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What I Married a Witch, Bewitched and Bell, Book and Candle say about women having it all

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Dec 12, 2018

In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is torn between the witch and the mortal world, as certain expectations have been placed on her teen shoulders. Dating a human is not the done thing, but this is 2018 and Sabrina wants to have a choice in the way she lives her life. First love is intoxicating, particularly if there is also a forbidden factor. This is far from the first complicated romance between a person in possession of magical abilities and someone that has none.

Witch stories are often tied to teenage girls like Sabrina as a metaphor for puberty — but the movies and television show discussed below center on women in adulthood experiencing another kind of transition. Instead of learning how to use their powers, marriage and settling down threaten the abilities they possess. A commitment to a mortal comes with some major sacrifices in mid-20th-century rom-coms I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle, which mirror the expectations placed on married women at this time.

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The women at the center of both movies grapple with what it means for their powers if they fall in love with a human. It is essentially an early version of can a woman — in this case, a witch — have it all? Spoiler alert! They cannot.

The long-running TV series Bewitched also followed this model of a witch-human meet cute when it premiered in 1962. But unlike Gillian (Kim Novak) in Bell, Book and Candle and I Married a Witch’s Jennifer (Veronica Lake), Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) and Darrin (Dick York) fall in love without the aid of spells or potions. Creator Sol Saks didn’t shy away from the influence of these two films on the creation of his sitcom hit, as writer Paul Wayne explained, "He [Saks] was pretty honest about the fact it wasn't a particularly original idea.”

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Witches have gone through quite the storytelling journey, from something to be feared and a word used to persecute innocent people to fairy tale villains all the way through to the romantic lead. This trio of witch rom-coms have a lot more in common beyond the notion of a witch falling in love with a human; they also reflect the expectations of woman as wife and a homemaker during a period of time when more women were joining the workforce.

I Married a Witch opens with a sequence that begins in puritanical America, during the era of the Salem Witch Trials. Jennifer and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) are burned at the stake after Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March) denounces them as witches. Their spirits are trapped in a tree that has been planted on top of their ashes, but they do fire off a quick curse before this tree becomes their home for the next few centuries. The Wooley men are doomed to marry awful women as punishment for Jonathan’s actions.

A montage flipping through the centuries reveals this spell has worked like a charm as each Wooley man has experienced a terrible marriage. Cut to present day as Wally Wooley — also played by Fredric March — is not only about to get married, but he is in the process of running for governor. A lightning strike frees Jennifer and Daniel from their tree prison, giving them the opportunity to be more hands-on in tormenting.

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When good old-fashioned seduction techniques can’t cause Wally to stray from his fiance, Jennifer turns to a love spell, which she inadvertently drinks. Falling in love with Wally complicates matters, as her father is not too thrilled his witch daughter wants to be with a man who represents centuries of pain. After the wedding to Estelle (Susan Hayward) is called off, Wally realizes he is also in love with Jennifer and weds her instead.

A marriage built on a foundation of lies does not bode well for its longevity, so Jennifer spills her witchy secret to her new husband. He’s all “yes dear” and then gets distracted by smooching. It's a pattern that is followed in the pilot episode of Bewitched when Samantha tells Darrin about her very special set of skills. This is a case of seeing is believing: Samantha uses her powers to move an ashtray, while Jennifer gives Wally a landslide victory in his bid to become governor.

Darrin and Wally freak out over this witchy reveal, but both women assure their husbands that all they want is to live a simple and normal life as a housewife. Samantha promises to refrain from using her powers; she’ll learn how to cook and go see Darrin’s mother every Friday night. Meanwhile, Jennifer doesn’t get a choice as her father strips her magical abilities as punishment for falling in love.  

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Bewitched ran for 8 seasons, so there is no chance Samantha is keeping good on her promise. She uses magic after this conversation in the pilot to get her own back on Darrin’s snooty ex for shaming her at a fancy dinner. Using magic is a hard habit to break, as Samantha explains to her husband, but after he has gone to bed she also uses her powers to tidy the kitchen. Being a wife shouldn’t mean giving up who you are, and Bewitched is more progressive than the movies it was influenced by.

Meanwhile, Jennifer is ordered to return to the tree by her father, but she is saved because her love for Wally — a love that originally came from magic — is stronger than witchcraft. The love of a good man can save a life, but Jennifer can’t have her powers and the love of a good man. The movie ends with a glimpse into the future; they have the three daughters Wally wished for, breaking the Wooley wives' curse. There is also a suggestion that one of the children is in possession of some magical abilities. Maybe the next generation will discover that love and witchcraft can co-exist.

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Love is also to blame for the loss of powers in the 1958 rom-com Bell, Book and Candle. Gillian is a witch who is stuck in a rut, and the change she craves is to no longer be a witch, to experience the humdrum existence of humanity. That change comes in the form of her neighbor Shep (James Stewart), but as with Wally, he is betrothed to another. Gillian tells her aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) that she “doesn’t take other women’s men,” but she makes an exception after discovering his fiancé tormented her when they both attended Wellesley College. This is no long engagement as the wedding is scheduled for the next day, so Gillian takes swift action in casting a love spell on her neighbor.

The harder Shep falls for Gillian, the more it freaks her out. Typical gender roles are subverted as Shep wants to commit and Gillian doesn’t know if she can. This marriage conversation takes place in the heart of the home, the kitchen, with Gillian thinking it is far too soon before she gets swept up in this new experience and accepts his proposal.

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But her big secret weighs heavy on her until she finally spills what she did to him. Shep is horrified and indignant, especially when he discovers he will need to get the spell removed by another witch. Love is not something that comes easily to witches even if it is something they can thrust on another through an incantation. In this world, they can’t even blush or shed tears. That is, until Shep breaks Gillian's heart: the tears flow, and she realizes this pain is love and her powers are no more.

Love is stronger than witchcraft in I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle. Being a human is messy and painful, and there is no easy fix in the form of spells and potions. Gillian’s brother Nicky (Jack Lemon) has a look of slight disgust at his sister losing her powers because of love and to be honest, I am with Nicky. Why can’t she have love and her powers? 

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I Married a Witch, Bell, Book and Candle, and Bewitched all have a protagonist looking for a simple life. There is no indication Gillian will give up her shop and settle for becoming a housewife, but Samantha and Jennifer seem content in these traditional roles. There was a shift occurring with more women entering the workforce when these movies were released, but working mothers were not as commonplace.

Magic causes a power imbalance, losing the ability to cast spells levels the playing field. In the '40s and '50s being a witch and a wife was out of the question. By the time Bewitched debuted, so had second-wave feminism. Samantha didn't have to use her powers to find love nor give them up (even if she tells her husband she will). The options should not be spinster aunt with magical abilities or wife with none. A woman with extraordinary powers should also have the capacity to love. 

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