"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."
To be fair, several recent studio movies have offered more accurate portrayals than the usual witch fare, even representing elements of Wiccan religion. Both 1996's "The Craft" and 1998's "Practical Magic" are lauded as examples of Hollywood getting Wicca right, but only to a point.
In "The Craft," four troubled teenage girls form a coven and use magic to seek revenge on the cool kids who pick on them. They soon learn that revenge isn't always so sweet. Pat Devin, a practicing witch, was hired to consult on "The Craft," lending the rituals an air of authenticity. However, the final conflict between two of the witches is resolved in an over-the-top fashion with a flying athama--a ritual Wiccan knife--and lots of crazy powers, none of which are witchcraft reality.
"Practical Magic" (starring Sandra Bullock and, again, Nicole Kidman) ushered witches into the warm and fuzzy world of the chick flick, a legacy "Bewitched" continues. The film follows two sisters--Gillian (Kidman) and Sally (Bullock)-- whose loves are doomed to untimely deaths. When Gillian's boyfriend becomes abusive, Sally comes to the rescue, but accidentally overdoses him with belladonna. While not technically accurate at times, the film helped to mainstream Wicca by featuring a female-centered, well-adjusted (if a tad eccentric) family of witches. (Oddly enough, Kidman, was also once slated to star in a remake of 1942's "I Married a Witch." Perhaps someone needs to come out of the broom closet?)
"What a culture has to say about witchcraft, whether in jest or in earnest, has a lot to do with its views of sexuality and power, and especially with the apportioning of powers between the sexes," writes author Margaret Atwood in her review of the book "The Witches of Eastwick." "The witches were burned not because they were pitied but because they were feared."
Indeed, even the small screen's most beloved witch, Samantha Stephens of "Bewitched," was engulfed in a whole cauldron of cultural concerns.
Elizabeth Montgomery, the original Samantha Stephens--who was recently immortalized in a "Bewitched" statue in Salem--was very involved in women's empowerment. And in the show, "Witchcraft was the perfect metaphor for women's liberation," says Thompson of Syracuse University.
Thompson often uses the show's pilot episode in his classes. In it, Samantha waits until after her wedding to Darren to tell her beloved that she's a witch. Darren, shocked, "agrees to stay married to her as long as she promises to act like 'a typical suburban housewife,' which she never does," Thompson says. "While on one hand the show tried to show the excitement and power of the new liberated woman, it was also about what a drag it's going to be married to a woman with power, more power than you have."
Outside of Hollywood, however, there is some hope for those looking for realistic Wicca portrayals.
"Drawing Down the Moon," not based on the book of the same name, is an independent, straight-to-video action movie, starring Walter "Chekov" Koenig. Named after the Wiccan ritual of the same name, it follows the trials and tribulations of an eccentric young Wiccan woman, Gwyneth, who moves to a small town to start a homeless shelter. She meets resistance when the building loaned to her for the shelter is coveted by a big, evil corporation. Adequately portraying the spiritual realities of Witchcraft--even if all Wiccans aren't Aikido masters--Gwyneth even gives a local bad-guy cop a "my religion is protected by the first amendment" speech.
While clearly in the B-movie camp, many Wiccans echo reviewer Daphne Stephano's sentiments when she says, "At last, a movie that you can recommend to your friends without wincing at what it shows about your religion!"
What's the lesson here for Hollywood?
"The media simply needs to dig deeper to find out what else is interesting, and not just fall back on the easy image of a woman with a magic wand," Aloi says. "I'll know it's better when the modern witch is portrayed without a single special effect."