A Teen Witch's Guide to Staying Alive
On "Teen Witch," teen witches, Shirley Jackson, and survival.
Photo by Jira Saki via Stocksy
We're all witches now: with our black turtlenecks, our blood-brown lipstick, our crescent moons and evil eyes, our combat boots and girl gangs and moon cycle apps. We've been shimmering like mood rings for a while now. In August, Anne T. Donahue asked writers about that witchy feeling to celebrate the 25th anniversary of The Witches for the Guardian, and explanations for sorcery's surge in popularity ranged from the political to the pop cultural. "A witch tale is a feminist fantasy because it's about having a physical, mystical power that can create real, dangerous change in a world that would rather take power away from [women]," Hazel Cills said. Or maybe it's that witches are just so 90s. "Stylistically speaking, people have conflated witchcraft with various subcultures that present a similar aesthetic—goth, grunge," said Carly Lewis. "If I'm being honest, I think it's because dark lipstick made a comeback."
We miss the 90s. It was a wealthier, sweeter, frumpier era, when fashion trends tended towards a joyful eclecticism that at times veered gently into the occult. We're back there at least in our dreams, and our slip dresses and tech bubbles; it's a magical intention we write every day in lip liner, because many of us imagined ourselves as teen witches. We were instructed by the CliffsNotes of paganism, the 1998 book Teen Witch ("Wicca for a New Generation"), written by Silver RavenWolf, "one of the most famous witches in the United States today." (We welcomed the book as a departure from the dorky 80s movie musical of the same name, in which a quiet nerd uses her powers to get a boyfriend and hair as big as Cyndi Lauper's.) The cover art of RavenWolf's Teen Witchis unforgettable, a painting of five witchy teens in the greatest hits of 90s fashion: backwards baseball caps, velour, thigh-highs, mom jeans, crop tops, overalls, a yin-yang chain belt.
And we found as we practiced secretly in our bedrooms, trying to make an altar from a nightstand and a candle from Claire's, that the book's sublime cover was inevitably a bait and switch.
RavenWolf writes at all times with mom-ish concern, insisting at length that "drugs and alcohol don't mix with magic." Her "Glamour Spell" is mostly practical advice on avoiding ridicule through better hygiene: "If someone is making fun of you because you smell, maybe you do. Keep your gym clothes clean. Use a spray in your sneakers." More than half the book is spent trying to dissuade 90s teens from thinking witchcraft is another goth fashion accessory. She explains that Wicca is a source of positivity, that the only legitimate magic helps others and connects a person to the greater Spirit; it is, in other words, just another religion, and one that RavenWolf suggests is best practiced quietly.
And the spells she includes are far from scary, or even cool. In her "Snow Person Healing Spell," she tells her reader to make a snow person representing a sick friend or relative and arrange twenty snowballs around it while chanting healing words; "clap if you think no one is watching," she advises. A spell to treat cuts and scrapes involves holding a hand over the hurt area and repeating, "Owie-fix, owie-fix / You're the fairy that I pick. Bring the healing / Come right quick!" Her "Turn Back Poverty Spell" is just writing "I banish poverty" on seven pieces of toilet paper and flushing them down the toilet.
Witch identity is something deeper, something touching the heart of loneliness.
A lot of the folk magic instructions RavenWolf offers feel like the compulsions anxious children take part in anyway: obsessive prayer, carrying lucky objects, hiding things. Her "My Castle Spells" are several ideas for magical protections for the Teen Witch's house, including chanting and making the sign of the pentacle over every window and door in the house every night. This legitimizes the restless avenues teenage anxiety takes, the rituals of vigilance and control children are prone to. I'm reminded of Merricat, the teenage witch who narrates Shirley Jackson's classic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as she describes her own protective magic: "Always on Wednesday mornings I went around the fence. It was necessary for me to check constantly to be sure that the wires were not broken and the gates were securely locked."
This is far from the only protection charm Merricat performs. She has also, as she says, "always buried things" in the acres of wilderness that her family owns: "All our land was enriched with my treasures buried in it," she says,
thickly inhabited just below the surface with my marbles and my teeth and my colored stones, all perhaps turned to jewels by now, held together under the ground in a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us.
