The Woman Behind ‘Practical Magic’ on Why It Still Speaks to Those of Us Who Feel Cursed

Alice Hoffman, who wrote the story in the mid-'90s, discusses how the cult classic took witches, heartbreak, and chosen sisterhood seriously.

The Woman Behind ‘Practical Magic’ on Why It Still Speaks to Those of Us Who Feel Cursed
Photo:Warner Bros. Studio (Getty Images)

Practical Magic was always supposed to be a cult classic. Sure, four celebrated—if not critically acclaimed—actors helmed the cast, the director happened to be the nephew of Joan Didion, and the studio bestowed upon it, by nineties standards, a sizable budget. Upon its October 1998 release, however, an overwhelming number of critics were flush with shortcomings. To put it in 2022 terms: One could read kinder reviews of Don’t Worry Darling.

The Los Angeles Times likened it to “a sitcom with the air let out of it.” CNN called it “not particularly good,” and the New Yorker declared itself unable to decide whether it was “a horror show, a cute comedy, or a soap opera.” Yet, to the woman who wrote the 1995 novel from which Practical Magic was adapted, Alice Hoffman, the film was without fault. Not because she wrote its source material, but because her kind of magic wasn’t made for the mainstream. The chronicles of the cursed Owens women were meant for people like her—someone who had long found herself looking for purchase in places she felt she didn’t belong, and discovering it in narratives that envisaged the pale between the painfully real and the profoundly magical. Witches, she recalled via phone call with Jezebel, weren’t just her preferred protagonists. They were personal deities.

Photo:Warner Bros. (Getty Images)

“For me—as I think it is for a lot of women and girls—I felt that they were figures that had power, and I felt very powerless,” she said. “It was just very exciting and thrilling to think of a witch who didn’t care if she was portrayed as ugly—which of course, I felt like I was—or not beautiful enough or whatever, but still had power and didn’t need to be rescued.”

Of course, Hoffman’s witches aren’t just powerful; in the film, they also happen to be very hot. Practical Magic follows sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), two Owens witches in a long, beleaguered line beginning with ancestral matriarch Maria Owens. After an affair with storied Salem witch-hunter John Hathorne, Maria put a curse upon herself and her bloodline to ensure whomever falls in love with an Owens woman meets an untimely demise. Inevitably, the curse gives way to loneliness, heartbreak, and, of course, tragic death, though it was meant to safeguard Maria’s successors from such pain. It’s an obvious metaphor for the real-life generational curses that wreak havoc on women’s lives, and all of the ways one foolishly attempts to protect themselves from inheriting them. Gillian dives headlong into affair after affair, even if it means she’ll get a little…possessed. For Sally, surrendering oneself to the agony of love is an ancestral error she’d rather further hex herself against.

“I think we do that when we’re hurt and we have trauma,” Hoffman explained of such self-preservation. “We do something that’s set up to protect us, but really, it cuts us off from certain parts of our lives that are actually enriching.” This, too, was personal to her. Hoffman alluded to deciding not to have children years earlier: “You make certain decisions without really knowing the whole story when you’re young.”

It’s an obvious metaphor for the real-life generational curses that wreak havoc on women’s lives, and all of the ways one foolishly attempts to protect themselves from inheriting them.

If all of this sounds a little more involved than Hollywood’s typically hackneyed take on witches (Hocus Pocus, anyone?), you’d be right to think so. Due largely in part to rich characterization and expertly concocted fantastical realism, Practical Magic is to be taken a bit more seriously. As bookish Sally and bodacious Gillian grow from little girls into women, they find they have little trouble bewitching men in Hoffman’s world, where even the mundane allows for a little magic. Chocolate cake is to be bolted down for breakfast, and margaritas should be made at midnight (a beloved detail that was written specifically for the film by a team comprised of three-quarters men). When one of Gillian’s dalliances becomes dangerous, the Owens’ women are given no choice but to attempt to overcome the curse with help from their aunts, Frances and Jet (the inimitable Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest), and local townswomen. In short, Sally and Gillian accidentally kill Gillian’s abusive boyfriend in an act of self-defense and are not only plagued by his malevolent spirit, but also a police investigation. But the sisters don’t go to prison for murder, and the detective actually turns out to be a good guy—Sally’s one true love, in fact. How’s that for fantasy!

It’s not lost on Hoffman that, nearly 25 years later, her story is counted as one of the most beloved Halloween movies among women. Come September, social media is flooded by Practical Magic memes, quotes, and costume recreations. Each October, the little town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island (located just north of Seattle), where the film was shot, welcomes super fans for an anniversary celebration. Hoffman suspects the fact that each deliciously layered protagonist—Sally, Gillian, Frances, and Jet—represents women in varying phases of life has something to do with its enduring appeal.

Photo:Warner Bros. (Getty Images)

“I think a lot of times, people think, ‘I’m like Sally’ or ‘I’m like Gillian,’ but then they as they get older, things change,” Hoffman said. “We contain so many different characteristics within ourselves that you can be Gillian when you’re 18, and then when you’re 30, you’re like Sally, and then you become like Franny. It’s kind of like the different stages of being a woman, just all within the same family.”

Perhaps even more important, it’s a story about women who choose to break from generations of persecution oft perpetuated by women. Throughout Practical Magic, local women privately seek the counsel of the Owens witches, despite publicly denouncing them. It’s apparent that Sally and Gillian aren’t just reviled because they’re witches, but because they’re damn cool, too. Reformation rakes in millions selling the kind of sartorial statements the Owens women make appear effortless. The baby tees! The ultra-slim sunglasses! The slinky midi dresses! They’re the kind of sexy that pisses the PTA off and prompts the town’s soccer moms to clutch a little tighter to their cardigans (and their husbands). And yet, in the end, when the Owens women are forced to call on them for collective power, not a one disbelieves their pain. Each townswoman shows up, broom in hand, to the Owens’ fittingly cool home (a shell built on a Warner Bros. backlot, much to the chagrin of deep-pocketed admirers). The Owens curse is broken not just by the bond of blood sisters, but by the solidarity of chosen sisterhood.

For some, it might’ve been a twee conclusion to a mostly twee story, but to fans, it feels like the correct cap to an inherently feminist fable—as fitting as Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” paired to Sally’s leap into the arms of her first love, or Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” playing during Gillian’s drive home to help heal her sister’s heartache. With every viewing, it becomes all the more clear that even if Hoffman’s story couldn’t quite charm nineties-era critics, it casts a certain spell on anyone who’s ever felt themselves sufficiently cursed.

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