Coven ready

How witches are cast­ing a spell on our screens

The Observer - - Focus -

Once an en­dan­gered species con­fined to blasted heaths and moon­lit woods, to­day’s witches are flour­ish­ing and emerg­ing blink­ing into the Golden Age of Tele­vi­sion. And, this time, it’s po­lit­i­cal. A Dis­cov­ery of Witches, an adap­ta­tion of Deb­o­rah Hark­ness’s novel about a young witch who finds an an­cient man­u­script that brings her to the at­ten­tion of vam­pires and de­mons, be­gan on Sky One last week and is just one of a slew of cur­rent and up­com­ing dra­mas about the oc­cult, in­clud­ing Net­flix’s Chill­ing Ad­ven­tures of Sab­rina, and CBS All Ac­cess’s Strange An­gel. Why now? With self-pro­fessed witches all over the in­ter­net and on In­sta­gram, many be­lieve this new wave is linked to the bub­bling caul­dron of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics. “I think when the world is turned up­side down it’s nat­u­ral for peo­ple to look at things dif­fer­ently,” says Ge­orge Pen­dle, the Bri­tish au­thor of a bi­og­ra­phy of Amer­i­can rocket sci­en­tist Jack Par­sons. Par­sons also hap­pened to be a ritual-per­form­ing dis­ci­ple of no­to­ri­ous Bri­tish oc­cultist Aleis­ter Crow­ley, and the sub­ject of Strange An­gel, a 10-part Ri­d­ley Scott-pro­duced drama.

“If all your pre­con­cep­tions about, say, the va­lid­ity of the demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal sys­tem are over­turned, maybe you might also rid your­self of your pre­vi­ous no­tions about ‘mag­ick’ – to use Crow­ley’s term - and start draw­ing pen­ta­grams on the floor. It can’t make things much worse, right? “There’s a trend to­wards more es­o­teric ways of think­ing, not just in entertainment but through­out so­ci­ety. For in­stance, in medicine there’s been a huge re­vival in the use of psychedelics for medic­i­nal and ther­a­peu­tic pur­poses. Peo­ple be­lieve that the mind can’t al­ways best be served by modern sci­ence. And that be­lief, for bet­ter or worse, is per­co­lat­ing through ev­ery­thing. Take Gwyneth Pal­trow’s life­style brand Goop with its talk of ‘sex bark’ and ‘shamanic en­ergy medicine’. It’s less a modern life­style brand than a me­dieval oc­cult apothe­cary.” In other words, when so­ci­ety has reached the stage where some peo­ple be­lieve that pop­ping a jade egg into one’s vagina will pro­mote gy­nae­co­log­i­cal health or that a nodeal Brexit will pro­vide a £1.1 tril­lion boost to the UK’s econ­omy, then per­haps the oc­cult starts to look positively rea­son­able.

Hark­ness agrees that witch­craft can of­fer a sense of con­trol in a world that seems to be spi­ralling be­yond our grasp. “When there is so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural turmoil and the world feels like a very un­sta­ble place, peo­ple want a sense of con­trol and nor­malcy again,” she says.

Spell­bound, an ex­hi­bi­tion about witch­craft, opened last month at Ox­ford’s Ash­molean mu­seum. Among the ex­hibits is The Dis­cov­ery of Witches, a 1647 work by the no­to­ri­ous “Witchfinder Gen­eral” Matthew Hop­kins, which in­spired the ti­tle of Hark­ness’s novel.

Mal­colm Gaskill, a his­to­rian of witch­craft and one of the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tors, says: “Po­lit­i­cal turmoil makes peo­ple feel that truth and re­al­ity are be­ing un­der­mined. And, iron­i­cally, in an up­side-down­world the su­per­nat­u­ral can be a source of sta­bil­ity.

