Apologetics Index

Chapter 3: Teens and the Media: Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment

The Generational Tug-of-War

The world of adolescents has always been separate from the world of adults. The so-called “generation gap” has always existed, and reflects the need of children to form an independent identity which can then make its peace (or not) with grownup society. Today, as always, teenagers express their solidarity and separateness in a number of ways (jargon and clothing come to mind as obvious examples) that deliberately exclude adults from participating — or even from comprehending.

Part of that process of adolescent separation has traditionally involved experimenting with behavior that deliberately flouts the standards of adult society. Predictably, that includes dabbling with disapproved ideas as well as disapproved acts. The teen world has always been a hotbed of exotic “spiritual” exploration. Ouija boards and fortune-telling games are a staple of teen girl slumber parties precisely because they are known to lie outside the boundaries of accepted grownup behavior. Adolescent boys act out the same impulses with so-called “legend tripping” — nighttime visits to cemeteries, “haunted” houses and other places connected with death and the dark side of the unseen (i.e., “spiritual”) world.

The passage through adolescence has always been a source of anxiety for parents in general, and for Christian parents in particular. The teen years are a volatile phase in the process of forming a lifelong identity. Religious conversions occur more frequently during the teen years than at any other time of life (Clark, 2003; p. 9). Parents who take seriously their calling to cultivate the seeds of Christian faith in their offspring are justifiably concerned at this vulnerable time in their children’s development.

Again, none of these concerns are new. The “generation gap” is a time-worn cliche for the very good reason that it is a universal experience. It is part of everyone’s life at least once, often twice (i.e., first as a child, then again, in reverse, as a parent). The formula of teenage vulnerability is likewise widely understood: as adolescents start to engage with the wider world, inexperience plus experimentation produces casualties — physically, mentally and spiritually. As always, parents do what they can to minimize the threats and maximize their children’s ability to deal with them.

But recently, the balance of power in that generational tug-of-war has shifted in ways that are new and disturbing. Traditionally, society itself has been a powerful source of support that parents could draw on to provide protection, rescue, or recovery from the dangers that teens routinely encounter and sometimes run afoul of. The mainstream society has always been a dominating, collective force for validating family stability, family values and family-friendly institutions. In the Christian-based culture of the West, that has meant society’s endorsement of the whole range of personal and social obligations that we have come to call “Christian morality”– including monogamy, fidelity and parental responsibility.

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Today, those traditional social supports are eroding with alarming rapidity. At the same time, teenagers face new stresses that greatly intensify the sense of continual crisis that haunts their experience to begin with. And teens are further isolated by new conditions that create even more distance between them and the larger society. That is not a helpful combination.

Consider the novel anxieties that today’s teenagers have to contend with: school shootings, school muggings, terrorism, hate crimes, racial tensions, “date-rape,” sexually transmitted diseases, gangs, and drugs — all in addition to the “normal” teen worries about delinquency, pregnancy, popularity, bullying, alcohol, and automotive mayhem. It is enough to test the mental stability of a saint, much less that of a teenager already giddy from riding the hormonal roller coaster.

The Disconnected World of Teenagers

At the same time that teens are being overloaded with fears and worries, they are also being pushed more and more into their own self-contained world to deal with them — a world where they are much less responsive to outside influences, and much less reachable by outside sources of help and support. Again, teenagers have always lived in their own unique world to some degree. It is an essential stage in their development to do so. But all of the things that tend to make that world self-contained and exclusionary have recently been intensified — and some new ones have been added. The result has been to create a kind of psychological hot-house for developing adolescents, in which increasingly artificial conditions are maintained by being increasingly disconnected from the wider social world.

Some of that disconnected environment for teens comes from economic and social changes that have nothing to do with the teenage culture per se. For instance, the great increase in single-parent families that we have seen since the 1960s means that more children are being left on their own, more of the time. In her illuminating study of teen culture (From Angels to Aliens –Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural,) author Lynn Schofield Clark points to “changes in the postindustrial economy” that have further isolated teenagers and driven them into their own self-referential world.

More parents now work in service positions that offer lower pay and less security (and hence encourage multiple simultaneous jobs), and the few who are fortunate enough to have higher-paying positions regularly work long hours. This, combined with the fact that more mothers work outside the home, means that a great number of parents are away from their homes and their teenage children — more than was the case with the previous generation of teens — making them “a tribe apart” as author Patricia Hersch has described them. (Clark, 2003; p. 7)

The Internet is another factor that works to make the teenage universe even more disconnected and self-contained than it otherwise would be. We have already seen that the Internet was critical in creating the Neopagan movement. The same qualities of privacy and anonymity that make the Internet such a powerful networking tool also make it an easy way to “bypass the parent-filter” — to disengage from the “real” world and enter into a “virtual” world that is shielded from adult attention.

