The season of the witch

30 October 2018 08:30

The cauldron is bubbling, the black cat’s been fed; just as well, for these are busy times for witches. In a week or two, Dakota Johnson will be having coven-related trouble in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), and before then we have The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, 2018) landing on Netflix, a borderline-goth reboot of the sometime Teenage Witch. And, of course, children will imminently be glueing Rice-Krispie warts to their face, donning a pointy hat and demanding confectionary in the name of trick or treat. You might say it’s the season of the witch.

The witch is one of the great horror archetypes, coming to films initially via fairy tales (like Hansel and Gretel) and then evolving, growing from the classic crone (The Wizard of Oz [Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, King Vidor, George Cukor and Norman Taurog, 1939]) to become younger and more nubile: Patricia Jessel in The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1961) was succeeded by Barbara Steel in La maschera del demonio (Lamberto Bava, 1990), who in turn spawned the hextresses of The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996), The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016) and now the re-born Sabrina.

Which is quite odd, if you think about it. For ‘the witch’ is one of the few horror archetypes that we know, for definite, actually existed. There are no recorded instances of actual vampires, Frankensteins or peripatetic mummies, and while there were indeed zombies, they were the old skool voodoo variety, rather than the shambling flesh-eaters we have now.

Witches, though, were real and existed in some number. We know this because court records from the late-middle ages to the early modern era show how fraught the battle against witchcraft was, with many thousands of cases – Wikipedia reckons the number could be as high as 100,000 – until the witches were finally defeated in the Eighteenth century, around the time that Enlightenment reason was doing a number on superstition and cant. A coincidence, no doubt.

'The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, 2018)

No, obviously, these weren’t real witches. They didn’t have the power to strike good Christian men dead with but a single word, or brew potions that would ensnare someone’s heart, but that’s surely beside the point when so many thought they did; every depiction of witchcraft in modern fictions, powers, potions and curses too, comes straight from these unsubstantiated beliefs of earlier generations. (In fact, even reality does too: Wicca, the contemporary pagan form that claims lineage from the Old Ways, owes rather more to modern interpretations of ancient lore than real, documented fact.)

If modern playgoers watch Macbeth (William Shakespeare, 1606) and look at the witches as a metaphor, projection or whatever else they like, original viewers would have considered them to be frighteningly plausible and, moreover, an example of why the menace had to be extirpated by any and all means: it would have taken more than pretty soliloquies to convince the average groundling that Macbeth’s own ambition was more responsible for the regicide than the weird sisters.

And that’s why it’s slightly unusual that ‘the witch’ endures as an archetype in movies and beyond, since it essentially propagates the same stories that led to innumerable women being tortured and burned.

There are a few films that look at the real business of witch hunting, and a grim lot they are too, drawing on genuine sources far more horrific than anything a screenwriter could invent. In 1921, Danish director Benjamin Christensen made a film called Häxan. Even though it’s nearly a hundred years old, it remains remarkably modern: Christensen was interested in witchcraft as a phenomenon and his film – produced at vast expense, with state of the art effects – is an attempt to understand it.

'Häxan' (Benjamin Christensen, 1921)

Häxan is essentially a documentary, albeit one that depicts the things people thought witches used to get up to, from bombing around on broomsticks to kissing the devil’s arse. It also cooly, carefully, shows how witches were dealt with; the instruments of torture that might lead one suspect to denounce others, who might in turn implicate their ‘coven’. It’s good, too on the causes – the subtle suggestions of sexual repression, for instance: one monk is so overwhelmed by the brief touch of a suspected witch that his monastic mates conclude she’s put a spell on him.

At the end, Christensen suggests other reasons, drawing on the then still-new science of psychology. He proposes that witchcraft in the middle-ages was what headshrinkers in 1921 called ‘hysteria’. The terminology has moved on and so have other attitudes: although so farsighted in many ways, Häxan is dated by the implication that ‘hysteria’ is something that disproportionately afflicts the fairer sex; from today’s perspective (and with a slightly different definition), it wasn’t the women who were hysterical.

Some twenty years later, another Danish director made his own witch flick. Day of Wrath (1948) was directed by Carl Dreyer and it’s one of his masterpieces, which means it’s one of the great works of art of the twentieth century (well, ever, in fact). More even than Christensen, Dreyer zooms in on sublimated erotic impulses; his main character is a young woman married to a much older man (apparently impotent). He’s the local pastor and, though his wife does not know it, he used his position to ensure her mother was not burnt as a witch. Now, however, the virile son by his first marriage has returned home and Anne – the young wife – starts exhibiting powers of her own.

Years before, Dreyer had made the greatest film about Joan of Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928]) and this film is cut from the same cloth. There’s one stunning tracking shot over a line of hard-faced men watching an old woman being tortured off screen; here and elsewhere, we are reminded of how this society stifles and controls women. Ultimately Anne embraces her witchiness. It’s the only freedom she has, after all.

Day of Wrath (Carl Dreyer, 1948)

Made when Denmark was under the aegis of the Nazis, it’s impossible not to detect other resonances, as the authorities devote their energies to hunting and killing the defenceless. This would hardly be the last time witch hunts were used as allegory, although Dreyer was far more subtle than most. Take Arthur Miller and The Crucible (1953); it would take a slow viewer indeed to realise that its Salem setting is only a pretext to discuss other matters, so much so that it has enriched the discourse with ‘witch hunt’, now a synonym for unjust persecution (and any legitimate investigation into Donald Trump).

Then there’s the Czech film Witchhammer (Otakar Vávra, 1970). It might be set in the sixteenth century, but it was made in 1969, and comments as directly as it dares on the Soviet crackdown of the previous year, as the avaricious inquisitor tears into even modest freedoms, usually out of spite. But then, the fear of witches gave men the freedom to do as they pleased. That is nowhere better illustrated than in Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968), the story of England’s most famous opponent of sorcery.

In truth, England was somewhat sluggardly when it came to rooting out witchcraft, certainly when compared to our continental kin, who liked nothing better than warming themselves by a roaring fire with completely innocent old women on top. But during the civil war, significantly when due process and law and order all-but broke down, an Essex lawyer called Matthew Hopkins tortured and murdered his way around East Anglia, claiming he was doing the Lord’s work.

Vincent Price gives the performance of his career as Hopkins, a preening sadist whose notional mission allows him to do as he pleases, no matter how depraved (in all these films, witch hunters are far more evil than their ostensible prey). It hardly needs to be added that he is a hypocrite, although he is, routinely availing himself of the pleasures of the flesh (all the better to save the souls of those young women he rapes, you understand).

Directed by Michael Reeves, Witchfinder General is usually called a horror film and it is, but in different ways to what we usually expect of the genre. The terror here is how power is abused, and how arbitrarily. No film – not even Day of Wrath – better captures the lunacy of where belief in witches leads.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a long way from such things, of course, and no finger-wagging history lesson should get in the way of your enjoyment. But just remember that ‘witches’ still walk amongst us, or so, at least, some men seem to believe. Notice how often that label is used as an insult for powerful women (Hillary Clinton was a ‘witch’ to her enemies, as Margaret Thatcher was to hers). On Twitter, meanwhile, ‘die in a fire’ – that ultimate punishment for witches – has been repurposed as an insult for feminists who dare venture opinions. There always was more at play in the persecution of women than the fear of Satan; those impulses are still with us today.