Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher in The Witches Of Eastwick (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images); Veronica Lake in I Married A Witch (Photo: Donaldson Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images); and Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in Bell, Book And Candle (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Moviepix/Getty Images)

Decades of bewitching rom-coms pose the eternal question: Is love stronger than magic?

From left: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher in The Witches Of Eastwick (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images); Veronica Lake in I Married A Witch (Photo: Donaldson Collection/Moviepix/Getty Images); and Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in Bell, Book And Candle (Photo: Columbia Pictures/Moviepix/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Falling in love is the closest thing to magic any of us will experience in our lifetimes. Often, it results in a variety of reactions we seem to have no control over: the chemistry that fizzes when we meet someone special for the first time; the warm glow that suffuses us when we think about them; the compulsion to think about our new obsession—much more, we realize, than we ought to. So the tie between love and magic is understandably close. Look at all the pop standards that entwine the two concepts: “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered,” “I Put A Spell On You,” “This Magic Moment,” “Witchcraft,” and countless others.

Witchcraft is also a common enough trait for fictional characters beyond the pop charts: Think Sabrina Spellman, Samantha Stephens, Hermione Granger, Elphaba and Glinda, or either incarnation of the Charmed Ones. The big screen has been home to enough enchanted enchantresses that they’ve built their own cozy little gingerbread cottage within the romantic comedy genre. While you can find supernatural elements kickstarting the plot in other rom-coms—the time travel of 13 Going On 30, an enchanted crab in Simply Irresistible—in a witch rom-com, magic is the foundation that the romance builds on. From Bell, Book And Candle’s Gillian to Practical Magic’s Sally, quite a few movie witches have found romance with mere mortal men to be more powerful than spells or curses. As a pioneer in the subgenre, 1942’s I Married A Witch, puts it, “Love is stronger than witchcraft.”

Looking back on a few of these films, common themes emerge. They’re all adaptations, with roots in popular fiction, theater, or television. Appropriately, many of the witches hail from the Northeastern United States, in the same region of the notorious witch haven of Salem, Massachusetts. Based on Thorne Smith’s posthumously published The Passionate Witch, I Married A Witch kicks off with 1600s New England puritans, who burn Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and her father at the stake after she’s caught in a compromising position with Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March). Jennifer’s and her father’s spirits are then encased in an oak tree for centuries, but Jennifer is able to doom generations of Wooleys (all played by March) to loveless marriages. When a lightning bolt frees them, Jennifer intends to get revenge on the latest Wooley offspring, Wallace (March again).

Despite the primitive special effects of the era (limited to floating brooms, carefully positioned smoke, and slamming doors), I Married A Witch is an excellent benchmark for the witch rom-com, because Jennifer starts out as a typical witch dead-set on vengeance against the man who represents the clan who tried to destroy her kind. It’s only when she accidentally drinks a love potion intended for Wally that her feelings change and the screwball love story takes hold. The straitlaced March is no match for the eternally smoldering Lake, but the disparate types play off each other well. When Jennifer is in danger of getting exiled yet again, she pledges her devotion to Wally. She’s true to her word, and the movie ends showing Jennifer and Wally happily married with a pair of sons—and a darling daughter who rides a broomstick and sports her mother’s signature peekaboo hairstyle. The generational traditions of both parents continue. Nevertheless, you get the feeling that Jennifer has stifled her powers in favor of this idyllic domestic lifestyle.

She’s not the only witch who casts off her supernatural abilities in favor of a “normal” life with a human paramour in mind. In 1958’s Bell, Book And Candle, based on a hit Broadway play, Gillian (Kim Novak) is the hip owner of an African and Oceanian art gallery in Greenwich Village, but starts the movie by musing to her cat, Pyewacket, that she’d like to meet someone new. Pyewacket delivers in the form of the dashing Shep (Jimmy Stewart), who lives in the apartment right above hers. Gillian’s hopeless feelings for Shep seem sincere, but she falls into the usual problem of a witch in love: Does he really love her, or is it just the spell she’s cast on him? Bell, Book And Candle strays from the usual autumnal New England setting to show witches living it up in Manhattan at Christmastime: It’s not hard to imagine that in 1958, the black magic crowd would be hanging around in the beatnik clubs of Greenwich Village. Jack Lemmon shows up as Gillian’s bongo-playing warlock brother, Nicky; Elsa Lanchester is in the requisite older relative/magical mentor part as Queenie. While Queenie and Nicky are horrified that Gillian would even think of giving up her powers in favor of falling in love, Gillian, like many a rom-com witch, romanticizes what it must be like to be ordinary: “It might be pleasant to be humdrum sometimes.”

Bell, Book And Candle primarily carves out its place in cinematic history as the inverse to the other Kim Novak/Jimmy Stewart movie from 1958: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. BB&C turns the tables on that psychosexual classic: Novak is the object of Stewart’s affection/obsession in Vertigo, but here it’s the other way around, as she falls for Stewart’s Shep, and bewitches him using Pyewacket in an unsettling seductive sequence. (Stewart has fun as the increasingly dumbfounded object of her intentions, but thought he was too old in the role—this movie marks his last as a romantic lead.) Gillian actually falls for Shep so hard that she loses her powers as a result; she knows she’s enamored for real when she cries actual tears, something witches aren’t supposed to be able to do. As a result, by the end of the film her art gallery turns into a floral shop; her sleek black wardrobe becomes ruffled and pastelled. But as Shep asks at the end, “Who’s to say what magic is?” Gillian’s witchiness succumbs to her love for Shep, throwing more weight to Jennifer’s poignant declaration of love over witchcraft. But Shep retains the magic of falling in love with Gillian, even after the spell she’s cast on him has lifted.