Not only has the Internet provided a way for pagans to network and share ideas, beliefs and spells, it’s a neat and clean way for curious youth to avoid the scrutiny of parents while exploring onceforbidden subjects. Any Websavvy child can be indoctrinated into a pagan worldview and start casting spells before a parent catches on to this new interest. A 15- year old on the Website, Witches’ Voice, writes:

“A friend told me about a religion that worships both a male and a female deity. I was interested and she gave me Silver Ravenwolf’s book, Teen Witch. I started reading and never put it down. I got on the internet and learned more and more. I finally did a devotion ceremony and I considered myself to be Wiccan…” (Harvey, 2002)

The world of teenagers today is not only more self-contained and self-sufficient than it used to be, it is also self-validating in the literal sense that for many young people, the Self has become the final arbiter of what is real, what is true and what is valuable. And that is the effect of yet another social trend — one that began in the 1950s, flowered during the 1960s and remains a potent social force today. It is what sociologists have called “the rise of personal autonomy.” As the traditional sources of authority in society (including religion) have steadily lost credibility since World War II, they have also lost their power to define Reality and set the standards of Truth. As the old authorities were being rejected, the individual’s own will and intellect gradually rose to replace them as the ultimate judge and measure of all things.

(I)ndividuals see themselves as final arbiters of what they will believe and how they will embrace practices related to those beliefs … Teens, like their parents and other adults today do not seem to be very interested in learning about ultimate truths from authoritative sources like the Bible or religious traditions. They consider themselves to be the ultimate authority on what it might mean for them to be religious or spiritual. (Clark, 2003; p. 9)

But religion isn’t the only source of authority to suffer a loss of prestige and credibility. For many people, science itself — usually seen as the opposite of religion — is also losing its power to dictate what we believe in. “Soulless science” and out-of-control technology are often thought to be implicated in many of today’s crises, especially the abuse of our environment, thereby disqualifying them as reliable guides to belief or behavior. “Baby Boomers” (today’s parents) were raised in an atmosphere of virtual science-worship in the years after World War II. Their children, noticing science’s failed promises and destructive side-effects, are much less trusting of it. In the end, “the rise of personal autonomy” has meant that the Self replaces all other forms of authority, not just the religious ones. For many young people today, that includes “a rejection of the authoritative claims of science, particularly those that exclude the possibility of any realities beyond that which was knowable in the material world.” (Clark, 2003; p.52, emphasis added).

For teens today, the net effect of those converging trends is to open the door to the spiritual realm while simultaneously closing the door on sources for understanding what they will find there. It is one more way that young people find themselves pushed into their own separate world, and left to their own devices for dealing with it. Teenagers are presented with a huge new array of choices to make about the world and their place in it. As their alienation from the larger society, has intensified, they have increasingly looked to one another — and to the media — for help in building a world-view out of the raw material of their own experience

Teens and the Media

If teens are ready to take their role-models, their their values and their world-view from the media, the media are more than ready, willing and able to provide. Among other things, teenagers represent an economic resource to be exploited by means of advertising – which is the media’s natural function and purpose.

Courting and cultivating the lucrative youth market has been an important part of the work of the media industries for decades. In recent years, however, the desire to appeal to teens has become even more intense. This is because today’s teens represent the largest demographic group of young people ever even surpassing their parents’ generation, the “baby boomers.” (Clark, 2003; p. 14)

Teenagers are not only more numerous today than ever before, they are also richer than they have ever been, with more disposable cash at their command than any previous generation. The rise of MTV during the 1980s pioneered a new wave of entertainment (and companion advertising) designed to appeal specifically to teenagers. Today, a lot of the money that flows through teen pockets goes for various forms of media-delivered entertainment — a category that includes VCRs, DVD players, “home theatres,” video games, and personal computers with Internet access, as well as “going out” to the movies in the old-fashioned way. When you add to that list the all-pervasive impact of television programming, it is evident that teenagers are drenched in visual media to an extent unprecedented in history. Converging with that trend, we have also seen a sharp rise in the amount of media programming “dedicated to issues of the supernatural and paranormal — long popular topics for the plots and subplots of teen culture stories.” (Clark, 2003, p.15)

For teens today, even the Internet connection is a gateway to the visual entertainment industry. Among the more than seventeen million teens who are online today, the three most popular uses for the Internet are “sending e-mail, surfing the Web for fun and visiting entertainment sites … in fact, the top Web site at the turn of the millenium, according to the youth- and young adult-oriented magazine Yahoo! Internet Live, was dedicated to Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

.” (Clark, 2003; p. 15).

