“Sometimes I take humor seriously. Sometimes I take seriousness humorously. Either way it is irrelevant.” –Malaclypse the Younger
So I’ve been reading Lights, Camera Witchcraft: A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television by Heather Greene, and y’all, I am entranced. Starting with the (really) short 1898 film The Cavalier’s Dream and moving all the way through to Motherland: Fort Salem, Greene offers an academic but extremely accessible perspective into the themes, social commentaries, and tropes surrounding Witches in visual media.
As a horror movie buff who takes great delight in films that center on Witchcraft, this is literally a book after my own heart.
Every time I worry that Greene is going to overlook something important in her coverage, she 100% comes through. To wit…
The Next Page: “It is often noted that Ursula was modeled on the famous drag queen Divine, and this reading is not at all difficult to see when looking at the character’s visual design and her performance in ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls.'”
Me: “… Oh.”
Greene also identifies a number of archetypes present among cinematic Witches, including the Accused Woman, the Wild Child, the Vamp, the Folk Witch, the Halloween Witch, the Fantasy Crone, the Magical Mom, and the Good Fairy. Most of these are easily recognizable — picture the characters in your favorite Witch movie, and you’ll be able to match them up with at least one of the above.
But the archetype that jumped out at me the most, and the one I’m about ready to build a whole tradition around, is the Clown Witch.
According the Greene, one of the earliest appearances of the Clown Witch is Momba, the Wicked Witch in the 1910 film The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Momba’s costume contains distinctive Victorian clown elements, such as an oversized collar, poofy sleeves, and a pointy hat, which suggest that while she’s the Big Bad of the movie, her job is to entertain rather than frighten. (Greene also points to Mother Goose as a good example of the Victorian Clown Witch aesthetic.)
Clown Witches, from a storytelling standpoint, are not evil. But they are mischievous, and they act as foils to the protagonists. Endora from Bewitched and Aunt Queenie and Bianca De Pass from Bell Book and Candle are Clown Witches, down to their flamboyant clothes and curly red hair, which, Greene notes, is reminiscent of iconic clown wigs.
While she’s not explicitly listed as such in the book, Hilda Spellman from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is an amazing Clown Witch. I think she’s officially more of a Halloween Witch and a Magical Mom, but she’s also the funniest person on the show, and she often thwarts the plans of the characters with nefarious agendas. (The scene in which she assassinates her sister’s rival via almond cookies full of arsenic being a highlight of the series.)
Similarly, while they’re undoubtedly Wild Children, Kylie and Antonia Owens from Practical Magic could be considered Clown Witches, since they tend to frustrate Sally’s and Gillian’s schemes, and since Antonia spends the entire movie wearing mouse ears for, like, no reason other than personal amusement.
And that’s what I love most about Clown Witches: They either play by their own rules, or they make up the rules as they go along. Uncle Arthur teleports into the Stevens’ living room whenever he feels like it; Double Trouble is more concerned about giving a good performance than whether or not they’re on the side of good or evil. Often queer-coded and always extraordinary, Clown Witches are emancipated and exist to remind us that magic should be fun.
And all of this has got me wondering: Coppertops and zany accessories aside, what would a Clown Witch be like in real life?
Okay, first of all, I’m not saying that I’m an automatic expert on the subject. But I am a Discordian Witch who’s devoted to Dr. Van Van Mojo and Laverna, so, y’know, I’m the only person in the whole world capable of answering this question correctly.
The concept of the sacred clown is fairly universal, so that’s not a bad place to start: Indigenous Lakota and Dakota cultures have the heyoka, and Western European history gives us satyr plays, court jesters, and the Lord of Misrule. However, the primary duty of the sacred clown is to parody social mores, whereas the Clown Witch — at least onscreen — operates outside of them.
I am going to need a little guidance here, so I’m turning to the Principia Discordia, which states:
Magicians, especially since the Gnostic and the Quabala influences, have sought higher consciousness through assimilation and control of universal opposites– good/evil, positive/negative, male/female, etc. But due to the steadfast pomposity of ritualism inherited from the ancient methods of the shaman, occultists have been blinded to what is perhaps the two most important pairs of apparent or earth-plane opposites: ORDER/DISORDER and SERIOUS/HUMOROUS.
Magicians, and [their] progeny the scientists, have always taken themselves and their subject in an orderly and sober manner, thereby disregarding an essential metaphysical balance. When magicians learn to approach philosophy as a malleable art instead of an immutable Truth, and learn to appreciate the absurdity of man’s endeavours, then they will be able to pursue their art with a lighter heart, and perhaps gain a clearer understanding of it, and therefore gain more effective magic. CHAOS IS ENERGY.
This is an essential challenge to the basic concepts of all western occult thought, and [the Paratheo-Anametamystikhood Of Eris Esoteric] is humbly pleased to offer the first breakthrough in occultism since Solomon.
If we take the Principia as a clowning manual (and why wouldn’t we?), we can glean that the Clown Witch a) actively uses magic, and b) fuels that magic with humor to create more humor. And there’s a lot of power to be found in that.
Peter J. Carroll once wrote that laughter is the highest emotion, since it can encompass all other emotions and has no opposite. And Phil Hine adds that laughter is an effective form of ritual banishing, and that it can also be used “to deflate the pompous, self-important occult windbags that one runs into from time to time.” The Clown Witch, then, is going to use their magic to trigger laughter at the expense of Greyface (while always making sure to punch up).
While I do think the Clown Witch is more than capable of binding or cursing, the focus of their Witchcraft would take the form of practical jokes with satirical edges: Basically, it would be a magical approach to Operation Mindfuck.
What would happen if Ted Cruz’ phone settings somehow got effed up, and he could only tweet in Esperanto? What if Marjorie Taylor Greene started hiccupping uncontrollably whenever she tried to say something transphobic? You know how, in Practical Magic, Gillian fixes it so that Sally ends up at the top of the Phone Tree? How might that translate into a chucklesome, real-world application?
What if every fascist Bible-thumper in your district got the date of Election Day wrong and showed up at the polling station a week after the fact?
Could magic cause any of the above situations to come to fruition? I can really only shrug in response, but I can also reiterate that we won’t know until we try. And even if the magic doesn’t work the way we want it to, we’ll still probably learn a lot from the process, and we’ll have a simply marvelous time while doing so. Like the archetypical Clown Witches we are.
There are a lot of examples of Clown Witches to be found outside of American cinema and television, the two stuck in my childhood memories being Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf and Benita Bizarre from The Bugaloos. And they are awesome, but when we’re looking for Clown Witch role models, we need to narrow the list down to those who have the qualities we most want to embody.
We’ll want to focus on the Clown Witches who are self-possessed, sure of themselves, and able to do whatever they damn well please, all while entertaining the hell out of their respective audiences. And if we pick up some fabulous makeup and styling tips along the way, that’ll just boost our Clown Witch mystique even further. Especially when we’re called upon to smile indulgently should a far-right pundit finds himself unable to stop church-giggling during live streaming segments.
Make it so, my fellow Arthurs, Biancas, and Double Troubles.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to my Irish horror roots and watch Stitches for the fourth or fifth time. There are no Clown Witches in it, but it does feature both clowns and Witchcraft, so it totally remains relevant to my current fixations.
Ergo, lest my entire downline rise up in mutiny, please let it be known that the Clown Witches are already among us.