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.  


Unconventional Demon

In my book Holy Horror I limited my discussion to fairly widely available and well-known films.  Part of the reason for this is that nobody can watch all horror movies and for those of us who work, there’s just limited time.  All of the films are at least American co-produced, most of them American productions.  The one exception to that is The Wicker Man.  I couldn’t bear to leave that particular movie out.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was classified as the newly coined “folk horror.”  Another film, released two years earlier was the strangely titled The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  It’s a strange but competent British horror film that has an eighteenth-century village falling prey to a demon that is accidentally plowed up in a field.

It is a film that could’ve been included in Holy Horror.  Indeed, the Bible appears in it and one of the adult characters is the local curate.  As the children are succumbing to a Satanism that’s raising a demon, he tries to teach them their Bible lessons.  Like Village of the Damned, the horror here centers on the children.  Flaunting the reverend’s rules, they play in the woods, raising the Devil.  Almost literally.  The demon they summon is called Behemoth.  Perhaps surprisingly, the judge actually saves the day in this one.  At first he’s convinced that the age of superstition is over and insists that it not be brought back.  He learns, however, that the demon is real and deals with it by rather physical means.  Who is Behemoth?

The word translates rather literally to “beasts.”  In the book of Job Behemoth is the land-bound companion to Leviathan, the two monsters that God cites to demonstrate his superiority over mere mortals.  As time wore on into the middle ages Behemoth and Leviathan were recast as demons, although it’s pretty clear that the book of Job doesn’t present them that way.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that demons aren’t fully formed beings in the ancient imagination.  Since the Bible says so little about them, ideas were drawn from folklore and other sources to flesh out these somewhat amorphous entities.  Descriptions of The Blood on Satan’s Claw quite often state that the children of the village are possessed.  If so, it is quite a different form of possession than will become standard two years later with the release of The Exorcist.  It is fitting, I suppose, for folk horror to have a folk demon for its antagonist.