The 90s was an especially influential year for the spread and development of modern neo-paganism to the point where I would label it as a third-wave (the first being in the early 19th century and the second in the 60s hippie era). This decade coincided with a lot of things that really helped boost the presence of new belief systems and especially the visibility of Wicca as a religion. First and foremost being the internet. The development of the internet, forums, chat rooms, and other means of communication allowed previously secluded practitioners to be able to communicate with others who were practicing, sharing beliefs and rituals with each other. Previously, pagan traditions were passed down through mentors and groups, many of those interested joining finding that there was a barrier of training standing between them and full indoctrination into the belief system of their choice. Or they found relevant information scattered throughout a myriad of books, many of them hard to find or especially secretive about their specific rituals.
The advent of the internet era allowed people to freely share information and form connections with other practicing individuals. I know I found a lot of help in forums and websites, able to talk with others who had been practicing much longer than myself. I think a lot of people looking into the neo-pagan phenomena make a point of mentioning the influence of the internet, but there were a myriad of influences that made up the third wave of paganism: growth of environmental issues, changing political views, a resurgence of feminist issues, and a generation dealing with the problems the previous Boomer generation left for them. However, there was also one other major influence: modern media of the time.
Previous depictions of witches and witchcraft were relegated to horror and comedy with shows like Bewitched displaying magic and witchcraft as quirky and not something to take seriously. What the 90s brought with it though was the release of The Craft in 1996. The movie depicted four teenage girls who are the outcasts at their high school discovering witchcraft and using it to solve their problems and get revenge on the bullies that have tormented them for years. It’s a story of female empowerment, female rage, and female friendship with a backbone of magic and witchcraft. It was one of the first movies or pieces of media to take witchcraft seriously as a plot element and display it in a semi-positive light.
It came out at exactly the right time, into a powder keg of social depression and feminist thinking, appealing to a generation of teenagers that felt voiceless. It especially appealed to a generation of teenage girls, giving them strong and confident role models who took their future into their own hands and, wielding their own power, sought to express themselves and solve their problems. As Hannah Ewens in her Vice article points out, the girls in The Craft are “marginalized first and foremost by gender, thanks to the jocks who fuck them over…but each has a quality that marginalizes her further.” Witchcraft allows the girls to seize control and fight against this marginalization, eventually getting revenge on the jocks who hurt them. They stand up for each other and wind up forming a pretty tight-knit group of friends until Sarah decides to break from the coven.
If we look closer at the movie’s themes and story, I think it’s easy to see that witchcraft was used a narrative device to talk more about female friendships, sexuality, feminism, and raging teenage emotions. Witchcraft was the tool that these girls used to express their sexuality, take back control, and promote a teenage, feminist ideal of strong and independent girls. Ironically, Ewens notes, the movie received an R rating despite meeting all the requirements for a PG-13 rating. The director, Andrew Fleming, suspected it was because it featured teenage girls experimenting with witchcraft. Don’t want girls becoming too powerful.
Ironically enough, the R rating didn’t stop the spread of the movie’s influence to teenagers. Ewens writes that “According to Alexander, within days of the movie opening, inquiries began to ‘pour into’ various witch groups and neo-pagan organizations.” Jessica Mason from The Mary Sue writes that “Being into ‘the occult’ became a fad and modern witchcraft saw a huge boost of interest following the film’s release. Personally, it made me more passionate about something I was already into and gave me witch heroines to identify with and emulate…” Andrew Fleming’s directorial choices might have had some bearing on the extent to which the movie appealed to beginner witches since he in fact hired a witchcraft consultant to advise him on the chants and rituals added into the movie. So as these teenage fans began looking more into the movie, they found some truth to the magic presented therein.
There’s also a case study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by Helen Berger and Douglas Ezzy that takes a look specifically at how mass media has influenced the development of religious identity in relation to witchcraft and Wicca. In it they interviewed 90 people between the ages of 17 and 23 that were currently practicing witchcraft and had been for at least a year about watch influenced their decision to get into paganism, specifically media influences. What they found was that many respondents tried to distance themselves from saying that they were influenced to get into witchcraft because of a certain piece of media, and those that did seemed embarrassed by the fact.
I think it’s important to note that identities are formed not just by what we say we are, but also by what we say we aren’t. Respondents in the study pointed to the obvious Hollywood theatrics present in the media portrayals, noting the areas that didn’t align with the reality of Wicca and witchcraft. In a way, these portrayals, while not entirely truthful to the nature of witchcraft, still had an influence on forming and cementing young pagan’s ideas about their religious practices because it allowed them to more concretely see what they didn’t want their practice to be like. And the more that actual practitioners responded to this movie, the more word got out about the nature and existence of Wicca and witchcraft. You know what they say, sometimes any publicity is good publicity.
What we saw then with the arrival of The Craft was a boom in positive depictions of witchcraft and witches, with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch all becoming popular in the coming years. This meant an increase in new practitioners or those just curious about the nature of Wicca. Adding to this was the surge of literature on the subject thanks to the popularity of Silver Ravenwolf’s book, it created this really interesting environment where neo-paganism thrived for many years, and arguably still does.
I know I have a few stories about how The Craft and shows like it influenced my own ideas about magic and witchcraft, but I’d like to hear your own in the comments below. Let me know if The Craft had some influence, good or bad, over your own practice or those that you know. Also let me know what you think about the announcement of a new modern Craft movie in the works.
~~Thanks for Reading!~~