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On Oct. 25, New York magazine’s online entertainment outlet, Vulture, surprised broadcast industry watchers when it revealed that CBS is developing a remake of Charmed, the supernatural soap opera that aired on the WB from 1998 to 2006. Why would CBS, at the top of the ratings heap for the last few years, be interested in developing an only recently canceled, B-rate melodrama that originated on a second-tier, now-defunct network? Simple, the storyline involves witches.
Forget the usual legal dramas and police procedurals, horror-themed programming—specifically sorcery-themed programming—has suddenly grown so ubiquitous, media outlets from The New York Daily News to the U.K.’s Guardian have declared the 2013-2014 television season the season of the witch. Tying the upsurge of witchy shows into an overall gothic trend that includes NBC’s Grimm, ABC’s Once Upon a Time franchise, and AMC’s The Walking Dead, the Hollywood Reporter noted, “Horror, once a niche domain, is flourishing in film and television. [It] never has played as broadly (and as profitably) as it does today.”
This is particularly clear when one considers the enchantresses gracing small screens this fall who are far more explicit in their occult origins than their cheery predecessors like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Samantha from Bewitched. Fox’s Sleepy Hollow (the only new series so far this season to receive a second order) leads the pack of new shows and offers the broadest evidence of the rising appeal of dark forces. Among the mishmash of liberties the show takes with Washington Irving’s classic tale, the most outlandish is the inclusion of a coven of “good” witches whose spirits make regular contact with the living, offering vague references to the horned beast of Revelation as well as other out-of-context bits of the New Testament.
From a popularity standpoint, Sleepy Hollow’s closest rival has to be American Horror Story: Coven on FX. Though the series, which stars Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett, was already infamous for heavy doses of explicit sex and violence, as well as a strong anti-Christian bent, it didn’t become a ratings winner until its current third outing, when producers added a bonus ingredient of witchcraft.
Coven has already outperformed the show’s first and second seasons by 90 percent and 41 percent, respectively, and its first two episodes scored in the top three most-viewed telecasts in the network’s history with numbers topping even the major networks among women aged 18-34. This particular result, said creator Ryan Murphy, who also brought audiences Fox’s Glee, was an intentional aim on the part of producers. “This season is designed to be a little more fun, and specifically to invite women to the party,” he recently explained. Among the elements young women are apparently finding fun? Bestiality, incest, and bathing in human blood.
Murphy isn’t the only one betting that witches will appeal to female audiences. Lifetime, the cable channel specifically targeted at women, is promoting Witches of East End, the story of a family of sorceresses who divine the future and work resurrection spells on the dead and fertility charms on the barren, as the linchpin of its fall season. Based on the novel by best-selling Young Adult author Melissa de la Cruz, the show represents quite a change of direction for a network whose previously best-known series were Army Wives and Drop Dead Diva, a show about a plus-sized lawyer.
And the witch parade doesn’t end there. The CW is offering The Originals, a spinoff from The Vampire Diaries that features a coven of witches who join forces with werewolves. One network, WGN America, is even depending on the sorcery to make its first foray into the scripted arena a success. It is currently producing Salem, a show about witches in 17th-century Massachusetts.
Given the rising demand for occult-themed shows, it’s hard to blame CBS—the home of hits like NCIS, Person of Interest, and Bluebloods—if they’re suddenly scrambling to find their own entry into the field. It may reveal nothing more about the Tiffany network than a desire to compete. The question is, what does it reveal about American TV viewers?