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.