When in the spooky season there are few images that stir us quite like that of the witch. Truthfully, in the whole of human history, the witch has always occupied a very special place in the imagination. From the traditional wise woman healer to the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials, all the way to modern practices of the craft, different versions of the witch of intrigued, empowered, and frightened. It’s no surprise that cinema offers a whole coven of incredible witches! Here are just 5 of our favorites!
1. Winifred Sanderson, Hocus Pocus (played by Bette Midler)
You couldn’t start this list with any other witch! When it comes to witches in cinema, Winifred Sanderson is quintessential. Everything about her embodies the spirit of Halloween! She’s loud and colorful. She’s bombastic and enchanting. She’s deliciously wicked.
For many film viewers, Winifred Sanderson and HOCUS POCUS are an introduction to Halloween in film and cinematic incarnations of witchcraft. Honestly, the character is perfect for that role. The film lightly touches on a (deeply sanitized) history of witches and gently steers the viewer through some elements associated with the craft.
While HOCUS POCUS gets no points for accuracy in its portrayal of witches, Winifred Sanderson is a queen supreme. A witch I can return to over and over.
2. Sally Owens, Practical Magic (played by Sandra Bullock)
A huge part of the witch’s allure is the way we connect witches with feminine empowerment. Witches are a symbol of female power, defiance, and connection. The notion of a coven of like-minded women, connected in their own power, and working towards a goal is quite uplifting.
PRACTICAL MAGIC is one of those films that was made to be watched with your best friend. All of the cozy, spooky vibes that make it a seasonal favorite are bolstered by its portrayal of the Owens family of women.
Sally is the witch we can all relate to. She’s beautiful but introverted. She’s magnetic, funny, and incredibly kind. She accepts the ridicule of the village gracefully but still uses her powers to help others. Bullock breathes such sincerity into the role of Sally and watching the character grow and embrace her power makes for “stand up and cheer” cinema. The season wouldn’t be complete without a coven viewing of PRACTICAL MAGIC.
3. Elaine, The Love Witch (played by Samantha Robinson)
First of all, if you have not yet seen THE LOVE WITCH make plans to remedy that as soon as possible. The film is a spot-on tribute to 1960s horror, it oozes style, and packs a double punch as an incredibly playful film that does not shy away from difficult themes.
Elaine is the very definition of “spellbinding.” She’s everything you want to see in a cinematic witch. Elaine is the darkly beautiful village witch that lives in a large Victorian house, crafting her wares and ensnaring men in the web of her magic. #Goals.
Elaine, in a flawless portrayal by Samantha Robinson, hearkens to the ideal of the witch as the ultimate femme fatale. She’s all woman and it’s her womanly magic that furthers her goals and gets her what she wants. I dare you to watch THE LOVE WITCH and not walk away prepared to hex your ex.
4. Thomasin, The Witch (played by Anya Taylor-Joy)
Some of you may be saying, “Wait a minute. Thomasin isn’t a witch for the majority of the movie!” The complaint is noted and filed away. However, Thomasin makes our list of cinematic witches because she, better than any other witch on this list, represents the true mythos of the witch. Witches, for much of history, were the creation of patriarchal institutions that feared feminine sexuality and struck down female defiance. A witch is the embodiment of anything that rails against the confines of society.
Thomasin exists at the apex of this concept. She’s a young girl, coming into her body and coming into her own, in Puritanical New England. As the horrifying events of the film unfold, we see Thomasin blamed and vilified just as real victims of the witch trials were. In a parallel to the threat in the woods, Thomasin as a sexual and independent being is viewed as equally threatening and she is punished for it.
At the film’s climax, where Black Phillip (in his true form) visits Thomasin, she is forced to make a choice. While it is portrayed as a selling of her soul (and, don’t get us wrong, she does), the truth of that arc is that she is accepting her own independence and agency. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Yes, please.
5. The Grand High Witch, The Witches (played by Anjelica Huston)
The Grand High Witch occupies a similar place in our hierarchy of cinematic witches as Winifred Sanderson. The Grand High Witch, brought to life by the beguiling Anjelica Huston, is both freaky and fabulous.
Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES is one of those stories that most of us remember from our youth. Just spooky enough to have you leaving the night light on. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the power and historical context of the witch, but what about the version of the witch we remember from when we were little? The cackling hag that will snatch you away and gobble you up? Enter the Grand High Witch.
Behind the illusion of beauty is the monster within. A perfect allegory for seeing beyond appearances and into true intentions. Once again, the cinematic witch speaks to the things that matter most. Huston’s portrayal of the Grand High Witch is one of my childhood favorites and THE WITCHES is a wonderful place to start with a horror lover in training!