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:
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?