THE SUPERNATURAL IN MODERN MEDIA

Every year as fall approaches the nights get darker and longer, the bloom of summer fades and everything supernatural seems to rise a little closer to the surface. Even those who aren’t regularly involved with witchcraft or the supernatural feel the overlap between contemporary life and the older, more traditional ways of living, culminating perhaps most obviously in the celebration of Hallowe’en. Despite this holiday’s current incarnation as an excuse to dress up, eat candy corn and watch a scary movie or three, it does highlight one example of the supernatural crossing over into the modern world. It may not always be accurate, but it proves a sustained interest in witches, ghosts, and more otherworldly beings despite the best efforts of modern-day belief systems to suppress these subjects.

This sustained interest can also be seen all year round in the media that we, the general public, consume that centres around supernatural figures and events. Everywhere from television to books to movies to music you can see the same themes cropping up again and again. Even other forms of entertainment get in on the act with Spotify providing curated playlists, Pokerstarscasino offering themed games and Comixology releasing plenty of new webcomics. Perhaps this is one reason why Wicca as a religion is gaining in popularity and why media with a supernatural theme often fares better than the alternatives. People are curious about these ways of living outside the mainstream and love to speculate about what exists outside of the disciplines of technology and science.

Piercing the veil

Television

Two immensely successful TV shows from the past 20 years that centre around magic, ghosts, demons, witches and other metaphysical themes are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the aptly named Supernatural. Whilst many of the plotlines and characters in these TV shows feature the more ‘Hollywood’ version of magic, there is also a lot based on real research and beliefs. The interplay between 20th century America and ancient legends or superhuman powers is what makes these shows so appealing.

For example, when Sam and Dean Winchester (Supernatural’s protagonists) visit everyday locations like a Colorado casino, a Portland shopping mall or a Pennsylvania cinema, the audience is interested to see supernatural occurrences happening in these familiar places. They want to see the supernatural intrude on the everyday. Of course, in both Supernatural and Buffy, this often ends in the magical element being vanquished by the normality of the shows’ protagonists. But there are also positive portrayals included in the programmes too, like Buffy’s witch best friend Willow and the Winchesters’ witch friend and collaborator James. Whilst the supernatural elements to these programmes often remain the antagonists, there are concessions made to ‘white magic’ and ‘good witches’ with obvious care taken to portray such phenomena in a positive light as well.

The trappings of witchcraft

Movies

Although the term ‘witch’ does not always refer to a woman, Hollywood has always played up to the stereotype of a spinster in a black hat, mixing potions and talking to her familiar. Some of the most iconic movie witches of the past 30-odd years can be seen in the films Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic, playing right up to the Hollywood formula. Whereas Hocus Pocus imagines what would happen if three 17th century witches woke up in modern day Salem, Practical Magic sees a family of 20th century witches navigating normal life alongside practicing their craft. The two films use the juxtaposition of completely different ways of life to drive the plot and play up to the audience’s pleasure in seeing the supernatural spill over into the commonplace.

Books

Of course, literature is absolutely full of references to witchcraft, folklore, pagan beliefs, magic, and the supernatural. The runaway success of both Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series pays testament to the popularity of magic and witches in the literary world. Rowling built her entire plot around the inclusion of magic in normal life and turned the world on its head, making non-magical folk the outsiders. Spells, magical creatures and unexplained happenings are commonplace in the world of Harry Potter, whereas electricity, television and mobile phones are almost unheard of.

In Pullman’s world, magic exists everywhere alongside the mundane and every person possesses a witch’s familiar, named a daemon. Witches are ethereal womenfolk who live deep within nature, foregoing many societal customs and living preternaturally long lives. They are connected to the Earth and nature in a way more reminiscent of real witchcraft and the Wiccan religion.

As you can see, the supernatural is woven throughout contemporary entertainment and media. It is a subject that somehow the human storyteller is always drawn back to, despite its continued position in real-life as outside of the mainstream. However unusual it seems to the majority of people, they remain fascinated by its mysteries and the differences that set magic, witchcraft and the supernatural apart from ordinary life.

A spellbook