It goes without saying that this media-drenched environment affects the way that teens develop their concepts of self and personal identity — how they understand who they are, and what their place is in the world around them.

A great deal of evidence suggests that the media play an important role in how young people form and articulate their identities. Young people learn from and identify with characters they watch and with celebities they admire … They share their interests in media with their friends as a means of expresssing both their own individuality and their shared tastes. This sharing then informs teens’ individual tastes, as well, for the two processes of using the media in individual and collective identity construction reinforce one another. (Clark, 2003; pp. 15-16)

The power of the media to shape the emerging identities of young adults lies in two things. It lies first in the stories that the media tells. Specifically, it lies in the dramatic power of their narratives — in their power to convey ideas and values by means of storytelling, and especially in their power to engage teenagers’ attention because of the stories’ relevance to their lives. Secondly, the media’s power to mold teen identities lies in the commercial manipulation of teenage wants, needs and fantasies, both with overt commercial advertising and by means of its entertainment content.

Teen-oriented entertainment is highly engaging to young people, not only for the obvious reason that it features appealing teenage characters that they can identify with, but also because its dramas provide teens with powerful psychological tools that can help them cope with the stresses and anxieties of adolescence. In that respect, the media’s stories serve an important function in the process of forming an adult identity.

Horror stories , particularly those with strong supernatural elements, allow young people to experience and relieve fears about death, the afterlife, and in general, the forces in life that they believe are beyond their control — which includes quite a bit, from the teen perspective (Clark, 2003; pp. 63-4)

For most teenagers, the number one “force beyond their control” (aside from their parents) is their own sexuality. Thus the supernatural elements in the media’s stories are magnetic to them because they also serve as a metaphor for sex in the teen experience. In many of these programs and films, “the young people at their center have either inherited or stumbled on their powers in their teen years, and they find that they have no choice but to use them. Having these powers is their “destiny,’ regardless of how much they may long for a normal teen life.” (Ibid., p. 69)

Because of this ability to engage the deep, intense concerns of teenage life, media entertainment (along with peer-group influence) is displacing more traditional sources of guidance and support in the process of teenage character- and identity-formation. For example, “as anthropologist Victor Turner argued, the experience of watching films together can, in some ways, serve the same function as the older rituals that marked rites of passage.” (Clark, 2003; p. 6)

Young people today live in a world of their own that is very different from the teen culture of earlier generations. As the media increasingly cater to the tastes and cravings of teenage consumers, what teens see in and through the media is increasingly a reflected image of themselves; increasingly, their world of values and beliefs is self-created, without reference to external realities or expectations. Teen-oriented media becomes a kind of youth-culture echo-chamber — an ideal environment for commercial manipulation. Without any standards other than profits and ratings, the media is “both responding to interest in Witchcraft and creating it, in a rapid feedback loop.” (Harvey, 2002) In fact, the mid-1990s explosion of Witchcraft in the media can be seen as part of that process, and as a sign of the new (teen) center of gravity in media marketing and entertainment.

Changing Images of Witchcraft in Popular Entertainment

Of course, witches didn’t have to wait until the 1990s to make their appearance in popular entertainment. Witchcraft’s sinister and sensational reputation has made it an ideal device for authors who want to add drama to their plot-lines or spice up their character-development. From the three “weird sisters” of Shakespere’s Macbeth, to the devil-worshipping conspirators of the movie Rosemary’s Baby, most witch-depictions in literature and entertainment have been drawn from the classical stereotypes associated with medieval witchcraft resulting in characters who range from menacing to actively evil. One of the first works to (partially) break out of that mold, both in print and visual media, was The Wizard of Oz (print version 1900; movie version 1939), which offered a “good witch” character in the person of Glinda to counterbalance the classic “bad witch” stereotype embodied in the ugly, black-clad hag who was Dorothy’s antagonist.

As the 1960s began, the classic stereotype was significantly broken again, this time in an important, but easy-to-overlook medium — comic books. In 1962, “Sabrina the teenage witch” made her debut appearance in the popular Archie’s comic book series. Sabrina soon became a regular character in the Archie’s series, then went on to star in her own Saturday morning animated TV program, and in 1996 finally graduated to become the feature character in a live-action TV-movie on Showtime, which was followed by a spin-off live-action TV series (both the Showtime movie and the TV series were part of the late-1990s Witchcraft surge in the entertainment media). Sabrina was a pioneer of Witchcraft’s image-change in several ways: she was one of the earliest characters to break out of the “bad witch” mold; she is easily the longest lived; and from the beginning, she has been designed to appeal directly to a teen and pre-teen audience.

