Television - Creative Arts

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Television
Creative Arts

Witches are comparatively sparsely represented on television, especially in comparison to the multitudes featured in books and movies. Why this should be so is subject for speculation. Television, at least up until the advent of cable, has been a notoriously conservative medium. American network television, in particular, is dependent on the favor of advertisers who generally prefer not to associate themselves with witchcraft or the occult. Television programming is, in essence, also brought directly into the home in a way that other media aren’t. Witches are often considered controversial company, not suitable for children.

There is always an exception to the rule of course; many television programs, in particular comedies, feature annual Halloween episodes. These frequently feature witches. However, in general, these are merely cameo appearances with little character development or nuance; what is presented are caricatures of witches.

Few television witches display depth of character; most of those that do are listed below. Perhaps because of the nature of television—shows appear weekly (or even daily as with Bewitched or Dark Shadows)—characters can become very familiar to viewers; in general, recurring characters identified as witches are treated sympathetically and with affection. Even a character intended initially as a villain, like Dark Shadows’ Angélique or one who becomes dangerous, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow are audience favorites.

The Addams Family

Among the most beloved television series, The Addams Family ran from September 18, 1964 until September 2, 1966. Gomez and Morticia Addams lived in a spooky, Gothic mansion along with their unusual, eccentric family in an otherwise conventional town. They were Gothic before “Gothic” existed. The deathly-white skinned Morticia sported long black Lilith tresses and always dressed in a skin-tight black gown reminiscent of a spider. (Arguments could also be made for that other witch creature, the octopus.) Always serene and soft-spoken but nonetheless a powerful, committed matriarch, everyone in her family adored her.

The series was inspired by the cartoons of American artist Charles Addams (January 7, 1912-September 28, 1988) that appeared in The New Yorker magazine from 1935 until 1988 and which remain available in several published collections. The original characters had no names. The television show bestowed names upon them and fleshed out their personalities and relationships.

The relevant question of course is whether the beautiful and brilliant Morticia (played by Carolyn Jones) is a witch. Many assume that she is; certainly the standard mass-marketed Halloween witch costume is now based on Morticia’s tight-fitting black spider gown. However, Morticia is never actually explicitly identified as a witch. She does possess some supernatural powers (when Morticia smokes, her body literally smokes; there’s no need for cigarettes) and she does know how to conduct a séance, but whether that is sufficient to consider her a witch is subject to debate. Morticia certainly fulfills many expectations of what a witch should look like. (There is also a school of thought that considers Morticia to really be a vampire, however this too is based purely on superficial evidence—mainly her extreme pallor and languor.)

The Addams Family does have other characters explicitly identified as witches, most notably Morticia’s mother-in-law, Grandmama (Blossom Rock). The show’s joke was that the witch was in many ways the most conventional member of the family. In addition, Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West from the MGM musical The Wizard of Oz, made two appearances as Morticia’s mother, Grandma Hester Frump, and is identified as a witch. If witchcraft is hereditary, then Morticia is a witch.

Witchcraft occasionally emerged as a theme on the show as well. In one episode, the Addams children are terrified by the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which Morticia deems too violent for children because of the murder of the witch.

In the 1965 Halloween episode, Gomez and Morticia attempt to counter the falsehood taught to their children by outsiders that there’s no such thing as witches. This would have been the moment for Morticia to emerge from the broom closet and announce her identity; notably she does not. However, she does conduct a séance in an attempt to contact her Great-Great-Great-Aunt Singe, a witch who was burned at Salem so that she’ll tell the kids the truth: witches really do exist. When others express doubt as to whether Singe will materialize, Morticia says confidently, “What rightthinking witch would turn down a child on Halloween?”

The Addams Family refuses to die. After the demise of the original show, it continued in syndication, remaining a cult favorite. The original cast reunited for a 1977 Halloween special. The Addams Family has since inspired a televised cartoon series and two feature films, The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993). Anjelica Huston played Morticia in both movies; Judith Malina portrayed Grandmama in the first while Carol Kane assumed the role for the second.

Bewitched

Bewitched aired on the ABC network from September 17, 1964 until July 1, 1972. The show was incredibly popular (in its first season, it was second in ratings only to the Western classic Bonanza.) Bewitched was not only a weekly series; in addition, beginning in January 1968, ABC replayed episodes daily until September 1973. Bewitched held the record of highest-rated half-hour weekly series ever to air from its inception until 1977.

Bewitched was revolutionary: the witch was completely and unambiguously the heroine. Samantha is a fantasy witch blessed with supernatural powers. Seemingly all she had to do was wiggle her nose and whatever she envisioned was accomplished, although every once in a while she was shown struggling to master a spell.

Samantha was beautiful, intelligent, kind, ethical, and in many ways utterly conventional. The only ambivalence shown to witchcraft comes in Samantha’s own attitude toward it: she’d prefer to be an ordinary human and periodically vows to abandon witchcraft for good. Her preference for doing household chores manually rather than magically is the only sign indicating that Samantha might be somewhat less than brilliant. Morticia surely would not make that mistake, and neither did Samantha’s mother.