Nicole Kidman has starred in two witch rom-coms, Practical Magic and Bewitched; in the second, a well-intentioned but poorly executed adaptation of the vintage sitcom, Kidman plays Isabel, who longs to be “normal” like Gillian. But we have no idea why. She fares the most poorly out of all the witches here; drawing on centuries of powerful sisterhood, a character like this should have more of an innate sense of feminism than Isabel’s flighty fish out of water. Bewitched tries for an ambitious mega twist that doesn’t really work: Fading movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) is about to star in a new TV version of Bewitched, just as Isabel forsakes magic in order to start a new life—in Los Angeles, of all places. A run-in at a bookstore leads to Isabel getting cast as Jack’s co-star, but naturally, no one realizes that they have an actual witch in the role. Bewitched does offer us Michael Caine as Isabel’s father, Nigel, and magic mentor, and Ferrell is energetically game to go off in a variety of increasingly more bizarre directions as Isabel tosses hexes at him. But as Nigel points out, so many little girls long to be witches—why in the world would Isabel want to throw all that power away? Eventually, Isabel and Jack reach a romantic détente, finding an ideal model for the relationship between a witch and a mortal: based on the original Bewitched’s Samantha and Darrin, of course. But as with Bell, Book And Candle and I Married A Witch (which Bewitched creator Sol Saks cited as inspirations for the TV series), the domesticity appears to come at the price of magical powers, so the romantic “happy ending” feels like a defeat for the witchy side.

The most extraordinary of the rom-com witches manage to tap into their innate power as women, and the strongest find even more power by uniting with other women like themselves. To Bewitched’s credit, Isabel does make a few friends (played by Kristin Chenoweth and Heather Burns) to at least hang out at the Coffee Bean with. But the titular trio in The Witches Of Eastwick, a 1987 film based on the John Updike novel of the same name, find much greater power in bonding together. In Witches, three single, bored women in a Rhode Island town—Alex (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer)—have formed a coven without realizing it; the strength they draw from each other in their friendship has resulted in witchlike powers when they’re together. Like Gillian, they inadvertently summon a man into their midst. Musing over what the perfect man would be like, they accidentally call him up: Naturally, it’s the devil (well, Darryl Van Horne), played by Jack Nicholson.

This one actually isn’t so much rom-com as dark comedy: For a while, the four enjoy their polygamous lifestyle, as the women are all sexually reborn thanks to Darryl’s arrival. Because it’s the ’80s, they all also get giant perms to differentiate themselves from their drab former selves. Darryl, being the devil, is bound to cause havoc and stirs up trouble in town; now on the defensive, the women find that united, they’re even stronger than he is. They tap into their collective witchcraft powers to send him packing in a truly bizarre voodoo doll sequence. The three women are still in their heightened personas at the end of the movie—dominating Darryl, but more importantly, still tied together.

The positivity of Practical Magic (based on the Alice Hoffman novel) similarly lies in the strength of women banding together instead of finding romantic love. Granted, both Eastwick and Practical Magic were made after the feminist movement of the ’70s, so that the pairing-off seen in I Married A Witch and Bell, Book And Candle was no longer necessarily the ultimate narrative destination. In Practical Magic, young witch Sally Owens avoids the magical traits that cause her covenlike family—sister Gillan (Nicole Kidman), Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest), and Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing)—to be ostracized in their Massachusetts island home; her daughter, Kylie (Evan Rachel Wood), despairs, “She has all this power and she doesn’t even use it!” Instead, Sally embraces a “normal” life, settling down with her husband and two little girls until he falls to the feared family curse that dooms every man who falls in love with an Owen woman. 

Practical Magic concentrates on the powers of the Owens women more than romance: Gillian keeps falling in love, but it only brings her heartache; Sally stirs up a new romance with cop Aidan Quinn, but she has to wonder if it’s only because she’d summoned him years ago. The climax of the movie doesn’t hinge on romance, but on Sally forming a coven made up of neighborhood moms to rid Gillian of an evil former lover. The formerly suspicious local women are thrilled to be included; when Linda (Margo Martindale) talks about hearing her child cry from miles away, Aunt Jet confirms, “There’s a little witch in all of us.” As with The Witches Of Eastwick, Practical Magic revels in the power that women have when they come together. Sally has found happiness in love and in her family’s magical legacy, but the ending rightly places an emphasis on the latter.

Rom-coms are destined to end in a certain way—preferably in a clinch between the starring couple. The witch rom-com adds a supernatural wrinkle: Where will the witch’s powers end up? Some of these cinematic sorceresses happily set their powers aside for a chance at a “normal” life, but an even happier ending would show a fate that includes both magic and love: the witch equivalent of “having it all.” After all, the stealth feminism of TV’s Bewitched (as well as its more subservient counterpart, I Dream Of Jeannie) was that it displayed a typical midcentury sitcom where the wife was much more powerful than her hapless husband. There’s almost an inverse feminism in the rom-com witch who finds love for a typical mortal man as fulfilling as the vaunted legacy of witchcraft that precedes him. But compared to an existence steeped in the supernatural, the “humdrum,” as Bell, Book And Candle’s Gillian puts it, becomes extraordinary. If Jennifer’s early declaration that “Love is stronger than witchcraft” rings true, that’s fortunate for us mere mortals, who can occasionally spot this mysterious amorous power in our own lives.