Far Out Magazine
The 10 greatest witches in the history of cinema
By Calum Russell and Joe Willams
Oct, 22, 2023
For as long as spooky stories have been told, there has never been a recurring figure so emblematic of scariness and evil as a witch. These characters, often shrouded in mystery and magic, have taken many forms: from the sinister to the benevolent, the tragic to the empowering. Their stories are as varied as they are fascinating, and they’ve consistently captured the imagination of audiences worldwide.
From classic green-skinned, hook-nosed hags covered in boils and warts to the enchanting allure of modern witches like Sabrina or Wanda Maximoff’s Scarlet Witch in the multi-billion dollar franchise that is the MCU, the witch has evolved alongside our own tastes and preferences. While early depictions often leaned into the trope of malevolent women wielding dark powers, recent portrayals have reflected changing societal views and subverting traditional narratives.
Their presence in film isn’t just limited to the world of horror. Witches have danced through dramas, comedies, and even romances, serving as allegories for a multitude of themes — the fear of the unknown, the struggle for power, or the celebration of femininity and independence.
From classic cartoons to modern art-house masterpieces and technicolor fantasies to today’s blockbusters, here are our top ten witches that have left an indelible mark on the silver screen. So, with pointy hats firmly atop our heads and wands at the ready, let’s explore…
The 10 greatest witches in cinema:
- Elaine Parks – The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
An independent film sensation, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is an ingenious comedy horror flick that pays tribute to 1960s cinema and the vibrant Technicolor aesthetic. Although beloved in particular circles, The Love Witch and the performance of the lead actor Samantha Robinson has never truly received the acclaim it deserves, being an excellent and highly enjoyable portal into the past.
Telling the story of a witch who uses spells to make men fall in love with her, The Love Witch is an essential piece of cinematic witchcraft that features an iconic character at its heart.
- The Sanderson Sisters – Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
A sheer celebration of all things spooky, camp and funny that could have only come out of the 1990s, Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus tells the story of a teenage boy who moves to Salem and, on Halloween night, unwittingly lights the Black Flame Candle and activates a centuries-old curse which resurrects the villainous, heinous and hilarious trio of Sanderson sisters.
Three hundred years after being hanged in Salem, Winifred, Sarah, and Mary return to terrorise the 20th-century town and suck the souls out of children. The movie was a box office flop at the time but quickly gained a fierce following and devoted cult status, and for good reason: the delightful and iconic performances by Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler and Kathy Najimy, deliver a pitch-perfect balance of terror and humour.
- Mother Markos – Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, 2018)
While the original by Dario Argento remains one of the most significant entries to the horror canon, it is fellow Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s (of Call Me By Your Name fame) soft remake of Suspiria that gives us one of cinema’s coolest and most powerful witches. Taking place in the prestigious Markos Dance Academy, the film loosely follows the 1970s version in that a new student starts to discover that her school is a front for a coven of witches.
In the end, however, we’re shown Mother Markos – the witch of all witches. Played by Tilda Swinton (who also portrays Madame Blanc and Dr. Josef Klemperer), Markos is a huge, hulking figure; her naked body is covered in boils and abscesses, and a pair of sunglasses on her face. She remains one of the most distinctive and visually arresting witches we’ve ever seen.
- Kiki – Kiki’s Delivery Service (Hayao Miyazaki, 1989)
Far too often, we associate witches with being horrid creatures who conjure black magic, but who better to show us the goodness in such wicked merchants of sorcery than Hayao Miyazaki? In his 1989 movie Kiki’s Delivery Service, Miyazaki introduces us to the titular witch Kiki, a young girl who finds it hard settling into her local community until she realises she can utilise her broomstick for an air courier service.
Somewhat forgotten in the Studio Ghibli filmography, Kiki is one of Miyazaki’s greatest protagonists, being utterly charming but also genuinely intriguing. It certainly helps that this is one of Ghibli’s greatest, smartest and most magical tales.
