Toil and Trouble: A Taste-based Analysis of Witches in Film

Jules Caldeira
October 31, 2023

For centuries, dating back to the Middle Ages, witches have been ever-present in art and literature. Portrayed as beautiful, seductive women or hideous, child-eating fiends, or somewhere in-between, from Grimms’ Fairy Tales to Archie Comics, witches have swept away audiences around the world. It makes sense, then, that as film and television became popular these stories would begin to be told at 24 frames-per-second. As part of our multi-piece tribute to Halloween, we at Katch analyzed twenty-five films to determine just what has kept audiences under their spell for so long.

Photo-Illustration: Katch; Photos: Warner Bros. , Walt Disney Pictures, Columbia Pictures, IFC Films, Oscilloscope, A24, MGM Studios

When taking a genomic approach, certain key characteristics rise to the surface, providing further proof of these films’ distinctive place within movie history.  What is a “genomic approach?” In short, a genomic analysis involves a detailed and granular accounting of each element or genomic category of a film — Context, Characters, Plot, Cinematography, Music, Mood, Aesthetics, etc. Each category is divided into subcategories, then sub-subcategories, and finally individual genes (over 2500), each of which is individually coded on a 10-point scale by a trained analyst — and then aggregated via a rule-based system into “genomic traits.”

The films used for this analysis include: Häxan (1922), The Wizard of Oz (1939), I Married a Witch (1942), Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Black Sunday (1960), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Suspiria (1977), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Teen Witch (1989), The Witches (1990), Hocus Pocus (1993), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996), The Craft (1996), Eve’s Bayou (1997), Practical Magic (1998), Halloweentown (1998), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), Twitches (2005), Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie (2009), The Love Witch (2016), The Witch (2016), Mary and the Witch's Flower (2017), The Wretched (2019), and The Pale Door (2020).

Of these films, 52% are set in the United States, with about half taking place in New England. In addition, 24% are European stories, mostly set in the United Kingdom. In terms of chronology, it was interesting to discover that most films, 84%, opted for a more contemporary setting, usually the present at the time of release, with only Häxan, Black Sunday, The Witch, and The Pale Door being period pieces. Within all titles, 56% focused on middle-class stories, while 24% looked at wealthier sections of society. Only The Witch and Häxan highlighted the struggles of the down-trodden. Although witches are synonymous with Halloween, curiously only three of these films were set on Halloween: Hocus Pocus, Halloweentown, and Twitches.

Every film is a female-driven story except for Pale Door, and even then women play an important role in the characters of Maria and Pearl. However, a handful of films (Harry Potter, Bell, Book and Candle, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) depict men as also capable of practicing magic. In addition, 20% highlighted the teen/high school experience, as seen in Teen Witch, Hocus Pocus, and The Craft. Only 36% of films cast witches in a negative light, with 44% telling stories of true heroes and 32% being villain’s tales. An overwhelming 84% had leads that were exceedingly likeable, even loveable, with only 28% being detestable, and not all of those 28% are even witches. It’s interesting to note that 64% of films had family-dedicated leads. This extended outside of any group or coven, to the lead’s families for both witches and non-witches alike.

24% of stories focused on a romantic couple; however, these were exclusively cisgendered, heterosexual relationships with only one gay character (Jake in Pale Door) in any film. While this isn’t surprising for films from a century ago, it’s strange to still see a lack of representation in that realm. The relationship between family members was also a notable aspect of many films. 16% each followed a father or mother’s journey — both in the case of Eve’s Bayou — and 44% told the story of siblings. At face value, this might be obvious for some (Eve’s Bayou, Twitches, Hocus Pocus), but perhaps not so much for others (Bell, Book and Candle, The Wretched, Pale Door) until you see the film.

A vast majority of films analyzed, 88%, told a story about some aspect of the protagonist’s life. Whether that be a tale of self-discovery (Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Kiki’s Delivery Service), mishap and misfortune (Halloweentown, The Witch), coming of age (Teen Witch, Sabrina), changing course (Practical Magic, Twitches), or others, at least one of these plot elements can be found in nearly every title. Nearly half of these could also be classified as adventure stories, with a quarter depicting a fight for survival (Hocus Pocus, The Wretched, The Pale Door) and 12% each following either a quest (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Harry Potter) or a rescue mission (Halloweentown, Practical Magic).

