Why Are Witches Green?

We all know that witches ride brooms and keep black cats for sidekick pets, but why the green witch? That tradition started more recently than you might think.

The history of witches is terrifying and sad and is basically the story of marginalised people. Worse, people around the contemporary world are still abused because of supernatural beliefs about their so-called witchcraft.

In children’s literature, however, witches are a useful trope.

We’re all familiar with the idea that witches ride brooms.

But when did witches become green?

Below is an illustration for the Charles Perrault version of Sleeping Beauty. The wicked fairy is depicted as an ugly green witch, to match her ugly personality.

La belle au bois dormant : The Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, retold by Shirley Goulden; illustrated by Benvenuti, 1961

In the version below the skin is grey and sallow but the greenness is still there, in her gown. To make use of some very basic symbolism — the fairy is experiencing feelings of envy because she has not been invited to the party.

Sleeping Beauty grey green witch
Illustration by Sheilah Beckett, 1977

Witches in popular literature and media […] became sexual entities, conniving and disgraceful. […] “witches are accused of crimes similar to those which made the femme fatale of 19th-century novels and dramas such a menacing literary persona” […] Through their magic and their sensual nature, they would tempt people, and trick them into doing inherently evil things, or make them vulnerable. Thus, the witch was seen as a villain, and sexual women were seen as menacing as well. Through this process of othering, this characterization of sexually deviant women as witches, “the witch became the incarnation of the sins of the flesh, of female sexual function”.

However, witches are not always represented as being overly feminine and sexual in nature. Sometimes, they sit on the other end of the spectrum, as masculine, hideous creatures; still outliers from society’s usual expectations for women. These witches, with green skin and crooked noses, match our typical descriptions of the Halloween monsters, cursing maidens and keeping black cats or crows as company.

Socademia

The Green Witch In The Wizard Of Oz

Just as Disney has forever placed in our minds the names of the dwarfs (who were never named before that), the film starring Judy Garland forever left us with the image of the green Wicked Witch Of The West. A film, if successful, changes a work permanently. Maguire therefore creates Elphaba (after the letters of L. Frank Baum’s name) as a green-skinned creature.

Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film

The green-skinned crone is actually a relatively new incarnation of the evil witch – in fact, while the evil witch as a cultural narrative dates back millennia, the green skin dates precisely back to 1939 and the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s cackling and emerald-tinted portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, rendered in vivid Technicolor, is the onlyreason that anyone associates green skin with witches. As Professor Marion Gibson, associate professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter and an expert in popular depictions of witches, explained, via email, “There are a few images of witches – for instance, on Halloween postcards – with odd coloured faces (usually red/orange, surprisingly) but MGM’s green-faced witch is the first to make a key feature of a completely non-human skin colour.”

Why Are Witches Green? from Boing Boing

There is a sad story of actor abuse behind Margaret Hamilton’s greenness.

On 23 December 1938, while filming the Wicked Witch’s exit from Munchkinland in a blaze of fire, Hamilton suffered first-degree burns on the right side of her face and second-degree burns on her right hand; the flames rose too soon, before she had descended below the stage. Hamilton’s green makeup was copper-based and potentially toxic, and had to be removed from her burned flesh with alcohol — an intensely painful process. She was not able to return to the movie until 10 February. When she did return, she wore green gloves, since her hand was not yet fully healed.

OzWikia

Green skin makes a character unambiguously non-human, so there’s one reason for the green skin. But there are real-world illnesses which can give skin a greenish hue.

Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others.

Holidappy

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked

There have been many, many retellings of The Wizard of Oz but the most culturally significant of those must be Wicked, in which Elphaba’s greenness is central.

[A] witch whose image was recently remade is Elphaba, from Wicked, who is also the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”. In Wicked, the witch retains her original appearance, “with her green skin, black clothes, and flying broom Elphaba matches our physical conception of a witch” (Boyd 99). Her personality, on the other hand, is completely different. She remains a bit rough around the edges, but this is more defensiveness and a lack of social skills than an actual evil. She is given a sympathetic back-story, and the best intentions. Overall, Elphaba is a good person, and remains that way throughout both the novel and the play, thus becoming a relatable protagonist, rather than a villain.

