The Pendulum Swings Back
After The Witches of Eastwick in 1987, the biblical imagery of good and evil that evangelicals brought to public attention seemed to disappear from popular entertainment in fact so did the whole subject of witchcraft. Movies that dealt with horror and the supernatural continued treating good and evil in religious terms, but those terms were no longer identifiably biblical; now they were drawn from a vague, generic, humanistic “spirituality” — which in turn was drawn mostly from eastern and occult sources.
For example, Jacob’s Ladder (1990) featured hallucinatory demons and hell-scenes presented as dreams of its dying protagonist — a concept based on the elaborate death-mysticism of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. (Brooke, 1990; p. 30) Flatliners (1990) explored the same subject in more “scientific” terms, as its characters sought visions of “the other side” by deliberately subjecting themselves to a near-death experience. In Ghost (also 1990), the depiction of the afterlife and the evildoers’ descent into hell is drawn from the accounts of spirit mediums and the teachings of the Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism with deeply occult roots). Yet, despite their occult-related themes, none of those movies touched on witchcraft or dealt with the issue of occult power per se.
And then along came The Craft — which did both of the above, in spades. Released in 1996, the sensational movie about teenage Witches was a huge boxoffice success, and exposed the public to information about real Neopagan Witchcraft for the first time. The movie was a compass-setting event, both in popular entertainment and in popular culture generally. The Craft revolutionized the media’s approach to teenagers, reshaped the media’s imagery of good and evil, and redefined the public’s idea of modern Witchcraft — all in a single stroke. It was also the first in a series of movie and video productions about Witches and Witchcraft that came out of Hollywood in quick succession for the next two years, and still continues intermittently today.
The movie tells the story of four teenage girls from a Catholic high school in Los Angeles, each of whom is an “outsider” in some way, different from and not accepted by the rest of the students. “Rochelle” is “multi-racial” in an all-white school, “Bonnie” is disfigured by burn scars, “Nancy” is a poor kid in a rich kid’s school, and “Sarah” is a new girl from out of town. The first three dabble in magic to get some power and control in their lives, then recruit the new girl to make four for a “coven” to explore Witchcraft more deeply. They discover real power in their spell-casting, but quickly lose control of it — and themselves — as their magic becomes progressively nastier and more destructive. Sarah casts a love spell, and creates an obsessive, unwanted admirer, whom she then humiliates. Rochelle gets revenge on one of the snotty white girls by making her hair fall out. Nancy causes the death of her drunken, abusive stepfather in order to collect the insurance money (or, as Rochelle puts it, “not to be white trash or something”), and later murders Sarah’s obsessive admirer out of jealousy.
The four teen Witches not only visit general mayhem on those around them (including several deaths), they finally turn their powers against one another. In a dramatically staged ceremony, Nancy “Invokes the Spirit,” a ritual of (something like) voluntary possession that imbues her with tremendous magical power. Sarah tries to leave the coven, provoking a showdown with Nancy, who is backed up by the other two. It is a duel of good Witch versus bad Witch. In the end, the good Witch wins, the bad one is banished (strapped to a bed in an insane asylum), and her craven allies lose their witchy powers — while the good Witch (Sarah) gets to keep hers.
On one level the movie is a simple “cautionary tale,” easy to understand, and even familiar in its moral lessons. On that level, The Craft is a story about the temptations of power and the consequences of abusing it; the lesson is that the lust for control leads to the loss of control. But there are other levels, and other lessons, and it is because of them that the movie has had its real impact on popular culture and popular entertainment.
To begin with, The Craft presents a picture of modern, Neopagan Witchcraft that actually resembles the real thing instead of being based on the standard medieval stereotypes. That is not an accident, of course, nor is it the result of merely casual research. The movie’s poducers sought out a prominent Witch from the occult community in Los Angeles to act as a consultant on the script; she worked with them for two years to bring the film version of modern Witchcraft substantially into line with the real-life version.
The consultant (Pat Devin) was interviewed in 1998 about her work on the film. Devin said that a Sony Pictures publicist had originally contacted the owner of a well-known occult bookstore (The House of Hermetic) in Los Angeles, seeking someone with an insider’s knowledge of modern Witchcraft. The bookstore owner in turn directed Sony to Ms Devin, who was then serving as Co-National Public Information Officer for The Covenant of the Goddess, one of the oldest and most influential Neopagan groups.
In one of the fascinating highlights of the interview, Devin tells how she ran up against and dealt with the compromises in her beliefs that Hollywood required. At their initial meeting over lunch, the director of the movie (Andrew Fleming) leaned across the table and said, “Pat, you’ll have to remember that this is a movie. It’s Hollywood. It’s not intended to be a documentary about the Wiccan religion. It’s intended to make money. It will, hopefully, be entertaining. Do you think you can work with that?” (Devin, 1998)
Devin decided that she could.
I decided to try to get as much truth into what was, after all, a teenage date spooky movie, as I could. I knew the results would not be perfect, but I felt obligated to try, as the movie was going to come out in any event. I knew that I would be criticized for my attempt to be as authentic, if generic, as possible. But, of course, had I chosen to just make it up, I’d have been criticized for that. (Ibid.)
