The witch, as an archetype, has shadowed the human race and the stories we create since time immemorial. She is a strange and often contradictory figure: possessed of intelligence and power and agency, yes, but given to deceit and murderous appetites, a figure that is either mouldering or magnificently beautiful, rarely anything in between. She is problematic in the West, particularly, because of how she has been used by male power structures (often religious ones) as a scapegoat for sickness or catastrophe, with the bonus result of keeping a female population frightened and subjugated. Casting any “transgressive” woman in the shape of something demonic and dismantling her ability to challenge misogynist, patriarchal norms is a nauseating little bit of theater that has played out over and over again from the Black Plague in Europe to the colonial Salem witch trials; indeed, you have only to look at the invective that gets hurled at a woman in contemporary America who attempts to decry rape culture, victim blaming, and the Far Right’s obsession with controlling female reproductive health to see that a good old-fashioned stake burning isn’t just an uncomfortable story from our nation’s remote past.
Small wonder, really, that not one but two new television shows focusing on witches (American Horror Story: Coven and The Witches of East End) are gracing our screens this October. We live in a cultural moment where the witch, lurking in the background but never far away, is experiencing a resurgence, both as a tool for would-be oppressors but also as an instrument of commentary for those — men and women — who would stand up for the rights and the safety and the empowerment of all women, everywhere.
In that spirit, and in the spirit of an always-clickable Halloween-themed “top ten” list, let’s revisit some of the most famous witches from across the centuries of our shared lore. These figures are usually villains and rarely admirable, but only by examining them can we hope to understand the witch and why she continues to dog the steps of humanity.
(For the purposes of this list, we’ll stick to human/half-human female magic users. There are plenty of non-human female magic users — fairy godmothers, goddesses, monsters, and such — from countless tales, but these tend to be archetypally separate from the idea of “the witch”).
10) Morgan le Fay
There are numerous scholarly and cultural arguments that attempt to explain the persistence of the King Arthur mythos throughout the generations, but regardless of which of these arguments you buy — a latent obsession with chivalry; an attraction to the pathos of the story’s doomed romances and Arthur’s equally doomed ideal of a just and honorable world; the seductive idea of a warrior king capable of effecting true change within his society, appealing to those of us frustrated by the halting progress of a highly bureaucratic democracy — the character of Morgan le Fay attends every new incarnation of and riff on the Arthurian matter, and is one of the earliest incarnations of “the witch” as we know her.
Of course, getting a bead on Morgan is tricky; her name and nature shift considerably depending on which century’s version of the story you catch her in, swinging pendulum-like from a helpmeet to a hazard and back again, slotted into whatever function the author of the moment most needed. Despite this, there are a few common elements that comprise Morgan’s character more often than not: She is usually characterized as a relative of Arthur and a wayward former student of the mythos’s more powerful magic users, Merlin and the Lady of the Lake (she is, in this sense, also an embodiment of the failed and traitorous student archetype, a precursor of Darth Vader himself, among others); she tends to use her powers to antagonize Arthur and the forces of Camelot, often in service of her own hunger for increased magical power and the ambitions of the true Arthurian antagonist, Mordred, who is either Morgan’s son or nephew (or both); and, as the years progress and the tale enters the modern age, she is implied to be or outright drawn as sexually transgressive for her time, taking lovers out of wedlock or engaging in incest with Arthur (sometimes knowingly, sometimes not), with jealousy often popping up in her arsenal of motivations.
Interestingly, though, Morgan le Fay is one of the first witch characters to be reclaimed by female and feminist artists in the modern age; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, though not without problems of its own, attempts to give Morgan a psychological complexity and an empathetic portrayal of the kind we later see in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked for that witchy interlocutor of Oz. Morgan has also been portrayed on screen by actresses as varied as Helen Mirren, Helena Bonham Carter, and Julianna Margulies. Her long standing as a fascinating and often beloved character results in a composite portrait of one of the most complicated and, indeed, human witches of all.
9) The Witches from Macbeth
The three weird sisters from Macbeth are hardly main characters, but in a befittingly “weird” way they are more crucial than the protagonists; they are the engine that gets the whole blood-soaked enterprise off the ground. Shakespeare’s trio of clairvoyant crones (They fall solidly in the “hag” classification of witch in many stagings and film productions) evoke mythological figures such as the Fates and the Norns. The sisters predict Macbeth’s rise to power, and he understandably snaps at the carrot, only to recoil in horror later when the nature of the sisters’ predictions change from lauding his coming glory to reveling in his final destruction.
