'Witchin’ Ain’t Easy', by Briohny Doyle

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In 1996, the year of pentagrams and lace, the year The Craft was showing in cinemas everywhere,I went to three failed séances and one failed levitation before I decided my coven wasn’t working out. I doubted the commitment of my sisters. It didn’t seem like we had a shared vision of the future. Not only did they appear to lack dedication to becoming teen witches, I got the feeling they didn’t really want to be my sisters either.

I was pathologically unable to take high school in my stride. I took its restrictions and alienations deeply personally. High school was clearly a specific persecution aimed at my latently exciting life. Moaning and bitching with consistent passion, I found my sisters were less and less eager to cut class with me in order to sit in the change rooms and light toilet paper on fire. Didn’t anyone want to go nowhere any more?

I trudged the sleety streets of Ballarat every night for a week, alone in contraband Doc Martens, to the esoteric bookstore, to moon amongst the runes and tarot cards, to scrutinise the half shelf designation of books on Wiccan practice. I eventually summoned the courage to purchase an instructional volume called To Ride a Silver Broomstick by Silver RavenWolf. The book laid out simple lessons for the novitiate—and more importantly, solitary—witch. The witch without a coven. I smuggled the book home like a porno mag wrapped in school notes and devoured its lessons in the late gloom of teenage free time.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the textbook for becoming a witch was less Stephen King and more Whole Earth Catalog. It was not without a certain distinct cringing feeling that I read lines like, “Above you is the moon. She is full and heavy dripping her milk-white light on the planet below, like a mother’s breast that anticipates the nurture of a child.”

In fact, along with the importance of cleanliness and organisation, the nurture of a child was a recurring theme in the lessons. I held fast to my resolve despite a familiar distaste and followed the lessons carefully, painstakingly choosing a witch name (Scarlet ThunderKiss), a fortune telling method (the ancient runes) and stocking my cleansed and consecrated alter with special rocks, spices and candles. It was my hope that enacting these witchy instructions to the letter would supply me with a more exciting, darker, and more powerful future. In a world where I had little say over my day to day, it felt good to be actually doing something to change that, even if that something was just lighting candles and decorating pictures of goats with glitter glue.

Yet the rituals and spells lacked a certain zing. I was unconvinced that performing a ritual to sync my period with the cycle of the moon in order to have a powerful sense of my body as a temple of life was something I wanted to pursue. Neither did I want to heal anyone or bless anything. I was, in fact, uninterested in my sacred role as a bastion of natural wisdom and universal oneness. I wanted to control people and fuck shit up and there just didn’t seem to be a ritual for that in Silver RavenWolf’s compendium.

Desperate to find alternatives, I followed the advice set out in the networking section and visited IRC Wiccan chat rooms. But there are only so many “merrily mets”, “blessed bes” and recipes for goddess brownies that one power hungry isolated teen can take. Real witchcraft began to look a lot like girl scouts. And so my passion began to fade, my alter gathered dust and my high school life remained distinctly devoid of black magic.  

Looking back on my teen witch craze now, I can see more clearly why I was disappointed. High school is full of kids trying their best to take on normative expectations and it’s a drag. The figure of the witch was a figure of power and performance. Witches change their identities, always confound expectations and can access a secret, mysterious, violent realm. Witches are uncompromising weirdos who wield unfathomable power and provoke equal measures of lust and fear in the ignorant non-witch world.

As a teen, I was looking for just this kind of role model and, although I may have felt alone, I now know that teenagers have been searching for such heroes since the dawn of, well, teenagers (for evidence see all genres of metal music and most late 19th century French poetry). But on closer inspection, this transgressive heroism is only touted superficially by films like The Craft. In fact, the whole teen witch genre reasserts normative values about feminine identity to young girls, under the auspices of empowerment narratives.

In The Craft for example, the device of magic serves to reinforce the supremacy of white, chaste, well-behaved femininity. Slutty Nancy and black Rochelle already occupy positions of contested femininity. As for poor Bonnie—horribly scarred yet irreproachably nice—she never learned how to responsibly wield feminine charms, so naturally it goes to her head when she finally gets to wear a tank top. It is Sarah’s journey that’s important and instructive. Sarah, the natural witch, the white middle class gal whose femininity is never contested. She learns from her slutty, marginalised friends that it is important to harness your power and use it for the greater good. The good of your family, of high school, of America damn it.

She learns this the way that most naughty teenage girls learn things in Hollywood movies: through threat of sexual assault. When she foolishly casts a love spell on dubious heartthrob Chris she is almost raped, an act which, within the realm of the film, is her own fault, for misusing her powers. Later though, when Nancy, the bad witch, glamours herself to look like Sarah and seduces Chris, she has committed a crime on par with rape: the crime of denying Chris’s prerogative over who to fuck, or rather, fuck with.

We know from movies like The Craft that teen witches have to choose between good and evil, or rather, chaste and slutty. In 2013’s Beautiful Creatures this is made even more explicit. Here, teen witch Lena anxiously awaits her calling to good or evil that will occur on her 16th birthday. But before she can be ‘claimed’, she falls in love and ultimately proves how good she is by putting aside her own supernatural needs so that her boyfriend can go off to college without feeling guilty. The message is clear: it’s hard juggling your feminine powers with your female responsibilities, but it’s necessary if you ever want to land the love of a good man.

