Or, “Myrtle Snow is my
[NOTE: The original version of this article contained a phrase that, used in this context, is insensitive and appropriative towards several Native cultural traditions. I leave the original above with a strikethrough to indicate that such use was a mistake. My mistake. I regret the choice of phrase and I apologize for any discomfort or harm it causes to anyone. I don’t want to completely erase the original because I worry that doing so will look like I’m trying to hide the mistake, which I’m not trying to do. I want others to see and know this was not a good choice on my part, and that I am sorry for it.]
(A few AHS: Coven spoilers below, but no major plot points)
For those who, like me, spent the past four months or so riveted to the meandering and bizarre plots of the American Horror Story: Coven television series, the ride is now over and we’re all left sorting out wheat from chaff from eyeballs from axe-murdering ghosts living in knotty pine hell. One of the most interesting and unusual characters in this season was Myrtle Snow (portrayed by the luminous Frances Conroy), a complicated, artistic, eccentric witch that is just about everything you could dream of having in a crazy aunt who can cast spells and is willing to melon-ball out the eyes of her enemies to restore your own sight. Myrtle plays the theremin, knows fashion inside and out (one of the best moments in the series was her screaming “Balenciaga!” at a crucial moment in the final episode), and has a palate for classic French and continental cuisine. She is, in short, a child of the seventies. More importantly, she is a child of the seventies witch.
Today I wanted to briefly look at that decade (which I’m treating as a “long” decade, starting in around 1965 and going through the very early 80s), which spawned a very particular witchy aesthetic. It was the decade of Stevie Nicks (another AHS trope) and saw a marked growth in the popularity of occult themes across all sectors of American—and international—society. This is not going to be comprehensive, of course, and I know this is not exactly folk magic drawn from a weather-beaten nineteenth-century almanac, but I think that we should be cognizant of the role of recent (well, as recent as almost half-a-century ago, anyway) history in the development of modern magic and witchcraft. If the Victorian era was the early bloom of occultism, the seventies was the springtime explosion of color, dripping nectar, and bloody thorns which allowed a lot of the witchcraft we have today to re-surge, and it even helped fuel some of the studies of folk magic which have been so crucial to us in contemporary times.
In 1958, the film Bell, Book, & Candle featuring Kim Novak, James Stewart, and Jack Lemmon appeared in movie houses following a popular run of the play on Broadway. The sympathetic witch, played by Novak, and her hep-cat brother Nicky (Lemmon) mark some of the earliest American pop-culture portrayals of sorcerers who are not scary and evil, but hip, cool, and attractive. The success of the film eventually fed into the production of the classic television show Bewitched, which ran from 1964 to 1972, which starred Elizabeth Montgomery as the beautiful and charming Samantha. These portrayals are occasionally problematic—the film requires Novak’s character to give up witchcraft in the name of love, and the show was centered around Samantha’s struggles to sublimate her magic so that her husband could lead a comfortable suburban life (although that magic frequently saves his proverbial bacon)—but these glowing women brought glamor to the popular American experience of witchcraft, and the occult looked a lot less intimidating.
Then, in 1967, Ira Levin published his book Rosemary’s Baby. The following year, Roman Polanski adapted the book into a film the following year, and the eerie occult was back, with full-on Satanic conspiracies lurking behind Manhattan closet doors. Even in Rosemary’s Baby, however, the glamor persisted—the eccentric but resplendent witches-next-door, Roman and Minnie Castavet (played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), were magnetic, and served frosty cocktails in their spacious New York flat. There Satanic witch-cult even seems more like an anarchy art clique than a sinister magical lodge for the most part. The film put the fear of witches back into the American mind, however, with a new twist—witches were spooky, but spooky was cool. Incidentally, another classic occult film, The Devil Rides Out, appeared in theaters the same year as Rosemary, and lit its own subtle fires under the cauldron.
With this new-found social capital, witchcraft and the occult took the world by storm in the seventies. Some of the occult films which appeared during the decade were hallmarks of art and cult cinema: Simon, King of the Witches (1971); The Devil’s Daughter (1973); The Exorcist (1973—not a true ‘witch’ film, but one with strong occult ties and influence); The Wicker Man (1973); Season of the Witch (1973, directed by zombie-genre great George A. Romero); Lisa & the Devil (1974); and the highly glamorous Suspira (1977), a veritable precursor to 2010’s creepy art-dance film Black Swan. In essentially all of these films, the presence of the occult is a trope, and does not have any of the benign or jovial qualities of Bell, Book, & Candle or Bewitched. Yet each film features a mixture of eroticism, fashion, and allure layered over the tale of black magic driving the story. Liberation, sexual empowerment, and countercultural energy augment the horror of the films, and the gray space between forbidden occultism and fashionable society becomes a gulf.