Bewitched had two witches appearing as series regulars: Samantha was played by Elizabeth Montgomery; Endora, her sardonic mother who was less than enchanted with Samantha’s fascination with all things human, was played by Agnes Moorehead who, unbeknownst to most television viewers, had an illustrious career behind her: she was a founding member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, appeared in his Citizen Kane, and earned multiple Academy Award nominations. Endora thought Samantha a fool for missing out on all the fun, excitement, and glamour of witchcraft; she disapproved of her attempts to behave as a “mortal” and was the epitome of the evil mother-in-law, constantly casting (very funny) spells on Samantha’s beloved.

The seeds of Bewitched derive from the films I Married A Witch and (especially) Bell, Book and Candle, whose leading lady Gillian epitomizes the ambivalent witch.

A feature film version of Bewitched is planned, starring Nicole Kidman.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Can a cheerleader slay vampires? That’s the dilemma posed by the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy derives from a dualist premise: if forces of evil exist then the forces necessary to combat them must exist too (see the Introduction for a discussion of dualist thinking). In every generation, according to this television show, there is a “Chosen One,” the “Slayer” who stands fast against these forces of evil. Who could possibly defend the world from evil more effectively than a 5’3” blonde highschool cheerleader from California named Buffy?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on March 10, 1997 as a mid-season replacement; it was not expected to do particularly well. Defying expectations, Buffy seized the public imagination, becoming a very popular program. The television series was inspired by Fran Rubel Kuzui’s movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), which was not a financial success but lingered as a cult favorite.

The vampires of Buffy are not classic Count Dracula-style vampires nor do they conform to traditional Balkan vampire mythology. They are perhaps better characterized as vampiricdemonic beings. It’s Buffy’s destiny to preserve the world from them, even at the risk of her death. Buffy is not a witch, however characters explicitly identified as “witches” and themes related to witchcraft appear consistently.

Buffy’s not the witch but her best friend becomes one. Willow Rosenberg is a brilliant computer geek played by Alyson Hannigan. Willow is not only Buffy’s friend but her ally and assistant. She is the only character aside from Buffy to appear in every episode of the series.

Originally Willow researched computer websites devoted to magic spells, witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism only in order to assist Buffy in her exploits; soon she gets hooked by the topic however and delves deep in the world of the magical arts and Wicca. Eventually Willow becomes an accomplished spell-caster and a dedicated practitioner. She is explicitly identified as a Wiccan, although Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no less devoted to fantasy than Bewitched: its depictions of Wiccans, witchcraft or metaphysical themes in general should not be considered realistic by any means.

Willow’s interest in witchcraft eventually leads to obsession and disaster. Although Willow is treated sympathetically the underlying message is that practicing the magical arts is dangerous. Determined to save Buffy’s life, which is hanging in the balance, Willow summons “the Books of Dark Magic” and drains them of their contents, absorbing their knowledge into her own body: her normally red hair turns black and her eyes darken. Thus transformed into Dark Witch Willow, Willow goes to the hospital, orders the doctors and nurses to leave, and magically heals Buffy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has provoked some serious philosophical discussions and has even been the subject of university seminars. Beneath the humor and fantasy, the show can be interpreted more seriously as depicting a dualist battle between forces of evil and righteousness.

Charmed

Charmed premiered in October 1998: the three Halliwell sisters, Prue, Piper, and Phoebe, are reunited at their childhood home in San Francisco following the death of their grandmother. They discover a Book of Shadows in the attic that foretells of “The Charmed Ones”—three witches who will become the most powerful of a long line of “good witches.” Each of the Charmed Ones shall inherit one power:


Image The power to manipulate objects


Image The power to freeze time


Image The power to see the future


The Halliwell sisters realize that they’re the Charmed Ones! They learn that they must stay in the mansion and assume their role.

Charmed, described as a “supernatural drama,” is based on an interesting concept: witches as enemies of demons rather than their allies. Reminiscent of the Italian magical practitioners, the Benandanti, Charmed depicts witches as protectors of the innocent and enemies of the wicked. Evil forces are relentless in their attempts to destroy the Charmed Ones and usurp their powers.

Shannen Doherty, who originally played the part of Prue Halliwell, allegedly refused to sign a two-year contract extension in June 2001 and so Prue was thrown through a wall in the last episode of the third season and is now presumed dead. The Charmed Ones were at a loss; the show’s premise is rooted in the concept of the power of three—as in the Triple Goddess and the three stages of women (maiden, mother, crone.) In order to achieve maximum power, the Charmed Ones needed a third witch. Luckily, Paige Matthews (played by Rose McGowan) soon appeared, a long-lost sister of the Charmed Ones.

