First off, I just have to say, I adore this movie. I have watched it many times over. And not only is it a good movie, but it covers some of the basics of paganism in a pretty fair and accurate way–though I don’t think that was exactly the main intent of the movie by any stretch.
There are some stereotypes brought up in the movie not only as a part of the overall story but also because these stereotypes are a part of the idea of witches in a more classical sense:
- The witches practice herbalism, and the one starts her own business as an apothecary. Witches were always thought to be the kind of people who puttered around in the gardens and turned ordinary plants to magical uses and dark potions. Herbalism can be used that way, yes, but those uses of herbalism now in modern paganism are not used unless in self-defense. Herbalism is considered an art of healing and wellness, not an art of evil or wrong-doing. The movie reflects both of these aspects: Jilly doses her boyfriend with belladonna to make him sleep and tries to send Mr. Hallet away with a potion in the syrup, while Sally uses her talents with herbs to create products that will help people in her town.
- All of the witches in “Practical Magic” wore skirts or dresses and “earthy clothes.” This one may not be so much a stereotype of witches but just the normal dress from the past ages when women were not supposed to wear pants. Wearing feminine garments is also an expression of femininity, especially in this movie where the women do wear “masculine” clothing, but more often than not CHOOSE to wear the more feminine skirts or dresses.
- The cats. There is at least one cat that the Owens witches owned in the movie. This is a stereotype, but the further stereotype is that the cat is black. I’m a pagan. My cat isn’t black (though I’ll admit I really want one precisely because of the stereotype. And they’re cute.).
- The costumes on Halloween, which were actually a reference to the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard of Oz. While this one probably isn’t a stereotype so much as a humorous cliché, it is true that some pagans enjoy dressing up as witches for Halloween because they find it amusing (I’m one of them, that was my costume 3 years ago).
- Jilly (the red-headed sister) is promiscuous, and this one is most definitely a continuing stereotype of pagans. While it is true that sexuality and sex are not considered to be taboo in paganism or something to be ashamed of, many pagans still practice discretion in their sexual liaisons and probably don’t sleep around as much as people think.
- Dancing naked under the full moon. Yep, I’m sure this one happens. But not everyone practices this activity, known as being “skyclad,” unless they are comfortable doing so. It is a choice, not a requirement, and dancing naked under the full moon in the movie is part of a harvest festival celebration in which it was optional to go skyclad (remember that Sally didn’t want to go skyclad and the aunts didn’t make her).
- Poisoning people and casting love spells. This one is the dangerous stereotype and misconception that tends to land pagans in trouble. Yes, the aunts in the movie did dabble in peoples’ love lives. And yes, Sally and Jilly did poison Jilly’s boyfriend until he died. But those things are not a part of modern pagan belief unless you’re part of a cult that actually does do those things (note: Wiccans and like-minded paths do not believe in poisoning people or casting love spells).
- Casting in general. All of the witches cast, but their casting was not the usual point-and-shoot sort of thing. In the beginning Kylie, Sally’s daughter, points her finger at one of the kids and gives him chicken pox. That’s the standard sort of model for casting. But throughout the movie the more experienced witches don’t cast in that way. Usually they can make things happen simply with a look, as when one of the aunts made toast pop up apparently just by glaring at the toaster. To a certain extent, this could be an accurate representation, at least of the basics of how magick works. The energy is there for use, and the intent is there. With the two combined, it is possible to effect a change. It just normally is not instantaneous, at least to my knowledge.
An absolute accuracy in the movie is the treatment of the Owens women by their neighbors. The witches were cursed, treated with disdain, and feared by the people around them who simply did not understand what exactly the witches did or what they believed. This is still reflected in modern society, where pagans are at times ridiculed for their beliefs and treated wrongly for their practices by those who just do not understand the paganism beliefs or will not listen.
All in all, “Practical Magic” is a fantastic pagan movie, even if it wasn’t intended to be such. Yes, there are stereotypes and one or two misconceptions presented, but there are also a number of accurate scenes that help to portray witches in a more positive light.
The best scene I can think of that helps paganism out is this: Mr. Hallet, the detective, asks Sally Owens about rumors of Devil worship from some of the townsfolk. Sally responds with, “No, no, there’s no Devil in the craft.”