Häxan is often considered a horror film. Produced by Benjamin Christensen, it was released in 1922, the same year as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Both are silent films and the term “horror movie” didn’t exist that early. Framed as a documentary of sorts, Häxan deals with witches, or more precisely, with ideas about witches. Taking a remarkably modern view, it presents how the church led to the persecution of women during the witch hunts. It had been on my “to see” list for many years before I realized it is now in the public domain and is rather easily found on YouTube for free. It presents reenactments that are still difficult to watch, although silent films have a difficult time scaring viewers used to CGI verging on virtual reality.
Banned in the United States upon its initial release, the movie dares address that sacred ruminant, the foibles of the church. Christensen was largely correct in placing the blame for harm inflicted on thousands of innocent people—mostly women—on the zeal of a masculine church. The prolonged dramatization of the destruction of an entire family based on forced confession and trickery, often by well-fed monks, makes the point clearly. While modern explanations have recourse to the psychological motivations, often unknown to those whose worldview was ecclesiastical, we still haven’t relinquished the misogyny of the Middle Ages. Considering that Häxan is nearly a century old itself, there’s cause for embarrassment in a world largely run by technology. We still tend to ban that which causes us ridicule.
When tragedies occur, it’s only too natural to blame someone or something for it. Why the burden of that blame was laid on women by a male hierarchy is sadly only too easy to guess. Häxan is one of those examples of the way horror can cross over between fact and fiction. Today it can’t be taken as a documentary with any kind of seriousness, but it maintains an atmosphere of dread that finds it classified as horror before the genre itself began. Movies about witches continue in the genre up to the present, and most are quite aware of the male culpability behind this particular variety of “monster.” To test if witch trials continue all we need to do is watch how men in power continue to behave toward women. It’s almost enough to make us believe hexes are real.