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Witchcraft becomes the hot story in Hollywood

”Practical Magic,” ”Charmed,” and ”Sabrina” are only a few of the latest projects featuring witches

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Angels, schmangels. Vampires? Sucked dry. And werewolf chic ended with Teen Wolf Too. No, this Halloween the entertainment industry’s scare du jour is the witch. Witness what’s transpired these last few weeks: In its opening weekend, Practical Magic, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock as enchanted but lovelorn sisters, earned $13 million and the No. 1 spot at the box office. The WB debuted Charmed, about a tart triumvirate of sorceresses (Shannen Doherty, Alyssa Milano, and Holly Marie Combs), and it topped overhyped Felicity as the network’s highest-rated series premiere. Meanwhile, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) has gotten downright witchy, casting spells and restoring lost souls. Add in ABC’s Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and suddenly Hollywood has given new meaning to girl power.

”Sure, this all has great entertainment value, but witchcraft is cutting-edge feminism,” says Phyllis Curott, a self-proclaimed Wiccan (follower of contemporary witchcraft) high priestess and author of Book of Shadows (Broadway Books). ”It’s about getting in touch with your inner self and the power of being a woman.”

Practical Magic author Alice Hoffman, whose 1995 novel forms the basis of the film, agrees. This current coven is a ”modernization of the witch. They’re fun to watch, but they also deal with issues like abuse and love.” And without saying the M-word (well, okay, millennium), the timing appears to be right. ”New Age-y things seem to make sense right now,” says Buffy creator Joss Whedon. ”There’s a fine line between echinacea and eye of newt.”

More projects are brewing:

Sabrina‘s creators are spinning off a cartoon series, in which Sabrina star Melissa Joan Hart will voice wacky aunts Hilda and Zelda.

Miramax is developing an update of 1958’s mystical feature Bell, Book and Candle.

The Jim Henson Company and Storyline Entertainment are working on a live-action Into the Woods. Inspired by the Broadway musical, it will be scripted by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.

Paramount and Disney plan to coproduce a live-action adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Penny Marshall’s Parkway Productions is still developing a film version of the ’60s TV series Bewitched for Columbia.

Even Madison Avenue is spellbound. Cover Girl has Brandy and Tyra Banks pitching its new Bewitch, Bejewel, Bedazzle line of cosmetics. And a recent Camel cigarette ad pictured three women sitting around over a smoke and a voodoo doll, an image that’s got authentic Wiccans’ cauldrons bubbling. Witchcraft, it seems, must not be confused with black magic or voodoo. ”The ad was designed to depict the traumas of adult dating,” says a spokesperson at Camel, which withdrew it. ”We didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

In another affront, when Buffy featured an evil witch in its first season, angry Wiccans directed fire-and-brimstone letters at the show. In fact, the Wiccan community has been so outspoken about negative portrayals that Hollywood has taken to asking it for help. Both the 1996 hit The Craft and Practical Magic went the SC (spiritually correct) route, using witchy consultants. ”When something that is sacred becomes trendy, it’s a scary thing,” says Dawnea Adams, who advised on Magic. ”It can be abused.” (Sabrina creator and producer Paula Hart, on the other hand, contends she’ll ”never ever go there” for her show. ”We’d never think to touch genuine witchcraft.”)