How 'The Craft' Realized the Power of Teen Girls and Made Witchcraft Cool
On its 20th anniversary, we look back at the 1996 cult classic that helped make witchcraft mainstream and inundated covens with curious teenage girls.
Ours is the magic, ours is the power – The Craft, 1996
The first thing you see is teenage girls, eyes shut, in a circle, chanting. Sitting among cards and occult trinkets in the dark, they declare their authority and strength. Simply put, The Craft is a story about young women trying to take back power because being a teenage girl is to be powerless. By the time the Buffy-style high impact intro runs—wailing guitars, flashes of dark-made up eyes, and historical images of tarot cards, devils, witches, and red candles—every young woman is mesmerized. How could you not be?
You don't become a witch, or go through your teenage years, for that matter, without feeling othered, and in each of the four characters, there's a difference to relate to. They're marginalized first and foremost by gender, thanks to the jocks who fuck them over—Nancy catches an STD, and the same guy, Chris, lies about sleeping with Sarah after she doesn't go home with him, spreading around the school that she was the worst lay he's ever had—but each has a quality that marginalizes her further. Sarah is the new girl who suffers from mental health issues and previously attempted suicide. Rochelle is multiracial and is bullied for her hair by a blond, popular girl. Bonnie has burn scars all over her body, so she covers herself in so many dark layers you feel uncomfortable just looking at her. Nancy is living a working class "trailer trash" existence with a vile step-dad who's physically and emotionally abusive to her mum. She also has to go to a Catholic school predominantly full of middle-class pupils.
They are outsiders, and everyone knows it. Sarah is sitting with fuckhead Chris just as she is getting to grips with her new school environment. He points out the girls she shouldn't hang out with: "the bitches of Eastwick." Nancy is a "slut," Bonnie has weird scars, and he carefully ignores Rochelle's perceived fault. The camera cuts to the bitches lounging around a huge rainbow mural of the Virgin Mary—the least subtle, but most brilliant visual juxtaposition. Sadly, in true-to-life teen style, the girls agree with these defects. When they start their first official foray into witchcraft in a field outside town, they all pray to their god Manon to rid themselves of them. In a teen dream fantasy film, they are given the power to actually do it. What could be more seductive than that?
Teens are perfect material for writer Peter Filardi to project witchcraft's historical past onto because, of course, all of these markers of being a freak are still as real in a classroom as they were in a small village in rural England. Any scarification or bodily deformity was enough to get you struck off as a witch. So was mental illness, and so was sleeping around.
In the portrayal of Nancy as bad bitch, the film is totally unapologetic about teenage girl sexuality. It's just as crude and delightful as the pathetic jibes of the horny dudes who sleep around and treat women like crap. It's implied she's bisexual—"I love a woman in uniform," she laughs at a female officer, and when the four try the "light as a feather, stiff as a board" trick where you lift someone with two fingers, she immediately starts fingering the air. Every gesture and flash of her wide eyes and flick of her tongue is dripping with suggestion. She's the girl you don't know whether you want to be or hook up with. Twenty years later, media and wider culture still don't know what to do with a young girl's sexuality. It's part of what leads to her downfall at the end of the film—she's just too excessive, too much, taking things too far.
If you've been a 16-year-old in an all-female friendship group, you'll understand the intricacies of one. A gang can be the most impenetrable support system imaginable. It can also become a living nightmare: a tangle of emotions, under-handed cuts, and struggles for recognition perceivable only to those operating on a higher level of sensitivity or those in the friendships themselves. The Craft recognizes the unbridled power that comes with those friendships. Quite literally, the four can do anything. They make a racist bitch's hair fall out in clumps and scar tissue completely disintegrate. Sure, that power comes from witchcraft, but it's about girl power too. It's about what happens when girls have a support group.
This film understands the scope of that, and so too its flipside. Nothing is as savage as female friends turning on one another at school—worse still when it's three on one. When Nancy and company decide to terrorize Sarah, it's truly hideous. In Sarah's sleep, they come to her, hovering over her bed with vicious taunts. In real life, she's hunted too. "In the old days, if a witch betrayed her coven, they'd kill her," Nancy threatens after bashing down her bathroom door. If you leave a friendship group, God save you. There is nothing as all-consuming as the emotional stress of girls on your back—especially ones that used to have it covered. This four-way undoubtedly paved the way for Mean Girls, building on what Heathers had offered eight years previous with Veronica Sawyer and adding the occult element. Imagine what the Burn Book would've done in the hands of these four.
The response to this representation of teen girls was phenomenal. It excited a generation of young women and the powers that be knew its strength too. Despite following guidelines for a PG-13, the MPAA gave the movie an R rating. The director, Andrew Fleming, suspects it was just the fact that teen girls are experimenting with witchcraft. Lest girls recognize what they could do.
Brilliantly, the sorcery itself was all based in truth. Fleming hired Wicca consultant Pat Devin, high priestess of Covenant of the Goddess, to help with the narrative, and she made sure the spells were common enough to be found in basic Wicca books, and she even consulted her Covens on the chants included. "Neopaganism may have been sensationalized for the sake of the movie, but it was still identifiably neopaganism," explained Brooks Alexander in his book Witchcraft Goes Mainstream. "The fact that the movie's portrayal of modern witchcraft was recognizably true to life is what made it's impact so substantial."
Why? The lure of occult power was not lost on girls who felt powerless. And since the witchcraft in the movie was so closely resembling real occult rituals and customs, the more teens investigated, the more they were curious. As Devin said in a rare interview about her involvement with The Craft: "I began calling myself a Witch at 16 because Donovan wrote a song called "Season of the Witch." I do not underestimate the impact of the media on teenagers, and this movie was brewed up for the teenage audience."
According to Alexander, within days of the movie opening, inquiries began to "pour into" various witch groups and neopagan organizations. "They were caught off-guard; even those that had some advance knowledge of the movie were stunned by the size and suddenness of the response." Naturally, this was a problem. They'd never been cool before, and they'd definitely not had interest from young people or had to worry about getting sued by worried parents. What coven would want to welcome teen girls to the absolute outrage of parents?
On the one hand, legitimate neopaganism grew; on the other, witchcraft suddenly became its own massive thing in teen culture, very separate and out of control, a phenomenon unlike the real occultism that'd predated it.
Later that year, Sabrina the Teenage Witch hit global television screens, and the following year, 1997, came Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then 1998, it was Charmed. Although Hollywood doesn't move at lightning speed, and no one can say with certainty that The Craft had directly led to the others, nothing exists in a vacuum. Whether the climate was right for that sort of teen-led power, or it was just coincidence that various projects were chugging along at a similar pace, The Craft helped create a very new feeling. Teen girls were dangerous magic, and that wasn't to be forgotten in a hurry.
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