One of my all-time favorite movies is 90s horror classic The Craft. I’ve loved this film since the first time I saw it, close to 20 years ago. I think it’s something of a perfect movie in many ways— gloriously 90s, unapologetically goth, and brimming with witchy fun. Those god-awful clothes? That terrible wig Robin Tunney wears? The maroon lipstick and smudged black eyeliner? Love Spits Love’s awesome cover of The Smiths “How Soon Is Now”?
Who could ever forget the eerie scene where scores of sharks wash up on the beach after the girls perform their first major spell? What about the part where Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle attack Sarah with glamors? And make it seem like her house is overrun with snakes and roaches and maggots? Who could ever forget Fairuza Balk in all her crazed splendor?
ICONIC. All of it.
To me, The Craft was never an average teen movie. It was too dark, too brooding, but not in a bad way. Upon release, it was something special, providing a much needed counterpoint to another 90s classic, the bubbly and hilarious Clueless. The Craft is still special and will remain that way, despite news that Sony has greenlit an unnecessary remake or sequel of the film. (Which, like, why? No one asked for that).
But I don’t love The Craft just because it’s a cult classic, though a huge part of enjoying The Craft is poking fun at the fashions and the general ham-fisted approach of 90s movies. The film is deeper than that. High school has always been more than trite hand-wringing over frenemy drama, securing a prom dates, freaking about graduation, and fretting about how to spend the last summer before college. The adolescent experience is fraught with feelings of helplessness and insecurity.
I love The Craft because, at its core, it is a movie about real pain experienced in your teenage years. A lot of kids, girls especially, struggle with problems that transcend the Hollywood version of high school life. The Craft rejects that Hollywood version and focuses on four vulnerable outcasts and what these girls do to gain control over their lives. We have all felt the unique helplessness of being a teenager, old enough to realize you don’t have any control over your life yet too young to do anything about it. The Craft confronts that reality, and I love it.
Perhaps it is strange that I assign such gravitas to a movie like The Craft, but the honest truth is that the movie has resonated with me for years, since the very first time I saw it to my last viewing a couple of weeks ago. The film has meant different things to me as I’ve progressed through life. It has offered insights into my own childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I see my own development mirrored in the film.
As a kid, every single girl I knew was in some way fascinated by magic. Even the girls with the strictest, most Southern Baptist families were intrigued by the thought of casting spells or invoking spirits to serve us. We would play at magic, which was all small stuff, mostly scary games and strange little rituals. But that didn’t mean magic wasn’t real in some unexplored corner of the world. Wouldn’t it be cool if it was?
At recess we’d play Concentrate and delight in analyzing all the ways we might die. We used fortune telling games to divine which boys secretly liked us. We played with Ouiji boards, even learning how to make them out of construction paper and markers should we need to consult the spirit world at school. During slumber parties, we all took turns as The Board for Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board. At summer camp, we played Catscratch or Sandman. We made many loud boasts about how bravely we would conjure Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror, for real this time, I’m not kidding you guys.
So it’s not a surprise that The Craft was a slumber party staple. Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle were impossibly cool girls. They were edgy, intimidating, beautiful, grown-up. They were scary, with their knee-high socks, silver rosaries, heavily-lined eyes, black nail polish, and dark lips drawn into a full pout or a snarling grin. They performed spells and wielded magic like it was nothing. They were not to be messed with.
I didn’t know any girl who watched those girls strut around in all their goth glory like rockstars and didn’t want to be them.
I knew magic wasn’t real and knew that all of our games, spells, and the movie weren’t real. But I wanted it all to be real. I remember hoping the world was full of magic and wanting to be able to command find real magic someday, even if my friends and I weren’t very good at it. I half-believed I could access some hidden and powerful plane of the universe if I really wanted to.
I was dependent on adults but transfixed by a world where these girls answered to no one. I knew I was just a kid, stuck in my parents’ house, bent to their rules, but I wouldn’t always be. There were no rules, save one—be careful of your own power. If you didn’t control your magic, you’d go crazy and turn evil like Nancy. But if you were strong and controlled it, even when things got really scary, you would overcome evil and become the most powerful witch.
This was before I put away the childish games, the little rituals, and the fervently whispered spells. Before my friends and I grew up and I put away the idea that we alone knew how to unlock our magic powers. We were wrong, I eventually decided. We had never possessed any kind of power.
Still, even when sleepovers became more about social scenes and hunky actors, we would watch The Craft every once in a while. Bonnie, Rochelle, Sarah, and Nancy were still cool, but the film took on a darker aspect. It wasn’t about the creepy rituals anymore; it was about how these girls struggled with their problems, the least of which was fitting in at school.
As a teenager, I realized that some teen movies never really acknowledged just how bad being a teenager felt. Teenage girls are people too, people who have problems a hell of a lot more substantial than being too beautiful or being set up with rebel dreamboat Heath Ledger. Whereas the typical high school movie had no place for serious personal problems, The Craft told me it was ok for me to feel sad about my problems and that I wasn’t alone.
