The teen years mark a time of change, particularly for the female pubescent body, which has specific markers of new breasts and blood. Girls are warned that their bodies will change, suddenly, and that they must acquire special items in preparation. They buy bras to mold their chests appropriately to be seen and tampons to keep menstruation hidden. During this time, the teen girl becomes aware of eyes on her, of her oddity, her spectacle. The attention she receives turns into tenuous power. She forges deep bonds built upon shared experiences with her female friends.
Teen girls nourish and riff off one another, learning together how to sustain mature, healthy friendships into adulthood. Yet the combination of physical changes, swelling hormones, and a labyrinth of social taboos often causes feelings of helplessness. It follows, then, that young women turn to stories about witches. These shape-shifting women provide apt metaphors for teen girls’ own fluctuations and their fantasies of wielding their newfound power. They read horoscopes to navigate the uncertain future and light scented candles in their bedroom. They watch witch movies at sleepovers.
It’s hard to talk about teen witches without bringing up The Craft, the 1996 film that revitalized witchcraft across the nation. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s basically the occult version of Heathers, another movie about high school vengeance getting out of hand. Even today, there are so many things to love about The Craft: take, for instance, its campy nineties costumes, rife with chokers and vests and boots and thick eyeliner. Or that one of the film’s four witches is a Black woman (Rachelle True) when so many witch films to this day default to a white cast (think Hocus Pocus, Teen Witch, or The Witches of Eastwick). Plus, its authenticity keeps it fresh: Wiccan priestess Pat Devin worked as a consultant on the film. She ensured the rituals and props resembled her actual practice.
25 years after its original release, there’s no denying the impact this movie had on practicing witches. Many cite it as inspiration for their own exploration of magic, and Fairuza Balk (Nancy) even went on to own the LA occult shop, Panpipes, for several years. There’s a cool factor to witchcraft the film sells: the girls wear leather jackets, black lipstick, and chunky jewelry. A soundtrack of nineties alt-rock songs plays in the background as the girls shoplift their supplies, play with their hair and makeup, and light candles on their altars. But for all the influence this movie had, The Craft is far from a perfect film: it stereotypes teen girls and offers a bleak vision of female friendship.
Sarah, our protagonist, arrives in Los Angeles as a transfer student with a suicidal past. She quickly joins the group of outcasts her crush, Chris, refers to as the “bitches of Westwick.” At first, it seems Sarah has found community in her new school as Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle become her confidants and coven. One evening, while the girls practice witchcraft, Sarah confesses her complicated past: her mother died in childbirth, and she used to dream of snakes in her room around the time she contemplated suicide. Spellwork becomes an opportunity to heal her trauma.
Combining their powers, the girls manifest their desires. Sarah casts a love spell on Chris—a boy she likes even though he’d spread rumors about her when she refused to sleep with him (Sarah confesses, “I know it’s pathetic,” but the writing gives a clumsy attempt to rationalize her ongoing crush). Bonnie uses witchcraft to heal disfiguring scars on her back. Rochelle casts a vengeance spell to cause a racist bully’s hair to fall out. The ringleader, Nancy, invokes the fictional god Manon, asking him to bring her family money and make her more powerful.
The girls learn the golden rule of witchcraft: what you put into the universe returns threefold. Our intentions are powerful. Chris comes to stalk Sarah, even attempting to rape her in his car. This repercussion sends a fraught message: are we supposed to think Sarah brought the assault on herself? Then, although Rochelle’s benign spell against the racist, popular cheerleader felt entirely deserved, she regrets seeing her crying in the gym showers, her scalp bald and bloody. Meanwhile, Bonnie becomes insufferably narcissistic. Nancy’s spell results in her losing all empathy after her abusive stepfather dies from a heart attack, leaving her and her mother with enough money to move into a spacious LA high-rise. The girls fall into teen stereotypes of jealousy, obsession, and narcissism as they hone their craft.
The lesson seems to be this: don’t dabble in witchcraft, ladies, or you’ll get what’s coming. Each of their spells backfires in its own way, reinforcing a common misconception that teen girls are incapable of self-control or self-reflection. The script seems to be asking teen girls not to be too much, too powerful. If they are, they’ll suffer the consequences, which include narcissism and rape. As they get carried away by their new powers, the movie suggests this is “just as girls tend to do.”
Things only get worse when Nancy kills Chris after his attempt to rape Sarah. But Nancy doesn’t seem interested in avenging her friend. Instead, she uses magic to make herself look like Sarah and seduce him. When he realizes Nancy used magic to fool him into having sex with her, she tells him it was to “help him forget about Sarah.” He calls her jealous; she calls him a whore. Then she uses magic to send him flying out of the second-story window to his death.
Sarah’s attempt to sleep with the jock that almost raped her friend is an inexplicable plotline. It not only paints her as spiteful and uncompassionate but also leaves you wondering what real-life experience the writers draw upon. Friendship can be jealous, competitive, and cruel, as we can dish out our worst only to those we love the most. When we’re young, we don’t yet understand how to temper our feelings. The same passion that makes our youngest female friendships so intense is also what makes them toxic, but would a girl run off to seduce the guy that assaulted her friend? Only in a work of fiction.
Sarah (understandably) wants to leave the coven after this incident. To prevent her from doing so, Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle try to traumatize Sarah into killing herself. They use magic to make it appear that Sarah’s parents died in a plane crash. They conjure snakes all over her house, just like in her depression-induced dreams. When they appear in her living room, they call her pathetic. “If we were you, we would have killed ourselves ages ago,” they tell her. Nancy even uses a kitchen knife to cut Sarah’s wrist. But Sarah refuses to give in. She scares Bonnie and Rochelle away by showing how their magic has turned back on them. Then she defeats Nancy by crashing her into a mirror.
The climax is rife with questionable messages around female friendship. Witches may be an apt metaphor for the changes adolescent girls experience, and murder can even be deployed humorously to present the melodrama of high school (again, as seen in Heathers), but bullying someone into committing suicide is a baffling end for the friendship these girls fostered. They aren’t supportive of each other, even before the real conflict arises.
They form a coven only to strengthen their own powers and achieve individual goals, and each one is alone in the end. Only Sarah keeps her powers, but even she uses them for petty revenge against her friends. Instead of representing true alliances between women, the film reinforces the stereotype that young girls will stab each other in the back and manipulate a situation for their own gains. The Craft will always have a place in the witch canon, but it has little to teach us otherwise.