Devin was right about the criticism — many Neopagans felt the movie cheapened and sensationalized their religion. Margot Adler went so far as to call it “the worst movie ever made!” (Vale and Sulak, 2001: p 28) But Devin succeeeded in her effort to get as much accurate information as possible about modern Witchcraft into the script. In the interview, she details some of her contributions.
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 . . . . I wrote the Initiation scene, using widespread and common wording for the challenge. I suggested several possible ritual acts for that scene. Andy chose a drop of blood in the wine, which is based on a rite of my 1734 group. I asked my High Priestess’ permission before suggesting it. I wrote the opening chant . . . I belong to two covens — one Dianic Feminist Separatist and one in the 1734 Tradition. The words in the scene are similar to what you’d hear in my Women’s circle. (Devin, 1998)
The Craft and Teen Culture
Neopaganism may have been sensationalized for the sake of the movie, but it was still identifiably Neopaganism. The fact that the movie’s portrayal of modern Witchcraft was recognizably true to life is what made its impact so substantial. Despite Margot Adler’s horrified reaction, The Craft gave a big publicity and recruitment boost to modern Witchcraft for two reasons. The first reason is a matter of simple psychology: the lesson of the movie’s “cautionary tale” is largely lost on teenagers, but its dangled lure of occult power definitely is not. A sense of attraction to the dream of control (especially the dream of controlling others) is what the movie lastingly coveys. The second reason is a practical one: because the Witchcraft in the movie resembles the real thing, the lure of occult power is linked to a collection ideas, rituals and objects in the real world that teens will actually encounter when they investigate further. Thus, curious teens have a framework of information and involvement waiting for them to plug their curiosity into.
And there were a lot of curious teens coming out of the movie theatres in 1996. Ms Devin does the arithmatic:
The Craft was seen by approximately one million people in its first weekend. If one in ten of those people are intrigued enough to look into the subject further, maybe read a book (and now there are shelves full of books!) that’s 100,000 people who will at least be more educated about our reality. If one in ten of those people chose to pursue the subject further, that’s 10,000 people out of the first weekend.
I began calling myself a Witch at 16 because Donovan wrote a song called “Season of the Witch.” I do not underestimate the impact of the media on teenagers, and this movie was brewed up for the teenage audience. (Devin, 1998)
The effect was explosive, and virtually instantaneous. Within days of the movie’s opening, inquiries began to pour into the various Witchcraft groups and Neopagan organizations. They were all caught off-guard; even those that had some advance knowledge of the movie were stunned by the size and suddenness of the response. And it is realistic to assume that the number of direct inquiries was more than matched by the number of those who went looking for further information on their own, without contacting anyone.
That unexpected surge of teenage interest in Witchcraft posed a problem for the movement in more ways than one. In the first place, it was a wave of fascination they were largely unprepared to deal with. Neopaganism was not a young person’s movement; few Witches had any experience in dealing with teenage inquirers, and no group had any kind of organized teenage outreach. In the second place, the prospect of having teenagers “convert” to Witchcraft while still under their parents’ roof was a hot potato, to put it mildly not just emotionally, but legally as well. Any Witchcraft organization that deliberately drew a child away from its parents’ religion stood a very good chance of being sued out of existence. As a result, the Neopagan groups generally took a hands-off approach in dealing with minors. The combined result of their unreadiness and their wariness is that the organized Witchcraft movement lost control of the Witchcraft phenomenon in popular culture. Teenagers drawn to Witchcraft were forced to rely chiefly on one another, as Margot Adler points out:
The fact is that most Pagan groups won’t take teenagers they’re afraid of repercussions from unsympathetic parents. So in fact most teenagers just find like-minded friends, because there are very few groups that teens can enter until they’re 18. (Vale and Sulak, 2001; p. 28)
Thus, as teens embraced Witchcraft, Witchcraft itself became part of the self-contained, self-referential world of teen culture, disconnected even from its roots in adult Neopaganism.
However, the organized Neopagan movement also grew in membership as a result of The Craft. Many of those who reacted to the movie were young adults rather than minor children, and the Witchcraft groups responded to their inquiries with enthusiasm. In addition, many of the teenagers who were drawn to Witchcraft through peer-influence would later drift into the established movement once they were no longer minors. There was certainly not a complete separation between the Witchcraft of teen culture and that of organized Neopaganism.
Still, The Craft created a whole new “branch” of modern Witchcraft among young people that quickly took on a life of its own. Pop-culture Witchcraft was both different and separate from the pre-existing Witchcraft movement, since much of its content came from sources that traditional Witches disdain, such as popular entertainment. Pop-culture Witches in their turn are often inclined to see traditional Witches as stodgy and hide-bound, un-hip and out of touch. It is one of the ironies of the movement that even as modern Witches are striving to establish their “tradition” of some sixty years as a tradition (see Chapter Eight), they are already faced with a cadre of younger, self-proclaimed “Witches” who are out of touch with that tradition and largely indifferent to it. The differences between the two “cultures” have not been bridged in the years since The Craft was released, and in important ways the two are working at cross-purposes today (see Chapter Nine).
