Bedknobs, broomsticks and Buffy: our favorite witches

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Sep 23, 2018, 5:54 PM EDT (Updated)

Throughout history, real-life witches have run the gamut in personality and intent. They’ve taken all shapes and sizes. They’ve come from all over the world. They’ve been good, they've been evil, but mostly, they’ve been beyond either of those things. Fictional takes have been no less varied, and to name every witch that ever appeared in genre would take a good long while.

Which is why we’re not here to talk about every witch in genre. No, we’re here to talk about our very favorite witches. Most people have at least one very special witch that haunts their dreams or perhaps their nightmares, who they love, fear, or aspire to be. Here are some of ours.

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Gillian Holroyd - Bell, Book and Candle

Let’s hear it for Gillian Holroyd from Bell, Book and Candle (the 1958 film specifically). Gillian is a reluctant witch with a strong commitment to a red and black aesthetic. She is quite talented, but understanding that the ease with which witches can attain things, up to and including manufacturing love, is a dangerous path. She may have used her power to torture a tattle-tale classmate in college, but since then she has become more careful about using her abilities, which she channels through a familiar: her cat Pyewacket. 

When she meets her handsome neighbor Shep (Jimmy Stewart), Gillian throws caution to the wind and casts a love spell in order to “save” him from that snitch she knew in college. Look, we’d all throw out the rules for Jimmy Stewart, so it’s completely understandable when Gillian goes back on her intention not to abuse her power. And it’s not like she revels in what she’s done, Gillian feels guilt from the moment she bespells Shep. That doesn’t stop her from falling in love—again, Jimmy Stewart, who wouldn’t?—and ultimately confessing what she did. It sucks that in Gillian’s witchy world she can’t be both a witch and in love, but she does get what she wanted all along, which is a real, loving, and honest relationship. She might not keep her magic powers but she does get Jimmy Stewart. Not a bad trade. - Sarah Marrs


Aunt Mozelle - Eve's Bayou

One of the most underrated films of the ‘90s, Eve’s Bayou may have been a seemingly straightforward drama, but it sure had its fair share of good old-fashioned witches. My favorite of them was the title character Eve’s Aunt Mozelle, who had tragically lost multiple husbands due to what she feared was a curse. While Eve is struggling to make sense of the world around her and get to the root of her family’s secrets, Aunt Mozelle is her constant confidant and friend.

Aunt Mozelle was great for many reasons, but one of the best things about her was her apparent sense of inner peace in the face of hardship. Although she had her very own nemesis and a compelling saga all her own, she was only one person in an all-star cast. Despite her fear of having her heart broken again, she still takes a chance when a new man appears in her life, and that’s the kind of diehard romanticism I like to see in a witch. While her nemesis thrived on shocks and scare tactics, Mozelle’s power came from her methodical, unwavering belief in doing the right thing. - Sara Century


Yubaba and Zeniba - Spirited Away

I love your standard Western witches from the Wicked Witch of the West to Willow, but my all-time favorites are very, very different. Twin witches Yubaba and Zeniba from the insanely gorgeous Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away are the light and dark side of the same coin. In the film, they both test our hero Chihiro and help turn her into a stronger young woman. 

Honestly, you can go deep with these sister witches, discussing their Western dress in an Eastern setting, how Yubaba turns greedy people into pigs, how she still operates under a set of rules about Eastern spirits, etc., but in the end, it’s less about the deeper meaning and more about the delight of getting to see a very different version of the myth of a witch that’s so beautiful. Go watch Spirited Away again and try not to cry. Go on. I dare you. - Jenna Busch


Meghan Rotundi - Felicity

Felicity is not a genre show, but co-creators J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves dipped their toe into genre water in several episodes of the college-set WB hit, long before Star Wars and Planet of the Apes were on the agenda. There was the Twilight Zone-inspired outing, in which Meghan’s (Amanda Foreman) magical mystery box was both magical and mysterious. Time travel was instigated by a Meghan spell in the final season, which allowed Felicity (Keri Russell) to see what would have happened if she had picked Noel (Scott Foley) over Ben (Scott Speedman). 

Love was also the intention of an earlier spell cast by Meghan in the penultimate episode of Season 1. With a stolen hair from the head of her roommate, Meghan casts clumsiness and forgetful spells on Felicity. Is it a coincidence that Felicity trips over and breaks things? That she can’t remember an answer in class? Perhaps, but the love spell Meghan performs is perfectly timed to a shift in the dynamic of the central love triangle. Meghan might not be the reason why Ben and Felicity have a near-kiss moment, but there is definitely something in the air and I’m not going to say it is not magic. Meghan is an accidental teen witch for the ages. - Emma Fraser


Sally Owens - Practical Magic

There are so many reasons to love Sally Owens from Practical Magic, not the least of which is how she and her sister Gillian rock that late 1990s fashion. The thing about Sally is that she’s a reluctant witch. She’s not glorying in incantations or dressing all in black. Sure, she and her sister are genetic magic users, but Sally wants nothing to do with it. A curse on the women in her family means that love isn’t going to end well for them. It certainly hasn’t so far, with her sister shacking up with an awful guy and her own husband dying in the street.

