“Witches…All of them witches!”
-Rosemary Woodhouse (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968)
There have been a number of creatures and demons that have slowly filled up the beefy bestiary of horror films through the years. Some of these monsters are constantly being turned to, never quite going out of fashion, while others have remained on the fringe for decades, waiting for their opportunity to be properly realized. Witches lie somewhere in the middle here and have had a somewhat complicated history in cinema. However, with the release of The Witch slowly edging closer and the film stirring up nearly universal acclaim so far, it seemed like a worthy endeavor to examine what has led us to this point and digging into the history of witches in horror cinema. Examining what films about witches have been trying to say through the years, if we’ve always been so forthcoming with them in horror films, or if their sudden power and our fascination with them has been a recent spell that’s been cast over the public.
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages—the first recorded film about witches, released in 1922 by director Benjamin Christensen—tries to approach the topic from a place of understanding. While initially getting in depictions of witchcraft in art and culture of the time, the film’s main focus is to attempt to understand witchcraft. It’s not mystifying the area, but rather using it as an explanation for mental and psychological ailments at the time. While the film does have many dramatizations and depictions of witches and the devil, the film’s angle is more of a documentary with the intention of educating and correcting misinformation.
In spite of the controversy and banning that the film still saw, it’s fascinating that our first exposure to the creatures in film was not from a place of trying to scare one another, or create terrifying fiction, but rather shed light on the real world and use this horror to heal.
Beyond this the ‘60s was debatably the next big time period that saw cinema and horror becoming enchanted with the idea of witches with a number of films, most notably being Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, playing with the concept. Interestingly enough, the ’60s chose revenge to be the conduit at which it chose to explore witches. The aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby for instance involves Rosemary’s (Mia Farrow) husband making a pact with the devil and the dark side coming to collect its sacrifice in the form of their child. A lot of the revenge and witch side of the film is depicted through psychological trauma and the idea of this secret society of witches hiding underneath everyday life. This dark side of high society that’s covertly pulling the strings to take over the world.
Black Sunday and Witchfinder General get into the topic of revenge a lot more directly, with the former being about a witch returning beyond the grave 200 years later to exact vengeance on the descendants of those who wronged her. The film, which is the debut feature of Italian horror genius Mario Bava, appropriately chooses to capitalize on the more gruesome side of the occult, too. While Bava’s film interestingly nearly depicts its witches as vampires, what with all the blood drinking that goes down, it still deals with a fascination of the occult, and the idea of the past coming up to taint the present, a theme also present within Rosemary’s.
Witchfinder General looks at witches and revenge via an examination of a corrupt social order wherein witchfinders could just come into towns and torture confessions of witchcraft out of people. Much like Black Sunday, scenes here harken back to the 1600s to give witches context before indulging in extreme violence and sadistic torture. The boldest of the three, Witchfinder explores the idea of if there even are witches (which The Crucible—which is not horror, but also of this decade—is interested in), with it being more concerned about commenting on society’s ills, whereas the other films here are still trying to say something, but are also indulging the idea of witches, too. All of these pictures also effectively use witches as a veil to look at a broken society rather than being full-on horror movie monster antagonists at this point. While the ’60s helped usher in our perception of the occult in cinema, the ’70s greatly expanded on this.
Now that the public was at least familiar with witches, films could start beginning to use the icons in much more complex ways. Granted, what the ‘70s were trying to say with witches in cinema was largely a response to the conversation that the ‘60s brought up. Pivotal occult films from the era such as 1971’s both Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Devils carried heavy influences from Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General. What the ‘70s was trying to say here with all of this was that now that previous films had introduced us to this evil, these movies could bring it forward, confront it, and get rid of it now that we know that it’s out there. Blood on Satan’s Claw examines this through a town coming under demonic possession, banding together, and killing the demonic beast that’s put them under this spell. The Devils, a fellow folk horror film also out of the UK, again puts the power in a naïve, scared society that responds to rumors of a priest being accused of witchcraft and the public circus created being more of the point.
Arguably the most prolific, well-known feature on witches to rise out of the ‘70s though was rising auteur, Dario Argento’s, Suspiria from 1977. While it helped close out the decade and would remain in people’s consciousness, the film has still maintained its famed reputation to this day, being considered one of the more definitive films on the topic. Set in a ballet academy rather than a suspicious village, Suspiria continues the theme of dragging this darkness out into the open, but rather than it letting suspicions and accusations fuel its violence, people here are getting straight up murdered by witches, with there being a rather high body count in the process.
Suspiria acts as a good transition film into the ‘80s where witchcraft would leave its shrouded, more secretive place of mysticism and become more of an actual violent force to be reckoned with. Suspiria would also play with the idea of connecting the topic of witches and motherhood (which is also briefly touched on in The Devils), which would suddenly become a much more common component of the area moving forward. With the framework being set on witches and it being understood as a problem to help explain social issues, films were now ready to make this threat become more of an individual terror and begin to start subverting the idea.