The Craft and the Symbolism of Good and Evil
The Craft firmly established modern Witchcraft’s new image in the public mind: dangerous, but exciting — and above all, real. The film also swelled the ranks of the Witchcraft movement, in that it directly caused large numbers of people to identify themselves as “Witches,” and led many of them to join various Witchcraft groups and organizations. But the movie also had an even deeper cultural impact.
The Craft not only transmitted some real detail about modern Witchcraft’s spells and rituals, it also conveyed key elements of Witchcraft’s ideology and world-view. Most importantly of all, it redefined the place that both Witchcraft and Christianity occupy in the symbolism of good and evil. It especially redefined the images of good and evil that prevail in teen-oriented entertainment, and in popular culture generally.
One of the movie’s subtle yet powerful messages is conveyed through its “stage setting” — the place(s) in which the story occurs, and the people among whom the characters move and act. By using a Catholic High School as the setting for its drama, and in identifying its main characters by their alienation from that setting, The Craft almost exactly reproduces modern Witchcraft’s understanding of its own emergence from the “rejected background” of the main, Christian-based society. And by tying that viewpoint to youthful characters that teens can identify with, the film brings modern Witchcraft’s self-understanding down to the personal level, and conveys it in a forceful way.
The Craft also conveys another key element of Neopagan ideology, and it does so even more directly. One of the secondary characters in the movie is a woman who runs an occult bookshop that the four teenagers frequent in their quest for information and supplies. As an attractive, middle-aged female (and evidently a Witch), she hardly qualifies as a “crone,” but she definitely plays the role of an elder “wise woman” in relation to the quartet of youngsters who come into her store. If there is a Neopagan “authority figure” in the movie, she is it. Early in the movie, she singles Sarah out as the sincerest “seeker” among the four, and confides to her the true nature of magical power: “True magic is never black nor white. It is both, because nature is both — loving and cruel, all at the same time. The only good or bad is in the heart of the Witch.”
Not only does that commentary convey a Neopagan understanding of good and evil (see Chapter Two), it also lays down the moral framework for the rest of the film. In effect, the central conflict in the movie (between the good Witch and the bad one) is an extended example of how that advice works out in life, confirming that “the only good or bad is in the heart of the Witch.” Thus The Craft systematically communicates a Neopagan way of looking at the world, both by direct instruction and by narrative illustration.
But the movie’s real impact lies in the fact that it reshuffles the imagery of good and evil in popular entertainment. Witchcraft has traditionally been used as symbolic of evil, but The Craft does more than simply turn that symbolism upside down and portray it as something good. In The Craft, Witchcraft has been taken out of the good versus evil conflict altogether, and put into a morally neutral category. Consistent with the comment by the shop owner quoted above, Witchcraft is seen as neither good nor evil. It is simply a source of power. It is a tool in the conflict, but it is above the conflict, not favoring either side but accessible to both, to be either used or misused — depending on the user.
Christianity, likewise, has been removed from its role as opposite number and nemesis to witchcraft, occultism and black magic. In The Craft, Christianity plays a role as part of the background to the action, but plays no role at all in the action itself. Christianity remains a looming, vaguely menacing presence as the religious face of “mundane” society, but it is otherwise irrelevant to the characters and their actions. That is Neopaganism’s working attitude toward Christianity writ large.
What The Craft accomplished is simple but profound, straightforward, but not necessarily obvious. It dispensed with the familiar, biblically-based symbolism used to signify good and evil in popular entertainment, and replaced it with an entirely new and different symbol-system, from which many of the familiar images have been removed (and the ones that remain have been given different meanings). In both its timing and its content, The Craft well illustrates the larger culture’s shift away from biblical values and toward pagan ones. And as with so much else in popular culture, it is both cause and effect of the changes that are taking place.
Beyond The Craft: Sabrina, Charmed and Buffy
Although The Craft was the central event in Witchcraft’s mid-1990s image-makeover, it was just one of several media productions that were part of that process. 1996 also saw the inauguration of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, a TV series that turned the teen-Witchcraft connection into a half-hour sitcom. The following year brought Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an hour-long teenage /horror/sci-fi/comedy/adventure series that was wildly popular with its target audience and even drew a surprising amount of serious scholarly attention. The media’s three-year Witchcraft spree climaxed in 1998, which saw another new TV series (Charmed) and another new movie (Practical Magic), both of which featured young actresses at the peak of their careers and at the height of their popularity with younger audiences.
As we have already noted, the Sabrina of 1996 was just the latest episode in the long and successful media career of a character first introduced by the Archie teenage comic books back in 1962. Since she was launched that year as a minor character in Archie’s Madhouse #22, “Sabrina” has graduated to progressively larger roles and wider audiences. She went from a minor comic book character to a major one in 1969; in 1971 she became the main character in an animated Kiddy-TV series; the same year, she gained her own comic book series with the debut of Sabrina the Teenage Witch #1. In 1977 she was made the star of yet another animated Saturday morning TV cartoon series, Sabrina, Superwitch, on NBC. In September 1993, Sabrina got her own series of 48-page annual special comic books (originally called Sabrina’s Halloween Spooktacular, but changed the following year to Sabrina’s Holiday Spectacular). In the Spring of 1996, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, the live-action TV movie, was shown on the Showtime cable network to positive reviews and enthusiastic audience response. The movie starred Melissa Joan Hart, otherwise known to millions as “Clarissa” in Nickelodeon’s hit show, Clarissa Explains It All. By September of that year, the hit Showtime movie had been spun off into a prime-time sitcom for ABC’s “TGIF'” Friday night line-up of family-oriented fare, with Melissa Joan Hart once again in the title role.