Given the emphasis on familial relationships, it’s no surprise that most films, 60%, tell stories centered around families. While some focus on a family’s reconciliation (Halloweentown, Twitches), 44% told stories of family problems (I Married a Witch, Black Sunday, Waverly Place) and 12% also highlighted their eccentricities (Sabrina, Practical Magic, Halloweentown). In some titles, friendship was just as important to the story, if not more so. They could be childhood/teenage friends (Harry Potter, Teen Witch, Sabrina), an unlikely friendship (Wizard of Oz, Suspiria, The Craft), or even just a squad on a mission (Bedknobs, Halloweentown, Pale Door).

A classic trope of magic, especially in romantic comedies, is a love potion. As such, no collection of witch films is complete without at least some exploring love and romance. 28% had people falling in love (I Married a Witch, Bell, Book and Candle, and in the case of The Love Witch, multiple people), while 12% engaged in dangerous affairs or tales of love and revenge (Witches of Eastwick, Practical Magic). Eve’s Bayou and The Witch told the stories of relationship troubles, and I Married a Witch went another direction with its almost fairytale-like romance. As these tales unfold, 56% focus on intellectual themes, usually philosophy, spirituality/religion, or ethics and morality, that of which was present in 40% of stories. Only Häxan, The Witches of Eastwick, and The Witch had religion as a defining element in their stories. 24% focused on themes of gender and (exempting Häxan and The Witch)  feminism, as in The Love Witch, Eve’s Bayou, or Practical Magic.

Though many of these films have plots that involve more at-times adult themes, only The Craft, The Wretched, and Pale Door have raw, gritty scripts saturated with vulgarity. 40% choose to engage in clean/cute humor, and 28% has more situational humor, with some overlap, while The Love Witch and Witches of Eastwick opt for darker, more morbid jokes. 72% have a happy ending, and 56% resolve tidily, with most or all plot threads wrapped up. In terms of acting, nearly half of all films delivered iconic acting performances (Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Hocus Pocus) with 40% also being virtuosic (Bedknobs, Eastwick, The Witches). Another 28% were eccentric performances, notably in Hocus Pocus, Eastwick, and The Love Witch.

It wouldn’t be a film about witches without extravagant aspects of production. Over half made use of elaborate costumes (Häxan, The Love Witch, Hocus Pocus), 40% have impactful makeup applications (Wizard of Oz, Black Sunday), and 44% incorporate elaborate visual effects (Bedknobs, The Craft, Harry Potter). 36% also used color to dramatic effect (Wizard of Oz, Suspiria, The Love Witch), which can also lend itself to sophisticated filming and editing (Häxan, Eve’s Bayou, The Witch). In terms of mood/aesthetic, only about a quarter exhibit dark and gloomy moods (The Craft, The Witch). However, a majority 56% exude bright and uplifting moods (I Married a Witch, Kiki’s, Mary and the Witch’s Flower) with 36% also providing a feeling of wonder (Bedknobs, Teen Witch, Halloweentown). 44% were filled with tension (Suspiria, Black Sunday, The Wretched), which didn’t often show up in the brighter films.

Unsurprisingly, 68% of films analyzed were fantasy features, with 52% of all titles also being considered stories of the paranormal (The Craft, Bell, Book and Candle, The Wretched). The only film that didn’t fall into either was Eve’s Bayou, which had characters with supernatural gifts in supporting roles, but was more grounded in realistic drama than the fantastic. Only 28% are horror features, with 48% family-oriented, and 32% also being comedies (I Married a Witch, Teen Witch, Hocus Pocus). Even with the more adult-themed films, only 12% exhibit harsh violence and gore (Pale Door, The Witch, Suspiria), with Eve’s Bayou and The Love Witch being the only two that are sexually explicit.

Though some of these films are separated by nearly a century, created in multiple countries across the globe, there are still commonalities that bind them together, tight as a coven, to continue to spread their magic to audiences decades later. When we look at a film’s traits, we can see how our taste guides us to stories that we’d never think of, or help us understand why we love the types of films we do. It might seem like it, but it’s not witchcraft; it’s just Katch data.

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