“We are the weirdos, mister”: The Craft and the year of the teen witch

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“We are the weirdos, mister”: The Craft and the year of the teen witch

The Craft came out way back in 1996, but you wouldn’t know it from its pervasive place in the zeitgeist. Twenty years later, Andrew Fleming’s film about four “weirdo” teenage witches discovering their powers in a world that denies them autonomy still resonates, finding avid fandom with communities (or covens) of like-minded teens on Tumblr. Last year, there was even talk of a TV reboot.

1996 was the year of the teen witch: Sabrina, The Teenage Witch debuted on ABC in September, and Nicholas Hytner’s film adaptation of The Crucible was released a few months later. The enduring appeal of The Craft, and the idea of the teen witch more generally, can be attributed to a fantasy of supreme female agency. It suggests there’s an unknowable mystery and dormant threat inside teenage girls that the rest of the world can’t possibly comprehend. The Craft allows viewers to imagine having control over—and taking revenge on—a restrictive, male-dominated world. The teen witch doesn’t reject the teen girl experience; if anything, the trope embraces the strange magic and intensity of female friendship. It challenges a society that both limits the power of young women and perceives them to be naturally limited. By having supernatural strength, these characters can defy a social structure that equates female adolescence with weakness and vulnerability.

In The Craft, when the listless and lonely Sarah (Robin Tunney) moves to L.A. and starts at a new school, she gravitates toward the so-called “Bitches Of Eastwick”: Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True), outsiders who are bullied by their classmates. The three girls practice pagan rituals in their spare time but need a fourth to invoke the spirit of a deity called Manon. The four girls initially unite to wreak vengeance on an unfair world. As they become more powerful and men around them begin dying, Sarah tries to leave the circle, much to the anger of the coven. Jealousy and greed eventually destabilize the coven’s balance of power and dissolve their bonds. Many witch stories are dominated by fear of the outside world and being “found out”; in The Craft, the threat is from within.

The teen witch rejects every tenant of the good adolescent girl: sweet, fragile, subservient, and malleable. Sarah, Bonnie, Rochelle, and Nancy want the agency and justice they’re routinely denied. Sarah wants influence over Chris (Skeet Ulrich, the classic diabolical love interest of ’90s teen films), who dumps her when she won’t have sex with him on their first date and then tells the entire school they did it anyway. Bonnie wants her full-body scars to disappear so she can be “beautiful inside and out” and relishes the effect that her new powers-enhanced looks have on the boys around her (because apparently they hadn’t noticed she was Neve Campbell). Rochelle wishes for revenge against her racist bully, Laura (Christine Taylor). Nancy just wants power—the power, it turns out, to kill her mom’s abusive partner and cash in his life insurance. All four girls want the power of choice.

For these characters, to identify as a teen witch is to identify with a version of themselves who’s in control and can effect change. Nancy, in particular, takes this to an extreme place, and her lust for power and fascination with death and destruction (she calls Sarah’s attempted suicide “punk rock”) is the eventual downfall of the coven. Nancy also best embodies the fury inside teenage girls. After Chris attempts to rape Sarah, Nancy tricks him by disguising herself as Sarah. When Chris realizes that it’s Nancy and proclaims his total disinterest, she becomes enraged. “You don’t even exist to me,” she snarls, admonishing him for treating all women like “whores,” and then she kills him. In the coven, the girls can confront the threats around them. It’s no coincidence that their first act of magic together is killing a man who tries to harm Sarah. The first time she encounters this man, it’s her father who scares him away. Suddenly, a teen girl isn’t someone to be protected by men; she’s someone they need to fear.

In The Craft, the witches’ collective powers are a way to silence those who demean and subjugate them—whether it’s the men who threaten their safety, peers who judge them, or beauty ideals that restrict them. They don’t want to escape their identities as teenage girls; they want to escape the idea that this should limit them in any way. Practicing witchcraft is communal, and female friendship—even when it’s volatile—is important. The unity of the women is the source of their power and when that disappears, their coven dissolves. There’s a reason they practice their spells in the sanctified space of the sleepover: It’s a place where young girls can safely forge new identities away from those who trivialize them.

