What’s behind our “teen witch” obsession?


Why do we fear the occult — and the teenage girls who dabble in it? Sady Doyle has some clues. Photo by Flickr user alicetiara.

In my research for Backward Messages, I came across more than one story about groups of teen girls who became temporarily obsessed with the film The Craft. This was before Harry Potter. Indeed, it was before Charmed, the show which brought young, attractive, savvy witches to television screens everywhere. Having a teenager suddenly enthralled by witches definitely worried some parents — but most admitted it was a phase, and it passed.

Still, truths are hidden in our scary movies (even if The Craft doesn’t really fall into that category). Sady Doyle, who writes at the blog Rookie, tackles this topic personally and gracefully in one of her latest posts, “The Season of the Witch.” In it, she writes about her own teen obsession with witchy films — as well as the cultural anxieties that are often behind horror films and our fears of them.

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.

Doyle smartly addresses the stories of cultural figures like Annelise Michel, a teenage girl who died in Germany in 1976 of neglect and starvation because her staunchly Catholic parents insisted that her adolescent behavior (and epilepsy) was the work of demons possessing her. In a more fictional account, there’s The Exorcist, which Doyle views thusly:

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.

In our society, women’s sexuality and the occult remain two subjects many people understand less well than they should — and we fear what we don’t understand. It makes sense that these two should be combined, or serve as metaphors for one another, in our films and fiction.

The question remains: why do we fear teenage girls so much? I’ve seen this asked many times, but haven’t found a comprehensive answer. Certainly, it is a topic we revisit in horror films. What’s interesting is, some films are obviously there to allow people to explore these fears in a safe, fictional way. And other films — such as The Craft — help teenage girls come to grips with fears about how their bodies and minds are changing as they enter adolescence and, eventually, adulthood. Although it would be great to leave these fears behind, we haven’t — and this is how we’re dealing with it, for now.

Do these films contribute to actual girl-hatred and girl-fear in our culture? Or do they simply reflect and (hopefully) exorcise the fear that already exists? I suspect it’s more the latter. What do you think?

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4 responses to “What’s behind our “teen witch” obsession?

  1. A modern connection between young women and possession can be linked to the writings of IM Lewis and Mircea Eliade. Eliade initially introduced such ideas to the 1950-60s American academic community via his research on indigenous (and some pointers to ancient) shamanism. His work is lauded as the most thorough study of shamanism, still, though we now realize how biased against women, people of colour, and those with mental illness it was. Lewis’ work (beginning in the 1970s) was along the same vein, though he outright calls women and homosexual men weaker, and tribal cultures “backwards.” These books did not remotely define shamanism, ecstasy, or possession, so much as analyze who becomes possessed and the sociological factors around why that may be. Ultimately they left out any consideration of ‘passion’ or skill, and focused on the sociological factors.
    The connection to the modern way we view trance and possession regarding women is that both of these men readily put forward that people who are more likely to lose control become possessed. People who lose control have less cultural or social viability. They identified such people as women, gay men, and people of colour–all of whom are also measured against very biased assessments of mental illness. However, white men who become possessed are chosen and more credible for the experience, according to Lewis. All of this research is put forward as a means of understanding what shamanism was/is, though much of their writing undermines it, the people who do it, and how they do it.
    Of all of the groups who were singled out as being more susceptible to possession was and remains young women, the group least researched.
    If you haven’t read Goodman’s account of Annelise Michele, it’s fabulous.

  2. Thanks for this comment. How do you think the ideas of such esoteric writers entered mainstream thinking?

    • Convenience? We have our own history of such with the Salem witch trials. I suppose having academics who supposedly are authorities on the topic would only reinforce Abrahamic ideas of women being inferior, thus more willingly possessed. What do you think?

  3. Love this article as well.

    I have an ignorant (read as: ill-researched, unrefined) love for Joseph Campbell’s (going on memory here, but I think it was in his Occidental Mythology book) mentioning of a past matriarchal society shouted down by what would be the seeds of the current patriarchal status quo. To somebody like me, these past glories ring out as eras that need more study.

    I see these horror movies like The Craft as moments when we as a culture look back. A moment when those entrenched in the party line, gasp at the horror of a feminine wisdom—while guys like me who love feminine wisdom only wish that it was the ruling epistemology of the world (even with its dualist “Craft” underpinnings). The Nobodaddy swoons in horror, while “guys” like me are sent reeling,wonderstruck, with the need to live our lives under feminine wisdom’s uplifting aura. One “man’s” horror is another “man’s” transcendental wound.

    Thanks once again for a very cerebral read.

    Regards,
    Asmodai

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