In Troubled Times, We Turn To Witches & The Craft Led The Way

It’s Witch Week at Refinery29 Canada, and we’re exploring the modern world of witchcraft. Each day, we'll examine a different aspect of the culture — as well as the camaraderie, controversy, and accoutrement that come with it.
Early on in The Craft, Andrew Fleming’s 1996 movie about a group of outcast teenage girls who start practicing magic by sheer force of will, high schooler Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) gets asked out by a handsome football player. She’s new at St. Benedict’s Academy, having just moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, and despite being warned about Chris (Skeet Ulrich), she accepts. The date goes smoothly enough: a moonlit chat on a dark rooftop gives way to a tentative kiss. But when Chris implies that he’d like to go further, Sarah refuses. She’s not ready for that. He sweetly tells her that he’s ready to wait, drives her home, and it looks like there’s no hard feelings — until the next morning, when Sarah realizes that he’s been slut-shaming her to the whole school, lying about them having sex. When she confronts him, he makes her out to be desperate, the kind of girl no sane guy would ever want a repeat performance from. In other words, he gaslights her. Hard.
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That moment — one that countless non-magical women have shared, and felt powerless to rectify — serves as a catalyst for the film’s driving narrative, as Sarah rebounds from this betrayal by joining forces with a trio of rebellious girls (one of whom has also been burned by Chris), to form a real-life coven. But it’s also the key to The Craft’s enduring appeal, especially in a time where so many women are wishing for a magical solution to very real, scary problems.
In the two decades since it hit theaters in May 1996, The Craft has developed a cult following, most significantly among women, who recognize themselves in Sarah, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle’s (Rachel True) attempts to claim the power so often denied to teenage girls using supernatural means. And yet, the initial reviews of the film were mixed at best, earning it a 50% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes that belies its much greater cultural importance.
In the New York Times, Stephen Holden called the The Craft “a surprisingly skittish fable of adolescent powerlessness, grandiosity and the nursing of psychic wounds,” noting that “as the witchcraft escalates, the movie exchanges its psychological acuity for garish special effects.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley called the film “old-fashioned morality tale hiding under a witch's hat.”
Emanuel Levy at Variety compared the film to Heathers, a point made in many reviews, and while not inaccurate, points to a tiresome tendency to group films about teenage girls neatly together regardless of subject matter. (Other reviews called it the anti-Clueless.)
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But the most surprising observation came from Roger Ebert, who questioned the characters’ motivations. “What I have always wondered about supernatural characters in movies is why their horizons are so limited,” Ebert wrote in The Baltimore Herald-Sun.” Here are four girls who could outgross David Copperfield in Vegas, and they limit their amazing powers to getting even.”
Ebert died in 2013, but had he lived to witness the outcome of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, I suspect he might think differently. Too often, women feel powerless to change circumstances — political, social, financial, take your pick — that feel beyond their control. The Craft presents a universe in which any slight could magically be made right, and in our current climate, that’s an appealing prospect. It’s no coincidence that in the aftermath of the Senate’s decision to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, my newsfeed was suddenly flooded with witch memes.
As far as high school films go, this one is unapologetically dark, tackling bullying, racism, poverty, body issues, abuse, suicide, sexual assault and otherness in a way that doesn’t feel like an after-school special. These are things that high schoolers deal with, and The Craft gives them the weight they deserve, while arming its characters with unusual tools to cope.
The Craft opens with Sarah’s arrival in Los Angeles, where her father and stepmother have relocated in aftermath of her suicide attempt. Death has always colored Sarah’s worldview. Her mother died giving birth to her. The only thing she has to remember her by are a framed picture that she keeps by her bed, and her powers, which, until now, have been limited to making pencils rotate with her mind. That changes when, on Sarah’s first day at her new school, her abilities catch the eye of Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle.
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“The Bitches of Eastwick,” as they’re nicknamed by their student peers, are more Riot Grrrl than 90210. (Is there anything more 90s than “We are the weirdos, mister”?) They wear leather dog-collars and black lipstick, pair sun dresses with combat boots and ripped stockings, and spend their free time hanging out in (and stealing from) an occult bookstore run by Lirio (Assumpta Serna), a practicing witch. Alienated from a world that doesn’t understand them, the trio worship a deity known as “Manon,” responsible for all the power that flows through the universe. But to summon him, they need a fourth — a number that symbolizes the four points of a compass, and the four elements.
At first, the girls delight in their magnified powers, which they use to even the playing field. Sarah casts a love spell that makes Chris thirst for her. Bonnie, who has spent years covering up the burn scars on her back, casts a beauty spell that finally erases them. Rochelle, one of the few Black students at this school ruled by tanned, blonde rich kids, gets back at her racist bully, Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor) by casting a revenge spell that makes her hair fall out. (The Craft’s approach to race feels ahead of its time. Rochelle isn’t just a token Black friend thrown in for representation. The discrimination she faces is an element that actually drives the plot forward. Still, she’s not given all that much more to do.) Nancy, meanwhile, causes her abusive father to die of a heart attack, leaving her and her mother free to use his life insurance payout to trade in their leaky trailer for a penthouse apartment and a fancy jukebox that only plays Connie Francis records. But soon enough, the coven must grapple with the consequences of unchecked vengeance — after all, “whatever you send out there you get back times three.”
