Witch Way from Here?

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.

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Before Twilight

Despite the summer with its long, languid days, The Telegraph reported on vampires last week. In an article entitled “Polish archaeologists unearth ‘vampire grave,’” Matthew Day narrates how archaeologists have uncovered skeletons buried with their heads—decapitated, obviously—on their legs. This was apparently a not uncommon medieval practice for ensuring that suspected vampires stayed safely in their graves. Interestingly enough, Day comments that the practice mainly began after the Christianization of the pagan cultures that had preceded them. Even pagans, he suggests, ran the risk of being accused of vampirism, a broadly defined threat in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Twilight series had not been written then so that the safe, Mormon cast of vampire was unknown.

Vampires represented a couple of concepts terrifying to people before the scientific revolution: they were a source of draining an individual of some life essence, and they were the problematic undead. The decapitation, in Tim Burton-Sleepy Hollow style, was intended to prevent the vampire from being able to locate its head after death. Unable to find the business end of its vampiristic corpus, the undead might remain just plain dead. Of course, staking works, if the tales of the Highgate vampire, near whose grave I recently stayed while in London, are to be believed.

The belief in vampires, or at least fascination with them, has been very hard to shake. One of the earliest horror films made was Nosferatu, a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was nearly obliterated because of copyright violations. Nosferatu continues to be ranked among the scariest of horror movies, and the Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is a classic in its own right. The Shadow of the Vampire was an even more recent movie about the filming of the F. W. Murnau original. Among the earliest of the Universal monster movies was Tod Browning’s Dracula, which forever identified the face of Bela Lugosi with the infamous Count. No matter how deeply we bury them, the vampires keep coming back to stalk our nights and nightmares. When future archaeologists uncover the detritus of our civilization, no doubt they will conclude that we too, in a secularized world, feared the undead.

Bela_lugosi_dracula

Psychotic Vampires

Over the past several months, and unrelated to the current vampire craze, I have re-watched some of the classic vampire movies: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog), and even Shadow of the Vampire—a movie about making vampire movies. Although the prototype of the vampire goes far back in civilization, in some form back to even the earliest of civilizations, the modern rendition rests mostly on the imagination of Bram Stoker. I’ve been re-reading Dracula to recapture a sense of why this particular telling of the tale has become iconic. One suggestion that comes as I’m reading is that it presses the religious taboos of its Victorian era sensibilities. Indeed, Stoker consciously wrote religiously provocative elements into his story. Of course, in movie form the story is altered to fit the needs of both time and scope.

A character that transforms in these various films is Renfield, the lunatic. In Stoker’s original Renfield is the foil for Dracula himself, his devotion interpreted as insanity by the science of the day. At one point Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s protege and the man in charge of Renfield, notes with clarion penetration, “for a strong man with homicidal and religious mania at once might be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one.” Renfield is, as a servant of Dracula, complicit in both homicide and religious mania. He uses Christianesque language when referring to his master. In describing his devotion, Seward notes, “He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” To a generation raised without Bible, this confession makes little sense.

I have contended throughout this blog that religion and horror are intimate familiars. To understand the appeal of the vampire, one must explore the religious context. Surely the simple neck-biting and blood-sucking without religious underpinnings would soon grow tedious. It is the sense of mystery—most fully realized in religious thought—that brings the vampire to life in the imagination of a generation lacking traditional religion. Not to mix metaphors too intimately, but there is a dose of Melville to be mixed in as well. Renfield is the epitome of madness, blindly following where he believes he is called. But the reader knows how sadly mistaken he is. So it is that I return to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in so doing find a form of true religion.

