…Or The Wicked Witch of the West
Despite the disappointment that nobody picked Patrick Swayze in last week’s Great Ghosts List (he’s in a film called GHOST for goodness sake), we still decided to continue our “Great Monsters Who Aren’t…” feature for another outing.
But which monster to feature?
Nope. We had no idea.
So after noticing that last time ghosts featured in both Shakespeare and The Bible, we decided to turn to the classics once more for inspiration. And there’s only one absolute authority when it comes to horror villains:
Over on Twitter our Paul has been hosting a game called Scooby-Doo or Scooby-Don’t (#SDOSD) where he gives a Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! episode title and you have to choose if it’s a real one (Scooby-Doo) or one that came from his slightly addled mind (Scooby-Don’t).
Last week his episode title was Which Witch Is Which (a real one so, therefore “Scooby-Doo”).
So we decided to do something a bit different. While Vampires and Ghosts are, by their very nature, scary and fairly monstrous, we changed things up and gone for a much more ambiguous entry this time. Witches can be the evil crone we’ve been led to believe them to be by years of exposure to pop culture and Macbeth. However, there are good ones too, as well as beautiful ones, bad ones, neutral ones, scary ones and funny ones. By the end of this, you might even be asking yourself which witch is which.
But in the spirit of these features, we needed to cut out the most famous example, to promote a bit of creativity in the choices, so when we asked the team to name the most famous witch it was equally split between the 1999 genre-busting Blair Witch and the absolute archetypal evil crone, The Wicked Witch of The West. As with last time, we opened it up for anyone to join in, so you’ll see plenty of returning favourites and also new to the pages, the writer Pete Alex Harris who was a guest on our Halloween Special podcast last year. Say hello everyone.
So we’ll hand over to the gang as they tell you which witch they chose to defend, and why…
Now fly my pretties! Fly!
Mrs Mothersole (The Ash Tree by M.R. James)
Pete Alex Harris
What to say of Mrs Mothersole, the powerful and dangerous witch in M R James’ The Ash Tree? Despite her popularity, good reputation, and─let’s agree─a not particularly witchy name, Mrs Mothersole is convicted and sentenced to death on what amounts to a charge of behaving unexpectedly on a rich man’s land. But before her execution, she utters one of the most understated yet sinister curses in the genre: “there will be visitors at the hall.”
I won’t spoil it for new James fans, but this is not the boring kind of curse that kills you by bad luck and misadventure. It disposes of the aforementioned lord and one of his descendants, also determinedly a member of the curse-deserving class, in a terrifying and gruesome way. An excellent story, and a fine witch that it’s hard to argue did more harm than good overall.
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Okay, witches, listen up because I am here to talk about the greatest witch in creation. I am, of course, referring to Ursula the sea witch. Ursula whose powers rival those of King Triton himself and range from transmogrification to badass makeup skills. Have you ever tried applying sweet makeup underwater? No, because that would be crazy difficult and impractical for land-dwelling creatures.
The fade to black where Ursula’s eyes remain as she says ‘She may be the key to Triton’s undoing’ haunted me as a child and I still think it is one of the most simple yet effective villain moments in Disney history.
And can we talk about her villain song? Because ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ is amazing and easily the best witchy song. I see y’all thinking about Winifred Sanderson but ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ is better and is an original, unlike Winnie’s cover version.
Do we need more? Oh, because here’s another… She has hench-eels. Hench-eels. Eels who hench. That is simultaneously awesome, disgusting and completely badass.
Ursula is a plus-sized queen in a Disney Princess world and I am here for it.
Helena Markos aka Mater Suspiriorum (Suspiria)
In his work ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ writer and opium nibbler, Thomas de Quincey posited that just as there are three fates and three graces, so are there three sorrows. He dubbed them Maters Lachrymarum, Tenebrarum and Suspiriorum: Our Lady of Tears, Darkness and Sighs respectively. When Dario Argento wanted to push his artistic endeavours beyond the confines of the giallo tradition he’d come to dominate, his partner Daria Nicolodi co-wrote ‘Suspiria’ with him, using De Quincey’s work and Nicolodi’s own childhood memories as the foundations for one of the greatest horror films of all time, and unquestionably one of the greatest witches.
