"There are very few mainstream portrayals of actual, practicing witches," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
He says that Hollywood portrayals of witches break down into three categories:
There are plenty of examples of mainstream actresses portraying witches, especially the sexy ones. In 1987, Hollywood heavyweights Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon embodied the witch as sexually dangerous and powerful in "The Witches of Eastwick." Set in a fictional New England town, the women--all of whom had either been divorced, deserted, or widowed--cast a spell to summon the perfect man. Lo and behold, "horny little devil" (in the movie's words) Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) strolls into town the next day, proceeds to seduce all three women, and in so doing introduces them to their erotic sides.
Town busybody Felicia Alden is the perfect embodiment of the fear the conservative townsfolk have of these sexually confident, independent women. She urges her husband Clyde, the town's newspaper editor, to write a story blasting the sexual antics, and even exclaims during a worship-service tirade, "I have nothing against a good f--k, Clyde. But there's something dangerous here. And somebody had to do something about it."
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum live the humorous hags of Disney's "Hocus Pocus," representing the witch as comic mechanism. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy star as a bunch of set-to-be-burned 17th-century witches accidentally conjured up on a 20th-century Halloween night in Salem, only to turn their wrath on trick-or-treaters. Although surprisingly gory at times for a Disney film, an amusing encounter with a Halloween-costumed suburban Satan and shots of witches riding vacuum cleaners keep the jinx level high.
But as funny as the movie may be, the witches are portrayed with broad stereotypes--witch burning, ugly hags using children for their eternal youth potions, broomsticks, Satan worshipping--which many Wiccans don't find amusing.
At the heart of Thompson's third category, the historical witch, are "The Great Burning"--the Christian extermination of witches and other heretics in Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries--and the Salem witch trials of 1692. Both supply a more serious setting for Hollywood's witchcraft films.
Based on Arthur Miller's play, the film "The Crucible," adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre, tells the story of 17th-century Puritan and Salem, Mass., resident John Proctor. Proctor, played by Yves Montand, has an adulteress affair with lodger Abigail. Proctor and his wife Elisabeth soon turn Abigail out, and she seeks revenge by accusing Elisabeth of being a witch, claiming that Elizabeth manipulates young girls with her powers.
"The Crucible" is considered an accurate depiction of the witchcraft hysteria that plagued Salem in 1692, but the play and film served primarily as an allegory for the "witch hunts" taking place in the U.S. during the McCarthy era, and didn't portray any sort of real-life witch lifestyle or spirituality.
Will Hollywood ever portray witches in less stereotyped, non-allegorical ways?
"A filmmaker will get this witchcraft thing right some day, I know," writes Peg Aloi, a movie reviewer for The Witches Voice web site ".but probably not a filmmaker working out of Hollywood."
"Witches are portrayed as not only having this crazy power," explains Aloi, in an interview with the infoplease web site , "but as using it to gain even more power. Most witches don't do this. Any witch worth her salt knows it's always best not to use magic to solve her problems."