When I said I’d update this blog more often I didn’t necessarily mean every day, but it seems a bit off to save the second part of my deeply specific mid-to-late 1990s terrible awesome awesome terrible spooky movie extravaganza until the week after Halloween.
Which brings us to The Craft.
By all rights, I should hate this movie because it contains about every trope I hate in, well, I’d say this kind of fiction but actually a lot of them are tropes I hate in all mass culture. They include but are not limited to:
- The only people who should have power are people who are born with it
- It is immoral to try to make your life better
- Sexually promiscuous people are evil, emotionally damaged, or both
- Poor people are evil
- Rich people are evil but not as evil as poor people
- Black people aren’t evil but only because they never really get to do anything for themselves
- Physical beauty correlates with morality in extremely specific ways, namely pretty people are good and ugly people are evil, unless the pretty people got pretty by trying to look pretty, in which case they are even more evil than the ugly people
- And, while we’re at it, ugly basically means incredibly hot but with a few minor and easily overlooked physical flaws
And I admit some of these are reaching because the list would have been even less funny if it had only had two or three entries but the movie really can’t go more than ten minutes without showing me something that should, by all rights, piss me the fuck off.
So I’m not sure why I love it so much. Maybe it’s Fairuza Balk.
Scratch that. It’s definitely Fairuza Balk.
Anyway, The Craft is the story of a girl called Sarah whose mother was A Good Witch TM (this doesn’t really come out til the end of the movie, but it’s screamingly fucking obvious from the start) and who, therefore, has always had hidden supernatural powers (remember: you’re only allowed to have power if you were born with it). Sarah falls in with a motley cabal of teenage witches and, when I say witches, I mean really explicitly Wiccan witches (which I think is part of why I find the film so fascinating), all of whom have turned to the occult in order to help them deal with their very teenage personal problems. When Sarah joins them her innate protagonist powers kick the group into overdrive, allowing them to start doing real, legit magic for the first time in their lives.
I have a friend who describes Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s great unacknowledged comedy (this is going somewhere, bear with me). The play, she says, is so ludicrously over-the-top that you can’t take it seriously or imagine it was ever intended to be taken seriously as tragedy. And so it makes most sense if you view it as a hilarious and bloody farce. In the same way, I think the reason I love The Craft even though it ticks every status quo biased, socially conservative, believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything but only if you’re white and pretty box that I hate in Hollywood movies is that the foundations on which it’s based are so flawed, human and understandable that I can’t take it seriously as a coming-of-age story about a middle class white girl who falls in with a bad crowd. I have to view it, instead, as a profoundly tragic story about a group of variously marginalised people who do the only thing they think they can to make their low-key shitty lives slightly less low-key shitty, and are punished for it by an uncaring cosmos.
And, okay yes, technically Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie do try to straight up murder Sarah. And Sarah actually, when you think about it, has quite a lot of her own shit going on (she’s fairly clearly quite seriously depressed among other things, although the film really dances around that issue), but by that point (and to an extent like the various murders that take place in Interview With The (not a) Vampire) you’ve taken such a sharp left turn off Metaphor Drive into Allegory Close that it’s very hard to unpick how anyone’s actions should be interpreted.
At its heart, The Craft is about four girls who want very understandable, very reasonable things, some of which are relatable dreams or aspirations (“I wish I didn’t have these horrific burn scars”, “I wish my family wasn’t dirt poor”) and some of which are things they are genuinely entitled to (“I wish people would stop being overtly, explicitly and disgustingly racist to my actual face”). And it is genuinely pleasing when their forays into the supernatural lead to them getting these tiny things that they’ve hoped for. And what for me sells the pathos and the tragedy of the piece is seeing how much these girls lives are improved by these often trivial or even unnoticeable changes.