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw us largely getting comfortable with witches as an idea—even bored with them, perhaps—which is why this reflexive, less serious look at them began to be had. Make no mistake, they’re still frightening beings (and even fare that’s meant to be lighter like The Witches still features some terrifying imagery), but it’s almost as if humor is now needed so we’ll let down our guards and the big scares will mean even more in the end. This time period not only saw features that catered to the more comedic, desensitized side of witches, such as in the cases of The Witches of Eastwick, The Witches, or Hocus Pocus (which wouldn’t have been included here, but there’s a very evil vein running through the picture), but even fodder that was meant to be more frightening, like Pumpkinhead, Warlock, or The Craft, still slotted witches into parodical, sometimes even silly, positions. It didn’t help their case that the long running, toned down WB witch-soap, Charmed, was also a product of these times as well.
Now that the brass tacks of witches have been established, the more absurd, unconventional plotlines that the rest of the supernatural have become inundated with are able to be played with. No one is wondering what a witch is anymore or where they came from, which is why a story where a witch is used to summon a giant pumpkin-headed vengeance demon, like in Pumpkinhead can be told. Warlock sees a male witch get transported by Satan from the 1600s to 20th century Los Angeles, with his witch-hunter appropriately hot on his heels. This is the fun that can be had now.
Other works from this time period such as The Witches of Eastwick, The Witches, and The Craft are specifically concerned with the stereotypes of witches that have come to be settled on at this point in pop culture. ‘60s and ‘70s cinema might be trying to educate in this regard and make you aware of a certain piece of history, but these pictures are all about bucking convention. You think you know what witches are? Well think again…
I suppose it’s only appropriate that the film from this era that would turn its back on the rest of these movies and strive to make witches feared again, would come out at the end of the decade in 1999. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, a barebones found-footage film chronicling a number of campers investigating an old folktale about a local witch, brought the horror back to witchcraft. And it wisely goes about doing this through the necessary task of re-mystifying witches once more. So much of what makes The Blair Witch Project endlessly terrifying is the fact that you only see disparate pieces of all of it. You’re given more than enough details to pull together the occult-y storyline and figure out what all of the creepy evidence means, but that’s enough. After how overexposed and non-threatening witches had been rendered, these gaps and blind spots are what were needed to re-inject the topic with fear. We’ve been seeing everything these creatures have been doing for decades. Nothing is scarier than some mystery at this point.
With Blair Witch having properly refueled witches’ ammunition, the past fifteen years have worked hard to bank off of that, while also incorporating everything from the previous fifty years that has been looked at here. This has culminated in the most sophisticated storytelling on witches that we’ve seen yet, with the well of resources that it’s pulling from being the deepest it’s ever been. Let’s also not forget that it was during this time that we began to be bombarded with eight Harry Potter films, which won’t be looked at here due to them not fitting the horror mold, but they still managed to popularize witches with mass audiences in a tremendous way. The same can be said for the third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story, which delighted in milking “bitchcraft” for all it was worth, dragging it through bubbly, pink postmodernism all the while. With audiences becoming so hyper-aware and savvy at this point, filmmakers such as Lucky McKee, Sam Raimi, and Rob Zombie turned to complex subversions that pay respect—and nearly satirize—a lot of staples, when they directed The Woods, Drag Me to Hell, and Lords of Salem respectively. Whether the target is a haunted wood, gypsies, or the music scene, decades’ worth of witch films are touched upon through these titles, whether it’s their historical roots, bloody ties to Satan, or even the ultra-violent Giallo element that Argento brought to the spellcasters.
Then to synthesize this reflexivity with the structural innovation that The Blair Witch Project brought to the table, the Paranormal Activity franchise wrapped all of this into a single package that entertained audiences until it naturally hit its point of diminishing returns (which evidently was six films). Interestingly enough, these films didn’t market themselves to be about witches and the occult, but as the franchise continued references to witchcraft continued to be peppered throughout the films until they eventually became the central idea of the final two offerings.
With Paranormal Activity’s magic officially having cooled down, there’s been a bit of a void in terms of a new reigning voice in cinema for where to take witches. Considerable buzz has been generated around Robert Eggers upcoming horror film, The Witch, which terrified audiences this year at Sundance and has had people talking in hushed whispers about it ever since. The film, taking a page from the works out of the ‘60s such as Witchfinder General and Black Sunday sets its story back in the 1600s focusing its vision on witchcraft’s connection to religious hysteria and madness. The Witch seems to be pulling from a very primal place that relies on the witch lore itself being enough to haunt its audience, rather than depending on flashy effects and magic to make its point.
It’s only natural after witches have been taken through the whole gamut in cinema—especially lately—that the topic would cyclically return to its origin point. Once more the larger theme at hand has shifted from that of vengeance to one of doubt and nihilism. Again we are using the occult to explain our ignorance and answer our problems. Only because we know so much and have gotten exposed to so many incantations of what a witch is does this re-setting of the table work. To compare it to a reboot of a superhero franchise where the origin story is ironed once more isn’t a perfect analogy, but it’s one that works. The Witch will set the new timbre for what witches should be, and if the film connects even half as well as people are predicting it will, we’ll surely see this style and tone continued out for many more films to come until we’re burned at the stake out of heresy.