The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Witches of all kinds cast their web of enchantment over the movies. From the very earliest days of film, witches, witchcraft, and occult themes have been popular movie subjects.
Because there are so many cinematic witches, some main characters, others limited to brief cameos, this list is only a sampling of some of the more significant movies featuring occult practitioners or those characters specifically identified within their respective films as witches (regardless what type of “witch” she may be). Characters identified solely as fortunetellers have, regretfully, been omitted, most notably perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil. It is by no means a definitive list—that would entail a book of its own.
Films are filled with “witches” but what kind of witches are these? The following section examines how witches have been depicted in various films, from art-house movies to crowdpleasing blockbusters to B-movie horror flicks. The only thing that unites many of them is witchcraft.
The question of whether movies depict reality or create fantasy (or some combination of the two) has been debated since cinema’s invention. This is particularly significant when witches are shown on screen as the various definitions of “witch,” depending upon whose opinion is counted, include both figures of reality and fantasy. “Reality” isn’t necessarily expected when films evoke a fairy-tale quality (e.g., The Wizard of Oz or The Mask of Satan), however it’s crucial to realize that many movies that appear to be real aren’t necessarily any more realistic in regards to witchcraft than any of the more obvious fantasies.
How witches are cinematically portrayed is significant because false images and stereotypes regarding witchcraft contributed to the persecution of millions. (And whether or not millions were executed during the Burning Times, it’s safe to say that millions suffered, in one way or another, from its effects.) On one hand, there’s the tendency to dismiss movies as mere entertainment, not to be taken seriously; on the other, these often powerful images contribute to how modern people understand—or think they understand—witches.
Movies also too often feature historical inaccuracies: no matter how many movies you’ve seen that indicate otherwise, no witches were burned in Salem, Massachusetts: that’s not how they were killed there. But of course, based on the movie version of witchcraft, one would think that all witches’ ancestors once lived in Salem, and that what got those poor Puritan girls so fired up in the first place was some kind of “voodoo ritual,” none of which is true. Although much of witchcraft’s history is shadowy, quite a lot is well-documented, and to depict, as many films do, witches being burned in Salem is a little like filming a version of A Tale of Two Cities with gibbets or pyres instead of the guillotine.
Warning! Spoilers! Some of the more significant movies are discussed in depth including detailed plot-lines. Please be forewarned that in order to discuss certain films, what were intended as moments of suspense or surprise may be revealed.
H. H. Ewers’ 1911 novel Alraune has inspired no less than five film adaptations. The title Alraune names the film’s heroine (or anti-heroine, as she was actually intended); alraune, the German name for the magical botanical mandrake root, derives originally from the name for Germanic shamans, the alraunas. Alraune is sometimes used as a synonym for “witch.” So the title may be understood to indicate a woman’s name, an amuletic root or to simply mean “witch.” (See DICTIONARY: Alrauna.) English-language versions of the film sometimes call the main character Mandrake.
The plot is based on one of the many legends regarding the magical mandrake (see BOTANICALS: Mandrake). According to this one, mandrakes take root when sperm, involuntarily ejaculated by a criminal as he dies by hanging, hits the bare Earth under the gallows at a crossroads. In the novel and films, this (false) legend inspires a genetic scientist to experiment by obtaining sperm from a hanged criminal and using it to artificially inseminate a street-walker, who serves as the human stand-in for Earth.
The scientist’s ostensible goal is to determine whether it is environment or genetics that influences character. He raises the result of his experiment, a baby girl he names Alraune, as his own daughter, sending her to convent school so that she may have only the “purest” environmental influences. (Please see Literature: Alraune, page 276 for further details on the novel and its author.)
Is Alraune a witch? Her name suggests that she is intended to be perceived as one. Furthermore, the film suggests that her power to hold men spellbound is a supernatural one; she epitomizes the alluring witch, the femme fatale. Her beauty and charisma and the power she derives from them are presented as being something more than human.
Two different versions of the film were made in 1918, both by Hungarian directors although only one film was a Hungarian production; the other was made in Germany. Both films are now believed lost. Other versions were made in 1928, 1930, and 1952.
Director: Eugen (Jenö) Illes, 1918, Germany
Director: Mihaly Kertesz, 1918, Hungary
(Kertesz would eventually emigrate to Hollywood where he would become Michael Curtiz and direct Casablanca.)
Director: Henrik Galeen, 1928, Germany
Also released with the English titles A Daughter of Destiny,Mandrake, and Unholy Love.
Starring Brigitte Helm as Alraune and Paul Wegener as the mad scientist Jakob ten Brinken, Alraune is considered a classic of German silent cinema. Alraune was intended to shock its audience: it was considered scandalous and controversial at the time of its release because of implied promiscuity, pre-marital sex, and incest.
