A kind of “global coven” is bringing subjugated people together in solidarity. Photo: Sierra Koder
Across movies, telly, books, music, podcasts, art, fashion, social media – anywhere you find cultural expression, witches are having a moment.
In just the last few years, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, American Horror Story: Coven, WandaVisionand The Love Witch have shown the witch as an emblem of female power.
Across millions of #witchlife and #witchyvibes posts on Instagram, the witch has a strong connection with feminist self-care and a new paganism. On thousands of t-shirts, mugs and tea towels, the witch is an icon of defiance, solidarity and creativity. Witches are no longer just a pointy hat for Halloween.
The witch has a particular resonance in a post-#MeToo world, says Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House. As women all over the world rose up to speak about – and protest against – their experiences of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and rape culture, the symbolic power of the witch resonated as both totemic victim and wish-fulfilling protagonist.
Faced by thousands of years of oppression, many of us are attracted to the idea we might be able to hex that handsy guy on the train or cast a spell to protect our friends. “#MeToo has really given impetus to the whole witch movement,” says Catterall.
Somerset House’s upcoming exhibition, The Horror Show!, explores how ideas rooted in horror have informed the last 50 years of creative rebellion in the UK. Divided into three distinct phases, each section of the exhibition is summed up by one classic horror archetype.
Based around the 70s and 80s, Monster covers a time of economic and political turbulence. Ghost comes next, tracing an unsettling path through to the global financial crisis of 2008. And finally, the figure that sums up the post-crash world, the world we live in now, is – of course – Witch.
“The witch is a fantastic horror trope. It’s a different kind from the monster or the ghost. It brings in the whole kind of idea of magic and transformation,” says Catterall.
“The witches of today draw on so many different things. It is very much still based in feminism. It’s built on the really important things that feminists achieved in the 70s and 80s. But it almost feels like they’re broadening that to embrace all oppressed bodies. So, it really does feel like a movement for the oppressed.”
Community – a kind of “global coven” – is important to the creative understanding of the witch, she adds. It’s about subjugated people coming together to “break everything down and build it up again”.
Catterrall hopes that visitors to the exhibition will get involved in that process. “We’re creating this space where hopefully magic can happen. And we’re hoping that people will go into it, and feel that energy,” she says. “We’re trying not to be too prescriptive about how people behave in the space, but we hope they’ll behave in quite a kind of ritualistic way. It really is meant to give people a kind of sense of hope and kind of excitement and energy for the future.”
Kenyan-British artist Grace Ndiritu is among those exhibiting as part of the Witch section of The Horror Show!. Her work draws on the power of shamanistic ritual, and the animistic belief systems she grew up around in rural Kenya.
“The shaman is not just a healer in the community, they’re also an artist and a creative being. I would never call myself a witch. But I do practice shamanism,” she says. “So, you know, so I connect to it [the theme of the exhibition] more like that. It was the first world religion, and it was practised in all cultures and all continents. Before any other religion.”
Ndiritu’s contribution to the exhibition – A Therapeutic Townhall Meeting: Healing the Museum – is a video of a shamanic performance inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings that took place at the end of apartheid in South Africa.
“The video that I’m showing, it’s very relevant for now because it’s all about our contemporary problems and how to heal them,” she explains. “For me, using shamanism or meditation in the art context is about social and political change.”
Writer and campaigner Zoe Venditozzi also draws a connection between the #MeToo movement, activism and contemporary interest in witches. Alongside Claire Mitchell QC, Venditozzi has spent the last two and a half years fighting to secure justice for those persecuted as witches in Scotland in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Their Witches of Scotland podcast has been downloaded more than 150,000 times and has ignited a cultural conversation.
“People are standing up and saying, ‘Look, a terrible thing happened. And even if it was historical, it still needs spoken about’,” says Venditozzi.
At least 2,500 people were executed as witches in Scotland; 84 per cent of those accused were women. Relative to its size, Scotland persecuted ‘witches’ at about four times the European average.
As a direct result of the Venditozzi and Mitchell’s campaign, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this year issued a formal apology to those prosecuted as witches. She said the trials were “injustice on a colossal scale, driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense: hatred of women”.
Venditozzi remains hopeful that they will also secure a national memorial to honour the memory of people who were caught up in the witch trials that swept Scotland. “I really believe if we don’t learn from the past, we’re fated to repeat our mistakes,” she explains.
“It was a part of our history that we knew very little about,” admits Scottish singer, harpist and composer Rachel Newton. Alongside fiddler Lauren MacColl, she created the folk band Heal & Harrow as a creative response to the hidden stories of women killed as witches. Their album and live shows restore humanity to these women while exploring historical beliefs in the supernatural and modern-day parallels in our society.
“I suppose the main parallels that we could see were fear of the other and misogyny,” says Newton. “We just completed our second tour and quite a few people came up to us, saying, ‘this is still happening’. They felt quite emotional towards the material because it felt in some ways very familiar.
“People who have worked with women who suffer from domestic abuse, for example. The kind of victim blaming that you see a lot in the press. Women who are attacked and people blame them for not wearing the right clothes. Things like that came up quite a lot for people.”
In Heal & Harrow, the witch as a formidable myth intertwines with the stories of real people who were caught up in terrible events. At the time of the trials, people really did believe that witches might turn their cows’ milk sour, kill their livestock or sink a ship. They acted, at least in part, out of fear.
The idea of female power is still scary to many, says Newton, but if the current reassessment of the witch in history and culture can be part of boosting women, that can only be positive.
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding,” she adds, “but if the idea of the witch can be reclaimed as a force for good, then that that’s truly a good thing.”
Whatever the historical truth, the witch reflects back our current concerns and obsessions. She’s a vessel for campaigning. In taking her side, we stand with the historically oppressed and the currently abused. The new witchcraft mixes activism and alternative spirituality – and acts a spark for art that aims to change the world.
The Horror Show! A Twisted Tale of Modern Britain is at Somerset House from October 27 2022 – February 19 2023. Tickets via somersethouse.org.uk
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