Television Review: CBS' CSI and "The Book of Shadows"
The fall season brings a flurry of Halloween-inspired television programming. From the holiday specials to the classic horror films, the entertainment industry capitalizes on our cultural love for all things related to the largely secular holiday.
This phenomenon is nothing new. In the 1930s, Betty Boop appeared in a short called Hall'ween Party (1933). In 1948, Mighty Mouse saved the world in The Witch's Cat. Many readers will remember looking forward to the yearly October airing of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or, more recently, Tim Burton'sThe Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). One of the newest Halloween-inspired offerings, Book of Life (2014), capitalizes on the growing popularity of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos aesthetic and tradition.
As we get closer to the actual Oct. 31 date, producers begin offering Halloween-themed episodes of TV series. In its lineup this year, CBS aired a Witch-themed episode of its popular, long-running show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While the secular Halloween holiday was never mentioned, the show's title "Book of Shadows" and its subject matter were not arbitrarily chosen to appear in a late October episode.
Sunday's CSI episode has set off some intense discussion within the Wiccan community. While many believe the show demonstrates a step forward in the depiction of Witches and Wiccans within mainstream entertainment, others were not easily convinced. Massachusetts Priestess Laura Wildman-Hanlon remarked:
I’m annoyed my religion was again dragged out and used as a means to scare people on Halloween. I’m angry at the disrespect paid to my beliefs and my God & Goddess. I’m furious at the writers who could have used the opportunity to debunk these untruths instead of playing to them.
Was the show a simply a means to "scare people" as Wildman-Hanlon suggests? Was it yet another serving of insulting television fare perpetuating the historically-ingrained, sensationalistic construction of Witchcraft? Or was it positive? Did the writers demonstrate any cultural sensitivity?
Before looking at the specifics of the episode, it is important to be aware the CSI program is very formulaic like most TV dramas. "The Book of Shadows" episode was no exception.The aesthetics and narrative structure fell well-within the CSI storytelling boundaries, including the sensationalism, campy humor and graphic displays of internal anatomy.They didn't stretch the show's artistic reach to tell this story.
"Book of Shadows" opens with a teenager filming a video while walking through school hallways. This scene is important because it establishes the main characters of the "who done it?" plot. After we are introduced to the players, a burning body comes running down the hall and then falls dead. Interestingly, this dead teacher is labeled "the Burning Man" and, although not known at the time, is a practicing Witch. While just a minor point, this detail, death by burning, becomes the second reference to Witchcraft. The first, of course, is the title.
Although the show is filled with subtle phrases and imagery maintaining its connection to the theme, it isn't until the second segment that the narrative really delves into subject of Witchcraft. The coroner discovers a "Life Rune" symbol, which he links to Nazism, gangs and crime and which eventually leads investigators to the coven's temple space.
The temple scene, itself, was filmed in the classic CSI aesthetic while also recalling elements of the horror film. As CSI Nick Stokes enters the dark room, everything is visually obscured by shadow and a tight camera angle. The limited lighting is blood red and, as the slow-moving camera pans across the space, the only recognizable images are a skull and a pentacle.
In typical CSI fashion, the horror-style scene is followed by scientific explanation and visual clarity. In this case, there is a brief dramatic reenactment that parallels the horror-scene. Then the director abruptly cuts to a non-engaging, medium shot of the temple room in nearly full light. Everything is visible. CSI D.B. Russell has joined Stokes in exploring the space.
As they investigate, Russell educates Stokes and the audience on what they are seeing in the room. When referring to the pentacle, Stokes says, "I always thought it was the sign of the devil." Russell replied, "Well you were wrong."
Along with other similar type comments, Russell says, "[Wicca] is a Pagan religion." Putting these two temple scenes together, the show plays first with what the viewer expects and then says, "well you were wrong." This juxtaposition demonstrates a clear step forward in the representation of Witchcraft and Wicca within a modern context of its own making.
Moreover, the writers also note the important distinction that Wicca is a "Pagan religion." This statement is critical because it moves popular discourse away from the simple point that "Witchcraft is real" or "Wicca is Witchcraft" to "Wicca is one of many religions." Although encapsulated in a bucket of typical CSI sensationalism, the show's narrative does demonstrate that the writers did some real homework.
The next important detail to examine is the lab scenes, in which tech David Hodges is dressed in a "relic Druid robe." To Wildman-Hanlon, these scenes were extremely off-putting. She said, "I was furious to see one of the main characters wearing a silly robe, waving a wand over a cauldron bubbling with fake smoke and obviously making fun of my beliefs."
David Hodges is largely present for comic relief within the more serious CSI drama schematic. He always takes a campy and comical attitude toward any subject. However, in this case, he was mocking a religious practice, which proves problematic. Along with his robe, Hodges called his lab a "Wiccan Altar" and mentioned a past Wiccan girlfriend who was "a little too earthy" and didn't have a "bathing spell." In addition, Pagan viewers may have been offended by the God and Goddess statuettes on his table. Although meant as harmless comedy, the writers went too far for many Pagan viewers as demonstrated by Wildman-Hanlon's comment.
While the show's middle portion largely diverts its attention from Witchcraft and Wicca, the narrative returns to the theme by the end. It is at this point the writers' attempts at sensitivity fall completely apart. We find out that the killer is a Wiccan mother and teacher; the dead coven member was a teacher and drug dealer; the Wiccan principal was sleeping with a student and the High Priest and school janitor had once been a criminal. While the show doesn't posit any of these characters as purely evil, they are all framed as damaged goods.
However, more problematic than any of that is the "who done it?"conclusion and various subtle details used to intensify and color the story. First, both murders were done by a Wiccan woman, who had been attempting a healing spell. She apparently needed the blood of a "sacrificed youth." In once scene, the coroner notes that the dead boy's blood was removed after his murder, which "suggests a Wiccan ritual." Considering this line alone, it appears as if the writers fell face first into a vat of cultural stereotyping.
All the earlier positive elements and demonstrations of sensitivity become buried by the failings of the conclusion and other narrative details, such as the janitor brandishing his athame in a threatening manor. Through lines such as "Druid spell" to gain "more power" or "May the blackest of darkness smite you down," a viewer's preconceived notion of Witchcraft and Wicca are confirmed.
Why pay attention to shows like this one? CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is a fictional drama that posits its universe as real. For viewers, the CSI environment could be their world. There is no fantasy or mythology here. That is the nature of the genre. As such, it presents Witchcraft and Wicca as something real; something the viewers might witness in their daily lives.
This attempt to bring Witchcraft and Wicca out of a fantasy world and into reality is exemplified by the following exchange. Stokes says, "What happened next? No, let me guess, lightening bolts." Russell replies, "No. a coven meeting." This is notable change for the construction of Witches and Wiccans within American entertainment. Where most shows, even live-action, posit Witches and magic as elements of fantasy, this shows says "No they are real. They are parents, principals, janitors and science teachers."
At the same time, CSI's realistic nature makes the mistakes all the more difficult to digest. Wildman-Hanlon remarks:
A couple of sentences muttered by a character that 'Wiccans are peaceful people who work with the energies of nature,' is lovely but not when the plot heads immediately back into the fiction line saying beneath our practices of harmony actually lies a darker stance where murder/human sacrifice is, according to our beliefs…our Book of Shadows…an acceptable practice if we deem it warranted.
"The Book of Shadows" was a notable effort with some very positive forward steps in the representation of Witches and Wicca. Unfortunately the writers didn't go far enough and wound up relying too heavily on good old fashion Halloween entertainment lore for the sake of a scream.