Art and music also experienced an occult florescence during the seventies. The aforementioned Stevie Nicks—the “White Witch” of music—joined the group Fleetwood Mac along with boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham in 1974, and in 1975 the group experienced mainstream success with an album featuring witchy hits like “Rhiannon.” Her flowing shawls, black gowns, and stage twirls bewitched audiences, and her fashion became a standard of young, hip women seeking to look a little out of the mainstream—a little “witchy.” The occult music craze started well before Nicks, of course, and bands like Coven and Black Widow had experienced some chart success with their Satanic/witchy black rock during the late 60s. In 1970, Santana recorded and released Fleetwood Mac’s song “Black Magic Woman,” on their (fairly occult-named album) Abraxas, taking it to no. 1 on the pop music charts. In 1972, the Eagles released “Witchy Woman,” another big hit glamorizing witches, and in 1974 Cher released “Dark Lady,” about a love triangle involving a witchy fortune teller. Cher herself cultivated a glam-witch look throughout the decade, further expanding the cultural capital of witchcraft fashion. Other rockers who adopted elements of the occult into their songs, performances, and fashions include David Bowie, Jimmy Page, and, of course, Jim Morrison. Patti Smith notes the heavy influence of the occult on the Greenwich Village music scene in her memoir Just Kids, and especially the huge artistic influence that it had on artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. Penthouse magazine did erotic spreads centered on occult themes as well, such as this one featuring Babetta Lanzilli from 1974.
In the ‘real-world’ of witchcraft, a number of stars were aligning to add fuel to the magical fire. Chas Clifton outlines a number of the groups which were exploding onto the scene in his book Her Hidden Children, including the Psychedelic Venus Church and Anton LaVey’s Satanic Church, which also released a film called Satanis in 1970 (there are some great pictures of a 1969 LaVey here). Alex Sanders, the progenitor of Alexandrian Wicca, released an album revealing some of the workings of Wicca called A Witch is Born in 1970. Wicca had arrived stateside with Raymond Buckland in 1968 (although it may have had some early seeds from other sources, too). Buckland expanded on witchcraft religion through books like Witchcraft Ancient & Modern and Witchcraft from the Inside. The hugely influential publication of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in 1967 led to the foundation of The Church of All Worlds (CAW) and shaped practices in other groups as well (such as the aforementioned Psychedelic Venus Church). The mass-marketing of witchcraft became a staple of the 70s, with sales of “black magic ritual kits” hitting store shelves and a variety of occult-inspired board games. The Ouija game was purchased by Parker Bros. in 1966, and they began to push it as a party game rather than a spiritual tool. There was also a push towards legitimacy. Journalist Hans Holzer published his mainstream apologetic (and sensationalist at times) text The Truth About Witchcraft and opened the door to public discussions of its practices as legitimate, if fringe, activities done by regular people. Wicca and neo-Paganism in general underwent a rapid expansion and transformation, and the end of the decade saw the journalistic survey of new witchcraft (and other alternative) faiths in Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon (1979). That same year, Starhawk published The Spiral Dance, which crystallized the evolving feminist Wicca movement. A busy, busy decade for witchcraft.
I should point out that these different aspects of witchcraft may have occasionally interacted with one another, but they were not in strict conversation through the decade. Instead, the popular conception of the occult and witchcraft grew in one direction—often sensational and glamorous—and the nature-based religions that were gaining momentum in fringe spiritual culture. Yet there does seem to be a shared zeitgeist from that era that drove ever more people into the black-robed arms and beshawled shoulders of witches. For a number of people, the ecological spiritualism which was fueling part of the neo-Pagan segment was a complete non-starter. Instead, the sex, drugs, & rock-and-roll aspects of witchery worked as an artistic medium of self-expression. Both segments were connected to counterculture, but with different aims and methods. Following this decade, with its chaos and beauty, the occult got heavily mired in a number of problems, most notably the “Satanic panic” of the 80s. With the recent popularity of witchcraft in media, I’d be hardly surprised to find a resurgence of people claiming to have been harmed or attacked by evil cults over the next two decades or so. Let’s hope there’s been some growth on that front and that the information age will keep it in check, but I somehow doubt the ripples aren’t already in motion for the next “panic.”
So what does all this have to do with Myrtle Snow and the Diane von Furstenburg wrap dress (“the greatest invention of the century,” according to dear Auntie Myrtle)? I think that it can be very easy to lose sight of just how diverse witches are, for one thing. Dressing in black (despite AHS:Coven’s edict that “On Wednesdays we wear black”) may be a statement, but so is sporting a pair of black-and-red Pleasers for ritual sex, and there’s nothing wrong with a Pier 1 altar and a little P90X before ritual. I don’t want this to devolve into a post on there being no one type of witch, or on what witches should or shouldn’t look or act like, but I do think that the recent witchcraft revival in pop culture means that there’s room for some real glamor in witchery again. Folk magic performed with embedded style and power—a flair for the dramatic—could be a very refreshing thing. I’d like to see witches embracing their own high-fashion spins on tried and true witchcrafts—not so much glitter in conjure oils, but a really knowledgeable mixologist of a witch brewing enchanted herb rinses for bewitching cocktail hours, for example. I certainly don’t want to see the folk magic I study and practice cheapened by commercial interests, of course, but I would love to see a few more Myrtles playing the theremin around bonfires, while our cultural capital is so ascendant.
What about you? Is there a place for glamor and high fashion in your witchcraft? Are the seventies still alive in your spells?
Thanks for reading!