For the past 20 years of my life, autumn has meant one thing and one thing only: the annual viewing of Practical Magic. My younger sister, Hannah, and I pick a night for our screening, usually around Halloween or her birthday in November, and drink margaritas in honor of our favorite sister story on celluloid. Often our parents join us, and sometimes our friends do, but it’s a yearly tradition we observe as faithfully as watching It’s A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve.
Casually mention this film at a gathering of women who lived through the ‘90s, and the title alone inspires squeals of joy and devotion. (I have never met anyone who didn’t like Practical Magic, I have only met people who haven’t seen Practical Magic.) Ostensibly a romantic comedy, it is a feminist confection that defies genre. It’s often invoked in the same breath as other witchy cult classics from its era, like The Craft and Hocus Pocus, but Practical Magic stands apart in its tone, politics, and timeless appeal.
In the other spooky cult classics of the ‘90s, witchcraft is a campy kind of horror, magic derived from devil worship. The equation of Satanism with paganism is a fiction based on the same Puritanical paranoia that led to the Salem witch trials. In The Craft, the demonic descent of the high school witches accelerates around intimate female friendships turned sour, which is perhaps why it’s so beloved by many queer women. The witches of Hocus Pocus, the Sanderson sisters, are corrupted women who use a human skin-bound spellbook to antagonize, curse, and murder the plucky kids of Salem. Even though Hocus Pocus mostly plays the devilry involved for humor, and The Craft uses it for frightening metaphor, witchcraft in those stories, as in most horror tales, is demonic, and as such belies its origin in historical Christian attempts to conflate female power with sin and the devil. (This territory was more recently and richly explored in Robert Eggers’ 2015 horror film, The Witch.)
The witchcraft of Practical Magic is, by contrast, a chaotic neutral. It is kitchen herbalism and light telepathy between sisters, a touch of telekinesis in a spoon stirring tea by itself and a dash of pyrokinesis in an ability to light a candle with a breath. It is not so far off from being strongly intuitive or utilizing folk medicine, but it is something in the blood that can be used for good or ill. Furthermore, only women can harness it; specifically, the women of the Owens family.
In the first minutes of the film, we hear their ancestral origin story: in colonial New England, Maria Owens was accused of being a witch and sentenced to hang for it. The lore draws on the ambiguities of the real Salem witch trials. Did Maria really have magic, or was she maligned unfairly? We learn she really could cast spells in the same moment we’re told that “most of her lovers had wives on the hanging committee.” Like the women persecuted in the 1690s, she was being punished by the community for her independence and flagrant disregard for convention at least as much as she was being punished for “the gift of magic.” With the help of her powers, Maria Owens slipped the noose and fled to isolated safety. When she realized her lover had abandoned her and her unborn child, she casts a spell to avoid “the agony of love,” and in doing so accidentally cursed herself and her descendants, so that “every man who dared love an Owens woman is doomed to die.”
Witches, as defined by this opening sequence, are women who really do perform magic, but also women who are maligned unfairly. The perversion of their intentions, in moments of grief and fear, has the unintended consequence of killing the men around them. Magic here is both literal and figurative: in the Owens family, “the craft” is closer to the divine feminine spiritual practices of pre-Christian, earth-worshipping religions than Satan worship. Practical Magic establishes this conflation of sex and magic that’s so central to its sensibility, of witchcraft as a feminist superpower shared between women.
The trailer for Practical Magic was one of the first I can remember seeing, in 1998, the same year Harry Potter came to the United States and obsessed my fourth-grade class. I’d been fascinated with witches from a young age, devouring any children’s book with a black cat or pointy hat on the cover. As I got older, I begged my parents to let me see or read anything with “magic” in the title, and they’d usually oblige. (A few years later, I would get into Wicca, along with every other seventh grade girl I knew.)
My friend Laura, who’s a year older than me, saw Practical Magic first. “It was scarier than I thought it would be,” she told me over the phone, back when we called each other on our landlines to discuss the best strategy to convince our moms to take us to PG-13 movies. I figured I was braver than Laura, and my mother kindly took me. At 9, I’m not sure how much of the plot I really absorbed; I was there for the magic. There are parts of the film that really merit its rating: intimations of sex magic, explicit domestic violence, a CGI ghost that, in the late ‘90s, was good enough to scare even the adults in the audience. I had nightmares about this last spectre for years, but even back then I knew this movie was great.