Almost as if following Sabrina’s comic-book lead, within a few years two popular television comedies also broke decisively with the “bad witch” stereotype and one of them didn’t even have a witch in it. I Dream of Jeannie ran between September 1965 and September 1970. It starred Barbara Eden as a genie who becomes the magical servant of an American serviceman when he discovers and then opens the bottle in which she had been imprisoned. The comedy in this sitcom revolves around Jeannie’s tendency to use her magical powers in ways that disrupt her master’s “normal” military life. Jeannie was a genie, not a witch, but she helped to break the negative stereotype with her role as a female who uses occult power in funny, non-threatening ways.

The other trailblazing sitcom of the “60s did have a witch in it. Bewitched, starring Elizabeth Montgomery as witch Samantha Stephens, ran from September, 1964 through July, 1972 (overlapping Jeannie, but three years longer running). The series was extremely popular with viewers; in fact it was the biggest hit series produced by ABC up to that point and was rated second among all programs aired during its first season.

The story-line in Bewitched involves an entire family of witches who are immortal. One member of the family, the beautiful Samantha, marries a mortal husband (“Darrin,” played by Dick York) and pledges to renounce her supernatural powers, much to the disapproval of her witchy relatives, who constantly try interfere in the marriage and generally use their magic in mischievious ways. Samantha herself is also tempted to rely on her magical powers in order to get things done around the house. As in the case of Jeannie, the humor in the series is drawn from the friction between the magical world of witches and the mundane world of ordinary people (the “mortals” in Bewitched’s scheme of things), who unfailingly fail to understand the freakish events that intrude on their otherwise ordinary lives. According to one reviewer, “The fun never ends when you mix witchcraft with mortal intellects who painfully attempt to explain to themselves the strange things that go on” (“Bewitched”).

Sabrina, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched were frivolous, but not trivial. None of them could be considered active propaganda for the Witchcraft movement per se. “Sabrina” and “Samantha Stephens” resemble real Witches about as closely as “Barney” resembles a real dinosaur. There is very little in either portrayal that modern Witches would recognize as part of their beliefs. But that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant to the rise of modern Witchcraft. Sabrina, Jeannie and Samantha were all an expression of the 1960s’ penchant for turning the values of the main culture inside out. The counterculture had already given respectability to previously rejected ideas, including both eastern religions and astrology. In that context, a comic book or a television series based on reversing the values normally attached to witches and magic seemed like a perfectly natural development — especially as it was done in a lighthearted manner. In their function as statements of dissent from prevailing cultural values, all three characters helped set the stage for the more complete reversal of attitudes toward witchcraft and occultism that was to come some two decades later.

The Pendulum Swings

In the meantime, however, that process of cultural change was temporarily interrupted by a cultural pendulum-swing. As the “60s ended, the counterculture’s quick descent from idealism into decadence gave rise to a cultural and spiritual backlash, symptoms of which included the “Jesus movement” and the rise of evangelicalism to prominence and political influence during the 1970s. Popular entertainment in the 1970s and early 1980s also reflected the new, more serious and more religious mood that was asserting itself in society at large.

As evangelicals became a presence in public discussion, they brought biblical ideas and images to the forefront of public attention. In particular, they popularized the biblical imagery associated with the end times, the second coming and the ongoing spiritual battle between God and His angels versus Satan and his demons. The result, in the words of Lynn Schofield Clark, is that “evangelicalism has inadvertently provided a framework for thinking about and representing evil in popular culture.” (Clark, 2003; p. 26) That development was particularly evident in the treatment that the entertainment industry gave to stories dealing with occultism and the supernatural during the 1970s and 1980s. “Horror” films, long a staple of the B-movie circuit, began to incorporate religious themes into their stories, even as they moved into the “A” category of major Hollywood productions.

Hollywood had invoked the real existence of the Devil in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to great dramatic effect and impressive boxoffice success. The Exorcist (1973) went even further, portraying the conflict between good and evil as a war between God and the Devil, who worked “through the vulnerable and the corrupt and (was) to be fought only with the traditional power of Christianity.” (Hutton, 1999; p. 332). The Omen trilogy (’75, ’78, and ’81) made the Christianity of its movies even more explicit — and more evangelical — by taking its story from premillenial eschatology, with its scenario of the end-times rise of Antichrist.