“Ra­tio­nal peo­ple in­dulge in all sorts of lit­tle fan­tasies, su­per­sti­tions and rit­u­als to get by. We’re all prone to anx­i­ety caused by global af­fairs,

‘The witch is an icon to help young women be strong in the face of the push­back they get ev­ery day’ Christina Har­ring­ton, witch

as well as per­sonal prob­lems, and mag­i­cal think­ing can re­store a sense of con­trol, even if it’s just a com­fort­ing il­lu­sion.

“Of course, at a more pro­saic level, peo­ple also just want es­capism from de­press­ing news, much as they turned to the cin­ema in the 1930s.”

Stephen Volk, who wrote the BBC’s cel­e­brated Hal­loween “hoax” Ghost­watch and cre­ated the para­nor­mal drama se­ries After­life, agrees. “It’s easy to see the ap­peal of a world where you can learn spells to make things hap­pen, rather than en­dur­ing the gru­elling ran­dom un­fair­nesses of real life.”

The new pro­duc­tions promise es­capism aplenty. Oc­to­ber sees the start of Chill­ing Ad­ven­tures of

Sab­rina, de­scribed as a “dark comin­gof-age story that traf­fics in hor­ror, the oc­cult and, of course, witch­craft”, and an­other Net­flix se­ries, The

Haunt­ing of Hill House, based on the novel by Shirley Jack­son. Sus­piria,a re­make of Dario Ar­gento’s cult 1977 film about a bal­let school that is the front for a witches’ coven, is re­leased in Novem­ber. And, in July, it was an­nounced that Buffy the Vam­pire

Slayer is to re­turn, pre­sum­ably still fea­tur­ing Buffy’s witch friend Wil­low.

Mean­while, Volk’s forth­com­ing novel Nether­wood fea­tures Crow­ley – known as The Great Beast, 666

– as a char­ac­ter. “Witch­craft and the oc­cult can rep­re­sent – and have al­ways rep­re­sented – a threat, too,” he says. “When I adapted Phil Rick­man’s Mid­win­ter of the Spirit, about an ex­or­cist, for ITV, for me the key was us­ing sa­tanism as a metaphor for our fear of ter­ror­ism.”

But, for Christina Oak­ley Har­ring­ton, a prac­tis­ing witch and the founder of Tread­well’s, one of the UK’s lead­ing oc­cult book­shops, witch­craft is a fem­i­nist is­sue.

“These films are an an­swer to what is hap­pen­ing in so­ci­ety,” she says. “As the world of In­sta­gram has shown, young women are speak­ing out with au­ton­omy more than ever, em­brac­ing fem­i­nism.

“It makes per­fect sense to find role mod­els: none is more apt than the witch. The witch is the dis­obe­di­ent woman, the ‘bad’ woman. Her ethics are her own, not so­ci­ety’s and as a crea­ture on the edges of so­ci­ety, she sees in­jus­tices that oth­ers don’t care about. I am struck by how much to­day’s teen witches are ac­tivists for not only fem­i­nism but for the end­ing of an­i­mal cru­elty, racism, home­less­ness.

“The witch is an icon to help young women be strong in the face of the push­back they get ev­ery day. So for me, these new shows are heart­en­ing – yes, even the hor­ror films.” Of course, be­liev­ing in magic or “mag­ick”, no mat­ter how fer­vently, is no guar­an­tee of its ef­fi­cacy.

Last year, witches across Amer­ica joined forces at the stroke of mid­night on Fri­day 24 Fe­bru­ary to cast a mass “bind­ing” spell against Don­ald Trump, aimed at pre­vent­ing the pres­i­dent from do­ing harm. The suc­cess of that par­tic­u­lar ritual is very much open to de­bate.

Pitt Rivers Mu­seum, Ama­zon Stu­dios

Tilda Swin­ton as Madame Blanc in Sus­pira, and, back­ground, a ‘witches lad­der’ from the Ash­molean ex­hi­bi­tion Spell­bound.

AP

Kier­nan Shipka in Chill­ing Ad­ven­tures of Sab­rina.

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