Their predictions and Macbeth’s eventual downfall call into the nature of fate vs. choice. Was Macbeth always doomed, or did the sisters’ first, potentially malicious prediction lure him down a path of darkness he might otherwise have avoided? It is possible to read Macbeth through the lens of the latter, painting the sisters as predatory and capricious beings whose association with the unseen and the unholy have made them more monster than mortal and who intentionally manipulate Macbeth into an orgiastic series of murders for their own delight (though this is an oversimplification of the play’s other aspects)? Indeed, the play as a whole treats its prominent female characters differently than other Shakespeare works which feature more feminist (for the time) heroines: the sisters are filthy and animalistic, unwomen cast out of society, and by their interference, Lady Macbeth takes on a semblance of ambition, ruthlessness, and lust for power more commonly associated (again, for the time) with men. Here, the witch is an enemy of both feminity and feminism. The weird sisters’ only loyalty seems to be to each other.
8) The Victims of the Salem Witch Trials
The horrific events of 1692 and 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts — in which 28 innocents were executed, five more died in prison, and hundreds more across colonial Massachusetts were accused —have long since served as a kind of cultural and historical locus for Americans, a visceral reminder of what can happen when we allow paranoia and religious or philosophical extremism to overthrow our reason and send us all merrily dancing into the maw of mass hysteria. This is why Arthur Miller chose to dramatize the events in his 1953 play The Crucible, using the story to condemn, as blankly as possible, the heinous blacklisting and persecution tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, tactics which were dressed up as an attempt to combat a rising tide of communist thought in the United States but which quickly and predictably became a method by which any individual or group that those in power had some objection to was subjected to their terrible scrutiny.
We also often forget that the original witch trials, as bad as they were, were merely a microcosm of the genocidal fervor with which Europe went after witches in the centuries following the Black Death. In these stories, both historical and fictionalized, the witches are mostly not genuine; they are instead a projection of fear, used by corrupt and evil men in power to tighten their hold over society and over women in particular. The only evil here is the worst kind, and by that, I mean the human kind: the blade of an Inquistor, the cruelty of a teenage girl, the temptations of unilateral power.
7) The Wicked Queen
Contemplating the “witches” of Salem leaves one with a rather grim feeling, but let’s not forget the figure of the witch can also be an entertaining or exciting one, a dark and imperious figure with knowledge beyond our ken whose exploits thrill and titillate us. We love to hate her; we love to watch her work. This is particularly true of the Wicked Queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The Queen sweeps up and down the corridors of her palace with a cold regality and a magnetic, menacing presence that evokes live action stars such as Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson. The source material, and the many variations of the Snow White tale from across the globe, marry several different character types together in the Queen: She is mother, wife, and ruler, in addition to being a practitioner of dark magic. She is, in this sense, a bit of a renaissance woman, but she also epitomizes female stereotypes that range from broad (jealous, obsessed with her appearance, fearful of age) to transgressive (devoid of feeling for her offspring, who is sometimes biological and sometimes a stepdaughter). It doesn’t help that the ever-present Magic Mirror figure is often portrayed in a male aspect, stirring up the Queen’s jealousy by casting a disturbingly covetous eye on the young Snow White and inflaming the Queen’s worst tendencies and suspicions. Is she a powerful villainess in her own right, or the puppet of a far more malevolent entity?
Different versions of the story answer this question in different ways. One element that remains consistent, however, is how the Queen disguises herself as an old crone in order to deceive Snow White and trick her into taking a lethal gift (a constricting bodice, a poisoned comb or apple). Feminist and pop culture criticism have made much of this; in order to achieve her homicidal goals, the Queen has to temporarily shed her beautiful and much-prized appearance. She is one of the few witch figures who comprises both ends of the witch’s physical dichotomy: neither completely beautiful or completely hideous, but both in one.
6) The Sea Witch
While Disney’s construction of the Wicked Queen breathed a chilly charisma into that well-known character type, the company’s treatment of the antagonistic witch character in their movie version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” broadens the character out and smooths away some of her rougher edges. Ursula is one of Disney’s most popular villains, but in relation to the character from the actual tale, she is vaudevillian, a mustache twirler and a snake-oil saleswoman with vengeance on her mind. This transformation was perhaps unavoidable; the musical theater ethos of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken called for this sort of creative license, and of course no one can fault the film’s magical charm. At least the animators chose to make Ursula half-octopus rather than another merperson, which gives her a Lovecraftian air and a sense of revolting unnaturalness that the graceful tails of the beautiful merfolk do not inspire.