Despite the love story in Practical Magic, in the end, the entire film about the bond between sisters. Sally will do anything for Gillian, even if it means killing Gillian’s abusive boyfriend, going to jail, or taking up magic again, no matter how much she hates it. In the late ‘90s, we really didn’t see films where the sister relationship was more important than the love story. It’s not about their rivalry or about them fighting. It’s about their support of each other. For a rom-com, Practical Magic was ahead of her time. - Jenna Busch


La Llorona - The Weeping Woman

La Llorona is a witch from Mexican folklore, but her legend has been the basis of a few movies to date. The story begins with a beautiful young woman who lives in a rural village. The son of a nobleman happens by, and falls in love with her on the spot. The two of them marry, and they have two sons together. Shortly after, her husband begins to lose interest in her. He travels often, and when at home he neglects her until he eventually just stops coming home. Years later, she spots him with another woman by a lake, and in a move reminiscent of Medea, throws her children into the lake and drowns them. Realizing what she had done, she jumps in after them.

Although La Llorona is sympathetic, she is also completely terrifying, as mothers can sometimes be. The legend is that she stays close to bodies of water, crying and searching desperately for her children. She’s especially dangerous to children, and is said to drown them when mistaking them for her own. The movies of La Llorona are no less disturbing. Although her story bears similarity to some other classic tales of women betrayed, she stands out for the strange admixture of pity and absolute horror she inspires. - Sara Century


Eglantine Price - Bedknobs & Broomsticks

Eglantine Price is the original mail-order witch, getting her bona fides via rural package and post in England long before Sephora sold witch kits or a girl could get it off the internet. She's kind of an enigma: buying fake power from a fraud of a man and garnering the real thing for herself through kindness, generosity, and grim determination. By taking in orphans after the Battle of Britain, she finds herself in the position of unwilling motherhood but makes it work and makes magic of it to boot!

Price's greatest moment is when she uses a spell to animate the armor, uniforms, and arms of the various historical regiments of Britain and gets a ghost army to rise up and repel the Nazi invasion of the British Isles. How many witches fought the OG Nazis with their magic and tutored war orphans in her black art at the same time? Your fave could never. - Meg Elison


Julia Wicker - The Magicians

Despite having her memory erased when she’s rejected from magic school, Julia Wicker figures out magic’s existence and teaches herself through a smattering of online spells and in-person encounters with hedge witches. Although she becomes a powerful hedge witch and joins a coven, she is later misled and raped by Reynard the Fox, a trickster god.

Julia doesn’t just avenge her rape—she makes it so that no one will ever be tricked by Reynard again. In the process, she is given the spark of his power. When the whole world is stripped of magic, only Julia exhibits potential. Julia struggles with the source of her gift until she accepts that even if it’s not what she wants, the rape and her rapist have changed her indelibly. Julia is determined, powerful, inspiring, and a devoted friend. She’s also wounded and at times, broken, but she turns her brokenness into her power. That’s why she’s my favorite witch. - S.E. Fleenor


Melisandre - Game of Thrones

How can you not love Melisandre Asshai from Game of Thrones, or at the very least, admire her? She flat out defies the status quo religion by burning statues on a beach. She survives an assassination attempt when Maester Cressen tries to poison her, consuming it while looking him in the eye like one of the judges on Master Chef. She seduces Stannis, which is admittedly not hard to do, but she has sex on what appears to be a very, very uncomfortable table without wincing and has a baby made of smoke in a cave, which kills Stannis’ brother Renly.

Sure, she messes with genitalia, has killer smoke babies and takes wrinkle baths, but Melisandre is much more than your average evil witch. We have no real idea why she does what she does, or what’s really coming for her at the end, and that is the most refreshing thing on TV. - Jenna Busch


Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch

The Scarlet Witch’s claim to the title “witch” has been occasionally questioned, but this is a person who trained with Agatha Harkness: Actual Witch of Salem for years. You spend more than an hour in a room with that woman and you'd be a witch too. 

Perhaps the most controversial of Avengers, Wanda and her brother Pietro are both generally despised, in no small part due to the truly unsettling level of realness they bring to every situation. Hear her out though, she's an orphan who suffers from mental health issues she’s only recently sought treatment for, so it hasn't really been a walk in the park for her. Although it is usually deemphasized, she's also one of the very few Romani characters in comics.

Wanda Maximoff might be as much of a room divider as her brother. Her storytelling potential is usually underestimated and her mental health issues are often trivialized, but she is also one Avenger who has been through literal Hell and back and came out on the other side. - Sara Century


Willow Rosenberg - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Willow might be one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) character in the Buffyverse. The show was definitely named after the Slayer, but who wound up performing the spell that activated all the potential Slayers around the world? Exactly.

But Willow was by far a perfect witch. Over the course of Buffy's seven seasons we got to see her interest in magic grow into an actual talent for it before she started to depend a little too much on her powers. The beauty of Willow's journey, though, was that we watched her fall and get back up again, stronger than ever and eventually reaching literal goddess status. (Probably.) Buffy was who I wanted to be, but Willow was closer to who I actually was — vulnerable and a little shy at first before finally coming into her own and achieving real strength with the help and support of her friends and loved ones. - Carly Lane