“Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron, boil and bake; Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard legs, and howlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble. Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble. By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes.” -Witch 2, Macbeth
The association of women with witchcraft dates back centuries. Many are familiar with the infamous Salem Witch Trials that took place in colonial Massachusetts, as well as popular pieces of media like The Secret Circle (2011), The Craft (1996), and more sinister examples like The Blair Witch series. Some of the most popular pieces in Western literature include witches, such as those in Macbeth as well as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. While these pieces all depict a variety of different themes and different types of witches, there seems to be one thing that unifies each witch; they’re all women.
Historically, witches haven’t always been female. In fact, even in the Salem Witch Trials, five of the nineteen convicted witches were men, and men like Victor Anderson and Gerald Gardner were notorious Wiccans in the twentieth century. Men are not excluded from witchcraft, so why is it associated with women in most media?
Witchcraft’s association with gender is made even more complicated when it comes to children. If only women are witches, why are there so many little boys in horror that attract demons and spirits? In the original Ring (Ringu 1998), for example, the main character’s son Yoichi is able to speak with spirits and sense his dead cousin. He is not possessed or threatened by a demon but is simply able to take part in spiritual practices. Little boys and grown women can be associated with the occult, but grown men rarely share that association. There are few examples of male witches or male occultism in horror today, but there is a numerous amount of female and child witches.
While the observation of women and children being associated with witchcraft could be dismissed by simply citing trends, a closer look reveals that the practice of gendering witchcraft with femininity has its roots in sexism and capitalism. By exploring how accusations of witchcraft have been used historically to oppress women, as well as looking into examples of how children are affected by these accusations, it will be possible to discover how these associations affect children within horror media.
The role that women play in a capitalist society is incredibly valuable to the capitalist system. Capitalism requires a large number of laborers to sell their labor in order to produce goods that can be sold back to them. Without laborers, the capitalist system falls apart. If there are no workers that are willing to sell their labor to a company, then the company cannot produce, and thus it cannot make money.
Because labor is the most important (and one of the most undervalued) aspects of capitalism, it is vital that there is always a constant supply of workers who are able to sell their labor for money. This is where women come in. Because most women are able to birth children, it became optimal in the capitalist system to keep women inside the household so that they could focus solely on birthing and raising the children who would soon become the next generation of laborers. Lise Vogel, a renowned feminist sociologist, discusses in her article book Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Model, the role of women under capitalism as “reproductive labor,” and states that despite women serving a vital role in the capitalist system, they are not paid or valued for their work within the household.
Despite it not having a monetary value, reproductive labor is essential to a capitalist system. If children are not being born and raised, there will be fewer laborers available to companies, which means that those companies are not able to make products or money. It is vital to capitalism that women are kept in the domestic sphere so that there is a constant supply of laborers available for companies to employ.
While keeping men in the sphere of industrial labor and women in the reproductive labor sphere is efficient, it reduces men and women to roles that they might not want to abide by. Not all women want to stay in the household and raise kids, and not all men want to work for wages in order to support a family and a company. However, because women are vital to keeping up the supply of a large labor pool, the capitalist system is incentivized to keep women in the household at all costs.
If one can come to the conclusion that women must perform reproductive labor in order to keep capitalism afloat, then it makes sense that authorities were intent on keeping women inside that sphere. Women are necessary under capitalism to perform the reproductive labor that keeps the system going. Thus, when women attempted to break away from their given roles, people who benefitted from capitalism were intent on making sure those women were forced back.
This motivation is what birthed the association of women with witchcraft and occultism: Women who broke away from the domestic sphere were accused of witchcraft in order to keep them in their role as reproductive laborers. Witchcraft and ‘magic’ had always existed as concepts in Feudal Europe, but they were associated with beneficial work rather than evil. Witches were medicine-women or midwifes. The definition of ‘witch’ changed, however, as capitalism progressed. In her book, Caliban and the Witch, for example, Silvia Federici argues that although witches before capitalism were associated with medicinal and productive practices like midwifery, capitalist witches were seen as evil. They took part in work that wasn’t solely domestic, which made them evil and unwanted in society. Witchcraft’s new definition under capitalism made accusations against women work to force them into their reproductive roles, as their only options were to submit to the system or be labeled as evil.
This tactic used by capitalist authorities is what birthed the Salem Witch Trials and the killings of over 30,000 women in Europe between 1450 and 1750. Women who fought against the system that tied them down were accused of witchcraft and either killed or expelled from their communities. This not only punished the women who dared to go against their roles under capitalism but served as an example to other women that those who defined their role as a reproductive laborer would be punished.
In fact, one of the last witches to be executed in English-speaking territories a young enslaved woman named Sally Bassett, who was tried for witchcraft after poisoning slave-owners in 1730. She was accused of having been “seduced by the devil,” as she fought against her role under capitalism. Sally Bassett, and the countless number of other women who were accused of witchcraft, were not actually witches. They were simply women who were bold enough to fight against the system that oppressed them.
