Conversations with a Witch
Information Please talks to a real-life witch about stereotypes in the media
Peg Aloi doesn't just watch witch films; she scrutinizes them.
You see, Peg Aloi is a witch.
She studies how the characters use spells to raise the dead. She notes any mention of devil worship. She pays extra attention to exorcism scenes.
Aloi is a practitioner of witchcraft, or "Wicca," which is a nature-based, pagan religion, formally recognized as such in 1985. It honors a female divinity and follows the seasonal cycles. Spells and magic are a part of it, but they are used responsibly and ethically to help bring about self-improvement—not evil-doing or matchmaking.
As a witch, Aloi has a personal interest in how movies portray her "craft." Indeed, three hundred years may have passed since the Salem witch trials, but witchcraft is still widely—and sometimes woefully—misrepresented in cinema and television: the evil cackles, the aerodynamic broomsticks, the manipulative carnality, and the use of magic for revenge and power.
To real-life witches, this perpetuation of stereotypes and falsehoods isn't just annoying; it's downright libelous.
"A lot of modern witches feel the [media's] portrayal is just another form of persecution," explains the 35-year-old Aloi, who's been a practicing witch for ten years. "It's always the image of the witch as a hag who makes potions out of dead animal parts. And while people know that that can't be what witches really do, they take away the notion that it's something dark, like Satan worshipping."
The Hollywoodization of witches
Hollywood took little notice of witches until the 1960s (with a few exceptions, notably 1939's Wizard of Oz), when portrayals of them took off both as a backlash against and an embrace of feminine power. At the same time, the neo-pagan movement began to blossom in response to a growing disenchantment with traditional religions.
The result was a wave of violence-laden witch films, such as The City of the Dead (1960) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). The trend continued into the '80s, but with more lighthearted, fanciful fare, heavy this time on the special effects: The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Teen Witch (1989). The 1990s saw neo-pagan religions on the rise once again with the release of The Witches (1990), The Craft (1996), and Practical Magic (1998).
Thus the modern witch has a lot to talk (complain?) about these days.
"Witches are portrayed as not only having this crazy power," says Aloi, "but as using it to gain even more power. Most witches don't do this. Any witch worth her salt knows it's always best not to use magic to solve her problems."
Conjuring Up Good PR
Indeed, if witches could simply whip up a disappearing-dilemma potion, they wouldn't have such a public relations predicament. Instead, witches have had to resort to grassroots efforts to fight what is essentially centuries of bad press. As media coordinator of The Witches' Voice, an anti-defamation and education network, Aloi watches witch-centered films and television shows with a careful eye. She looks for damaging misrepresentations, such as the linking of witchcraft and devil-worship, or depictions of witchcraft that ignore its spiritual or ethical foundation. For the most part, Aloi forgives those over-the-top touches we've all come to accept: the pointy hats, the flying broomsticks, the kooky clothes. Some things are too hard to fight.
Ironically, she explains that the most harmful portrayals are occurring when screenwriters and producers do some research.
"There's more material about us available now because of the Internet, and [producers] may even use real witches as consultants," says Aloi. "But there are problems. Enough authentic stuff gets mixed in with the over-the-top, sensationalized stuff that the line of what really goes on gets blurred."
She points to the 1996 film The Craft as an example. For this story of four misfit teens who ply witchcraft as revenge, producers hired a real-life witch as a consultant. The result is an authentic touch for many of the rituals portrayed onscreen; however, even with a real witch's input, the film still insists on portraying witchcraft as a force for rampant destruction.
In some instances, however, a greater understanding about the reality of Wicca is paying off. Take for example, the WB show Charmed, which casts Alyssa Milano as a young witch. As analyzed on The Witches' Voice web page, the program features some details that charmed real-life witches. Its characters actually wore regular clothes to do their magic, they explained the tools used in rituals, and reflected witchcraft's ethical tenets.
On the not-so-accurate side, Charmed portrays the use of magic without spirituality and perpetuated the myth that you are "born" a witch (in actuality, one must be initiated).
Aloi encourages screenwriters and producers to keep doing their homework—however, she emphasizes, they must begin to honestly incorporate what they learn. "The media simply needs to dig deeper to find out what else is interesting, and not just fall back on the easy image of a woman with a magic wand," she says. "I'll know it's better when the modern witch is portrayed without a single special effect."