Final Project Dossier: “Sexy Witches” in the 1970s

The Wicked Witches of the Left:

Feminist Power and the “Sexy Witches” of the 1970s

Katie Duggan



There are a million different variations and sub-tropes of the witch, calling to mind everything from pointy hats, black cats, and broomsticks to old hags with warts and gray hair to enchanting women using their alluring powers for love. Not only are witches popular figures in Halloween costumes and films, they are also prominent presences in the feminist political sphere. From Wiccans and neopagans to the radical feminist group W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Group from Hell), the name “witch” has been used to symbolize feminine power and rebellion against patriarchy. My project looks at real-life political and cinematic witches in the 1970s, mostly in the United States, and the diversity (or lack thereof) in conceptions of what being a witch mean. I call this trope the “sexy witch” due to the numerous sexploitation films and genre B-movies from the decade that depicted witches as attractive, sexualized, sexually adventures young women. The films I focus on from the decade are Mark of the Witch, Psyched by the 4D Witch (A Tale of Demonology), Season of the Witch, and Virgin Witch. All four of these films feature white, conventionally attractive women becoming witches. All of these narratives connect the attainment of sexual power with becoming more overtly sexualized and sexually active.

But while the witches in these films shared many similarities, actual witches did not always share the same definition of their identity; some saw it as a religious identity, some as a political one, some as an individual thing versus a community-based one. The identity crisis of what a “witch” looks like has historically been mobilized by groups of women who use it to unite diverse groups of women (like W.I.T.C.H.) and push for greater rights. In Drawing Down the Moon, a 1979 sociological study of pagans in the United States, American journalist and Wiccan Margot Adler explores the many different ideas of what a witch is, and writes that the very power of the witch identity lies in the name’s imprecision.  According to her interviews with self-identified witches, many feminists and practicing witches consider the witch as a being conceived in rebellion, an unstable category capable of transfiguration, a “changer of definitions and relationships.” In my paper, I analyze the connections of witchcraft to feminism and female networks of power, as well as the representations of fear of the sexuality of women, particularly women of color. Ultimately, I conceive of the witch as a figure in the center of fights for power between women and patriarchal forces of oppression, constantly shifting in response to the pressing issues of the time.


Main texts – 1970s witch films


Additional resources from self-identified witches

  • Manifesto of W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) // their current website
  • Guide to starting new chapters of W.I.T.C.H.:




1970s Witches final paper



Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans In America Today. New York: Viking Press, 1979.

Adler, a Neopagan herself, documents a history of the United States Neopagan movement from a sociological perspective. She attended ritual gatherings and interviewed self-identified witches across the United States as well as in Britain about their diverse cultural backgrounds and spiritual beliefs united under the term “witch.” This text is seen as a departure from other accounts that often equated witchcraft with Satanism, and was credited with popularizing interest in and scholarly attention to earth-based religions.



Berger, Helen A. “Witchcraft and Neopaganism.” In Witchcraft and Magic: Contemporary North America, edited by Helen A. Berger. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

I analyzed selections from this book by Helen A. Berger and Wendy Griffin on Witchcraft and Neopaganism and Feminist Spiritualities, respectively. This book traces the New Age and Neopagan religious movements, and examines more radical feminist groups drawing upon spiritual sources, including feminist action group W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell). This source argues for the irrevocable link between second-wave feminism and the symbol of the witch—witches symbolize opposition to patriarchal forces, and allow for the assertion that the personal is spiritual.


Grant, Barry Keith. “Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film.” In Zombie Theory: A Reader  edited by Sara Juliet Lauro, 212-22. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Quotes Season of the Witch director George Romero as envisioning his film as a feminist one, as the protagonist Joan feels trapped by her domestic life and abusive husband.


Kelly, Casey Ryan. “Sexploitation in Abstinence Satires.” Abstinence Cinema: Virginity and the Rhetoric of Sexual Purity in Contemporary Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016, pp. 108–127. JSTOR.

This piece, on contemporary “abstinence satire” comedies, questions the resurgence in virgin characters and discussions of virginity in teen sex comedies. Casey Ryan Kelly writes of the abstinence satire” genre that these kinds of films exploit both sex and abstinence within the same text, and I use this as a framework for examining Virgin Witch and other sexploitation films of the period that simultaneously depict anxieties over female sexuality and desires to see it onscreen.