Both the movie and the sitcom spinoff tell the story of a teenage girl (Sabrina Spellman) who lives with her two eccentric aunts, Hilda and Zelda; on her sixteenth birthday, she learns that her aunts are actually a pair of 2000-year old witches, while their cat Salem is a warlock who is being punished (by reverse reincarnation) for his attempt at world domination. She also receives the gift of magical power that runs in her family and begins the process of training for her “witch’s license.”
Sabrina gets its humor from the same comic formula used by I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched (see Chapter Three), namely from the friction between the “insider’s” understanding and the outsider’s incomprehension. Since Sabrina is a novice witch, her spells often misfire, requiring her to smooth over or explain away the results. She also has to keep her witchy powers secret from her boyfriend Harvey, her two girlfriends Jenny and Valerie, her stuck-up nemesis Libby, and the nosy, suspicious vice-principal Mr. Kraft. And that is the gist of the story line, such as it is one scrape after another, one comic misadventure after another, extracting laughs along the way from the cluelessness of the mundane world. That simple formula, incidentally, is part of the the program’s appeal to teenagers — by identifying with Sabrina’s “insider” knowledge, they are able to turn the tables on the adult world, which is otherwise constantly telling teens that they are the clueless ones, and that “grownups” have the superior knowledge and understanding.
Charmed‘s Odd Mixture of Witchcraft and Scripture
Charmed was a different kind of program. It was not a sitcom, but a supernatural teenage drama; Witchcraft was a central element of the plot, but it was also mixed with soap opera themes, and even with biblical themes of apocalyptic conflict. The series tells the story of three young sisters who live together in an inherited mansion in San Francisco. In the first episode, the three (played by Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs) accidently “discover” that they are hereditary Witches, destined to become the most powerful Witches ever, (foretold by an ancient prophecy as “the Charmed Ones”) whose mission is to fight evil and protect the innocent. They also receive supernatural “powers” as part of their inheritance, each sister acquiring a different ability: one sister can move objects with her mind, one can freeze time and one can see visions of the future. The novice Witches are assisted in their role as fighters of evil (and in learning to use their powers) by “White-Lighters,” immortal beings who seem to combine the functions of guru and guardian angel. “The Charmed Ones” are opposed (and regularly attacked) by Demons and evil Warlocks, who are constantly scheming to steal the Witches power.
Even in this brief description of the program’s story-line, we can see that the script writers are creating a hodge-podge fantasy world, with components drawn from many different sources. Neopagan Witchcraft is one of those sources, but not the only one, and some of the other components are incompatible with it. That mixture makes for an odd picture of Witchcraft on the program — accurate in its smaller details, but distorted in its larger dimensions. The reviewer for Witchvox.com took note of both aspects of the series, observing first of all that the scriptwriters appear to be “taking pains not to offend Pagans too much . . .”
On the up side of the rainbow bridge — The pronunciations were good, the tools were explained well and some ethical considerations were mentioned. The altars looked messy enough to be real – I guess not even Hollywood magick can do anything about wax drippings – and the sisters wore-gasp!-regular clothing even when casting spells! (Walker, 1998)
But the same reviewer also complained about the alien elements in the script, which are numerous and discordant. Both the “mission” that the sisters are given and the “powers” that they receive seem more derived from comic book superheros than from anything that modern Witches do. In addition, Charmed creates an imaginary distinction between “Witches” (who inherit their magical abilities) and “Wiccans” (who take up the religion and learn their magic second-hand).
The idea that Witchcraft and its “powers” are inherited has proved stubbornly persistent in popular entertainment — as has the parallel idea that Witches are immortal (or at least extremely long-lived). Both the1960s’ Bewitched and the 1990s’ Sabrina helped to popularize that linked misconception, and Charmed just continues the tradition. The source of those two ideas is unclear, as is the question of how they became joined together. The idea that a Witch’s powers are inherited could be derived from a similar concept in Anthropological Witchcraft (see Chapter Two), and the immortality factor is presumably borrowed from vampire legends, but how and why they happened to come together around the witch-figure in popular entertainment is anyone’s guess.
However, the Witchvox reviewer was most put off by alien elements in the script that seemed to have biblical overtones. In the show’s opening episode, some of the chanting before an altar apparently invokes “The Maker,” without specifying who or what such a being might be. The reviewer responded to that sour note with her first and most emphatic complaint:
O.K., let’s get the flawed stuff out of the way right now.
1. There is no “maker” that Witches regularly chant about in front of an altar. There is Goddess and God and a lot of other deities, or the One.