Just to go through a few examples, Rochelle, who I really don’t want to refer to as “the black one” but, well, it’s a teen movie from 1996 and pretty much her entire character arc is that a girl is racist to her and it makes her unhappy so … there’s not a lot I can do with that. There’s even a bit at the beginning of the movie where one of the Mean Jocks is pointing out the three witches to Sarah, and he basically points to Nancy and says, she’s a slut, points to Bonnie and says she’s got these horrible scars, and then just kind of ignores Rochelle completely. Where was I? Rochelle’s thing is that there is one girl who is really horrible to her in a really, concretely racist way (she actually uses the line “I don’t like negroids” and I know it was 1996 but … that’s still definitely more a macro aggression than a micro aggression). And, yes, they curse the mean girl so her hair falls out but Rochelle doesn’t seem to take any kind vindictive pleasure in this, she just seems genuinely happy that nobody is throwing racist abuse at her any more. Which is, um, I think something it’s okay to be happy about. Interestingly when they do the initial bonding ritual thing, where they articulate what they want out of their Wiccan nature magic love in, she specifically asks for the ability to love people who don’t love her. She’s not asking for anything bad to happen for anyone (although let’s be clear bad things happening to people are efficacious ways to curtail their destructive behaviours, that’s kind of how the criminal justice system works), she just wants to be not treated like shit. In fact, check that, she doesn’t even ask not to be treated like shit. She asks to have the strength to not feel bad about being treated like shit. This is about as close to being careful what you wish for as you can possibly get.
Then we’ve got Bonnie, the one with the burn scars. In a sense she’s the one who asks for the most (unless you count Nancy’s quest for real, ultimate power) in that she asks for something definitely and explicitly miraculous (yes, in the context of the film, there’s an outside possibility that the sudden regeneration of her scar tissue is the consequence of experimental gene surgery, but even the doctors don’t seem to think that’s a particularly likely explanation). The thing I find most interesting about Bonnie’s post-magic high-on-life sequence is that, barring one scene in which she wears a halter neck, she spends the rest of the film wearing clothes that would have concealed her scars anyway. And, yes, what she wears is still more revealing than the enormous floomfy “I have clearly have serious body issues” sweatshirts she wears at the beginning but, to me, that signals a shift in attitude, not necessarily a remarkable physical transformation. To put it another way, what Bonnie gets out of the circle is a sense of confidence and the ability to feel comfortable in her own skin. And that, leaving aside actual magical scar removal, is a genuine entitlement. Asking for it and enjoying it when you get it isn’t hubristic. It’s … I don’t even know if there’s a word for it. It’s just okay.
And then finally we have Nancy and, yes, when they do the letters to Santa sequence Nancy basically wishes for omnipotence so you can make a reasonable case that she’s a wrong ‘un from the outset. But you can also make a pretty good case that when you’ve got literally nothing, the only thing you can really want is everything because you haven’t had enough access to the world to have the kinds of specific desires that other people take for granted. This is probably best encapsulated by monkey’s-paw-esque sequence in which Nancy’s drunken, abusive, arsehole step-father drops dead of a heart attack, leaving Nancy and her mother the beneficiaries of a large life insurance policy, a life insurance policy that runs to something in the region $175k. Which, yes, is a lot of money insofar as it’s more money than Nancy or her mother can really imagine and, obviously, this was back in 1996 and we’ve had exactly twenty years (fuck, I feel old) of inflation since then but it’s not exactly one percenter territory. I mean, even in the 90s, millionaires were a thing. And a hundred and seventy five grand isn’t even a sizeable fraction of the expected lifetime earnings of most people. It’s about what you’d make in ten years doing a really, really crappy job. So when you get right down to it, although she almost literally wishes for the moon on a stick (which Sarah almost literally gets because, let’s remember, you’re only allowed to have things if you don’t try to get them) all Nancy really wants is not to live in grinding poverty with a guy who’s clearly abusive to her and her mother. Again, not hubristic. Just … okay.
