“Witch, Witch, You’re a Witch!”: Generational Curses in Practical Magic (1998)

A woman stands at the gallows overlooking a crowd of jealous women and weak men. The noose is already over her neck, her hands tied behind. She takes a deep breath, just as the music swells, and puts her foot over the edge. The crowd gasps as she jumps from the stand and falls to the ground, unharmed. She rises to her feet, leaving the broken rope dangling above her. This is magic, just taking a step forward, with nothing underneath, and not being afraid to walk.

This woman, Maria, is the first witch in the Owens line, and the first to cast magic in Practical Magic. You might expect her magic to be something spectacular, as most cinematic witches are. But it isn’t, in fact, it is easy to dismiss. Her magic, like the film’s title, is practical and often quiet. Its effects are powerful, but there is an everyday quality to it. Practical Magic argues that taking a step forward is the most important form of magic, much like Maria stepping from the gallows. It’s a motif which continues throughout the film, as the Owens sisters struggle to move beyond their generation curse and step without fear or shame. The film positions magic as a determined thought, something any woman is capable of. The same goes for curses, which are just another type of thinking. Curses are like an angry thought that hums in the back of your head. They are simple to cast or toss at a person, but they stay with that person forever, held inside and then passed along. It’s an insult you shout when pointing at a person, or it’s something you tell yourself. Either way, it has brutal consequences which affect not only you but your children and so forth.

The Owens are not the only characters to toss curses in the film, as the Owens are likewise cursed by the town. During the opening sequence, Sally and Gillian are surprised to find an angry mob of children at their gate, who begin chanting and tossing rocks. The chant is repeated later in the film, by a different group of children, to Sally’s daughters, implying that this hatred is as long-lasting as the Owens’ official curse. It’s the reason Sally’s is ashamed of a being a witch, and avoids practicing magic, something she loves. The chanting, fear, and hatred prevents and controls her, just like the Owens’ curse. The only way to break both curses is to take a step towards them. Curses are a form of anxiety and trauma, which passes from each generation into the next, and so to break them, you must confront and then break their intrinsic routine. In other words, to step out without knowing if you will survive the fall.

“Curses only have power when you believe in them, and I don’t.”

Maria inadvertently curses herself and every Owens woman because of her broken heart. The film isn’t entirely unsympathetic to this, but it does imply that her behaviour is selfish and limited, unlike the determined step off the gallows she once did. What is noteworthy is that unlike the other Owens women, Maria’s lover never died because of her curse. He was just too afraid to be with her, he abandoned her. Maria’s fear and hatred willed itself into the Owens women, essentially recreating what Maria had been through, even though the later Owens men were different than her own. These men never left their partners or families, they stayed and paid the price. It’s as though the curse is a precaution, just expecting that the men will abandon the Owens women at some point. The deathwatch beetle is a good example of this, as only the Owens women can hear it, buzzing in their happy lives, but can never catch it. It stays for a time, just under the floorboards, what should be a stable place to walk. While audiences can read the film’s magic as literal, it’s also easy to discuss it in the lens of generational trauma, known here as a curse. It’s something that impacts you but began long before you, with each generation since that initial trauma (if that can even be mapped) repeating that trauma to an extent, struggling against it, but ultimately passing it along in some form to the next generation, who must face the same dilemma. The curse impacts each of the Owens women differently, and their responses vary, but it’s the same thing happening repeatedly. They love, he dies, they try to survive. What’s interesting is that Sally and Gillian break the curse without meaning to, it happens as a wonderful side effect of their exorcism. By refusing to give up on each other, bringing all kinds of trauma to the surface, and finding support to heal it, the women save both themselves and the next generation, Sally’s daughters. They recognize the curse, along with Gillian’s violent ex, and refuse to give them power or thought, the consuming kind. Once again, audiences can read this as a literal exorcism, or as a metaphor on confronting and attempting to heal generational trauma and abuse.

In one memorable scene, after Sally first hears the beetle, she begins tearing up her living room. She sits on what’s left of the floor, her back to the camera, as she frantically pries the boards with a sharp screwdriver. The clicking continues, just out of reach, beating faster and faster until…silence. It’s not spectacular. The curse swoops in and isn’t seen or heard by anyone except Sally, the surrounding witnesses just seeing a tragic accident, no magic. The effects, however, are devastating. The same depression that takes Sally killed her mother, who we meet at the beginning of the film, where it’s explained that she died of a broken heart. Without saying it directly, the film implies that she killed herself, willing her two daughters to the Aunts. The same thing nearly happens to Sally, as history begins to repeat itself once she hears the beetle. She loses her husband and her daughters come to live with the Aunts, just as she and Gillian once did. Her daughters even look like Sally and Gillian, as one has Gillian’s red hair and the other has darker like Sally. The film uses this framing to suggest that the cycle will continue unless Sally and Gillian can move forward, and not become victims to their thoughts. They do this by supporting one another, which is the only way the Aunts have survived.

The Aunts are an interesting pair, as they have never been afraid of declaring themselves as witches, but they are also stuck in their own routines. They are living the same lives with Gillian’s daughters as they did her, the same rules and magic fun, which isn’t a bad thing, but it is an isolating thing. They are always welcoming to the town, but they also stick to themselves. Sally and Gillian initially avoid them so they can be perceived as ‘normal’, but they both eventually realize that they must accept that part of themselves rather than isolating themselves from it, or even dividing their witch abilities from daily life.