Socademia

 

Witches are now so commonly understood to be green that I decided yesterday to paint a green witch. Looking at my reference photo compared to the output feels like a kind of symbol — the way witches are very real and ordinary but our thoughts about them are not. (I accidentally left the pot in my office and wondered where it was when it came time to steam the cabbage.)

halloween witch reference halloween candy witch

 

Monster House Film Study

monster house

Monster House is a 2006 animated feature length film for a middle grade audience. The script was written by  Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab. Harmon and Schrab had collaborated on Laser Fart previously, a film which I have not seen and will not be adding to my watch list. Monster House is already 12 years old, but the animation still looks pretty good. It was animated at a time when actors were just starting to be used as models, which is why this looks better than The Polar Express. The one thing significantly improved by modern processing power is hair. Inability to depict hair and skin is why Pixar decided to make their first animated film about toys. The hair on the characters of Monster House looks plastic, like you get on a 1980s Ken Doll, compared to what you see in, say, Braveof 2012, in which hair is almost a character in its own right. (Animators have since gotten over their hair obsession, I think. Now hair is just hair!)

Screenwriter Harmon has been working in television since Monster House, notably on Rick and Morty. He also lists The Simpsons in his credits. Schrab has also been working in TV, most notably on The Sarah Silverman Program. Basically, these are youngish American comedy writers with a male sensibility.

MONSTER HOUSE STORY STRUCTURE

Continue reading “Monster House Film Study”

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that it was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, this is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

Carrie movie poster

 

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you. Continue reading “Carrie Storytelling Techniques”

Shirley The Medium Courage The Cowardly Dog

“Shirley The Medium” is an original recomposition of elements from diverse sources:

  1. Pandora’s Box fairytale
  2. A Christmas Carol, Dickens
  3. Modern TV psychics

shirley the medium

establishing shot
establishing shot

STORY STRUCTURE OF SHIRLEY THE MEDIUM

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is unable to tell Eustace not to open the box.

Also, in this episode, one weakness is that he needs to please his owners, even though one of them is outright horrible. When he digs up a locked box he hands it over to Eustace when he overhears Eustace complaining about his dead brother’s box of money. This leads to no end of trouble.

DESIRE

Courage wants to prevent Eustace from opening a box.

trying-to-open-the-box

There is a different desire, however, to set off the action. Courage wants to find his yo-yo. He runs out into the yard and searches through his hole, which is the child-dog equivalent of a child’s toy box.  Continue reading “Shirley The Medium Courage The Cowardly Dog”

The Demon In The Mattress Courage The Cowardly Dog:

In “The Demon In The Mattress” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog we have the full moon, the midnight ‘witching’ hour and a comic horror story about possession.

demon in the mattress

 

midnight-witching-hour

The idea of an evil mattress is of course horror fantasy, but comes from the real world mistrust we have about sleeping on other people’s beds. Here in Australia it’s not even legal to sell a secondhand mattress. When sleeping in cheap joints (and even sometimes in expensive ones) we worry about bed bugs. Horror stories are always making the most of our deepest anxieties. Comic horror stories tend to pick the more trivial ones… like fear of creepy crawlies inside mattresses.

full-moon-opening

Colour

Colour is used in this episode as the story changes in tone.

purple-house

green-bedroom

courage-digging-hole

Demonic Possession

Demonic possession is the belief that individuals can be possessed by malevolent preternatural beings, commonly referred to as demons or devils. Obsessions and possessions of the devil are placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit among men. It is obsession when the demon acts externally against the person whom it besets, and possession when he acts internally, agitates them, excites their ill humor, makes them utter blasphemy, speak tongues they have never learned, discovers to them unknown secrets, and inspires them with the knowledge of the obscurest things in philosophy or theology.

— Wikipedia

The oldest mention of possession is Sumerian, but modern horror stories tend to draw most heavily from Christian traditions. Traditionally it was believed that people possessed are possessed by the Devil. The Devil is a fallen angel.

 

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DEMON IN THE MATTRESS”

The episodes in which opponents come to the house, this farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, are similar to a Robinsonnade, in which there is an island. The drama in a Robinsonnade comes from the characterisation and interpersonal conflict. There’s not much characterisation here, of course. Mainly gags and horror tropes. In any case, the Bagge family don’t even need to leave their house — like a police station in a crime show, trouble just walks in the door.

