Witchcraft on screen: do portrayals insult victims of real witch hysteria?

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CW: Femicide, horror, religious persecution

There aren’t many kinds of monster that are specifically gendered male. Yes, there are plenty of individual monsters that are male; you’ve got Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, King Kong, Godzilla*, the shark from Jaws, and many others, but as for specific species there aren’t that many. Perhaps you could argue that the Werewolf is often symbolic of latent male aggression, as the thematic suggestion often applied is that all men have beast in them. But that metaphor has been widened, especially recently, to include women, with films such as Cursed, Ginger Snaps and An American Werewolf in Paris.

If we’re talking monsters that are specifically gendered female, however, then there’s quite a few. You have Gorgons, Sirens, Banshees, Harpies and many more. The big one, of course, that has endured throughout myth and exploded into popular culture is the Witch.

Are Witches monsters? In the context that I’m talking about, yes. Being humanoid or partly human does not stop you from being a monster. If vampires are monsters, then so are witches.

Witchcraft has been a part of human culture since history has been recorded, and has often been a strong aspect of religious belief. Christianity and other religions such as Islam typically associate witchcraft as evil, and in Protestant Europe witchcraft was a handy scapegoat for all manner of societal, environmental and quite literal ills. A 1486 book by Heinrich Kramer and (possibly, there is debate) Jacob Sprenger, the Malleus Maleficarum, functioned as a handy how-to guide to the prosecution of witches, making it an effective point of reference when looking at the cultural attitudes to witchcraft at the time of its popularity. The book was in common use for more than a hundred years, and although it stated that men can indeed be witches, it also stated that women are more likely to be so because, according to the book, they’re “weaker” and more susceptible to temptation and evil.

Now, that’s a concept that goes all the way back to the Adam and Eve tale, which posits that Eve is the one who is successfully tempted by the Serpent because she’s a silly, weak woman, who proceeds to tempt Adam with her untrustworthy, feminine wiles. The idea of women being weak and duplicitous is threaded throughout a lot of the Abrahamic faiths, and these religious ideas and stories are often the foundational building blocks to our modern society. What must be made clear is that I’m not suggesting that anyone who subscribes to such religious belief also subscribes to negative attitudes towards women; faith is personal, and informed by one’s own preconception and ideals. What I am saying is that old attitudes and ideas are passed on through the generations, and although they often change form, they don’t always go away.

The claims in the Malleus Maleficarum are of course absurd, sometimes hilariously so (the book claims that witches steal men’s penises and hide them in bird’s nests). However, silly though it may be, the ensuing witch hysteria was completely horrifying; the systematic mass murder and torture of women across the world for being born female. The most famous example of this is the Salem Witch Trials, which has entered the popular parlance as an example of hysterical and unfair scapegoating of innocent people – Arthur Miller used Salem as the basis for a thinly veiled metaphor against 1950’s McCarthyism in his play The Crucible, for example. Salem has become symbolic of hysteria, but not symbolic of what it also is; violence and hatred against women. This can be seen most by looking at modern pop culture, where that element has been quietly swept under the rug.

There are a lot of films and other media featuring witches. Probably the most famous cinematic depiction of a witch is the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. The character obviously takes plenty of cues from folk lore (e.g. the broomstick) but adds many new elements to the iconic idea of a witch: if you ask a child to draw a witch they will draw this one, if you ask a child to impersonate a witch, they will take their cues from Margaret Hamilton’s great performance.

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There is a whole article to be written about the examinations and portrayals of femininity in The Wizard of Oz but sadly, it’s not this article. While we’re here though, let’s be clear that The Wizard of Oz doesn’t lay the blame for the Witch’s evil at the feet of femininity but instead blames the Wicked Witch’s bad attitude itself, avoiding some of the unpleasant connotations in other films.

Since The Wizard of Oz there have been many cinematic witches. Almost all versions of Snow White, for example, portray the Evil Queen as a witch-like figure who bends men to her will and whose motivations are entirely a sense of “feminine” vanity, with Snow White’s purity and humility as a counterpoint. The horror genre has always had great fun with the concept of the witch; Dario Argento’s beautifully violent, visually spectacular masterpiece Suspiria delivers some of the most arresting visual portrayals of Witchiness in all of cinema. Sam Raimi’s exquisite use of evil witchcraft to escalating horrific and comic effect is perfectly executed in Drag Me to Hell, and famously The Blair Witch Project got the found footage genre off to a great start (yeah, I know Cannibal Holocaust came first, and there’s that bit in Signs, but Blair Witch popularised it) with its never seen but endlessly menacing antagonist.

