Where did all the Teenage Witches come from?

Jack Dark argues that they’re largely a creation of the media and marketing in the 90s, but the pagan community has a strong responsibility towards them now:

Teenage Witches in the media, The Craft

Teenage Witches in the media, 1996’s “The Craft”.

I was a Teenage Witch!

Well, sort of…

I’d read a fair bit and was doing my own small spells and rituals. This was a few years before the Internet made information about witchcraft and paganism easily available. The Farrars’ A Witches’ Bible seemed to be the choice for young people of my era wanting to learn about real Witchcraft. It was a wonderfully gothic looking tome which could sometimes be found sitting in bookshops drawing attention to itself, with that title promising that it was some kind of encyclopaedic doorway to forbidden magical knowledge.

Back then, serious books on magic or witchcraft were exceedingly hard to come by unless you knew exactly where to look. A Witches’ Bible seemed like a naughty artefact that the larger chain bookshops would sell more as a novelty item with an arcane curiosity value, than out of a commitment to cater for people wanting to learn about the subject.

Now, with experience I know that it’s a fairly decent book about Wicca-flavoured witchcraft, but the magic word ‘Bible’ in the title, together with the idea that it was some kind of heretical Witches’ Bible in opposition to the regular Bible, and the white on black drawings on the front of broomsticks and ritual tools, were what made it seem so appealing back then.

I saw it on the shelves many times, but never had either enough nerve or cash to buy it, so my first book on witchcraft, actually written by a witch, was Doreen Valiente’s Witchcraft for Tomorrow much later.

Nowadays, there’s a whole industry selling books on witchcraft aimed at teenagers and the ‘Teen Witch’ is a demographic that the pagan community, once closed to anyone who wasn’t able to pass for grown-up, is having to deal with.

Let’s not beat about the bush here – a lot of the books and material aimed at these kids is exploitative rubbish intended to rid them of their money without actually imparting any useful information, whilst feeding the egos of the authors by setting them up as wise gurus. They’re sold to people wanting to use spells as a ready-made quick-fix solution and contain little in the way of spirituality.

There have always been kids who are into the dark and spooky, and let’s face it, Halloween is much more fun than Christmas, and then there are those who come to paganism through environmentalism, but there’s another aspect to it now, which needs to be understood – the ways that media representations inspire people.

So – back to I was a Teenage Witch.

There wasn’t actually a film called that made in the 1950s, but there might well have been. There were, however, a lot of horror films aimed at teenagers with titles like I was a Teenage Werewolf or I was a Teenage Frankenstein.

Teenagers, and all the physical changes that come with puberty were seen as scary in an America that was just starting to openly talk about such things, so they added these into the mix of cinematic monstrosities to reflect back at the audience some of the fears of society, as well as fears of the supernatural kind. These films don’t seem very scary at all now, but teenage rebellion was a very real issue in a 50s America that was struggling with its identity as a nation after the Second World War and into the Cold War. If teenagers rebelled, who would join the army to protect against the Reds under the bed? They might even easily become those very Reds if they came under the influence of reefers or subversive literature and politics! Or worse… the atomic age meant that the fear that mutant monsters might be around the corner was one that also took hold.

They way that these fears were safely contained was to show their defeat on the cinema screen, and also to provide wholesome equivalents. Alongside the ‘I was a teenage…’ monster movies, one of these first appeared in Archie comic and was the squeaky clean and friendly Sabrina the Teenage Witch. That’s where the phrase ‘Teenage Witch’ came from as far as I can tell. The TV series came later but it was comics that were sold in supermarkets and newsagents stands that were trying to appeal to a younger audience than the horror films of the 50s that first used the term.

Over the pond, there are two very significant British contributions to the idea and fictional evolution of the Teen Witch, which were grounded in a very different cultural context. Jill Murphy’s wonderful The Worst Witch was published in 1975, and for perhaps the first time showed in both prose and pictures young girls studying and practising magic and spells, wearing pointy hats, riding broomsticks and other doing other witchy things. The Worst Witch books were Enid Blyton stories by way of The Addams Family albeit with slightly less barely repressed lesbianism and transvestisism, but even though the solutions to difficult situations that characters found themselves in were usually magical, they still required bravery and creative thinking and intelligence, so were largely portrayal of young witches as role models. However, Mildred Hubble, the main character and ‘worst witch’ wasn’t a power fantasy, or a naff ‘chosen one’ – she was someone who you could relate to whilst being a bit of a feminist icon, of sorts.

