Cloudy
72°
Cloudy
Hi 75° | Lo 51°

Viewers Seem Spellbound by Witches on Television Series

When Jessica Lange, who plays a “Supreme” witch on American Horror Story: Coven, butts heads with her estranged daughter (Sarah Paulson), she does what any snarky mom with mystical abilities would do: she issues a threat.

“Don’t make me drop a house on you,” she hisses.

Ah, there’s nothing like a blast of wry witch humor to keep viewers spellbound.

Get used to it. This fall has become the season of the witch on television, and not just for Halloween. Magical sorceresses and she-devils are everywhere, from the latest version of Ryan Murphy’s AHS scarefest on FX, to the new Lifetime series, Witches of East End.

Witches also play prominent roles on The Originals, where they’re waging war with vampires. There’s a Salem-era witch on the breakout hit, Sleepy Hollow, and this weekend, Catherine Bell brings her charm to the latest installment of Hallmark’s The Good Witch movie series. There’s even a new Sabrina cartoon for the kiddies on the Hub network.

So why the sudden uptick of toil and trouble? These days, viewers are obsessed with supernatural shenanigans in general, explains Julie D. O’Reilly, author of Bewitched Again: Supernaturally Powerful Women on Television, 1996-2011. And it just makes sense that witches get their moment in the spotlight.

“The genre goes through cycles,” she says. “We’ve obviously gone through an extensive vampire cycle and we’re not out of it yet. We’ve had some werewolves and zombies, and some reinvention with those characters. Now we’re finally getting back around to witches.”

Tim Minear, an executive producer for Coven, believes audiences are drawn to witches in much the same way they’re attracted to superheroes.

“On some level, we wish we had super powers,” he says. “And like with, say, The X-Men, everyone can relate to feeling like an outsider and we all have a longing for a family or a tribe. Add some special power into that mix and you’ve got something.”

Witches on the small screen are nothing new, of course. Ever since Samantha Stephens began twitching her nose and making life difficult for a couple of mortal Darrins, numerous female spell-casters have come and gone, from the quirky Sabrina Spellman (Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), to the increasingly dark and powerful Willow (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and the Halliwell sisters of Charmed, right up through the witches who haunt True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and other shows.

For O’Reilly, Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha of Bewitched fame is still the leader of the pack.

“She was TV’s first featured female character with powers and she remains the archetype for all the witches who have followed,” she says. “Even though the show was campy and corny, it was ahead of its time in that it depicted her as the strong one and Darrin as the bumbling one. She was the backbone of the family in a lot of ways. She had the power in the relationship and was the one who made things happen.”

With casts dominated by women of various ages, Coven and East End continue that feminist bent, but do so in dramatically different ways. Coven is intense, scary and occasionally disturbing. East End, based on a best-selling novel by Melissa de la Cruz, is relatively light and romantic, with some occasional shudders tossed in.

Both shows, however, avoid depicting witches as what de la Cruz describes as the “hag with the poison apple.”

“You don’t see any old ladies living alone with cats,” she says. “These witches are much sexier.”

Set in a secluded Long Island town, East End centers on the adventures of a mother (Julia Ormond) and her two adult daughters (Rachel Boston and Jenna Dewan-Tatum) — both of whom are just discovering they possess witchy powers because mom had chosen to keep that little secret from them. Now that a sinister shape-shifter has arrived to terrorize them, the siblings must band together and learn their craft at a highly accelerated pace.

De la Cruz, who spent much of her career writing about teen characters, says East End represented a chance to combine her love of the supernatural with a desire to focus on strong women in a family setting.

“I wanted to make a statement about female power and sisterhood and motherhood,” she says. “But then I had to decide what and who are they are. Witches, of course. ... Broomsticks and potions and curses and magic spells? What’s not to like?”

Coven, meanwhile, is set in New Orleans and weaves a complex tale about supernaturally gifted debutantes at a finishing school for witches. How gifted? One young pupil played by Taissa Farmiga can actually kill men simply by having sex with them.

In this crazy-scary world, which also features Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett as devilish dames, witches are facing extinction, thanks in part to escalating attacks on their kind. Lange plays Fiona, an all-powerful sorceress who steels her girls for battle.

“When witches don’t fight, we burn,” she insists.

Coven, explains Minear, represented a chance to take the AHS anthology series in a wildly different direction.

“In the previous two seasons, we were finding a strong, almost feminist, undercurrent to a lot of what we were doing,” he says. “ ... (And) going back to even something like the original Halloween with Jamie Leigh Curtis, modern horror is often about female power fighting back. That, along with the astonishing women we’d collected, made it seem perfect.”

And downright bewitching.