Bewitching: TV, movies cast witches in better light

The witching hour has arrived. If you doubt it, just turn on your television.

For two years, “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” has been blending magic and teen angst Friday nights on ABC. On the darker side, there’s the new WB drama “Charmed” with three sisters _ they’re gorgeous, of course _ who inherit a San Francisco Victorian manor that sparks their witchly talents.

And on the big screen, “Practical Magic,” the romantic comedy featuring the formidable quartet of Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as a family of witches, neatly conjured up $ 13.6 million in opening weekend box-office receipts.

They may be kinder and edgier than Hollywood witches of the past _ the Wicked Witch of the West comes to mind _ but are they anything like the estimated 70,000 real witches affiliated with Wicca in the United States alone?

Since the Bay Area has its share of Wicca members, we asked around.

“‘Practical Magic’ and the series ‘Charmed’ seem to show there are good witches, which is actually kind of a good development,” says Glenn Turner, proprietor of Ancient Ways in Oakland and a practicing Wiccan.

In a nutshell, real witches tap into the natural universe to promote the positive aspects in their lives, not the supernatural, Wicca members maintain. They use folk magic and spells to bless their homes or get jobs, not just for matchmaking. The Wiccan Rede says to do harm to none, and the threefold rule says that what you send out comes back to you threefold, so black magic doesn’t quite fit into that equation.

But while the National Council of Churches and the federal courts may recognize Wicca as a religion, Hollywood strictly relegates its practitioners to the realm of fantasy. Outside the horror genre, though, Tinseltown witches are slowly gaining a little Wicca credit.

“‘Sabrina’ may be hokey, but it does portray witchcraft in very good ways,” says Francesca De Grandis, author of “Be a Goddess!” She points to a recent show in which someone points out, “even witches can’t tamper with life’s lessons.”

“I loved that because no magical tool or religion should be used as an escape from personal growth,” says De Grandis. “I try to teach religion of Wicca and spellcraft to attain personal growth (and a) sense of personal responsibility.”

That’s a far cry from Hollywood witches from times past when she _ and invariably it was a she _ is destined to be alone and lovelorn unless she abandons her magic, at least in the old days.

In “Bell, Book and Candle,” Kim Novak not only lost her powers when she fell for Jimmy Stewart, she traded in a slinky, sophisticated wardrobe for a frilly hausfrau look and her fabulous primitive art inventory for seashells and flowers in her retail store.

Hollywood may have granted her supernatural powers, but it demanded a trade-off between female independence and old-fashioned, blissful domesticity. If a woman ventured out of her role as the pursued and cast love spells, disaster inevitably erupted.

Take “The Witches of Eastwick.” Even in 1987, the witches’ innocent girl talk about what makes the perfect man leads them to into all kinds of trouble with the devilish Jack Nicholson. In “The Craft” (1996), Robin Tunney bewitches Skeet Ulrich, who becomes obsessed with her and is a fatal object of jealousy for witch practitioner Fairuza Balk.

The current “Practical Magic,” based on a novel by Alice Hoffman, adds some humorous twists to those old conventions. As the story goes, every man an Owens woman loves will die an untimely death, a result of a curse inherited from a bitter ancestor left pregnant and abandoned.

Still, Hollywood can’t entirely abandon its latent tendencies to combine evil and the undead with witchcraft. Take, for example, Kidman’s entanglement with an obsessed Bulgarian in “Practical Magic.”

Wiccan Turner describes the outcome as a cross between Mary Poppins and the usual horror story.

“None of which is very accurate (about Wicca), but at least the Mary Poppins side of things made it more real or more fun anyway.” Turner says. “Today’s movies seem to emphasize this evil force in the world.”

The cinematic horror instinct that erroneously links witches with Satanic practices is hard to shed as well. The image of the witch as a hook-nosed crone in black clothing and pointy hats has been perpetuated by children’s books and the media, says J. Gordon Melton, Institute for the Study of American Religion director for the past 29 years.