No maker, no maker, no maker. (Walker, 1998)
Her second emphatic complaint had to do with the war of the Witches versus the Demons and Warlocks that the program depicts. It doesn’t ring true to a Neopagan worldview. Indeed, the whole idea of an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and the minions of evil echoes biblical themes far more than Wiccan ones, and Charmed‘s imaginary warfare seems closer to The Exorcist or The Omen than to anything in Neopaganism.
But Charmed‘s deliberate mixing of incompatible traditions had a specific inspiration. By using biblical themes to spice up a pagan tale, Charmed was following the lead of another pop-culture blockbuster that had made its debut the previous year (1997) — Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer — Taking It to the Next Level
In effect, Buffy was an aftershock of The Craft‘s pop-culture earthquake. Following hard on the heels of The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the same symbolism of good and evil thatThe Crafthad introduced (i.e., depicting Witchcraft and its power as morally neutral, beyond good and evil), then brought back in some of the older, biblical imagery — but with a new and different meaning.
Buffy took the biblical symbols of good and evil that had been introduced into popular entertainment during the 1970s (such as the idea of apocalyptic conflict), emptied them of their biblical meaning, then re-used them as building blocks of an essentially pagan narrative. It was a mixture that proved to have a magnetic appeal for teenage audiences — and it was the demonstrated formula that the Charmed Scriptwriters were trying to follow.
Buffy was first written and produced as a Hollywood movie in 1992, starring Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland, but it drew mediocre reviews and even more mediocre bo xoffice receipts. The project was plagued by problems from the outset, and its creator and chief writer (Joss Whedon) walked off the set at one point because he felt that his idea for the film was being ruined by the Director and the actors. It wasn’t until 1996 that he was able to sell the story-concept again, this time as a TV series over which he retained artistic control — and this time it was an instant and continuing success, supported by rave reviews and an ardent audience response.
Buffy is second only to The Craft as a milestone in the ongoing spiritual devolution of American culture, especially as that process is reflected in popular entertainment. Buffy brings together in a single narrative many of the attitudes that are driving our cultural transformation, and conveys them in a powerful way to a large and receptive audience of teens — i.e., to the people who will basically be deciding where our culture is headed over the next several decades.
Buffy’s story-line begins with an imaginary “ancient prophecy,” (another gimmick that the Charmed script-writers would copy the following year) which foretells that “In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness.” In this generation, the “Chosen One” turns out to be Buffy Summers, a sixteen-year-old high-school student from “Sunnydale, California.” Sunnydale, despite its smiley-face name and its outward appearance of utter normality, is located over a “Hellmouth,” a gateway between the worlds through which demons try to escape their perdition by entering into our universe; once among us, they take over the bodies of vulnerable human beings and turn them into vampires
When Buffy discovers that she is the Vampire Slayer, she gains allies as well as enemies in her mission. There is “Giles,” Buffy’s “Watcher,” who represents “The Council,” a shadowy group that oversees the Vampire Slayers. Giles, the school librarian, is a tweedy, bookish type who also happens to be a walking encyclopedia of the occult. Then there are Buffy’s close friends, “the Scooby Gang” (a reference to Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, Hanna Barbera’s cartoon mystery series of the early ‘70s, whose characters chased monsters every week) as well as “a shifting gang of human and undead friends and enemies who alternately help and hinder her mission.” (R., 2002)
Buffy was an instant hit with its target audience of teenage viewers. The show’s overall numbers, while not spectacular, were solid. Buffy‘s Neilsen ratings reached as high as 5.2 in its second season (which translates to over 5 million households — not just viewers — tuned into the program) but they consistently ran in the 3s and 4s — strong enough to make it the hottest show in the lineup of the fledgling WB Network. But the real measure of the devotion that Buffy inspired can be seen in the endless array of Buffy-themed paraphernalia that was eagerly snapped up by the program’s legions of teenage fans. There were posters, trading cards, cosmetics, costume jewelry, keychains, video games, board games, card games, fantasy-role-playing games, wallpaper, notepaper, stationary, pencils, calendars, greeting-cards, notebooks, folders, binders, backpacks, lunchboxes, action figures, soundtrack albums, picture books, story books, puzzle books, and so on . . . and on, and on.
And then there are the Websites. An Internet search conducted for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” yields “about 1,130,000” entries according to the Google search engine, which offers some 800 of them for immediate access via the Internet. A random sampling indicates that most of them fall into one of three categories: teen-oriented fan Websites, media commentary and reviews, and scholarly articles and publications. By far the greatest amount of Internet “traffic” flows to the fan Websites — and through them, via Internet “links,” to other Websites, often including Witchcraft Websites. We have already noted that the Website most visited by teen Web-surfers is devoted to the actress who plays Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Not only was Buffy a huge hit with teenagers, it has also been the subject of a surprising amount of serious academic attention. There have been international conferences to discuss the series, and there is an online scholarly publication (Slayage: The Online Journal of Buffy Studies, http://www.slayage.tv) dedicated to analyzing all aspects of the subject. The extent and seriousness of scholarly interest can be seen in the fact that in 2002, an online bibliography of academic articles dealing with the series ran to nineteen pages (Badman, 2002).
