Poisonous Nostalgia: A Pagan Witch’s Guide to Burying ‘The Craft’ Cult

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It’s a thing that makes you answer the phone when you see an ex-love’s name pop up, and you meet that person again remembering all the reasons why you stopped talking in the first place. It makes you long for certain fashions or styles that you remember being so attractive and flattering but when you actually pull the idealized items out of the closet you wonder if you just had a head injury at the time. It makes white grandpas long for the “good ol’ days” because they have only spotless, wealthy memories of what most other people would consider horrifying slavery and devastating societal oppression. Nostalgia also makes you obsessively defend media aspects of your childhood that if you saw today, as a critically thinking self-assured adult, you would take to the nearest feminist blog for a good old-fashioned defaming call-out.

Nostalgia also makes adult women ranging from “different” to “spooky” to “totally weird” talk about the 1996 cult classic The Craft as if it was an irreplaceable, radical work of art. One that we couldn’t have lived without. A film that shifted everything in our adolescence from pink to black. While I’m almost certain that the miracle of spooky girls en masse that came about at the end of the 90s and early aughts probably could not have been without the popularity of The Craft, I still think this film is an insult to everything it is esteemed to be. It isn’t a valid reference point in itself: the ideas and aesthetics presented in the film are old and established as fuck. The Craft didn’t invent hot gothy schoolgirls and dusty incense filled opium den mystic shops run by beautiful and mysterious Fay women. It didn’t invent female friendships that involve secrets and running away to meet in the forest together and meddle with power and seduction and things that are exciting and dangerous. It didn’t invent “light as feather, stiff as a board,” either. It’s just the only thing like it to come out in mainstream media, and to have such a captivating effect on prepubescent and teenage audiences. Practical Magic and Charmed had a few attractive things, but weren’t subversive or fashionable. There are a lot of witch flicks, but most of them are cute or glamour driven, with housewives and bottle blondes. The Craft was a film about bad girls, and there’s value in that, but if we’re going to get didactic, The Crucible had a much better handle on ethics and injustice (and bad girls with a cause). I’m a huge advocate for stories about bad girls, but I want those stories to be empowering.

It’s a cautionary tale; it’s a horror flick. Jacques Lacan would applaud how women’s mental health is (mis)handled as well as The Craft‘s representations of wild women, the dangers of being an outcast, and the overall scary foretellings of what happens when women find power or agency. This film is a feminist nightmare masquerading as a cool throwback subculture flick. When I say feminist I mean OG feminism. Witchcraft. This film is a witch burning. It’s white and pure with hysteria written all over it.

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I know that’s going to cause some eye rolls like, “stop taking things so seriously” or “Morgan, you love famous rapists and misogynist art you hypocrite.” I know, I know I do. I love their work so much. So I should start by noting that I am not suggesting a film can’t be good and problematic, valuable and damaging. Or that you can’t like something because of its societal implications: like what you like, no justification needed, I stand by that. But, I love that misogynist art because I think it’s good or interesting or impactful in some way, personally or simply that it is captivatingly transgressive. Yes, The Craft has been impactful in a positive sense for a lot of people — I can’t argue with the individual experiences of others. But as a practitioner of the real Craft, I have a hard time letting this one go. Beyond that, it’s a bad movie. It’s a shitty teen drama with some of our favorite 90s key players: Fairuza Balk and Rachel True and some guilty pleasures on the soundtrack (Letters to Cleo’s cover of The Cars’ “Dangerous Type” anyone?) It’s bad though! It’s artistically and intellectually bad. It’s a poorly written film, and time and teen drama are no excuse. Just look at Clueless, it’s great and stands the test of time. Maybe that’s because The Craft is not to The Crucible what Clueless is to Emma.

