Written by Ruthie Weller-Passman
How far can a vengeful wish reach? In Griffin Dunne’s film Practical Magic (1998), revenge can be carried on beyond the grave itself. This manifests itself in two distinct manners that are intertwined by the end of the film: in a family curse, and in the ghost of a murdered boyfriend who haunts the film’s main characters.
The protagonist of the film, Sally Owens, comes from a long line of witches who are able to practice magic that is unquestionably real and powerful. The first of these witches, Maria, was banished to a remote island for practicing magic. She was pregnant and believed that her lover would join her in banishment, but he abandoned her. Furious and heartbroken, Maria cast a spell to ensure that she “would never again feel the agony of love.” But this wish grew into a curse which has been passed from generation to generation in her family: no man may fall in love with an Owens woman without suffering an untimely death. Although Maria’s spell was not explicitly intended for revenge, the film explains that it was her bitterness that caused the spell to become a curse. And so it is not only her descendants but their innocent lovers who must pay the price, succumbing to a curse meant to punish a man who never had the opportunity to suffer its effects.
The other clear manifestation of revenge and haunting in Practical Magic is the storyline involving Sally’s sister Jillian. Early in the film Jillian is kidnapped by an abusive boyfriend named Jimmy, and Sally accidentally kills him while trying to rescue her sister. Fearing legal backlash, the sisters attempt to raise Jimmy from the dead, but he immediately attacks Jillian again and must be killed a second time. From this point forward, Jimmy’s spirit begins to haunt the sisters—first in subtle ways such as causing a rose bush to grow where they buried him, then more and more overtly until he actually possesses Jillian and threatens to abduct her spirit into the afterlife with him. Jimmy’s already-violent nature has manifested beyond the grave, and though he does not hesitate to provoke others in his path (including Sally and the officer who has been dispatched to investigate Jimmy’s death) his focus is clearly on Jillian. His aim is to continue to victimize and torment his once-girlfriend, with or without the benefit of a corporeal body.
Ultimately, the film challenges the notion that magic or witchcraft is inherently evil—like any other human ability, it is only evil when used with bad intentions. Maria’s curse was cast out of bitterness, which is what transformed it into a curse. Bringing Jimmy back from the dead is a use of magic that Sally’s aunts describe as “dark and unnatural,” which may be the reason that he is able to live on as a ghost. But magic is also celebrated as something natural, beautiful, and useful: common misconceptions of the real-world Wiccan faith are referenced and challenged in the film. Wicca is often misconstrued as devil worship, but Sally is quick to correct this accusation: “There is no devil in the craft,” she informs the officer who is investigating Jimmy’s death. The film also makes a statement about people (particularly women) embracing their inner power and refusing to be victimized or marginalized by societal norms. Sally spends a large portion of the film trying to hide her powers and maintain a “normal” life. It isn’t until she embraces her gifts that she is able to use them to save her sister from Jimmy’s vengeful ghost. And it is the shared work of a large group of women—many of whom do not consider themselves “witches”—that is able to simultaneously seal Jimmy’s soul back into the grave and lift Maria’s curse so that the Owens women can pursue healthy, long-term relationships without fear.
Here magic can be interpreted as a metaphor for female power and strength, and the film’s suggestion that it be used “practically” might indicate that women should embrace their inner strength on a daily basis. In a world such as the one presented in Practical Magic, you never know when you might need that inner strength (or magic) to exorcise a vengeful spirit or a family curse.
Practical Magic. Dir. Griffin Dunne. Perf. Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing, Dianne Wiest, Goran Visnjic, and Aidan Quinn. Warner Bros., 1998. Film.