- The Three Witches – The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021)
An unusual release from back in 2021, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth had all the makings of a modern classic but never truly gained the audience, suffering greatly as a result. With solid turns from Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, the most memorable aspect of the film was the incredible depiction of the three witches, played by Kathryn Hunter.
Giving a mysterious and supernatural take on the fantastical characters of William Shakespeare’s classic play, Hunter is spellbinding as the witches, which are depicted as one single entity. It certainly helps that Coen frames her with such perfect artistic precision, but the performance and delivery is all Hunter, making the depiction entirely her own.
- Professor Minerva McGonagall – Harry Potter (Various, 2001-2011)
How can we talk about witches without paying tribute to a decades-old franchise and cultural phenomenon that is dedicated to them? The Harry Potter is literally full of witches and wizards — the amount of significant non-magical characters in the movie can be counted on one hand. While many may feel that Hermoine, one-third of the main trio, is the best witch of the series, many overlook the grace and stature of Professor McGonagall.
From her investment and significance in the lore of the series to the absolutely legendary performance from Dame Maggie Smith, Minerva is not just one of the greatest witches in cinema but a definitive and quintessential British character.
- The Evil Queen – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937)
One of the oldest examples of witches in cinema history remains one of the most iconic. In Disney’s first-ever animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney reinvents a classic tale of German folklore, made popular by the Brothers Grimm, for the silver screen. While the character of Snow White and her seven friends plays front and centre, the real star is the Evil Queen.
A beautiful, ice-cold tyrant, she rules over the land, having married the King and then murdered him. When her magic mirror declares her teenage stepdaughter, Snow White, to be “the fairest of them all”, she uses her evil black magic to disguise herself as a hag and trick the princess into eating a poisoned apple. Her design was so influential that it created the witch archetype we now know.
- The Wicked Witch of the West – The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
No list of the greatest cinematic witches of all time would be complete without the most famous black magic sorcerer of all time, The Wicked Witch of the West. It certainly helps that the green witch was the antagonist for one of the most famous and most beloved family movies of all time, Victor Fleming’s seminal marvel The Wizard of Oz, a film that ushered in colour to mainstream filmmaking.
The Wicked Witch remains one of cinema’s most enduring villains, being a constant thorn in the side of our rag-tag team of heroes: Dorothy, the Lion, the Tin-Man and the Scarecrow. Famously, the green makeup used for the Wicked Witch was incredibly toxic, leading to the actor behind the mask, Margaret Hamilton, becoming very ill.
- The Witch – The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
One of the most impactful things that Robert Eggers does with his debut horror masterpiece is alert the audience to the fact that there is a witch. While making a profound commentary on religious hysteria and gender dynamics in 17th century New England, The Witch immediately makes clear that a physical, tangible witch is lurking nearby…and she is terrifying.
From the way she’s alluded to first with wood creaking and twigs cracking in the forest to the first image of her mashing up and then slathering the remains of a baby on her broomstick, Eggers’ version of a witch draws upon classic conventional imagery, subverts it, and reinvents it as one of modern cinema’s most frightening villains.
- The Blair Witch – The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick, 1999)
Whilst the Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick movie The Blair Witch Project remains pretty divisive, there can be no denying that the film changed cinema forever. Encouraging the arrival of the found footage horror genre, the movie was also a pioneer of independent film, showing that you only needed a camera and a bunch of dedicated friends to make a great movie. Indeed, it also showed that you don’t need a big budget or flashy effects, with the effort having the best cinematic witch of all time, even though there is no physical entity.
What makes The Blair Witch Project so fantastic is its ability to create such an atmosphere of dread and terror without many ingredients at all, a lesson modern horror could really do with studying. Because you cannot see her, the audience’s imagination runs wild. What does she look like? Is she real at all? The final scene shows that something was certainly out there and that whatever it was wasn’t worth the horror of filming.