Maybe I’ve got a chip on my shoulder because I’ve been a walking reference point for this film since I was twelve years old. When I say I’m a witch people have a totally warped perception in general but one that’s sometimes heightened by the silliness, frivolity and over all misogyny of how witches are presented in The Craft, amongst many other toxic sources. It’s not like everyone in the world understands Witchcraft and therefore it’s okay to have a skewed and hurtful representation in popular media — it’s quite the opposite. People by and large are disturbingly uninformed (poisoned throughout history) about what Witchcraft actually is, its history, and its philosophies. For a witch to love The Craft, in my mind, is like a man who struggles with his sexual identity saying In & Out is his number one point of reference for personal representation, like he totally sees himself in Kevin Kline. Or a transwoman saying that Silence of the Lambs inspired her coming out. It isn’t fluff to me. What happened to women (and men) from the Middle Ages up through Colonial times was genocide. Millions of people tortured, murdered and domestically enslaved under the guise of spiritual cleansing, and The Craft does nothing to honor these victims. Nor does it help current practitioners.

I don’t even understand how this film can be positively representational for anyone watching it. The protagonist is a fair featured virginal natural type (representing goodness) while the main villain is dark and seductive, and the other two villains are a black girl and a girl who becomes too vain. It’s bad enough that a film that’s supposed to be about women’s power has a girls vs. girl plot rather than girls vs. the things that hurt them and made them “crazy,” but it also stays true to disturbing, antiquated anti-female archetypes. Not only that, but we finally have a woman of color represented as a witch (whilst we forget about the Vodou priestesses and Curanderas…) and her experience as a woman of color in the film is totally invalidated and she’s more or less informed by society and her own religion that she should just quietly deal with racial oppression and bullying. It’s amazing that this film has been so wildly successful with non-conformists when it literally is a story about conformity and the dangers of being different.

“The most privileged characters of the novel are less likely to be viewed as mad, even if they have dark nights of the soul.” Kate Zambreno, Heroines

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Next topic: I hate how female friendships are handled in the film. It’s weird to write this because when I had a baby coven this was our favorite film. We went out into the desert and cut the palms of our hands and drank each others spit and blood out of plastic cups with like grape juice because we were twelve and afraid of alcohol. But, the way that female friendships actually are and the way the coven functions in the film are drastically and tragically different. We did hurt one another, we did bind people from doing harm, but we also loved one another and made a lot of passionate mistakes. Some of us were experiencing trauma at home and when they needed a person to listen instead they were cast out as “crazy” or “slutty.” Real life Nancy isn’t a fun or cool concept. She was real to a lot of us, and she wasn’t some superficial idea of a girl who is dark, sexy and dangerous — she was a fully human girl who was being abused, raped, mentally unwell, living in poverty and she needed her coven to give her love and forgiveness, because what came out of her was driven by the demons around her. Not her, herself. It’s almost like we relish in that moment when Nancy is institutionalized and we’re like thank god that crazy bitch is locked up while all the other “evil” forces around her go unchecked and continue to harm other girls. Those evil forces being unchecked misogyny in society as a whole.

In Witchcraft we acknowledge the dark and the light, but we see these as one thing. Every person has these qualities — it’s how we empathize with people and forgive them for the mistakes they make. When they hurt others, and hurt themselves. That’s why we embrace our sisters in hardship and when we see her fighting herself and fighting everything around her we know she has pain in her heart. She needs love, not an institution. “Love for life in all its forms is the basic ethic of Witchcraft,” explains Starhawk in her seminal text The Spiral Dance, “The [Witch] Craft does not foster guilt, the stern, admonishing, self-hating inner voice that cripples action. Instead, it demands responsibility. ‘What you send, returns three times over’ is the saying — an amplified version of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’…Witchcraft strongly imbues the view that all things are interdependent and interrelated and therefore mutually responsible. An act that harms anyone harms us all.”

While certain aspects of the film honors these notions, the messages seem only to say that women shouldn’t mess with power in general. There’s no rule of three bringing love and warmth back to the girls in need. There is only chaos and karmic imbalance, but isn’t that what being a teenager is all about? In a lot of ways, this film could remove all the spellmaking and murders and just be a normal film about what it’s like to be a teenage girl dealing with difficulties and learning about herself. In Witchcraft we believe that all negativity you send out does come back to you, but we don’t believe that things like sexuality or vanity are negative. They are integral aspects of self-love and honoring your divine feminine. Darkness is not evil, either; it is simply one side to a coin, and when one gets too dark maybe they needs help stepping into the light.