Langone, Alix. “Brooklyn Witches Plan to Put a Hex on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.” TIME, October 14, 2018.

This piece from October is a news article covering a group of witches from Catland books, an occult bookstore in Brooklyn, who gathered to put a hex on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he was confirmed despite facing allegations of sexual assault. This news example is illustrative of the frequent reappearances of the “witch,” particularly in response to moments of feminist crisis.


Lara, Irene. “Bruja Positionalities: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism.” Chicana/Latina Studies 4, no. 2, 2005.

Lara explores the construction of the identity of “la Bruja”—a witch, or a female practitioner of spiritual, sexual, and healing knowledges—in the literature and popular culture of the Americas. She argues that the oppression of the bruja was often in response to fears over her power and knowledge, especially as her power often operated outside patriarchal networks.


Layne, Jodie. “How To Use Tarot In Your Self-Care Routine.” BUST Magazine. Accessed January 06, 2019.

One example of contemporary interest in tarot as a self-care ritual, particularly in queer communities.


Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007.

Lorde writes that women have been historically made to distrust their knowledge, and the power within themselves; the possibility of a power within relates clearly to the idea that any woman can be a witch. Lorde’s work connects the spiritual dimensions of the witch identity and its political uses, as she argues that the “dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge.” I use this to understand the erotic power of the 1970s sexy witch, and the function of her sexuality and sexualization. Through this lens, the eroticism of the witch is her power, and she represents women accessing their erotic knowledge.


Mark of the Witch. Directed by Tom Moore. By Mary Davis and Martha Peters. United States: Lone Star Productions, 1970.

This American film is from a screenplay by two female co-writers, and is an example of the many cheaply made witch genre films of the 1970s. A female college student unwillingly summons and becomes possessed by a 300-year-old witch. Her transformation in personality after becoming possessed, manifesting in a more outwardly expressed sexuality, is representative of the close relationship between witchcraft and discovering or acting upon sexual desires.


Moseley, Rachel. “Glamorous Witchcraft: Gender and Magic in Teen Film and Television.” Screen43, no. 4 (2002): 403-22.

Moseley examines makeovers, beauty transformations, and witchcraft in teen films and works like Bewitched, with a focus on the concept of “glamour.” She studies the relationship between feminism and femininity, arguing that magical femininity was often tied up in conceptions of charm, physical beauty, and glamourous allure. In addition, moments of physical transformation for these young women were often prompted by the attainment of adult sexuality or reaching puberty.


Psyched by the 4D Witch (A Tale of Demonology). Directed by Victor Luminera. United States: New Art Films, 1973.

Psyched by the 4D Witch features no synchronous sound, and the picture is overlaid with voiceovers of the young, virginal Cindy relating the story of her encounters with an ancient witch, Abigail, all accompanied by psychedelic music. Abigail teaches Cindy the rituals of sexual witchcraft, which supposedly will enable her to enact her sexual fantasies on the astral plane while remaining a virgin.

Season of the Witch. Directed by George A. Romero. United States: Jack H. Harris Enterprises, Inc., 1972-1973.

This work by famed zombie filmmaker George A. Romero is perhaps the most explicitly feminist of the 70s witch films studied in this analysis (Romero defined his goals in making the film as depicting feminist issues). It centers on a suburban housewife trapped in an abusive marriage, who becomes involved in witchcraft. The look and marketing of the film made it out to be similar to a softcore pornographic film, although little actual nudity is depicted.


Virgin Witch. Directed by Ray Austin. United Kingdom: Tigon Film Distributors Ltd., 1971.

A British horror exploitation film about an aspiring model, Christine, and her sister Betty, who are lured into joining a coven. Sybil, the coven’s high priestess, is depicted as having a predatory sexual interest in Christine, and tries to have the virginal Betty initiated into the coven. All the women involved are frequently placed in sexualized situations and nude scenes, with the initiation into the coven involving a sex ritual with a male authority figure.


Wagner, Marsden. “Hunting Witches: Midwifery in America.” Born in the USA: How a Broken Maternity System Must Be Fixed to Put Women and Children First. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, pp. 99–125. JSTOR.