Our Lady of Sighs became The Mother of Sighs – one of The Three Mothers, a triumvirate of witches who secretly guide the affairs of mankind through malign influence from three buildings based in Germany, New York and Rome. Mater Suspiriorum is the oldest and wisest of the three and uses a dance academy in Freiburg as a front for her pernicious machinations. Short of screen time, long in influence, Mater Suspiriorum’s malign presence is felt from the jaw-dropping opening scenes of ‘Suspiria’ right through to it’s dizzying, fiery climax.
Myrtle Snow (American Horror Story)
Howard David Ingham
American Horror Story: always thrilling, often hilariously daft and maddeningly patchy. I don’t think there’s a consensus as to AHS’s strongest season, but for me, it’s always going to be the third, subtitled Coven. This bonkers tale of warring witches had way, way more than its share of utterly iconic characters from the always reliable Jessica Lange’s glorious Supreme to spoiled celebrity Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts)—hell, it even featured Stevie Nicks playing a witch called Stevie Nicks—but not one stole the scene so thoroughly as Myrtle Snow.
Played by AHS regular Francis Conroy, Myrtle’s main character concept was more or less “what if Anna Wintour only a witch?” Her combination of gloriously dramatic pronouncements, effortlessly on-point couture and unforgiving code of conduct made Myrtle a stone-cold icon. Myrtle’s murder of the fabulously camp Witches’ Council (Leslie Jordan! Patti Lupone!) was completely unforgettable. No one else got to navigate not one but two death scenes with such tremendous aplomb, and no one went out with as much style, in every possible way. BALENCIAGA!
Morgana Le Fey (Excalibur)
By the pricking of my Arthurian thumbs – here we have a creature exhibiting a lot of ‘witchiness’ – even though not actually named as one. The wicked sorceress Morgana le Fay (as portrayed in fine style by Helen Mirren in the 1981 Excalibur) is a super slinky villainess: a seductive force of vengeance, megalomaniacal in her desire to overthrow Arthur.
Plot spoiler In Excalibur – my fav swords n sorcery flick – they play fast and slightly loose with the Arthurian legend. Here Morgana seduces Arthur siring wicked and cursed Mordred – who proves to be a complete rotter, a kind of medieval supervillain who takes down the Knights of the Round Table. Spoiler ends
Morgana is just a fantastic fantasy creation. Motivated by hatred of the men who have wronged her, especially Merlin and Arthur, she schemes and wields uncanny power with panache. Cast as a boo-hiss baddie but for me, her cause wasn’t entirely unworthy so I was torn and surely can’t have been the only 10-year-old boy to lose my heart to this wicked witch of legend?
Angrboda (Norse Mythology… and The Mighty Thor comics)
Mother Of Dragons be gone! This is The Mother Of Monsters. Angrboda is way more terrifying than the traditional portrayal of a witch. You know the type. The cloaked figure that glibly tends to their broth; lamely casting herbs into the brew.
Angrboda is a giant monster bearing witch. Yeah, that’s right. Her natural ire is likely the reason Snorri Sturluson dedicated so much more of his time to detailing the exploits of other colourful characters, such as the trickster Loki. If Angrboda (one of Loki’s lovers) ever discovered that Sturluson was documenting her existence without express permission she would surely, deservedly, set her nasty offspring upon his Prose Edda writing behind. Those children: The wolf Fenrir who is so strong he bit off the hand of a god; Jörmungandr, (The Midgard Serpent) that is so hideous it does not mind biting its own tail; and Hel who is half dead, literal queen and guardian of the underworld. Monsters. Each and every one of them.