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Still, it would be reductive to describe The Craft as a revenge film. It’s also a compelling depiction of female joy, of reveling in one’s power and one’s friends. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the four girls test their powers with a classic sleepover game, “Light as a Feather,” which requires one person to lie on the floor while the others form a circle around them and try to make them levitate by chanting “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” Rochelle actually rises about a foot before they realize what they’ve done, and react with gleeful laughter and hushed awe at their own abilities.
Unsurprisingly, the film — one of the few to accurately depict Wiccan rituals — inspired a generation of women to go out and try magic, including Balk, who became a Wicca during filming and eventually bought an occult store of her own. (Fun fact: Pre-Craft, as a child actress, Balk starred as the title character in The Worst Witch, about a Hogwarts-like witches’ academy.) The Craft was a stealth box office success, earning $55 million with a budget of $15 million, in a year that yielded blockbusters like Independence Day, Twister, and Mission Impossible, and more than 20 years later, remains a cultural touchstone. Urban Outfitters currently sells two different T-shirts emblazoned with the film’s title (one for men and another for women), and I counted 15 The Craft-related quizzes online before I succumbed, and took one. (Apparently, I’m a Rochelle.)
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A search for #TheCraft on Instagram yields over 192,000 results, including GIFs of some of its most memorable moments, fan art of varying quality, tattoos, and “Advice for Baby Witches.” Just the other day, I walked past a cute Brooklyn clothing store encouraging customers to stop by with a “Relax, it’s just magic,” chalk sign. The fact that ‘90s fashion is experiencing a comeback only helps to boost the film’s nostalgic appeal — not to mention the soundtrack, which is a hit parade of grunge-y anthems. (Our Lady Peace! Letters To Cleo! Love Spit Love!)
The great strength of The Craft is that it doesn’t pass judgment on why the girls are doing what they do. Yes, Nancy, whose thirst for power leaves actual bodies in her wake, gets her comeuppance in the end, but she never feels like an all-out villain. I re-watched The Craft on the weekend of Kavanaugh's confirmation and swearing-in ceremony. The film’s message of female empowerment felt cathartic, but so did its rage. As Nancy, Balk’s face is an expressive canvas, contorted into approximately 54 stages of anger at any given time. Campbell (in one of her earliest roles that set up her interesting future career) plays the newly scarless and traditionally beautiful Bonnie as an aggressive narcissist, daring the audience to judge someone who’s felt so fragile for so long. Their two performances stand out, but it's the chemistry that the four actresses enjoy together — both in friendship, and later, as enemies — that makes the film click.
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“Witch” has historically been used as a catch-all term to refer to any woman flouting social norms or male authority. The same anxiety that resulted in 20 deaths in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 was also behind The Craft receiving an R-rating from the MPAA because it depicted teenage girls dabbling in Black magic. The notion of women digging deep and channeling an inner power within is terrifying to a patriarchy with a vested interest in keeping women in their place. More recently, “witch hunt” has become a catchphrase of the conservative right, which uses it to refer to anything from accusations of sexual harassment and assault to the Mueller investigation. But as Alanna Bennett recently pointed out over at Buzzfeed in her essay about Practical Magic, which would hit theaters two years after The Craft, pop culture provides an avenue for women to reclaim the word as an identity to be proud of.
The success of The Craft gave way to a slew of witch-themed shows and movies in the late 1990s, and into the aughts. The pilot of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, starring Melissa Joan Hart, aired two months after the film hit theaters. Two years later, Charmed premiered on the WB, where it would run for eight seasons. (The show’s theme song, Love Spit Love’s cover of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” was originally recorded for The Craft.) In 1998, Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s second season gave Willow a burgeoning interest in witchcraft, which would become an essential component of the show going forward.
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It’s a genre that usually resurfaces during times of social change, or upheaval. The teen witches of The Craft are the embodiment of Third Wave feminism, launched by a girl power punk subculture and cemented during Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which she defended her accusations of sexual assault against future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
And lo and behold, in the midst of our current political firestorm, witches are having a comeback. American Horror Story: Apocalypse brought back our favorite Louisiana coven. Suspiria, a remake of the 1977 horror classic, is merging witchy rituals and dance. The CW has rebooted Charmed with a more diverse and inclusive version of the power of three. Its promotional slogan, “Stronger Together” is a deliberate allusion to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Light As A Feather, whose title is a wink to The Craft, premiered on Hulu on October 12, just in time for Halloween. And Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, based on the same Archie Comics universe as Riverdale, will be available to stream on October 24. There’s even been talk of a sequel to The Craft, this time with a female director at the helm.
Find your coven, weirdos. The witching hour is upon us once more.
"The Craft" is available for purchase and rental on iTunes.
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