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The Craft Inspired a Generation of Teenage Witches. Now a Sequel Is Poised to Do the Same

12 minute read

Perhaps no other contemporary film had as great an impact on the modern witchcraft movement as The Craft. Though it premiered to middling reviews, the 1996 movie, directed by Andrew Fleming from a script co-written with Peter Filardi, captivated both experienced witches and total acolytes with its authentic portrayal of adolescent girls who dabbled in witchcraft to improve their lives and gain power. Enthralled by its dark glamour, countless young girls were compelled to learn more about witchcraft and paganism, many turning to the nascent pagan internet for information and networking.

In those days, with AOL barely up and running and social media still a distant dream (or nightmare), a teenager interested in the occult would usually keep it to herself or a few peers. Today, the digital landscape is full of teenage witches making a name for themselves, crafting trendy aesthetics on Instagram and hexing the moon via TikTok. According to Vogue UK, the #Witchtok hashtag had racked up nearly 2 billion views as of July 2020, and the #witchesofinstagram hashtag has over 5.6 million posts. That’s a lot of digital witchery.

The Craft: Legacy, a sequel to the cult classic, arrives on Premium VOD on Oct. 28, capitalizing on the original’s newfound fan base among younger audiences, and its enduring popularity enjoying a revival via social media. This is thanks, in part, to its pitch-perfect late-’90s soundtrack and fabulous femme-Goth fashions, which have found their way to many a mood board. But beyond its meme-worthy, nostalgic appeal, there’s a sense that The Craft has been behind the mini-witchcraft revivals that seem to occur roughly every seven years or so. A Seven Year Witch, if you will.

The long-lived series Charmed, which ran from 1998 to 2006, was loosely based on The Craft. A slew of other teen-witch stories followed, ranging from straight-to-video shlock to one-off “witchcraft episodes” (including Broad City and, more recently, The Baby-Sitter’s Club and PEN15 ). There have been reality shows like Mad, Mad House, British series like Hex and A Discovery of Witches, and many other series including Motherland: Fort Salem, Luna Nera, A Siempre Bruja, Salem, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, set to debut its fourth season in December. Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story anthology devoted two seasons to witches, Coven and Apocalypse. According to Kate Laity, a professor of medievalism and media studies who teaches a course on witchcraft at The College of St. Rose, “The Craft has definitely had an impact and continues to do so, especially on young women fascinated by magic and witchcraft; and it’s a rare one who isn’t to some degree.”

The Craft: Legacy makes its debut against this rich backdrop (and timed perfectly for Hallowe’en). Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones, it is a remake and a sequel of sorts, updated for an era that demands improved diversity of all kinds, both onscreen and in writers’ rooms. As older witches, nostalgic millennials and the next generation of would-be pagan enthusiasts anticipate The Craft: Legacy, it’s worth unpacking the dual contexts framing its release: the evolving wave of interest sparked by its predecessor, but also the longer history of pop culture’s intersection, and fascination, with witchcraft.

Satanic Panic gives way to a watershed moment for witchcraft

Cailee Spaeny (Finalized);Zoey Luna (Finalized);Gideon Adlon (Finalized);Lovie Simone (Finalized)
Zoey Luna, Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simone and Cailee Spaeny performing a ritual in 'The Craft: Legacy'Rafy Photography—©2020 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Craft appeared at a moment of almost eerie cultural synchronicity. The 1970s had offered a smorgasbord of films and TV shows with occult topics, like The Exorcist and Circle of Fear. But the 1980s was curiously devoid of them—partly due, perhaps, to the rising profile of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which crusaded against drug use and Hollywood heathenry. Simultaneously, the Satanic Panic, roughly spanning the late 1980s through the mid-90s, was characterized by virulent rumors of Satanic Ritual Abuse including sexual assault, impregnation, and even sacrifice of infants to the devil. (Many of the narratives resemble scenes from the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby.) Virtually all of these stories were debunked following an FBI task force investigation which published its findings in 1992, but not before the panic spread via mass media and many lives were ruined by false accusations.

