Live Through This

The Season of the Witch

Why teenage girls are so dang scary.

Photo by Petra

When it comes time to write the history of Westerville, Ohio—a project that will be only slightly impeded by the fact that the historians keep having to be replaced every few weeks, as they slip into boredom-induced comas—no one will include the following story. It is too strange, too eerie—to be frank, just too unbelievable. And indeed, many of the girls who experienced the strange phenomenon I am about to describe will deny it. Perhaps they’ve forgotten. Then again, perhaps they are only trying to forget. After all, they are respectable women now. The dark and eldritch forces they once encountered have no place in their lives today.

But it did happen. I know it. I was there. And so I alone shall recount to you this terrifying paranormal tale: for several months, the entire youth culture of Westerville, Ohio, was based on The Craft.

Yes, I’m talking about that one movie, with Fairuza Balk. The Craft was about four teenage girls—representing the elements of water, earth, air, and fire—who formed a “coven” to worship “Manon” and/or make some freaky stuff happen with their minds. They became prettier, caused the downfall of mean girls, made cute boys fall in love with them—you know, the usual witch stuff. As it turns out, The Craft was a horror movie, and the girls’ spells ended in death, attempted rape, and psychiatric hospitalization. But nobody focused on that part. We, the teen girls of Westerville, Ohio, had just learned that banding together in groups could potentially give us freaky mind powers. And we wanted in.

We wore more eyeliner; we checked out our friends’ astrological signs to see who could embody which element; we passed around a Wiccan spell book someone had shoplifted from Barnes & Noble; as one, we entered into one of the goofiest, most Yankee Candle–centric epochs of our young lives.

I’ve since learned that this bout of film-inspired teen witchery has struck other towns, and other women. Which, really, is not at all surprising. Much of the world’s paranormal history has to do with adults being terrified of teenage girls.

Before there was The Craft, there were the Salem witch trials, which started because the young girls of the town were engaging in unearthly, demonic behavior—such as “screaming” and “throwing things.” You know. The sort of thing you’d never do as a 12-year-old, especially not if you were stuck in a freezing-cold Puritan settlement where the funnest activity was churning butter. Their parents took a quick look, were like, “Clearly, Satan has done this,” and promptly went about slaughtering half the town. In the 20th century, Anneliese Michel—an epileptic, mentally ill girl who started to have seizures and hear voices at 16—died of starvation and dehydration because her parents chose to hire exorcists instead of getting her to a hospital. They were convicted of manslaughter, but her grave is still visited by people who believe she was possessed, and, thanks to two or three pseudo-biopics, Anneliese’s story has become a central part of the disturbing pop culture tradition of movies about young girls or teens who are possessed by Satan. Oh, and by the way: do you have a poltergeist? Check again! Many people who believe in ghosts believe that the presence of a teenage girl in the house attracts malevolent spirits, who feed off of their burgeoning sexiness and intense, girly emotions.

All of this is typical girl-fear. Once you realize that The Exorcist is, essentially, the story of a 12-year-old who starts cussing, masturbating, and disobeying her mother—in other words, going through puberty—it becomes apparent to the feminist-minded viewer why two adult men are called in to slap her around for much of the third act. People are convinced that something spooky is going on with girls; that, once they reach a certain age, they lose their adorable innocence and start tapping into something powerful and forbidden. Little girls are sugar and spice, but women are just plain scary. And the moment a girl becomes a woman is the moment you fear her most.

Which explains why the culture keeps telling this story. But it doesn’t explain why girls are drawn to it, or why we would be compelled to play it out, even in its goofiest and Fairuza-Balkiest incarnations. Why is the Ouija board inevitably brought to the sleepover, in spite of the fact that every single session brings on pants-peeing levels of terror? Why did at least one girl in 1999 claim that she had been converted to a whole new religion by watching Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch? (Melissa Joan Hart has played many roles, but I’m of the opinion that “spiritual counselor” should not be among them.) Why can I, to this day, read your tarot cards and explain in some great detail the importance of your sun sign as compared to your ascendant?

Well, note the differences between these stories. When one girl gets possessed by Satan, she is smacked and yelled at by the grown-ups until the evil leaves her. But in the stories about witches that made girls actually want to be do magic—The Craft, Charmed, Buffy—the power comes, in some essential way, from being together. And together is what we were, or what we tried to be, in the time we thought we were magic.