Then there’s the meaning of her name. The one who brings grief. She who offers sorrow. She lives on growing larger and more intimidating by the day, through fan fiction, artwork and the Marvel universe.
Eglantine Price (Bedknobs & Broomsticks)
There are films that we first see as children that leave a lasting impression for a wide variety of reasons. In later years, I find that with some of these films, I can still watch and enjoy through those child’s eye – Bedknobs and Broomsticks is one of them. As an adult watching the film for the first time, it would be easy to dismiss it as a strange mish-mash of ideas and styles. I cannot remember how old I was when I first watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks but I do know that it was during my early years in the late 70s. Always enjoyable, quirky yet endearing, I’ve always enjoyed the multiple viewings over the years and certainly in more latter years with my own children.
Ever dependable, Angela Lansbury is perfectly cast in the role of Miss Eglantine Price. Bookish and studious, Miss Price is striving to become a better witch – unbeknownst to the population of her village. Secretive yet likeable; reclusive yet caring; Miss Price finds herself caught up in an adventure that eventually leads to a showdown with a group of Nazis intent on invasion. Eglantine (owner of Cosmic Creepers – what a name!) tackles the various calamities, barriers and spells along the way with a determination that she is right and with a self-belief that carries her through. As her character changes, from reluctant temporary carer for three children to leading an army (of armour!) in battle, it is impossible not be endeared by her approach to life. As we progress through the film, we see a softening behind the bravado, as she comes to cherish not only the children but also Mr Emelius Browne.
It is a film that I’d hold up as one of my favourites from Disney and it’s agreeable and endearing fare. It may not be the most stylish film they’ve eve made but as witches go, she’s well up the list of the most likeable in cinema history.
Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy)
Mildred Hubble was in the middle of a very scary dream when Maud rushed in. Poor Tabby leapt up in fright as Maud flumped onto the bed.
“Get up, Mildred! We’ll be late!”
While she was not always the Worst Witch, Mildred Hubble had a reputation as being the last Witch to wake, and today was obviously a very special day.
Mildred shivered at the cold chill of the flagstones that she could feel despite her new shoes, and played with her pigtails. Tabby had curled up in her basket next to her copy of “The Popular Book of Spells”.
Across the Great Hall of Miss Cackle’s Academy were Witches of all years. Each of them were dressed in a rush and flaps of clothing stuck out here and there. Murmurs of rumours ran back and forth, while they tried to work out what this assembly was for.
At the front stood Miss Cackle (in her nightgown), Miss Hardbroom (dressed immaculately) and Ethel. Mildred couldn’t help but notice that Ethel’s collar was sticking up and sniggered. Maud poked her in the ribs and gave her a very sharp glare. She didn’t want to end up cleaning the potion class again.
Miss Hardbroom coughed and the room went silent. Even the wind stopped whistling outside.
“Girls, I have some disturbing news to impart to you.”
Ethel saw Mildred and raised her nose high in the air.
“Last night, we were told of a new school for Witches. It is a new private school. While we know little about it at the moment, we have been informed that some of the teaching staff are not Witches. “
Whispers started to fly until Miss Hardbroom raised her wand.
“May I remind you that Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches has been here since 1974, and our founder J. Murphy would be heartbroken to hear that another School has become more popular. Especially one that names itself after a pig!”
Maud’s cheeks had lost their rosy cheer now. This was obviously upsetting.
“When Ms. Murphy first thought of the Academy, it was her wish to invite people of all backgrounds…”
Mildred thought that Miss Hardbroom and Ethel looked across at her, but it was hard to tell. Even though she had saved the School multiple times – they still treated her harshly.
Ethel raised her nose even higher but now was looking at the ceiling, and Miss Hardbroom tapped her shoulder.
