Witchfinder, Generally

In Holy Horror I describe the “unholy trinity” of movies that figure strongly Christian themes: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  These movies span 1968 through 1976 and all were extremely successful.  Another writer earlier dubbed another three horror films from the same era the “unholy trinity” (I didn’t realize I was being trite) of folk horror: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man.  These three were low budget and not particularly successful at the box office.  They’ve all become cult classics, however.  I suppose that together these six films help mark the late sixties and early seventies as the beginning of a new realm of horror films.  Folk horror continued to exist but wasn’t terribly common.  It has recently been given a high profile by The Witch and Midsommar.

Of all of these films Witchfinder General stands out as the least obviously marked by horror tropes.  It’s set as a fictionalized account of the historical Matthew Hopkins, a man actually responsible for about a fifth of all British witch executions in the seventeenth century.  There’s nothing really supernatural in the film and its horror reputation is attributed to the cruel tortures depicted—these really pushed the envelope in 1968.  Not only was Rosemary’s Baby released that same year but so was Night of the Living Dead, another defining horror film.  The sixties were a chaotic time—the birth pangs of a new outlook that is still being resisted by many politicians.  We all know about the music of the era, but the cinematic impact was also immense, as these six films show.

As different as they are, these two trinities all feature horror that is fueled by religion.  Although this had been pointed out earlier in the century, people were now being made aware that, apart from the good religion does, it also brings potential evil into the world.  There’s no question that misguided over-protectiveness of Christianity led to many, many innocent deaths.  The more cynical might note that the Christianity being “protected” is actually key to an economic system that benefits the rich—that supports the interests of the wealthy.  The historical Matthew Hopkins was the son of a clergyman.  Apart from his reprehensible role in rekindling the witch trials in England, not much is known of his life apart from his preoccupation will executing “witches.”  As time has gone on, we’ve unfortunately circled back toward the religious conflicts in the folk horror trinity.  Watching horror may yield some valuable lessons.  

2 thoughts on “Witchfinder, Generally

  1. Hi Steve,

    You said “There’s no question that misguided over-protectiveness of Christianity led to many, many innocent deaths.”

    If you’ve followed the news up here over the last month, you would now know of the Residential School fiasco. In BC they found 215 unmarked graves of children at the school there, and in Saskatchewan, they found another 751 graves and still counting. The church has committed a great sin. And now that horror of real life has come to haunt the country here. You don’t need a horror movie to show us fear. All you have to do is walk 10 feet in any direction in any Canadian city and you will hear real horror stories that were not made up by a screen writer !!

    2 churches in BC were burned to the ground last week, and another cathedral was vandalized just the other day, and this is only the beginning. It will get worse the more they search. Horror has come to roost here. And Christianity has much to answer for now.

    Horror doe snot necessarily need a fictional story to be told. Sometimes it exists in reality right in your own back yard. Truth is scarier than fiction!!



    • Quite so, Jeremy. Yes, I heard about the graves. I’ve also been reading about how the Christian mandate led to the (unfortunately ongoing) repressing of Indians. The underlying causes have yet to be addressed.


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