In 2010, a Tumblr user named nuclearmedicine posted one of the earliest versions of a Harry Potter meme that has since become nearly canonical. The post, which explains how the Harry Potter books would be titled differently if told from Hermiones point of view, is comprised of seven identical bullet points. Each reads, “Hermione Granger and the Time I Got Two Idiots Out Of A Crisis.” The joke: bushy-haired, Muggle-born Hermione is brilliant and capable, but less important to J.K. Rowlings narrative than chosen one Harry. As fans of the series have grown up, theyve begun to chafe at that—leading to an entire subgenre of writing about how Hermione deserved more, from fan fiction to a Web series positioning her as its protagonist to an eloquent 2016 essay by Sarah Gailey asking, “What is Hermione? . . . Shes an overachiever who consistently stands in the shadow of The Hero. She pursues victory without ever receiving credit. . . . . To Harry, she is a sidekick. To us, she is a heroine.”
Netflixs new series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, from Riverdale show-runner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, creates a spooky, gothic wonderland of magic quite different from Harry Potters cozy spells and potions. But the shows Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) is a lot like Hermione—a plucky, righteous, fiercely intelligent witch in a world too unjust for her liking, ostracized in the magical community both because of her lineage (shes half-human) and her relentless insistence on helping the mortals around her. Shes more acerbic and less bookish than Hermione, but both she and Rowlings character are told by others that they are likely the greatest witch of their generation. This ought to be thrilling. But instead, it's a little anticlimactic.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has a lot going for it. Its one of Netflixs more successful binge-watches—a 10-part series that rips through plot with enthusiasm, supporting its biggest twists and turns with an ever-growing cast of zany magical characters. (Particular kudos to Miranda Otto and Richard Coyle, who as the dastardly adults behind Sabrinas education throw their weight into scenery-chewing roles as grave pillars of the occult.) Unlike the cheesy 90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Chilling Adventures is lush and stylish, filled with candlelit interiors, misty woods, and stone-walled chambers.
Yet Sabrina herself is the shows weakest link. Where Hermione would bury herself in study and preparation, Sabrina excels at confrontation—run-ins with bitchy rivals, takedowns of evil demons. But Sabrinas other feelings seem trapped behind the resolute set of her features. Being good matters deeply to her, and at first thats wonderful: she targets bullies and exorcises evil spirits with infectious zeal. The problem is that she never seems to feel the warmth of service, or the serenity of peace. This Sabrina cares about being good, but its difficult to ascertain why when so many of her peers—mortal and infernal—delight in tormenting those weaker and stranger than themselves. Her guardian aunts, Zelda (Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis), certainly arent too troubled with their moral alignment, preferring to stay in the ill graces of the Dark Lord and his chief servant, Father Blackwood (Coyle).
Maybe thats why by the end of the season, the mantle of goodness slips from Sabrinas shoulders as she opts—minor spoiler alert—to embrace the anger-fueled power of dark magic. In order to be the protagonist, she has to aggressively seize the narrative. In the seasons final moment, as she struts toward the camera, Sabrina is unrecognizable—the magic has changed her character so thoroughly that the viewer, unsettled, cannot quite place her. Shipka is now a coy flirt, winking at the camera with a knowing smile.
Why do these stories about witchcraft present a trade-off between goodness and power? Hermiones ethics are unimpeachable, but she never sets the terms of her own story; shes a supporting character in a childrens series about someone else. Sabrina is a force to be reckoned with, but her moral compass is scrambled. Buffy Summers, the vampire slayer and a bona fide hero, maintains her distance from witchcraft; her best friend Willow dabbles—and then turns evil for a whole season. Compare this to how powers are treated in a superhero narrative: Spider-Man is encouraged to be responsible, but hes not admonished for using his spidey sense and super-strength to get around town. Superheroes might get to be both powerful and good—but then, superheroes are mostly boys.
Witches, meanwhile, are women who know too much—figures both terrifying and enthralling. A witch is a powerful woman, and also, any woman might be a witch.
So perhaps its no wonder that theres been a recent explosion of witchy figures in pop culture, so much that Wikipedias “List of fictional witches” page is groaning under the weight. Witchy properties range from kid-focused The Worst Witch and Sofia the First to teen soaps—Supernatural, Merlin, The Vampire Diaries—to critically lauded dramas like American Horror Story, The Magicians, and, sure, even Sleepy Hollow. Auteur cinema has taken a whirl through witches, too, as evidenced by 2015's The Witch and this fall's remake of *Suspiria.* Many of these properties make a connection between witches and a sort of avenging feminism, though none so bluntly as Broad City—in which Ilana (Ilana Glazer) tries to come to terms with how deeply the 2016 election traumatized her vagina, then ends up falling in with a coven of enlightened, pissed-off, liberated crones.