Meanwhile, contemporary paganism became allied with environmental activism and feminism. James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, positing the Earth as a singular organism made up of interconnected systems, named for the Roman Earth goddess, slowly caught on throughout the 1970s; Merlin Stone’s exploration of the artistic and archeological evidence for matriarchal goddess-worshipping cultures, When God Was a Woman, followed in 1976. Journalist and practicing witch Margot Adler’s survey of the movement and Starhawk’s primer on witchcraft and ecological activism both appeared in 1979. In 1982, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley reframed the Arthurian legends as a battle between matriarchal paganism and patriarchal Christianity. John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick was published in 1984 (the film followed in 1987, complete Hollywood drivel that enraged many real witches). Witchy ‘zines and newsletters sprang up, found subscribers through word of mouth, and were mailed in plain brown envelopes, for those witches still in the broom closet, as we called it. Witchy and occult films and TV shows may have receded, but, bolstered by books, the pagan community was quietly growing.

Although the Satanic Panic had largely wound down by the start of the ‘90s, hints of it appeared in the media that came after. That decade saw a number of iconic occult-themed narratives, with two especially-influential texts bookending the decade: 1990’s surreal, cerebral Twin Peaks (informed by Tibetan mysticism, Jungian symbolism and Native American folklore) and 1999’s indie phenomenonThe Blair Witch Project, a hyperreal yet psychological terror that conjured deep-seated fears of witches and the woods. In between, the burgeoning internet ushered in a new world of online fringe communities and subcultures, including the contemporary witchcraft movement, which would come to have a significant influence on Hollywood storytelling.

While some popular movies, like 1993’s Hocus Pocus, erred on the silly side, other projects attempted to accurately and seriously portray real witchcraft practitioners. That same year, the enormously popular The X-Files debuted on Fox, and the occult was frequently covered in hyper-specific detail. In 1997, J.K. Rowling published her first Harry Potter novel, reviving kids’ interest in reading—and stoking conservative Christian zealots’ fears that the series was indoctrinating their children through witchcraft. (Today’s followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which includes accusations of Satanic rituals that include harvesting children’s blood, makes it clear that each generation has its own iteration of witchcraft-related hysteria, however fringe.)

The Craft inspires would-be teen witches but divides their elders

Rachel True And Neve Campbell In 'The Craft'
Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Rachel True and Neve Campbell crowded around a fire, performing a ritual in a scene from the film 'The Craft', 1996.Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

The Craft dropped right into this teeming cauldron of witch narratives, soon to be followed by Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Practical Magic. What set The Craft apart from these more lighthearted stories was the rather dark trajectory of its storyline; this was no comedy or fairytale but a bonafide horror movie. Fairuza Balk played the ringleader of a coven of teen girls (along with Neve Campbell, Rachel True and Robin Tunney) who willfully dabble in witchcraft and get in way over their heads.

The production employed an adviser, Pat Devin, a practicing witch, high priestess of Gardnerian Wicca (also known as modern pagan witchcraft), and Chief Information Officer for the religious organization The Covenant of the Goddess. Interviewed in 1997 about the experience, Devin described her efforts to improve the image of witches in the film: “My goal for the rituals and chants was that they be authentic, if generic, and that they contain nothing that could not be easily found in at least two books, or plausibly created by teenage girls.” Devin also convinced Fleming to include a “binding spell,” a simple spell that prevents a person from harming others or themselves, visualized by tying a ribbon around a symbolic object, for Balk’s character, Nancy, who had been slated to die in an earlier version of the script. (Years later, that basic binding spell has been the basis for a number of witches who have been doing a monthly spell, at midnight on the night of the new moon, to bind Donald Trump “and all who aid and abet him.”)

