Sighs

Suspiria is a movie intentionally difficult to follow.  The original 1977 version was an Italian film about witches posing as dance instructors.  After watching it, I felt I didn’t have enough backstory to understand the action.  Then a remake was released last year and I felt I needed, like a dancer, to try again.  I have to confess I’m not a dancer.  Luca Guadagnino’s remake left me scratching my head again, although it underscored a point I make in Holy Horror: in horror films with remakes the role of the Bible changes.  Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen the first Suspiria, but I don’t recall the Bible appearing.  It does, however, in the 2018 remake.  The protagonist, Susie Bannion, is an American enrolled at a German dance school.  She is, in the remake, a Mennonite from Ohio.

Not only does this situation allow religion to take once again an important role in a horror film, it is also the opportunity to show the Bible visually.  Susie’s mother, who objects to her daughter engaging in such a showy profession as dancing (and given the performance of Volk in the film, the nature of this objection can be easily guessed), is dying as the film begins.  Her Mennonite community watches and prays over her, sitting with Bibles clutched in their hands.  To take a page from Holy Horror, this suggests that the Good Book is powerless to save.  While the movie itself is a little confusing on this point, it seems that Susie’s mother dies as her daughter becomes the head witch of the dance academy.  Since Holy Writ famously contains verses condemning witches, the impotence of Scripture is underscored.

Italian folklore about witches appears to be remarkably robust.  From Strega Nona to Suspiria, the wizened women of society have power against which men are powerless.  Some of the bleakest moments in the film (from the point of view of the male gaze) are when the witches taunt powerless, naked men who cannot in any way defend themselves.  Turnabout, of course, is fair play—at least if folk sayings have any validity.  Here it’s worth considering that if male religions hold females down—the Mennonite women are shown in bonnets and uncomfortable clothes—then being a witch is remarkably freeing.  Indeed, there is the energy of a life-force evident in the dancing of the young women and the academy is closed to men, apart from public performances.  I’m still scratching my head over Suspiria, but it seems that the direct engagement with religion and the power of women makes this a movie worthy of rewatching and attempting to understand.

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.

Crafting Magic

There’s a disingenuousness about an extremely wealthy white man claiming he’s the victim of a “witch hunt.” Such super-slurring devalues the many thousands of lives lost in actual witch hunts, most of them female. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve long been fascinated by witches, and since I have so little time, Very Short Introductions are appealing. Malcolm Gaskill’s such introduction on Witchcraft is a surprisingly sensitive book that manages to touch on many important aspects of those who spend time thinking. The relationship between religion and science, for example. Witches force that question in various ways. The main takeaway, however, is another that the witch-in-chief would do well to take to heart—we must learn from history. History may be the key to human survival.

Gaskill has an unnerving balance when it comes to witch hunts. In places his attempts at objectivity can appear a little cold—history has demonstrated that the numbers of people killed in Europe’s witch madness aren’t as high as often claimed. Still, the loss of over 100,000 lives to propitiate our collective fears is tragic. This little book crams a lot of information in and it carries an appropriately warning tone. We don’t really understand what witches are, and we do still live in a world where hunts for them take place. Our psychies, ever so rational, crave magic. Societies from earliest times feared as well as desired it. Our belief in witches, and witchcraft, betrays quite a lot of what it means to be human.

This quick study isn’t all about witch hunts, though. It also explores the world of witchcraft, both in ancient and modern times. From Mesopotamian diviners to Wiccans, “the craft” has always been with us and is believed in by a surprisingly large number of people in industrialized societies. Magic, of course, generally leads to unexpected results. And the metaphor of its power over our imagination is forgotten at a terrible price. As Gaskill makes clear, the “witch” can be a stand-in for the other—the other religion, the other nationality, the other we fear and, now with government sanction, drive out or destroy. There is no magic to a wealthy man buying the presidency of the nation. There is, however, a culpability, a reckoning, if you will, that must attend abuses of this metaphor. The GOP has become a party of familiars in this compact with the Devil, it seems. That’s just a metaphor. But then again, metaphors can sometimes truly be magic.

