Halloween is lurking around the corner and whether you’re a hardcore participant or a sideline observer, the screening of certain iconic films is a time-honored tradition most of us get behind. Though not specific to Halloween, horror movies abound this time of year. I have never been a fan of horror movies. They’re gross! And why are the girls always naked when they die? Any image of a horror movie I try to recollect is just a generic shower scene of naked women being viciously attacked. That happens in all of them, right?
Most people love horror movies. They’re often top grossing on opening weekends, celebrated in marathons on cable TV, and late night film festivals at your local theater are dedicated to them…from moderately horrific like Carrie to deeply disturbing like Saw. But somewhere amongst the gore and grime, the mortification and mutilation of female bodies lives a bedazzled nugget that is Teen Witch.
Released in 1989 and originally pitched as the female companion to Teen Wolf, Teen Witch was a definitive moment marking Hollywood’s realization that teen girls are a market worth serving. Which is how Teen Witch has endeared itself as a cult classic stalwart in the Halloween movie canon. It’s basically a 90-minute music video.
Like most films that fall in the “for girls” or “Chick Flick” category, Teen Witch is still reserved as “other” for most audiences. It’s the story of female interest and desire, although mired by the lens that Hollywood perceives them. Teen girl protagonists are by no means the norm when you look at typical storylines of feature films. Therein lie the film’s flaws and its glory. Nobody really takes it seriously and yet legions of people celebrate it.
If you’re familiar with Teen Witch you know that highlights include the mostly unknown Robyn Lively, half-sister of Blake, who also starred as the love interest in the Karate Kid 3 that same year, a locker room dance scene and two super corny white kids engaging in a flirtatious rap battle.
In 1989, I was ten years old, approaching eleven. I can’t remember if I saw Teen Witch in the theater but I definitely remember it being shown repeatedly on HBO one summer while my brother and I stayed with our Dad. We consumed it en masse, along with My Blue Heaven, which seemed to always come on right after. I honestly don’t know which is was worse, Steve Martin’s attempt to play “New York Gangster” or the four-minute long opening credits of Teen Witch.
I mean, seriously. What does this rooftop seduction and sexy sax soundtrack have anything to do with appealing to teen girldom or the occult? This is certainly not what I would’ve been doing with my magic, then or now. But, it’s exactly this odd, nonsensical campiness that has made Teen Witch the Halloween jam it is today.
For those of you who don’t remember or chose not to participate in this piece of hyper girlie 80s culture:
Louise is a mild mannered nobody who dresses like an extra from Big Love. Her drama teacher gifts her a necklace from the prop room and it triggers supernatural powers in Louise. So, she goes to see the little old lady from Poltergeist, naturally, who informs her she is in fact descended from the witches of Salem. 16 is about the time your powers start to present themselves, she tells her. Louise, of course, wants to be popular and the key to popularity is Brad. (Remember the Friends episode where Monica goes out with her high school crush, Chip, the guy who stood Rachel up for the prom – yeah, it’s that guy!) More or less, Louise wants Brad to fall in love with her.
She metamorphoses into a supremely stylish Cyndi Lauper/Madonna hybrid, her onscreen transformation most accurately portrayed in the evolution of her hair.
Let’s pause for a minute to note how redheads dominated the leading ladies of the 80s. Molly Ringwald is the most iconic of the crew but I have a special place in my heart for Kerry Green of Goonies fame though her unsung role is really Lucas. You could even add the auburn tones of Amanda Jones, the coveted love interest of Eric Stoltz in Some Kind of Wonderful. Hey, Eric Stoltz had red hair too! Both the Little Mermaid and Jessica Rabbit debuted in the 80s. Even Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie was a redhead! I could present a feminist critique of the red head trope that is unpredictable, “crazy,” and hyper-sexualized but I’d rather just celebrate a non-traditional choice in leading lady archetype. Those are pretty much the only types of feminist moments present in Teen Witch. The kind that are in bed with patrirachy because the film was created in a sexist system. I mean, this happens.
The plot of Teen Witch is terribly insulting. According to the filmmakers, popularity in girl world equates to spontaneous applause by your classmates when you enter the room, making out with another girl’s boyfriend and having your high school covered in banners with your name on them. And we wonder why we now have a generation full of girls more concerned with “likes” and lip size than actually harnessing their power. Or, developing a personality, which Louise never manages to do.
It’s like the director asked Larry Flint and Tina Belcher to consult on the creative direction of the film making the best moments the unabashedly shameless incorporation of hyper-normative adolescent girl culture that’s also really pervy.
The musical number live from the girls locker room where a chorus of girls dresses as sexy aerobics instructors sing about boys?
It’s so awkward and hilarious and awesome and terrible. Kind of like high school. Especially like gym class. Am I right, ladies?
There’s nothing particularly compelling about Teen Witch and maybe that’s what makes it so enjoyable. The character development is terrible. Louise is so bland that even when accessing the occult it’s her snarky best friend and the comic relief of her sage advisor who keep the story engaging. However, women dominate the cast and many of the peripheral characters have speaking parts. Though most of the dialogue centers on gaining the affection of Brad, the film more than passes the Bechdel test.
Amongst the typical Halloween canon are films often exploiting women’s bodies or enacting violence upon them. In a genre where victimization and objectification dominate, Teen Witch fills a much-needed niche in Halloween viewing and in girl’s lives in general.
It’s a testament to the desire among female audiences – especially audiences of young women – to see stories of their experiences, or at the very least their general identity, that there would develop such dedication to a below average film. And while the male gaze is ever present the female gaze is strong in Teen Witch. A hetero-normative, middle class white American female gaze. But, still.
Just as Bella’s draw to Edward was demonstrated in lingering close ups of Rob Pattison’s brooding scowl, Louise ogles Brad, always in the golden sunlight of dusk.
And while I find it high problematic that Brad drives her to a remote location for their “date,” Louise seems totally cool playing hide and seek in what is clearly the house from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She even takes off her shoes. But, it’s Brad who takes off his shirt. Hey yo!
There is a surprising power in this film. Unlike Bella and Elsa who came after her, Louise is never punished or limited in her abilities. She stops manipulating people’s emotions not because she lacks the power to but because she chooses not to. Her personal morality is reflective if a paradigm shift that doesn’t choose domination by way of exploitation. It’s actually kind of deep. Somebody tell it to little ol’ Poltergeist who Frank-N-Furter’s herself a boy toy and redecorates her house all on the coattails of Louise’s magic.
Teen Witch may be atypical of the average Halloween horror story but the means for consuming it are the same: watch with a buddy, commentary is encouraged and allow yourself the suspended disbelief needed to enjoy such a thing. Take it all in including the hard-hitting truths it offers: it’s hard being the popular girl, you can’t make someone love you and neon denim never goes out of style.
Alicia Swiz is a writer, performer, and media educator. For information on workshops and live performances, please visit popgoesalicia.com.