After the Satanic Panic of the seventies and eighties, witches became a shockingly more popular aspect of pop culture and were more generally accepted. It’s almost inexplicable how and why witches suddenly became so prevalent in pop culture, but the nineties were all about the mythical figure and all kinds of TV shows tackled the trend in one way or another. Along with shows capitalizing on the trend, there were also a myriad shows and movies that pretty much centered on the witches trend. Before America paralyzed itself with ideas that witchcraft and paganism were ideas meant to destroy Christianity, the ideas of witches were always more family friendly or sought to appeal to the horror fan base.
Credited as one of the first to lead the charge was “Teen Witch,” a late eighties teen comedy that became a basic cable favorite, playing on constant rotation. In it, a young girl learns she’s a witch as she reaches puberty and uses her powers to help her budding friendships and romances. Then there was the very menacing “The Witches,” a family classic about a young boy staying with his aunt at a hotel. While there, he accidentally happens upon a massive convention of evil witches, all of whom are planning to turn the children of the world in to mice to devour them. “The Witches” is well known and loved for its riveting performances, intense dark fantasy atmosphere and brilliant make up.
1993 saw the Disney film “Hocus Pocus” which, while not a huge hit, ended up becoming a cult classic. In it a trio of witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy) prone to devouring the life force of children, are re-awakened on Halloween by a young girl and her big brother. As they begin wreaking havoc around town, the pair of siblings begin looking for a way to put them back in to eternal slumber, lest they begin feeding on children once more. The film has become a genuine Halloween classic and has very much been lauded as an under appreciated Disney gem.
90’s moppets Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen even got in on the act, starring in the Halloween-centric TV movie “Double Double Toil and Trouble.” In it they play a pair of girls living with their aunt who learn that she has an evil twin who was a witch and was burned at the stake. There was also the reboot of the “Casper” live action movie series starring the titular ghost who makes friends with a young aspiring witch named Wendy. Played by future Disney star Hilary Duff, she plays ten year old witch in training Wendy, who teams with Casper to do battle against an evil warlock. The reboot is generally favored by fans of Casper, and still gets heavy rotation every year.
Who can forget the resurgence of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, an Archie Comics character who garnered new popularity with a TV movie in the mid-nineties. Played by teen star Melissa Joan Hart, the live action adaptation made up for the low budget with a sincere coming of age tale. A few years later, the movie was adapted in to a family sitcom where Hart reprised the role as Sabrina. In the series, she plays the titular character that goes to live with her two aunts and learns about navigating her life while also mastering witchcraft and experiencing various magical mishaps. The TV show is generally considered a classic, lasting seven years and gained new popularity in syndication.
The show even warranted an animated prequel for a younger audience starring Joan Hart’s younger sister Emily Hart. Easily one of my favorite Halloween movies, 1998 gave us “Halloweentown,” a Disney original TV movie that starred Kimberly J. Brown as a Halloween loving teenager who learns she comes from a long line of witches. When she follows her eccentric grandmother back home, she learns about the awe inspiring Halloween Town and teams with her brother and sister to help fight an evil warlock. “Halloween Town” is a movie I play every single year, and it even managed to garner three sequels of diminishing quality.
It’s tough to top the first film, which still thankfully features on television to this day. Warner Bros. even got in on the trend inventing “The Hex Girls” for their Scooby Doo animated film franchise. Some of the more adult oriented properties involved the 1996 cinematic adaptation of the Arthur Miller play “The Crucible” which focused on religious hysteria and a literal witch hunt that’s spawned out of a torrid affair. The movie is well known for its eerie mood, and great performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen. There was also the very popular supernatural series “Charmed,” which followed a trio of young women (Shannon Doherty, Alyssa Milano, and Holly Marie Combs, and later Rose McGowan) who realize that they come from a long line of witches.
Using their mystical powers, they begin battling various supernatural and paranormal foes. The show kept immense popularity over the course of its run and is even being developed for a reboot. 1996 saw something of a precursor to the WB series with the teen fantasy horror film “The Craft,” a woefully underrated thriller about a young girl who moves to California and befriends a trio of aspiring witches. When the girls acquire immense powers thanks to the summoning of a God, they begin to grow more and more corrupt. The fight for power and control culminates in a showdown between villainous Nancy, played by actual Pagan Fairuza Balk, and heroine Sarah, played by Robin Tunney.
“The Craft” is another nineties gem with big plans for a reboot, with the studios even opting for a potential franchise down the road. It’s a perfect one off tale of corruption, evil, and deception and a delightfully ambiguous mythology. The 1997 adaptation of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” also jumped on the trend developing lovable supporting character Willow Rosenberg in to a very powerful witch in training. She spends a majority of the series embracing her immense power, as well as the darkness that eventually consumes her when her girlfriend Tara is killed near the end of the series.
To a lesser extent there was also the 1998 drama “Practical Magic” with Sandra Bullock, and Nicole Kidman as witches trying to undo a family curse. On the opposite spectrum, the decade was considerably topped off with 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” an independent horror film involving an ill fated journey centered on a trio of student filmmakers looking for a mythical witch in the middle of the woods. The film not only popularized the Found Footage sub-genre, but also revolutionized viral movie marketing. It’s fair to say that if you were fascinated with the occult and witchcraft, the nineties is a decade rife with a wide variety of entertainment that gave audiences insight in to the idea of witchcraft and paganism.
Witches were everything from menacing, enticing, seductive, funny, evil, and yes, a lot of fun. They dominated the decade, and with a new era of reboots and remakes, maybe the cycle of pop culture will eventually circle around to explore the fascinating world of witchcraft and the occult once again. With the slow decline of the popularity of zombies in film and television, it’d be great if the horror genre will bring us back to the world of witches once more.