“That picture of witchcraft merged with Satanism in the popular consciousness,” he says. Those two separate practices continue to be linked onscreen until the 1980s, when the neopagan movement began to protest.

In 1993, protests were mobilized against the Disney comedy “Hocus Pocus.” The same thing happened three years later with “The Craft,” which “horrified” the Wiccan community, says Judy Coop, a partner-owner of Natural Healing in Martinez. They objected to the movie, which began with four girls transforming themselves through friendship and self-belief, but detoured into betrayal and even attempted murder.

“What the Wicca community does is they believe in sending positive energy to a person,” Coop explains. “Instead of sending angry and hostile feelings toward someone, it’s like asking the universe, a certain god or goddess, to help you disconnect the situation so that person doesn’t bother you anymore.”

Still, enough of the rituals pictured spurred an interest among teen and young-adult audiences. Both Coop, who is not Wiccan, and De Grandis had younger generations asking about the discipline. It was a case of pop culture converging with that group’s interest in spirituality and fantasy.

In addition to witches, the success of TV show like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the fanaticism surrounding “Xena: Warrior Princess” all fall under the concept of “fanteria,” a term coined by Youth Intelligence, a New York-based company specializing in youth-oriented market research, branding and trend forecasting.

The fantasy-reality fusion can be described as “a move away from sci-fi and dim reality to attainable fantasy combined with a need for sensory experience,” explains Kirsty Doig, a Youth Intelligence vice president. “It pushes the boundary of the mundane so it’s no longer just mundane life.”

That might explain why the young television witches, while still female, enjoy relatively normal romantic relationships and normal problems outside their extracurricular activities of casting spells and assisting vampire slaying.

“I love the fact that they all have boyfriends, because people often see (Wiccan) people as man-haters,” De Grandis says.

So is the fantasy element liberating for women, or counteractive?

“We could question the way they’re providing for young women to feel powerful, and wonder if that’s really the best way,” says Margaret R. Miles, dean and vice president for academic affairs at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, who laments the lack of symbolic resources available to help young women develop an interior life.

Miles, who sees film in terms of “cultural moments,” believes young women “feel powerless in our cultural moment, and the attraction of some kind of power, which witchcraft represents, is enormous for them.”

De Grandis, however, sees the spate of witch-oriented TV programming as airing “typical teen-age concerns not being addressed by parents and peers.” She often receives “very moving” letters from teen-agers who “are sincerely looking for ways to cope with problems that young adults face.”

The media, says De Grandis, has given them permission to explore other options.

“‘Sabrina,’ ‘Buffy’ and ‘Charmed’ are just one example of just a whole world-view change,” says Melton, who has studied Wicca. “These newer shows are already created with the feminist movement in assumption. They are not so much as a result of girl power, but a result of girl power being advocated.”

Doig emphasizes that fanteria is not about escape. She says the attraction to what Wicca and its media representations have to offer is “not necessarily (about) power over others as much as control over your own life That’s really important to young people today _ self-exploration and … making things work for you.”

De Grandis sees it as a way for young women to embrace feminist principles without feminist rhetoric.

A primary trend in ’90s Hollywood witches is the notion of strong female relationships. It comes through in the bond between Bullock, Kidman and “aunts” Wiest and Channing.

Another struggle is the one for balance instead of revolution, developing inner strength instead of outward appearances. That explains the attraction to the gentle nature-based religion Wicca, which emphasizes the balance between masculine and feminine.

For the upcoming generation, Doig has found, females say “‘I’m a woman because I’m strong, I’m independent.’

“It’s not the ’80s career, it’s much more feminine as well. It’s not red power suits. It’s being strong and being feminine, having a soft side, being strong enough to make mistakes.”

It’s also much more fun being a woman, and Hollywood has recognized that. “People are more optimistic today, we are not about the dark world as we were in the early ’90s,” Doig says. “The evil witch that curses everyone isn’t going to work today.”

KRT California is a premium service of Knight Ridder/Tribune.

(c) 1998, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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