The question of what to do with womens anger—righteous or otherwise—is a potent one right now, particularly on a Halloween that will be followed by a crucial midterm election. Yet Sabrinas story, and others like it, suggest a deep ambivalence about the depth of womens powers, the complex interplay between anger and grief, and the connection between disenfranchisement and self-actualization.
Maybe Sabrinas trouble is her singularity. In Charmed, the 1998 WB series rebooted this fall on the CW, our protagonists are a triad: three sisters, in various degrees of estrangement, pooling their newfound powers. The original version chased the success of Buffy; the new one is another effort by the CW to lock down the teen-supernatural-soap genre in every possible iteration. The original, in retrospect, was an early fomenter for #MeToo: stars Rose McGowan and Alyssa Milano have been candid about what they survived in Hollywood; the seriess show-runner, Brad Kern, was recently fired from CBS after three separate investigations into his conduct at the network and on past shows. (Kern did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Hollywood Reporter.) In the new version, the witches played by Melonie Diaz, Madeleine Mantock, and Sarah Jeffery inform their hexes and spells with an acute awareness of #MeToo.
The new Charmed isnt as stylish as Sabrina, or, obviously, as sweeping as Harry Potter. But as a showcase for witchy female protagonists, its superior to both. Mantock plays the rational scientist—the know-it-all. Jeffery is the empath, able to silently absorb others feelings. And Diaz is the political one—the one who organizes a protest against a serial harasser in the first episode. When their powers hit them, Diazs character, Mel, is flummoxed to learn that she can only control her unpredictable new ability to freeze time when shes not angry. Her sisters laugh at her. Their center of power is their mothers house; as in the original, they make do with what they have on hand to vanquish demons. (Jefferys character takes out a demon with her smartphone in the second episode.)
Developed by Jane the Virgin show-runner Jennie Snyder Urman, the series is a stronger showcase for the everyday trials of being an angry, powerful woman than Sabrina; it emphasizes growing as women, not just growing as witches. And its title speaks to age-old power, too. Rage, no matter how righteous, is more appealing when tempered with a coating of sugar.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:10 Enchanting Movies and TV Shows About Witches
I Married a Witch
This overlooked 1942 gem stars Veronica Lake, she of the perfect side part, as a colonial Salem-era witch who gets burned at the stake, then reawakened hundreds of years later, determined to get revenge on a descendant of the family who tried to kill her. I Married a Witch is more rom-com than horror, a love story with a healthy serving of cauldrons and broomsticks. Its easy to fall under its spell. (On Filmstruck.)Photo: From Everett Collection.
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
If youre of a certain age and looking for a deep-cut nostalgia trip, Hulu has you covered with a Mary Kate and Ashley joint—one thats well worth revisiting if youre both a 90s kid and a fan of Cloris Leachman, who played the evil witch grandmother at the films center. As with most old media, some parts of the film have aged better than others—but the Olsen magic remains eternal. (On Hulu.)Photo: From Everett Collection.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Ah, yes, the classic cautionary tale about what happens when three college students venture into the woods to investigate local legends. Although this might not count as a witch movie in the typical sense, it would feel wrong to leave Blair Witch out of our selections—especially given its terrifying ending, which makes all the run-up worth it. (On Hulu.)Photo: From ©Artisan Entertainment/Everett Collection.
One of the many network enchantments cast by Aaron Spelling is Charmed, a San Francisco-set drama about three sisters—originally played by Shannon Doherty, Alyssa Milano, and Holly Marie Combs—whose combined abilities make them the most powerful witches of all time. Before all you kids out there tuck into the CWs woke reboot, take a trip back to 1998 to see where it all began. (On Netflix.)Photo: From ©Viacom/Everett Collection.
Sabrina: The Teenage Witch
Netflix might have its own Sabrina adaptation on the way, but for now, Melissa Joan Hart still reigns supreme. Besides, even with the new Sabrina coming, this one will always have a place in our hearts; did you hear that the cat wont even talk in the new version? (On Hulu.)Photo: ©Viacom/Courtesy Everett Collection
In this crunchy New England fall leaf of a film, Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock play a pair of witchy sisters battling against a family curse that dooms any man they fall in love with to an early death. There are perfect autumnal Massachusetts vibes, plus Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as a pair of aunties who love to cackle over midnight margaritas. (On HBOGo.)Photo: From Everett Collection.
If youve found yourself with enough money to pony up for a couple other rentals, here are some of our favorites that, alas, cannot be streamed for free: Kikis Delivery Service, The Craft, Eves Bayou, The Wizard of Oz, Hocus Pocus, and Bell Book and Candle.Photo: Clockwise from right; From Everett Collection, from Everett Collection, from ©Buena Vista/Everett Collection.PreviousNext
Sonia SaraiyaSonia Saraiya is Vanity Fair's television critic. Previously she was at Variety, Salon, and The A.V. Club. She lives in New York.