Joss Whedon — Social Engineer
One of the reasons the program attracts that kind of attention is that it builds a complex fantasy world for its characters, with plot twists that raise contemporary issues and dialogue that probes philosophical questions — at the same time remaining, hip, cool and closely attuned to the conversational rhythms of teenage life. The show explores the isssues that dominate teenagers’ lives, such as friendship, jealousy, sex, rules, good and evil, etc., and presents them in a format that is already familiar to them (the teenage horror/comedy/adventure movie). Buffy‘s star Sarah Michele Gellar succinctly stated both the design and the appeal of the program: “We basically just take high school and use horror as the metaphor for it.” (Clark, 2003; p. 49)
The success achieved by Buffy‘s unique mixture of “melodrama, horror, film noir and hip teen comedy” (Clark, 2003, p. 46) can be traced directly to the creative talent and professional skill of the man who conceived it, brought it into being and wrote much of its content — Joss Whedon.
Whedon, frequently referred to as a “genius” in the media, is a young (born 1964) third generation screenwriter who is the very definition of the term “industry insider.” TV was not entertainment for Whedon, it was his environment; it was the atmosphere that enveloped him as he was growing up. Both Whedon’s father and his grandfather wrote for television; his grandfather wrote for various sitcoms in the 50’s and 60’s (Leave it to Beaver, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Donna Reed Show), while his father wrote for such shows as Benson and The Golden Girls, in addition to helping produce a number of other programs. Whedon himself has done screenwriting for several blockbuster movies, including Toy Story, Twister and Speed.
Whedon is very much a child of his times. Not only is he a master of the visual media (the most dominant and pervading influence in teen culture), he also embodies many of the attitudes that have placed his generation at the cutting edge of cultural change. Whedon makes no bones about the fact that he is a dedicated, pro-feminist, environmentally-sensitive, gay-friendly, anti-religious, atheistic unbeliever. He also makes no bones about the fact that his work expresses those convictions and is designed to convey them to as many people as possible, believing (sincerely, no doubt) that society would be better off if more people thought as he does. And finally, he makes no bones about the fact that he is consciously using his skill at media manipulation to implant those convictions in the hearts and minds of his audience. In effect, Whedon acknowledges that his work is (among other things) a form of social engineering. And he believes, with good reason, that his efforts are being successful.
In a revealing interview with Salon magazine, Whedon discusses some of the concerns that motivate his work.
I believe that religion has contained within it an enormous amount of misogyny, and that cannot be denied. That’s something that I will always bridle against . . . . I have nothing against religion as a concept, or as people practice it. Religious institutions on the other hand, I believe cause people to fly planes into buildings. It’s very dangerous . . . . It’s not any huge secret that I’m an atheist . . . (Miller, 2003)
As a professional in the visual media, Whedon’s natural impulse is to convey those concerns by using his professional abilities. Buffy is the vehicle he created to do that. In an interview with Onion magazine, Whedon showed that he understands how to push people’s buttons in a deep and personal way — and how to use that skill to implant his viewpoint in as many people as possible.
I designed Buffy to be an icon, to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can’t be loved . . . I wanted her to be a cultural phenomenon. I wanted there to be dolls — Barbie with kung-fu grip. I wanted people to embrace it in a way that exists beyond, “Oh, that was a wonderful show about lawyers, let’s have dinner.” I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show. And we’ve done exactly that. (Robinson, 2001)
Three years later, as the series was ending, Whedon was even more direct about his purposes, and about his sense of accomplishment. The interviewer for about.com asked him “Can you believe the impact Buffy has had on popular culture?” Whedon responded,
I always intended it to have the kind of impact on popular culture that it did. I wanted Buffy to be a pop icon. I wanted her to be remembered. I wanted her to be in people’s interior lives. I wanted her to be a hero to kids and she was designed very specifically for that so it wasn’t a big surprise when it worked. It should have been. (Topel, 2004)
Buffy, Witchcraft and Cultural change
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is complex enough that it can be analyzed from many different angles, as the volume of scholarly literature shows. But two aspects of the program concern us here. They are: first, Buffy‘s contribution to the process of cultural change; and second, Buffy‘s specific effect on the biblically-based imagery of good and evil used in popular culture and entertainment.
Buffy‘s contribution to the process of cultural change begins with giving its viewers a complete new universe to enter into and be a part of. The universe that Whedon wants his audience to “take home with them,” to “be in their interior lives,” is the same mental universe that he already lives in — a universe that is very much in harmony with the Neopagan “attitudes” outlined by Margot Adler in Chapter Two. As a self-described “atheist,” Whedon is not personally Neopagan but, like Neopagans, he tends to see traditional, biblically-based beliefs as a barrier to social progress. Thus he tends to be supportive of cultural dissent and cultural deviance in general, including such trends as modern Witchcraft, “lesbian chic” and various other departures from conventional standards and behavior. He also personally supports many of the social and political causes that Neopaganism favors (such as feminism and environmentalism). The overall view of reality that Buffy implants in its audience reflects that order of values.
The series treats Witchcraft per se in two opposite ways at the same time. On the one hand, Witches have condemned Buffy for its distorted and overly theatrical version of Witchcraft, which is made to seem more like sorcery (with “powers” like levitation and shape-shifting) than a religion. Buffy‘s dialogue also refers to “Wiccans” in unflattering terms, implying that they are dabblers who are only scratching the surface of “real” witchcraft.
