The Final Girls Club is a column publishing every 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.
Everyone’s first time watching The Craft was at a sleepover right?
Friendships were both formed and broken during sleepovers, a sacred space where teenagers enjoyed fleeting moments of independence and shared formative experiences together. And to my mind nothing is more formative for a young wannabe teen goth than the collective experience of watching The Craft for the first time.
Amongst late night viewings of The Craft, my friends and I also stayed up late watching films like Scream, Clueless, I Know What You Did Last Summer and 10 Things I Hate About You. By the time we watched The Craft in the early 2000s, the film already was gaining cult status in the bedrooms of other like-minded misfits. Today the teen-witch film is fondly revered as a stand out hit within the 90s horror canon.
The Craft follows the typical coming of age story: a young, mysterious girl moves to a new neighbourhood, falls in with the wrong crowd at high school and eventually finds herself following a series of life-altering events. In contrast to The Craft’s teen movie contemporaries, the world of the teenage girl was represented with sobering realism; highlighting issues of bullying, racism, sexual assault, suicide, self harm, domestic abuse and body image issues. Thanks to the film’s frankness, female-fronted cast and iconic visuals that encapsulated the 90s alternative scene, The Craft’s legacy continues to grow to this day.
Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) quickly makes friends with a group of misfit girls who are rumoured to be practicing witches: Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie Harper (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle Zimmerman (Rachel True). It turns out the girls had been waiting for a fourth member to complete their coven; the addition of Sarah unlocks their powers which amplify from simplistic glamour charms to fatal love spells. Facing their own troubles, the girls begin to use their powers to solve their problems but as stated within Wicca, things begin to come back to them with the power of three. As Nancy, the group’s unhinged leader begins to unravel, her power intensifies and the relationship within the coven quickly becomes dangerous.
Nancy’s volatile behaviour and manipulative control she orchestrates over the group is viscerally extreme and uncomfortable to watch. The fear felt by Sarah, Rochelle and Bonnie in upsetting the hierarchy of their friendship group is palpable. Looking back on the film back today, I can still feel that gut wrenching pain from teenage friendships gone sour. The Craft realistically displayed the twisted power plays often found in young teenage girls’ friendships groups making the film incredibly relatable to watch growing up. The pre-defined dynamics between Bonnie, Rochelle and Nancy are all too familiar during adolescent friendships, especially coming into the circle as an outsider like Sarah.
Amidst the darkness, The Craft celebrates the joy of blossoming female friendships and its complexities, of the close-knit support units young teenagers can build during difficult times. The film’s most tender scenes take place during sleepovers as the girls bond over boy-troubles, junk food and glamour spells. In a rare moment of vulnerability and empathy, Nancy appears visibly moved by Bonnie’s pain as she chants alongside her sisters during a healing spell. During these sleepovers the girls find unity and it is here where the girls discover their strength both within and together. Then things crumble as they so often do in teenage friendships.
Fashion plays a huge part in the current appreciation of The Craft especially with the current revival of teen occult shows such as Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Costume designer Deborah Everton was determined to find clothing that was accessible to the film’s audience, with the designer explaining these girls were very much placed within the ‘real world’. Everton’s relatable costumes now act as a sartorial time-capsule for the archetype Nineties goth, their place within sub-cultural style forever affiliated with the era. Creating the girl’s own unique identity within boundaries of their strict school-uniform particularly resonated with me. Everton subverted traditionally conservation aspects of the uniform and subverted them to reflect the girls own alternative personal styles. Something every awkward alternative kid could relate to — the struggle between conforming and expressing your identity within stifling environments.
Each character has their own unique look. Sarah’s style ranges from girl next door newcomer to beret wearing bohemian following her initiation into the coven. Early in the film her struggles with her mental health are addressed through her dishevelled appearance and we see Sarah’s style develop into Californian hippie, looking more like her mother as the film develops. Bonnie’s wardrobe and body language is relatable to many young people struggling with body issues. She is plagued with self loathing from childhood scar tissue and she hides behind unkempt hair, oversized clothing and opaque tights, even under the blistering Californian sun. Rochelle is one of the more fashionably dressed witches with her effortless blend of boho, preppy and burnout styling. I vividly recall attaching braces to my school skirt in a homage to her school uniform but sorely failed, instead looking more Urkel in the process.