“… and this has been my wish ever since. I would therefore ask every girl to take home to their parents a tale of a school that does not engage in frivolities, lotteries or underlings. An Academy that asks nothing of the girls, except that which they are willing to give. An Academy that doesn’t let owls, trolls and other fairytale creatures run through the school. An Academy that doesn’t live in a Haunted House. An Academy built on excellence in…”
The room waited.
Miss Cackle saw the room waiting, and paused. Her finger rose to her mouth, slightly trembling..
“Time for the School Song everyone.” stated Miss Hardbroom – and they all sang along. Except Tabby, who knew the words, but was fast asleep.
Agnes Nutter (Good Omens)
This is Agnes Nutter, witch. You may have heard of her Nice and Accurate Prophecies about Armageddon. She is the only true prophet to have ever lived, and all of her prophecies were collected in a book that she wrote and published. Unfortunately, the book failed to sell any copies at all, because the prophecies were rather cryptic and only really understandable until you were either right in the middle of them, or looked at the relevant prophecy with the benefit of hindsight. Though, seeing as dear Agnes was an Actual Witch, she was sadly burned at the stake in 1656 in England’s last true witch-burning (in my opinion 17th century England needed to be way more open-minded about witchcraft. Burning people for having herb collections? Not cool, guys). Of course, Agnes saw it coming. I mean, what use is being a prophet if you can’t see your own demise? And seeing as she predicted it, Agnes had ample opportunity to prepare. Unbeknownst to the villagers attending her burning, Agnes had packed over 100 pounds of gunpowder and roofing nails in her petticoats. As the stake was lit, Agnes bade everyone “Come close, until the fire near scorch ye. For I charge ye that all must see how the last true witch in England dies.”
You can imagine what happened next. The resulting explosion was apparently seen and heard in Halifax (which, seeing as Agnes was burned in Lancashire, is rather impressive given that the Pennines are in the way). Hell of a way to go out. Finally, I can’t talk about Agnes without mentioning that in the wonderful adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, she’s played by the exceptional Josie Lawrence, who I’ve been a fan of ever since her appearances on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Josie is fantastic in her scenes and – pun completely intended – an explosive presence.
Zenobia (Sinbad & The Eye Of The Tiger)
There are not too many evil stepmothers that go through such a convoluted plot device to get their way, however, Zenobia from Sinbad’s third Harryhausen outing is an exception to the rule. While not only portraying a wicked stepmother to Prince Kassim and Princess Farah Zenobia played to the fullest by the fantastic Margret Whiting is secret (or indeed not so secretly a witch) dabbling in dark arts and ancient evils to get her son Rafi onto the throne of Charak. With the exotic allure of a 1970s Turkish Delight advert Zenobia follows in the footsteps of Torin Thatcher as Sokurah in the ‘7th Voyage’ and of course, the superb Tom Baker revelling in his malevolence as Koura. In ‘The Golden Voyage’ she has the pleasure of being Sinbad’s first female antagonist and probably the most deadly as not only does she have control of evil magic but also has at her disposal the hulking clockwork Minoton – a colossal golden minotaur that allows her to match Sinbad and his crew in strength and power.
Zenobia’s first encounter with Sinbad sees her demonic insectoid creatures pitted against the sailor and is just the first of many problems she provides for him and his crew. She transforms everyday creatures such as wasps into hellish flying nightmarish creatures as well as unleashing a frozen sabre-toothed tiger against the crew. However, her main achievement and the catalyst for the entire film, is to transform the heir to the throne of Charak Prince Kassim into a Baboon. While this provides for a fantastic spectacle thanks to Harryhausen’s charming animation the question is posed however as to why she did not just murder the prince and princess in their sleep?
