Pony of the day
This post contains spoilers for the film Paranormal Activity 3.
I love horror movies. From films that are so well-crafted that they feel literary, like The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, and Night of the Living Dead; to beautiful, highly stylized films like In the Company of Wolves and Suspiria; to good old campy gorefests like Evil Dead II and Dead Alive. I generally don't get scared from horror movies, though (except for one scene in The Amityville Horror that never fails to make me jump) which makes it difficult to explain to other people why I enjoy them so much. Most people like scary movies because they're, well, scary.
When I once tried to explain to a co-worker my affinity for horror films despite the fact that they don't usually frighten me, I imprudently began with the sentence "Well, I just really like the imagery." I then had to hastily explain that no, I am not some kind of sociopath who enjoys watching people suffer through horrific situations. (I actually do not like either slasher films or the more recent "torture porn" subgenre.) It's true, I'm a gorehound, but it's because I'm a social sciences nerd, not because I'm a sadist. Audiences' fascination with gore is rooted in our collective fear of our own corporeality. We don't want to accept that we inhabit physical bodies that are full of fluid and tissue, and that those bodies are not constant or inviolate. That's why the best gore always goes hand-in-hand with other body horror tropes.
I also really love monsters. I could go on and on about the monster as the Other, but I've adored monsters since I was far too young to understand the concept of otherness. Monsters are just awesome. Which brings me to Paranormal Activity 3. For one thing, the Paranormal Activity movies do scare me, because they are really just loosely strung-together sequences of jump scares. The jump scare is usually a cheap trick, and filmmakers who rely upon it are usually just advertising their incompetence. I can forgive the Paranormal Activity franchise, however, because it approaches the jump scare with innovative flair. And sitting on the edge of your seat, nerve-wracked because you're just waiting for the next thing to jump out at you, has the nostalgic charm of those seasonal haunted houses that people flock to this time of year.
And then there's the very first thing that popped into my head when the plot twist explaining demon's origin was revealed: It's really great to see witches appearing as a legitimate movie monster again.
Everyone complains about what Twilight (and, before that, Interview with the Vampire) did to vampires. Well, what about what Harry Potter has done to witches? Wizards (who are exclusively male) have always had a positive connotation in literature, thanks in large part to J.R.R. Tolkien, but witches (who are almost always but not exclusively female) are supposed to be scary. It's true that in folklore, myth, and fairy tales there are a few evil sorcerers, but evil witches are more common and even when they're not evil they are depicted as frightening.
Though its witches are thoroughly sanitized (they're regular, civilized women who learn their craft at boarding school and whose skills culminate in flinging colored light at each other) Harry Potter doesn't deserve all the blame for the decline of witches as monsters. In Bell, Book, and Candle and Bewitched, the witch is no longer a repulsive hag but an attractive bohemian. Very much in the same vein as (and surely an inspiration for) Harry Potter is The Worst Witch. And, of course, in the nineties the popularity of Wicca as a fad among pre-teen and teenaged girls (no offense to actual Wiccans or other Neo-Pagans; I know that Wicca had an important place in second-wave feminism as part of the women's spirituality movement and that there are many sincere practitioners) influenced shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I can't quite recall when I last saw witches given their due as figures of terror. Many horror films still feature devil-worshippers, but that isn't quite the same. Satanists were the antagonists in The Last Exorcism, House of the Devil, and The Reaping (all disappointments, incidentally) but I wouldn't call those villains witches, and the movies certainly don't identify them as such. I wouldn't call the pagans in The Wicker Man witches, either. In all of these examples, the communities/covens are led by men. Witches don't just congregate for rituals in the service of dark forces or evil spirits, they are magic-makers in their own right. And while they are occasionally male, witches are never patriarchal.
The most evil sort of witch is, of course, the good old fashioned Satanic witch, a sorcerer/sorceress in league with the Devil himself. This is the witch of medieval and early modern imagination, a malevolent and often murderous woman whose powers are unequivocally demonic. The neighbors in Rosemary's Baby are not only Satanists but Satanic witches, and not just because they are explicitly identified as such--they actually cast spells, and the women in the coven have at least as much status as the men. (Roman talks a big game, but we all know that Minnie is in charge.) This most extreme and explicitly evil incarnation of the witch isn't confined to the horror genre--like all witches she has her roots in myth and fairy tales, so she has even shown up in a Disney film: remember, as Maleficent transforms into a dragon, that she calls upon "all the powers of Hell."
The witches who appear at the end of Paranormal Activity 3 are Satanic witches, able to call forth and control demonic forces. They're also all old women, true to classic form.
Personally, I think the witch as demonic hag is as effective a monster as she has ever been. It is a very common belief permeating American culture that we are, at any given moment in history, more enlightened and tolerant than we have ever been. It is precisely because of this mind-set that we actually have made very little progress as a culture. The same things that have always frightened us still have the power to terrify. The witch as malevolent old hag is frightening because she defies any and all gender roles. She isn't married. She lives outside of any patriarchal order. She isn't maternal. She's old and yet lives outside of the authority of a son-in-law and does not tend to any grandchildren. She is authoritative, forceful, and aggressive--she is somehow powerful even though she possesses no social or material capital. She is ugly. She may even look like a man: the witches in Macbeth are described as having beards. When she is explicitly Satanic or demonic, she flies in the face of the ultimate patriarchal authority: God. Because we live in a culture still permeated by sexism and misogyny, in which women are expected to look and act in very particular ways, the female who completely bucks these rules is to be feared.
If you like your witches to be more morally ambiguous than downright evil, there are a few contemporary portrayals that echo folkloric roles like that of Baba Yaga in Vasilisa the Brave, wherein the witch may be dangerous but she is not a villain, at least as long as you watch your step and your tongue. Acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose work is heavily influenced by both Japanese and Western folklore, portrays witches like this in his magnum opus Spirited Away. (In fact, from what I have seen of Miyazaki's work, no one in his movies is "evil." He gives all of his characters room for redemption.) There are a couple neutral/morally ambiguous/not-quite-evil witches in American horror films as well. Haggis, a witch who appears briefly in the film Pumpkinhead, is the gatekeeper of a power that ultimately destroys the protagonist, but she doesn't force it upon him--in fact, she initially tries to dissuade him. In Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, the protagonist is cursed by a haglike old Romany woman, but the old woman acts out of desperation and shame, not malice.
There are numerous non-fiction volumes that put forth an analysis of the witch as a folkloric figure. I happen to own a much-cherished edition of The Witch Figure, a collection of essays compiled in honor of the seventy-fifth birthday of acclaimed British folklorist Katherine M. Briggs. I'm trying to get my hands on a relatively reasonably-priced copy of Briggs' own book, Pale Hecate's Team. My favorite book on the subject, however, is The Book of the Cailleach by Gearoid O Crualaoich. It's an in-depth analysis of the Cailleach Bheara, a hag figure in Irish folklore and myth.
If you're looking for a portrayal of witches in children's/young adult literature that allows witches to be fun and relatable but still pretty scary, Eva Ibbotson's Which Witch? is a great read. In terms of adult literature, Sheri Holman includes a take on the boo-hag in her book Witches on the Road Tonight, and there is my own personal favorite book, Gregory Maguire's Wicked.
And of course there's always Granny Weatherwax.