Halloween season is here, which means it’s the season of the witch. The witch has long been a part of our collective unconscious, mostly in our nightmares where she tended to be a convenient scapegoat. And she continues to be a part of our culture today, albeit in a more complicated fashion. Witches are still forces for evil, but they can also be heroines worth rooting for – anti-heroines who inspire equal amounts of compassion and fear, or forces for good who use their powers for benevolent ends. Below are ten of my favorite cinematic witches, which means that the Charmed sisters, Willow from Buffy, and sadly, Sabrina, don’t make the cut. Don’t hex me, ladies.
10. THE COVEN, ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
The witches of Roman Polanski‘s seminal horror film Rosemary’s Baby (headed by a deviously genial Ruth Wilson) weren’t too flashy, but they embodied the kind of paranoia which slowly grew from a slow burn to a fever pitch. The terror they inspired was the utter and complete lack of safety and trust. It was a kind of conspiracy that robbed a woman of her home, her body, and peace of mind, as Rosemary concluded that no one around her could be trusted. But even she couldn’t begin to realize the coven’s true, horrific endgame until it was too late.
9. SARAH AND NANCY, THE CRAFT (1996)
Talk about toxic friendships. Sarah (Robin Tunney) thought she’d found a group that would allow her to explore her abilities while accepting her for who she is. But once Nancy (Fairuza Balk) took her powers to the next level, it quickly corrupted her, destroying the haven they’d all built. Sarah was the one we were supposed to identify with, but in reality, these girls were two sides of the same coin, deeply informed by their environments. Sarah was the good girl from the nice middle-class home, while Nancy came from a working-class background and lived in a trailer, where she endured a dysfunctional home life, to say the least. So, it’s hardly surprising that Nancy was the one who was unable to cope, both with the sexism and classism she faced and the power she tapped into. But for a while, she helped her friends stand up to their bullies and gleefully embrace their status as weirdos.
8. KIKI, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)
Who says good witches are boring, or even need a real plot to stand out? Kiki from Hayao Miyazaki‘s Kiki’s Delivery Service wasn’t trying to fight an evil witch or really accomplish any sort of otherworldly, monumental task. She’s just living on her own for the first time and establishing her independence, meeting various characters along the way. It’s only after she builds a successful business that she has to cope with the biggest challenge when she seems to lose her magical abilities. Years after its 1989 release, the story of a 13-year-old witch finding the inspiration to continue doing what she loves is still relevant today.
7. PROFESSOR MINERVA MCGONAGALL, THE HARRY POTTER SERIES (2001-2011)
Professor McGonagall is another good witch who makes the list. Brought to life on the big screen by the incomparable Maggie Smith, McGonagall is a strict disciplinarian who nevertheless always had a soft spot for her students, as well as a firm sense of justice. She firmly stood by Dumbledore and Harry in their darkest moments, and is a certified badass who led the charge in the Battle of Hogwarts. Snape and Dumbledore may get more of the attention, but McGonagall is the one who deserves most of the praise.
6. THE SANDERSON SISTERS, HOCUS POCUS (1993)
Is there a more enjoyable trio than these three? They were villains who could be hilarious one minute, give us an earworm of a song the next, were always truly diabolical. Lest we forget, their goal was to drain children of their life force to make themselves young and beautiful. Within minutes of meeting them, they did just that, then cursed another to remain a cat for eternity. They’re put to death in the 17th century for their crimes, only to be resurrected in the 1990s, where they proceed to wreak havoc. And who could forget Bette Midler‘s iconic rendition of “I Put A Spell on You”?
5. SALLY AND GILLIAN, PRACTICAL MAGIC (1998)
The Sanderson Sisters may be more iconic, but the Owens sisters of Practical Magic come out ahead with me because of the loving bond between them, even if they couldn’t be more different. They certainly respond in very different ways to the family curse, which states than any man who loves an Owens woman is doomed to die. Nicole Kidman‘s Gillian is the free spirit who can’t wait to fall in love, while Sandra Bullock‘s Sally is the shy homebody. Both sisters return home after suffering romantic disappointments: Sally’s husband dies in an accident, and Gillian is trying to escape her abusive lover, who ends up literally haunting her. A lush, funny, deeply feminine vision about the power of women, the Owens women tend to save themselves through the sheer power of their bond, which triumphs above all else, whether it be ex-lovers, curses, grief, or the prejudices of their community.
4. THOMASIN, THE VVITCH (2015)
Dave Eggers‘ shockingly strong debut film The Witch (sorry, The VVitch) promises “a New England folk tale”, and it delivers, even earning approval from the Satanic Temple itself. There is foreboding from the first time we see a Puritan family settle on their isolated farm in the 1630s, and sure enough, there soon proves to be evil forces lurking in the woods nearby. The teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) starts out as a good Puritan girl: dutiful, obedient, and devoting herself to prayer. But her faith is shaken to the core, first when her infant brother abruptly disappears, then when Thomasin finds herself accused of witchcraft, and the surviving members of the family turn on each other, with Thomasin bearing the brunt of the blame. After a series of devastating losses, Thomasin decides to rebel against what she was taught and turns to Black Phillip for power. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em…
3. THE WHITE WITCH, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005)
Would a list like this be complete without Tilda Swinton? I grew up reading and rereading the classic C.S. Lewis book from which The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was adapted, and the White Witch was one the great villains of my childhood. She was a powerful, formidable foe who kept an entire land frozen in winter and was so determined to hold on to power she was willing to manipulate and (at least attempt to) kill children to do it. What really made her so dangerous was that for a while, it really did seem as if she would triumph when she stabbed the mighty Aslan (Liam Neeson) to death. Swinton not only embodied the White Witch, but built on what the movie added to the book, truly making her a force to be reckoned with on the big screen and on the page.
2. ELAINE, THE LOVE WITCH (2016)
Writer-director Anna Biller‘s tribute to the sexploitation films of the 1960s and 70s gave us Elaine (Samantha Robinson), an anti-heroine for our time. Elaine was a modern-day witch with a desperate need to be loved. For her, embracing her sexuality meant transforming herself into a fantasy object for men while demanding they live up to her own fairy tale fantasies. Such a toxic, narcissistic combination is a recipe for disaster, and Elaine quickly wreaks havoc on the men unlucky enough to fall under her spell while making us think about the many ways women are objectified and reduced to little more than the effect they have on men, all while immersing us in deeply gorgeous feminine spaces.
THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
Is there a witch more iconic than Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, who played – and continues to play – such a big part in so many childhoods? From the moment the Wicked Witch of the West shows up in The Wizard of Oz, she steals the show with her cackling laugh, black hat, and especially her green skin. None of this was in the source material, but these have become so synonymous with the character, it’s impossible to picture her any other way.
The Wicked Witch’s evil was confirmed when she continually tried to thwart Dorothy and her friends to steal Dorothy’s ruby slippers and gain even more power. This witch has remained an object of fascination, becoming a major character in Gregory Maguire’s epic Oz series, which kicked off with Wicked, which was in turn developed into a Broadway musical that has become a pop culture force of its own. She’s not just a witch with staying power, but the ability to conquer whole new areas of pop culture more than a century after her first appearance in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book.