Isolation is dangerous because it leaves you prone, much like Gillian finds herself. During her abusive relationship with Jimmy, he isolates her from her family, and is obsessed with controlling her, barely letting her sleep or go to the washroom alone. She regains much of her strength and confidence after returning to her family and finding some stability. Sally deals with the same, as although she is with the Aunts, she isolates herself and refuses to get involved. In the finale, however, Sally is forced to call for reinforcements from the parent phone tree line and gather many of the women who have judged her over the years. It’s revealed that these women have always been jealous and curious (a dangerous combination) of the Owens, and just want to be involved. They are not as magical as the Owens women, but as Aunt Jet explains, “there’s a little witch in all of us”. Put together, combining their will with the Owens, they can fully support Sally and exorcise Jimmy from Gillian. It’s a beautiful moment, one which also implies that every person deals with curses, some they cast and some they blind themselves with. These women could have been friends for a long time but were kept apart because of the word ‘witch’.

The town didn’t understand what being a witch was, and the Owens sisters (not their Aunts) never felt comfortable to open themselves to the community because of this word. The former is certainly to blame, as they bullied the Owens sisters their entire lives, but the film still asks us to consider how complex this dynamic can be. How women are turned against one another, and more importantly, why uniting is so powerful. It’s especially noteworthy as there is some speculation that historically it was far more common for women to accuse other women of being witches, versus men accusing women. Take the Salem Witch Trials as an example, where young women accused other women (varying ages) of witchcraft.

We have fallen into this contemporary assumption that being a witch is a men versus women dynamic, but it’s far more complex than that. It wasn’t necessary men calling out any intelligent or strange women for witchcraft, it was often other women, placed in these specific and strict gendered roles, seeing ‘abnormal’ behaviour or even poverty and calling it out, lest it spread and cause trouble. Men were the ones who brutally tortured, lied, and murdered, but the accusations were largely by women frightened by other isolated women. That is perhaps ironic considering the way the term ‘witch hunt’ gets used today, often by men accused of sexual assault in the current Me-Too movement. Their use of the term is not only incorrect but a continuation of the logic used against women in these hunts, to isolate. They are complaining about women joining together to call out violent behaviour from those in power, which to an extent is just another form of the isolating and harmful ‘logic’ used by men to justify said witch hunts. The purpose is the same, to isolate and diminish any perceivable power that inherently threatens a broader political and social inequality. It’s also crucial to note that accused men currently using the term ‘witch hunt’ typically have their careers intact, many finding even more fervent and loud toxic fanbases by using that term. Notably still, none have not literally been tortured and sentenced to death like the countless people (men and women) who lost their lives because of this system of fear leading to accusation and then extreme judicial violence in the hands of men. I digress, as I am sure there have been several critical essays about this very topic, but Practical Magic does an excellent job of setting up and somewhat resolving this dynamic, or at least comparing the literal violence perpetrated by men with verbal and occasional physical violence between women all around the term ‘witch’, which incidentally plays out this historic dynamic.

“My Blood, Your Blood, Our Blood.”

The Owens’ magic looks a lot like cooking, which the neighborhood women find quite shocking. It’s also contrary to what many audiences would know about witches from cinema, as they are generally depicted as either the villains or supremely powerful beings. By contrast, the Owens’ magic is practical and occasionally invisible, hence the film’s title. That is the case even in the film’s most magical moments, where magic comes from something personal that anyone can go through. Sally and Gillian break the curse by supporting and accepting one another. Sally draws blood from her hand and Gillian’s, embraces her, and the women join hands around them. That acceptance is enough to break the curse, and it has nothing to do with romantic love. It’s not like Sleeping Beauty where a prince breaks in and kisses a comatose teenager to break some vague curse. It’s two sisters accepting themselves, each other, and the town. Not knowing what is ahead of them, but still determined to accept. The film grows this concept rather beautifully through Gary’s belief in his sheriff badge. As Sally explains, “your badge- it’s just a star, just another symbol. Your talisman. It can’t stop criminals in their tracks, can it?”, but when Gary holds it up to Jimmy’s spirit, with nothing more than the determined belief that it will stop evil, it does. When belief is strong enough, it manifests, or as Sally goes on to say, “it has power because you believe it does”. It’s as though the character’s belief changes the world around them, not a magical bloodline. The belief that if you point your finger at a rude boy and tell him to catch chicken pox that he will. Or the belief that blowing on a candle will light it. Or even, that telling someone you love them will not destroy both of your lives. There is uncertainty in each of these, and even consequences, but as the film suggests, one should still have that determination.

The film ends as the Owens family steps off their roof on Halloween, dressed as stereotypical witches. They recreate Maria’s defining moment, except this time, they are supported by the town. The women step forward and glide safely to the ground, where they are embraced by their loved ones and the townsfolk. Gillian and Sally are both ready to step forward in a symbolic way too, as Sally is ready to accept and move beyond her generational trauma to be with Gary, and Gillian is ready to spend time with her family and heal from her abusive relationship rather than getting caught in another. They are all stepping forward together, knowing that history may repeat itself again, but stepping in light of that.