She wants to protect herself and what's left of her family, her older sister Constance and her feeble Uncle Julian, from the ignorant townspeople in the hostile village beyond their land. Merricat embodies the intersection of alchemy and anxiety as she uses her self-invented witchcraft as a way to express her extreme emotions, but not to control them. When her routine is threatened early in the book, she says, "I could not breathe; I was tied with wire, and my head was huge and going to explode." She immediately reacts by smashing a milk pitcher, as smashing things into glittering shards is one source of her power. Her sinister girl-magic is far from RavenWolf's benign Teen Witches. We learn that someone poisoned her father, mother, younger brother, and aunt at dinner one day. Constance was tried but acquitted for the crime, but Merricat is the reader's only suspect. This is Jackson's uneasy feat in the book: the reader's sympathetic intimacy with our strange and murderous teenage narrator.
One thing that endears Merricat to us is her loyalty to her angelic older sister, Constance, an avatar of purity and nurturing domesticity. Constance does nothing but cook, clean, and garden in the book, and she is perfectly attuned to the cycles of nature and the harvest. "Maybe there will be a tulip open today," Merricat muses, but Constance replies, "Not until tomorrow, I think." Jackson is leading us to wonder whether Constance is not partaking in her own kind of magic. Observing Constance's rows and rows of preserved fruits and vegetables in their cellar, Merricat tells her, "You bury food the way I bury treasure." Of course, both witchcraft and food preservation are traditionally feminine arts—and safeguards, ways of staying alive. After cleaning their house, Merricat describes herself and Constance as "carrying our dust cloths and the broom and dustpan and mop like a pair of witches walking home." It is easy to forget that the accouterments of witchcraft—the broomstick, the cauldron—are traditionally found around the hearth, the woman's domain.
Constance's domestic abundance is what binds her and Merricat. In her New York Review of Books essay on We Have Always Lived in the Castle, "The Witchcraft of Shirley Jackson," Joyce Carol Oates describes Merricat as "like an unweaned infant," totally dependent on Constance for food. They enact their food fetish at the dinner table and in the garden and in their magic. When Merricat chooses magic words for protection, of course she consumes them, writing one on her toast in jam and whispering one in a glass of water. The sisters seek to shield the power and eros of food, living exclusively towards the back of their house, where the garden and kitchen are secluded, and Merricat dislikes eating in front of other people at all. In this refusal, she resembles many teenage girls. It's not hard to understand: In more ways than one, food is a domain of feminine control. In Elissa Washuta's Starvation Mode, which she calls "A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control," she describes how her lifelong food obsession was connected to her untamable emotions. A rule remembered from her childhood, "only cry if you are hurt or scared," caused nothing but confusion. "While I knew how to count to three," she writes, "I did not know the boundaries of pain and fear." Her food compulsions—from tasting a salt lick she found in the forest as a child to the binging, restriction, and obsessive dieting she vacillated between for years—all had the same appeal: "to beckon toward the impossible dream of making my own microscopic and mysterious cells change according to my will."
It was a wealthier, sweeter, frumpier era, when fashion trends tended towards a joyful eclecticism that at times veered gently into the occult.
Washuta's book is revelatory on women's disordered relationship with food, a subject that would seem to have been covered. She describes how her first "diet," a dangerous 600-calorie-a-day restriction, made her feel empowered and safe, "like good St. Catherine in her iron girdle." Eating disorders are a kind of penance and a kind of fortification and a kind of disguise. It is a paradox of womanhood that women have been so long associated with the private sphere, the home and the family, while our bodies are considered public property. In the climax of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Merricat sets fire to her house to oust her hateful cousin Charles from her space, ironically opening the house to the citizens of the village, who invade it first to put out the fire and second to ransack it, smashing and destroying all of the sisters' belongings. "It seemed that all the wealth and hidden treasure of our house had been found out and torn and soiled," Merricat says. What was private is made public.