Of course, even by having all the dark magics and demons of hell at your disposal does not mean that things always go to plan – even a witch has her limits and in the classic scene of the movie a transformation to a seagull and back does not go as expected and we find there’s ‘not enough…not enough!!’ (a line, according to the Ray Harryhausen Podcast hosted by the fantastic John Walsh is quoted a lot by Harryhausen super-fan Mark Gatiss)
Zenobia is finally vanquished (after seeing her son get his neck broken in a most unsightly way) by the end and Eye of the Tiger has everyone living happily ever after (apart of course from poor Trog). However, that one final shot of the movie means that maybe… just maybe we have not seen the last of this classic mythical mistress of the dark arts.
The Sanderson Sisters (Hocus Pocus)
Robbert de Koeijer
In 1993 director Kenny Ortega and writers Neil Cuthbert and Mick Garris brought us what is now an annual Halloween staple: Hocus Pocus. In it we get introduced to the Sanderson Sisters witches, played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker. While all three are fantastic witches, Bette Midler’s Winifred “Winnie” Sanderson, the oldest sister and leader of the trio, just oozes screen presence and a straight-up joy in playing the part. Being evil and loving it, the plan of the trio is to suck the life force from the children of the town of Salem and regain their youth. After their initial attempt on Halloween 1693 was stopped and the witches hanged they are resurrected 300 years later with one Halloween night to succeed in their original plan.
During the movie, Winnie gives us a host of quotable lines, in part thanks to Midler’s delivery, like “Dost thou comprehend?”, “Hello, I want my book. Bonjour, je veux mon livre.”, and “You know, I always wanted a child, and now I think I’ll have one. On toast!” The highlight has to be the musical number in which the Sanderson Sisters, of course, led by Winifred, give their version of the 1956 song by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You”. If you somehow never saw Hocus Pocus, you definitely need to give it a watch this Halloween season!
Willow Rosenburg and Tara Maclay (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Sunnydale has its fair share of witches and warlocks causing merry havoc across the Hellmouth, undead notwithstanding. Season four even gives them their own shop, The Magic Box, in which to rummage, plot and steal spells from dodgy grimoires.
Central to this are Willow and Tara. Willow’s power has been steadily growing throughout high school, but it is when she steps fully into her Wicca shoes at university, holding hands with sweet, shy Tara that we see them both blossom in power. And with power comes responsibility, as Tara well knows, counterbalancing Willow’s growing enchantment with her own strength.
Spells are nifty, until they’re dangerous. There’s a moral threshold beyond which Tara (usually) counsels Willow from stepping over – until Tara herself is ripped from life in a most cruel, human way. Dark Willow becomes both awe-inspiring and unhinged. She has the ability to flay a man with her fingertips, to wrench temples of darkness from the ground. To destroy civilisation with a thought and many black pulsating veins. Dark Willow is pretty magnificent, if a tad evil.
What Buffy the Vampire Slayer does so well throughout its run is to show the lure of power and control, and how too much of one can distort the other. Witchcraft in itself is not evil – it’s what you choose to do with your abilities that take you towards the light or dark. Ultimately, it is only ourselves who can choose to step away from the edge of darkness.
Pendragon’s Witches (Jack The Giant Killer)
For a kids’ film which, when you watch it back, isn’t anywhere near as good as you remembered it and, despite what you swore at school to your mates, wasn’t actually made by the same guy who did the effects for Clash of the Titans and Jason & The Argonauts, Jack The Giant Killer does contain a horrifyingly creepy surprise.
Pendragon’s witches are, in the film, feared by all who witness them. Scratch that. They’re feared by all who see the film. Just look at them, all decaying and nasty. One looks kind of fishy, another is all mummified while one is all horny and pointy like Satan and another appears to be some kind of amphibious crocodilian thing with the hair of Anna-Nicole Smith. Terrifying! And then there’s the final nail in the coffin of the sanity of anyone watching. The last thing any princess wants to see is the skellington witch coming at her, wafting around a knockout-inducing stench of her poisonous bouquet of flowers.
And more like zombies or vampires than witches (they do have a distinctly undead look about them), these witches turn you into one of their foul kind when they finally get their putrefying mitts on you. And they will. He commands it.