This article explores the history of midwifery and female communities of reproductive knowledge, and the midwife’s historical place as center of the woman’s world. It examines the efforts of the healthcare industry and government authorities to restrict who could practice medicine and reduce the role of the midwife, as well as the history of midwives being tried in court for witchcraft. Wagner argues that midwives, like witches, threatened patriarchal systems of power and knowledge and thus had to be controlled.


Zuras, Matthew. “We Asked Salem’s Official Witch What to Eat at a Pagan Sabbat.” Munchies, VICE. October 31, 2015. Accessed January 06, 2019.

Interview with Laurie Cabot, a witch who was given the title of “Salem’s Official Witch” by former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the 1970s. Cabot gives advice on recipes for Samhain, the Celtic harvest festival, and tells her favorite recipes and herbs and plants to use.



Color and painting in Zama

I was especially intrigued by the use of color in Zama, especially how color is used on the body. The beautiful scene at the start of the film shows a group of women covering their bodies with mud, rendering their skin all a similar shade of grayish-green. There are still differences between the women in how they embody different racial identities and speak multiple languages, emphasizing the multiethnic makeup of the population. The mother of Zama’s child is seen dyeing fabric, and during one conversation with him, we can see that her arms are dyed a dark greenish color. Later, when Zama and the group of men he is with are captured by a group of indigenous men, their skins are all tinted red. This attention to color reinforces the overall painterly quality of the film and the bodies it captures. There is such a depth to each image, with each frame having figures in the foreground and background that demand your attention (like the llama wandering around the office). Slavery is also extremely present, though often an unspoken topic, as characters like Malemba command our attention without a single word. Even with the shallow focus of some scenes and the semi-blurred backgrounds, Zama himself is almost an afterthought, at least visually, just a single person in the rich landscape.


I admit to not know much about the possible cultural significance of the indigenous tribe painted red, but I am also interested in the racial implications of painted bodies. Don Diego embodies an anxiety about what it means to be an “Americano,” versus a European having been born in Spain; in one of the interviews we read, Martel talked about the “nostalgia for our true land: Europe” in how many Argentinians believe Europe is where they belong. The dyed skin or mud can be contrasted to other more unnatural instances of body painting. At the party where Zama first encounters Luciana, we see her garish blush and lipstick. The wigs that the colonial magistrates wear, along with the gaudy clothes and makeup of the men and women (I noticed both Don Diego and the governor wearing red nail polish?), contrast with the beauty of nature—the colonial society is semi-grotesque. They perform some version of “Europeanness,” though Zama was born in the Americas and Luciana admits having little memory of Europe anymore. In the final shots of the film, Zama is drained of color and stripped of all this artificiality—he is missing his arms, and his skin is clammy and a sickly shade of gray. Yet the vegetation on the river is a shocking, vibrant green. It almost looks like a surreal painting, but a painting that we must remember is still moving. While the colonial figures may paint themselves to remain static, and render themselves pinnacles of some European identity, the indigenous peoples’ paintings are living ones, organic parts of their lives.

Music as community in Pariah

From the very beginning, Pariah establishes itself as a film with bold soundtrack choices, and the music is inextricably linked to the social context it is heard in. The film begins with “My Neck, My Back” playing at the club, while Lee and Laura watch a dancer and try to get women’s numbers. The explicit music booms over the speakers, and the energy is felt throughout the club. Music is an undeniably social experience— people share songs with one another, sing and dance along to the songs at the club. If a person is not familiar with the song or not into the vibe of the music, the sense of exclusion is palpable. Lee is frequently seen with her headphones in, listening to her own music, and music functions as both an isolating force and an escape into a world where she feels comfortable. But with Bina, that world starts to open up a little, as she finds someone who she can talk music with. Music is one of the major things they bond over – it is their shared language. Bonding over music also becomes emblematic of their apparent compatibility or comfort with one another. When Lee goes to the club with Mika, feeling awkward and fidgety while wearing the strap-on, she brushes Mika’s request to dance off, and says she is “not feeling the music.” This is contrasted to Bina’s later invitation to a party—she entices Lee by saying that it’ll have her kind of music.

