Practical Magic and the Enduring Power of Sisterhood

There is perhaps no greater supernatural creature than the witch. Witches represent a niche community in the wider magical universe. There’s something radical about the exclusion of men from the transition and teaching of their powers; something personal about the history of persecution that ties directly into the discrimination of women today. Witches have populated our screens for a while now with shows like Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Witches of East End as well as movies like Hocus Pocus and The Craft. Maybe, unsurprisingly, in a world where sisters are often portrayed as polar opposites who hate each other, the witch sisters in these shows and movies seem much closer to my experience of sisterhood. There is a reason, after all, that sisters appear so frequently in stories about witches. The cosmic connection witches thrive on, the one that brings them together in covens and ties their magical powers together, is the same connection that sisters are -- willingly or unwillingly -- bound by. There is no movie that demonstrates this better than Practical Magic, a 1998 classic filled with long skirts and fall magic and just the perfect amount of whimsy.

The movie centres around a pair of witch sisters, the serious and careful Sally (Sandra Bullock) and carefree and spirited Gillian (Nicole Kidman) Owens, who accidentally kill Gillian’s abusive boyfriend and go back to their hometown to try and fix the mess they’ve made. The Owens sisters are not the first to have magical powers in their family; in the opening scene, we learn that Owens women have been persecuted for being witches since the olden days of witch-burning. A curse one of the Owens ancestors put on herself neatly eliminates any men from the Owens women’s lives--any men they fall in love with are doomed to die. Three sets of sisters populate this movie; Sally and Gillian’s maternal aunts, who raised them after their parents died, Sally and Gillian themselves and Sally’s two children (whose father died due to the Owens curse). All six of them, with varying degrees of interest in the craft, are witches.

Early on in the film, we see Gillian and Sally do a blood oath before Gillian leaves with the first of many men she is infatuated with. When Sally’s husband dies, Gillian senses it from across the world and goes back to be with her. When Gillian is in danger because of her abusive boyfriend, Sally knows it’s her on the other end of the ringing phone before she picks up because she hears Gillian’s voice calling out to her.  

But I’m not so sure this is magic alone. When I first watched this movie and saw the scene where Gillian and Sally do the blood oath, it was the dialogue before it that captivated me more than the slicing of hands. “Of course we’re going to see each other again . . . we’re going to grow old together!” Gillian reassures Sally when Sally worries about Gillian leaving her. This is a conversation I have had with my sisters a dozen times already, usually late at night when we’re imagining our futures, which are scary and massive but a little bit less scary and massive when you know your sisters will be there too. There is no feeling warmer and sweeter than the promise of a constant when everything else is changing, and that constant has always been my sisters and the guarantee of their love.

The blood oath we see in the film is a gratuitous addition for the sake of viewers who don’t have sisters, because for anyone who does, they know the promise that you’ll return to your sisters is there every time you leave. With every t-shirt I’ve lent my sisters, every story I’ve promised to tell once they get back home, every plea for a souvenir before one of them goes off traveling somewhere, I’ve done a blood oath. The little pieces of ourselves we leave with each other and see in each other are more binding than blood could ever be. Sisters are planets in orbit, pulling into and away from each other constantly, held together by a force bigger than themselves--a force that sometimes feels a little bit like magic.

In the climax of the film, Sally asks women from the neighbourhood to bring their brooms and create a circle around Gillian, who has been possessed by her boyfriend’s spirit, to exorcise the demon from her. Sally then cuts both their palms again for another blood oath and, as she holds onto Gillian in a tight hug, her boyfriend is banished from her body. As he goes, scenes of Sally and Gillian together from the past flash on the screen.

The blood oath that bound them as sisters and witches is what saves Gillian, freeing her from her boyfriend’s spirit and freeing all the Owens from the curse. It is the sisterly love between Sally and Gillian that is vital to the story, and so powerful that it connects them across oceans and saves Gillian from supernatural possession.

If Sally and Gillian weren’t witches, I have a feeling this movie could have still been successful. After all, you don’t need magic to connect women irreversibly in powerful and life-changing ways. You just need sisterhood. But I guess the magic doesn’t hurt.