Thursday, February 18, 2016

Theory Thursday: Witches Are the Best Supernatural Archetype

Scene from The Witch
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Witch is released in theaters nationwide.
Theory: Witches are the best supernatural archetype.

Scene from The Wizard of Oz
Back in October of last year, I went on at length about why I disliked zombies greatly. A lot of it had to do with their basic function within a grander narrative. Since their disease could be seen as an outbreak that never ends, the story never ends and the catharsis of the story is never resolved. It's a terrible device by which I still have trouble fully accepting 9 times out of 10. With that said, I generally am a fan of supernatural archetypes. Among my favorite movies is the 1931 version of Frankenstein, which helped to popularize the Universal Monsters that ran rampant for the next few decades. In all honesty, I am a sucker for those movies. It also explains why I'm more than excited to lump praise onto Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

So then, what is my favorite type of horror character, or "supernatural archetype" as I shall put it? Since monsters is too broad of a term, it is difficult to even suggest that Frankenstein's Monster and The Wolf Man exist in the same categorical ranking. So instead I am forcing them all to be judged separately. What does that leave us? Well, there's the popular sort like werewolves, zombies, and vampires. Some could argue that they're the general architecture of the horror genre by which all else is judged. However, there's one that I think is just as willing of recognition: the witch. Over the past year, I've come to admire witches in pop culture a lot more than I do any of these other archetypes. Werewolves don't have enough going on. Zombies are too anticlimactic. Vampires are just as dull in that they're more scary conceptually than in execution (he bites you, then you're a vampire. Big whoop). 

The witch is far more complicated than that. Of course, one could easily just mistake them as being mediocre people with powers, but that's if you're hanging out in the realm of Sabrina the Teenage Witch or even the Harry Potter franchise. True, these are just as integral to our pop culture understanding of the archetype, but they're so much more than female wizards. For whatever reasons, witches have aged better than wizards in the zeitgeist, and they've even adapted to more modern practices. With wizards, Merlin was about as progressive as things got until J.K. Rowling came along. For witches, they've constantly been reinvented to the era, whether it be for Bewitched, or later on as existential sidekicks on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For an archetype whose sole purpose is to wield ungodly powers, they've come a long way from the silly green face paint and broomstick riding stereotype that fueled pop culture with The Wizard of Oz and such (though in fairness, there was a normal-looking witch in the film, too. Still, she was overshadowed by the film's antagonist and Margaret Hamilton's phenomenal performance). 

Though in fairness, every supernatural archetype *has* progressed in some way over the decades. It's what keeps them interesting after all. Vampires have run the gamut from Nosferatu to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Twilight. The best archetypes age well and change with the times. Witches just happen to have the advantage of being more photogenic than a werewolf. It also helps that witches are singular in sex, and have pretty much become owned by women in ways that go beyond a derogatory sense. Still, there's something deeper at its core that makes witches far more perplexing than werewolves, vampires, and zombies. I think it's just that it's part of cultural heritage in ways that most supernatural hoopla was set aside as society became more conscious. By that, I mean that we turn away from film and go back to history.

The one thing that gets overlooked when judging history is how less naive the times usually get. It could be that there's a blatant discovery that changes culture for the better. However, there was a time when witches were technically as real as the person writing this. If one consults history books, or the fascinating 1922 documentary Haxan, you will discover that witches aren't so much evil as they are misunderstood women. In America, the notable moment came with the Salem Witch Trials, where women accused of unnatural forces were killed (if they survived a drowning, they would be considered witches. It was a catch 22). As time has shown, witches aren't necessarily real, though the notion that they were once thought to be is an astounding feat.

In a way, witches are great because of how ingrained in history they are. Beyond the Salem Witch Trials or the goofy iconography, they were considered a legitimate threat. True, one can jump from werewolves to actual wolves, but witches were always witches. During the time, they were considered anti-religious figures, almost like demons put  upon earth. As Haxan explains, they were women who befriended Satan and needed to be departed of immediately. However, the genius of Haxan comes towards the climax of the film where it reveals what is held as common opinion today. Women weren't witches, but sometimes women who were mentally ill and unable to get treatment not just because of their misinterpreted lifestyle, but because it didn't exist. That was if you were an extreme case.

I know that it's breaking some protocol to suggest that I like witches not for "supernatural" reasons, but simply natural ones. However, it is so tied into what is appealing about them. In a sense, witches embody the oppression of women over the centuries in ways that actually happened. True, this sexism has mostly died down, but it reflects a fear that comes with simply existing. Even if the hostile undertones have been forgotten in large part in favor of silly cartoons and stories, witches can still be seen as antagonists who ruin a normal person's day. There's no denying that this weekend's The Witch should probably have a witch present to maintain fear. In fact, I am not opposed to there being good and bad witches. It's just that the history of how they have been edited from pariahs into icons is fascinating. Even the fact that they work as allegories in works like "The Crucible" is evident of their depth.

Unlike werewolves, vampires, or zombies; witches have progressed while also becoming more progressive. Like culture that is changed from derogatory to empowering, the choice to make witches from evil into fully fleshed out characters is evidence that times are changing. If witches were the symbol of oppression in the 19th century, the 20th century has done wonders to make them more representative of powerful women, and not usually in the offending manner. Witches can still be bad, but it's just as intriguing to see them be good and normal-ish in media like Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It's just a shame that there's only been one Oscar-nominated witch performance in history (Meryl Streep for Into the Woods), when there have have been oh so many that have given strength to the belief that witches are better than most supernatural archetypes.

Yes, it could be true that witches don't always make for the best movies, but they definitely have more going on than their competitors. They are allow to be empathetic characters with problems transcending their condition. They can be so much more than the source for simply evil, as is the limitations of their supernatural archetype competitors. However, their context is a fascinating evolution of how culture perceives women and how it can work as subtext. Comparatively, wizards cannot hold a candle to the strange and problematic history of witch culture. For that and many more reasons, they are the best, even if they don't always get the best scripts to work with.

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