Grotbags (Emu’s World/The All Live Pink Windmill Show)
There’s somebody at the door! Oh, there’s somebody at the door!
There’s somebody at the door! There’s somebody at the door!
Who could it possibly be? Is it Bonnie Langford? Dexys Midnight Runners? More Pink Windmill Kids? No? Then who? I wonder…
Bugger me! It’s Grotbags with her overly camp talking crocodile and blatant C3PO rip-off android who only Grotbags would have the guts to name Robot Redford. Yeah, that’s right, kids; run away screaming! Here she comes, embracing the classic witch aesthetic, including the green skin, pointy hat, warty face, evil cackle, flowing robes, grumpy demeanour and flying vacuum cleaner (she’s nothing if not a modern witch), not giving two hoots what anyone thinks of her. Grotbags doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone and is focused with laser-guided precision on attaining her life’s goal; to take ownership of The Pink Windmill and kick the shit out of Rod Stewart and his stupid aggravated-assault-lawsuit-waiting-to-happen ostrich.
Frankly, if you don’t prance towards your front door after hearing a knock, singing “There’s somebody at the door! There’s somebody at the door!” and answer with “Aaaarrgh! It’s Grotbags!” then you are no friend of mine.
Yes, we know we missed out Evil Edna from Willo The Wisp, Granny Weatherwax from the Discworld novels, Bavmorda from Willow, the warlock from Warlock and probably a thousand others. Who is your favourite witch? Did we miss any out? Let us know in the comments below or over at our Twitter feed (@WorldGeeklyNews). Also, if you think you could do better, you’re welcome to drop us a message on Twitter to join us for next week’s topic which will be…
You guessed it!
Huge thanks, as always to our good friends who joined us for this piece:
- Pete Alex Harris is the author of the new short story collection Silk And Sharp Edges, which is available to buy right now on Amazon. All of his previous books are currently available in a bundle from Gumroad. He has also written an excellent story for the Shadows At The Door anthology. You can follow Pete on Twitter (@ScavengerEthic) and read more of his writing on his website, The Torn And Crumpled Page.
- Matt Adcock is author of the near future nightmare Complete Darkness (as featured in Den of Geek’s Best Books of 2019, and soon to be reviewed here). He is currently working on an audiobook version. Follow Matt on Twitter (@Cleric20).
- Lydia Wist – Like someone who tries out hats or other samples before making a final decision, experimenting with different ideas and techniques is how Lydia spends some of her time. This allows for other portions of time to speak through the lens of fiction, creative nonfiction and art. Her work can be viewed at Cargo Collective and Lydia Wist Creative on Facebook. Follow Lydia on Twitter (@LydiaWist).
- Stuart Ball is deputy headteacher at Booker Hill Primary School in High Wycombe. He listens to a LOT of music (especially Iron Maiden). Back in August he joined our 80s Movie Challenge with a look at the school-holiday coming-of-age adventure, Stand By Me.
- Howard David Ingham is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated author of We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide To Folk Horror. A follow up on Cult Cinema is due out soon. Follow Howard on Twitter (@HowTheWoodMoves) and visit their website Room 207 Press for more information. Howard will be joining our 80s Movie Challenge in a few weeks to look at The Thing. Howard is speaking a the all-day Haloween event, Rural Gothic: Samhain Surprise which promises to be an excellent online event. Get your tickets from The Folklore Podcast.
- CJ Dee joined us in July for a look at Beetlejuice and will be back tomorrow to look at The Evil Dead. She runs and writes for pop-culture website Gotham City Times. Follow CJ Dee on Twitter (@Kinestra).
- Andrew Lyall is the creator of the YouTube channel Grumpy Andrew’s Horror House. His first short story, Crowthorne, was published earlier this month in Local Haunts, a charity anthology written by horror YouTubers, which you can buy here. Follow Andrew on Twitter (@GrumpyAndrew).