In all of those blockbuster films, occultism and supernatural power were virtually identified with demons, the Devil and evil (though only Rosemary’s Baby featured witches per se in its story). The Exorcist in particular was a watershed film because it strongly established the new, biblically based imagery of good and evil. At a time when the mainstream religions were losing adherants and influence (especially among the young) the movie’s conflict was defined as a showdown between a religious authority figure (a Catholic priest) and a disembodied demon over the soul of a teenage girl. The demon, moreover, had gained entry to the teenager’s soul through her dabblings with the Ouija board — a plot device that dramatized the concerns that evangelicals were raising about the occult and the danger it poses to young people.

The Omen trilogy reinforced that biblical imagery of good and evil, and strengthened it even further by tying it to biblical prophecy. In all three of the Omen movies, occult power serves the Devil and his Antichrist in their opposition to God as that conflict is played out in the Book of Revelation. The Omen also reinforced the disturbing idea that lay at the center of The Exorcist‘s plot that someone’s identity could be taken over and completely changed from within, by some (occult) force from outside of themselves, and outside of their control.

The rise of evangelicalism was part of a social pendulum-swing. The influence of evangelicalism brought biblical images of good and evil to the forefront of the public’s imagination. But the pendulum-swing of the 1970s was both brief and shallow. The biblical images of good and evil carried their own undeniable power, and were quickly picked up by popular entertainment. But evangelicalism didn’t make enough of an impact on the general culture to sustain the biblical meaning of those images beyond the decade in which they appeared — not much of a pendulum-swing, as such things go.

As those biblical images were handled by the entertainment media, they were also changed. Hollywood is very much a channel for the Spirit of the Age (the “Zeitgeist”), and the Zeitgeist’s resistance to the biblical point of view eventually affects everything that Hollywood does. By the late 1980s, Hollywood was using the biblical imagery of evil to convey a non-biblical message. And by the mid-1990s, Hollywood was using that biblical imagery to convey an overtly paganized message. The transformation was both rapid and complete

The Witches of Eastwick is an example of biblical imagery in the process of transformation. The film was released in 1987, loosely based on the 1984 novel by John Updike — a professing Christian. Three single, suburbanite women (Michelle Pfeiffer, Cher, and Susan Sarandon) dabble in magic, feminism and witchcraft; they succeed in invoking a real, if somewhat trivialized, Devil (played with obvious relish by Jack Nicholson) who appears in response to their magically amplified sexual yearnings. Nicholson’s Devil then uses their witchcraft to ensnare them into his net of ego, lust and greed. The movie also invokes some of the classical witch-stereotypes derived from the Middle Ages (see Chapter Seven), depicting witchcraft not just as connected with the Devil, but also as connected with magical powers such as levitation, and with unbridled sexual license as well.

But there is no hint here of Christianity as a counterpoint and nemesis to the forces of darkness, as there was in films of the previous decade. The Witches of Eastwick depicts the church-going Christianity of New England as pervasive, but impotent and irrelevant. The only Christian character of any significance in the movie is a comic figure — a woman who sees the Devil and his evil for what they are, but is so unhinged by her knowledge that she becomes incoherent. By the end of the film, the Devil is brought low, not by “the traditional power of Christianity,” but by the women he had abused, who use the power of witchcraft to wreak their revenge, and then to banish him from this world altogether.

The movie dramatizes (and satirizes) the blending of feminism, “goddess spirituality,” witchcraft and female sexual assertiveness that was a cultural fad of the 1980s. It is basically a feminist revenge-fantasy that uses the Christian imagery of evil to set up its intended target, but mocks and marginalizes Christianity while it vindicates witchcraft in principle as a form of personal power. It is hard to imagine an application of biblical imagery any more antithetical to actual biblical values.

Hard to imagine, that is, until it happens.

What happened next was a sudden eruption of Witchcraft themes in popular entertainment during the mid-1990s — a development that took everyone by surprise. It significantly changed the public’s perception of Witchcraft, and even the shape and direction of the Witchcraft movement itself. Moreover — and more importantly — it changed the role that Christianity plays in popular entertainment’s imagery of good and evil. In that rapid, radical change, two media productions stand out as part of the process: the surprise teen movie hit The Craft and the surprise teen TV hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Witchcraft Goes Mainstream

© Copyright 2004 by Brooks Alexander. Posted at Apologetics Index by permission. [Details]

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First published (or major update) on Tuesday, October 18, 2011

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