But even this does little to approximate the disturbing and bloodthirsty amorality of the sea witch in the original tale. Andersen’s sea witch has no vested interest in the little mermaid or the existence of the merfolk. When the little mermaid comes to her for a potion that will transform her into a human, the witch — drily and without malice — details the specifics of the transaction: intense pain and suffering, bleeding feet, the possibility of instant death should the prince choose another mate, and the cutting out of the mermaid’s tongue as payment for working this magic. This witch is perhaps one of the few without inherently negative intentions; her spell and its consequences evince an understanding of magic as a force of balance. Only great sacrifice and risk can cause great transformation. This version of the sea witch also has more in common with the familiar (ha!) idea of witches as isolated, unmarried women removed from society but to whom you could turn in a time of great need, though always wary of their magic’s consequences and the price you might be asked to pay for it.
5) The Wicked Witch of the West
And at last we turn to what is arguably the most famous witch character of the modern canon: the Wicked Witch of the West, the primary antagonist of L. Frank Baum’s beloved novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its foundational 1939 film adaptation, and who has been subject to a radical reconceptualization in recent years by novelist Gregory Maguire in his book Wicked and its popular (ha again!) adaptation for the musical theatre stage. These different visions of the Wicked Witch have all been endlessly scrutinized. The Witch in the original novel is as mysterious as she is evil, while Wicked’s misunderstood, misguided Elphaba is driven to acts which turn all of Oz against her unjustly. But Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the character in the 1939 movie is what everyone’s mind turns to when the character’s name is mentioned. Her imposing black garb, the alienness of her green skin, her hair-raising cackle: She is everything that we tend to think of when the word “witch” is uttered.
The character has left such a stamp on our shared pop culture consciousness because the filmmakers allowed her to be truly, deeply frightening. Ask anyone from the age of nine to 90 about the nightmarish scene in which the hated Ms. Gulch, Dorothy’s neighbor, appears airborne in the midst of the tornado outside Dorothy’s window and transforms, inexplicably, into a broom-hopping harridan, and they’ll recount to you a very exact memory of the first time they saw the scene, usually complete with face-hiding or blanket-cowering. As a character, the Wicked Witch recombines DNA from other, earlier witch figures. She covets greater magical power, like Morgan le Fay; she is loyal to her (deceased) sister, like Macbeth’s witches; she deploys all her resources in the persecution of an almost powerless child, like the Wicked Queen in Snow White. Most interesting of all, though, is the fact that she and her benevolent counterpart, Glinda, are witches capable of real magic and strength of personality, in a world where the titular male figurehead is a shyster and a humbug.
4) The White Witch
The titular antagonist of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe is as powerful and frightening in her way as the Wicked Witch of the West. By the time Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy find their way into Narnia, the White Witch has, for all intents and purposes, already claimed victory. She holds Narnia deep in the sway of an unchanging winter, hunting down dissidents with a McCarthy-like singularity of purpose and petrifying all who defy her outright (quite literally; she turns them to stone). There aren’t many facets to the White Witch’s personality, but she is a force of nature (again literally, in the case of the unnatural long winter) and a formidable adversary. Her eventual defeat never feels like a by-gone conclusion, and the gut-wrenching scene in which she sacrifices Aslan the Lion, cheered on by her demonic followers and witnessed by a terrified Susan and Lucy, approximates what it must feel like to truly lose everything to the forces of evil.
However, it’s possible that her “witchiest” quality is her use of deception. In a well-known scene, the White Witch discovers a wayward Edmund, lost during his first sojourn into Narnia. Astonished at his existence (There is a prophecy that four humans will end her reign), the White Witch flatters and cajoles him into her carriage, where she plies him with candy called Turkish delight and appeals to his vanity and arrogance, attempting to suss out the whereabouts of Edmund’s siblings so that she may capture and kill them all. Of course, her charade doesn’t last for long, but the tactic does make use of the trope that witches are treacherous and manipulative, itself an extension of the misogynist cliché that women are creatures of deceit. And what is a witch but a woman defying the convention of male overseers and doing what she wants, tapping into power not available to men and giving into her “true” nature? Daughters of Eve, indeed, or so the powers-that-be would have you think. (The White Witch was brought to stunning life on the big screen by none other than Tilda Swinton in the 2005 film adaptation of the novel).
