This year at NYCC, I attended a panel called Pop Culture Witches. It covered specific magical/witch characters throughout movies, TV, comics, books, etc. and the panelists were a delightful group of people who have either created these witches, are in the process of creating new ones, or themselves identify as witches. They talked about the significance of the role of “the witch” as an outsider, an uppity woman, a persecuted but powerful figure, and these days what marginalized person can’t identity with that?
One of the audience questions was “Who was your gateway witch?” and I sat in the back audience gleefully recalling what my answer would be: Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch. As the panelists wet down the line, they finally got to Valorie Curry, actress, activist, and practicing witch, and she said the words I was waiting to hear.
“Well, I have to go way back for a different Fairuza Balk moment.” I knew what she was going to say, and it wasn’t The Craft, which I also love, so that would’ve been acceptable. I started clapping and squealing from the back of the room as she said it. “Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch”. I let out a big ‘Woo Hoo!’ After the panel, I went up to her to talk a bit about our love for a poor quality, made for TV movie. Something about it had made an impact on us as children, and it wasn’t just Tim Curry singing the greatest Halloween song ever writer, but we’ll get to that.
I don’t remember when I first saw The Worst Witch, but it was produced in 1986 and aired in the US on HBO. I know we taped it off the TV at some point and I wore that VHS tape out. I dreamt of attending Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. That was my Hogwarts. Poor Mildred Hubble was a total misfit in everything she does, including magic. She’s shy, she’s awkward and clumsy, and she’s disorganized. When everyone else’s laughing potion turns pink, hers turns green, and instead of laughing, she becomes invisible. When all the girls are given their little black kittens, by the time they get to Mildred they’ve run out, so she gets the only tabby, and gives it the super original name of Tabby. After a disastrous flying display for The Grand Wizard (Time Curry), she’s so embarrassed that she runs away from school.
Here’s the thing about Mildred though. Despite all this, she’s incredibly brave and honest. She never lies about the mistakes she’s made. She learns from them. When she catches the most popular girl in school cheating at a game, she calls her out on it. Of course the girl gets her revenge by hexing Mildred’s broom and causing the flying accident, but knowing there’d be repercussions she still told the truth. After she runs away, she happens upon Miss Cackle’s evil twin sister (of course) and the other bad witches who are plotting to take over the school. She’s terrified, she’s never gotten a spell right yet, but she stands up to them and turns them into snails. Knowing she has to warn the others, and also the fact that she lacks the skill to turn them back, she returns the school that just made a fool of her because it’s the right thing to do. She’s rewarded with praise and a special flight with The Grand Wizard, and who wouldn’t want that?
As the opening song’s lyrics say, “Growing up isn’t easy.” We all feel small, weird, and powerless sometimes. I still often feel this way as an adult, to be honest. Why can’t I just have a black kitten, like everyone else? (Metaphorically speaking, of course. I currently have two black cats.) But I’m not like everyone else. I knew that at age 5, and I’m still discovering new things about myself at age 37. And guess what? They’re still scary. The world is scary, but maybe that’s why witches are making such a comeback. We, the persecuted but powerful, can stand shaking in our boots with the laces untied and still muster the strength to do what’s right. It’s what Mildred Hubble would do!
Now then… Has anybody seen my tambourine?