Only undeceived individuals might be able to tell a witch from an ordinary woman, for their most dangerous power is the sophisticated art of deception. “Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women; they live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs” (Roeg 1990, minute 2:25), Helga Eveshim warns her grandson in the opening scene of Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 released movie The Witches. Set in a world where witches are in fact real and secretly seek to accomplish their mission to rid the world of children, the film tells the story of Luke, who accidentally discovers a witch convention while he is on vacation with his grandmother and has to stop all of England’s evil witches even though he gets turned into a mouse. Helga divulges specifically distinctive characteristics which might give away a witch’s true identity. She knows everything about these creatures and even lost a finger to an encounter with a witch when she was a child.
Real witches have no ordinary feet, as these have square ends and “revolting stumps where their toes should be” (Roeg 1990, minute 5:35), forcing them to wear a specific, most plain footwear. Furthermore, a purple glimmering tinge in their eyes or a nasty scalp rash from steadily scratching their bold heads underneath itching wigs might be indicators that the woman in question is not of an ordinary kind.
Luring children with exotic animals or candy bars and chocolate, those evil creatures spend their whole existence stalking and hunting children. Striving for a childless world, their elementary and insatiable hatred of children nurtures their radical endeavor to eliminate all children worldwide.
Supported by the uncanny framework of witches’ sheer existence, their actual nature and true agenda, Helga tells her grandson the story of a girl she grew up with. One day, her father sent Erika across town to get a can of milk. The girl disappeared during this short trip and was never found again. Six weeks after Erika vanished, her image mysteriously appeared in a painting by her father himself. Not only was she suddenly visible in the painting, she also changed her position within it, as she, for instance, was feeding geese one day or looking out of the painted house’s window another day. Throughout the years and in shifting positions, Erika’s image grew older until one day she vanished from the painting completely. The film’s overall dark and horrifying tone benefits greatly from this storyline.
Although the film mentions that children formerly had been abducted or simply disappeared, just like Erika, witches do not plainly kill them. The revolutionary strategy to complete their secret agenda lies within a particular potion, called “Formula 86”, and, invented by the Grand High Witch herself, that turns children into mice. This formula shall serve to initially eliminate all of England’s and, afterwards, all children worldwide. This morphing appears to be necessary as it blurs the strict line between human and animal, thus the borders of civilization and wilderness. By crossing these limitations, the mere act of killing becomes far more tolerable, because the killing of rodents is easier, due to their size and vulnerability, and it is culturally by far more tolerable than the extermination of children.
While Luke secretly observes the convention in a hotel conference room, he learns all about the cruel plan and also witnesses a demonstration of the formula’s effect as another boy, called Bruno Jenkins, gets transformed into a mouse after he had ingested potion-tinctured chocolate. The conference attendees laugh exuberantly and applaud excitedly as the grotesque transformation occurs. They hysterically watch as Bruno starts to quiver and shake while his mouth emits bilious green smoke, his ears grow bigger and rounder and his body begins to shrink until he finally becomes a mouse.
The transformation from child to mouse symbolizes the border crossing of the human – animal distinction, of the culture – nature differentiation and, simultaneously, the dichotomy of civilization and wilderness (Paul Wells 19). Here, children represent the constructed concept where human generally symbolizes culture, which serves “as a model of apparently civilized social order” (ibid.). Here, culture functions as the exact opposite concept to what is perceived as nature.
On the contrary, mice portray the animal, which, in this construction, depict nature, wilderness and otherness. These contrary and mutually dependent concepts define themselves as well as each other. Culture determines what nature is and vice versa. These contradicting opposites are crucial to maintain a concept of fundamental differences between notions of human and animal, and thus of culture and nature on a more extensive level. The cinematic depictions of these constructions support the substantial notion of culture’s fundamental superiority over nature.
Interestingly, transmuted children maintain their spirit within a mouse’s body. A clear distinction between ordinary pet mice and metamorphosed mice is drawn, for Luke and Bruno, after being turned into mice themselves, meet Luke’s pet mice shortly after they escaped the witches and they are not able to communicate with each other. Despite Luke’s attempts to talk to his former pet mice, they stay silent and do not respond to him. William and Mary remain pet mice whereas Luke and Bruno remain humans trapped in an animalistic appearance. The film illustrates Luke’s and Bruno’s inevitable anthropomorphism rather than an anthropomorphic characteristics of animals in general. Since the only change appears to be on an external level, the transformation does not cross the human – animal border entirely. Transformed mice are able to communicate with humans, they consistently talk, think and act like they had before and maintain individual characteristics or behavior. Apparently, the sole converting of exterior appearance makes the act of killing, as one of the most essential prohibitions in most societies, tolerable and functions as the pivotal barrier between concepts of civilized culture and uncivilized nature. Thus, crossing the border from one species to the other, which is achieved through altering the physical appearance, seems to be sufficient enough to justify murder.
Mice carry an ambiguous significance in the movie. On the one hand, they represent borders and limitations of the nature – culture dichotomy, on the other hand, however, they also symbolize generational differences. All adult characters in the film, with the slight exception of Helga, dislike mice. Some even show disgust or aversion towards them. Children, by contrast, like them and the protagonist himself keeps mice as pets, which he has trained to perform circus-like tricks.
Presumably, Luke’s pet mice, William and Mary, are introduced to foreshadow future events, to create a positive association towards mice and to depict them as lovable, talented rodents. However, the film generally depicts rodents as vermin, connected to poor hygiene. An alleged rat plague, for instance, forces the hotel to extensively install rat traps. These also function as obstacles Luke and Bruno have to overcome later on. Nevertheless, the associated disgust towards mice eventually functions to provide a happy ending of the film.
Since Luke’s plan eventually works out and he lures the witches into unknowingly ingesting Formula 86, they all turn into mice themselves, causing a messy chaos in the hotel restaurant where they get either trapped, stamped on or instantly killed otherwise.
Accordingly, also the film’s villains need to be transformed into something wild and inhumane in order to make their elimination not only easier or possible at all, but also tolerable.
It appears to be more bearable to kill a bunch of mice (wild animals) than it is to kill evil, children-hunting witches. Although, it is also necessary to mention that this might have rather simplistic reasons. The film’s keynote portrays mice, and therefore animals altogether, as acceptable and compassion-worthy only when they are tamed, caged and moderately more civilized than free-living mice.
After all of England’s witches had been successfully destroyed, Luke and Helga get hold of the Grand High Witch’s former address register, money and doses of Formula 86. The money was intended to help England’s witches to deceive and lure children; the address register contains information of all globally existing witches. These tools are supposed to support Luke and his grandmother on their further endeavor to rid the world of all remaining evil witches.
In the end, the Grand High Witch’s former secretary, who quit her job early enough to escape the destiny awaiting all of England’s evil witches, visits Luke one night and mercifully breaks the spell on him by restoring his former physical appearance and turning him into the boy he used to be. She even returns his previously lost pet mice William and Mary. Finally, the universal order is reestablished where mice are mice and humans are humans.
Adams, Carol J. and Josephine Donovan. Animals and Women. Feminist Theoretical Explorations. London: Duke University Press, 1995.
Nagy, Kelsi and Phillip David Johnson II. Trash Animals. How we live with nature’s filthy, feral, invasive, and unwanted species. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
The Witches. Nicolas Roeg. Warner Bros. 1989. DVD.
Wells, Paul. The Animated Bestiary. Animals, Cartoons, and Culture. London: Rutgers University Press, 2009. Print.