White Magic

Though it is the subtext of savagery that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play

From an opening in the thicket we witness naked figures gathering around a growing fire. Their hair is long and their language foreign. Their chants intensify and they begin to dance, then levitate, with flailing arms and jackknife knees. Herbaceous smoke and sweat mingle. Are they witches or are they Indians?

In the 2015 film The Witch, this iconic round-the-fire ritual is a climactic reveal of witches living in the woods. But through subtle, fleeting cues throughout the film, we have been made to understand their association with Natives lurking just off frame. Witch magic, the frightened mother of a stricken child intones, is Indian magic.

In the mid-17th-century atmosphere in which this “New England folktale” takes place, the threat of witches follows from a fear of the Natives and their grounded intimacy with a coveted land yet to be tamed by settlement. This intimacy with land is then projected onto Indigenous forms of sociality and sexuality deemed unruly and un-Christian. Tellingly and expectedly, in The Witch it is the teenage girl of a Puritan family who, in coming into maturity and sexuality, brings witchery into the home. The film’s unexpected performance at the box office—grossing $40.4 million on a budget of $4 million—might in part be attributed to a recent revival in America’s interest in witches. This interest, broadcast by crystal-wearing enthusiasts all over various social media and fashion editorials, rarely attends with such historical accuracy as The Witch to the specter of savagery that witches once promised. How many viewers who delighted in the uninhibited fire dance at the end of the film gave even a second thought to the brief glimpse of Native men at the beginning?

Though it is the subtext of savagery (ascribed to both Indigenous and African-descendent peoples in the Americas) that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play. The turn to witchcraft as a trend (rather than a practice) is conditioned by white women’s desire to obfuscate the power begotten by their whiteness. The occult is after all definitionally about power that obscures its origin. In the current fashion and fashioning of witches, the historical connections between witches and racialized savages, however sublimated, continues to magnetize the appeal. I am sympathetic to this appeal even as I am suspicious of it; it marks a desire to be contrary to the colonial project, even if it does not always enact it.

The current trend in witch infatuation marks an alliance foreclosed. In the early days of America, when accusations of witchcraft were leveled at Indians, Black people, and settlers who strayed from the strict disciplining needed to create a cohesive sovereignty of one dominant nation, it was because witches were a threat. The representations of witches that dominate contemporary American cultural consciousness—the “Surprise, Bitch” meme from American Horror Story, Stevie Nicks, people who talk about healing stones a lot—betray the role witches could have played in undoing the nation.

That is not to say the threat of witches to poison the patriarch has completely disappeared. In recent weeks some men have been quick to label the campaigns bringing forth sexual assault and harassment accusations as witch hunts, willfully ignorant that the term refers to a concerted campaign against women. The foolish use of the term has been noted and mocked by women, some of whom have also reappropriated the term to declare themselves the witches doing the hunting (which may very well be what the men were unconsciously getting at in the first place—the feeling of being hunted by witches).

Actual witch hunts of the past such as the Salem witch trials followed from a fear of Indian women and their role in forms of governance alternative to those of the foundling country. Along with genocidal tactics of sexual violence, early settlers also worked through their fear by projecting it elsewhere. The hypervisibility, and necessarily spectacular aspects, of witch trials against white women were an arena to handle physically and politically the threat of Indigenous societies where women were in power. Beyond the events at Salem—a historical spectacle as formative to America as the Thanksgiving myth—unruly women, be they Native, Black, or white, have continuously been posed as savage and placed outside the enclosed boundaries of civilization and nation. In a move toward symbolic enclosure, both witches and Indians have been reduced to accessorized signifiers hawked by Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, available for the carefree to adorn themselves with at Coachella and express their pagan predilections for living ever so briefly outside time.

The work of enclosure is key here: Cultural representations of witches reign in their savagery even as horror movies such as The Witch might give participants a chance to be fearful of it. Enclosure is also the means by which the nation turns Indigenous land into private property, which then must be defended against subjects construed to be savage. Along with witch, savage, and slut, the accusatory title of heathen is also hurled throughout colonial times at those who stand in the way of a cohesive nation. Derived from the word heath, which can mean uncultivated plain or wild forest, heathen in its first uses in Christian contexts meant someone who not only lacked proper religiosity but also inhabited land in a noncivilized manner. To cast aside the heathen through death, incarceration, or rehabilitation has gone hand in hand with clearing the land to be made into property. Heathen is no longer a category of persecution, but the ideology that there are savages—i.e. Indigenous and Black peoples—with no valid claim to land and life certainly persists.