I think it was important for me to realize that those cool, edgy girls I had secretly idolized were actually confused, alone, and lost. It was monumental for me to realize they grappled with bad problems—Bonnie with her horrible burn scars, Rochelle with being bullied by the racist popular girl, Nancy with her deadbeat alcoholic and abusive stepfather, and Sarah with her intense depression. These were soul-crushing problems, something that might seem inescapable to anyone, especially a teenager.
At the time, I was going through some bad times. My mother, sick of my emotionally and psychologically abusive father, had finally asked for a divorce. The process was long and nasty. I felt caught in between my parents. I didn’t understand why my father would yell more than usual or why my mother would pretend like she wasn’t sobbing in the bathroom. Nothing made me feel better. Even after the divorce was finalized, I wasn’t happy. I became depressed, and under further pressure from father’s continued emotional and psychological manipulation, I felt like I would never be happy again.
I saw myself in the girls from The Craft.
The realization deeply affected me. It made the movie scarier because I understood their desperation and how tempting it would be to use witchcraft to gain control over their lives. It was seductive to watch the girls graduate from the little-kid kind of magic to the powerful stuff. They went from being victims to something like goddesses, able to manipulate people and alter their environments to satisfy all their wants and desires.
Can you blame them? If someone told you that all you had to do to stop your mother’s abuse was to perform a ritual and recite a spell? Would you do it, especially if you had no other solution?
I don’t know about you, but I would be tempted. I may not go through with it, but it would be hard to resist.
And that’s where the scary part comes in. Like many before them, these girls had no grasp of how things could go wrong. It didn’t seem fair that Bonnie became a narcissist after healing her burns, or that Rochelle should have to feel guilty about exacting revenge on her tormentor. It didn’t seem right that Sarah’s love spell would expose her crush as the rapey douchebag he always was or that Nancy would be too weak to control her power and end up insane.
For teenage-me, struggling with my world being torn apart, The Craft was a cautionary tale. Instead of making them stronger, magic weakened the girls. It didn’t matter if they were in pain. It didn’t matter if they were desperate. Instead of improving things, the girls succeeded only in discovering their own ugliness. Indeed, the moral of the movie seemed to be, without exception, that “whatever you send out there you get back times three.”
They say time heals all wounds. I’d rather say that time gives you the ability to learn to live with your wounds. You get used to them. You learn to go on despite them.
The Craft doesn’t have the same emotional effect on me that it once did. I think this is because I’ve been successful in building a life on my own terms, which in turn has allowed me to move on from the pain of my teenage years. It’s not that those years weren’t as bad as I thought, but that a lot has transpired between now and then, and my teenage loneliness and insecurity seems distant and harmless.
Today, I don’t find The Craft very scary. It’s eerie and dark, for sure, and the snakes and bugs will always give me goosebumps.
I understand Bonnie, Rochelle, Sarah, and Nancy were trying to invent their own system of rules to navigate the world. They wanted to invent a religion that explained what they experienced. They wanted to unlock the power hidden in some part of the world, because they didn’t think it was in themselves.
But I am haunted by Nancy, the most damaged of the girls, who never broke free.
I remember feeling like school would never end, that my parents would never stop fighting, that I would be stuck and bored and sad for the rest of my life. But school did end, and my parents did stop fighting, and I was able to move on and become happy. I realize I was a lucky girl. Many are not this lucky. That is horrific—to be warped and imprisoned by your pain when it wasn’t your fault to begin with? Nancy’s real crime is that she wasn’t strong enough, and she paid a terrible price.
Having recently watched The Craft, I can’t help but think of all the kids who graduated high school only a few weeks ago. My cousin graduated. I wonder how she feels about it. Does she feel any resentment towards the past or apprehension of the future? Does she feel an unbearable sense of being stuck in the present? I hope not. I hope she feels a sense of possibility. I hope she is excited and nervous and giddy to witness all she is capable of.
The Craft takes on a certain poignancy for me now, watching her and other girls step into the world. I want to tell them, it’ll be ok. When you’re young, everyone tells you what to do and you don’t really have the power to control anything. It sucks. And sometimes it sucks even worse because life dumps other shit on you that you shouldn’t have to deal with. It’s unfair. I’m sorry.
I want to tell them that they may not be carefree young girls squealing about Ouiji boards and Bloody Mary anymore, and there may not be magic in the world, but each and every one of them has power. Each one can become stronger than she ever imagined possible in her days of silly spells and tricks. She can become much more than the indignities and tragedies life throws her way.
After all, “Ours is the magic. Ours is the power.”
But I also know this advice is not true for every girl. Some may never gain dominion over their pain. There is always going to be a Nancy searching power in the wrong place and who will eventually be consumed by her pain. She’ll try to invoke the spirit, but fail to see that she should really invoke herself.
I hope not. I truly hope not.