Despite Devin’s thoughtful presence, the witchcraft community was not entirely happy with the film. Wren Walker, co-founder of The Witches’ Voice, a non-profit networking and advocacy organization with a long-running popular website, wrote at the time: “It would certainly not be clear to the general viewing public which parts of the film show actual practices and which are Hollywood fabrications.” Walker also referred to the hiring of Devin as a way “to lend credibility to an otherwise inaccurate portrayal of Witches.” The flurry of interest in witchcraft among teens was annoying to some, who assumed younger seekers would lack the depth of seriousness that, in their view, witchcraft required. (It didn’t help that books and other products aimed at teens attempted to capitalize on this craze, with titles like Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation, or a Teen Witch Kit with cheap crystals and a plastic altar.) Others were concerned that the somewhat adult nature of some witchcraft practices would be inappropriate for younger seekers, or possibly even make them vulnerable to sexual predators. Despite this trepidation, teenage girls were still captivated by The Craft and eager to become witches, many of them taking to heart the film’s requirement of needing four witches (representing air, fire water and earth) to form a coven. This conceit also appears in The Craft: Legacy, with both films beginning with three young witches yearning for a fourth to complete their magical circle.

A respectful remake that makes ‘magical sense’

Zoey Luna (Finalized);Gideon Adlon (Finalized);Lovie Simone (Finalized)
Lourdes, Frankie and Tabby need a fourth to complete their coven in 'The Craft: Legacy'Rafy Photography—©2020 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Craft: Legacy begins as its origin story does: three young witches (Frankie, Tabby and Lourdes, played respectively by Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simone and Zoey Luna) are casting a magic circle using candles, tarot cards, crystals and other witchy tools and materials. The girl soon to be their fourth, Lily (Cailee Spaeny) arrives after a long road trip with her mother (Michelle Monaghan), who is moving in with her new boyfriend (David Duchovny of X-Files fame) and his three sons. The film employed not just one but three witchcraft advisers. One of them was Pam Grossman, author of Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic and Power and host of the podcast “The Witch Wave,” who worked with Lister-Jones on the script.

“Pam’s writing is so beautiful,” says the writer-director. “She wrote the spells and incantations, and she helped me to represent the witchcraft community accurately.” As Grossman told TIME, “Part of my job was to help make sure the symbols, imagery and language Zoe was using made ‘magical sense,’ so to speak.” To any real witches eager to subject the movie to a purity test (which admittedly will be very different from witches’ expectations in 1996), Grossman advises some flexibility. “It’s a horror-fantasy, so it’s not so much about accuracy per se…but I was there to ensure that what she was drawing from felt respectful of modern witches, and referenced true beliefs and history, even as she invented her own cinematic magic.”

Grossman later connected Lister-Jones with Bri Luna, an astrologer and tarot reader also known as The Hoodwitch. “I was already a fan of her witchcraft aesthetic, and her advice to the actors on how to draw upon your own ancestry for creating a personal backstory was invaluable,” says Lister-Jones. Along with Aerin Fogel, musician and creator of the band Queen of Swords, Luna also helped with ritual design and choreography, and on-set rituals and meditations to help the cast and crew feel safe.

How the result will be perceived by fans of the original and eager witches alike remains to be seen. There are stark generational contrasts among witches: those whose training included reading dozens of books on comparative religion and European history and folklore, prior to the internet age, have a very different approach than younger witches whose practice may be inspired by Instagram aesthetics, Tumblr memes and TikTok videos. And what of those ‘90s teens whose initiation into witchcraft was catalyzed by The Craft? It’s doubtful they’re still worshipping the fictional god Manon—but do they still think magic is solely a means to achieve power?

The Craft: Legacy makes a notable effort to portray its witches as being grounded in the real world and not glued to their smartphones, which might help it resonate with witches whose approach to magic is more Earth-based than digital. It’s clear, at the very least, that the endeavor was approached with research and good intention. “We wanted to be careful and respectful,” says Lister-Jones of the different spells employed both in the film and on-set. A certain caution was necessary for everyone’s peace of mind—Lister-Jones and her actors understood their invocations and rituals were dramatic fiction for the camera, but their words and gestures are still akin to actual witchcraft rituals. As Luna advised her, “Magic doesn’t know you’re making a film.”

Peg Aloi is a freelance film and TV critic, media studies scholar and practicing witch based in New York state.

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