position, is the unique Swedish/Danish film Haxan. Retitled Witchcraft Through the Agesin English, this one-of-a-kind 1922 silent film depicts witchcraft the way history describes it, then explains how witches were tortured by the Inquisition. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the treatment of the unfortunate women, and to feel sympathy for them. It’s not really a narrative film, yet it’s not a documentary, either. An indication of its strangeness is that the best-known version in English was narrated by William S. Burroughs.
In 1942, Veronica Lake played the witch Jennifer in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. In the 1958 movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novack plays Gillian, desperately in love with James Stewart. On TV in the 60s, Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) dominated Bewitched(okay, Agnes Moorehead dominated it, but still…). All these characters, though, labored under the kind of strictures common at the time: Gillian and Jennifer lost their magical powers when they fell in love, and Samantha had promised not to use hers to help her husband’s career.* At the time, witches had to be de-powered to allow the “natural order” to assert itself.
These comedies also embraced the common trope that one is “born” a witch; that somehow, the special powers are inherited rather than learned or earned. It’s even possible to read it as saying witches are not actually human, but a different species. But the idea of “innate powers” is a thread that runs through most witchcraft movies, with a couple of notable exception.
In the 70s, one of the most accurate depictions of genuine witchcraft appeared in the seldom-seen George Romero film, “Jack’s Wife (1972). Also released under the more exploitative titles Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, it’s about a woman who’s drawn into witchcraft as a remedy for the ennui of her suburban life. It’s a blatantly feminist film, and treats the main character’s involvement with magic as empowering. It’s also very much of its time, which means it gets a little arty-for-art’s sake at times.
The other notable exception, the character of Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brought the idea that witchcraft was a learned skill into the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it’s also depicted as something addictive, and an entire story arc was devoted to its detrimental effects on Willow.
The rise of feminism and the idea that women were, I don’t know, actual people capable of doing something other than supporting men changed depictions of witchcraft. The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a pretty dire film from a critical standpoint, did at least show that women supporting each other could defeat even the Devil Himself. The Craft(1997) starts with the idea that outcasts working together can be strong, but then degenerates into standard horror.
My favorite positive depiction of witchcraft is 1998’s Practical Magic. Based (extremely loosely) on Alice Hoffman’s novel, it shows two sets of sisters, younger (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and older (Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing), using their powers to protect their family. I confess that I have a total crush on Sandra Bullock’s character (not, I hasten to add, on Ms. Bullock herself).
Together, these movies and TV shows present a very distorted view of witchcraft filtered through society’s concerns. That’s fine as far as it goes–witchcraft can be used as a metaphor, just as anything else can be–but to me, it never captured the true (okay, wait for it…) magic of Wicca/Paganism/the Craft. It was never shown as joyous, rarely as empowering, and certainly never as the religion it truly is. When I began writing my Firefly Witch stories, I wanted to put as much of that back as I could and still tell interesting, dramatic horror/fantasy stories.