There’s something troubling about the horror genre’s treatment of witchcraft, however. Many of these films present fictional worlds where the innocent woman who were murdered during such events as the Salem Witch trials were real, evil witches, and therefore suggest that their violent ends were justified. James Wan’s effective The Conjuring is one case of this; it’s a film where an evil witch returns from the grave to haunt a family and it inadvertently says some pretty dangerous things.

In The Conjuring‘s case, there should be credit where credit is due; within the narrative of the film the evil witch Bathsheba actually hangs herself rather than being executed as part of witch hysteria, but her role as a relation to a witch in Salem during the time of the Salem trials can’t help but lend credence to the mass murders. In the world of The Conjuring, witches are real and clearly in need of a good hanging because they kill babies and shit. But that’s fine, it’s a fiction, isn’t it? Well, no actually, according to the film makers and their  marketing campaign, it’s a “true” story.

The Conjuring takes a lot of effort to convince you that what you’re seeing is based on true events, but here’s the actual history behind it: the film’s protagonists, The Warrens, are real people and their case was investigated, but your tolerance for whether you believe anything in the film boils entirely down to whether you believe in ghosts or not. Personally, I only believe in ghosts between midnight and four in the morning, and so during the day can happily dismiss the whole true story element as bullshit. However, a lot of people do believe this stuff, and so the fact that the film retroactively changes history to imply the torture and murder of a bunch of innocent women was in fact justified, is… not cool, to say the least.

I don’t think the film makers or anyone involved with The Conjuring intended to send out this message. Their job was to make a fun, scary horror film and tell an inspiring story about the power of family, which they mostly succeeded at doing. They used a lot of poetic license (see the picture of the haunted doll Annabelle from the film and the real Annabelle doll below for proof of this), and the film The Conjuring is just a big, old-fashioned, nut and bolts, blockbuster horror picture.

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I genuinely don’t know which one is creepier.

But it’s not the only one that has inadvertently swept the real horrors of Salem under the rug.

The incredibly bizarre but well made Disney film Hocus Pocus is actually set in Salem and is about a very evil trio of witches who kill children. It’s become a sort of cult classic because it’s quite fun and also weirdly inappropriate and macabre, but it has the same issues as The Conjuring except without the “true” story aspect. The film is about real Salem Witches returning from the grave, and even shows their actual executions by puritans. You know, for the kids!

Hell, even Sabrina the Teenage Witch had a cat called Salem.

Then there’s this year’s The Witch, a film that does something a little more clever than others. The Witch is a great film, with probably the finest performance by a goat in all of cinema, but what it does so well is actually subvert the standard witch narrative in a refreshing and borderline feminist way. The film is set in roughly the same period (a little after) and area as Salem and features a straight up evil witch, but importantly, also features a young girl being unjustly accused of witchcraft at the burgeoning of her womanhood. The film pokes holes in the idea of puritanical faith and its contradictions, and shines a light on the way that a woman having power is seen as a threat by men and evidence of evil.

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The Witch handles things very well, but, let’s also be fair to films like Hocus Pocus. The greater the length of time between now and events in history, the less pain they seem to cause. Unlike World War II for instance, no one is alive who remembers the Salem Witch trials, and so any lack of sensitivity could be in part due to the distance that history creates. Maybe in a hundred years, there will be a TV show with a magical cat called Auschwitz and no one will mind.

And, of course, films like The Conjuring are fun. It would be hypocritical for me to condemn them fully because I enjoy them, and I enjoy the horror genre in full. Horror films (and books, games etc) exist in an interesting artistic place where they are designed to upset in some fashion; if you make a horror film and no one is offended by it, then you’ve probably failed as the genre is positioned to be provocative in a way that others aren’t.

I also can’t deny that modern culture has a habit of quietly endorsing negative attitudes towards women. The fact there are so many stories about evil witches being evil, and so very few that examine the real, historical horrors of the execution of women throughout history, could be indicative of how often we are willing to ignore gendered violence.

IBut it’s not all bad. There are quite a few recent examples where witches have been symbolic of female power and independence. For example; the world of Harry Potter is filled with witches and of the trio of characters that the books ostensibly revolve around, Hermione Granger is easily the most capable. Don’t freak out – Harry Potter’s good and all, he’s well meaning, kind of noble, brave and pleasant – but he’s not the smartest kid in the world. Ron’s a whiner, and an idiot. Hermione is  the driving force when it comes to actually planning and doing stuff, she’s clearly the best at all the magic and shit, and the smartest, and the only one who is actually altruistic enough to engage with heroics outside of stopping Voldemort.

