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Cinema
Culture

Season of the witch

Among the many treasures Prince dug out of his lengthy back catalogue on the Melbourne leg of his recent surprise tour was ‘The Love We Make’, from his 1996 album Emancipation. I’ve always been fond of the track, but when experiencing it live, one line shook me to my core: ‘wicked is the witch that stands 4 nothing’.

Having spent the last two years neck-deep in the folklore of witchcraft as I worked on my third book – a monograph on one of the most famous films witch films ever made, Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria – this line that I’d somehow never noticed in the past was now a revelation. As I walked home from the Arts Centre that night, I became increasingly convinced that Prince is not only a 5’2’ musical genius, but that he is also one of the greatest semioticians of our time.

Admittedly, this spirit of hyperbole has cooled somewhat in recent weeks, yet the ideological force contained within that one line has stayed with me as I’ve done a number of interviews about Suspiria and its recently announced remake by Italian director Luca Guadagnino. And all of this coincided with the Melbourne cinema release of Robert Eggers’ independent smash hit, The Witch.

Prince begged of me a constant question: what do these witches stand for?  In the case of Argento and Eggers’ films, the answer to this lies in their plurality – witches here ‘stand’ for many things because they are films ‘about’ many kinds of women. This plurality in itself is ideological; the granting of spaces necessary for complex representations of mythic femininity, even in the context of the horror film (traditionally dismissed by the highbrow elite as little more than regressive trash).

The full title of Eggers’ film is The VVitch: A New England Folktale, and the wording itself is drenched with significance. The loose ye olde spelling denotes a return to a historical past, but even more crucial is the word ‘folktale’. From the outset, the film both acknowledges and embraces the folkloric tradition of the witch: this is not a film where we are asked to question the existence of evil, of Satan, and of witchcraft, but rather it invites us into a mythic space where these things are a given. Before seeing the film, I dismissed the praise heralding it as ‘one of the scariest movies in years’ as nothing more than a marketing gimmick, but the film’s strength is ultimately in how it returns to a different kind of horror. While claims of it being ‘the year’s scariest movie’ are ultimately hollow, what makes it stand apart from the generic norm is its predominantly out-of-vogue earnestness, and its total absence of knowing, postmodern playfulness.

Despite its seventeenth-century Puritan-Christian New England setting, The Witch’s closest ancestors are not the usual suspects of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible or Paramount’s 1937 Claudette Colbert / Fred MacMurray vehicle Maid of Salem. Rather, The Witch recalls most strongly the solemn intensity of Ingmar Bergman’s horror film Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf, 1968), and it was this film in particular that I thought about on a purely affective level, despite the differences in subject matter. The spirit of other Scandinavian horror films also haunts The Witch, most notably one of the most famous early films about witchcraft, Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922), as well as Kåre Bergstrøm’s extraordinary De dødes tjern (Lake of the Dead, 1958).

Witches have obviously provided ample inspiration for cinema since its earliest days, and the manner in which she has manifested from this historical and cross-cultural perspective are diverse. Think even generally of the fairytale witches of Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella, or Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti’s work on the 1967 anthology Le streghe, or the James Stewart / Kim Novak fronted Bewitched prototype Bell, Book, and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958), released the same year as their more famous collaboration on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (a film about witchcraft of a different kind).  Yet after films like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Suspiria, screen culture moved increasingly towards a softening of the witch, peaking in the 1990s with the television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch and movies like The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996). Mainstream postfeminism in the era of the Spice Girls broadly reconfigured grotesque, malevolent evil into something far sassier and lip-gloss wearing.

While this quirkification of the witch satisfied many feminist critics at the time – understood as a shift from a blanket notion monstrous-femininity to a more positive representation of ‘grrrl power’ branded agency – for me, at least, something important was lost. I mourned for these vivacious teens their right to a less acceptable form of monstrosity, one that they could – if they so wished – be a more radical force to unleash their own gyno-rage however they damned well pleased.

When witches become palatable, they become controllable: I’d rather be a mad, dangerous, powerful crone than teen-screen friendly commercialised wank fodder, be it literally or – for the many feminist academics who went gaga for this mode of supposedly ‘progressive’ representation – something more symbolic.

Then in 1999, for better or for worse, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project made witches scary again. But while I celebrated their determined rejection of the then dominant cute-witches motif, it too came at a price: while an impressively effective horror film, The Blair Witch did so at the expense of women filmmakers themselves with its overwhelming demonisation of its central filmmaker protagonist. Heather was unambiguously constructed as a kind of ‘hag’, her dominance over her male peers suggesting, according to the film’s own internal logic, that by taking on a ‘male’ role as filmmaker, she was asking for trouble.

It is from this perspective that The Witch is a game changer – not because it is doing something necessarily new, but precisely because it is reminding us of something precious about witches that we have all but forgotten: the power of owning your own monstrosity, whatever form it might take. In retrospect, the film is built towards an explicit reference to Goya’s ‘Witches in Flight’ (1798), and working back from this moment The Witch explores the attraction to witchcraft for women, allowing a configuration of the term along planes both literal (folkloric) and symbolic (in the shape of an active resistance to patriarchy). Women and girls of different ages and types ‘play’ witches in the movie in a number of ways, rendering inescapable the fact that the conscious adoption of a ‘witchy’ persona has a cultural, social and ultimately ideological function, power and purpose.

The Witch recalls earlier horror cinema traditions where we don’t need to be smug to be smart, and is an important, explicit reminder that contemporary cinema itself contains a fundamental folkloric aspect in its provision of a potent space for the development and evolution of centuries-old cross-cultural myths and legends. The Witch stands for the types of power available to women and girls – no matter what their age – within the space of folklore history. It provides a long-absent space for female monstrosity to be a representational tool available for women to choose – or refuse – for ourselves.

 

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic on Melbourne radio station Triple R on the Plato’s Cave programme and a co-editor of Senses of Cinema. She writes books about cult, horror and extreme cinema.

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Comments

  1. “It provides a long-absent space for female monstrosity to be a representational tool available for women to choose – or refuse – for ourselves.”

    Disagree.

    I walked out of this film raging! Although the last 5 mins of the film is devoted to her orgasmic ascension this is prefaced a whole film in which we are position to fear and revile witches. I don’t know much about the folklore of witches/witchcraft but felt that this film mostly dug in the heels of the stereotypes that I’m familiar with.

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