Of course, back in the day, it was the transgressive women—the atheists, lesbians, black women or those who drank too much, spoke too loud, dressed ludely or cussed frequently—who were persecuted as being witches. Although there may well have been other self-proclaimed pagans, working with herbs and ritual, and worshipping heretic deities, since the early modern witch hunts the term ‘witch’ belongs to the original bad girls, the ones who refused to take on the correct behaviour for their gender, the ones who didn’t give a damn about the goddess or the other arbitrary sources of power that sought to control their lives. Indeed, witches have historically been theorised as in possession of a damaged imagination. The dangerous possibilities they imagined contaminated the world. Dark fantasies were the source of their power. So, what does this mean for the modern teen witch? Is a bad witch just a girl who, with her broken mind, imagines the wrong kind of future – a future that is extra natural and unbecoming for a young lady?

That this damaged imagination is almost always sexualised is indicative of our hypocritical demonising and desiring of young women’s sexuality, and, as always, it says far more about male fear of female sexuality than about female sexuality in all its variations. In The Craft, Sarah has to learn to get her men the old fashioned way – by averting her eyes and flattering their egos. In Beautiful Creatures, you can tell Lena is turning bad by the increasingly thick applications of eyeliner and her steadily husking voice. When she remembers her nice cousin turning into a bad witch it is represented as a chaste gal ripping open her nice blouse and baring her chest to the moon before hitting the town to get her murderous fuck on. Later, the naughty cousin cuts her hair and buys a convertible. Turns out she’s a siren. That’s witch-speak for dick tease.  

In the Renaissance, witches were always making dudes go soft. So much so that it was a big enough problem to command the interest of the medical profession. The most famous discussion is found in Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum. In the chapter Whether Witches can Habetate the Powers of Generation or Obstruct the Venereal Art’, the authors prove their point by arguing that “the fact that adulterous drabs and whores are chiefly given to witchcraft is substantiated by the spells which are cast by witches on the act of generation.” Quid pro quo, witch-slut. Reading the implications of this for the inquisitions we can see that it is the whores, drabs and childless who are most likely to be accused as witches. I take this to heart. The whores, drabs and childless are my people.

While there were no light and dark witches in the Renaissance, there was still a choice between good and evil: responsible womanhood or dangerous femininity outta control. Be good or be demonised. Imagine the future that is already available to you or reveal that your imagination is damaged. In Beautiful Creatures we may as well call the evil presence that calls to the young witch on her 16th birthday what it is: patriarchy. The force that makes girls choose from polarised identities as good girl or whore, mother or lonely old witch. Patriarchy, that ancient, evil power that possesses women to police each other, to wake up screaming in the night, “I saw Goody Proctor dancing with the devil!”

In The Craft the good witch’s journey ends not only with her learning the proper way to be a witchy woman but also policing her girlfriends’ monstrous powers. She binds them from doing harm – harm against themselves, harm against others and harm against the patriarchy. In the final scene Sarah becomes a kind of witch prefect, while poor PVC-clad Nancy is trapped in a mental institution, the age-old fate of women who don’t tow the line. So too, in Beautiful Creatures: Lena binds her mean, loveless mother who dares to suggest a dangerous idea like that love is a construct to “give mortal women something to play with other than power.”

In fact, you can read these on-screen battles as a neat metaphor for the battle that went on in the late 20th century, the one between the old-school, scary, transgressive witch and the new hot-teen or housewife witch. The ’90s was the culmination of a war on mythology that must have made Silver RavenWolf glow with pride. Finally, witches have taken their rightful place in suburban, gated communities. Witches baking brownies, witches winning prom queen, witches picking their little witchlings up from school and going home to cook magic dinners for their warlocks. Witchcraft has been ‘reclaimed’ by the status quo in a way that reminds me of the complaints of one goth-until-death friend: that hipsters were laying claim to the occult, leaving no room for the unfashionable freaks and obsessives who have long lingered there.   

When you think about it though, there is something pleasantly postmodern about the idea of femininity as a ‘power’ you can wield for good and evil. It gets pretty close to an admission that all this gender stuff is just a set of performances designed to distribute power in the social environment. It’s just such a shame that the social environment lacks so much goddamn imagination. It could do with a dose of witch-damage.

It makes me sad that the teen witch character has to be an educative tool rather than a role model for rebellion. We are bullied into making a lot of normative choices when we are teenagers. I wish there were more movies that showed that it’s okay to exercise your damaged imagination and the full extent of your powers.

Me, as a kid – I just got over it. At the end of 1996 I moved from Ballarat to an inner city Sydney art school. A school where, an English teacher told me, super matter-of-factly, there was an actual witch in attendance. The witch was a pretty blonde girl with a nose ring who wore lots of scarves and amulets and came from a whole family of witches. For a while, I hung around trying to befriend her, but it was obvious we had little in common. And besides, in the ditch at the back of the oval, smoking ciggies and undergoing unsanitary piercings, I had found a new coven. Perhaps even an ugly new future. I didn’t want to be a witch any more. Now, I wanted to be a punk. 

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Briohny Doyle’s fangirl projects include the pop culture blog passion pop pistol and her 2012 attempt to watch a movie every day. She is writing a PhD on apocalypse and waiting on the forthcoming publication of her first novel The Island Will Sink, a sci-fi amalgamation of all her obsessions.   

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This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself, if you like.