Doing things from the point of view of the villains is sort of a cliché by this stage but that didn’t stop me enjoying the crap out of Team Starkid’s Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier which re-tells Disney’s Aladdin from the point of view of Jafar. In particular, the big number at the end of the first act, the title song ‘Twisted’, ends with a bunch of Disney villains explaining their motivations in this repetitive chorus that takes form “I only wished for [x].” “I only wished for love,” says Gaston. “I only wanted to teach the boy responsibility,” says Captain Hook. “I only wanted what I was promised,” says Ursula the Sea Witch. “I only wished to have a coat made out of puppies,” says Cruella de Ville at the end, which sort of punctures the mood. The thing about The Craft is that it’s basically that bit from that song only (possibly) unintentionally, twenty years earlier, and for the entire movie. Even when Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle are trying to drive Sarah to suicide in a pit of snakes and maggots you can’t—or, at least, I can’t—shake the awareness that they just wanted to get things other people take completely for granted.
None of them want a coat made out of puppies, is what I’m saying here.
And I get that power corrupts but the problem with power corrupts narratives in films, especially Hollywood films, is that they grade on a curve. Sarah is born with the heritage of a witch (and, also, born white, pretty and upper middle class) and, therefore, the power that she gets is completely fine and natural and okay (it’s also worth pointing out that she instigates most of the pissing about with magic that the girls do in the second quarter of the movie). Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie acquire a little bit of power that is ultimately less than the power that Sarah started with and this makes them go evil. There are a whole load of really problematic assumptions about social orthodoxy and the political and economic establishment baked into that. And I’m not sure I can even begin unpacking them. The very potted, very sound bitey version is that it’s the movie about teenage witches equivalent of when people on the internet (and in newspapers and in campaigns for high political office) complain about marginalised people being given “special treatment” when all they’re really being given is a tiny fraction of the treatment that other people get every day without even thinking about it.
I’ve probably taken this way too seriously.
So, basically, to answer the question I asked myself at the beginning, I love The Craft because even though it transparently isn’t, it reads to me as the artfully observed tragedy of three young women who chafe against the restrictions society has placed on them and are crushed for it.
And, embarrassingly, I do actually have quite a lot more to say about the film because the other thing that’s interesting about it, completely aside from the whole “is it a tragedy or a coming of age movie” thing, is that its Wiccan stuff is bizarrely specific, quite different other Wiccan stuff you see in pop culture, and somehow manages to fetishise and demonise the religion simultaneously.
At the time the film came out, or maybe a little after (this is twenty years ago we’re talking about) I had a couple of legitimately Wiccan friends who were quite bothered by the film, not because they thought it particularly misrepresented their religion but because they thought the Wiccan rituals presented in the film were sufficiently accurate that the cast ran a real risk of calling up supernatural forces that would genuinely harm them. Obviously, as an atheist, I don’t think that was especially probable but it does highlight that the witchcraft presented in The Craft is really specifically and quite authentically Wicca. Which is odd.
As I recall, the witch thing was kind of on fleek in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You had Charmed, you had the whole Willow/Tara arc in Buffy, in the world of RPGs you had White Wolf’s Publishing’s Mage: The Ascension. But, by and large, pop culture depictions of witchcraft tended to borrow quite liberally from any source that included a pointy hat or a tripartite goddess. The witches in Buffy, for example, (at least the good sort) are fairly explicitly referred to as Wicca, but there’s very little in what they do that an actual Wiccan would (by my limited understanding) recognise as belonging to their religion. The Craft, as my friends from the 90s would testify, was rather different.
