BY TRISTA EDWARDS
I recently revisited an old childhood favorite, the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I’ve been thinking about how much certain movie witches positivity influenced when I was growing up and this film was the first to instantly pop into my mind. I had not watched the film in over twenty years but what I remembered from being a child was that the film had a very foreboding nature; (although that wasn’t quite the language I had for it then but I felt it) and there were several terrifying yet tantalizing scenes of Nazi attacks and witchcraft. An exceptionally brief synopsis for those who have not experienced the film, (released by Walt Disney Productions and marketed as a musical fantasy)—
Miss Eglantine Price (Angela Lansbury) is an apprentice witch living in the English countryside in 1940. She is learning witchcraft through correspondence school and receives spells, lessons, and potions in the mail from the school’s headmaster, Professor Emelius Browne (David Tomlinson). She is awaiting the arrival of spell for Substituitary Locomotion, a spell that will enable her bring inanimate objects to life. With this spell, Miss Price is conceived she will be to help the British war effort and, ultimately, defeat the Nazis.
By the end of the film Miss Price chants the incantation, Treguna Mekoides Tracorum Satis Dee, and erects a ghost army of medieval knights to drive the Nazis back to their U-boat. The many scenes of the medieval knights floating body-less, just shells of the past, still gives me the heebeegeebees to this day. When you think about it, this pseudo-occult film is pretty heavy stuff for a Disney musical and I loved it.
Now, some twenty years later, I realize how much this film, particularly witchcraft, played a role in how I see myself as a woman and as a writer. It was Miss Eglantine Price along with two other cinema witches from my formative years, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula (1989) and The Worst Witch’s Mildred Hubble (1986), that I bonded with and that gave me examples on how to be powerful woman.
Miss Eglantine Price
Miss Price’s obsessive quest to find the missing pages of The Spells of Astraroth instilled in me the power of words. I remember distinctly as a child fashioning my own spell book out of colored construction paper. I filled it with astrological symbols I saw in the film and gathered from horoscope section of the town newspaper. I made up words and my own spells of absolute gibberish. I indulged in the sheer enjoyment of language and the potential power it had. I would go out to the wooden swing hanging from a willow tree in the far corner of the yard with my spell book and my mom’s kitchen broom, place the broom on the seat of the swing, chant one of my spells, hop on and fly. Spells—language—could allow me to do anything. As a child this all seemed very literal in that I could make anything possible. I could fly. I could change shape. I could talk to animals. I could control the world around me all with an incantation even if it was all in the world of imagination. This carried on into adulthood and my occupation as poet. Language still allows me to do anything.
Ursula The Sea Witch
What intrigued me most about Ursula was her massive, rolling body. I thought she was beautiful and threatening. I was entranced by how she inhabited the entire space in which she existed. Much like the film’s protagonist, she was half-woman, half-sea creature—one resembling an octopus. Her lurching tentacles made her appear as if she gliding rather than plodding. This is my first recollected lesson that as woman you could have powerful body without it being sexualized. At the time of the film’s release, my chubby child body probably resembled Ursula’s more than the dainty, slim Ariel. I took comfort in this witch, albeit animated, corporeality. Even at a young age, I knew I would never look like Ariel but I could still believe in the authority of my body. Despite the fact that Ursula is the film’s villain and meets her demise in the end, I try to resist the urge to analyze the film as an academic—that Ursula had to die by the hand of Prince Eric as punishment for her body, which enlarged to giant proportions in the final battle. That she transgressed too far in her power and had to be silenced, to take the place of the role of silenced woman when Ariel found was allowed to have her voice back. I fight to resist this because villain or not, this witch gave me my first lesson in body positivity.
Mildred Hubble (played by Fairuza Balk and proving she has always been the best witch) is a young girl at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. The 1986 film is based on a series of children’s books by the same name. While not a bad witch she is deemed the worst witch at the academy due to many bumbling yet innocent mishaps. She falls victim to the many cruel pranks at the hand of bully and overachiever Ethel Hallow. Yet through the constant mistreatment from Ethel and the glaring lack of approval from her teacher Miss Hardbroom, Mildred still finds joy in being a witch (particularly at a ceremony in which all the little witches are given their first black kitten and Mildred, as the last girl awarded, is left with the only cat left, a white and gray tabby who she has nothing but love for despite the kitten’s otherness). Mildred, like me, was the shy and quiet girl who was always picked last. I felt that Mildred and I shared a level of companionship through my adolescence in that we both never seemed to get anything right for no apparent reason other than we were struggling to grow up and find our place in the world.