Musical taste becomes a key point of conversation and in important signifier that Lee has found someone like her. In Bina’s bedroom, while Bina flips through CDs, Lee denies liking Jay-Z or Fifty Cent; they are too “commercial.” Instead, she likes “conscious stuff” that she doubts Bina has heard of, like “Roots. Black Star. Asheru and Blue Black. Pharcyde.” Of course, Bina does recognize some of these artists, and then asks if Lee has heard of Tamar-kali, which she hasn’t. They then listen to a Tamar-kali song. Tamar-kali is, of course, a composer who contributed songs to the film, and is a frequent collaborator with Dee Rees. She also provided the song for the closing credits – “Fire with Fire,” a cover of a song by Gossip. Tamar-kali exists within the film as a source of bonding, reinforcing the importance of finding communities through music; Alike’s discovery of her music may very well be the viewer’s first introduction to the music as well. In the interview with Tamar-kali we read, she connects her interest in punk rock with starting to question authority. Resisting the mainstream musical tastes, and asserting your own choices via what you listen to over your headphones, is an act of self-expression. As the credits roll, we hear the lyrics: “It ain’t the end of the world girl / You’ll find your place in the world girl / All you gotta do is stand up and fight fire with fire.” Even if Lee hasn’t exactly found her “place,” she’s found Tamar-kali and her songs…. Giving her the confidence in herself to move forward.

Reflections on Video Remains, video as memory

I was really moved by watching Video Remains and the many different pieces on AIDS activism we’re been watching in the past few weeks. I am especially interested in exploring the relationship between images and memories further— how do we create memories in and through film? While home for Thanksgiving, I spent a lot of time with my family looking at old photo albums, which made me remember just how strange it is to see the younger selves of the people who you were familiar with only in their old age—or see photos of yourself when you were younger. One aspect of the footage from United in Anger that I found striking was the juxtaposition of the footage of interview subjects with footage of their younger selves at ACT UP protests. Perhaps even more noticeable were the people who didn’t have such doubling onscreen—who were only seen in the archival footage, because they died of AIDS in the following years. Photographs and films are not just signs of physical presence, but evidence of absences. The negative space, the gaps in our footage and in our collective memory, become just as important to be aware of as what is there. The footage, while it notes absence, can also suggest a wholeness or totality that has since been lost; as Alexandra Juhasz says of her videos, “the footage remains so alive, while the people remain so dead.”


So what are viewers today supposed to do with this “alive” footage, even as they remain incomplete? As Juhasz asks us in Video Remains and its accompanying text, “How do you remember? Have you remembered enough?” What do we do with our memories? What do we do when our memories of people aren’t strong enough, or are absent altogether? In some of the other works we’ve seen in the past few weeks, memory and footage are juxtaposed with one another, supporting one another while serving as different depictions of the past. Oral history was important to AIDS activism and its subsequent documentation, and United in Anger notably lacks voiceover narration and allows the interview subjects to talk about their experiences in their own voices. In this documentary, we are allowed to bear witness to archival footage alongside the memories of these people. The footage itself might seem like a “true” or “realistic” depiction of events, but it is also incomplete as a memory— and is supplemented by the personal perspectives we see through interviews with people like Gregg Bordowitz. Juhasz’s Video Remains and footage of her close friend James still feels incomplete without some knowledge of her own story, and has acquired a new significance to me after meeting her in person and getting to hear her talk about her work and the importance of that video firsthand. Memory is an intensely personal and intimate thing, and though videos may be able to capture and transmit shared memories and shared histories, there is still an individual element to it, as the videos can conjure up these memories that only you can truly know.


