It may be more true in horror than in any other genre that certain subgenres ebb and flow in popularity over time. Vampires were hot in the mid-’90s when you had Interview with the Vampire, From Dusk Till Dawn, Blade and the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Then, vampires sat out of popular discourse for the next ten years or so, until the double whammy of Twilight and True Blood hitting in 2008, causing a tidal wave of vampiric fiction from the arty (Only Lovers Left Alive, Byzantium) to the schlocky (Dracula Untold, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter) that hasn’t slowed down since.
Witches are now in the middle of an uncertain period, neither in ebb or flow. When Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages was released in 1922, witchcraft and the occult were still deeply feared in modern society. In the decades that followed, interest waned and they became more mythical as otherworldly beings to be burned at the stake or, occasionally, comedic when they would fall in love with human men. In the 1960s and ’70s, with the popularity of Bewitched, the matrons of the occult were still seen in a more light-hearted manner, though this is when we start to see witches assert their power instead of only being hunted or “cured” (insert your allegory here). Once you start showing your power, however, there are those that only wish to subvert it. The seed of reclaiming the sinfulness of witchcraft came with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, whose coven is actively looking for a new Antichrist to welcome and celebrate (who isn’t?).
In my opinion, witchcraft in film reached its peak in 1977 with Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which I wrote about at length here. American culture itself was in a dark place in the mid- to late-’70s, and horror follows suit for it is the most socially conscious genre. Horror reflects the period it finds itself in, which is what makes the genre so special when it transcends that but so disposable when it doesn’t. Suspiria was surely at least partly a response to cultural tides of the time (despite being an Italian film), as was Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, which concerned itself with paganism more generally. The main character’s Christianity is pitted against the extreme pagans, putting their practices in a decidedly dark light. Though witchcraft, paganism and Satanism are all different things, they are often conflated in film, more out of convenience and mythic prominence than anything. Witches have come to embody the rituals of the occult as well as the worshipping of the Devil, to the point where “witch” is shorthand for all these things and more.
Witchcraft in film, if we want to examine it from a broader perspective, appears to crop up at times of severe social unrest. The late-’60s and early-’70s, which brought us Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, The Devil Rides Out, Ken Russell’s The Devils and George A. Romero’s Season of the Witch, was certainly one of those times. This was the rise of the counterculture, the emergence and bold insistence of the fights for racial equality, gender equality, sexual freedom. Burn down the conservative norms and challenge anyone that opposes you. That a proliferation of witchcraft films follows is not surprising. Witches are the counterculture, they are acting out against preconceived notions just as protestors would have been. As Nicholas Hytner’s The Crucible (1996) shows, based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, witches are also an easy metaphor for the Cold War (which was in the middle of its tense détente in the late ’60s) and, more specifically, McCarthyism – the practice the U.S. government undertook in the ’50s to blacklist perceived communists.
The mid-’90s held something of a resurgence for witches in film, at the same time as vampires, though this time it had the opposite reaction by focusing on the more light-hearted aspects of witches. Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Craft and Charmed all exemplify this acknowledgement of witches acting as the rebels (most effectively and subversively in the last three), while mostly ignoring the darker side. Not completely, though, with the massively successful release of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and The Crucible.
With the more recent era in witch film and TV, the tendency is skewed so that there is no one narrative to follow. That said, the importance of the Harry Potter series on this increased interest cannot be overstated. Its tone isn’t particularly important, just the giant exposure of witches into the culture that has had a profound effect on what young (and older) audiences will be interested in seeing. Witches don’t lend themselves as easily as vampires to social commentary, though, so the representations can be hit and miss. American Horror Story: Coven ostensibly had female empowerment on its mind, using witchcraft and its power as a tool, but that became muddled before long. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is better left undiscussed, and should definitely not be taken seriously. On the other hand, you have the success of Wicked in all its forms. Rob Zombie’s Satanic romp The Lords of Salem is a bonkers blast of evil witchcraft and occultism. Witches of East End just wrapped up its second season. Witches even infiltrated vampire-centric shows like True Blood and The Originals. Maleficent was a giant hit with Angelina Jolie playing the titular witch, and Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods will hit theatres in December. There’s even been talk of a Charmed reboot. Hold strong, witches, your time has come once again.