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The Witch Trope, Explained

It’s the season of the witch—and on some level, it always has been. This fascinating figure has long represented our society’s complicated attitudes towards female power. Because of her transgressive personality, the witch has been persecuted, and this sets up a fundamental question: is there something wrong with her, or with the society that can’t accept her? Here’s our Take on the witch—what really makes her scary, how any story looks different through her eyes, and why there’s a little witch in all of us.

TRANSCRIPT

It’s the season of the witch—and on some level, it always has been. This fascinating figure has long represented our society’s complicated attitudes towards female power. When we look at onscreen witches through the decades, we can see some recurring qualities:

  • She’s an outsider. Whether by choice or against her will, the witch often exists on the margins of her society. Or, if she’s largely assimilated into the mainstream, her great challenge may be reconciling her difference in a world full of normals.
  • If the witch does have a social circle, it usually consists primarily of other women—her coven.
  • She has magical powers—like the ability to fly, cast spells, shapeshift, or transform people. The witch uses all this mysterious knowledge to exert her will on the world. Thus, she represents a departure from the stereotype of the helpless, submissive woman.
  • In her archetypal form, she’s not conventionally attractive—and her ugliness is presented as a reflection of her inner nature. Yet she’s also deeply vain, as expressed through an obsession with making herself young and beautiful. She’s almost always unmarried, and hates children—in fact, they’re often her primary victims.

In short, as Jess Bergman writes, “witches are women whose embodiment of femininity in some way transgresses society’s accepted boundaries—they are too old, too powerful, too sexually aggressive, too vain, too undesirable.” Because of her transgressive personality, the witch has long been persecuted—and this sets up a fundamental question: is there something wrong with her, or with the society that can’t accept her?

Lisa: “Why is it when a woman is confident and powerful, they call her a witch?” - The Simpsons, 20x4

Here’s our take on the witch— what really makes her scary, how any story looks different through her eyes, and why there’s a little witch in all of us.

Why Fear the Witch?

Today, the witch falls into the same category as other supernatural—and fictional—Halloween characters. But throughout history, the idea of the witch has provoked genuine fear and panic, and even led to the executions of those accused of witchcraft. So what’s at the root of this terror?

Real life witch hunts usually sprung from a period of hardship—crop failure, bad weather—that led communities to look for someone to blame. Still, that’s not the whole story. The witch also embodies cultural worries specific to women. As Roald Dahl writes in his 1983 children’s novel The Witches, “A witch is always a woman… There is no such thing as a male witch.” We can see this same sentiment at play hundreds of years earlier in the Malleus Maleficarum, a 1486 treatise on witch hunting that was second in popularity only to the Bible. This definitive text is steeped in misogyny, arguing that women are inherently deceptive, wicked, and more prone to witchcraft because they are “feebler both in mind and body.” Witches continue to speak directly to the fear of certain behaviors in women—starting with…

... Our culture’s fear of female knowledge or intuition. Take one of the earliest popular representations of witches—the “weird sisters” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Many critics have noted that the witches resemble the Fates of Greek mythology—three goddesses who spun threads that determined how long a mortal’s life would be, how much suffering they would experience, and how they would die. In Macbeth, the witches likewise seem to know how everything will play out, and they strategically reveal information without ever giving the characters the full picture. In the end, Macbeth’s folly is thinking he fully understands one of their key prophecies. This arrogance is what leads to his death. Shakespeare’s tale offers an implicit warning—never assume you know as much as a witch.

Another common trait of the witch is that she dislikes children.

Miss Ernst: “Repulsive sight of hundreds… thousands… of revolting little children” - The Witches

This characterization hits on something important—female reproduction has always been part of the demonization of witches. The Malleus Maleficarum includes a section titled “How Witches Impede and Prevent the Power of Procreation,” an anxiety that manifests in both the old witch who’s clearly past childbearing age, and the hypersexual yet childfree witch. As Jessie Kindig writes, both represent mistrust of “women not reproducing within the sanctioned family structure, or not reproducing at all.” But it’s not just that the witch has chosen not to have kids—it’s that she’s more than willing to harm them.