There was also, in early 80s, a magazine called Misty aimed at teenage girls, which was mostly supernatural mystery stories but also featured articles about tarot cards, fortune telling, astrology, and mythology. The ‘hostess’ of this magazine was a very goddess-like ‘Lady of the Mists’ called ‘Misty’. The editor of Misty was very pagan-friendly and also responsible for Slaine in 2000AD, and I’m sure he didn’t have any kind of agenda to convert his readership into witches, but he was putting these kinds of things into a magazine that had a large teenage female readership and could be bought in almost any newsagent. In Misty, this editor made sure that things like witches, pagan gods and mythology were mostly presented in a positive and fairly accurate way.

Now, we come to the time when I was reading about magic and witchcraft, and meeting other pagans for the first time – the early 90s. There’s a groundswell of interest and more books being published with ‘Wicca’ or ‘Witch’ in the title, and the Internet leading to easy communication between groups and organisations. Paganism was growing and spreading.

Now, you knew I was going to mention this sometime, so there it is – The Craft. Hollywood finally figured out that there was a teenage girl demographic they could aim a horror film at. And in the vague tradition in Hollywood of hiring consultants to advise when producing films, the producers of The Craft hired a representative of a pagan organisation – The Covenant Of The Goddess – as an advisor. This advisor was put in the strange position of being both asked for contributions which would make the Witchcraft seem authentic, but also being told that it was a fantasy film which wasn’t going to take the material too seriously.

So, what we got was some fairly accurate Wiccan terminology with the casting of circles and calling of quarters shown and a representation of a dedication ritual with what were once supposed to be secret passwords revealed onscreen. This was in addition to the special effects-led fantasy elements such as flying and shapeshifting. So, there were a few authentic bits, but it’s still largely a fantasy film.

However – what you do have, and this is the important bit, is a group of outsiders, gaining confidence and empowerment through practising witchcraft. Up until the fantasy elements kick in, this is clearly being shown. The girls in The Craft are a group of friends becoming more attractive, having better social lives, and being better able to deal with the pressures of school, through getting together to practice magic. Well, until it all goes wrong because they argue over boys, but anyway…

The Craft led to Charmed, which also borrowed terms from ‘proper’ witchcraft, and used the word ‘Wicca’ and also the ‘Rule of Three’, which is based on the Wiccan law of threefold return. We’ve also got the original teen witch, Sabrina on television, and although that’s further away still from the real thing, these are all young role models who call themselves witches.

And then you’ve got Harry Potter and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and… and… and…

Now, I’m not saying that all the young witches that are around nowadays were inspired by these fictional creations. It’s more of a two-way thing, with the growth of paganism and the media portrayal of witches influencing each other. And, of course, a desire for spirituality that’s not being supplied by the more established religions, and rising environmental awareness, also linked in with the interest in paganism amongst the young and the increased availability of information about it. But the relationship between fiction and the growth of interest in paganism, witches, witchcraft and Wicca is clear.

In the midst of all this, what a few people did latch onto as a very marketable concept was the term ‘Teen Witch’.

And this is where it all goes wrong.

The various books with ‘Teen Witch’ in the title or subtitle, so far almost without exception (and yes, for the sake of research, I’ve read most of them) seem to be aimed at people who want to emulate their on-screen role models. The writers insert themselves into their books as fountains of knowledge and wise advice and promise that the spells that the books are padded out with can solve all of their readers’ problems.

There’s a lack of honesty about where the practices that these writers are handing down come from. They say ‘real witches do this…’ or ‘real witches never do this…’ and with almost every instance I’ve been able to think of exceptions.

There’s little context or background given, and the advice about the things that matter to teenagers, like school, relationships, sex, drugs, booze, friends, bullying, parents etc is little better than that in the problems pages of any teen magazine, and often worse – because they frequently convince teenagers to try magic as a substitute for practical solutions which may be more appropriate.

The writers either seem to be overbearing motherly types who feel they know what’s best, because they have teenage children of their own, or are deadly serious born-again pagans who fear a return to The Burning Times and seem to expect to be constantly persecuted for their beliefs and offer advice about that to about this, rather than about anything more useful and relevant to day to day life.