There were a lot of things that my friends and I were scared of, during our Craft mania. We were scared of our bodies. We were scared of the attention that our bodies were receiving. We were scared of dating, and of sex. But we were also scared that we’d never date, or that we’d never have sex. We were scared of college; we were scared that we might not get into college. We were scared of driving, and scared of not getting the license. We were scared that we might grow up to be our parents. We were scared that we didn’t know what to do with our lives. We were scared of tests, auditions, try-outs, games, and recitals. We were scared of increased responsibility, and scared of our own powerlessness. We were scared of our classmates. And every day, we kept on turning into someone else—turning into our new selves, our grown-up selves—and we had no idea what the outcome would be, or if we’d like it. So, more than anything, we were scared of ourselves. But here’s one thing that definitely didn’t scare us: The idea that, if we supported each other and stuck together, we could somehow control all of this just by wishing.

And we didn’t think we could do it without one another. That’s the best part. There is something strong, maybe even magical, about teenage girls getting together and making very specific lists of what they want from life. Sooner or later, that stops taking the form of “I cast this spell of love, so that Travis Johnson will like me back” (or its inevitable follow-up, “I cast this spell of herpes upon Travis Johnson”) and starts taking the form of real, practical strength. My friends and I honestly believed that if we stuck by one another and searched for power within ourselves, we would find it. And we weren’t wrong.

There is something scary about being a teenage girl. There’s something frightening about any state of life that involves so many mysteries, and so many drastic changes. But the thing that many people find scariest—the idea that there’s a force in teenage girls that doesn’t follow the rules and can’t be controlled, that these girls might be going off together and forging something new, something unknown and surprisingly powerful—isn’t scary at all. It’s deeply awesome. And, unlike the deathly curses uttered by Ouija boards, it’s real. ♦

35 Comments

  • Ali Fran October 14th, 2011 3:10 PM

    Sounds fun… I think it’s about time that this happened at my school.

  • laura k October 14th, 2011 3:38 PM

    Love. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece, both for reminding myself of my own witchy days (I was seduced by a series of books called The Secret Circle), and for recognizing and bringing to light the real reason behind so many girls’ desire for magical covens.

  • tellyawhat October 14th, 2011 3:39 PM

    How lovely and astute! For maximum witchyness, I suggest listening to Kate Bush while reading this.

    • Anaheed October 14th, 2011 3:40 PM

      And then, NEVER STOP listening to Kate Bush.

    • tellyawhat October 14th, 2011 4:29 PM

      Exactly, NEVER STOP, always be singing her aloud as you walk to class, no tonality needed with jazz hands going, at this point people’s fear of you will increase exponentially and be totally justified.

  • Anna F. October 14th, 2011 3:39 PM

    “Why is the Ouija board inevitably brought to the sleepover, in spite of the fact that every single session brings on pants-peeing levels of terror?”

    Hey, you promised you wouldn’t tell anybody about the pants peeing sleepover incident of 2006!

  • moonchild October 14th, 2011 3:43 PM

    This article is truly magical. I love this theme, and I love how you wrote about the way it relates to our fears and growing older. Great job!

    http://under-a-bridge.blogspot.com/

  • talia October 14th, 2011 4:29 PM

    as a wiccan, this article actually makes me kind of sad. it makes me feel like my religion isn’t considered a “real” faith, just this fantastical power that brings people together, but can’t really compare to the mainstream religions.

    • Sady October 14th, 2011 5:17 PM

      Oh, I’m sorry about that! If it helps, I don’t think much of what I’m describing was about people being Wiccan; they weren’t interested in the religious aspects, just “doing spells.”

      I do think Wicca is a real religion, but I’m just not a religious person or a believer in paranormal phenomena. I don’t think there’s a big difference between Christians having a prayer circle to heal a friend who’s in the hospital, and Wiccans casting a healing spell for the same reasons; both are just as “real” to me, and both are essentially the same thing, people getting together to focus and send good energy with the aid of their chosen divinity. But as a person who’s not a believer in divinity, I personally wouldn’t do either one.

      That said, I think that religion can be a really powerful source of community and emotional strength, and I think Wicca can do that for a lot of people. If you look at a Wiccan like Starhawk, whose work I read a bit before this piece was published to be sure I was being ethical, she’s clearly a good writer, and a very smart, effective person and activist, and has actually written some stuff about group dynamics and problem-solving that rings true no matter what your religion is. As a non-religious person, I can respect her without believing in magic or gods. I hope that makes sense?

  • I.ila October 14th, 2011 4:35 PM

    This is a really great post! I really want to have a party for halloween, and watch creepy possessed movies and do Ouifa board.

