Yes, it’s been quite a while since my last post. This semester has been kicking my ass and allowing hardly any time for spirituality. On the bright side I was able to take a class titled: Witches: Myth & Reality. Unfortunately, the class wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped. The majority of it was spent reading very old religious texts about how prone to evil women are. Even learning about the Salem Witch Trials was quite dry and a little repetitive.
Some of it was fun, though. We learned about the Witch of Endor from the Bible (which I had never heard of since I’ve never read the Bible) and Germanic mythology describing Freyja and volvas (old, wise women who were seers the village consulted in times of need).
The Salem Witch Trials were looked at psychologically, which made it a little more interesting. We noticed all of the young women who were afflicted had come from neighboring villages across New England because they had lost their families and properties from Native American attacks. Almost all of them were servants of the religious leaders in Salem. They made very little money doing this (which meant no dowries for marriage) and had to adhere to the most strict, self-denying rules living in houses of reverends and ministers.
All of the texts up to that point showed something in common for all witches: they were mostly women and the vast majority were unmarried/childless. Even the volvas were highly unlikely to be mothers or married. The end of the course discussed neo-paganism and we got to read an excerpt from Drawing Down the Moon! 😀
For our final papers, we had to take a piece of modern art (TV show, film, literature, play, opera, etc.), analyze the portrayal of witches in it, and discuss any traditions read about in class–or if anything was contradictory to what we learned in class. I chose Hocus Pocus, since it’s my favorite witch movie ever. I found so much to analyze, I had to shorten my paper. I’m giving you all the extended version.
***If you weren’t in the class, some of the sentences may not make sense or seem judgmental. When that is the case, I am referencing the (mostly religious) texts we had to read in class dealing with how the stereotype of witch came to be.
I chose to compare the Disney film “Hocus Pocus” to our readings in class and analyze how the witches are portrayed. The movie is mostly about the spirit of Halloween, particularly regarding the Salem Witch Trials and capitalizes on the American witch stereotype. I will examine the witches collectively as well as individually as they are like a tree, each representing different facets of witch perception but form a trunk when grouped together. The film does a very good job of showcasing both.
Already in the title, the movie is running with the classic, Hollywood witch imagery. Hocus Pocus are two “magic words” associated with casting spells (i.e. something witches do). It starts in 1692 in Salem, MA during the time of the famous Witch Trials. Three of the most stereotypical witches are convicted of witchcraft (via stealing children’s youth) and hanged but not before cursing the town with their return 300 years later. The curse is fulfilled by some kids in “present-day” (or 1993 when this movie was filmed) on Halloween night, who end up being chased by the witches but assist in bringing them to their ultimate demise.
The witches show many traits described in the Malleus Maleficarum. They start out old, unmarried, ill-tempered and fly on brooms. They have no children but they are caught stealing a girl and eat her soul to take her youth for themselves. Like Elizabeth Knapp from our readings on Salem, the witches have no qualms about using foul language and cursing people left and right as they have out-rightly renounced the Christian God. At one point in the movie, they even run into a man dressed as the devil for his Halloween costume and believe he actually is the devil like their “master”. It is also revealed that they were in Hell for 300 years after being hanged. One of the witches also mistakes some modern-day firefighters for witch-hunters with their “black robes and axes”.
Similar to the fairytales we studied, the witches’ cottage is in the woods. This is reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel. Also something to think about is poorer people tended to live near the woods, such as farmers and societal outcasts. The Catholic texts we discussed hint at many accused witches being poor and/or outspoken. They were most likely accused by people who either had a bitter disagreement with them or they were keeping the poor powerless. The Sanderson witches in “Hocus Pocus” were certainly outcasts in Puritan society and maybe weren’t the wealthiest/cleanest/most organized of their village.
From a neo-pagan perspective, the witches were definitely representative of such. There is an older, middle-aged and young sister among the witches, representing the Crone, Mother and Maid (and also the karmic Law of Three) recognized in European paganism and Wicca in particular. They reference their mother twice in the film and even though they are biological sisters, one could also interpret this as tribute to the divine Mother, the Goddess that is Earth, itself. Many witches refer to each other as sisters (and brothers), regardless of blood/marriage ties as we recognize that we are all children of Mother Nature. Another pagan association is the symbolism of the circle in the calming circle, with circles representing the circle of life, the wheel of the year, and the circles of protection cast by witches before rituals.