The Charmed Ones’ lineage began with their maternal ancestor, Melinda Warren, who although born in Virginia eventually moved to Salem, Massachusetts. She possessed all three of the Charmed Ones’ powers. A warlock tricked her, copied her powers and turned her over to the authorities. (On Charmed, warlocks are not male witches but evil ones who happen to be male.) Melinda was burned at the stake during the Salem witch trials. (And no, witches were not burned at the stake in Salem, or elsewhere in New England. They were hung, a fate that never seems sufficiently grizzly for fantasy versions of witchcraft.)

Charmed draws deeply on Wiccan terminology and ritual, although this show is also a fantasy and should not be taken as representing the reality of Wicca, witchcraft or metaphysical practice in general. That said, Charmed treats Wicca with respect and it has a following in the modern witchcraft community.

See DICTIONARY: Benandanti; Wicca.

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows was a Gothic soap opera that recounted the tangled history of the Collins family of Collinsport, Maine. It was the first daytime serial devoted to vampires, werewolves, and witches and featured mortals-vampire romances decades before Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Dark Shadows debuted on June 27, 1966 and ran for five years until April 1971. A daily half-hour soap opera, the show was televised in the late afternoon and so became popular as an after-school program for older children as well as for adults.

It was originally merely a Gothic-flavored soap opera, which was not initially very popular until, nine months into the program, the character of the vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced. Barnabas caught the public eye as he did that of many of the program’s female characters. Once the vampire theme was introduced, the show genuinely became suspenseful and even scary although the plot was never less than convoluted.

Barnabas was released from his slumber in the family mausoleum in a plot-line reminiscent of what was then a cult movie favorite, The Mask of Satan (see Films, page 266). His vampiric condition was caused by a witch: in 1795, he had scorned her love and she cursed him. As that old saying goes, hell hath no fury…the witch, Angélique, periodically made appearances on Dark Shadows just to make sure Barnabas never re-attained mortal status.

Angélique made her first appearance on the show during a séance conducted for the purpose of revealing Barnabas’ history. She then made several appearances in various incarnations and under different names, most notably the modern character Cassandra. In the guise of Cassandra, she continues to study and practice witchcraft.

Lara Parker played Angélique in all her incarnations. Angélique is a beautiful, seductive blonde displaying lots of cleavage. Although she was a “villain” she was not portrayed unsympathetically. Dark Shadows drew much of its inspiration from Gothic novels and imagery; its vision of malevolent witchcraft does not contradict that of traditional folklore. Malevolent witchcraft is fueled by anger, jealousy, and rage; in this particular case, Angélique possessed tremendous resentment of the class barriers obstructing her relationship with Barnabas Collins whom she desired, loved, and despised simultaneously.

Dark Shadows did not lack controversy. Fundamentalist Christian groups protested its presence on television, describing Dark Shadows as “Satan’s favorite television show.” Witches and vampires may have been dangerous but they weren’t the show’s true villains; that role was assumed by stern, conservative patriarchs and hypocrite preachers. It was also not a light comedy like Bewitched or The Addams Family with witchcraft played for laughs; instead the primary witch and vampire were very seductive.

Dark Shadows inspired two films. Various attempts have been made over the years to resurrect the television series with a new cast. The old series remains popular; fans continue to hold annual conventions.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Sabrina the Teenage Witch has had many incarnations over many years:


Image She debuted in the comic book Archie’s Madhouse in October 1962.


Image She emerged as a lead character in Archie’s TV Laugh Out in December 1969.


Image In September 1971, Sabrina was featured in the animated television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She also made appearances on another series The Groovy Ghoulies.


Image In 1994, actor Melissa Joan Hart was cast in a made-for-television movie, inspired by the comic character, as Sabrina Sawyer—a young girl who learns she’s a witch after she goes to live with her two aunts.


Image Finally Hart went on to star in this popular television series, which ran from September 1996 until April 2003. The character of the young witch learning to use her powers was renamed Sabrina Spellman. Her two witch aunts were Hilda (Caroline Rhea) and Zelda (Beth Broderick).


The show is a light comedy in the vein of Bewitched. Sabrina, like Samantha, is ambivalent about being a witch: it deprives her of much of the fun of a regular teenager. Her aunts are stricter than Bewitched’s Endora, or perhaps Sabrina merely has a more responsible vision of witchcraft. Although she is a hereditary witch, one of those semi-immortal supernatural beings who just look human, there are still many rules and regulations for Sabrina to learn and abide by in order for her to become a full-fledged witch. Sabrina lives with her aunts in a conventional community; although they may appear a little eccentric, they must keep their identity as witches secret.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch draws its witchcraft imagery from traditional folklore: Sabrina has a huge interactive grimoire. The family includes a sardonic, talking black cat named Salem. (Salem is a transformed witch; he was punished by the Witch Council for attempting world domination.)

A film version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is scheduled to begin in late 2006 with Sarah Michele Geller (Buffy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) starring as Sabrina.