However, much of what was considered scandalous behavior for a woman in 1928 isn’t out of the ordinary today. Alraune just seems more “modern” than her fellow movie characters. Alraune smokes, has sex when and with whomever she wants, isn’t intimidated by the nuns who are her teachers, and runs away with the circus. (Yes, she also encourages young men to steal and disobey their parents; however this can be understood in the context of how very few options for empowerment women then possessed, although that is not how it was intended to be understood: Alraune was meant to represent the worst dangers of womanhood—a rotten corrupting influence on everyone she meets.)
Director: Richard Oswald, 1930, Germany. Also known as Daughter of Evil.
Brigitte Helm was an important German movie star: Marlene Dietrich was only cast in the Blue Angel after Helm turned down the part. Helm’s most famous film was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, however Alraune was something of a signature part for her as she played this role twice, this time in a film with sound.
Director: Arthur Maria Rabenalt, 1952, Germany. Also released as The Fruit of Evil and Unnatural.
Starring Erich von Stroheim as the scientist and Hildegarde Neff as the title character.
Bell, Book and Candle
Director: Richard Quine, 1958, United States
John Van Druten’s play Bell, Book and Candle was initially intended as a serious look at modern witchcraft, although its first audiences didn’t appreciate this—instead they laughed in unexpected places. Rather than shelving the play, it was adapted so as to become a light comedy. In this new incarnation, Bell, Book and Candle opened on Broadway on Valentine’s Day, 1950 with Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer in the starring roles. It was a major success and a film version was scheduled. Jennifer Jones was initially set to star as Gillian but she became pregnant and withdrew from production.
Kim Novak, reportedly America’s numberone box-office attraction in 1956, was subsequently cast in the starring role as the glamorous Greenwich Village witch Gillian Holroyd, back in the day when the Village was New York City’s bohemian enclave. Bell, Book and Candle features very stylish, fun-loving, arty, interesting witches.
Gillian is but the most powerful of a pack of these witches including her aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and the regal Bianca De Passe (Hermione Gingold.) A young Jack Lemmon plays Gillian’s bongo-playing brother Nicky, identified as a warlock. (The film repeatedly and emphatically makes the point that male witches are known as warlocks, although as one of the characters is a purported authority on witchcraft who is consistently shown to be something less than expert, perhaps that’s meant as a sly joke.) (See DICTIONARY: Warlock.) The movie’s true star may be Gillian’s familiar, the Siamese cat Pyewacket.
Pyewacket’s name derives from a famous woodcut made in 1647, which portrays Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins alongside two accused witches seen naming their familiars. (Although the woodcut names the cat Pyewacket, the actual trial transcripts suggest that its name may have really been Pynewacket.)
Bell, Book and Candle was advertised as a bewitching comedy about an enchanted subject. The title refers to rites of exorcism that a character in the film describes incorrectly as being used to exorcise witches. (These rites are really intended to exorcise demons, however, once again, as the character, ostensibly an expert on witchcraft is consistently shown to be sorely lacking in knowledge, it’s unknown whether that error was intentional—an insider’s joke—or not.) There is no exorcism ritual in the movie, and the most prominent bell is the one around Pyewacket’s neck.
Although the witches are smart, attractive, and fun, the movie’s depiction of witchcraft is not entirely positive: Gillian is an ambivalent witch. She longs to spend Christmas Eve in a little church listening to carols rather than at the jazz club where the witches hold court. (Jimmy Stewart’s character, unknowingly finding himself in this company of witches, complains that atmosphere at the Zodiac Club seems more like Halloween than Christmas.)
According to Bell, Book and Candle, witches can’t fall in love, can’t blush, can’t sink in water, and are unable to cry. The film itself defines witches as people who live by magic and as people who possess powers that others lack.
Bell, Book and Candle is unusual in that it prominently features a male witch, Nicky Holroyd, played by Jack Lemmon. Nicky’s favorite trick—magically dimming street lights—may have inspired Harry Potter’s wizard Albus Dumbledore.
The Blair Witch Project
Directors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999, United States
Baba Yaga lives! That’s the subliminal message of The Blair Witch Project, however be forewarned; this movie has nothing to do with witchcraft but everything to do with local legends and perceptions of witchcraft. There is no witch in The Blair Witch Project; there is only fear, panic, and superstition.
Three student film-makers disappeared in October 1994 while filming a documentary in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland. They were never found but one year later their film footage was recovered. The Blair Witch Project is that footage, the only evidence of what happened to these students. Many who watched the whole movie failed to realize that it was not a documentary but was instead really a work of creative fiction. Word of mouth parlayed this extremely low-budget “mockumentary” into sales of over $140 million in the United States alone, making it one of the most profitable independent films ever.
