The cultural impact of the 1996 horror-thriller The Craft goes far beyond its status as a cool femme-goth paean to mid-1990s fashion and music. It even goes beyond its seemingly timeless camp appeal, which proliferates in memes all over social media, in part due to Fairuza Balk’s tour de force performance. The screenplay, co-written by director Andrew Fleming and Peter Filardi, with help from a Wiccan high priestess consultant, wraps up the story of witchlets-gone-bad by making it clear that using witchcraft for evil intentions will backfire spectacularly.
By contrast, the new premium-streaming release The Craft: Legacy had three witchcraft consultants, and instead of the witches turning against each other, they bond together to defeat a stronger enemy. In Zoe Lister-Jones’ reboot, sisterhood exists for its own sake, rather than as a loyalty test, and toxic masculinity is as threatening as ever (sigh). But the witchy expression of karma is less about punishment and more about owning your mistakes. Fans expecting a faithful retread of a generational cult favorite may be surprised to see a wholly new story and a portrayal of witchcraft refashioned for the current generation.
Like many films with occult themes, The Craft took on a life of its own: its witchy vibes created a ripple effect that’s still affecting its cast today. Rachel True (who played Rochelle) is a Tarot reader whose new book and Tarot deck were released this October. Balk became so interested in the contemporary occult scene that she purchased and ran an occult shop (Pan Pipes) in Los Angeles not long after the production wrapped.
The film’s mystique, partly grounded in actual pagan rituals and practices, attracted thousands of teenage girls to witchcraft, spurring a boom in books and other materials aimed at young readers and novice practitioners. Titles included 1998’s Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation by Silver Ravenwolf, followed by 2000’s Teen Witch Kit from the same author and publisher, Llewellyn Publications. While older witches complained about these seemingly shallow products, they catalyzed an expanding witchcraft industry, which two decades later found expression in only slightly more sophisticated offerings like Sephora’s $42 Starter Witch Kit.
That kit’s release was cancelled due to backlash over its overpriced tawdriness and its use of sage bundles, which many people saw as a cultural appropriation of Native American spiritual practices. Wicca, which originated in England in the 1950s as an inventive pastiche of folklore and religion created by Englishman Gerald Gardner, has been challenged in recent years for its reputation as a largely-white phenomenon. More generalized, free-form expressions of witchcraft, allowing for greater cultural inclusion, have replaced the homogeneous Wicca of the 1990s.
Today’s witches embrace eclectic, spontaneous approaches to their spiritual path, and media portrayals of witches have responded in kind, opening up possibilities beyond horror and fairy-tale genres to include realistic depictions of the modern practice of Wicca. The Craft opened up this possibility with its authentic details based on actual witchcraft rituals, in spite of the fantastical depiction of magical power. More recently, it’s more common to see witchcraft portrayed in films and TV without special effects (recent examples include Broad City, Color Out of Space, and PEN15), with the focus on spiritual content and empowerment, not supernatural horror or violence.
This movement confirms witchcraft’s growing mainstream acceptability as a spiritual practice and subculture. There is, however, a generational divide, separating the old guard and the new seekers, and some witches who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s see the current witchcraft revival as a sometimes-shallow movement that reframes basic concepts of self-care (herbal baths, nature walks, aromatherapy) and various esoteric activities (Tarot reading, astrology, crystals) as a kind of witchcraft that, despite its glamorous and spooky aesthetics, is devoid of the contemporary witchcraft movement’s rich history and folkloric depths.
This stylistic generational shift is writ large in the differences between The Craft and The Craft: Legacy. Zoe Lister-Jones’ update to the original film has been generating excitement on social media for months, particularly among passionate fans of the original. The Craft: Legacy is more a reboot than a remake, and it’s even a sequel of sorts. The films begin similarly: three teenage witches perform a makeshift ritual, using familiar tools and ingredients (candles, herbs, crystals) and wishing for a “fourth,” who quickly arrives after a cross-country move. In 1996, it was Sarah (Robin Tunney), a troubled girl whose mother died in childbirth and who had attempted suicide. In 2020, it’s Lily (Cailee Spaeny), who’s never met her dad, but is besties with her mom (True Detective’s Michelle Monaghan), who’s moving in with her new boyfriend Adam (David Duchovny) and his three sons. In both cases, the newcomer represents west, or water, the fourth element needed to complete the coven circle.
Cailee isn’t suicidal like Sarah was, but she complains of having no friends, and her first day at school is marred by a humiliating event that draws the attention of Timmy, a sexist bully (Nicholas Galitzine), and newbie witches Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Lourdes (Zoey Luna) and Tabby (Lovie Simone). Convinced Lily is meant to join their coven, the three use telepathic communication to seal their connection. The four bond over a spell to force Timmy to become his “highest self,” and his transformation is both hilarious and moving, thanks to Galitzine’s appealing, nuanced performance.
