Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's Witchcraft!*


When one thinks of Horror, whether in books or the movies, one imagines being scared. One wants to be scared or at least mildly spooked. This may amount to momentary shocks and jumpscares, provided by most slasher films, or creeping menace and lasting fear provided by stories that rely on fears of the supernatural, from vampires to demons to the devil himself. And of course, there are endless variations in between. But one character seen every Halloween in great numbers; on television, in ads, as costumes and as a general symbol of the holiday just behind jack-o-lanterns and black cats; the witch, is not particularly scary to most people at all, once past childhood. Horror has barely ever scratched the surface of using the witch as a central horrifying character, leaving the character of the witch to be exploited by fairy tales and children's stories, from the Hansel and Gretal to The Wizard of Oz. It doesn't take much to figure out why.

Witches were given the blame for crop failures, broken marriages, unexpected storms - and any other variety of ills that could be imagined - for centuries. As a result, innocent women were executed. Women that today might be regarded as intelligent and confident were then seen as evil and demonically possessed and burned at the stake. Here's the opening passage from A Treatise of Witchcraft** by Alexander Roberts, B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) written in 1620:

With a true Narration of the Witch-crafts which Mary Smith, wife of Henry Smith Glover, did practise: Of her contract vocally made between the Devill and her, in solemne termes, by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she envied: Which is confirmed by her owne confession, and also from the publique Records of the Examination of diverse upon their oathes: And lastly, of her death and execution, for the same; which was on the twelfth day of Ianuarie last past.

Later, Roberts lays down the six reasons why witches should be punished, from deals with the devil and recruiting others into their fold to worshiping false idols and consecrating their children to Satan. But the sixth reason is where the modern reader understands what was really bothering Roberts. He says "they deserve death as inhumane and barbarous tyrants" because they "oftentimes by the helpe of their grandteacher, sowe discord betweene husband and wife, sollicite maydens, yea enforce both them, and married women to uncleane, and unlawfull lusts,and heerein implore the helpe of the devill, to accomplish their malicious designes, which trangression is capitall."

Yes, they made men lustful, broke up marriages and even made women, women(!), enjoy sex too by marrying them to unclean and unlawful lusts. Those poor men, made to suffer by having sex through no choice of their own by such demonically powerful women.

And we all know there are still people in the world today who believe women are "unclean" products of the devil. So with that kind of baggage, who would want to make witches the villain? It feels dated and out of place. Add on to that the fact that the practice of Wicca in the real world is benign and witches start to seem like your next door neighbor, your co-worker or your wife. Certainly not a horror villain.

The movies use them almost exclusively in the non-horror sense from comedy (I Married a Witch), fairy tale (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and fantasy (The Wizard of Oz, Clash of the Titans) to period use (Sleepy Hollow) and historical exploration of fanaticism (The Crucible). At this point it seems unlikely that the witch will ever be a central figure in horror. When it is a central figure it is portrayed as a girl or woman who learns the dark arts (The Craft, The Witches of Eastwick) rather than a supernatural figure along the lines of Angelica Huston in The Witches. The Blair Witch Project is one of the few to actually make the witch (although unseen and undefined as the classical witch of fiction) the central horror figure where high school jealousy or sexual adventure doesn't come into play. Although it could be said that the real horror in the film is what is present in the three protagonists minds as their tent is attacked and they find strange crafted stick figures in the surrounding woods.

It's funny. For a character so closely associated with Halloween, the witch is conspicuously absent from the horror canon. Is there any chance at this point of making the witch a fearful antagonist outside of fairy tales, a terrifying villain in the realm of horror? One that represents pure evil in such a way that the audience can successfully divorce the character from the history and hysteria that surround it in the real world? Probably not. Still, I'd like to see someone try. For now I'll have to settle for Margaret Hamilton, Veronica Lake and Agnes Moorehead, and that's not a bad group to settle on. Given the history surrounding the character, I guess I'll have to take them any witch way I can.

__________

*Were this Jeopardy and the title of the post the answer, the question would be, "What is 'That sly come hither stare, that strips my conscience bare.'"

**spellcheck had a field day with the passages from this book.

46 comments:

Dr. Terror's Nellhaus of Horrors said...

