Consider the teenage witch. At least, consider the teenage witch as she existed in popular culture at the time I, personally, was a teenager: from 1993 to 1999. The ’90s, in retrospect, was a very particular decade to be a teenage girl. Alanis was on the radio. We had Juliana Hatfield, the Cranberries, Missy Elliott, Shirley Manson, Lauryn Hill, Kim Deal and the Breeders—voices that told their own stories, who joked and cried and soared and screamed and roared. Riot Grrrls. Lilith Fair. Tori freaking Amos. These women formed a coven of sound, a shared promise that what we had to say had value, what we felt was real.
But let’s turn now to the scripted witches.
[Note: this article contains references to depression and self-harm as depicted in The Craft]
We had Sabrina (the Teenage Witch) Spellman: born of Archie Comics, brought to life in charming, daffy half-hour sitcom form. The Salem the cat gifs from Sabrina remain the gifs that keep on giving, but I preferred Melissa Joan Hart in her previous incarnation. Clarissa Explained It All, and never had to do-over her days to cover up the evidence of her growing power. Clarissa made mistakes–she wasn’t superhuman–but she was allowed to be the expert about her own experience, the voice of wisdom in a world of fools and Ferg-faces.
We had Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s adorably awkward friend, whose aptitude for academics and technology (“I’m so the Net girl”) led naturally to experimentation with witchcraft, the discovery of all the shades of her sexuality and innate power. She got—to the magic, at least—addicted, in one of Joss Whedon’s meh-iest high-school-is-a-horror-movie metaphors. Her equally adorable girlfriend Tara was shot and killed, and then Willow Went Bad. I didn’t mind Willow’s turn to the Dark in theory—Vampire Willow was always a kick—though Tara’s death was a wearying trope then, and an exhausting one now.
And we had Nancy, Bonnie, Rochelle, and Sarah, calling on the four corners, invoking the spirit and the perils of female friendship in The Craft. I only saw The Craft as an adult, but, being the target demo, I was certainly aware of its existence in 1996. It was pitched as a horror movie and I wasn’t in love with horror yet—though that love would develop within the year, when Scream came out on video. Neve Campbell stars in both, as quiet, scarred Bonnie in The Craft, and postmodern final girl Sydney Prescott in Scream, making her a kind of mid-90s locus for representations of supernormal female power on screen: she was both a literal witch, and the girl who survived the slasher despite not being a virgin.
The Craft is a smorgasbord of proto-Hot Topic nostalgia—the knee socks! The chokers! That soundtrack! Which could certainly be purchased from the BMG Music Club!—and while I find things about it entertaining and admirable, it’s never truly satisfying. Sarah (Robin Tunney) is the new girl at her Los Angeles parochial school. Her mother died in childbirth; she struggles with depression and has previously attempted suicide, with the scars (“You even did it the right way!” Bonnie gasps) on her wrists to prove it. On her first day of school, she receives two forms of unsolicited attention: from jock Skeet Ulrich (I know his character has a name but he is never not Skeet), and a trio of girls. Led by the magnetic Nancy (Fairuza Balk, blessed be), they warn her—in a perfect dramatization of how gossip and rumors about powerful men tend to be the first line of defense for women—that Skeet only wants one thing. Nancy speaks from experience. The girls adopt Sarah, suspecting that she’s to be their coven’s fourth.
They’re right. Or at least, they’re right that Sarah has a kind of power that even she doesn’t understand, and together they’ll be capable of achieving things they’ve only dreamed. Sarah casts a love spell for Skeet to notice her, even though he has been a patent asshole. Rochelle (Rachel True), the only African-American we really see at their school, wishes to “not hate those who hate her,” meaning her racist blonde bully (Christine Taylor). Bonnie, scarred from a fire, wishes to be beautiful inside and out. Nancy’s true desire is not clearly articulated (“I think she wanted to not be white trash anymore, or something,” Rochelle later translates for Sarah), but her abusive stepfather croaks, and his life insurance policy is a six-figure windfall for Nancy and her mother. This blush of success has the girls seeking more power, and invoking the spirit Manon on a midnight beach. Nancy gets struck by lightning. Dead sharks wash ashore the next morning. Something wicked is no longer coming this way; it is here.