Some of it is just little tiny details that I like. The four girls obviously have an elemental correspondence thing going on and every time I watch it I forget that Nancy isn’t the fire one because the prevailing cultural association we have with fire is to do with spontaneity, unpredictability and, well, hot-headedness. But all of those characteristics in, well … I don’t want to say actual witchcraft because first of all modern syncretistic religious movements are almost definitionally eclectic and heterogeneous and even most practitioners would admit that their connection to Medieval or pre-Christian practice is, at best, reconstructed and, at worst, largely fabricated. Anyway, all of those characteristics in traditional Medieval elemental theory are associated with the element of air, the humour of yellow bile, and the temperament choleric (it is, in fact, pretty much what the word choleric still means). Ironically, the temperament associated with fire in that system is sanguine which, as far as I can tell, also still means today pretty much what it meant back in the day. Chill, happy and outgoing, basically. Bonnie (the one with the burn scars, oh do you see) fulfils the fire role in The Craft and, despite her lack of confidence, she’s basically the relaxed, friendly one. She’s quite explicitly the one who is nice to Sarah when she first shows up and the one who drives the circle in recruiting her as a fourth member.
The elemental correspondence thing gets a bit weird with Sarah, actually, because she occupies the position of earth, which is associated with black bile and melancholia. This is represented in the film by fairly strong hints that she’s dealt with suicidal depression in the past and this is … not really addressed. I think this might be a feature of the film’s traditional coming-of-age character arc in that Sarah basically has to be the designed everygirl whose primary challenges come from the whole business where her friends try to actually murder her, rather than coming from any flaws or foibles of her own personality. Again it ties into that awkward Hollywoodism where supernatural help is only acceptable if you don’t want or need it. If they’d made more of her need to use magic to deal with her mental health issues it would have made it really hard to distinguish between the “light” that Sarah apparently brings to magic and the “darkness” that Nancy is apparently coming from. While we’re doing the element mambo, I’ll also add that part of Rochelle’s problem is that because she represents water and therefore embodies phlegmatism she basically can’t do anything on her own initiative. Which is, again, a slightly awkward position for the one black character to be in.
The final weirdly specific, weirdly accurate, weirdly inaccurate thing about The Craft is how intensely it focuses on the role of a male divinity within Wicca. I honestly can’t tell if they’re being clueless or deliberately subversive. Virtually every kind of Wiccan-inspired fictional witch religion I’ve ever seen makes no reference to a male divine figure whatsoever. It is, at the risk of sounding glib, very much all goddess-this and goddess-that or, to quote Buffy, “blah blah Gaia blah blah moon.” And, obviously, in traditional Gardnerian Wiccan the mother goddess is a very important concept but then so is the horned god. I’m not sure but I think that people who present Wicca-inspired religions in fiction really want to push the matriarchal thing as a deliberate counterpoint to, well, all the Abrahamic religions. But this is ultimately a misrepresentation of how Wicca works (not least because the oldest form of Wicca we have authenticated sources for was founded by, um, a man in the 50s).
So I like that The Craft nails its flag firmly to the idea that Wicca involves a male god too. I even like that they specifically give that god a name (from my very cursory research, one of the other features of most forms of traditional Wicca is that while the god and the goddess aren’t necessarily referred to by the same name by different groups of practitioners they’ll generally be referred to by a name, again I suspect partly as a way of differentiating them from the famously unnameable god of Christianity). It is, however, a bit weird that they focus on the male deity so exclusively. And maybe there’s supposed to be something Freudian going on – after all, none of the girls seem to have good male role models in their lives (Nancy’s step father is explicitly abusive, we see Bonnie’s mother but not her father, Rochelle’s parents are, of course, completely invisible and even Sarah’s dad is kind of a milquetoast). Or maybe it was just that, since the film presents the divinity that the girls invoke in a very double-edged way, it would have been a troublingly mixed message to have them worship a gigantic female empowerment metaphor that so explicitly screws them over.
Aaaand now I’ve written three thousand words about The Craft. Um, I do genuinely love it, even though there are a million reasons I shouldn’t. About three quarters of the way in, Fairuza Balk just full on transforms into Tim Curry. And it’s kind of brilliant.
So thus ends my deeply specific, mid-to-late 1990s terrible awesome awesome terrible spooky movie extravaganza.
Just assume I said something Halloweeny at the end here. Like boo or something.