Witches seem to exist more in European films as well as some Mexican horror films. One favorite is Witchcraft through the Ages which I got to see theatrically. I first read about it in Carlos Clarens' book on horror films.

bill r. said...

Man, I am so tired of hearing about that Carlos Clarens book. Will somebody finally buy it for me??

PS - I love The Blair Witch Project, without apology.

PPS - Veronica Lake was pretty.

Arbogast Unbound said...

I love The Blair Witch Project without consideration of apology.

Witches are great and I like them particularly when the witches are aligned with the good guys, as in Mario Bava's Kill, Baby... Kill. But wouldn't you love to see a new movie that uses the iconic image of witches in a bold and entertaining way without irony or condescension? It's such a wonderful archetype. And this is where I have to put in a plug for the great Aussie blog Sexy Witch.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Dr. Terror Nellhaus, I've never seen Witchcraft through the Ages but fortunately Netflix has it so I look forward to seeing it soon. Thanks.

Arbogast Unbound said...

By the way, JL, I think this is my favorite post of the entire Kill Fest this year.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Bill, it's available on Amazon, in stock, for $14.85. Geez, just go order it.

Veronica Lake was indeed purty.

Arbogast Unbound said...

I like Witchcraft Through the Ages - there is some potent, indelible imagery in there but also far too much use of woodcuts and nonecinematic media, which slow things down a bit.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

My unbound fellow blogger, Arbo - Glad to hear it. I was afraid it might get too dry and historical but I think it turned out okay.

The Blair Witch Project certainly has one of the eeriest endings to a movie ever. That last shot of Mike (or Josh, can't remember) standing in the corner is positively spooky, in the very real sense of that word.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

I'm still excited to see it, woodcuts or not. I was going to use woodcut images for this post then decided to keep it all in film or television so it didn't come off as an encyclopedia entry.

bill r. said...

I'm with Arbo about witches - I'd love to see the traditional witch used again in a serious, non-ironic horror film. It could definitely work. Guillermo del Toro could pull it off.

bill r. said...

Oh, and the ending to Blair Witch...yeah, it's fantastic. You see him in the corner so briefly, and then your brain has to catch up to the image and remember what it means. So great.

Did anybody see the eventual follow up that one of the Blair Witch directors made? It's an alien film called Altered, and the magic just isn't there.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Bill, no I never saw it. I haven't seen Blair Witch 2 either to be honest. A quick look at IMDB informs me that I haven't seen anything any of them has done after it.

bill r. said...

You don't need to bother with Altered (and you absolutely don't have to bother with Blair Witch 2). The first Blair Witch was pretty clearly a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of situation.

Fox said...

I can't believe that Mr. Roberts would want to execute a witch as foxy as Veronica Lake! Of course, it was probably women of her physical fortune that drove him to such extreme positions.

p.s. They really liked to use "e"s in the 1600's, huh?

Arbogast Unbound said...

Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows was an interesting idea that is, considered after the fact, intellectually satisfying... but only at the expense of sitting through 90 minutes or so of execrable Sci-Fi Channel crap. I think the same thesis statement could have been realized without making people want to pull out their own eyes.

Fox said...

I agree with you guys on the ending of Blair Witch, but after the initial viewing, to me, the movie doesn't reward re-viewings. Since it's fairly cinematically ugly, there isn't anything to relish the second time around because you already know what's coming.

As a stunt, however, I say bravo to those guys, and well done on signing that lucrative back-end deal.

One of the Blair Witch directors had his new film at Fantastic Fest (it's called Seventh Moon), but I didn't get a chance to see it. Word is it wasn't so hot.

Arbogast Unbound said...

I was actually pleasantly surprised a couple of years ago that The Blair Witch Project held up for me after almost 10 years. I had been afraid to rewatch it but I found it just as chilling. I think a steady diet of (marriage-enforced) reality TV has made me comfortable with the ugly verite of the whole thing and I'm actually able to appreciate lots of nuance throughout its running time.

"What killed this mouse? A ghost?"