These colonial logics that permit ongoing dispossession and death point to one of the failures of white witches: While they might hex Trump, they do not in any meaningful way extend their lifestyle to stand with those still marked by the history of the heathen. The etymology of heathen helps illuminate an argument put forth by Silvia Federici in her classic feminist text Caliban and the Witch, that the American witch hunts were not just terrorist strategies to silence dissent and demand obedience, but were also importantly a strategy of enclosure. Federici’s theorization of primitive accumulation locates the development of capitalism in three linked processes: The coerced reproductive work of European women, the persecution of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of Africans. While white witches once represented a threat to that reproductive order, they have since been sanitized and permitted, even if at the fringes, into civil society.

There are multiple simultaneous nostalgias at work with the current witch obsession. There’s the nostalgia not only for a romanticized premodern time when earth-based practices, like a life structured around seasonal ceremony, were more possible, but also for the ’90s and its earnest invocation of girl power. First uttered by the punk group Bikini Kill, “girl power”—as a phrase, attitude, and position—was brought to wild heights of popularity by the Spice Girls. It is not surprising that in this atmosphere of celebration a fascination with witches would arise. While modern-day witches may seem, at times, aligned with a feminist political critique of capitalist reproduction, the fundamental threat of savagery they could pose to the nation is downplayed in their mainstream and even cult-classic iterations, which tacitly support female empowerment while avoiding the crisis in femininity witches have summoned in their naked fire dances. Of the many witchy movies and TV shows of the ’90s, several have since become millennial classics. The Craft—released in 1996 and centered on a group of four occult-dabbling Catholic schoolgirls—remains the iconic standout of the genre for its ability to brand the female empowerment narrative in the definitive looks of a contemporary coven: black latex, black eyeliner, black chokers. Unfortunately, what begins as a goth feel-good tale of getting revenge on slut-shaming football jerks turns to a jealous girl-on-girl fallout. Released three years earlier than the goth-chic cult classic was the more family-oriented Hocus Pocus, set in Salem, which features Bette Midler playing a genuinely scary and villainous witch but one who is defeated in the end by a teenage boy. Indians are absent from these movies and the lore they invoke. And though there is some passing reference to the violence faced by heathen women of the past, these films are mostly centered on redemptive stories of love: love between friends and sisters, but always more importantly romantic love between men and women.

The paragon of pagan chick flicks Practical Magic, for instance, begins in Puritan times with the scene of a witch about to be hung. This witch is feared for her magic and resented for her homewrecking ways. Ancestor to sisters played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, the witch puts “a curse on any man who dares love” any of her female descendents. What ensues is a lifelong quest for the sisters to find un-hexed heterosexual romance. At one point they pull off a spell to reanimate Nicole Kidman’s abusive boyfriend with a pentagram made from a can of reddi whip. And in the end, Sandra Bullock’s character overcomes both the persecution of witches as outsiders and the family curse by falling in true love with a cop, once the violent enforcer of order transformed into a benevolent, handsome man.

Herein lies one of the more sinister revisions at work in the ’90s movie about witches—the strange women who abandon civilized life to live naked with other women in the woods become straight. According to colonial logics, women accused of witchcraft and Indigenous and African-descendent peoples are fundamental threats to the nation state. Their unruly sexualities (and the non-Western societal structures they index) are capable of undoing the binding power of the nuclear family, otherwise known as the power of the father. But the depictions of witches in the ’90s worked hard to repair witches’ reproductive role in the home. Willow, the beloved lesbian witch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the exception whose status as sapphic icon proves the rule.

Though it debuted only a few years after The Craft, the TV series Charmed brought witchiness and ’90s nostalgia into the millennium. Drawing on the girl-group model of The Craft, Charmed is about the tribulations of three sisters, which often involve the difficulties of dating-while-Wiccan. In the third-season episode “The Good, the Bad and the Cursed,” one of the witch sisters, Phoebe, upon visiting a ghost town in the West, suddenly feels the literal pain of a Native American man stuck in a “time loop.” The symbolic sympathy between witches and Indians is for a moment rendered material but only so that Phoebe, played by Alyssa Milano, and her older sister Prue, played by Shannen Doherty, can perform a benevolent act of rescue—preventing the man from being killed and bringing him out of the time loop. The witches then succeed in keeping the Native man in his proper place in the past, while they return to the modern world where their domesticated life of pagan ways is allowed.

Even more recent is American Horror Story, whose third season, Coven, capitalized on the dual trends of witches and wokeness by tapping into national discussions on continuing racial violence against Black people. The season begins in the torture chamber of a white witch mistress, Madame Delphine LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates, where the enslaved Black people under her ownership are depicted in gratuitously stylized pain and deprivation. Tiffany King has written that the show perfectly illustrates the fungibility of Black flesh: “She runs a torture chamber in order to satisfy lusts that include and exceed the sexual. In one episode, she murders and then uses the blood of an enslaved newborn child as an elixir that wards off the aging process. One gets a sense that the possibilities for Black flesh are unending under her ownership.” One also gets a similar sense from the how the show’s writers use their Black characters. Marie Laveau, played by Angela Bassett, is both a villain and protagonist throughout the season and references an often erased Black Indigeneity, here indicated by practices of vodou. In a disturbing but all-too-typical narrative device, the unnecessary, gory depiction of Black death operates as plot pivot, dramatic climax, and background horror at different points in the show.