Directed by Griffin Dunne, Practical Magic is a very loose adaptation of a 1995 novel of the same name by Alice Hoffman. Out of love for the film, I read the book, and can’t recommend it as fervently as I recommend the movie. Practical Magic is a rare instance of a film adaptation surpassing the source material in every way; the aesthetics of the movie lend the story a depth that the novel never achieves. I like to imagine that Dunne’s lifelong friendship with the late, legendary wit, actress, writer, and script doctor Carrie Fisher influenced his strongly female-centric filmmaking choices, though I’ve found little evidence to support this.
The gifted ensemble helps make the film a timeless pleasure; there’s almost nothing particularly dated to find fault with even 20 years later. The peerless, sprawling cast is filled with nearly every (white, this movie is unforgivably white) character actress you could name, from Margo Martindale and Chloe Webb to child actresses Camilla Belle and Evan Rachel Wood. The middle-aged Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest chew the scenery in their supporting roles. Is there another movie that showcases such a wide range of aging women to watch for 104 minutes? I can’t think of one.
The film’s appeal is also in part thanks to the strength of the screenplay, which is intricately plotted and character-driven, with moments of inspired humor and more than a few well-earned jump scares. Practical Magic was adapted by three screenwriters known for converting beloved novels into successful films: Robin Swicord, Adam Brooks, and Akiva Goldsman (who won an Academy Award for his screenplay adaptation of A Beautiful Mind just three years later). The result is a skillfully imagined world just this side of magical realism, a thread of gritty realism folded into fluffier, more typical genre conventions of fantasy-horror and romantic comedy.
The scions of a matrilineal line of widowed witches descended from Maria, Sally and Gillian Owens are the focus of Practical Magic. Early on, we learn that after their father died from the curse and their mother died from a broken heart, they were sent as children to live with their spinster aunts Jet and Frances. The whole family is reviled and ostracized by the inhabitants of their town, left to their own devices in a sprawling white Victorian house that becomes a character unto itself over the course of the film. The children are teased, yes, but at night, the powerful aunts are sought after for their love spells. The town is filled with the same New England hypocrites who populate the likes of The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter and the mid-century novels of Shirley Jackson. Threatened by these independent women, the townsfolk fling derogatory chants at the elder and younger Owenses alike. “Witch, witch, you’re a bitch,” they scream, throwing rocks at the preteen Gillian and Sally.
The bullied girls grow up into Nicole Kidman (Gillian) and Sandra Bullock (Sally). Both actresses would go on to earn numerous Best Actress nominations and an Oscar each. The film demands a certain suspension of disbelief, but even the most benign or absurd line becomes wholly believable in the hands of such gifted actresses.
Sally just wants to be normal, she says, and her aunt Frances (Channing, in a role she was born to play) informs her in one of the movie’s most quotable lines, “‘Normal’ is not necessarily a virtue. It rather denotes a lack of courage.” Gillian, on the other hand, just wants to get away from their tiny, judgmental town, and runs away with a boyfriend as soon as she’s old enough. The moment when Sally almost stops her, confessing that she’s worried she’ll never see her sister again, is what always makes my sister and I choke up when we settle in for our annual viewing. Gillian slashes their palms with a pocket knife and swears they’ll stay close enough to die on the same day: “My blood. Your blood. Our blood,” Gillian chants, clasping their bleeding hands together. It is a certain kind of coming of age ritual, yes, but in the hands of the Owens sisters, it’s also a spell with lasting consequences for the film.
The premise of Practical Magic isn’t really comedic or particularly romantic, which is why it was always a little perplexing to find Practical Magic in the romantic comedies section of my neighborhood Blockbuster growing up (and today in the same genre category on streaming services). There are critiques to be made of the romantic comedy genre as a whole, not least of which is that often the existence of dual female protagonists is enough to define it as such, even when the movie in question—as with Practical Magic—is much more about the love between sisters than the romantically partnered kind.
The adult Gillian is a velvet-clad sex goddess, all vampy nails and waist-length hair, who flits from one relationship to another and seemingly doesn’t hold down a job. Sally, meanwhile, settles into domestic bliss with a local fruit vendor and two adorable daughters of her own. We’re never told which of the sisters is older, which allows us to identify with either the peripatetic flake Gillian or the staid, maternal Sally as the moment suits us.
The plot is richly tapestried to the point of becoming borderline convoluted, especially compared to what passes for a romantic comedy plot today. Sally is widowed and moves her family back in with the aunts, forbidding them from teaching her daughters magic. She blames the curse for her unhappiness, though her aunts are careful to remind her that the family power can be used for goodness as well as ill. Sally tries not to practice magic, but it still pours off of her, a suppressed power strengthened by strong emotions that will not be ignored. In a fit of grief, Sally magically calls Gillian to her through the scar on her palm from their teenage oath. Gillian shows up at the house and helps Sally through her mourning, telling her she has to do better than their mother did, and be present for her own young daughters. Then she’s gone, returning to a boyfriend that we quickly learn is physically, psychologically, and sexually abusive.