Movie v. Book

The debate is about as old as celluloid itself; which is better, the book or the movie? The response obviously depends on personal taste, and I suspect that many people base their answer on criteria that can’t exactly be quantified. Often it’s a matter of the specifics—which book? Which movie? In my own experience I’ve done it both ways, read the book first and watched the movie initially. I’ve even gone to movies not realizing there was a book and, of course, some movies aren’t based on books at all. You couldn’t grow up when I did, however, and not know that The Exorcist was a movie based on a book. I never saw the movie in a theater. There was a lot of buzz about it in my hometown, of course. I hadn’t been introduced to modern horror yet—still being a Fundamentalist at the time—and besides, it was rated “R” and I wasn’t.

I finally got around to reading the book. At this point in my life I’ve seen the movie several times, so I knew how the story was “supposed to go” beforehand. The fact that William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay suggested it would be close to the novel, and indeed that’s the case. Novels, by their nature, tend to have more information about the storyline than is obvious from a film. The author can take time to explain things that don’t translate visually, including scenes where one character lectures another, like this blog. Since I’m writing a book about demons in movies, I paid careful attention to this. One of the themes from the novel that didn’t make it to the movie was witches.

That surprised me a bit. I had seen the movie first and it was plenty scary just as it was. I had to remind myself that my younger years coincided with the rebirth of the fear of witches. Literal ones. I’m not an astute enough sociologist to say whether the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism led to a hypostatized fear of real witches or not, but people were afraid in those days, as I recall. The Exorcist tapped into cultural fears in a way rare for a horror movie. It spoke to the fears of the era, but it didn’t mention witches. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Rosemary’s Baby, which hit theaters shortly after The Exorcist. Rosemary believes the Satanists are witches. There’s a whole supernatural concoction of malevolent entities on the loose. Witches, ultimately in the novel, are simply one avenue the desperate Chris MacNeil explores to find out what’s wrong with Regan. The movie, wisely in my opinion, chose to leave it out. Demons are scary enough on their own, but of course even that’s debatable.

Imagine Devils

One of the more encouraging events of recent times took place on Tuesday. In elections across the country many public offices were won by women. After a year of official misogyny from the Comrade in Chief—it started long before the election, of course—I felt hope for the first time. You see, I’d been reading Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. I’ve been interested in witches as part of my general exploration of religious views of monstrosity, and in the Early Modern Period, witches were still lurking in the imagination of many. Karlsen’s book isn’t focused solely on Salem. There were other outbreaks of witchcraft accusations, and a general air of suspicion had hung over New England from its founding.

Why women? Karlsen’s question haunts much of human history. Why one gender, or gender construct, why one race, or racial construct, feels itself superior to others is an issue not easily resolved. It doesn’t come, necessarily, from being a “white” male, but it is a disease that primarily effects that demographic. It’s a myth of superiority. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman is not an easy book for a man to read. Centuries of bad behavior don’t exonerate those who, although their belief was sincere, found an outlet for their faith in the destruction of others. Karlsen demonstrates that quite often the background issues were those of inheritance—in a patriarchal society, land passed to male heirs. Women who owned property complicated a social picture that was already under stress. Consider: any family with two sons would halve (although the proportions were not equal) its land each generation. The only way to keep the wealthy wealthy was to snatch land wherever they could.

It wasn’t so simple as that, but the basic economics—which haven’t changed much—set colonial New England up for disaster. Birth control was considered evil. Men still had to be gratified, however, and population increased as land size remained the same. The system is untenable. Just a year ago the electoral college made love to an angry white man. A man who “owns” lots of “valuable” property. A man who demeans women and those of other “races.” When his own shady dealing come into the light he cries “witch hunt!” History is full of ironies. One of the greatest of them in the fact that women have been held back long after circumstances had advanced enough to allow equality in a stable society. There may still be witch hunts, but they flow in the direction they always have—toward those denied autonomy and civil rights. Maybe Tuesday was finally a sign of hope.