We shall take a closer look at each individual witch, starting with the oldest sister, Winifred Sanderson. “Wini” represents the Crone, as mentioned above, which essentially means she is post-child-bearing age. Like Katla and Geirrig of the “Eyrbyggja Saga”, she is an older woman who takes a lover without marriage. She is also a seer like the “volva” described in “Everyday Life in the Viking Age” as she foresees their return during the full moon on Halloween 300 years after her time. She is very wise, like the old prophetesses and is clearly the smartest of the three sisters. Her cunning and cleverness is shown through her manipulating circumstances in her favor by re-animating her murdered ex-lover. She uses him to walk on holy ground for her, as she cannot set foot there because she is a witch.
Wini, like the Malleus Maleficarum suggests, is very jealous of younger women, like her youngest sister. However, she is jealous of her because she was canoodling with her lover, not because she could bear children. Also, she chases around a specific young girl to be her sacrifice for more youth, purely out of spite for the girl. However, what makes Wini a witch, most of all is her rejection of her womanly role in Puritan society. Like her sisters, she is unmarried, childless (by choice), yet takes lovers anyway, and uses magic to control her own life. She does not live by the word of God or obey any authority figure.
The middle sister is Mary who represents the Mother, thus is of child-bearing age. She is also the most maternal of the three sisters, suggesting the calming circle and nurturing them to be honest about their feelings. It is her who reminds the sisters of what their mother would do. Mary has the most motherly countenance by sporting wide, child-bearing hips and large breasts. Ironically, what sets Mary as an unconventional woman (in essence, a witch) is that she has a utilitarian skill usually associated with men, rather than any domestic skills. She can smell children, like a hunter.
Finally, we have Sarah who is the youngest sister and represents the Maid (although she is a bit older than pre-menstrual age). This is shown through her childlike, uninhibited nature, as she tends to behave quite stupidly in public. Through her uninhibitedness, she indiscriminately cavorts with just about all men she comes in contact with. This sexual promiscuity is similar to what the Malleus Maleficarum describes in all women. Sarah represents the uncontrollable carnality the Maleficarum claims runs rampant in all women. Her holding up her skirts, revealing her undergarments and legs is a symbol of the witches Sabbath (involving naked dancing around bonfires and orgies). She asks to dance with the “Master”, implying the sexual pact witches make with the devil. Sarah is portrayed as being tempting to men significantly by her songs which also lure children to her.
Another potential witch who deserves mention is one of the girls who brings the Sanderson sisters back to life. Allison is a high school student with a fascination of witches and the legend of the Sanderson sisters. She suggests looking at Wini’s spell book to use the witches’ own magic against them. This idea actually works and as she is using a defense found in the book, Wini even calls her “what a clever, little, white witch.” Also, early in the film it is hinted she may not be a virgin. Since she is not married, this premarital sexual activity is sign of witchery as discussed in the assigned text.
There were also many symbols of witches not found through the characters. For example, Wini’s spell book is like the Book of Shadows many pagans use to remember all of their metaphysical knowledge and experiences. Interestingly, her book is deemed a masculine entity that is subservient to females. In some neo-pagan traditions, more emphasis is placed on the Goddess than the God. When Allison spread a circle of salt for protection, that wasn’t entirely made up for the film. Pagans use salt as an energy neutralizer.
In pop culture, witches have familiars like black cats. There was a black cat associated with the witches in this film, but his form was a punishment from the witches and he guarded their house to keep others safe. In other words, he was working against the witches, not for them. Another pop culture reference is how the movie started with a book titled “Hocus Pocus” opening up to give us the story. This makes it seem like a fairytale, which is a very common setting for witches.
Something to note is that the witches are very much accountable for their fates. Even though they had to answer for their crimes and were in fact hanged, they cast a curse that allowed them to cheat death. However, it was that same curse that led to the end of the Sanderson sisters. They are, in many senses of the word, witches. Aside from that double-sided meaning of witch, the film definitely perpetuates whimsical ideas of witches. There are pointy-hooded cloaks, talking black cats, cauldrons, pointy-toed boots and ugly, warty women flying around on brooms causing mayhem to orderly villages. However, there were some true pagan traditions that are reinforced with the mainstream witch image. At the end of everything, this movie shows how much fun it is to be a witch!