There’s also Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (will there be a Jar Belles article that doesn’t mention this wonderful show? No), whose character arc is all about the finding of identity and purpose through discovering her inner power. This metaphor gets confused slightly by the still good but overly dark Season 6 where magic gets shoehorned into an on-the-nose drug allegory (Season 6 is probably the only season where some of the metaphors snap under the strain of the narrative), but Season 7 course corrects and restores magic’s place as symbolic of feminine power. Hence why (SUPER OLD SPOILERS) Willow, along with Buffy, shares power with young girls across the world in the final episode.

These are just two examples, but there are others, such as The Craft, Charmed, Sabrina and I guess, The Worst Witch, where witches are no longer monstrous, or ugly and evil, but cool, powerful and fun. They are the heroes with agency and strength, and it’s a very contemporary reclaiming of a fictional archetype in a way that works as a compelling antidote to the evil witch figure that has existed for hundreds of years.

It would be tempting to consider that we are moving forward as a global culture: the evil witch has been mostly relegated to the horror genre, while the heroic good witch is one of the more frequent expressions of female empowerment in modern television, comics and film.

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Sadly, a lot of societies still believe in witchcraft and still regularly torture and execute people because they are “believed” to be witches; it’s an under-discussed but still worldwide phenomenon. Saudi Arabia is just one example; witchcraft is illegal, and many people are detained and executed by a dictatorship which the UK is more than happy to support. Even in countries where witchcraft does not factor into governmental policy, there are pockets and villages where people are frequently accused and then executed. Let us never forget that witchcraft is a made up crime and these people are being executed for absolutely nothing, aside from getting on the wrong side of whoever accused them in the first place.

Even in areas of the world where such horrors are uncommon if not entirely absent; the cultural attitudes that created the witch still exist. In the 16th century, women were considered duplicitous and weak by nature and so were more likely to be the one to blame in most situations. Just like how the belief in demons and superstitions has found a modern equivalent in nonsense conspiracies like The Illuminati and 9/11 Trutherism, the witch legends have found a modern equivalent as well. Western culture still thinks that women are duplicitous; women are often accused of lying in rape cases, far more than in any other crime, even when false claims are rare. Even when the rapist’s guilt is undeniably proven, there is a still a culture of blaming the victim. She must have somehow made the rapist do it with revealing clothing and feminine wiles, and he was “helpless” to stop himself, as if women have some sort of magic power that removes responsibility from male attackers.

This isn’t some bleak argument to suggest that nothing ever changes, because it does, progress is always ongoing. This is more of an acknowledgement that some damaging attitudes are a little more subtle and insidious, and that the right way to approach media, whether entertainment or news, is to look at the culture that created it and the audience that it is made for. Improve the culture and the audience with better education about gender issues, and you improve the media they create.

 

Callum Birrell was named after a mythical Leopard called Kalem. The story of Kalem is one imbued with tragedy, drama and love and too beautiful, mysterious and perhaps, erotic to go into here. Rest assured, for Callum, already one of the world’s greatest thinkers, will live up to legacy of Kalem, and open the doors to new perceptions of reality and reason. You can read his film blog, Passed Uncut, here and follow him on Twitter here.

 

*Right, on the subject of Godzilla’s gender: When directly translating the Japanese dialogue from any of the 28 (soon to be 29) Toho produced Godzilla films, Godzilla is normally referred to as “It” and therefore genderless, for example “It’s coming to Tokyo”. However, in the Western translations Godzilla is referred to as a male, “He’s coming to Tokyo”, but then the appearance of Godzilla’s son in three separate continuities of Godzilla films confuses matters. In all these continuities, Godzilla having a son is not adequately explained, the egg kind of just turns up and Godzilla takes a liking to the little creature that it delivers. In fact, in Son of Godzilla and Godzilla: Final Wars, it could be argued that Godzilla’s son is not his son at all, but just another of his species that he’s adopted.

Godzilla is the only one of his kind, so how he produced a son is really a mystery, the 1998 American Godzilla which featured a Godzilla that was not very much like Godzilla at all suggested that he reproduced a-sexually, but everyone ignores that film because it’s shite.

Really, none of this matters and is far beyond the remit of this article, Godzilla is really too big to be affected by any gender issues. He probably would smash the patriarchy, but only because he smashes everything and patriarchy comes under the category of everything. Bless.