Hex Marks the Spot

Public versus private has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Partially it’s because I’ve been reading about magical beliefs and their persistence. It always amazes me how publicly we declare ourselves rational and uninfluenced by the supernatural. Once we get behind the closed doors of our domiciles, however, a transformation takes place. Our insecurities and uncertainties surface. Given the right circumstances we might even confess that we believe in magic. I know I’m generalizing here, but private space does allow for private thoughts and getting out with others can bring a much-needed relief. I was reading about Hex Hollow in an article a friend sent me from Roadtrippers. Hex Hollow is a small town in my native Pennsylvania where a murder took place over witchcraft. I won’t go into the details here—the Roadtripper story is quite brief and tells the tale—but it turns out a man was killed for being a witch. His murderer was also a witch who’d been sent to him by yet a third witch. The crime took place in 1928.

Think about the timeframe for a second. It was between the World Wars. Technology was fairly advanced. Witch trials had ended centuries ago. Still, some people believed enough in witches to kill for their conviction. Historians of religion have pointed out that Americans have never really outgrown the belief in magic that we deny so assiduously. I’m not trying to single out one nation here—there is widespread evidence that magical thinking is endemic to the human thought process. We aren’t so quick to let something go that, according to reason, has served us well. Had magical thinking been purely detrimental it should’ve died out long ago. We need our magic.

As yesterday, so today.

I’m not suggesting witchcraft is real. At the same time I know that it’s natural enough for thoughts to move into familiar terrain when stressed out. In Hex Hollow the man who did the murdering was convinced he’d been hexed by his victim. Perhaps he’d climbed the ladder of inference (what we tend to call confirmation bias) to a rung where the only way down was a criminal act of desperation. That’s no excuse to kill someone, of course, but it fits with what we know of an all-too-human form of stress relief. Nor is it rustic rubes to blame. Psychics in New York City are abundant and even US presidents have been known to consult the stars a time or two. Of course, once I step outside that door I’ll say it’s all nonsense.

Whither the Weather?

The weather which we’re having, showing the impact of imaginary global warming, has been quite dramatic of late. I recently had occasion to be out driving during one of the more intense weather events when the sun broke through only to reveal an impressive array of clouds heading in—all the way from the ground to the gray ceiling of the firmament itself. It was quite beautiful in a threatening way. Of course, I’ve been fascinated by the weather for years, going so far as to write a book about weather in the Bible. A friend recently sent me a story reminding me of an under-recognized aspect of witchery. Our standard cultural myth suggests witches are all about casting spells on your cow, or your family. In reality, many witchcraft accusations were about bad weather.

The story by Pollyanna Jones, “Storm Callers—The Art of Weather Magic,” describes beliefs in witches and weather magic. I couldn’t help but think of our current situation. We live in an age of empowered climate change deniers who also happen to be misogynists. Can this be mere coincidence? 45 and others of his caliber seems to think that women are the cause of all masculine problems, which are, after all, the only problems that really matter. The red states do seem to have a preference for the dark ages, overall. I don’t need to worry about them reading this because electricity is of the Devil and the internet doesn’t really exist. It’s amazing how liberating blinders can be. February was spring this year and April feels like January. Must be some woman to blame.

The truly tragic aspect of this tiresome repetition of misogyny parading as righteousness is that the myths behind it have been thoroughly debunked. The atmosphere’s so complex that even with all our understanding of fluid dynamics and chaotic systems we still can’t be sure what tomorrow’s weather will be like. The atmosphere, by definition, is larger than the surface of the earth and is constantly trying to adjust itself like a passenger on a long-distance commute. Yet we go from McCarthyism to Watergate to Reaganomics to 45 rpm, each one as tawdry as the previous attempts to blame the poor for the woes of the rich. “He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” Scripture saith. That doesn’t sit well with true believers, however. It’s much easier to hunt for witches than to deal with facts.