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Season of the Witch

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The new season of American Horror Story has been predictably psychotic. If Kathy Bates keeping slaves in an underground torture chamber and turning one into a Minotaur doesn't provide you with enough grindhouse fare, you can always be "shocked" by the gang rape or the living burial or the assemblage of body parts that becomes the "perfect" boyfriend. Perfect, at least, in a "Monkey's Paw" sort of way.

Witchcraft represents the least outré element of the new season. AHS:Coven nods to the idea of witchy women as threatening to male power and representing a spiritual attitude opposed to the patriarchy of the Abrahamic religions. But this seems just a bit threadbare at this point. Allison Hannigan's spell-casting character Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer conveyed all these idea about the neo-pagan movement more than a decade ago, In fact, she both embodied the feminine principle in spirituality and critiqued it by talking about all the "wanna-blessed-be's" she had to contend with in her college's Wiccan support group.

And yet, lately, it seems it's not the witch as misunderstood earth mother that's making a comeback. Instead, it's our dark, psychoanalytically interesting terrors of the feminine that have come to haunt our dreams with a vengeance.

Take this year's surprise hit, The Conjuring. A film that made piles of money during a summer when the giant robots and superheroes of typical blockbusters underperformed, this mash-up of paranormal encounters with misread history hit the box office sweet spot. It had as its premise the assumption that the accused of Salem, Massachusetts included actual witches whose power endured beyond the grave.

A much stronger entry in this genre appeared in the early summer, Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem. Zombie's fever dream also imagined that Salem had played host to an ancient satanic coven rather than simply to misguided Puritans and persecuted women. His art house horror did little to tempt audiences but his theme suggests that he continues to be able to dip horrifyingly into our zeitgeist and excavate our bad dreams.

Not long ago, witches seemed a bit passé, evoking Margaret Hamilton cackling away or a vintage Halloween decoration featuring an old hag casting her flying shadow again a sickly yellow moon. And yet, historian of the European witch trials Malcolm Gaskill suggests that they represent a kind of perennial panic for men, and women, about the nature of femininity. The witch has generally been imagined as female and, writes Gaskill in his Witchcraft: A Short History, "the mysteries of womanhood lent substance to the mystery of what it meant to be a witch."

So why do we care so much about the witch at this particular cultural moment? Perhaps its because we seem obsessed with the "mysteries of womanhood." Over the last two years, lawmakers have introduced 500 different measures in 39 different states in bills that seek to redefine rape, limit abortion rights or restrict access to contraception. In some of these cases, antiquated notions about the female body are at work, suggestions that it's a strange and mysterious place that must be investigated, supervised and controlled. Virginia's requirement that abortion recipients undergo a transvaginal ultrasound represents one of the worst examples of this attitude. The Missouri legislator who suggested that women's bodies could block a pregnancy if they suffered "legitimate rape" represents another.

These political moves are perhaps part of the general discourse about how scary ladies can be, a symptom of much deeper cultural oddities that seem to emerge from our beneath our collective beds with regularity.

Why are women so frightening to certain elements in our society? Sheri Holman's brilliant 2011 novel Witches on the Road Tonight explores not only the fears awakened by the witch but the very nature of fear itself. Unwinding a story over several generations, Holman begins with the visit of WPA photographers to the dark hollows of Appalachia where magical traditions that have roots in Elizabethan England and beyond flourished among the original settlers and into the twentieth century.

Holman introduces us to the witch Cora, an Appalachian woman who, in a bit of magical realism, shapeshifts into a panther at night and goes out to ride men to their near deaths. Cora presents a terrifying aspect, able not so much to shift her shape as to come out of it. She literally leaves her human skin behind, as she becomes a creature of darkness and desire in the night.

I assign Witches on the Road Tonight regularly in my college class "Monsters in America," a course that explores American history in relation to the horror narratives we seem to so desperately need. Almost all of my students, even when they write strong and supple responses to the book, tend to identify Cora as the monster of the piece. Some even compare her to the traditional vampires and werewolves of classic horror cinema even though the novel never really nods in this direction.

What many of these readers miss is that the character of Cora embodies our historical tendency to utterly identify women with desire and then punish them for this identification. She becomes the monster by attempting to live beyond the boundaries of an abusive husband and an abusive culture. She must shapeshift into a Thing that terrifies that culture in order to do so.

Such concepts abound in the way we speak about women and their desires. Take a look, if you can bear it, at the really extraordinary amount of cultural blather surrounding the Miley Cyrus controversy. Her performance at this year's VMAs set off something close to a full-blown moral panic by an online and media culture that told us how silly her display had been and also refused to stop bloviating about it. Sean Hannity spent close to ten minutes on the controversy, with a former Miss America talking endlessly about how America should not be talking about it.

Why this attention? Because, whatever her motives, the former Hannah Montana tripped the wire that set off all our cultural alarms concerned with feminine innocence, erotic power and the mystery of the gender performance. In other words, the same forces that gives us our nightmares of the witch.

Tens of thousands of women will slip out of their skin this Halloween season and change into various sexy firemen, sexy vegetables and sexy versions of all manner of things. They'll be laughed at and critiqued by both the right and left. Both sides will miss the fact that these women are shapeshifting, playing with boundaries of desire they would face even greater punishment for crossing on any day but Halloween.

"In this whole wide wicked world, the only thing you have to be afraid of is me." Jessica Lange delivered this line with all her chills up the spine power on a recent American Horror Story episode. It sums up all the allure and terror of her character, the witch "Supreme" Fiona, and the panic that the idea of the witch has been able to induce from time immemorial. Like Dr. Frankenstein, we can't get away from the monster we made.