This world of witchcraft is a long way from 17th-century Salem, but the two share the same tensions. The societies of both eras tells these girls that they should be beautiful but not enjoy it; they should be content and easily controlled; and they should accept their lot in life and settle into the accepted social order accordingly. These contradictory expectations are also reflected in Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, despite it being a much goofier imagining of what a teenage girl would do if she could control her environment (like have Britney Spears give her a private concert, for one). Although Sabrina enjoys getting up to lighthearted mischief—much like the protagonist of the similarly family-friendly Teen Witch—she mostly considers balancing her supernatural powers with adolescence to be a burden. She frequently has to devise elaborate lies to hide her paranormal abilities, which are restrained by adults who tell her that they know better; it’s just another kind of societal surveillance to observe.

The film adaptation of The Crucible—Arthur Miller’s allegorical play about the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century—released in late 1996, starred Gen-X poster girl Winona Ryder as the ruthless Abigail Williams. This casting decision made The Crucible especially relevant to a young audience, for whom Ryder represented the coolest version of themselves, another young woman who “got it” (echoed in Tavi Gevinson’s casting in the 2016 stage production of the play as Mary Warren, a meeker character than Abigail Williams but a similarly troubled teen nonetheless). The New York Times film review at the time questioned why a remake was necessary; with McCarthyism dead, what relevance did this story have in 1996? But for young women, the themes of powerlessness, peer intimidation, and existing in a society that fears your sexuality when you don’t always fully understand it yourself were just as relevant in the ’90s as they were in the ’50s (the review does note the “texture of sexuality” that permeates the film).

In the late ’90s, as the character of Willow Rosenberg started experimenting with magic on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, cool “contemporary” adult witches began to appear. Eschewing black cloaks and broomsticks for low-rise jeans and halter tops, these new twenty- and thirtysomething avatars of witchcraft populated films and TV shows like Practical Magic and Charmed. Then for a few years (with the exception of young adult fiction and children’s shows like The Worst Witch), the teen witch seemed largely absent from films and TV shows geared toward adolescents. The direct teenage descendants of The Craft didn’t materialize until American Horror Story: Coven aired 17 years later. Much like the Bitches Of Eastwick, the young witches in Coven are stylish, power-hungry, and unafraid to seek bloody revenge on the abusive men around them. There are no performances by Britney Spears on the show (though Stevie Nicks does make a cameo). More recently, in July 2015, Fox’s supernatural drama Salem, which proposes a fiction in which the trials were merely the backdrop to a real witch war, was renewed for a third season. This teen-witch trope is still popular not just because stories about teens with mystical abilities are fun, but also because this power fantasy of inverting the social hierarchy is intoxicating.

It’s too easy to say that The Craft has endured—and it has endured, you only need to look at the prevalence of “the craft” tag on Rookie and Teen Vogue—simply because its ’90s goth-inspired aesthetic is cool. Director Andrew Fleming recently told The Guardian that he hadn’t wanted the girls in funny, pointy hats; he wanted them to look as though they were in The Cure. But Rookie, in particular, understands that “teen witch” is also a powerful social identifier (if The Craft were made today, the girls probably would have just found their fourth online). You might not have supernatural powers, but you can still form a community with like-minded girls who similarly refuse the restrictions that society places on them as young women, even if you don’t relate to the paganism of practicing Wiccans. The Craft constantly reminds viewers that these four are still regular teenagers—they’re just capable of incredible things. Despite casting powerful spells and realizing their divine clout, Sarah and Bonnie still sit at the back of class and whisper, “Is he looking? He’s looking at me, isn’t he?” when a crush is near.

The Craft isn’t about finding power despite being a teenage girl but because of it. It’s about being able to harness agency that is not traditionally available to you, to dismantle the perceived “natural” order. Going against the grain of gender expectations is already difficult, which is why the idea of having superpowers to assist you is so attractive. Teen witches in popular culture offer an amplification of the adolescent experience but with more control over its scarier aspects. When the girls are warned by a bus driver about the “weirdos” in the world waiting to harm them, Nancy famously replies with a smile, “We are the weirdos, mister.” To be a teen witch is to revel in nonconformity and dismiss the idea that by virtue of your age and gender, you are the most vulnerable person in society. It’s about being able to embrace your true weirdo self—and magic the hell out of anyone who says otherwise.