Devils and Witches

If you’re a regular reader (thank you!) you know that I’m currently under contract to write the Devil’s Advocates series volume on The Wicker Man.  As an editor myself I’m aware that academic series, often unlike fictional series books, tend to vary quite a bit from one another.  I want to try to get my submission close to the goal, however, so I’ve been reading volumes by other authors.  You may also know that The Wicker Man is part of an “unholy trinity” of early British folk-horror, with the other films being Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  Of the three my least favorite is Witchfinder General, so I’ve put off reading the particular volume on that film by Ian Cooper.  That has nothing to say about the author, but rather a lot to say about the base film.

The book is quite good.  Cooper is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and he points out some of the difficulties with it as well as what it does well.  His treatment is quite insightful.  The movie is violent and it’s an representation of the historical violence we thought we outgrew.  Matthew Hopkins was an historical “witch hunter” who was, in reality a serial killer,  mostly of women.  Fearing witches, while getting paid to find them, he was responsible for over 200 deaths.  As Cooper makes clear, the film lingers a bit too long on the abject nature of many of the tortures, not allowing us to look away.  For this reason many critics found the film distasteful.  I personally found it hard to watch.  Education isn’t always easy.

There’s quite a bit of film history in the book.  Cooper does a great job placing the movie in its cinematic context.  Like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General is sometimes said not to be a horror film.  Indeed, there’s nothing supernatural about it.  Still, it fits the bill for many of those in-between movies that cross over into horror.  In this case it’s due to the violence.  For me, monsters are preferable to human monstrosity.  They’re easier to walk away from.  Although the witch hunts ended centuries ago, violence against women has remained.  Whether it’s legislative or physical or economic, women deserve better treatment than they’re offered by the male establishment.  Movies, and books about movies, like this one may be difficult to watch/read, but they carry important reminders that power continues to corrupt and it must be challenged and changed when it reverts to the mentality of Matthew Hopkins.  His spiritual kin, unfortunately, continue to thrive. 


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.