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    Off the Wahl: Witches Rule!

    By Jan Wahl–

    I’ve always been fascinated by witches. They seem to be the smart, vibrant, outspoken women of the village. Of course, if that’s Salem Village, it’s dangerous. But they were often women who knew about natural health practices and other advanced ideas for their time. From books like The Witchcraft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson to Joan of Arc burned at the stake to a wonderful Arthur Miller play (and later fine film) The Crucible, my imagination was stirred by these women and the dangerous misunderstandings of those around them.

    I’ve never been one for graphic gore. I go with Alfred Hitchcock who said, “It’s not about the knife or the bullet; it’s about the anticipation of it.” He would develop that creepy feeling that something awful is going to happen and would hang on to it frame after frame. We see events in our imagination, and they are often worse than if we saw the real thing. 

    With Hitchcock, characters are the scariest, from my favorite, Strangers on a Train, to his own favorite, Shadow of a Doubt. These both star gentlemen villains: Robert Walker and Joseph Cotton. Their smooth, dapper sophistication conceals psychopaths. 

    But why not go all the way with the man child of Norman Bates in Psycho (original 1960 only, please). We don’t need blood and guts to be invested in the man with the murderous secret in the basement, beautifully played by Anthony Perkins. Janet Leigh told me and everyone else that showers scared her after that film, but it is the scene where Mother pushes Martin Balsam down the steps that haunts me to this day. 

    The Birds remains another favorite, with ambitious birds all over our own Bodega Bay reminding us: “Hey … my grandfather starred in that movie!” Seriously, The Birds is one great Halloween movie.

    We can go back to 1985 for the original Fright Night, where Roddy McDowall as a washed-up TV host (very Vincent Price) helps an obsessed kid with a vampire neighbor (hunky Chris Sarandon). Or that rarity, a terrific original and remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—in 1956 and 1978, both Don Siegal and Phillip Kaufman take us down the terrifying road as emotionless aliens have replicated humans.

    And then there is the all-time great, The Night of the Hunter (1955). Robert Mitchum is the unforgettable mad preacher after children for their fathers’ hidden money. Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish try to stop the evil. It is hard to believe after this atmospheric terror that director Charles Laughton never helmed a feature again.

    Let’s return to witches and the world of Wicca. I am blessed to have a relative who is one, and a very good one. Her name is Lisa Miranda. She writes books about a witch cop in Santa Rosa and also the Witch Dancer series (books 1–3 so far), reads tarot,  and explains life in mysterious and always meaningful ways. Knowing she had unusual powers started early.

    “At 13 I got a sense of it,” she told me for the San Francisco Bay Times. “That’s a powerful time, but I thought perhaps I was just hypersensitive. I converted to Wicca in 2005, a nature-based spiritual path. Wicca is an old Anglo-Saxon term for witch, meaning wise, where wit and wizard also come from. Witches are genderless, though they have been thought of as female.”

    She continued: “Magic is defined in Wicca as the bridge that connects the realm of spirit with the realm of matter. Witches became demonized in the 1500s or even before, with men who were offended or scared of women in general—or men who asked questions of the church. Women who provided healing by herbs or other methods motivated the church or power of the times to wipe out an entire way of thinking.”

    I asked Lisa how the LBGTQ community fits into this world. I mentioned my favorite scene in Little Big Man, when the out gay male Native American did a dance, causing Dustin Hoffman as the narrator to explain that this kind of person was considered higher evolved by the tribe. She replied, “This makes total sense to me, though I can’t speak for all Wiccans. Their souls have chosen an honest, though challenging, path where they might face rejection or perhaps pure joy. Souls in this community are on a more advanced path than many of us.”

    She gets passionate about movies that got it wrong, and right, about witches. “The only movie that Hollywood has put out that comes close to getting the depiction of witches correct is Practical Magic. The witches are portrayed as powerful women who are empowered by their connection to nature and their spells. There is no devil. ‘There’s no devil in the craft,’ says Sandra Bullock’s character. The one that really offended me is Hocus Pocus, for witches do not victimize babies or act like the devil is the master.”

    From spirit animals to insightful horoscope and Tarot, Lisa has greatly enriched my life.

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com

    Published on October 21, 2021