Vampire Jesus

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, so far that could describe most any night in April or May of this year. Anyway, I had just read about vampire-bots for the first time. Robots, like all machines, require a power source. Those I’ve witnessed up close require rechargeable battery-packs that are surprisingly heavy. I’d read that some robots were being designed to consume their own energy sources—mechanical and chemical eating, if you will. One dreamer figured that blood could work as a source of energy. A robot could be designed to take energy from blood, and thus arises the concept of the vampire-bot. I don’t think such an insidious machine was ever really built, but it is theoretically possible. It is also a reflection of a biblical idea—the life is in the blood. Ancient people tended to associate life with breathing. With no CPR, an unbreathing body was a dead body. Blood obviously played into the picture too, but precisely how was uncertain. Clearly a person or an animal couldn’t live without it. To say nothing of robots.

One of those dark and stormy nights I watched The Shadow of the Vampire. Surprisingly for a monster movie, Shadow had been nominated for two academy awards. Not really your standard horror flick, it is a movie about making a movie—specifically Murnau’s Nosferatu, the classic, silent vampire movie that really initiated the genre. The actor cast as Count Orlock, however, is really a vampire. The premise might sound chintzy, but the acting is very good with Willem Dafoe making a believable Max Schreck (vampirized). Stylistic rather than gory, the story plays out to the fore-ordained conclusion and the vampire disappears in the cold light of dawn.

When I was an impressionable child I was told what is likely an apocryphal story about Leonardo da Vinci. The story goes that the man who posed for Jesus in the Last Supper was also the model for Judas, after living a life of dissolution. Willem Dafoe, of course, famously played Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. From Jesus to vampire. Both characters are bound by the element of blood. Christianity still celebrates the shedding of divine blood symbolically while the vampire takes blood (also symbolically). Although the vampire cannot endure the sight of the cross, the same man effectively played both sides of the mythic line, almost as if the apocryphal story came true. There are implications to consider here, and not all of them insinuate Hollywood. On these dark and stormy nights, we have something to ponder.

Monsters Are Due on Elm Street

November 1984. George Orwell’s dark vision had not fully emerged, but the veneer had worn off of the fairy-tale world promoted by the evangelical, free-market professors at Grove City College. As a blue-collar kid in a blue-blood institution, I was out of place. The campus was buzzing, however, about a new movie—A Nightmare on Elm Street—for which I finally plucked up the courage to ask a cute coed for a date. I’d never seen a slasher movie before, having sampled mostly traditional monster-flick fare as a child. I felt a sense of accomplishment since some of my college friends had to leave the theater for fear. On the big screen, with no previous knowledge of the plot, the film worked for me on many levels. Last night I decided to watch it again.

My first reaction was a sense of surprise at how much of the movie I still recalled with pristine clarity. For having been nearly thirty years ago, such clarity is a rare phenomenon for many details of life, often reserved for memories of early girlfriends. A second reaction was noticing how religion featured in the film. The girls skipping rope chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you / Three, four, better lock your door / Five, six, grab your crucifix.” Indeed, the crucifix features in several scenes as an ineffectual weapon against Freddie Krueger. The days of defying vampires are over when your own subconscious turns on you. In one of the early chase sequences, Freddie, raising his infamous glove, says, “This is God!” Religion and its overarching concerns with death and suffering come together with horror in that one moment. The traditional power structures of religion have lost their power to defend the troubled teenagers. The only one well adjusted is, ironically, Johnny Depp’s Glen. Even he falls victim to the revenge sought by Krueger.

Surprisingly, the scene I had most trouble recalling was the end. I recollected the bright, hazy sunshine, but couldn’t remember how Wes Craven released his audience from the drama. Of course, there is no end. Freddie came back in countless sequels, none of which I ever watched. Although I wouldn’t know it at the time, Robert Englund based the screen presence of Freddie on Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu in Werner Herzog’s classic remake of that silent gem. Freddie is the vampire that defies religious cures. Movie villains are among the most adept practitioners of resurrection on the silver screen. The occasional E.T., Neo, or Spock will come back from the dead, but those who repeatedly return are the denizens of our nightmares. As Orwell’s vision continues to unfold in subtle ways, 1984 looks like an age of innocence before the ineffectual god worshipped by the establishment became self-image, writ large, on Elm Street.