If there’s one thing any kid growing up in the late 1980s or 1990s knew, it’s that you should never trust a stranger. The combination of high-profile child kidnappings and the development of the 24 hour news cycle meant that parents were on high alert, desperate to protect their children from a seemingly threatening larger world. Thus the Stranger Danger educational program was born, teaching all children everywhere that any adult you didn’t know was a potential murderer. Roald Dahl published The Witches in 1983, as part of his decades-long campaign to traumatize child readers. But the 1990 cinematic adaptation of The Witches, directed by Nicolas Roeg (yes, the same Nicolas Roeg who directed Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, here taking a brief, bizarre sojourn into family films), hit screens at exactly the right time to capitalize on this burgeoning anxiety around the safety of children by exaggerating an unlikely but still plausible threat to monstrous proportions. Not only are there bad people out there who want to hurt you, there are witches.
“What makes her dangerous is the fact that she doesn’t look dangerous,” Luke’s beloved grandmother warns him in one of her many lectures about witches. “Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs.” What The Witches highlights here is the seeming mundanity of evil, that bad people don’t necessarily wear a black hat and twirl a moustache. Every stranger is not out to hurt you, but any stranger could, and there are few clear ways to distinguish the good from the bad. And as a child, the mere idea that there are people out there, walking around like everyone else, who want to hurt you simply because you’re young and vulnerable? That’s terrifying.
What’s more, the grandmother in The Witches makes it clear that Luke is the only one who can protect himself. In the cruel world Dahl and Roeg have created, not even your parents can keep you safe from witches if you catch their eye. She tells him anecdotes about children she knew who were killed or snatched by witches, weapons of knowledge in his arsenal against what is apparently the biggest threat he will face in his young life. She highlights Erika, a young girl who is trapped in a painting by a witch, doomed to pass her years in silence on the wall of her childhood home. Erika’s parents were strict, she says, but it didn’t make a difference. If the witches want you, no adult is going to stand in their way. And witches never get caught.
The only way you can save yourself is through constant vigilance, desperately looking for the nearly imperceptible signs of a witch. It’s somehow empowering to Luke (and by extension to all children) to give them the tools to protect themselves and trust that they will exercise good judgment. But it also places a heavy burden on the kids, and flies in the face of the new brand of helicopter parenting that was coming into vogue at the time of the film’s release. The Witches, indeed, feels like one of the last hurrahs of the sort of laissez faire parenting that would see adults set their children loose on society to fend for themselves until dinnertime. This world is still one where kids could reasonably be expected to use their wits to keep themselves safe from would-be predators.
Yet there’s a sense of inevitability to the threat present in The Witches – that all children, sooner or later, will cross paths with a predator, whether they realize it or not. The sheer number of witches attending just this one gathering in a quaint seaside hotel in England indicates that they’re an ever-present danger. The unsettling implication is this: how many close calls did we have as children? Strangers who spoke to us kindly in a park, and were likely nothing more than that, just kind strangers – but perhaps were not, and were only dissuaded by a momentary distraction or a nearby adult or just something about us that suggested we weren’t worth the risk. And we would never even know. How many witches were in our midst as children, foiled by chance?
The Witches is a dark film, and even its abandonment of Roald Dahl’s original bummer of an ending (a fact that rankled the famous misanthrope, who demanded to have his name removed from the credits) doesn’t erase the uneasy and lopsided battle between children and those that seek to hurt them. When neuroses around children’s safety were at a fever pitch, The Witches is in the right place at the right time. Despite its disappointing box office numbers in 1990, it quickly became a cult classic, tapping into the psyches of a generation of children for whom the concept of being told that any stranger might try to hurt you was likely more familiar than its creators could ever have expected.
“The Witches” is currently streaming on Netflix.