Winifred: “You know I always wanted a child—and now I think I’ll have one… on toast!” - Hocus Pocus

Grimms’ Fairy Tales, published in 1812, features two witchy figures: the evil queen in Snow White, who uses witchcraft in a plot to kill her stepdaughter, and the witch in Hansel and Gretel who eats children. Bergman notes that both women “are perversions of the virtuous and repentant mother.” Many stories drive this point home by casting the bad witch as a dark mirror of a more feminine, nurturing maternal figure.

If the witch is sexualized, it’s often in the context of using her sexuality to manipulate men. This portrait is a stark departure from the witch’s male counterpart, the wizard, who is usually heavily desexualized. The Malleus Maleficarum spells it out: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable… for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils.” The witch’s love or sexuality is often portrayed as overwhelming.

Pharmacist: “If any man dared take on an Owens woman… he’d live briefly in the euphoria of her love… until meeting an untimely death” - Practical Magic

In 2016’s The Love Witch, the romance-obsessed Elaine uses love potions on men, leading them to become so overcome by emotion that they’re driven to death.

The witch also defies societal expectations for women by having the gall to be ugly. Yet she’s also often characterized as vain, and this vanity is framed as inherently evil—as expressed by witches who try to regain their youth and beauty through violent means. Meanwhile, stories where the witch disguises herself as young and beautiful evoke the fear of women using their appearance as a tool of deception. Of course, the irony of villainizing the witch for her vanity is that not being young and beautiful is supposedly what makes her terrifying in the first place.

Scariest of all is that the witch’s abilities make her extremely powerful. This open threat to the patriarchal status quo is often central to the witch’s story. It’s the very premise of the classic show Bewitched: after finding out his wife, Samantha, is a witch, her mortal husband demands she stop casting spells and become domesticated.

Interestingly, all these anxieties surrounding female power extend to non-witch characters, too. In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the villain of the story isn’t a witch, but a young woman, Abigail, who spreads witch paranoia through her community. Yet the nefarious Abigail still embodies several witch-like qualities—an aggressive sexuality that effectively destroys her lover and his family, an unusual ability to manipulate those around her, and a callous disregard for human life.

In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth may not technically be a witch, but she shows an unquenchable thirst for power and is ruthless in obtaining it. This childless, overtly sexual woman distances herself from femininity and motherhood so she can dedicate herself completely to evil, even implying she would murder a baby to further her goals.

Lady Macbeth: “l would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out had l so sworn, as you have done, to this.” - Macbeth

The attributes we associate with the witch aren’t really about a fear of the supernatural, but of any woman who doesn’t follow the traditional expectations of her sex.

The Misunderstood Witch

The longtime villainization of the witch conceals a dark truth—those accused of witchcraft have historically been not villains, but victims. In real life, those accused of witchcraft have usually been the most vulnerable members of society. During the Salem Witch Trials, the first three women accused of witchcraft were Sarah Good, a homeless beggar who was already unpopular with the townsfolk; Sarah Osborne, an invalid outcast who may have been suffering from depression or senility; and Tituba, an indigenous slave. In other words, these were disempowered women who already stood out in their puritanical world, making them easy scapegoats.

In recent years, we’ve started to see increasingly empathetic depictions of witches—some of which revisit iconic characters we’ve been trained to see as one-dimensionally bad—that give them backstories, motivations, and more three-dimensional character arcs. These stories reveal how much a narrative changes when it’s seen through the witch’s eyes, rather than the lens of the community that shuns her. Moreover, they openly interrogate the culpability of the witch’s society. In her youth the witch character may have been made to feel ashamed of being different—thus, self-hatred drives her to live up to the world’s negative expectations of her. Or, a formative trauma may lead her to resolve to become all-powerful as a means of healing those scars of disempowerment. 2014’s Maleficent shows that its title character—who’s technically a fairy, but fits the witch criteria—starts out as a vivacious, strong, “good” young woman, before a devastating betrayal crushes her spirit. The story also complicates Maleficent by showing that she comes to love Aurora and bitterly regrets cursing the girl.