On the other hand, even that dismissive attitude assumes that there is such a thing as “real” Witchcraft. And to show what “real” Witchcraft might be, the series has featured several positive and likeable characters in Witch-roles. In one notable case, Willow Rosenberg, one of Buffy’s “Scooby” sidekicks (and one of the show’s most popular and best loved characters), “grew” over several seasons from a shy, socially clumsy, geeky girl into a powerful, self-confident, initiated Witch who has an out-of-the-closet lesbian affair with one of the other characters on the program, who is also a fellow-Witch in Willow’s coven.
Because of such portrayals, Neopagans have generally responded positively to the show, despite having some misgivings about it. The reviewer for New Witch magazine (motto: “not your mother’s broomstick”) summed up her reaction this way: “ overall, Buffy has provided one of television’s most diverse and well-rounded views of witchcraft it’s not ‘real’ paganism, but it’s been a mostly positive view of what it means to be a witch or just deal with one It’s hard not to be enchanted by the image of two young women clasped in each other’s arms, floating a foot off the dance floor.” (McGuire, 2002; p. 20) Looking beyond Buffy to the bigger picture, one scholar notes that “the series’ use of witchcraft is a part of a larger discursive field in popular media in which Wicca is presented as trendy and empowering for teenagers.” (Winslade, 2001)
However, while Buffy‘s endorsement of Witchcraft, (and feminism, and lesbianism) to teenagers is the program’s most obvious contribution to our culture-change, it is not the only one — or even the most important one. Buffy’s deeper significance lies in the fact that it has taken the biblical concepts and images in popular entertainment, emptied them of their biblical meaning, and turned them into mere components of a pagan narrative universe. Christianity’s contribution to our culture’s symbolic language has been appropriated, de-Christianized, and re-used for other purposes. That transition effectively represents a terminal degradation of Christianity’s cultural presence and potency — at least in the part of our culture that affects the generation now rising to adulthood, power and influence (i.e., teenagers).
Like so much else about Buffy, its function as a cultural chrysalis in which Christian imagery is turned into pagan symbolism is the unique, personal contibution of its creator, Joss Whedon. Whedon is surrounded by Christian imagery, but is personally a stranger to the Christianity that gives it meaning. As a trader in visual images, it was therefore inevitable that he would use the Christian symbols available to him without regard for their Christian content. In his interview with Salon magazine, he said as much, with no apparent consciousness of cultural vandalism.
So I am an atheist, but I do use Christian mythology. Buffy — resurrected much? She pretty much died for all of us by spreading her arms wide and … well, I won’t go into it. That’s what I was raised with. I grew up around Christianity and Judaism and those are the prevalent myths and mythic structures of my brain. (Miller, 2003)
De-Christianizing Christian Symbols
Whedon’s de-Christianized use of Christian imagery shows up in several ways. It can be seen in his treatment of 1) apocalyptic conflict, 2) demons, and 3) vampires. All three are components of Buffy‘s narrative world, and all are all drawn from sources with deep Christian roots and shared Christian values.
The program’s concept of an end-times showdown between the forces of good and evil is based on the Bible’s story of that conflict through the ages, and especially on the story of its climax as told in the Bible’s final chapter, the Book of Revelation. In all of that grand, sweeping account — from the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden to the fall of Babylon the Great at the end of the age — the central theme is one of temptation, fall, judgment and redemption, and the central actors in the drama are those who advance the agenda of redemption versus those who hinder and oppose it.
The program’s concept of demons and demon-possession is likewise based on biblical ideas of spiritual warfare, in which the cosmic conflict between good and evil comes down to a war within (and for) the possessed person’s soul, with exorcism being the weapon wielded in the name of God, and redemption being the goal. In the same way, the vampires in Buffy are also derived from vampire legends that originally had a strong Christian content. “In Dracula, crosses are used as a weapon against vampires, and the staking of a vampire is accompanied by a prayer. Moreover, the killing of a vampire was associated with saving its soul, returning it from the Devil to God.” (Clark, 2003; p. 47) Christianity was the context that gave a greater meaning to the gruesome imagery of blood and death, and the meaning it conveyed was the familiar Christian one of temptation, fall, judgment and redemption.
None of that content makes it through the filter of Whedon’s secular/atheistic worldview. His self-confessed alienation from the Christian meaning of those symbols insures that the symbols themselves will acquire new meaning at his hands. In Whedon’s version of apocalyptic conflict, for example, demons and vampires are “evil” simply because they want to hurt people, and the Slayer’s mission to fight evil mainly amounts to dispatching them before they can do more damage. That conflict routinely threatens to break out into a “final” battle as a result of some malicious scheme hatched by the demons, but without the larger picture to provide motive and context, the struggle with the demons boils down to a simple contest of wills and skills. “The Apocalypse” becomes little more than a ramped-up version of “us versus them.”