These books seem to be trying to shape their readers before they get on to other material or think too much for themselves, and don’t really seem to be an accurate representation of what does go on, on the pagan scene or what witches really do. The only reason I can think of for this is to bolster the egos and wallets of the authors. They promise empowerment, but don’t deliver real knowledge or information about the whole realm of paganism, witchcraft or magic. The same goes for certain witchcraft organisations that market their events and services at teenagers that I could name.

In many ways what they are offering is a trade off – ‘If you do this, all your problems will be solved BUT many people will want to persecute you for solving them in this way and for using words like ‘Witch’ to describe yourself’.

There’s a hint of truth in this, perhaps, but it seems like alongside the spell-casting problem-solving they’re also offering a form of rebellion which is as sanitised and harmless as the music that tries to pass for punk these days, which people may find appealing because of the promise that others will find it offensive.

So, from the situation maybe ten or fifteen years ago where younger people seeking information, guidance and teaching were told to come back when they were a bit older, or if they were lucky were pointed at the very, very few reputable pagan youth organisations that existed, we’ve now got a very distinct figure of the ‘Teen Witch’ in the media and society, who we can’t and definitely now shouldn’t just tell to come back when they’re older, because if we do there’s plenty of other people who’ll view them greedily as a marketing demographic or worse.

Today’s teen witches are in danger of being given very bad advice and exploited and ripped off by profit-driven organisations which are all too often unaccountable commercial businesses masquerading as spiritual movements.

This risk has always been there, but now with the whole teen witch concept established as a ‘thing’ there are far more kids that we’ve got to take some responsibility for offering good advice to.

Maybe this isn’t something we wanted or asked for, but it’s something we’ve got to think about and the serious pagan organisations which actually do hold ethics above profits shouldn’t just turn the younger seekers away, but should find some way of giving them what they need, which is good advice and the way towards knowledge, instead of just selling them a pre-packaged persecution complex and false promises of spells to solve all their problems.

What do you think?

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    19 Responses to Where did all the Teenage Witches come from?

    1. Zoe says:

      But yes, PT is always in a non-alcoholic venue (which is not published but given to those who enquire), and starts at 7 which is unfortunately as early as I can get there from work (we do some daytime weekend stuff occasionally too) and have an active Facebook group people chat on.

      We’ve had people attend who are under 18 and one girl was accompanied by her dad who sat reading the paper at the next table which I thought was an ideal solution 🙂

      Thanks for the praise!

    2. Zoe says:

      I really really wish I could do more for the full on under 18s, but the more years pass the less qualified I feel to do so! I’m now 25!

      I just spent the years of 13-20 feeling quite isolated (hence the moot and the keenness to help Pagan teens) and much as people have tried to set up UoL Pagan societies in the past few years nothing has ever stuck so I suppose the student demographic is actually the most common one served by PT as there is a lack of any official Pagan student community in London.

      • Ginger says:

        I don’t think there is any requirement that the Youth Officers need necessarily be of a particular age. Working with teenagers professionally myself, i often found that it was our younger staff who found it the most difficult (not universally of course, some where great). I really do think it’s more a case of being able to see something from the perspective of a teenager, in being a good role model and in encouraging discovery and exploration safely. Please don’t feel less qualified because you are 25, I know some people in their 70’s who engage teenagers wonderfully, which makes you quite the youngster!

    3. Ginger says:

      To some of the comments above about PF Youth Officers. Zoe Bidgood who runs the Pagan Threads moot and is the London Youth Officer, is a gem. Very approachable, down to earth and will *always* put herself out and help others, especially youngsters, she would never patronise anyone and is very respectful of different view points. I have been to the moot a few times and whilst it’s true that there are quite a lot of older people who attend, it is at least accessible to younger pagans, unlike a lot of other moots, which are in pubs and later in the evenings. I have heard that there are also actual youth groups in consideration (ie under 18’s specifically) so I greatly look forward to that too.

    4. Devonian Druid says:

      🙂 nice to see Misty mentioned again.
      I read it as a kid, I once tried the ones meant to be aimed at teens and soon reverted back to Misty as far better reading.

      It might not have been intentionally providing converts but it certainly introduced me to Bast who has been with me ever since. 🙂
      That and it taught me to have an open mind which has made some other religious paths unpaletable and made paganism just seem like commonsense that I’d discovered for myself already when I found out that other people thought similarly.

      Maybe there’s a whole host of us who really should be titled Misty-Witches/ Misty-Druids because the roots of our spirituality grew out of a healthy mulch of Misty magazines.

