From their origins in Shakespearean plays, witches have typically been associated with the idea of evil, ugly hags that are hell-bent on causing disorder and something to be feared. More recently, they have undergone a transformation and have been accepted in various forms of popular culture. Witches have even been idolised by one demographic in particular, and that is why a group of gays is called a coven.
Witches first appeared in Western culture in the tragedy Macbeth in 1606, and were personified as evildoers who worked best at deceit and trickery. Having been written at a time when England had just entered the Renaissance period from the Dark Ages, citizens were very superstitious and suspicious those who did not fit in with the social norm at the time. The 15th century was also a time where witch-hunts were widespread throughout Europe and parts of North America. Bridget Bishop was the first women to be tried and found guilty of witchcraft and executed in Salem, Massachusetts. It is estimated that tens of thousands of people were executed for witchcraft. From these very early depictions of witches, there is a strong parallel between the plight of these characters and the persecution of many LGBTQ+ people.
“From a young age, LGBTQ+ people have a been presented with relatable characters that mirror their emotional turmoil through puberty and questions of self-identity.”
In the 20th century, witches were used as plot device or specific character that was born with magical abilities that made them different. Comics such as Marvel’s X-Men is a famous example of children’s literature that adopts an allegory to the struggles of both LGBTQ+ people and the civil rights movement. One film adaptation of the series even includes the line: “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” From a young age, LGBTQ+ people have a been presented with relatable characters that mirror their emotional turmoil through puberty and questions of self-identity.
Now that the foundations and similarities between the two groups have been established, it’s here that gay men in particular maintain their idolisation of witches. In the popular coming-of-age film The Craft, a group of practising witches befriends a student with powers and they form their own coven. This film reflects the “otherness” given to theses characters, and focuses on the four characters with little screen time given to other students in the high school. While some see this as the message of “what makes you different, makes you special” another interpretation is that these witches have been ostracised from the student body due to “what makes them special.” Sound familiar?
“The latter half of the 20th century was not an accepting time for gay men, with public fear from the AIDS epidemic led to many laws being passed which discriminated against gay people. This was reflected in many television series, notably Bewitched and Charmed.”
The latter half of the 20th century was not an accepting time for gay men, with public fear from the AIDS epidemic led to many laws being passed which discriminated against gay people. This was reflected in many television series, notably Bewitched and Charmed. These series saw witches juggle their supernatural powers with living in a society that didn’t understand or tolerate them. In Bewitched, Samantha Stephens marries a mortal and vows to lead a number life, attempting to turn away from the gifts she was imbued with at birth. Charmed followed three sisters who discover they are witches and attempt to balance personal lives with their duty of protecting “innocents” and defeating “the source” (an on-the-nose stand in for the patriarchy). While these characters all held amazing powers, the source of most conflict arises from their need to hide themselves in the greater world, an all too relatable feeling for gay men.
“With the new teaser for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina released on the 30th November, this series is exploring the character’s pursuit of power and freedom.”
As with most cultural movements, there is a counter-culture that develops from it. In 1988 cult classic Elvira, Mistress of the Dark starring Cassandra Peterson, portrays a witch as a hyper-feminine, hyper-sexualised character and has been since claimed as a gay icon. This movement towards owning one’s sexuality was celebrated in the LGBTQ+ community. However, where there is progress, there is usually pushback. Due to conservative ideals at the time, writers were heavily restricted in how they were allowed to portray queer characters in media. This led to the unfortunate literary trope, known as “burying your gays”, where same sex couples who engaged in sexual or even intimate acts, must either break-up due to infidelity or be killed. This trope was supposed to instil a fear in any reader considering to pursue such “lifestyle choices”. Perhaps one of the most tragic and notable examples of this trope is Willow and Tara from the fantasy series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fallout from the untimely death of her girlfriend Tara, led Willow down an almost literal dark path in pursuit of vengeance.
Whereas in the past, characters who embrace their drive for power were painted as a cautionary tale, for example the Wicked Witch of the West, modern portrayals have begun into shine a potentially positive light on the pursuit of power. With the new teaser for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina released on the 30th November, this series is exploring the character’s pursuit of power and freedom. Unsurprisingly, when the first season of this darker telling of Sabrina, was widely received by critics and gay men alike. Maybe it is pure wish fulfilment, seeing a character seize power and go against the status quo, but regardless, the second season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina will have many looking forward to April 2019 in anticipation.