Maleficent: “I will not ask your forgiveness, because what I have done to you is unforgivable. I was so lost in hatred and revenge” - Maleficent

In the end, it’s this pure depth of feeling that makes Maleficent the only person capable of saving the princess.

2015’s The Witch reveals how the tendency to misunderstand witches can even extend to a woman’s own confusion about herself. After the young Thomasin’s family leaves their Puritan colony behind, they endure a series of strange phenomena that they blame on her, conflating her blossoming sexuality with wickedness and casting her out. Eventually, Thomasin does dedicate herself to the devil, joining a coven of witches. The film poses an interesting question: Was her family right about her all along? Or did their cruel treatment leave her with no other ally but Satan? As Glinda puts it in the Broadway musical Wicked, “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?”

In these stories, we can understand how being a witch would seem a lot more appealing than continuing on as a victimized woman, trapped by her society. Our most villainous portraits of the witch imply that she is what’s wrong in a morally pure world. But looked at another way, it’s often quite the opposite—society’s dysfunction and hypocrisy provokes the evil within her. Harnessing her full power, even if it causes harm, seems reasonable. Why not be wicked, in a world that treats her wickedly?

The Witch in Us

Witches - they’re just like us! After many years of villainization, the witch has become a mirror that all women can see a bit of themselves in. So, how did we get all the way from the Wicked Witch of the West to Sabrina?

This trend of the relatable witch can be seen as early as 1942’s I Married a Witch and 1958’s Bell, Book and Candle, up through the TV show Bewitched—all of which normalize the character and give her the rom-com treatment, focusing on the humorous misunderstandings that come from loving a mortal man. 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks even frames its witch character as a loving friend (and eventual adoptive mother) to children and shows her using her powers to do good. These stories suggest that most of our superficial ideas of witches are based on silly, outdated stereotypes

Darrin: “Okay if you’re a witch, where’s your black hat and broom, and how come you’re out when it isn’t even Halloween?”

Samantha: “Mother was right, you’re prejudiced” - Bewitched, 1x1

More recently, the Harry Potter series made sorcery fun and desirable, cementing the witch’s normality—as Jess Bergman notes, “practicing the Dark Arts is not a particularly gendered affair.”

Making the witch more relatable has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the teen witch. Rather than tales of horror, these are stories of fantasy and wish-fulfillment, where young women use their powers for lighthearted fun. They’re also meaningful allegories for coming of age: The teen witch doesn’t have complete control over her abilities yet, so becoming the best witch she can be means discovering the best version of herself.

Most significantly, the teen witch story shows a girl reckoning with her unique strength, within a world that often makes her feel weak. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow starts off as a shy wallflower before her witch abilities transform her into a confident woman who fears no one.

Willow: “The magicks I used are very powerful. I’m very powerful. And maybe it’s not such a good idea for you to piss me off.” - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 6x4

In the series finale, Willow even uses her powers to empower other women. In 1996’s The Craft, four teenage girls form a coven and use magic to take back their agency after being made to feel helpless. As Sinead Stubbins writes, “Suddenly, a teen girl isn’t someone to be protected by men; she’s someone they need to fear.”

More broadly, in recent years the witch has become an increasingly mainstream feminist symbol. Around 2016 the line “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn”—from Tish Thawer’s 2015 novel The Witches of BlackBrook—began appearing on signs at Women’s March protests, and the women’s coworking space The Wing announced, “We’re a coven, not a sorority.” Interestingly, this has coincided with a revival of the term “witch hunt,” lobbed by men who complain that they’re being unfairly persecuted, by the very women they’ve oppressed and marginalized for so long. As always, it comes down to fear—this time, from those who worry their own power is no longer enough.

Part of why the witch has been embraced as an icon of female empowerment is that she embodies a message many young girls aren’t used to hearing: that they can do anything. The ability to levitate or brew effective love potions remains the stuff of fantasy for most of us, but these gimmicks aren’t what being a witch is really about anyway. All you have to do is channel your inner magic, weird individuality, and steadfast self-determination—and you too can know the power of the witch.

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