When witches talk about the karmic danger of love spells, it isn’t because love and sex are greedy or dangerous desires, it’s because asking an external element to, in a sense, “force” a person to fall in love with you is removing that person’s autonomy. Will and individuality are crucial in Witchcraft. It’s the basic Kantian philosophy that when you disregard a person’s desire or agency, you strip them of humanity. This is what it means to use and dehumanize a person. Witches may cast enchantment and attraction spells to draw lovers to them. But forcing a lover into your life will only cause you pain (and in my beliefs, isn’t possible. Witchcraft isn’t going to give you unrealistic magick powers, like, none of us are time traveling or turning dogs blue with a shake of a wand, unfortunately). As for vanity, when poor Bonnie wants to get rid of her scars caused by a disturbing childhood trauma, in the true Craft her desire for beauty would be honored, and self-forgiving. That story is one that actually makes sense for what personal magick can do for you. Witchcraft aids in manifestation, in personal goals, and things that an individual does for themselves. It is, in a sense, confidence building so that you can tackle difficult or seemingly impossible tasks. Witchcraft could actually have helped Bonnie to overcome this childhood trauma and find ways to be beautiful and confident, and to heal.

The next plotline that I think is the easiest to call bullshit on even with the biggest fans is Rochelle’s experience. In the world of The Craft a teenage girl losing her hair is worse than a black girl being aggressively and hatefully bullied and being barred from success because of her race. This one is so absurd and disturbing I have a hard time not reading intention. Maybe if the popular girl died we could be like, okay Rochelle maybe don’t kill her that’s a bit extreme but…. losing her hair? Really? That’s like, in contrast to all the other fucked up things that happen to characters in this film, hair loss seems better than racism, rape, being pushed out a window. Yes, in Witchcraft hurting another or wishing harm on anyone is always bad and “un-witch-like” so yes, Rochelle was wrong to do something spiteful to another person but…maybe they could have written something more convincingly empathetic or something that isn’t totally and completely racially insensitive and disempowering to women of color. The point really could have been made without racism and victim blaming.

The mental health representations as a whole are pretty much straight out of the most disturbing pockets of psychoanalysis. The girls are blamed for the things that happen to them and for reacting in extreme, emotional, and angry ways. There’s no forgiveness or empathy for their behaviors or how they try to cope with crushing injustices in their young lives. It’s just like every other misogynist work showcasing women as basket cases who can’t handle power, sex or even friendship. They must be locked up or lead a more pious life. It’s every story exposed by Kate Zambreno in Heroines, it’s every disturbing account penned by Elaine Showalter in The Female Malady. Women can’t be blamed for reacting to trauma, those who abuse need to be held accountable. Young people deserve forgiveness.

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I’m not trying to tell anyone that their personal taste is invalid, but I am calling for a bit of cultural responsibility. Let’s stop obsessing over The Craft as if it’s the Truth and the Light. Let’s stop giving it power. Let’s stop telling women who are dressed in all black that they are “So Nancy.” Pick up The Spiral Dance. Watch a Maya Deren film or Kenneth Anger. Read about Marjorie Cameron. Check out people of color who practiced or wrote about magick like Zora Neal Hurston or Paschal Beverly Randolph. Read some Ida Craddock, Jana Riley, Barbara G. Walker. Start your own coven, make your own memories. Just please, for the love of the Goddess, stop worshipping The Craft. It’s embarrassing for us witches.

“After, the persecutions ended, in the eighteenth century, came the age of disbelief. Memory of the true Craft had faded; the hideous stereotypes that remained seemed ludicrous, laughable, or tragic. Only in this century have Witches been able to ‘come out of the broom closet,’ so to speak, and counter the imagery of evil with truth. The word ‘Witch’ carries so many negative connotations that many people wonder why we use the word at all. Yet to reclaim the word ‘Witch’ is to reclaim our right, as women, to be powerful; as men, to know the feminine within as divine. To be a Witch is to identify with 9 million victims of bigotry and hatred and to take responsibility for shaping a world in which prejudice claims no more victims. A Witch is a ‘shaper,’ a creator who bends the unseen into form, and so becomes one with the Wise, one whose life is infused with magic.” Starhawk, The Spiral Dance