Witches and Fall Television 2013

For good (and probably) for ill, “witches”* are going to be a thing on television this Fall. The first shot was fired on Monday night with the premiere of Sleepy Hollow on the Fox Network. Surprisingly, Sleepy Hollow was not completely awful. It’s a buddy cop show featuring a time traveling Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) up against a headless, horse-riding, Redcoat who is apparently one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Crane’s only only chance to stop the Headless One rests with the pistol of police officer Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and George Washington’s Bible (I’m not making that last part up, swear!). It sounds ridiculous, and it pretty much was, but it looked cool and the actors were able to rise above the rather silly dialogue. Park your brain at the door and you might get up caught up in Sleepy Hollow.

I was completely digging the first thirty minutes or so, and then we got to the “witches.” I realize that the word witch has several different meanings, and that my usage of the word is not the most common one (I’m a Witch, a practioner of British Traditional Witchcraft), but why are television descriptions of witchcraft so wildly inaccurate? My ire began the moment time traveling Ichabod found the tombstone of his wife, with the grave marker pointing out that she was burnt at the stake for witchcraft in 1782. It’s a pet peeve, but no one was being executed in the United States for witchcraft after 1692, and alleged witches weren’t burned at the stake in the United States either. Yes, television shows have to take dramatic license with things, but to not care a whit about what actually happened back then trivializes the senseless deaths of those who were executed for witchcraft.

A little further into the episode, we get some backstory via a tape recorder (and the voice of Lex Luthor/Clancy Brown) and find out that there are two different groups of witches somehow involved with the Headless Horseman:

“One hundred witches were put to death in Sleepy Hollow between 1712 and 1816 . . . Town records suggest that members of two different covens integrated into the populace and changed their names to stay hidden, others spread out across the East Coast. Two covens representing good and evil . . . I found hundreds of unsolved cases that just seem to have been ignored; murders, disappearances, and it’s just not here, the cases track through Boston, DC, Manhattan I know they are all connected, I just don’t know how . . .”

I guess it’s cool that there’s at least one group of witches who are “good,” but I can already hear my wife’s relatives asking us if we are “good” or “bad” witches via Sleepy Hollow. Aren’t there other words lazy unimaginative TV writers can use? Why can’t they be warlocks or sorcerers? Just imagine that little bit of exposition above but with Baptists substituted for witches:

“One hundred Baptists were put to death in Sleepy Hollow between 1712 and 1816 . . . Town records suggest that members of two different congregations integrated into the populace and changed their names to stay hidden, others spread out across the East Coast. Two congregations representing good and evil . . . I found hundreds of unsolved cases that just seem to have been ignored; murders, disappearances, and it’s just not here, the cases track through Boston, DC, Manhattan I know they are all connected, I just don’t know how . . .”

Think of the outrage! The Fox Network would be feeding the beast that is Fox News! Talk about corporate synergy!

We get more witches in just a couple of weeks when American Horror Story: Coven premieres on FX. The witches here sound a little better, but I’m dismayed at the desire to link them with the Salem witch trials of the 1690′s. It’s not only intellectually dishonest, but it creates a perception that perhaps some of the senseless murders that occurred there were justified. (This summer’s The Conjuring did the same thing, pretty much turning me into a ball of rage for the last half of that movie.) I’m excited by creator Ryan Murphy’s comment that “The witches are really sort of a great allegory and metaphor for any minority group that has been persecuted and has had to go underground . . ” perhaps we’ll get a little sympathy here, mouth snakes be damned.

Here’s the official show synopsis from FX:

“American Horror Story: Coven” tells the secret history of witches and witchcraft in America. Over 300 years have passed since the turbulent days of the Salem witch trials and those who managed to escape are now facing extinction. Mysterious attacks have been escalating against their kind and young girls are being sent away to a special school in New Orleans to learn how to protect themselves. Wrapped up in the turmoil is new arrival, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who is harboring a terrifying secret of her own. Alarmed by the recent aggression, Fiona (Jessica Lange), the long-absent Supreme, sweeps back into town, determined to protect the Coven and hell-bent on decimating anyone who gets in her way.”

Several descriptions of the show that I’ve come across also make reference to conflicts between the show’s witches and practitioners of New Orleans style Voodoo. Apparently Lilith Dorsey and I are going to have to engage in some sort of magickal face-off to stay true to the spirit of this season’s American Horror Story. If there’s one thing that scares me about this show after seeing the early promotional material, it’s that poster over there on the right. It’s one thing to use the word “witch”; it’s another to mimic Modern Wiccan and Pagan practices. No one takes Methodism and grafts a fictional backstory and cosmology onto it. I’m going to reserve judgement, but I’m wary. On the plus side, the show does star Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates; let’s just hope they don’t screw up Marie Laveau too much.

(Peg Aloi over on The Witching Hour wrote about American Horror Story: Coven last week. Check it out!)

*I generally capitalize the words Witch and Witchcraft when writing about individuals who have self-identified that way after 1950. I leave it in lower-case in all other instances.