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Fox, that Roberts, what a cut-up he was. I imagine a man with testicles so tightly coiled that the idea of inadvertantly grazing them with one's hand while taking a piss would send him into a fit of nervous contrition. Back then, men terrified of women and sex, were respected elders. Now they are the whackjob fundies you see shouting slurs against gays on streetcorners at soldier's funerals.

Ande, yesse, they sure didde like using the letterre "E" backe thenne, tis true.

Fox said...

Jonathan-

I like to imagine someone like Mr. Roberts as a Ted Haggard-type of his day. I can picture him ranting about witches at the podium and then going to a coven orgy afterwards.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Bill, Arbo, Fox - I haven't seen Blair Witch since it came out. I do remember loving that ending but hating the characters. I'm sorry, but I did. I found them insufferably annoying. But then I hate reality tv, and since they were improvising and being deprived food and given directions by secret GPS locaters, it was in effect, reality tv. Which I hate.

I still like the movie but it's excruciating banter has kept me from wanting to watch it again.

Fox said...

I think a steady diet of (marriage-enforced) reality TV...

I'm just now realizing what that is... I had to watch My New BFF, The Hills, and Clean House the last two nights.

bill r. said...

My wife watches what I tell her to watch. And apparently I tell her to watch John and Kate Plus Eight and shows about cleaning rooms.

Actually, we get by fine. DVR helps.

The characters in Blair Witch do have some annoying characteristics, but they are absolutely true to the kinds of college students they're playing. I was just out of college when that film came out, and I knew people just like them, so I was actually kind of impressed in that regard. And I agree, the film holds up nicely. It's visually ugly, but it had to be.

Fox said...

Speaking of witches, where's Marilyn? (I kid, I kid!)

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Well yes, they were college students and they were improvising so I get all that. It's the reality tv part of it. It is reality tv, not an approximation of it, and I hate that kind of yelling back and forth banter. I understand its necessity, I just don't want to watch it again.

As for my wife you could name some of the most famous television commercials or characters from anytime past her childhood and she would have no idea what you're talking about. It was quite arresting to me when I first met her. You hear about people like that but you don't believe they exist. She does not watch tv. At all. Any of it. EVER. She watches movies, and only movies. Now they might be on TCM, so there's that tv she watches, but nothing else, and only movies. And she has seen very few movies made beyond the seventies. So basically, we have no disagreements over tv. Or even what movies to watch. And she is the most well read person I have ever known. And has a firmer grasp and wealth of knowledge on history as well than anyone else I know.

Okay, I'm done praising my wife to the hilt. But seriously, she doesn't watch tv. The kids and I will bring up a funny commercial or something and she always has to ask, "What are you talking about?" Then we just make up something or show it to her on YouTube, whichever's easier.

Arbogast Unbound said...

I'm done praising my wife to the hilt

That may be the filthiest thing you've ever written.

Fox said...

Geez... Lapper just made a pretty strong case for the My Wife Is Better Than Yor Wife trophy.

Rick Olson said...

I like witches. I once got to know one, she was running a crystal shop in a small Mississippi town, and her husband -- also a witch -- was a Mississippi State Highway patrolman, so even if anybody knew what they did with their saturday nights, which I doubt, they didn't fuck with them. They preferred to be called Wiccans, though ...

Is this off-topic?

bill r. said...

Hey Jonathan, if you love her so much, why don't you marry her!!

Rick - I don't even know anymore.

Marilyn said...

The hubby is a pagan and practices white magick.

There was never a more comely witch than Kim Novak in Bell, Book, and Candle. I dug her warlock brother Jack Lemmon, too.

Rick Olson said...

Marilyn, one of the reasons I like Wiccans and other pagans is they tend to be gentle folks who are easy on the environment and one another.

And in the case of Kim Novak, on the eyes as well.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

So I had to navigate the wilds of downtown DC traffic to go get a converter box just now and what a fun lunch break that was. But I actually found a space right by the cable office. Other people passed it up because it was too tight but I have many medals in parallel parking and got in with centimeters to spare. I RULE!

Anyway, Rick, I mention Wicca in the post so it couldn't possibly be off topic. I worked with one at a craft store in DC about twenty years ago and she was all about peace, love and understanding, and like the song she wondered what was so funny about that.

