Nancy: “I drink of my sisters, and I take into myself…all the power of Manon.”
Sarah: “That’s all?”
There were three main pop-culture fads going on in the mid-1990s:
They all belonged to a greater supernatural renaissance flourishing during the decade; starting with the True Believers and the fringe, and quickly getting co-opted by the mass media.
The early Nineties were mostly concerned with action stars and Quentin Tarantino-type enterprises; the late Nineties with sci-fi uptopias/dystopias like The Matrix and increasingly gory slasher flicks (mutating into “torture-porn” by the beginning of the 2000s).
But the period of time between 1994-1997 was the “sweet spot” for occult-chic, the alien abduction story, and tales of the elegantly undead/inhuman—often done with a sort of “romantic” charm, a stylish Gothic aesthetic.
I have a theory why this specific era was the ground zero for this type of pop-culture, especially as it related to teens and young people. I’ll get to that theory at the end of this post.
For now, however, I want to look at one of the fads in more detail, that of “witches.”
I put “witches” in quotes because the type of magickal practices being espoused by this wave in pop-culture infuriated some who claimed to follow the older, “pre-Fad” path of Wicca and Witchcraft.
And no movie better encapsulated this “Wicca-Lite” better than 1996’s The Craft.
In the film, Sarah (Robin Tunney), a teenager with apparent supernatural (“magickal”) powers teams up with three witchcraft practitioners at her new school. Sarah’s arrival “completes” the coven, and the four girls are able to do some amazing stunts, cast spells on the their classmates, and so on.
However, trouble happens when the most aggressive and troubled of the four girls, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), decides to take on all the power of their deity—called “Manon”—during an invocation. Nancy grows increasingly crazy, corrupts her two friends, and ultimately decides to kill Sarah.
Faced with impending death, Sarah suddenly taps into the pure “strain” of the magick and her natural powers, defeats Nancy and the others, and gains a new sense of self-realization and empowerment in the process.
I have probably seen this film at least 20 times when I was younger, but a recent viewing in preparation for this post gave me the same impression revisiting the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series had—that I had largely grown out of these types of movies/TV shows, and (also) that they were made mostly for teenagers and younger adults.
That said, it is a film that is worth at least a viewing if you haven’t already done so, with beautiful shots composed by director Andrew Fleming, a wonderful score by the ever-dependable Graeme Revell, and great performances by the four actresses in the main roles.
This is also a movie absolutely woven through (consciously or subconsciously) with magickal symbolism by Fleming. For all the complaints at the time of the movie’s release that it was a “wannabe” film that presented a sanitized and inaccurate portrayal of witchcraft—I mean, images from the Crowley Thoth deck and the Eliphas Levi illustration of Baphomet were included subliminally within the very first frames of the movie!
(We also see a copy of a book entitled “Magick” when they first enter the bookstore, which could also be a reference to Crowley—check out Jake Kotze’s ideas on exactly this subject; Kotze possibly being the biggest expert on the synchromystic aspects of Robin Tunney’s film career—and synchromysticism in general—on the planet).
Each girl in The Craft is perfectly synchronized to match the symbolism of a particular element: Sarah (Earth), Nancy (Fire), Bonnie (Air), and Rochelle (Water)—this symbolism carefully carried through to the very end of the movie in great detail. To me, this was not “sloppy” Hollywood storytelling but rather an attempt to create an occult narrative with some “weight” to it—an occult narrative bolstered not only by the fact that the actress who played Nancy, Fairuza Balk, was already into witchcraft when she was hired for the role, but that a representative of the Covenant of the Goddess was on-set to consult on accuracy.
These four then do an Invocation of the Spirit by the sea—a scene that allegedly was plagued with interference that some might judge as “supernatural” in nature, including equipment constantly malfunctioning and the entire set almost washed away by the tide.
Its intended teen audience notwithstanding, The Craft still strikes me as a very potent movie from a metaphysical viewpoint, possibly as weird and crackling with occult energy as The Shining and The Crow. In particular, Balk’s performance as Nancy is utterly mesmerizing, the character’s descent into madness and evil truly creepy to watch.
The success of The Craft led to a massive explosion in “Wicca”-centered books and culture keyed-in for the masses, especially for teenagers. Other narratives featuring “hip witches” began to emerge in pop-culture, including the Willow storyline on Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which started closely mirroring the “Descent of Nancy” trope) and the TV show Charmed (which used the song from The Craft—the cover of “How Soon Is Now”—as its theme song).
I was going to college at the time, and a close friend of mine started to get into witchcraft partially-based on these pop-culture interpretations and mass-market “instruction manuals”—blending it with related goddess worship (as per mass-market instruction manuals) and feminist empowerment. In particular, she was very obsessed by the movie The Craft and imitated some of the rituals from the film.
And this was all very interesting, in that she constantly (insufferably) contrasted the “good” Right Hand Path/White Magic of her interpretation of Wicca with the “bad” Left Hand Path/Black Magick of Aleister Crowley—Aleister Crowley, who she considered to be evil.
Yet, this movie that she idolized had subliminal images from Crowley’s Thoth deck at the very beginning of the film—not to mention the fact that the occultist himself contributed quite a deal to many of the aspects of Modern Witchcraft she claimed to follow.
That’s my point. Young people, many of them females, were inspired to go down (or at least dabble in) a path of witchcraft because of movies like The Craft and TV shows like Charmed—without having a real background/grounding in the origins of these practices, without having a firm reservoir of knowledge as to what all these symbols and images meant.
And that—not witchcraft and the occult itself, but this particular situation—is, in my opinion, potentially dangerous.
My friend went nuts, by the way. I don’t blame The Craft or the occult in general for that; the seeds were planted long before. But these movies and books were a trigger, haphazardly opening up doors within an admittedly psychically talented individual.
Now, when you consider how many people were opening themselves up to Stuff, to Entities, to God-Knows-What during that supernatural renaissance of the mid-1990s…the alien cults, the invocations, the roleplaying, past-life regressions, and on and on and on…
And here is where my theory comes in.
You may or may not have read my article “Divine Invasions: Philip K Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, and Alien Contact in the 1970s.” The idea behind it was that in specifically the mid-1970s, a lot of people seemed to be in “contact” with aliens, entities, and so on. These claims of “alien/spirit” contact—often with very similar information—may have been triggered/inspired/facilitated by a fad in pop-culture regarding this phenomena at the time.
It is my belief that what happened in the mid-1970’s happens every 20 years or so—the past iteration being in the mid-1950s, during the start of the UFO craze, and the most recently-past one being the mid-1990 period as I have just described (manifesting in the alien/vampire/witch fads).
And we are probably at the tail-end of another such period right now; only, I believe the central metaphor is not aliens or witches or vampires, but instead superheroes (especially of the “mutant” variety).
It is the iconography of the comic book, one that renders itself most available for meme-magick—the meme-magick being the “gateway” that “popular witchcraft” and alien channeling and so on were in past eras.
And I think this is part of why The Craft, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and others just don’t have the same sort of energetic “pull” to me like they used to when I was younger. I don’t think it’s just a matter of them being addressed to a teen audience, but rather: I just don’t think they are resonating the predominant energy of this current era, of this particular “span.”
But the “witch craze” of the mid-Nineties—and perhaps even the story of The Craft itself—might be an informative lesson not just for now, but for the years to come.
“Time Is A Flat Circle” bonus: Fairuza Balk typecasting…
…as Dorothy Gale getting electroshock in 1985’s Return To Oz (which is what happens when you start talking too much about your friends Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion).
…and as Nancy Downs in lockup after a bad Manon hangover in 1996’s The Craft: