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. ♦