Despite their best efforts, witches do not always get the respect they deserve, especially in the movies. For every frightening THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT there is an equally silly TEEN WITCH. Whether they are historically inspired (THE WITCH), embodying the wiccan religion (THE CRAFT), or wearing pointy hats and cackling (WIZARD OF OZ), witches tend not to stay too far from the collective understanding of what witches do. THE WITCHES, however, exists outside of these previously established witchy notions and redefines witch mythology, which is one of the many reasons it is such a standout film.
Monster mythology has always fascinated me. The “rules” we invent for completely imaginary creatures, and then proceed to argue over, is both a futile endeavor and a welcome departure from our generally non-fantastical lives. When zombies started running in 28 DAYS LATER or in 2004’s DAWN OF THE DEAD people were up in arms. How could these undead creatures run? George Romero and Val Lewton before him had their zombies lumbering along, which fans then accepted as canon. Vampires come with their own set of rules too: they cannot go out in the sun and have an aversion to crucifixes. Though certain authors and directors have taken a few small liberties with vampire mythology, these edits to the lore are done so with the original tenets in mind. Without having these common monster guidelines, departures from those guidelines would not be anything to worry about. It is only when we know exactly how werewolves behave in moonlight or how to kill a vampire that any adjustments to their monster mythology becomes apparent.
But witches are different. Perhaps because witches really do exist as wiccans in our society, or due to the fact that many people were brutally killed throughout history after being accused of being witches, the fun, fantastical invention of their rules and regulations had never been defined. To a certain extent, categorizing them as “monsters” does not feel playful. After all, in 1692 certain citizens in Salem Massachusetts got together to create their own witch mythology and lives were lost because of it.
With this somber note in mind, there is a loose, collective understanding of witch mythology. We know that sometimes they wear pointy hats, have warted green skin, ride broomsticks, and cackle. Or, we know that they eat children, seduce men, and live hidden in the woods. Even with this general sense of a stereotypical witch, we never had a well-defined and spirited witch lore until we had Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES.
Based upon Dahl’s 1983 book, and released months before his death in 1990, THE WITCHES has frightened children and easily suggestable adults for years. The film follows Luke (Jasen Fisher) and his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) as they encounter a giant convention of witches during a seaside holiday. Grandmother Helga has known about the witches for many years (she even lost a finger to a witch encounter) and has coached Luke to be wary of women who fit the description of a witch.
Here is where specifying the witch categorization launches Dahl’s witches into the stratosphere of greater monster mythology: To Luke and Helga witches are not misunderstood women; they are predators who are evil to their core and live only to kill children. These witches can smell clean children from a great distance, and they absolutely abhor the stench of children. Witches also are bald and toeless, which they cover by always wearing itchy wigs and uncomfortable shoes. This knowledge of witches helps Luke identify all of the witches at the convention, though he still gets turned into a mouse by them. His own safety aside, the ability to spot a witch is incredibly helpful to both Luke and Helga.
By creating the rules and lore of witches, Dahl effectively turns witches into monsters. Now we have a framework to classify and consequently avoid these horrible creatures. And by heaping on the physical peculiarities of these witches, Dahl is essentially distancing his own witches from the mistreated witches of history. Dahl’s witches and post-Dahl witches are worthy of categorization and fear, and they now have the respect they deserve in monster mythology. Though other representations still continue in other films and television shows, THE WITCHES is still a worthy exploration of one man’s creepy witch vision.