The Craft was a formative experience for many spooky young people of the 1990s, and its appeal has endured in the 16 years since its initial release, even spawning a sequel in The Craft: Legacy. The central antagonist of the film, Nancy, is often portrayed as the villain of the film. Played expertly by Fairuza Balk in a career defining performance, Nancy is the poster girl for 90s badness. She is the mean girl bully, the bad girl to protagonist Sarah’s (Robin Tunney) good. This perspective allows us to root for Sarah and revile Nancy, giving an easily digestible narrative. But what if we looked at Nancy differently? Instead of a villain, what if she was a victim, of both toxic teen culture and wider socioeconomic systems designed to keep her in her place?
When shy new girl Sarah joins a fledgling coven led by Nancy and fellow teenage outcasts Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True) she thinks she has finally found a group of friends. Initially close, the coven starts to fracture when Sarah’s raw natural talent for witchcraft collides with Nancy’s hard won knowledge. As the tension between the pair escalates, it becomes clear that Sarah will have to decide between her coven and herself, culminating in a riotous third act filled with snakes, glamour spells and mean girl antics.
Toxic Teens or a Reasonable Response to Trauma?
On the surface, the escalating tensions between Nancy and Sarah seem to stem from one of the oldest of motives. Nancy is kicked off her perch as leader of the coven when Sarah arrives. Her reaction then can be seen as a natural, if petty, teenage jealousy in the face of someone who is more powerful than her. This is a plausible interpretation of the dynamic, but an incomplete one. Alongside Sarah’s raw power, she also possesses a number of privileges that Nancy does not. She is attractive in a non-threatening way, channeling sexy Goth lite, in comparison to Nancy’s intense, brooding appearance, all black lipstick and studded dog collars. Nancy is sexy and dangerous, a potent but frightening combination. She is the living embodiment of 90s parental fears about sexuality, alternative lifestyles, and dangerous bad girls who seek to corrupt their young, innocent peers.
Sarah also has a stable, loving home environment. Although she has lost her mother, her relationship with her stepmother and father is loving, supportive and strong. In contrast, Nancy lives with her mother and a creepy boyfriend, one who is always leering and trying to look up her skirt. There is the constant thrum of violence in Nancy’s home environment, one that is not shared by her peers. She goes to sleepovers at Sarah, Bonnie, and Rochelle’s houses, staying in bedrooms that are bigger than her entire home. In the morning she returns to a leaking trailer, trying to sleep against the backdrop of drunken debauchery and domestic violence. She is also made an outcast in her upper middle class school setting due to being “white trash” a pejorative term that is even used by her own friends. When discussing the gifts they have requested from Manon, the deity they pray to, Rochelle states that Nancy “doesn’t want to be white trash anymore, or something.” The casualness of this discussion reveals that Nancy’s plight as a working class woman in an environment that shames her for it is of little concern to Sarah, Rochelle, and Bonnie. This is in direct opposition to Nancy’s treatment of their issues, problems she takes seriously and works compassionately to resolve. There is nothing Nancy will not do to protect her coven, but we see that, by the end of the film, this loyalty is not returned.
Nancy Is the Sum of All Teenage Fears
Nancy’s status as sexually dangerous and economically inferior is reinforced by the misogynistic rumors spread by Chris (Skeet Ulrich), the all American jock and contender for one of the worst horror movie boyfriends of all time. These rumors are designed to continue to “other” Nancy and mark her as different and unacceptable. This is made easier by the fact that she already represents puritanical fears about women who are confident, and who exist outside the mainstream. With a noose in her locker and a bad attitude, Nancy is the sum of all teenage fears. But, whilst it is easy to see her as a non-conformist who cares little for the opinions of those around her, a deeper reading of her character reveals that this “fuck you” aura masks feelings of alienation and loneliness. She is isolated in her school environment and abused in her home environment, and is trying to seek belonging with her peers, in an intimate and often intense friendship circle that Sarah initially covets and then rejects.
When Sarah joins the coven, Nancy thinks she’s found a kindred spirit. But when Sarah rejects the coven, she rejects Nancy. This causes an escalation in behavior that ultimately culminates in Nancy’s destruction. We see in the pivotal scene with Chris, one that ends with him flying out of a window, that Nancy’s pain is uncontrollable, and she will not be stepped on any longer. Drawing to mind ready parallels with Stephen King’s Carrie, we see that Nancy’s power is something bigger than her. Although the main plot of the film is centered on Sarah’s awakening into her powers, in an easily understood metaphor for the transition from painful, misunderstood adolescence into confident and mature womanhood, Nancy’s transformation is also worthy of note.
Is Nancy Really Wicked or Just Misunderstood?
But Nancy’s transformation, into the trope of the wicked witch, is only plausible if we agree to view her as the alienated, disposable other that allows Sarah’s transformation to be complete. It cannot be denied that Sarah faces psychological and physical harm, in a third act that pits Sarah, the good conformist, against Nancy, the wicked rule breaker. The only logical outcome here is that Nancy is vanquished and Sarah survives to become the hero of her own story.
But if we view Nancy as a sympathetic character, one that uses hard work and determination to create the power she was denied due to factors beyond her control, then the ending reads very differently. Her status at the end of the film, psychologically broken and held against her will, reminds us that the ultimate moral of The Craft is that conformity saves, and rule breaking harms. Nancy’s face, etched in scratches and bliss as she tells orderlies “I’m flying” is a sad ending to a story arc that could have been so much more. The real villain of The Craft is not Nancy’s badness, or even Sarah’s bland goodness, but a society that tells us that one is better than the other. A society that pits these women against each other, with the myth that there is only so much power to go around. Nancy’s fate reminds us that power only belongs to those who are given it, never to those who choose to take it.