Arbo, I'm filthy by design. And proud of it.

I like Elsa Lanchester best in Bell, Book and Candle but her role is small. I love the look of that movie. It transports me to a style and fashion that I love and wish was still prevalent today.

Marilyn, is the hubby really a pagan?

Bill, I did.

Fox, she is.

Goody Marilyn said...

Yes, he is. I'll scan the photo of him in his Pan costume and post it shortly. The festival is almost over, so I'll have time to goof off with y'all again.

Fox said...

P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness And Normalcy)

At least that's what Dragnet (1987) taught me about that religion.

Arbogast Unbound said...

I'll scan the photo of him in his Pan costume

And are you Tinkerbell or Wendy?

Gray Witch said...

Nice time to find your blog! Great post. I'm fond of the genre, though it it rarely in sympathy with me.

I'll have to add you to my list and keep checking.

Goody Marilyn said...

Arbo - Oh ye of little face!

EVIL CLOWN said...

Good to read some love for Blair Witch Project

My problem with witches is that I can't stop from pitching an evil circus tent when I see them.

How can I be scared of something I want to roll in the hay with?

But it would be interesting to create a character that is dressed like a not-so-scary witch and end up making that movie one of the scariest movies ever.

I will say that the Snow White ride at the Magic Kingdom still scares me.

Krauthammer said...

Haxan is really, really awesome. And although it does make liberal use of woodcuts, there's certainly no lack of cinematic joy to be had in it.
It's really a movie that gets better and better the more I watch it and think about it.

It's actually kinda a pre-runner of The Blair Witch Project, it being a faux documentary and all (though in that "essay film and reenactments" kind of way.

Thom said...

I'd like to suggest Bava's Black Sunday (1960) for the witch canon. Old school spooky outer layer with a rich, dark witch center. Delicious.

Evil Clown: perhaps the witch's sex appeal is part and parcel of her power? If, like vampires, witches use physical appeal to keep us from being scared of them then we'll be easy prey?

dr. terror's Nellhaus of Horrors said...

How about love for this witch or one with the same name? Or maybe a blog I happened to find?

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Gray Witch, glad you liked the post. Of course, around here, it's more general classic movie fare than witch posts but I hope you'll stop by from time to time anyway.

Evil Clown, if the witch were presented as pure evil, not someone burned at the stake and coming back for revenge or someone merely learning the arts or a character played for the sex angle, then you wouldn't want to roll in the hay with them (well maybe you would). Anyway, it would be nice to see someone try.

Krauthammer, I always feel left out when everyone has seen an old movie that I have not. New movies I don't care but old ones, that's different. As such Haxan has been moved to the top of the queue.

Thom, I love Black Sunday, it's a great one, and a great witch character. It follows the "burned at the stake and will take revenge years later" mode that I mentioned above. But not many in the genre even do that anymore.

Dr Nellhaus, I'm assuming that last blog is the one Arbo has been pushing too. I can't access it from work, it's blocked.

bill r. said...

Apropos of nothing, but, Jonathan, I watched the Frederic March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde last night. I loved it. It starts out kind of shaky, but once they get to the meat of the story, that sucker's on rails.

dr. terror's Nellhaus of Horrors said...

Has a witch cursed the Lapper computer?

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Bill, I agree. It's got a shaky start, that's kind of what I was trying to set you up for on your blog. I didn't want you to say, "March is really stagy and the dialogue's stiff and I'll finish this some other time" because once it gets going it really is terrific. And March and Miriam Hopkins do great jobs.

Jonathan Haxan Lapper said...

Has a witch cursed the Lapper computer?

I knew I should have written about wizards.

bill r. said...

Yeah they were, and some of those sets wer just great, especially some of those outdoor shots of the backstreets of London. And when you consider the fact that the film is only about 40 years removed from the Victorian era, it might be reasonable to say that this film is more realistic in that sense than some of the more researched and production-designed films set in the same period made today.

I couldn't get used to "Jekyll" being pronounced "Jee-kle", though. On the commentary track, the guy says that's how Stevenson intended it to be pronounced, but sorry, Robert Louis Stevenson...you lose!