The Craft, alas, is not the finest piece of filmmaking. I appreciate that it tries to give all four of its witches an arc, but those arcs end up feeling undercooked. Bonnie, her flesh renewed, becomes “narcissistic,” but all we ever really see is her being confident, showing her body, cat-calling a man (how dare she!). The girl who bullied Rochelle for her “nappy hair” loses all her hair, and Rochelle, seeing her antagonist pathetically reduced—feels guilty? She doesn’t get to verbalize her response. And Nancy, poor, misused, and underestimated Nancy, comes into incredible power, and goes mad and bad, first killing Skeet in an act of vengeance, and then terrorizing Sarah, who she was supposedly avenging. Bonnie and Rochelle become Nancy’s lackeys. We’ve been told that there is neither black nor white magic, only what’s in the heart of the witch, but the movie isn’t well written enough to sell Nancy’s black-magic heart. Or maybe I, almost forty, living in 2019, can no longer look at a teenage girl who’s known pain and now has agency, and find it anything more than tragic—and a conformist narrative of patriarchal control—to see her turn that power back on herself and her sisters.
I did not love these witches—at least, not for being witches—when I was a teenager. Now I see why: they were representations of female power, which I did crave, but they were also stories of that power going awry, cautionary tales about having the gall to think you could wield power without being punished. Which isn’t, in theory, a bad story; too much power of any kind can be seductive and destructive. But there are only a few stock characters in pop culture that are gendered female; other than witches, I can only think of fairies. Witchcraft, then, is the primary form of supernatural power women can be imagined to innately wield, and the primary stories we are told about witches are about hiding. Danger. Punishment. It’s what Linda Holmes called the scarcity problem; when there are so few stories that feature women, that are about women, there is tremendous pressure for every single one to mean something.
The scenes in The Craft where the girls are first reveling in their abilities—walking four-abreast to Letters to Cleo’s “Dangerous Type,” levitating Rochelle using sleepover classic Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board—are delightful. The actors have great chemistry; the girls they’re portraying are building friendships by proximity, as so many girls do in small, claustrophobic high schools. It’s always clear what they have most in common (besides their natural gifts, i.e., shared femininity) is that they’re on the fringes of their high school society, and they’ve banded together for safety.
But the very agency they seek for themselves, the spells they cast, threatens that safety. Sarah’s love spell on Skeet makes him obsessed to the point where he attempts to assault her. Nancy, when she hears of this, ends up killing Skeet in vengeance, setting the stage for the final confrontation—which is between the four girls, not against the world. Sarah tries to bind Nancy from doing more harm; Nancy gets pissed, and descends on Sarah’s house with Bonnie and Rochelle to enact punishment for Sarah’s attempt to control her. The root of this final plot mechanic, though—the metaphorical implication that Sarah’s actions made a boy unable to control himself—is misogynist bullshit of the first order.
In the end, Bonnie and Rochelle are rendered powerless. Nancy is institutionalized. Sarah, ultimately, gets to keep her powers—which equal Nancy’s but are not destructive—which is not nothing, though it implies that power, among women, can only belong to the strongest or the craziest. If I had seen this movie as a teenager, I’m not sure how I would have read it; what it would have led me to internalize. I can look at Clueless and Heathers, movies I adored at that time, and see how they honed my understanding of communities, insiders and outsiders; and gave me a taste for referential meta playfulness, satirical darkness, razor-wire wit, and always, always, inventive language to describe the world and the self.
But it’s entirely possible I would have seen The Craft and thought that Nancy got what she deserved, punishment for the crime of wanting too much. It wasn’t until I saw The Force Awakens at the ripe age of 35 that I realized I could want more, that a female hero on a global scale wasn’t too much to want. All the other outsider genre heroes of the ’90s and ’00s–the Buffys, the Sydney Bristows, the Veronica Marses– were moving us closer and closer to the center (of, admittedly, global capitalistic media, but still), to Star Wars and to Rey (who is definitely a witch!). But back in 1996, I would have idolized Nancy’s punk spit-in-your-eye spirit, her defiance—to the bus driver who warns her and her coven to watch out for weirdoes—that “we are the weirdoes, mister.” To see her punished, strapped to a bed and howling, I think would have felt like a betrayal. The story of The Craft was a slap on the wrist. It wasn’t even cathartic.
Carrie, now—Carrie White’s telekinetic prom night rage was deeply, deeply cathartic.