  • WitchesRave October 14th, 2011 4:44 PM

    I wish i could have been in with your group of friends!

    btw, all of Petra’s photographs are soo whimsical and beautiful! I just want to print all of them out and stick them on my walls!

  • Harriet October 14th, 2011 5:02 PM

    Love

  • DreDre October 14th, 2011 5:33 PM

    Those Hollywood portrayals of pagans and witches are really problematic, and while witches might be socially representational of female power, they are still part of real religions, and not just toys to be used by teenage girls to feel powerful.

    Witches and Pagans are often fetishized and misrepresented by not only the media, but by groups of people, and they deserve more respect than that.

  • diny October 14th, 2011 6:46 PM

    being teenage. i am sad, angry, panic, tired, and scare of everything. i thought that is abnormal before. but you said, you scared of everything too, Sady. so, it makes me feel like, “oh my, i am not so abnormal. maybe everybody feel scare but never say it.”

  • Pashupati October 14th, 2011 6:48 PM

    “cussing, masturbating, and disobeying her mother—in other words, going through puberty”
    Why, I started doing that before puberty. I guess the thing was that now adults noticed it and/or interpreted it differently? (they say before puberty we do it to “discover our bodies”, but I remember doing it because it made me feel good)
    As in a lot of TV shows, when they enter the room *just* when the teenage daughter/son is masturbating, seems to me it’s always pictured as more embarrassing and somehow dramatic when it’s a teenage daughter. Finding the teenage son masturbating is usually just a light embarrassment and often comedic, and the only show I saw with someone younger masturbating led to a talk about how babies are born.
    Now that movie looks intriguing despite I never got interested in seeing it… Maybe it’ll be too misogynist in a way?
    I too think somehow that article was a bit condescending, both to teenagers despite wanting to be empowering and to religious persons, even if the talk about society’s views on teenage girls was interesting (could have been more thorough, even if I understand it’s a *life* story)
    Anyway, I’ve been interested into wicca. (hinduism and christianism, also)
    Sadly I got insulted on a french wiccan forum for being 11 and female (I guess, for some dude on this same forum got interested at 9), they just “couldn’t believe it”, and said “someone might be pulling a joke on us.” :/
    They continued after I told them how disagreeable it was, so I left and lost my interest. Sometimes I’d like to learn more about religions, but don’t have the time.

  • rebecca October 14th, 2011 7:09 PM

    This is such a beautifully written post! I’ve recently gotten into to witchy stuff like dark lipstick, seances, and floaty black clothing. It’s interesting you connect this kind of thing to fear of the uncertain, because as a high school senior, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as scared of the future or of myself in my entire life.
    I think that mysticism not only helps girls feel empowered and in control of their lives, but also makes the fears they have about college and boys and stuff feel insignificant compared to dark imaginary phenomena like spells and ghosts and hauntings. Do you think it would be at all kosher to rock a pentacle at Jew school?

  • marypee22 October 14th, 2011 9:37 PM

    Wow! Being a witch(even if you’re the only one who knows it) is magical and beautiful. People will scream “Witch!” as you walk out of the gym and instead of crying, like they would expect you to, you grin and smile to yourself.

  • marimba_girl October 14th, 2011 11:23 PM

    The piece makes a valid point about the negative attitudes directed toward teen girls, but as a practicing Pagan I am upset that my religious practices are being trivialized. Paganism is a legit belief and watching The Craft and lighting some candles doesn’t make someone pagan. I understand that the article did not make that point but I would like to make it clear that some people truly believe in pagan practices (whatever they might be) and not all people who identify as pagan are into it because of Sabrina.

    Also, the information regarding the Salem Witch Trials is a bit off. The predomenant theory behind the witch craze has to do with the local politics. Apparently the local people had had several Puritian ministers (?) over a decade and some people liked one over the other and using maps historians were able to determine that this was a continuation of a previous feud. Sorry to get a bit long winded with that. I just wrote an essay about it for AP U.S. History :)

  • Queen of Uncool October 15th, 2011 5:22 AM

    i’m glad you mention anneliese michel, because her case touches on so many aspects of what is wrong with the way girls and women were and are viewed, judged and treated. for those of you who know german, i recommend the book “der teufel ist in mir” (“the devil is in me”) by uwe wolff, he describes the environment she grew up in and explains that she was not possessed, but ill, and how the twisted interpretation of christianity that was imposed on her from a very young age contributed to her identity and her illness (i use the term twisted because i am a christian along the lines of people like anne lamott and the community of taizé). there is one very good movie about anneliese, it’s called requiem and stars the amazing sandra hüller. here’s a trailer with english subtitles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30KLEFl2Nvg ps: i love rookie so much, thank you for being there. 8)