The associations between Blackness, Indigeneity, and unruly sexuality that inform witchy narratives and the American construction of savagery illuminate the complicated, sometimes paradoxical forms of racialization in the New World. Returning to Federici, the Caliban in her book’s title is a character who has been interpreted and reinterpreted since he first appeared in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Because Caliban lives on a fictional island that evokes the Caribbean, literary critics such as Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd among others have noted a signifying slippage between Caliban as a Black and/or Native American savage. His mother Sycorax is a witch in exile from Algiers, while Caliban is a native to the New World whose name is derived from the word cannibal. This mingling of Africa and the Americas as sources of witchery continues into both the historical and pop cultural accounts of Salem, where an enslaved dark-skinned woman from Barbados, Tituba, was cast as the colony’s original witch, whose evil influence then infected other women and girls. While historians have debated whether Tituba actually had any African ancestors, she has been represented from the time of the Salem witch trials to contemporary times as a Black woman. This is a rare instance in the American cultural canon, and a telling anxiety, of ascribing an Indigeneity, that is a set of place-based non-Western traditions and practices, to Black women. Instead of the vacuum of history that the white settler enforces on the African Native during enslavement—through, among other things, stripping them of their names—their presence becomes a site for a slew of forbidden, dangerous, ancient magic in the context of colonial witch hunts.

While the ever expanding Western frontier may not be a feature in every witch movie I’ve discussed, in almost all of them the move away from a comfortable home is a precursor for falling into witchcraft. The trope of a perilous journey away from a familiar home illuminates another underlying American tradition that influences the conditions for the production of white witches: the wildly popular and widely circulated captivity narratives that were published from the 17th to 19th century. The stories mostly follow the same plot: A woman traveling to the frontier is captured by hostile and barbaric Natives whose way of life she is eventually seduced by, causing her to hesitate or even refuse to return to white society. The anxious fascination that drove the popular consumption of these narratives was based in the fear of an alliance between white women forgoing the settler project for Indigenous ways of life.

The alliance that creates a sense of horror in these narratives is between those who can undo the reproductive necessities of colonial settlement. Reproductive crises, embodied by the savage and be-witching to the white woman, are the specter of captivity narratives of the past and contemporary tales of Wiccan women. The girls in witch-media are not only far from home but also often without a mother. The dead or missing mom trope is a distinctly millennial anxiety that Shaun Scott, author of Millennials and the Moments that Made Us, argues follows from the greater number of women entering the workforce full time. The ascendant figure of the career woman spurs the constantly repeated question: Can women have it all?—a question vaguely evocative of witchy accusations, What are these women capable of? The dead mother Scott points to as marking a millennial anxiety about modern women’s role or lack thereof in the domestic sphere has a corollary in the dead baby that has been the mythical distillation of witchy evil. Witches steal babies, they eat babies, and they cover themselves in babies’ blood. Relatedly, Indigenous peoples were figured as cannibals throughout the contact and colonial period throughout the Americas. Their taste for human flesh was but one of the more savage acts that legitimized conquering by refined Europeans, whose cannibalistic episodes could be chalked up to aberrations spurred by the devilish landscape of the frontier. Indian practices and the practices of ambitious women threaten to undo the binding powers of the normal nuclear family, triggering both anxieties and obsessions with the figure of the witch. The taking up of witchiness then makes sense at a time when more and more women may be delaying or opting out of motherhood. The depiction of witches in movies and TV more then seeks to assuage these anxieties by allowing witches to live normal, straight-women lives.

For Indigenous and Black women, however, the shifting savage signifier has not quite slipped away. It still sticks to racialized bodies that signify other ways of organizing society. Accusations that resonate with the title of heathen are now also hurled at Muslims both in America and abroad. Current projections by white Americans of a Muslim takeover harken back to the reconquista of Spain, a 700-year period when all Jewish and Muslim residents were expelled. The final years of the reconquista, the longest war in world history, overlapped with the colonial conquest of the Americas in the 1500s, and much of the language of savagery and rhetoric of conversion that conquistadors used against Natives had for generations been used by Catholics and other Christians seeking to expand their kingdoms in the name of Christ by violently repressing Islamic society. Islamophobia is not a recent political phenomenon in these lands—it has structured white American consciousness alongside the fear and fascination toward the Indian and African savage. While white women find pagan play empowering, those marked by the history of the heathen know what it is to be hunted. America is not a magical place, but its government can make people disappear.