Magic seems to seep out of the Owens women most especially in times of distress. Sally’s elder daughter curses a bully with chicken pox, almost without meaning to. Sally’s tea stirs itself with a spoon as she writes her sister letters by moonlight. The Owens women share a gift for knowing who’s calling before picking up the landline. But their power can get out of their control, especially when they’re threatened by violent men.
One night, Gillian calls Sally to rescue her from the boyfriend, Jimmy (Goran Visnjic). Jimmy kidnaps both sisters at gunpoint, unaware that he’s messing with powerful witches. Gillian telepathically tells Sally that there is belladonna in her purse with which they can poison Jimmy’s tequila. The plan is to make him pass out so they can escape, but whether through human error or suppressed magic doing its work, they kill him instead.
This turn always reminds me of the Dixie Chicks song “Goodbye Earl,” in which fictional best friends Mary Anne and Wanda poison Wanda’s abusive husband Earl to death with tainted black-eyed peas. Certainly there’s a feeling of restorative justice in the self-defensiveness of these poisonings by abused women, magical or otherwise.
Jimmy comes back as a sort of spectral zombie who haunts the sisters and possesses Gillian, which is the closest the movie comes to connecting witchcraft with demons and devilry. Jimmy’s frightening form is partly explained, however, by the evilness of the abusive alcoholic he was in life, as much as it is the result of magic gone awry. In both life and death, Jimmy is out to kill Gillian in the name of loving her.
That toxicity, of Jimmy’s obsessive and abusive love, is contrasted by the sororal love between the Owens women. One of my favorite scenes is when these two different women clash and then revel in one another’s differences: Gillian, in a crop top exposing a hip tattoo, crashes Sally’s PTA meeting, laughing at the dowdy crowd, asking, “Is this for real?” At first, the modestly clad Sally is embarrassed, and asks Gillian to be less herself, but when the whispers become unkind to her sister, Sally telekinetically snaps a binder closed on a gossip’s finger in retaliation. Gillian, in turn, uses her magic to cheat Sally to the top of PTA’s “phone tree,” a gift to her sister as much as it is a critique of the popularity contest. What woman hasn’t critiqued her sister, only to defend her once a stranger encroaches on their dynamic? Only Sally is allowed to criticize Gillian, she seems to be saying. When it comes to loyalty, the Owens women will always look out for one another, with the strength of their shared powers behind them.
Their sisterly bond eventually impacts the rest of the women in the town. At the end of the film, those women who have long ostracized the Owens family come together to break the spell Jimmy has on Gillian. The townswomen’s fear of the sisters gives way to fascination: the rumors were true, they really are witches. One of Sally’s coworkers exclaims: “Sally just came out!” This is when Dianne Wiest (as Aunt Jet) utters the line that you can still find on Etsy mugs and ubiquitously quoted on Pinterest: “There’s a little witch in all of us,” she tells the gathered women as they form a circle. As Gillian writhes, Jimmy’s spirit “crouching in her like a toad,” Sally re-opens the scars on their palms and clasps their hands together. “My blood, your blood, our blood,” she chants, and her sister is saved. The power of the gathered women is real and necessary, but it is ultimately the blood between Sally and Gillian that saves the latter’s life.
At some point in our teens, Practical Magic came to represent something deep between me and my sister. We’d check it out from the video store, and later it became one of a very few DVDs I purchased for the family library (the audio commentary is exceptional). One year, my mother and I slyly suggested a screening of the film, and timed it so that a scene in which the Owens women make “midnight margaritas” coincided with midnight on my sister’s 21st birthday. My mother surprised her with margaritas to celebrate as we watched.
The truth is, for as many cinematic sisters as there may be on screen, few if any come close to the lived reality of the sibling experience Hannah and I have shared. Practical Magic is finest in the moments it elevates the raucous comedies and petty dramas of siblinghood to the heightened life and death stakes of witches in peril. Sally and Gillian are sisters first and witches second; women who fight in childhood and adulthood, who name each other’s flaws as easily as they provoke each other’s jealousies. I always pointed out to my sister, who wanted to reenact the blood oath scene, that it’s nonsense for biological sisters. “We already share the same blood,” I would point out. “It’s not the same thing,” Hannah said, wanting (I’m sure) the magic bond shared through the scar in the film.
In later adulthood, we’ve reached a compromise and are memorializing our love for each other and Practical Magic in a different kind of blood oath: matching tattoos of the belladonna plant.