For more on American Horror Story: COVEN from Patheos writers, check out the show’s topic page on the Patheos Entertainment channel.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Genna Hoggins

    There is also going to be The Witches of East End series, based on the young adult book (same name) by Melissa de la Cruz. It will be airing on Lifetime beginning October 6th.

    And let’s not forget the latest installment in the Hallmark Channel’s ‘The Good Witch’ series – The Good Witch’s Destiny, which will be airing on the Hallmark Channel late in October.

    • JasonMankey

      Genna, should we be watching “The Witches of East End?” I hadn’t heard of that one before.

      I tried to watch one of those Good Witch movies once . . . shudders.

      • Genna Hoggins

        I really can’t say yes or no to The Witches of East End, as I have not gotten around to reading the book yet. I will likely watch it for the entertainment factor, given that there is likely be little fact to it (it is based on a young adult novel after all). It does have a few good names starring in it (Julia Ormond, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, and Rachel Boston). It will probably fall into the same category as Charmed and The Secret Circle which aired last year (cancelled part way through the first season – also based on young adult books).

        As for the Good Witch series…yes, it is loaded with fluff, I watch them every year…it is the only reason I would EVER turn to the Hallmark Channel. Yes it is sappy, but it is priceless entertainment forcing my husband to sit through it every year. Watching his face as he chokes on the fluff is entertainment all its own.

        Besides, at the beginning of your article, you said for good and for ill. I was just throwing a couple of more titles out there for consideration.

        • JasonMankey

          I was glad you shared the info, it’s probably something I going to end up watching because my wife will force me to sit through it. She did that with “The Secret Circle.”

          I think I saw the Good Witch’s Christmas . . . on the plus side it didn’t star Lifetime staples Steve Guttenberg, Judith Light, or Crystal Bernard.

          • PegAloi

            Oh, those “Good Witch” made for Lifetime movies are hilarious!

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      If they want to release it in the UK, they going to have to change the title of “The Witches of East End”.

      We already have East Enders. (Perhaps the single most depressing soap opera ever written.)

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    As a thought experiment, switch “Witch” for “Jew” and “Coven” for “Synagogue”.

    Would these be allowed to be aired? If not, then why is it okay for them to be aired in their current state?

    • PegAloi

      Really? That tired old false equivalency?

      • JasonMankey

        I think there’s some truth to it. Every once in awhile you even have “Wiccan” smeared through the media mud. We don’t have the lobby to protest such things (though we are getting better, see Fox News this past February).

        • PegAloi

          I just feel that trying to equivocate contemporary prejudice against pagans with the Holocaust is an insult to Jews and survivors of the camps. And if you’re going to argue there is some connection between modern witches who feel like they are being marginalized and the people persecuted as witches during the European witchcraze and the North American witch trial era, you’d be wrong there as well (that is a general “you” not a specific one). My two cents. YMMV.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I am not comparing anything to the Holocaust.

            It happened. Decades ago. Past. Done. What I am comparing to is now.

            We cannot speak ill of Jews because society is still collectively embarrassed by what they (as a society) allowed to happen. Funnily enough, ‘Gypsies’ do not get that same respect, which is why I did not use that comparison, even though they endured far worse during the same period.

            As of now, why is it okay to pick on any one religion and not another?

          • Brian Michael Shea

            Or homosexuals for that matter.

          • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

            The biggest Holocaust against any people in the last 1000 years has been against the Native Peoples of the Americas. That Holocaust is still going on in covert fashion.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Depends on how you rate it.

            If you go by percentage, then The British treatment of the Tasmanian aborigines was as bad as it can get, since that had a 100% fatality rate.

            I also heard that somewhere in the region of 90% of the world population of Roma were killed in the Second World War, and they are still victimised by many, to this day.

            Then, of course, there is the ongoing persecution of the Ainu, one of the indigenous peoples of Japan…

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        How’s it false?

  • Ywen DragonEye

    I watched Sleepy Hollow – my only concern is that they allude to a goat/human like entity being evil. Why does Pan always take the heat? Otherwise, I was surpised that I liked it as much as I did. We’ll see…..

    • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

      Just get a copy of Wind in the Willows to give all the Pan haters. The Piper At the Gates of Dawn is forever my image of Pan.

      • JB

        It was my first encounter with him

      • Brian Michael Shea

        I just read it for the first time two days ago. It’s as evocative as I thought it would be. I’m glad I finally read it after all these years.

  • PegAloi

    Thans for the “Raise the Horns bump!” Ya stole my thunder, dude (ha ha), I am already gathering all my witchy TV notes. Some good stuff in movies coming too…maybe we should do a live Google Chat and post it?

    • JasonMankey

      That would be fun!

      • PegAloi

        Let’s do it! Maybe Lilith will join us.

  • PhaedraHPS

    My own rant about Sleepy Hollow on Facebook generated a lot of comments pro and con. The short version: I really enjoyed the first half hour, then they lost me with the “burned” witch and the Book of Revelations. Revelations? Really? Hasn’t that been done to death already? (Pardon the pun.) And since when are witches connected with Revelations?