The association of women with witchcraft is not actually due to there simply being more female witches than male witches but is instead due to the use of witchcraft accusations to keep women in their roles as domestic laborers under capitalism. Only by making women fear liberation could the capitalist system keep them in a role where they were forced to reproduce and raise children against their wishes.
Just as women are inherently tied to the domestic sphere under capitalism, children are bound to the household as well. Because the role of women is to raise children within the household so that they can grow up to become laborers, the role of children is also to stay within the household so that they can grow up to sell their labor for the sake of capitalism.
This relationship between women and children creates a close association with children and womanhood. After all, while men are the only ones who can be found in the sphere of industrial labor, children co-exist with their mothers in the domestic sphere. This association between them makes children inherently feminine under a capitalist system. Since children exist within the domestic sphere until they are old enough to become industrial laborers, they are female until they are old enough to make that leap. Young boys in the past, for example, would wear long frocks that resembled dresses until they were old enough to start wearing men’s clothes. Women and children sharing the domestic sphere makes society see children as inherently feminine under a capitalist system.
Because women and children are related by the domestic sphere, the things that are associated with women are associated with children as a result. This means that when women are seen as inherently associated with witchcraft and occultism, children are viewed in the same way. The connection between children and the accusations pushed on the women makes is a constant within the horror genre. Kids tend to be attuned to the spirits and to the occult within horror. In Poltergeist (1982), for example, the spirits haunting the house are drawn to Carol Anne due to her youth. The association of women with the paranormal translates very well to children, which makes them easy targets for hauntings and possessions in horror.
One of the best explorations of how womanhood, childhood, and occultism collide is located within the 2015 film, The VVitch. The film features a religious family in colonial America who have been excommunicated by the church in their town, forcing them to settle down in an isolated part of the countryside. The movie begins with the youngest son of the family, Samuel, being stolen by a witch. The rest of the film follows the ensuing clashes between the family due to anxieties over what happened to Samuel and who exactly is to blame.
The main character of the film is Thomasin, the oldest child in the family and one of only two female children. Despite the main struggle of Thomasin’s family being the loss of Samuel, one of Thomasin’s biggest struggles throughout the film is the contention between her womanhood and her childhood. Thomasin is sixteen and on the cusp of her womanhood, which leads to a difficult struggle between her role as a domestic laborer and that of a child. On one hand, she desires autonomy and wants to express herself to her domineering mother and father. On the other hand, however, she knows that as a woman she must perform the tasks that a woman is expected to do under capitalism. In fact, a large part of her struggle in the film is that she failed to do the one thing that women are most valued for doing in a capitalist society: she failed to raise Samuel so he could become a laborer one day.
Thomasin’s desire for autonomy throughout the film is met with suspicions from her parents and siblings. For example, while arguing with her parents’ decision to send her to a another family to perform domestic work for them, Thomasin’s mother says that she has “cursed this family,” and accuses her of being the witch that has cursed their family with bad luck. Even her little sister, Mercy, says that she and their pet goat agree that Thomasin is “wicked,” and that she is a witch. Thomasin’s disobedience is met with accusations of witchcraft in order to scare her into being an obedient woman.
However, Thomasin is not the only one accused of witchcraft within the family. Thomasin and her father, William, both accuse the youngest siblings of practicing witchcraft with their goat, Black Phillip. Even though the children are too young to even know how to perform witchcraft, their ties to the domestic sphere make both of the twins similar to women, in that they are accused of occultism in order to make them obey.
The VVitch showcases many of the side effects that capitalism has on children and women. Women are forced to stay in the domestic sphere so that they can continue reproducing the next generation of laborers. Because women and children are so closely related under capitalism, the accusations of witchcraft and occultism that were used to keep women in their reproductive role have transferred to children. Children’s association with women makes them subject to being seen under the same veil of occultism that women are. At the end of The VVitch, Thomasin’s struggle to contend with her autonomy as a person and the expectations put upon her as a woman and child culminate in her giving in and selling her soul to the devil. She succumbs to the exact accusations that were used to oppress her out of her sadness and frustration with her situation.
While modern depictions of witches tend to be more positive and more focused on the actual spiritual practices of witches, the side-effects of capitalism on women and children still exist. In fact, in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover argues that while men are associated with “white science,” which is the concept of being rational, non-spiritual, and logical in their approach to life, women are associated with “black magic,” meaning that they are attuned to spiritual and occult happenings. She states that if a woman gets possessed by a demon, “neurosurgery is not the answer; an exorcism is.” Women, and thus children, are seen as being more susceptible to spirits and demons than men due to their associations with the occult under capitalism.
Although women, and children by extension, are accused of witchcraft to combat their autonomy, other tactics are still used to keep women and children in the domestic sphere. Women who earn wages through sex-work are mocked, and women who choose not to partake in reproductive labor are seen as less valuable to society. By examining horror tropes that discuss witchcraft, women, and children, we can learn how to liberate women and children from the confines of the domestic sphere.
References: Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press. Princeton, 1992.
Vogel, Lise. Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Model. Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Marion Gale is a freshman at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in Environmental Studies, and although it doesn’t relate much to her major, she says she loves horror movies and the horror genre itself!