Friday Follies: Witches We Love to Hate

The Wicked Witch of the West
(MGM publicity photo)

Following my last post on real-life suspected witches, I thought it'd be fun to make a list of fictional witches we love to hate – the hags and crones that form popular notions of what a witch looks and acts like.

A comprehensive list of witches in literature, film and other forms of media would take multiple pages and lots of patience to read. So, for this special Friday the 13th edition of Friday Follies, here's my pick of a few classic witches, in chronological order:

1. The Weird Sisters in Macbeth (Shakespeare, 1603-1607)

Macbeth and Banquo see the witches for the first time, 
painted by Théodore Chassériau, 1854

“Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble . . .”

Perhaps the most famous literary depiction of witches is in William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, written in the early 17th century. The hideous hags are deliciously evil, gleefully leading Macbeth to his doom. Some critics think that Shakespeare’s witches are modeled on the three “Fates” of classical Greek mythology. In fact, in the play they are referred to as the “weird sisters” more often than “witches,” and “weird” may have been derived from “wyrd,” the old English word for fate. But no matter how they got their name these witches steal the show, and being cast as one of them is a great part to snag in any high school production of the play.

2. The Witch in Hansel and Gretel (German fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812)

Illustration of the witch with Hansel and Gretel
by Arthur Rackham, 1909 

Now, this is a truly terrifying story to tell a child. A brother and sister are deliberately abandoned by their parents in the woods. There they encounter a witch, who has a habit of using candy to lure unsuspecting children into her house so she can stuff them in her oven and eat them. How scary is that? The witch, like most fictional witches and many of the women who suffered during the witch hunts, is an older woman who lives alone. Baking cookies and offering treats to the children, she's a twisted version of a kindly grandmother. We cheer when the clever children outwit this witch and kill her. But thanks to the stereotype in this fairy tale, I often think of this fictional witch when I'm in my kitchen baking a tasty treat for my own little granddaughter. She hasn't heard this story yet, and I'm in no hurry to read it to her.

3. The Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The Evil Queen and her alter ego from Disney's
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

I think it’s the transformation of a beautiful (though cold-hearted) queen to an ugly, murderous witch that’s the scariest part of this story. My husband said that the witch in this movie terrified him when he was a child, and I'll bet he wasn't alone. My guess is that children during the 1930s enjoyed dressing up as this witch when they went to costume parties or out trick-or-treating on Halloween, at least until the next witch on my list came along two years later.

4. The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939 film adaptation of L. Frank Baum's book)

The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton)
threatening Dorothy (Judy Garland) in MGM's  
The Wizard of Oz

What upped the fear factor for children who saw this witch in movie theaters is that she was a live person, not an animated cartoon. Everything about her was wicked, from her green skin, claw-like fingernails, crackly voice (especially when she calls Dorothy “my pretty”) and the cruel way she treated Dorothy and her friends, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Though the witch is repulsive, I thought her Flying Monkeys were kind of cool. And I also think that when Dorothy inadvertently kills her nemesis with a bucket of water, it's one of the greatest witch death scenes in cinematic history. (How was Dorothy to know that water kills witches? The little girl from Kansas was only putting out a fire in the witch’s broom – or so she claims.) “I’m melting” may be the best line ever uttered by a witch in the movies.

5. The Sanderson Sisters in Hocus Pocus (Disney film, 1993)

Movie poster for Hocus Pocus 

Though this movie is more comedy than horror, the witches are still frightening. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy play the Sanderson sisters, an evil trio living in the 17th century and convicted of killing a local girl to steal her youth so they could keep their own. Before the sisters are hanged they manage to cast a spell that will resurrect them in the future under the right conditions. Those conditions occur a couple of centuries later when a new kid in town explores their old house on Halloween night. Brought back to life, the witches relentlessly hunt the town’s trick-or-treating children. 

As in Hansel and Gretel, their evil plan is foiled by a pair of plucky young people (though these young people aren’t siblings, but rather potential boyfriend and girlfriend). This is a modern Halloween classic, safe enough for most kids to enjoy with plenty of thrills and chills.

Here’s a clip showing Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson literally putting a spell on the town’s parents at a Halloween dance by singing “I Put a Spell on You” with her sister witches: 

Do you have any favorite fictional witches you love to hate? Let me know in the comments.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. Growing up in the 1960's I think the first witches I ever heard of were the ones in Grimm's Fairy Tales, and the Disney Animated Movies. But, the one that scared the holy cr---- out of me was the Wicked Witch of the West, from the Wizard of Oz! It turns out that the actress who portrayed her was, in real life, a very nice woman. She was plagued by that role for the rest of her life, because little children were always afraid of her, but she loved them so! How's that for irony??? Poor Magaret Hamilton!

  2. I didn't know that about Margaret Hamilton. What a shame! I guess she was too good in the role. Thanks for sharing that fascinating bit of information.


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