Throughout the novel, we are ambivalent about what her relationship with Merricat is doing to Constance. Constance completely shuts herself up in the house after the trial, and though it is clear she longs at times to leave, she knows the world is too dangerous for Merricat—or that Merricat is too dangerous for it. But what Merricat did in the annihilation of their family was promote Constance to the head of the household, freeing her from waiting on ravenous men. The able-bodied men in the novel are described as having monstrous appetites: "The boy ate hugely," Uncle Julian says of their dead brother Thomas, and their cousin Charles is shown "eating hugely of ham and potatoes and fried eggs and hot biscuits and doughnuts and toast." What woman has not wished to be free, at least temporarily, of male appetites? As Washuta writes, she learned from the Disney movie
A Little Mermaid "that romance hinged upon the girl's physical transformation to fit the prince's notion of perfection." When she was a little older, she learned how to enact that kind of transformation in teen magazines like YM, which "seemed to follow an editorial assumption that every reader dieted, even if the practice was a passive state set in place by default." Those same teen magazines are where I first read about RavenWolf and her spells for teen witches; it's as if their only purpose was to provide more or less desperate remedies for teen girl neuroses.
It is a paradox of womanhood that women have been so long associated with the private sphere, the home and the family, while our bodies are considered public property.
In its most disordered form, Washuta's dieting in Starvation Mode is transformed from an enforcement of the male gaze to a kind of purifying fire, reducing her body to what cannot be consumed or destroyed. "I wanted a body that was a plywood box," she writes, "one that, even if it were broken open, might be full of nothing fragile." In the same way, the fire has diminished Merricat and Constance's house to its necessary parts, specifically the areas of the house that revolve around food: the kitchen, the cellar, and the garden. Like in the hunger-addled body, they have achieved a unity of fortification and vulnerability, a perfect isolation, as their house becomes "a castle, turreted and open to the sky."
Washuta's and Jackson's are both terrifying solutions to the problem of an embattled female existence—it is upsetting, to say the least, to confront Jackson's vision of human life "as a kind of squatter's inheritance in a diminishing castle," as Jonathan Lethem puts it in his introduction to
We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But the question remains, as Safy-Hallan Farah put it, "What Should We Call Girl Pain?" Her essay by this name appears in her essay collection No New Friends, forthcoming in winter 2015, and in it, she examines the icons of teenage girlhood just post–Teen Witch, the teen queens who were on the cover of Vanity Fair's July 2003 issue: Lindsay Lohan, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Mandy Moore, Amanda Bynes, etc.
As Farah points out, "five of the nine starlets on the cover... have admitted to struggling with mental illness," including eating disorders. And the shame of these hurting young women could not have been more public: Lohan and Bynes were both tabloid pariahs, as their bizarre breakdowns turned them into punchlines. Both women "represent hurt and injury, and are mocked for it," Farah writes, as their pain becomes "titillating and amusing disaster porn." When we call girl pain "crazy" we are devouring women who are already seeking to devour themselves. How can we blame Shirley Jackson, then, who towards the end of her life became so agoraphobic that at a certain point she could not even leave her bedroom? Who wrote, shortly before her death, a novel that glorifies the agoraphobic instinct, about two sisters who are rightfully terrified of the outside world? What should we call girl pain?
And how should we forgive girl survival? Because all that's left for Constance and Merricat is to live happily ever after. Oates describes Merricat's magic as "an expression of desperation and a yearning to stop time," but Merricat is only opposed to our teleological vision of time, moving relentlessly towards new places, situations, and configurations until it ends, abruptly, in death. Merricat thrives in the daily and weekly circles of domestic time: routines of meals, chores, seasons. At the end of the book, she and Constance live and eat happily, harmonizing with their garden's growing cycles and consuming the talismanic preserves Constance buried in the earth. They are village legends: the townspeople tell each other scary stories about Constance and Merricat eating children, and they bring them offerings of food to quell the sisters' anger. The sisters become more witchy than ever before, hidden and alone in their spooky house on the edge of town.
RavenWolf emphasizes that wearing black won't make you a witch—but everyone knows that. Witch identity is something deeper, something touching the heart of loneliness. One of RavenWolf's protection spells is the Chameleon Spell, to make the teen witch disappear. It is a meditation exercise, in which the spell caster must memorize a magic poem, "then practice making the edges of [herself] fuzzy while chanting the poem." This spell is, in other words, the same thing that girls do in hallways, classrooms, and walking down the street: close their eyes and pray to be less conspicuous, less exposed. This is why We Have Always Lived in the Castle's fairytale ending is so moving. Jackson's weird sisters achieve what every teen witch seeks: if not love, at least invisibility.