Like many kids from my generation, I watched the 1990 movie The Witches over and over when I was young. When the HBO remake directed by Robert Zemeckis came out on Friday, I was stoked to watch it and reminisce. While Zemeckis’s adaptation changes the setting from 1980s England to 1960s Alabama, the plot is basically the same as both the 1990 adaptation and the original 1983 Roald Dahl novel: A young boy named Charlie (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandmother Agatha (Octavia Spencer) try to stop a group of evil witches who are plotting to change children into mice.
While the plot is one hundred percent made up by Roald Dahl, witches are real—I’m one of them. The difference is that most of us don’t wear pointy hats or have the weird accent Anne Hathaway puts on to play the Grand High Witch (seriously, what is that?). There are different witchcraft traditions around the world, and while many of us do cast spells, you’re more likely to see us using candle magic to manifest our career goals than flying around on a broomstick, waving a wand.
I wanted to test my knowledge of witchcraft to see if the movie included any real witchcraft traditions. Spoiler alert—while there were a few things that rang true, by and large, it’s fiction. Let’s talk about which plot points have a basis in real-life magic and which are totally made up.
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Are all witches women?
Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, The Witches (the novel) was banned by some London libraries for misogyny because of these lines: “I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male…both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH.”
The 1990 and 2020 movies carry on this nonsensical statement. But in real life, witches can be men, women, non-binary—they can be anyone. Overall, the community is accepting, and anyone of any gender can call themselves a witch. However, Dahl did get it right when he wrote that witches can live anywhere and everywhere—practicing witches live all around the world.
Witches and Children
While stories about witches who hate and even eat children date back centuries, they’re not based in fact. Actually, some historians say we might be able to blame agricultural cycles for these myths, because rumors about evil witches (and the resulting witch trials) spiked during periods of famine and starvation. Plenty of real-life witches like children, and some even have their own kids and raise them to share their spiritual beliefs. Most witches see ourselves as the protectors and guides of the natural world. So no, we’re not bad peeps. And we’re not trying to turn anyone into mice.
In the beginning of the new movie, Agatha uses crystals to help her gain clarity about the witches who are hunting her grandson. She places an amethyst on her third eye chakra to help her understand the best course of action. This method of crystal reading is actually pretty accurate. Amethyst is known to bring enlightenment and prophecy to people (not just magical practitioners) when placed on the third eye chakra (that’s the space located between your eyes on your forehead).
While the specific magic used in The Witches is made up, it does draw on a real concept: spell reversals. Any basic witch knows that a reversal is a return-to-sender type of spellwork.
In the 2020 movie, Charlie steals the witches’ Mouse Maker Potion, then he and Agatha try to dissect the ingredients. They discover the potion is made of hyssop (in reality, an herb used for cleansing), mugwort (an herb known for psychic clarity and clairvoyance), and healing water (which I’m assuming is similar to Florida Water, a spiritual perfume that’s used for protection and cleansing).
In real life, these ingredients would more likely be used for protection magic or an energetic cleansing rather than to turn someone into a mouse. But Charlie and his grandmother sneak this potion into the witches’ soup and turn most of them into rats—and in doing so, they demonstrate the concept of spell reversals. If you try to do harm, expect it to come right back to you!
The Garlic Soup
The Grand High Witch requests garlic-free soup because garlic is a “dehancer,” meaning it will take away her powers. In reality, many witches actually use garlic as an enhancer for spellwork and to ward off evil. For example, some sprinkle garlic powder around children’s beds to protect them from nightmares. It’s also an important ingredient in food magic, where it serves as a powerful antioxidant. When it comes to garlic and witches, The Witches got it all wrong!
Black Cats and Familiars
In the 2020 movie, the Grand High Witch travels with her black cat and familiar, Liebchen. In both the movie and reality, a familiar is a (usually) small animal that acts as an aid to a witch, protecting them and finding out the DL on matters they care about. Black cats are actually quite popular as both pets and familiars among real-life witches, because they’re seen as good luck (not bad!). Liebchen acts as a familiar by spying on children, but eventually, Liebchen gets exhausted by the Grand High Witch’s demands and horrible demeanor and turns on her—something a familiar would never really do, because they’re bonded to their witch for life.
So is the movie realistic? No. But it’s still fun to watch (have I mentioned Anne Hathaway’s accent?). Hollywood, next time you want to tell a story about witches, call me for some movie magic—the real kind.
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