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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Bind You From Doing Harm: ‘The Craft’ and Portrayals of the Sinister Side to Magick

In his review upon its release, Roger Ebert wrote of The Craft:Here are four girls who could out-gross David Copperfield in Vegas, and they limit their amazing powers to getting even.”

Of course, that’s a bit reductive. The seminal 1996 film that piqued a cultural interest in witchcraft for young viewers everywhere, especially women, is more than that. When four girls quite literally join forces to create their own coven and summon the power of the fictional deity Manon, they’re searching for freedom— freedom from physical and emotional scars, abusive parents, racism, classism, loneliness, grief, assault— topics that were seldom tackled in teen horror movies, let alone ones originally intended for PG-13 ratings.

However, Ebert wasn’t wrong. At its core, Andrew Fleming’s The Craft is a morality tale about finally gaining autonomy before ultimately abusing it— taking magic(k)al gifts meant for empowerment and deducing them for selfish or petty reasons. Like most teenagers, while each of the girls carries heavy loads, all four get caught up in the trivialities of high school life as well— just like how anything and everything feels like the end of the world at that age. Newcomer and naturally powerful Sarah (Robin Tunney) yearns for a peer’s attention (at his expense) after he spreads an embarrassing rumor about her; Bonnie (Neve Campbell) wants outward beauty and desirability after feeling like a “monster” for a large chunk of her life; Rochelle (Rachel True) wishes for revenge against her racist bully; and, well, Nancy (Fairuza Balk) just wants to be as powerful as the god she worships— the exact opposite of how she’s viewed as and treated by her school peers and family. “The Craft” is their means of control— no matter how seemingly minor or detrimental the issues are that convolute their lives.

And who could blame them? Beyond the luring glamor that movies deduce it to be, historically, witchcraft has always appealed to the disenfranchised— those who viewed themselves as powerless or those who were told their power was wicked or immoral, searching for reclamation of that power in other ways. Witchcraft and magick (the ‘k’ added by British occultist Aleister Crowley to differentiate from the “magic” of magicians’ and illusionists’ entertainment stage shows) has long been considered a respite from conventional, organized Christian religions. With varying subdivisions and an embracing of individualism that isn’t commonly found within more “traditional” religious practices, witchcraft has been a suitable match for otherness, often emphasizing the potential of what can be done with one’s power now, as opposed to Christianity’s fixation with what should be done to reach the afterlife. Interestingly, Fleming places Catholic iconography in shots around their school that watches the girls wherever they go.

Wherein lies the issue that movies have either understood or completely neglected, however, is the myth of “black” magick versus “white.” Historically, the term “black” magick was largely used to describe the alleged invoking of demons or placing hexes, curses, and voodoo upon others, while “white” magick was considered more pure. However, according to many modern practicing witches, magick itself is neither bad nor good— the consequences of the magick come from the intent of the person conjuring it. “Using magick for selfish gain or against someone negatively will only hurt you the most in the long run,” Jessica. B.,* a practicing pagan, explained. “Hollywood has made it seem like you can get away with bringing harm to others, but it’s just the same as if you were to physically go and hurt someone. All these books that fly off the shelves that have petty little revenge spells in them are doing way more harm than good to beginners— it’s causing more chaos.” Ned T.,* a member of an online community group for Goetia practices, simplifies: “(Magick) is a tool, like a knife. Is a knife evil? Only if the wielder is evil.”

And perhaps because of its consultation with actual Wiccans on set, The Craft indeed acknowledges this. The girls are told by an elder witch, “True magick is neither black nor white. It’s both, because nature is both— loving and cruel, all at the same time. The only good or bad lies within the heart of the witch. Life keeps a balance all on its own.” She also warns, “Understand this: whatever you send out, you get back times three.” A combination of being left to their own devices and failing to listen to the little guidance they do have is what ultimately leads to everything going to shit after getting what they wished for. Bonnie, now scar-free and beautiful, makes a 180-degree pivot from timid to unbearable narcissist; Rochelle’s bully develops alopecia; Sarah’s love spell “humiliates” the jerk she’s crushing on, which, according to the movie’s logic, is what causes him to assault her (which is not her fault and could be interpreted as a glaringly wrongful message to send out about victim blaming); and Nancy aggressively believes she has the right to make the men who’ve wronged her perish. All of it is a deadly combination of not having any agency at all to taking advantage of it when it comes— even if it can’t necessarily be blamed on the magick itself.

That’s both the beauty and the bummer of the film: watching once-relatable, but flawed characters succumb to their darkest recesses. Witnessing a sisterhood of weirdos in awe of how powerful they are together in a game of “light as a feather” and bonding over calling the corners (and being heard) eventually tear themselves apart feels like a gut punch. When Rochelle watches Laura Lizzie’s (Christine Taylor) hair fall out in clumps, her reflection in the mirror is facing away instead of looking back at her— she can’t even recognize herself or her own actions, even though she’s better than that. Her and Bonnie only realize how far they’ve gone when Sarah tricks them into seeing uglier versions of themselves in a mirror by film’s end. Nancy is last seen strapped to a bed in a psychiatric hospital, still likely unable to grasp the consequences of her actions. (It’d be interesting to see an alternative ending for the Nancy-equivalent character in The Craft: Legacy.) Sarah, the token “good” witch of the four binds Nancy from doing any more harm— the only one whose powers remain.

The Craft is relatively easy on its protagonists in comparison to other films, namely Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket or even De Palma’s Carrie that have more dire ramifications. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) possesses natural powers and abilities, but it’s her decision to set the school prom and all its attendees ablaze that leads to her demise. Pyewacket‘s Leah (Nicole Munoz), who takes an interest in the occult and consults a book called “Black River, Black Magic” after her father’s death, performs a ritual to kill off her mother out of anger (spoiler: it works, and she regrets it). Grieving and hurting from her mother’s insults and choice to uproot her life, Leah chooses to use magick for hateful reasons instead of trying to make her life with her mom better. The mercilessly bullied Carrie is righteous before recognizing she can use her powers for revenge. Like the girls in The Craft, both are victims of terrible home/social lives and are arguably cornered into making the poor decisions that they do with magick, and it’s tragic watching them give into their darkest desires.

That’s why The Craft continues to speak to us almost 25 years later: we all sometimes feel powerless in our lives; we all have possessed dark desires; and we all have a curiosity of just how far we’d go to obtain power over those things that seem helpless. A practicing witch who wished to remain anonymous summarizes it best: “What I like about The Craft is the natural power and magick of women. When a woman embraces her own innate, magickal power and comes together with other women who are the same— it can be very powerful.”

Let’s just hope she uses her power for good.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3638796/bind-harm-craft-portrayals-sinister-side-magick/

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