In the case of United in Anger, the viewers were fortunate enough to hear the firsthand experiences of ACT UP activists; we were able to hear Juhasz talk about Video Remains. But in the absence of these personal perspectives, whose responsibility is it to pass down the missing details and oral histories that accompany the footage? When watching home movies or flipping through family photo albums, my parents can fill me in on some of the contextual information—which great aunt that is in the background, whose house this Christmas party is at. But without them passing down that knowledge, it will soon be lost forever. Once more years pass and we get further removed from the memory—most people my age today have never known anyone with AIDS—how can we still remember?  These questions are at the core of all the works we’ve been discussing in the past few weeks—from The Watermelon Woman and the invented archives, to Tongues Untied articulating the need for visibility. The creation of these films serves as an act of memory-making for the filmmaker, but the activist impulses of all of them argue that these memories are not just for personal use– they are to motivate viewers to remember and act. Years from now, perhaps the videos and images and texts will be all that’s left, removed from their initial memories, and future generations will have to do their best to remember what is there, and remember all that might have been lost. Perhaps a memory of memories is all a filmmaker or documentarian can strive for… and even prompting the viewer to try to remember as best they can, or create a pseudo-memory out of incomplete fragments, allows the knowledge—of AIDS, of lives lost, of families and friends—to be carried forward.

The Sonic Space of the Phone Line in “Pillow Talk”

In the readings and class this week, we talked a lot about interior spaces and external selves fashioned for men and women through Playboy and Cosmo, respectively. I am interested in considering how these apparently divided spheres of the single man and single woman intersect in Pillow Talk—and the role of the phone in romance. The phone is what enables the separate domestic spheres to intersect. As some of the humorous opening scenes show, most of Brad’s seduction takes place over the phone; he talks to many different women and sings them songs he “wrote for them.” The women on the other end of the line cannot see Brad’s apartment (although presumably many of the women have already been inside at one point or another). The phone line that Brad and Jan share is also what brings them together. I particularly enjoyed the use of the split screens to show phone conversations, showing how the sonic landscape of the phone line bridges the spaces between them. In the scene where Jan and “Rex” are both on the phone, with each of them in their respective bathtubs, they each rest their feet on the wall, and their feet seem to press up against one another as they meet in the middle. (What’s also interesting is that Jan’s bathroom has blue-toned walls, while Brad’s has pink-toned walls?) In the opening credits, we also see a split screen showing the bodies of Brad and Jan in their beds, decoratively and color-coded as masculine/feminine—but they are able to toss the pillows between one another. There is the creation of a weird, impossible-seeming new space, between public and private spaces, allowing for shared interactions without either leaving their personal domestic realms.

The lack of a private phone means that private lives are never actually that. This ties into what Wojick describes as the bachelor pad as a “fantasy space,” producing a dual identity and bifurcated self. Brad embodies this dual identity literally through his performance as Rex, but the presence of split screens and voiceovers revealing the character’s thoughts further heightens that sense of “the imaginary bachelor pad” and the concealment of identities. But in the same way that Wojcik cites Henry Urbach’s study of the twin spaces of the closet, these identities are never fully concealed, and “private” spaces are never really private. The frequency with which various characters eavesdrop on one another also shows the lack of total privacy even in domestic spaces. As with the Playboy interiors is a voyeuristic quality throughout—only instead of Brad wanting to be seen, he wants to be overheard. Brad calls Jan “an eavesdropper on my party line. She always listens in. It brightens up her drab, empty life.” Overheard conversations seem to allow for the creation of fantasy—Alma calls herself one of the “most devoted listeners” of Brad, and takes visible pleasure in hearing him sing to women.

On a related note, the party line also returns to these questions of economics, and the desire for upward mobility that magazines like Cosmo suggest drives many relationships. On one hand, Jan quite financially secure, able to afford her own apartment: “I have a good job, a lovely apartment, I go out with nice men, to the theater, the best restaurants. What am I missing?” she says. She is immune to Jonathan’s attempts to woo her with displays of wealth (as he bemoans, “Money seems to have lost its value these days.”) Jan doesn’t need wealth, and while Brad also has some financial stability, he still is at the mercy of his show’s major backer, Jonathan. Yet there is still a financial/technological element that makes the key romance possible. Without the shared telephone line, Brad and Jan never would have “met” one another—so if Jan had had the financial means to get her own line from the phone company, the romance would have been impossible. In addition, the final resolution between Brad and Jan comes down to money once again, with Brad hiring Jan to do his apartment. It seems that, even with a financially secure protagonist, the question of money and its relationship to romance and marriage is unavoidable—and when the separate domestic spaces are eventually merged, the future presence of the child is suggested by the acquisition of another possession: a pillow.