3) The Witches from The Witches
Another powerful, authoritarian witch who made the move from the page to the screen is The Grand High Witch, the main antagonist of Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s book The Witches and its 1990 film adaptation. The Grand High Witch and her coven are unusual in the pop culture pantheon of their fellows because of Roald Dahl’s conception of their nature. These witches have the hideous, deformed appearance associated with Macbeth’s weird sisters, but they live in secret among regular people, making use of disguises to avoid detection. They are only able to relax and “be themselves” behind the safety of locked doors, in the company of each other. Moreoever, these witches personify a trait often found in fairy tale witches: an intense loathing for children and a desire to eradicate them. This sentiment is particularly deviant for a being that is ostensibly a woman: the joys of motherhood, and all that. But ask any child-free-by-choice female friend of yours what happens when they confess to a stranger or new acquaintance that, no, they do not like or want children, and yes, they are very happy being without them, and your friend is likely to tell you that upon making this confession, she gets stared at with as much confusion and revulsion as if she suddenly sported the bald heads, claw-like fingers, and toeless feet of one of Dahl’s witches.
2) The Witches from The Craft
It was perhaps only a matter of time before the rise of goth and grunge culture throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s was married to the ethos of the witch, and this marriage is never put to better use than in 1996’s The Craft. The movie, concerned with a burgeoning teenage coven and starring Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, and Rachel True, came along at a time when the mainstream’s appropriation of grunge had reached its apex and was running with it all the way to the box office and the Billboard charts. Appropriately, the movie’s misunderstood and outcast young women bond through their isolation, but then, becoming aware of their own power, turn their sorcerous talents to feats that aren’t so much evil as dangerously self-involved, a narcissism whose consequences threaten to tear the coven apart and destroy the fragile sorority the four had discovered.
Two of these teen witches operate from the place of female stereotypes — Robin Tunney just wants a boy to like her, Neve Campbell wants to be more beautiful — but Fairuza Balk and Rachel True use their power to exact revenge on those who have hurt them — an abusive stepfather and a racist bully, respectively. The movie — which is a pleasure more guilty than not, but a pleasure all the same — doesn’t run far with these contrasting attitudes about magic and a witch’s purpose before devolving into what largely amounts to occult hair-pulling and eye-scratching, but even still, it’s a modern portrayal of witches not as barely-human monsters but as real people, girls even, with the same problems and pain we all suffer in high school and beyond.
1) The Blair Witch
It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the Blair Witch herself is both the last entry here and the most recent example, as she is by far the most frightening and most anomalous figure on the list. Her attendant movie, The Blair Witch Project — a landmark example of the “found footage” horror genre — was enveloped by impossible hype and, as a result, has languished somewhat in the decade-plus since its release in a backwash of contrarianism. “It wasn’t that scary,” some say, or, “It was just kind of dumb.” I would challenge you to reexamine it, though, now that we are removed from its pop culture omnipresence and the distortions of perception that hype creates. It’s true that The Blair Witch Project isn’t scary; scary isn’t a strong enough word. The intrepid young heroes’ isolation, disorientation, dwindling resources, and escalating encounters with something in the dark forest as they first attempt to track down signs of a famous local legend and then, inevitably, seek to do nothing more than escape with their own lives create a sense of numb terror and despair so overwhelming that it nauseates (and no, not because of the shaky camera).
This may be due in large part to the Blair Witch herself. The movie’s actual directors make use of Salem-esque lore about witchcraft and witch trials to suggest that the Blair Witch is the ghost of an accused witch, implying that the entity’s woodland marauding is being made in answer to her long-ago exploitation and desecration. But while the legend of the witch concerns a female entity, the force that the three filmmakers encounter in the Maryland woods seems so horrifyingly dark and capricious as to be almost alien. We never see the Blair Witch, only her handiwork; she assumes true shape only in our imaginations, the most powerful creative medium in existence. In that sense, perhaps The Blair Witch Project is the ultimate witch movie. It casts the witch as not only a metaphorical force of nature but also a literal one, a disruptive and deadly power that refuses to be contained by physical form.