Witch Movies Aren’t Just About Horror. They’re About the Fear of Female Power
In 2009 Katherine Howe published her first novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, about the Salem Witch Trials. It was only later that she discovered that her protagonist, Deliverance Dane, was an ancestor of hers. Witches will always be a big part of her life, it seems. She’s since written another novel about witches, as well as a nonfiction book about witchcraft. She also enjoys witch movies such as The Craft.
“One of the things I really like about it is that it does get to this thing about hunger for power,” Howe says in Episode 208 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “About power and women, and the fact that women can’t seem to get it through normal means, and what happens when they step outside the carefully drawn boundaries that our culture has drawn for them.”
Horror author Grady Hendrix agrees that witch movies tend to explore our feelings about female power, and he’s troubled at how often the message seems to be that it’s dangerous for women to be too empowered.
“That’s one of those things about those movies that I can’t stand,” he says. “They always turn out to be cautionary tales about power. This sort of, ‘Uh-oh, you got power and had to go outside society, now look at you, you’re killing everyone you love.’”
Film critic Theresa DeLucci says that reactions to the recent movie The Witch show that many people still don’t like the idea of powerful women. The film was hailed by critics but drew sharply divided reactions from viewers, which DeLucci attributes partly to the movie’s feminist themes.
“When something gets a lot of acclaim for being feminist, or the critics feel that it’s a really cool, girl-power, interesting movie, sometimes I do feel like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes—Internet forums where people can vote—I kind of feel sometimes that it’s that Gamergate effect. MRA people just kind of gang up and downvote it,” she says.
Watching movies about powerful women also forces us to reflect on the power structures in our own society. Howe notes that witch movies force us to confront the idea that widely held beliefs often turn out to be completely wrong.
“One of the things I really enjoy is thinking about different moments in history when our understandings of reality were totally different,” she says. “I enjoy that because it’s a reminder that our beliefs about how the world works are totally historically contingent, and that holds true for us too.”
Listen to our complete interview with Katherine Howe, Grady Hendrix, and Theresa DeLucci in Episode 208 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
David Barr Kirtley on Satanism:
“Speaking of pacts with the Devil, this is kind of a funny story, because I got an email from the Satanic Temple saying that they were going to have a screening of The Witch, and I would get to see their Baphomet statue that they crowdfunded. It’s amazing, and I wanted to see it so much, and so I followed the link, and I went to their website, and I couldn’t find how to get my invitation to the party. The only thing I could find was this link that said ‘Sign the Devil’s Book,’ and so I thought, ‘Well, maybe that will get me on their mailing list or something.’ So I did that, and the next thing I know I’m on their list of ‘Satanists in the New York area.’ So that’s how the Devil got me.”
Grady Hendrix on James I:
“James I was killing witches left, right, and center, but I think a lot of that had to do with the idea at the time that people were secret Catholics, and they had to be rooted out and destroyed, and that fed right into witches. … He took witches super duper seriously too. He really got after witches in Britain after he thought that witches tried to drown his bride—Anne of Denmark—on her way over to get married to him. … He had a big trial in Scotland where—I don’t know if it was 70 people were accused or if there were 70 executions, but somewhere in there. So yeah, between the threat to his throne, the threat to his wife, the threat of Catholics, he just hated them on a really deep level.”
Theresa DeLucci on The Craft:
“I was living in Brookfield, Connecticut at the time, and all of the weirdo goth kids kind of hung together, and yeah, after The Craft came out—I always thought it was kind of obnoxious, because then a bunch of my friends became, ‘Oh, we’re Wiccans.’ We would get the Mormons on the street, ‘Hey kids, let me tell you about my lord and savior.’ And I had one friend who would launch into—verbatim—the speech from The Craft, like, ‘God and the Devil are playing on a football field. We’re the football field. We’re nature.’ And I’d just sort of roll my eyes. Yeah, there were times in graveyards with candles and incense and stuff, but I never believed like that, no. I was too cynical, even then.”
Katherine Howe on readers:
“I think because I write about these sorts of things that happen in a space between reason and belief, I hear a lot of stories from people. … Once I was at a signing, and a guy comes up and he goes, ‘Thank you for your talk. I really enjoyed it.’ And I say, ‘Thank you,’ and I’m making pleasant chit-chat, and asking how I should make the book out and stuff, and he says, ‘You know, I have memories of being burned.’ And I say, ‘Oh really? Wow, when was this?’ And he thinks for a second, and he’s like, ‘I’m pretty sure it was the 15th century. I think it was in Germany.’ And I was like, ‘All right, great. Well, thank you for coming to the talk today.’”
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