    It’s also sad to reflect that most viewers are so ignorant of American history that they would buy a statement such as “one hundred witches were burned” after the founding of the US, but somehow no one up until that sheriff happened to remember it happened. They also made some references in the coming attractions to historical events that don’t seem to match up with the chronology they already set up for Crane’s backstory, either–can’t wait to see how they explain those. And are viewers so ignorant of religious history that they’d accept that someone executed for witchcraft would be buried in a churchyard? Or that the lettering on a 200-year-old headstone would be so sharp and clear…

    If you’re anywhere near the Sleepy Hollow cemetery, watch out for geological disturbances; Washington Irving is surely spinning in his grave.

    • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

      Ditto. Good comments.

  • Kalysto

    Though it pains me to reference anything from the mucky realm of “reality” tv, add to the list of things to be aware of is the forthcoming season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” One of the new cast members, Carlton Gebbia, is reportedly “a self-proclaimed Wiccan” (confirmed by various reposts of her Tweets).

    • Brian Michael Shea

      Oh dear….

  • Pixie

    I hate it I hate it I hate it. What other religion is represented this way in TV/movies??? Even “good witches” only exist in fantasy and sci-fi stories with all sorts of fantasy/sci-fi powers.

    • Bianca Bradley

      Mormons and sister wives. There is an HBO show on polygamy.

      • JasonMankey

        Speaking of polyamory, there’s also Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married and Dating.”

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Polygamy/polyamory is not a distinctly religious thing, though.

        • Bianca Bradley

          No, however it is an example of another religion that has stereotypes represented in the t.v. and movies.

    • WhyDoIReadtheComments?

      Catholicism. There is a horror movie about Catholicism every 3 years or so.

    • Nemo

      - Sometimes you get vaguely Christian bad guys. In X Men, for example, the villains are often thinly veiled fundamentalists whose hatred for mutants is a badly made allegory for homophobia. Also, there’s a trope on TV Tropes called “The Fundamentalist” who is usually Christian like. Since Christians, or at least people who identify as such, are the majority, you can’t get more than subtle.
      - In Man of Steel, the good guy Superman went to a church for advice. The evil guys talked about evolution. You’ll see atheist/nihilist villains often. Or at least, villains who promote (a scientifically illiterate form of) evolution, which to the public at large is the same thing.
      - Full disclosure: I am a hardcore skeptic who saw this on the front page and decided to give it a read. My knowledge of the religions found in this channel is minimal, which I do consider to be a flaw on my own part. Anyway, I personally do not associate the terms “witchcraft” or “magic” with Wiccans or any form of pagans unless I am in a discussion about those very topics. When I hear “magic”, I think of Harry Potter blowing dozens of dementors away with the Patronus Charm. The viewing public at large cares only about entertainment, so excitement is more important to them than accuracy. The best thing I can think of would be some form of education or other. Maybe have the beliefs of Wicca explained in schools, just like the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism, and Buddhism are. I’m not saying promote it, just explain it like they do other religions. Although, Americans don’t know much about those anyway, so maybe not.

  • Lyradora

    Personally, I found Sleepy Hollow to be a hoot. :) Entertaining, just a bit creepy, and with some humorous moments. It will be my cotton candy show this season. :) I have (highish) hopes for American Horror Story: Coven, due to both the caliber of the actors involved and the New Orleans setting. If it’s good, this one my my rocky road for the season. :)

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    LOL! “Not completely awful” is about the best that can be said for Sleepy Hollow. It was awful, but not completely awful. I don’t see how they are going to make anything viewable out of a plot based on the Book of Revelation and the trite and tired Good God-Bad Devil family feud. Leave it to FOX to try to make a mash up of Christian fundamentalism and Wicca. What a witch’s brew all right! Death as a headless horseman of the apocolypse marching around like Jason is just a dumb idea to start with. Supernatural did Death so much better with class.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Even Supernatural has done a pretty awful job at dealing with religion.

      • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

        I would agree except in my view Supernatural has done a good job of staying away from religion. The religion that comes into Supernatural is so far removed from any particular church or point of view that one could say Supernatural is portraying its own fantasy religion, which is why the “suspension of disbelief” works for me in Supernatural. For example, the Angels and Demons of Supernatural are not clearly all good or all bad, so the ambiguity is actually more “realistic” than most Christian churchs teach.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Loki turns out to be an Angel, Lucifer kills off a bunch of gods…

          I’d say they did religion, and did it really badly.

          Concerning the ‘goodness’/’badness’ of Angels:

          Job 4:18 Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly:

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            As badly as Supernatural handles a lot of things- particularly with various non-Christian deities- it’s just so damn fun to watch. Or it was before they killed off all of the great secondary characters in the last few seasons.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It is just another mythologically themed show that just is not as good as it should be, to me.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered after an accusation of practicing witchcraft. Even the famous Nazarene miracle worker had been accused of black magic. Keep up the good work and stay safe.