In order to find teenage witches that spoke to me as a teenager, I had to broaden the popular definition of a witch. If we posit that the society makes the witch—i.e., a witch is anyone deemed relatively unnatural or unruly, whose very existence threatens some key (yet arbitrary) paradigm by which a society keeps control over its population—than anyone on the outside, peaked hat or no, can be a witch. I was a witch—smart, tall, not in the least interested in being less or other than I was to attract attention or approval, from boys or girls.
And Carrie White, friendless, strange—pubescent, telekinetic and alone—is a witch. She’s also a monster, and Carrie is a monster movie (and horror novel) of a very unique breed, one that creates enormous affection for its protagonist, who’s both hero and villain, victim and murderer, arouser of empathy and disgust. Abused and tormented by her fanatic mother, her classmates in general, and Chris, one very, very mean girl in particular, she’s invited to the prom by a kind boy, on his also kind, if not totally innocent, girlfriend Sue’s insistence. You know the rest: Mean Girl Chris pours a bucket of pig’s blood on Carrie after she’s crowned prom queen.
The twists and turns of blame and vengeance, anger and resentment, that drive the plot of Carrie are classic teenage psychology, and the film does an excellent job developing them. Carrie gets her period during gym class and doesn’t know what it is; the other girls, including Chris and Sue, tease her by chanting and pelting her with sanitary pads; Chris gets her prom tickets revoked because she refuses to go to detention…and of course, in Chris’s mind, this is entirely Carrie’s fault. Because Carrie didn’t know how to Be A Girl, and it was only natural for Chris and the other Real Girls to torment her for her ignorance. And now Chris, the Queen Bee, feels justified in burning Carrie at the stake for the insult.
But Carrie knows how to burn back. Her telekinetic response to Chris’s violent humiliation—the metal blood bucket falls and kills sweet Tommy, her date; the nervous laughter of the crowd confirms Carrie’s mother’s threat that “they’re all gonna laugh at you”—is extreme. She opens the sprinklers, starts an electrical fire, releases herself but traps everyone inside the gym and lets that mother burn to the ground. In the novel, she cuts a swath of destruction across town before gently inducing a heart attack in her mother. In the film, her mother stabs her in the back, after which Carrie crucifies her in a scene that, when I saw it in the middle of the night after my senior prom, was one of the most shocking and extraordinary things I had ever seen. It is an ecstasy of suffering. Which is what it feels like, much of the time, to be a teenage girl.
Nancy’s tragedy in The Craft is underwhelming and chastening; Carrie’s tragedy is a full bloom of unavoidable wreckage, a story of innocent, misunderstood potential gone apocalyptic. Hurt people, as Hustlers so recently reminded us, hurt people. I’m not saying that I wanted to burn my high school to the ground, but I am saying that I recognized how Carrie felt.
Carrie, though it may have represented a form of female pain and power that felt true and cathartic, is still a tragedy: Carrie dies for her sins (and the sins of so many others). But the film doesn’t lay the blame on her alone, or punish her for her pretensions to self-actualized power; she is a victim, too, and the film—voluptuously shot and scored (those Pino Donaggio themes!)—exalts her. And mourns her, or what she could have become in a kinder world.
For a teenage girl is on the cusp of becoming, her body, her mind, her very self subject to the impossible demands the world makes of girls—to fit in, but also to stand out; to be sexually available, but not a slut; to be nice, and to think of other people’s comfort and desires always at the expense of her own. It’s a rich brew of pressures that will ultimately guide her fate, over which she may have very little choice or control but by which she will be judged and known. Will she become a good witch, or a bad? Or not a witch at all?
I did not love the pop culture witches of my teenage years. But I did love what I felt, instinctively, was the world of the witch, a world The Craft touched but didn’t fully understand, that Carrie burned like a pyre. A shadow world living in parallel with our common one; a world of the possible, and the exalted other. Of mystery, old laws and truths of nature that were visible in the cards, in the stars, in the deep connections we made with one another when we were young and on the edge of knowing. A world where power takes a hundred different forms, and doesn’t always destroy. It’s a world that exists and always has, and still provides shelter for the misfits, outsiders and weirdoes—the witches—who are called to it, comforted by its promise that what we have to say has value, and what we feel is real. The world of the witch is a long, old story, whose full past and future we are only just beginning to tell.
Kate Racculia is the author of This Must Be the Place and Bellweather Rhapsody, winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Award. She received her MFA from Emerson College and works for the Bethlehem Area Public Library in Pennsylvania. Her most recent novel, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, is available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.