  • kayce. October 15th, 2011 8:15 AM

    ok, i’m a leo sun with a scorpio moon and ascendant ~ tell me what you know, witch! ^_^

    but seriously: this was an amazing piece. thank you for making the feminist connection for me, bc somehow i never have (most likely bc i haven’t seen most of the referenced movies since i myself was a teen girl)… i’ll be rewatching “the craft” with all new eyes. i do remember having the same “i want to do that!” reaction to the film, so maybe there’s something to the hysterical christian moms who want everything banned to prevent copycatitis? ew, i can’t believe i typed that.

  • Naomi October 15th, 2011 9:09 AM

    urgh i love this. being a teenage girl IS really scary. but everything scary is also equally exciting.

  • Izzy October 15th, 2011 9:23 AM

    Kate Bush is my favorite singer. Perfect level of witchiness!

  • jessejames October 15th, 2011 10:12 AM

    Speaking of witches, has anyone read the book ‘Practical Magic’ by Ailce Hoffman or seen the movie version with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman? I was probably influenced by the movie a little too much when I was younger, especially considering it was not meant for eight-year-olds…

    • kayce. October 15th, 2011 2:09 PM

      both. :) i’m predisposed to like the book better, but i like the movie a lot too. even tho nicole kidman’s character wasn’t an adolescent, a lot of the same examples sady cites hold true for her character (and the reasons the townspeople dislike her) too.

  • rhymeswithorange October 15th, 2011 1:52 PM

    What a great article! Thank you

  • Kaetlebugg October 15th, 2011 2:58 PM

    I love this!!!!! It’s so true but so succinct – society fears power & sexuality in women, but women can empower themselves by banding together! Bravo!!

  • Tessa October 15th, 2011 5:25 PM

    This was a great read. Ironically I found a witch hat on the sidewalk today during my walk because it’s windy as all hell and must have blown from somewhere. I scooped it up, ran home with it, and I plan on never giving it back to the wind.

    What really stood out to me in this post was all the uncertainties that come with been that age and being so excited yet so worried that those things may never be yours but are somewhat expected of you. I can’t decide which life I’d rather be living, my teenage one or the one I’m going through now. Both are filled with ups and downs, but the stress never goes away, it’s just displaced to bigger things.

    I love the idea of girls forming close bonds that create some sort of spark when everyone is together. Especially when there’s some spookiness goin’ on. It’s so important and those bonds last forever and are rarely broken.

    Good point about ‘The Exorcist’. Not sure I’ve viewed it in that light, usually because I’m too busy giggling.

    http://teafortessa.blogspot.com

  • Audrey October 16th, 2011 1:27 AM

    I had never seen “The Craft” before, but after i read this i had to watch to know what you were talking about. Now, i’m totally into the whole witch thing, its awsome!

  • splashiumthemighty October 16th, 2011 8:57 PM

    I agree that the theme of men being afraid of powerful women presents itself quite often in both history and pop culture. But that scene in the Exorcist seems more like rape than masturbation.

  • jct348 October 16th, 2011 11:40 PM

    love everything about this :)

  • BanditReX October 20th, 2011 2:19 PM

    Some of my spiritual and religious beliefs are of the pagan religion and are similar to Wicca, firstly, I mean no disrespect and ask you do not be offended by my comment or stop believing in what you believe if you feel it is right. I would like to state that The Craft actually isn’t real. Its more like a slap in the face to most Pagans or Neo-Pagans. And when you are pagan, love the Earth and everything about The Divine, do not use it for selfish gains. When wanting to do a Love Spell, do NOT speak of someone loving you, a specific someone. That’s selfish. When you wish to have someone love you, have a Love Spell to grant love to you, love from anywhere as long as its good and healthy. As for advice, keep all rituals and prayers and anything else positive. Always use sweet grass or lavender or something that keeps off negative spirits and such from your circle,etc. Merry Meet and Blessed Be[:

  • miumachi October 20th, 2011 6:25 PM

    Just did a photoshoot that goes along the lines of this for fall after hearing about local girls, all dressed in white, who set something on fire in a forest.

    http://www.sofiaajram.com/2176722/Teen-Witch