The new coven enjoys strutting around their high school, relishing their outcast status as cool rebels. (It’s a public school, not a Catholic one as in The Craft, so the costume possibilities have opened up considerably, though fans of the original film’s Goth aesthetic may be disappointed.) Their status gets complicated when one of the witches performs an impromptu love spell. As with the original, the message here is not so much about how wrong it is to interfere with someone else’s free will (a basic tenet of Wicca), but that there can be unintended consequences.
In The Craft, those consequences saw the target of Sarah’s love spell turn gradually from a besotted admirer into an aggressive stalker. In The Craft: Legacy, the consequences are immediate and devastating. Witchy coming-of-age stories often have subplots of sexual awakening complicated by the onset of magical power (think Carrie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina). In The Craft: Legacy, sex is less a plot device than a thematic trope. The sins of sexism are called out (one of the witches is transgender, though it’s only mentioned in passing), but it turns out the patriarchy’s power, in all its ancient boorish entitlement, is almost more than the coven can handle. Kudos to Duchovny, whose incarnation as Fox “Spooky” Mulder, paranormal specialist for the FBI, prepared him righteously for his role as a man caught up in witchery gone awry.
The Craft: Legacy’s central premise, that witchcraft isn’t something to play around with, is less potent here than in 1996’s story, because the witches are ultimately less culpable. Rather than being driven by their own choices, they’re buffeted by external evil, and they lack a mentor to help them sort out their response. In The Craft, occult-shop owner Lirio (Assumpta Serna) warns the girls about dabbling carelessly with magic; she recognizes Nancy’s narcissism, and helps Sarah realize her natural gifts.
Lirio is a motherly figure in a story where reliable parental models are notably absent. (Though Helen Shaver as Nancy’s neurotic, overbearing mother is a delicious cameo.) But in The Craft: Legacy, Cailee’s mother is complex: She’s her daughter’s best friend, the keeper of a secret that’s key to Cailee’s identity as a witch, and the unwitting catalyst for Cailee’s possible destruction. When her new love affair complicates her ability to be her daughter’s protector, Cailee’s three witch compatriots intervene. It’s the classic adolescent “breaking away” struggle. Monaghan does a lot with a somewhat thankless role, but it raises the question: why isn’t there some stronger mother energy here? Without a strong magical mentor, these young witches have to make their own mistakes, but the story also needs them to rapidly find their own solutions, complete with almost-immediate epiphanies, which feel neither terribly authentic nor suspenseful.
And the repercussions of their actions aren’t really of their making. The Craft makes it clear that Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle have chosen their reckless path; they relish their newfound magical abilities and have no problem with using them to harm others. Sarah, the “natural” witch, saves the day with both her magic and her inherent integrity. In The Craft: Legacy, the witches have no evil intent, only giddy desires and confident decision-making. This suggests witchcraft doesn’t invite trouble, regardless of how it’s used — it’s just power that can vanquish problems. The Craft portrays witchcraft as alluring, complex and consequential: in The Craft: Legacy, witchcraft is fashionable, quick to master, and easily renounced.
There’s no denying this approach reflects the evolution of witchcraft portrayals from 1996 to 2020. Like the brick-and-mortar occult shop, Lirio and others like her have become obsolete, in an age of instant information and access to sophisticated materials for any teen with a wi-fi connection. But Lirio’s value also lies in her intuition, and her awareness of Sarah’s power as a legacy she needs to accept and understand. This bridge to the past as a way of understanding the present is a concept that often seems largely absent from contemporary witchcraft culture, which is more geared toward immediate gratification and aesthetics.
And yet. Both films suggest that witchy powers are inherent, maybe even genetic — a harbinger of future generations to come. In The Craft, those powers reflect individual witches’ strength of character. The Craft: Legacy suggests, however, that witchcraft is a force that may also be cultivated and nurtured, within a supportive circle. The moments when Cailee, Frankie, Tabby, and Lourdes walk through the world together as witches have a colorful, glimmering magic: they decorate their faces with symbols, sparkles and gems, and wear costumes that reflect which elements they represent.
The girls dance with joyous abandon at a party, after standing up to judgmental bullies who make fun of their looks. Their witchcraft bestows confidence and begets community. The new film dangles its intersectional feminism without flaunting it, and suggests a potent link between witchcraft and activism that young viewers may find inspiring. Our current political maelstrom seems the perfect atmosphere for conjuring some equitable, earthy wisdom, an antidote to patriarchal tyranny. These are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.