      • Jack Dark says:

        Thanks. That’s really interesting to hear. There were other girls’ supernatural and horror comics around at the time, but Misty was different because of the supporting features that it had.

    5. Seth says:

      There is actually a 1989 film called “Teen Witch”, just thought you might like to know. I was a teen Witch too but only read one book specifically aimed at teens, though to be honest, most of the pop Wicca stuff I read was so watered down and patronising it may as well all have been aimed at children. I far preferred the “classics” (Farrar, Valiente, Crowther etc)

    6. Jack Dark says:

      If you’ve still got the article, it might be interesting to have it scanned and put up online somewhere.

    7. Paul Mitchell says:

      Thanks for the recommendation Jack:-)

      I may still have the Bliss article. If so, do you want it?

      Is there still a youth officer for the PF? I wouldn’t know, I’m not a member.

    8. Paul Mitchell says:

      Don’t forget that the pagan federation was heavily involved in an article for the teen can’t Bliss. This lead to a significant amount of correspondence to the OF from young people wanting advice,a result of which was the creation of an advice leaflet for young people and the creation of a’youth officer’ post. This happened to coincide with the creation of Minor Arcana, a group hoping to serve young peoples search for a pagan identity.

      • Jack Dark says:

        Thanks Paul. As I recall, Minor Arcana ended in genuinely sad circumstances. I was very much a supporter of it, but the opposition it faced even from within the pagan scene, was in part the inspiration for this article.

        The Bliss magazine thing was interesting. I remember that now. That was, if I’m getting my dates right, very much linked with The Craft film though, I think? Almost certainly inspired by it anyway.

        Is there a current PF Youth Officer? All I can really remember about that is one particular one overdoing it a bit in the media and upsetting his employers by not exactly coming off as entirely professional. Anyone in this role really needs to be exceptionally media savvy as well as having utterly impeccable experience working with young people.

        You’d be good at it, I think…

        • Hello!
          Just to answer the above question, yes the PF does have a Youth Manager – a lovely young lady by the name of Ellie Hughes, who also co-runs a Pagan youth moot in London, with the PF-London Youth Officer, Zoe Bidgood.

        • I.D. says:

          Is it actually a youth moot? I saw an advert for this group and it says under 35? That isn’t really youth if we’re honest is it? Minor Arcana were actually youth.

          I’m interested though, what does the PF Youth Manager and Officers do? What are their qualifications for this role?

        • Paul Simmonds says:

          I didn’t find her nice, my friend and I asked her a question and she lectured us in a really patronising, pretentious way. She is more suited to the WI than a pagan youth officer.

        • Jack Dark says:

          Well, you guys do know what they really get up to at the Women’s Institute gatherings, right?

          Oooh, dear, puts even the Chaos Magick crowd to shame to shame, that does?

          But, well, maybe she was having a bad day. Try again, perhaps? Or if you do have any questions or stuff you want to bring up, there’s the facebook group now.

          I agree that 35 is a bit of a high upper age for a ‘youth’ group, perhaps, but then, it is good to be able to have a few older people along so that the younger ones can benefit from their experience.

          One thing I have noticed, that can be a problem, though, is something I call ‘new old pagan syndrome’ where older-looking people are new to the scene, yet after only a very short time younger ones approach them for help and advice, because they look like they’ve been around a while. Conversely, there are some people who may be only in their early 30s, but who’ve spent 20 years+ on the pagan scene. Then there are the people who have had ’20 years experience’ but it’s really one year twenty times. I worry most about the ‘new old pagans’ though, as being seen as a potential mentor, but not having much experience, can cause problems.

        • Ginger says:

          The group is predominantly run by Zoe though (she does most of the admin and organising as far as i’m aware), the London PF Youth Officer and she is not in the least pretentious of patronising. She is very respectful of all views and approachable. I can’t comment on Ellie as I don’t really know her.

        • empty-sarah says:

          Really? I wrote to Ellie TWICE looking for help in my uni soc.

          I heard nothing back.

          Another friend reported the same. As far as I can tell, she’s never done anything.

        • Jack Dark says:

          Gosh.

          Perhaps you could double check the contact details?

          And then, if they were right and you didn’t get a reply, I dunno, have a giant hissy fit and put in a note to the PF committee or something? Be a squeaky wheel.

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