Witches in media: A historical perspective
Characteristic throughout Western folk narratives, certain out-spoken, spiritual, and/or strong women figures have been deemed “witches" of some form or fashion. Historically, the idea of these women having supernatural powers based in their primitive kinship with nature certainly stems from the differences between the experiences of men and women in Western cultures. The otherness of the female character would have been quite distinct to the men who controlled commercial, political, and social spheres of their cultures. Outspoken women critical of these power structures could be written off as fanatical or irrational people to be feared because they challenged socio-cultural roles attributed to women in these societies.
Briefly, we’ll run through examples of negative portrayals, or archetypes, of women as witch figures in Western narrative traditions. The Brothers Grimm present tales of a vain queen contriving to murder Snow White by supernatural means – years later, Walt Disney would fashion this narrative to portray the queen more directly related to the witch archetype. The Brothers Grimm also play with the idea of witches in the narrative Hansel and Gretel – indeed, this witch, living in an isolated cabin in the primeval forest, plans to eat the children. Interestingly, the same authors crafted the narrative of Cinderella where a Fairy Godmother (a sort of good witch) fashions a beautiful gown and horse and carriage out of plain natural resources.
Walt Disney, and the Walt Disney Company continued to play off the motif of evil witches throughout the animated films they produced. Other narratives that play off these stereotypes include Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmations, and Mary Poppins – all interpretations of previous narratives. Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West character was immortalized in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz; this film portrayed a vengeful witch distraught by the death of her sister who ultimately seeks to murder the good-natured, seemingly innocent protagonists. It wasn’t until years later that the Broadway hit Wicked portrayed the untold story of this same witch from her perspective.
Other historical narratives of witches include those women who were executed during the Salem witch trials of late-17th Century New England. Recently, some researchers have speculated that the convulsions characteristic of these “witches" behavior were brought on by having eaten rye bread affected by a fungus now known to have hallucinatory qualities. In Linda Caporael's article, Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem? a strong argument is made supporting the possibility that the fungus known as ergot (Claviceps Purpura) may have been the cause of these women's behaviors. Similarly, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic in 15th Century France for claiming to have been led by visions of God. Monty Python plays on the idea of “witch hunts" in a 17th Century plague-ridden and supersticious world, with adaptations of ideas explored in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year. The mass crowd of uneducated peasants proclaim notions such as “she turned me into a newt," and to “burn her anyway," while the most intelligent knight assesses that if she weighs the same as a duck then she must be a witch. Unfortunately, this exposure of the foolish idea that witches indeed existed, and must by their nature have some evil agenda, came much too late.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth opens with the “Weird" sisters menacingly planning to interfere with the narrative of the play. Morgan le Fay plays the foil to Merlin’s magical beneficence in the Medieval legends of King Arthur. Circe bewitches Odysseus in Homer’s epic narrative, and wields the power to transform his men into beasts. And the Bell Witch ghost story set in 19th and 20th Century Tennessee features a woman who believes she’s been wronged by John Bell, and continues to vengefully haunt his property after death.
Other recent film narratives that feature witch archetypes include Curse of the Demon, The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and The Blair Witch Project, inspired by the Bell Witch narrative. After the breakup of The Beatles in 1970, Yoko Ono had been slandered by certain media figures as being a witch. And after her child’s death in 1980, Australian Lindy Chamberlain had been portrayed by the media as a sort of witchlike figure because of her affiliation with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a fringe religious sect accused of practicing cult-like rituals. After spending years in prison for the perceived crime of murdering her baby, it turned out the dingo did it, just as she had claimed.
Anyway, I feel like the motif of the witch archetype in Western narrative traditions is fascinating, and worth exploring through various critical lenses.