WEAKNESS/NEED

As usual, and this never changes, Courage is just a dog and no one believes him when things go wrong.

As for the inciting incident/need of Muriel, this is established right away when she points out that a whole lot of springs are poking out of their mattress.

springs

DESIRE

When Courage listens to the other end of the phone, he realises the mattress vendors are no good. They’ve ‘been waiting for your call’.

Muriel wants a new mattress.

OPPONENT

We first see a shot of the opponents’ lair. A couple of small creatures scuttle past.

opponents-lair

The mattress delivery guys turn up in a medieval chariot.

mattress-delivery

They appear to be some kind of rodent pair. They have special contempt for Courage, hissing at him as they walk into the house. They know Courage is the only one who suspects them of mal intent.

PLAN

As ever, Courage first tries to warn Muriel, then when the possession happens he tries to tell Eustace.

And, as ever, he checks things out thoroughly before diving in. Here he is peering inside the window.

courage-looking-in-window

It’s clear by now that the family computer is the domestic equivalent of a sage. Courage asks the ‘sage’ how to get rid of a demon and then Eustace is able to read the print out. The plan is for Eustace to dress up in a floaty gown and memorise a chant.

consulting-the-computer

As is common in children’s comedy, it is funny that Eustace (a man) is demeaned by dressing him in female clothing.

BATTLE

The battle sequence turns the house into an ominous shade of chartreuse. A green mist comes out of the bed and takes hold of Muriel. She loses her head. She is talking in a deep male voice. But the possessed Muriel is not truly horrific. She conceals something beneath the covers and we find out it’s a tray of tea (rather than a dismembered body part, say.)

horrific-tray-of-tea

possessed-muriel

The writers of Courage The Cowardly Dog like to make use of childhood games in the battle sequence. We’ve already seen a game of handball/squash and a food fight. Here the possessed Muriel has a thumb wrestle with Courage to settle the score.

thumb-wrestling

eustace-chanting

white-flag

SELF-REVELATION

In the end only Courage can save Muriel. Eustace isn’t saying the magic spell correctly. Courage digs a hole in the yard until he comes across the floating gown, then puts it on himself and turns Muriel back into Muriel.

Unfortunately, in this ‘never-ending’ or ‘repeating’ story, Eustace ends up possessed though his own ineptitude. Muriel hits on on the head with a rolling pin which she seems to carry everywhere. (It breaks in two.) Courage rolls him firmly inside a mattress in a second short battle. Eustace, in this episode, is rather a tragic figure and we feel sorry for him.

eustace-inside-a-mattress

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

“We don’t want your special mattress,” Muriel says angrily into the receiver. She tells the creatures to come and pick it up for a refund.

Eustace is taken away by the pissed off rats.

Muriel and Courage sleep together on the couch downstairs, which Muriel declares is very comfortable.

watching-tv-on-the-sofa

But we know Eustace will make it back in time for the next episode…

The Foolish Wishes by Charles Perrault

The Foolish Wishes illustration_from_Fairy_tales_of_Charles_Perrault_(Clarke,_1922)

Also known as The Ridiculous Wishes or The Three Ridiculous Wishes.

This exact fairytale passed me by as a kid, but there are no shortage of tales about characters who are granted three wishes by some sort of genie/supernatural  being. I’d find myself thinking, “Don’t waste the last one! Just wish for more wishes!” I wonder if everyone listening to these stories thinks exactly the same thing, but I’m put in mind of my neighbour, who told me recently that when he was made to attend Sunday school as a boy, they were required to pray, but they weren’t to pray for selfish things such as ‘growing an inch taller over summer’ or ‘a bike for Christmas’. Their prayers had to be altruistic or they wouldn’t ‘work’.

I think perhaps there are some cultural parallels between the nature of religious prayer and fairytale wishing: They must be altruistic and they must come from a good place.

Content Note: After reading this story you may find you never feel the same way about black pudding again. Also, if you live in Australia, you may think of black pudding whenever you see a black snake.

Wasteful Wishing is a common trope of modern comedies. Wishing for food items is a common one. No doubt fairytales such as this one have been influential in the emergence of this trope.

Continue reading “The Foolish Wishes by Charles Perrault”