This process of emptying Christian symbols of their Christian meaning has even been noticed by secular observers. According to Lynn Schofield Clark, Buffy and similar programs were “groundbreaking in the way they re-introduced otherworldly enemies into popular fictional television after a several-decade hiatus. In this way, they also did something else: they told stories of a spiritual battle between good and evil with an almost complete disinterest in organized religion.” (Clark, 2003; p. 47) And it is a battle, Clark says, that “despite its Christian overtones, makes no reference to Christian categories that are central to evangelicals, such as Jesus Christ and personal salvation.” (Clark, 2003; pp. 40-41)
The twin themes of vampires and demons underwent a similar loss of Christian content in Whedon’s version. When a person is turned into a vampire on Buffy, “the soul leaves the body and is replaced by a demon. Staking kills a demon; the soul of the person is already long gone. Thus in Buffy, tales of vampires and those of demon possession blur, with little hope for the redemption of the lost ones, as there was in earlier vampire lore such as Dracula and as there is in demon possession practices.” (Clark, 2003; p. 52)
Secularism, Syncretism and the Decline of Evangelical Influence
What’s happening here is simple enough to understand: because Whedon doesn’t grasp the Christian concept of redemption, the way he uses Christian symbolism won’t convey redemption as part of its meaning. The meaning of a symbol is not built in, it depends on a shared understanding between author and audience. The meaning of symbols is sustained in the way they are used, just as the meaning of words is sustained in their usage. The Christian symbols that Whedon uses have been drained of their Christianity because he is unable to use them in a Christian way and his audience is unprepared to grasp their Christian meaning. There is no longer any shared understanding between author and audience that would support the Christian meaning of things like apocalyptic conflict, vampires, demon possession, etc. And so — just like that — the meaning of so-called “Christian” symbolism has been completely lost.
That loss is one more result of the extreme cultural borrowing and blending (“syncretism”) that typifies our age. Today, we have access to ideas from all over the world and from any time in history. It has become routine for us to cut cultural products (such as religions) loose from their cultural connections and turn them into spiritual consumer goods for people with different cultural values, or none at all.
In another sense, Whedon’s borrowing and blending typifies the secularism that came to dominate our culture well before he appeared on the scene. The secular appetite consumes all values and cultures equally, “digesting” them by breaking them down into their disconnected components and using the pieces in new and different ways. In that respect, Whedon is the perfect product of a secularized society, and Buffy is a perfect example of secularism’s impact on traditional beliefs.
Thus Buffy’s de-Christianizing of Christian symbols is both a symptom and a milestone of our changing culture. The 1970s’ renewal of Christian vitality (and the reinvigoration of evangelical influence on society that went along with it) was a startling breath of fresh air at the time, but its lasting effects have been minimal. The short arc of evangelical influence on the larger culture can be charted with some clarity in the popular entertainment media.
At the beginning of the 1970s, evangelicalism introduced into public attention a new “concern about evil and largely defined the terms of the conversation about evil and the realm beyond this world.” (Clark, 2003; p. 45) This could be seen in the strong Christian imagery of good and evil established by such movies as The Exorcist and The Omen trilogy, which extended the “evangelical effect” into the 1980s. But by the end of the 1980s, the evangelical imagery of good and evil had been turned into an object of mockery and satire in The Witches of Eastwick. Then in the mid-1990s came the pop-culture revolution, in whichThe Crafttook Christianity simply (and literally) out of the picture — painting it not so much as bad or wrong, but as trivial and irrelevant. At the same time,The Craftpainted modern Witchcraft as being beyond good and evil, but of great value and importance nontheless.
The next stage of culture-change happened quickly. The very next year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer brought back all of the biblically-based symbolism that The Craft had dispensed with — but in a form that was biblically neutered, and emptied of its biblical meanuing. Lynn Schofield Clark assessed the matter succinctly:
(W)hile evangelicals and other conservative Christians may feel that stories and images of supernatural battles between good and evil in some sense belong to them, they cannot control how these stories will be used, and reconfigured, once they enter the realm of the media — and particularly the entertainment media evangelicalism has been successful in introducing its definition of and concerns about evil into the public consciousness, (but) loses control of what happens once that definition gets woven in to the culture. (Clark, 2003; pp. 39 & 227)
As the evangelical definition “gets woven in to the culture,” it interacts with the changing image of Witchcraft in the media to produce hybrids like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. Of course, the changing image of Witchcraft in the entertainment media can be seen in a number of other instances as well, including the hugely successful series of Harry Potter books and films. We will take a look at some of those other instances in Chapter Nine, as we consider the place of narrative and story telling in the process of cultural change.
But the real story here is not modern Witchcraft’s image-change, as important as that development may be. The real story is the dismemberment of Western culture’s Christian legacy, its “digestion” by secularism, in a process that empties Christianity’s cultural contribution of its Christian content, then renders its disconnected components to be used for other purposes. That story is perhaps best illustrated by Witchcraft’s changing status vis a vis Christianity in popular entertainment, a story that we have followed as far asThe Craftand Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
We will try to assess the overall meaning and direction of those changes in Chapter Nine. In the meantime, as Witchcraft goes mainstream, we need to understand what we are seeing. We can’t understand what is “going mainstream” (or what that means), unless we understand where it came from and how it came to be among us today. Having looked at the way Witchcraft is perceived in the media, it is time to take a look at what Witchcraft actually is — both in history and today.
© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]