‘We are the weirdoes, mister’: Why women love witches
Francine Toon, author of Pine, on its roots in true crime, witchcraft and lonely places
Francine Toon: When feminists have looked for something spiritual and patriarchy-free, to try and make sense of these turbulent times, the figure of the witch has become the perfect symbol. Photograph: Diana Patient
Whenever the question is asked about why women, in the latter half of this decade, have been preoccupied with witchcraft, the first thing that comes into my mind is the 1996 film The Craft. And when I think of The Craft, one particular scene comes back to me. To me, it is a scene that not only encapsulates the millennial preoccupation with witchcraft, but also with feminism and indeed our fascination with true crime.
“Watch out for those weirdoes,” a bus driver tells four teenage girls as they are dropped off in the middle of nowhere, for a picnic. We, the viewers, know that the group are going out to the countryside to practise their burgeoning witchcraft. They will drink wine from ornate goblets and perform rituals with knives and butterflies. The line everyone remembers is when leader of the group, Nancy, says in reply to the bus driver, “We are the weirdoes, mister”.
With those five words, the film captured the hearts of millions of teenage girls like me who, as adults today, might seek a similar forms of witchiness in tarot, crystals and star signs, pastimes that have seen a huge and well-documented resurgence in recent years. When feminists have looked for something spiritual and patriarchy-free, to try and make sense of these turbulent times, the figure of the witch has become the perfect symbol.
As a teen, the bus driver’s warning was so familiar to me, in real life as much as fiction. Cautionary tales about teenage girls in secluded places have been in our collective imaginations since ancient times. We only have to think of Persephone, who gets taken away by Hades in a chariot, while picking flowers on the edge of town with her girlfriends. If there were bus drivers in ancient Greece, they would have given the same warning.
One of the only girls of Greek myth I have come across who isn’t scared of lonely places, is the young Medea in Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica. The reason being, she’s a witch. The burden of her vulnerability or the threat of male violence does not hang over her, in the way it does not hang over Serafina Pekkala, Phillip Pullman’s witch most recently depicted in the BBC’s adaptation His Dark Materials. It’s a fantasy that has a timeless appeal.
In December 2018 Twitter user @emrazz imagined a scenario where, without being harmed, men simply disappeared from the earth for 24 hours. She asked women what they would do in the time the men were absent. Scrolling through the thousands of replies, I found myself feeling oddly moved by the number of women whose one wish was to walk around at night and not feel scared. To inhabit the lonely spaces. I believe one of the underlying reasons women find the image of a witch so appealing is because of that power and agency to inhabit any space they want and to live without threat.
Back in 2002 watching The Craft, I resented the fact I wasn’t allowed to take the bus to certain places alone, especially to our nearest city, Dundee, where I would go and play bass with my all-girl rock band. Begrudgingly, we had to rely on lifts from our parents and travel in pairs.
I clearly remember watching the CCTV footage of her and feeling her loneliness in that bleak moment, my heart breaking
The reason our parents’ caution was particularly heightened was because in March that year, Milly Dowler had last been seen walking alone along Station Avenue in Walton-upon-Thames, before she was murdered. I clearly remember watching the CCTV footage of her and feeling her loneliness in that bleak moment, my heart breaking. She had been a similar age to me, with similar dark blonde hair. I was not to know then about reporting biases in favour of young women who looked like myself. In the subsequent years I would realise that people of all genders and ethnicities are abducted but outrageously few make the headlines, especially back in the early 2000s.
This preoccupation with witches, with lonely remote places and the stories of true crime I heard growing up all percolated in my subconscious as I sat down to write my debut novel Pine. True crime, like witchcraft, has seen another huge resurgence in recent years and as I wrote, I listened again and again to podcasts such as My Favourite Murder while considering how my fictional women could have agency and, indeed power, sometimes of a supernatural variety.
My main character Lauren is only 10 years old, but finds an odd power and control in telling others their future, through the reading of tarot cards. Yet the feeling of threat looms around her.
Aged eight, while living in greater London, I was taught by a visiting policeman what to do if someone was following me (cross the road, he told our class, then cross it again and see if they do the same). This exact scenario had happened to the policeman’s own son as he walked home from school. I vividly remember the policeman demonstrating how, when his son finally ran up to his front door, the stranger behind him pulled up his jumper in front of his face, so he couldn’t be identified. This story, the image of the policeman covering his face, and the educational videos we watched about abduction gave me recurring nightmares for weeks, a few of which I can still remember, playing out like a dark version of Sesame Street.
Another reason my school was so keen to educate us became apparent one lunchtime when some unknown men started talking to children through the chain-link fence of the playground. Soon, teachers ran out and told them to go away. More than anything I remember the teachers’ voices, their protective anger.
For my parents, it must have been a relief to move far away to the Scottish Highlands when I turned nine. There they grew their own food and knew everyone in our small community. My neighbours became like aunts and uncles. “If someone comes into the village,” said my mum, “we’ll soon known about it.” The curtain twitching of rural village life had its advantages and people left their doors unlocked.
The experience of living in this community never left me and I created a fictional version in Clavanmore, the village setting in Pine. I could roam fields and forests with other little girls. We claimed these spaces, where no-one else went. I could climb trees and build huts and make my own pretend witch’s potions, which I often did. In a bookshop in my nearest town, I bought my first copy of Harry Potter and a fantasy world opened up, where girls and boys had their own power against evil.
And so, with this taste of freedom, maybe it made spending my teenage years in Fife more difficult. With my band, we’d record songs, with titles like Chubby Pink Specs that were funny and sad ventings of our small frustrations, which mainly boiled down to being ignored. We lacked agency as teenage girls. We felt powerless and awkward and, well, weird.
“We are the weirdos, mister.” In the film The Craft, Nancy’s reply was an epiphany to us. Her magical power meant that any potential abductors or murderers should be scared. She could safely have a picnic with her girlfriends in the middle of nowhere and nobody could hurt her.
The lack of freedom I had as a teenager became a typical source of angst between my parents and myself, fuelling my taste in music and films and trips to Edinburgh’s alternative Cockburn Street, where my friends and I shopped for black, glittery things.
It was around this age that I used to walk to school with two other girls, who liked to talk mainly about skateboarding and Green Day, on the way into town. One morning I woke up late and missed them at the usual spot. It was pouring with rain and I was only wearing a hoodie. A white car slowed down beside me and a man I had never seen before asked if I wanted a lift to school, so I wouldn’t be late. He said he knew my father. Yet he was driving in the opposite direction from my dad’s workplace, which seemed a little odd. It was strange too that he never mentioned my father by name.
Something of the London policeman’s words had stuck in my subconscious and, despite the rain and the prospect of getting angry words from a teacher, I said no. The man drove away and I never saw him again. That evening my father confirmed he didn’t sound like any colleague from his work.
To this day I don’t know who he was, but I do see how vulnerable I was. How the man had offered me a lift at such an opportune moment. It was a life lesson and one that fuelled the creation of two teenage friends in Pine, Diane and Anne-Marie. Like them, I could listen to all the angry feminist songs I wanted, but I could still end up as a girl in a lonely space with a man who wanted to take me away.
In my early twenties, my mother and I went back to visit where we used to live in London. Outside a branch of Boots, her arm shot out and she grabbed my hand. “I just remembered something,” she said. “When you were a toddler, a man tried to take you from this spot. I had to fight him off.”
I heard the anger in her voice. I have no memory of this man, but in that moment in front of the chemist, all the old teenage resentment dissipated as I realised how my mum had had the greatest power of all, the power to save my life.
Pine by Francine Toon is published by Doubleday Ireland and is out now