Nancy’s clothes are by far the most extreme with berry stained lips, layers of religious iconography jewellery and trailing black gowns. Her blend of trashy PVC trench coat, dog collar and a perfect blend of Robert Smith, Vampira and Poison Ivy of The Cramps (all that PVC!). Her Victorian style lace up heeled boots act as a visual signifier to the historical outfits associated with witches, expressing perhaps a deeper rooted appreciation into the occult than her peers. As the leader Nancy visibly stands out from the girls and just like the others, Nancy’s look is transformed when her powers are developed. She badly wanted to escape her ‘Trailer Trash’ past and after the orchestrated death of her step dad and unexpected inheritance, Nancy’s wardrobe reflects her newly found wealth with her wardrobe appearing slightly more sophisticated with Gothic co-ordinates and bespoke grunge dresses. Out of the classroom, the girls’ outfits are grungy, bohemian and New Age, except for Nancy who pushes her Gothic look even further with even more black leather, fishnet and PVC.
Looking back at the film nearly 25 years on it is interesting to note the recent upsurge in Wicca and New Age religious beliefs, particularly with young women. Wicca represents a progressive, feminist religious system that many women are now turning to, rooted in nature and self-empowerment through community and friendships. Dr. Dawn Llewellyn suggests this surge of interest in witchcraft is a mixture of the “blend of empowerment with concern for the environment, acting justly, not doing harm to others, and a liberal approach to LGBTQI issues.” Many young people are now implementing traditional Wiccan practices such as spell-casting & seasonal rituals into their day to day much like the girls within the film. Just like Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle, I attended a religious high school, Roman Catholic to be exact. Regardless of what your Religious Studies teacher told you, The Craft showed you there was a choice, that you did not have to follow in line to your family’s beliefs — that was incredibly powerful to see.
Unlike other Nineties teen flicks, The Craft does not shy away from addressing true horrors that young women often face growing up. Along with representations of rape culture and misogyny, The Craft also portrays the racism faced by young Black women through the character of Rochelle Zimmermann (Rachel True). Ultimately, Rochelle uses the coven’s magic powers to seek revenge on her racist bully Laura Lizzie (Christina Taylor) resulting in her losing her hair. Rochelle does feel like a more developed character in comparison to the genre’s problematic ‘Black best friend’ trope but we still do not get to know more about her backstory, her family for example are not represented in the film unlike the other three girls. This trope is excellently dissected in Shudder’s Horror Noire documentary (available now on Shudder – watch it).
Over the years, Rachel True has been speaking up about her exclusion within the film’s legacy over the years, most recently with a Twitter call out in June 2020 to American television network Showtime who blatantly un-credited the actress from the film’s listing. This has happened countless times and as the actor explains, she has faced years of blatant acts of racism — both micro and macro aggressions— throughout the film industry. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, to learn that True suffered racism within the project as early on during the film’s press junkets and has existed through her career, including recent conventions who were reuniting the three white actors and repeatedly excluding True. Rochelle gave Black girls a representation of themselves on screen — a rarity within the genre. The Craft’s success hinges on the four girls —all four actors— the erasure of Rochelle is wrong and commits a major disservice to the film but more importantly Black representation within horror.
The darkness within The Craft is by far more insidious than that of a masked slasher. We must note that the struggles faced by these teenage girls back in 1996 were not initially placed within the realm of the occult. It was the mental health struggles, racist bullies, body issues and sexual assault that united these four girls together. These struggles have not changed but The Craft shows the power of self-belief, elevated through female friendship.
by Casci Ritchie
Casci (she/her) is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Beetlejuice, Double Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter & her blog www.casciritchie.com.
Categories: The Final Girls Club