Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sisters of the Moon

There's an episode of the Faculty of Horror that discusses witches in film - it's one of my favourites, and I have listened to it more than once. I had not, however, seen two of the films discussed: Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem, and Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Earlier in the week my sister and I watched the former, while last night we finally got around to watching the latter.

(Antichrist. Holy hell.That movie probably deserves it's own post, but suffice to say that I don't believe it to be a misogynist film. I personally found it to be quite the opposite.)

Luis Ricardo Falero
There is an acquaintance of mine from work who has similar taste in films as I do, and so of course I told her I'd seen Lords and was planning on viewing Antichrist. She told me that she was curious to know what I thought of von Trier's film, and then went on to tell me that of all the sub-genres of horror she found witch movies to be the least accessible to her - she wasn't sure she 'got' them.

Now, my initial reaction was basically "what's not to get?" but that hardly seems a nuanced response, now does it? And so for the past few days I've been thinking about the figure of the witch in popular culture, and how varying contexts can inform how she is received.

The Witch as an archetypal figure has changed remarkably little over the years. Anton LaVey described the witch as female, and stated that she is "a wretched looking old crone... or an extremely sexy girl." This statement can be very easily traced back as far as the publishing of the Malleus Maleficarum in the late fifteenth century, and continues to be the dominant view even today 44 years after LaVey`s Satanic Witch was published. That's some staying power, alright. 

Witches in horror cinema are, by and large, sexual creatures. In this way they are granddaughters of the Malleus, existing to tempt man to sin and revelling in carnal lust with the Devil himself. Their sexuality is a weapon, and is often depicted as perverse. There are films where the witches are not blatantly sexual, but in these too they are aberrant women - baby killers, Satan's disciples, vindictive harpies. 

Witches, in the view passed on to us most clearly by Kramer and Sprenger, are every negative stereotype of a woman ramped up to the nth degree and given magic powers.

It's perhaps not shocking, that the figure of the witch shifted slightly whenever feminist movements began to influence the dominant culture. The 60s saw Bewitched on television, and while horror films kept up their love affair with the dark side of the occult it is interesting that Samantha and her crazy family popped up in the mainstream at the same time second-wave feminism was making an impact. (Now, Samantha was a housewife but at the same time it was undeniable that she had more power than her derpy husband.)

Third-wave feminism coincided with The Craft, Charmed, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All of these depicted witches less as concubines of the devil and more as young women trying to come to terms with their power. The past few years, we've seen American Horror Story: Coven and Salem appearing at a time when feminist issues are once again at the forefront of the cultural discussion.The witch serves as a handy shorthand for women's power, so this isn't terribly surprising.When the womenfolk start demanding their rights, it seems that the witch will once again appear, whether her depiction is positive or no.


Leaving archetypes for a moment, it's also interesting to consider the figure of the 'modern witch' in horror cinema. Coinciding with second-wave feminism again, we had the goddess movement and the rise of neo-pagan faiths. While not as common as the 'traditional' witch, we still saw this particular enchantress pop up in a few places - George Romero's Season of the Witch is a perfect example, where a bored housewife attempts to find meaning outside of her marriage by exploring witchcraft. This doesn't turn out well for her - a theme we see again in Antichrist, come to think of it. Both the character of Joan in Romero's film and She in von Trier's are drawn to female power and then find themselves terrified of (and terrorized by) it until everything explodes and goes to shit. Neither woman escapes the patriarchal trap laid for her - She winds up dead and burnt, while Joan becomes a widow still defined by her late husband.

Our 90s modern witches fared a bit better... unless they weren't 'nice,' of course.

So. What's to 'get' about the popular image of the witch? LaVey still isn't off the mark, but looking a bit deeper over both the history of cinema and further back into real events, we can see that it's a bit more complex than that - the witch seems very much to be the fear of woman personified. This fear permeates so much of our culture that is is simultaneously suffocating and barely noticeable, and so the witch remains both a scapegoat and something that more and more we seem to want to reclaim as our own. This reclamation, I feel, is important, and one that I hope to see become wider - I sincerely hope that our next wave of pop culture witches features more women of colour, trans women, queer women. 

If we must be feared, let us be because we are powerful. If that makes us evil, then so be it - a world in which subjugation is good is hardly one worth living in. 

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