This is not a witch-friendly movie. Instead it feeds off fairy-tale fears of vengeful, cannibal killer witches. According to the basic plot a fervently held local legend insists that a witch (or her ghost) haunts the woods near Blair, Maryland. A woman, accused of witchcraft in the eighteenth century, was banished to the forest. Since then responsibility for two centuries’ worth of strange disappearances, particularly of children, and mysterious murders, has been laid at her forest-hut’s door.
What happens when you underestimate the power of the forest? If one seeks to find any true metaphysical theme in The Blair Witch Project then that question sums it up. Young people venture into allegedly haunted woods with all sorts of technical tools: maps, compasses, flashlights, cameras plus the arrogance of youth but with absolutely no magical preparation, knowledge or skill. The students seek to research “witchcraft” as a spooky phenomenon yet they have no preparatory knowledge of witchcraft itself.
What happens when you dabble in something or research something without actually respecting it enough to truly obtain an education on the subject? Once the film-makers enter the forest, leaving the realm of civilization behind, strange things begin to happen; they are completely out of their depth. They are unable to distinguish whether the mysterious craft markings, cairns, and wicker work that begin to appear are malevolent or otherwise. The students know how to work a camera and conduct an interview but they are clueless about magical practices, presumably local ones. Once panic sets in, which doesn’t take long, and the tools of civilization brought with them into the woods are lost, it becomes clear that these students don’t know how to navigate and survive the forest either. The Blair Witch Project may be understood as warning against dabbling in dangerous areas outside one’s expertise, with witchcraft and wild nature falling into that danger-zone category.
Burn, Witch, Burn!
Director: Sidney Hayers, 1962, United States
Also known as Night of the Eagle.
How’s this for confusing: although this movie borrows its title from Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn, Witch, Burn! it is actually the most faithful of the three cinematic renderings of Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife. (See also Weird Woman and Witches’ Brew, pages 271 and 272.)
Peter Wyngarde plays Norman, a narcissistic and somewhat pompous British anthropology professor. Janet Blair plays his American wife, Tansy. He thinks he knows everything there is to know about witchcraft and the occult, which he considers superstition rather than reality, valuable only as an academic topic. Little does he know…When Norman discovers magical charms actively in use by Tansy, he burns them and insists that she cease and desist from all magical activity. Of course, this being intended as a horror-suspense movie, all hell immediately breaks out and the professor and his wife are left vulnerable to the wiles of fellow-professor and witch, Margaret Johnston.
The witches are depicted as extremely conventional, even conservative, women. There is nothing stereotypically witch-like about them, appearance or behavior-wise. There’s nary a black dress on the screen, let alone a pointy hat. There is nothing that distinguishes these witches from any other women and the film in fact suggests that all women are witches; men, the rational species, just aren’t aware of the fact.
The spells and charms described in Fritz Leiber’s novel are reasonably realistic folk magic, with a hoodoo flavor. Tansy learned them while on a research trip to the southern United States. Although Burn, Witch, Burn! follows the plot of the novel fairly faithfully, like the other movie versions of the book, this type of magic was apparently deemed not “dramatic” enough. In Burn, Witch, Burn! Tansy learns her tricks in “the Islands,” and the style has shifted to sensational movie-voodoo with no relationship to the real thing.
As times change, different things develop and lose the power to shock. Although intended as a horror film and “midnight movie” there is little in Burn, Witch, Burn! to scare a twenty-first-century audience. However, what might be most shocking to modern eyes is the film’s premise that it is normal and acceptable for a husband to determine what his wife may believe and practice. The film expresses no outrage that Norman should bully Tansy or destroy her personal property and handiwork. There is no suggestion that a man might consider respecting his wife’s spiritual beliefs.
Although women are presented as the power behind men, men, in their turn, are presented as women’s masters and the arbiters of what is spiritually acceptable. (See Literature: Burn, Witch, Burn!; Conjure Wife.)
The Burning Times
Director: Donna Read, 1990, Canada
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, this film is the second part of the Women and Spirituality trilogy, which also includes Goddess Remembered and Full Circle. The Burning Times is a documentary tracing the history and roots of the European Witchcraze. “Witches” are defined as devotees of womencentered spiritual traditions who were eventually condemned by the Church as worshippers of the devil.
The film features original music by Lorena McKennitt and on-screen interviews with prominent modern witches and priestesses Margo Adler and Starhawk. It incorporates African-derived and Latin American traditions as well as European into its vision of what has been labeled as “witchcraft.” Witchcraft is presented as genuine practice and, despite the Witchcraze, as one that is vital and continues to flourish today.
Director: Jacques Tourneur, 1942, United States
The cat in Cat People isn’t just some kitty-cat; it’s a magnificent black panther fit for a Maenad. And the “heroine” of this film, Irena Dubrovna, comes from Dionysus’ old territory: the Balkans.
What happens if a small group of persistent, defiant “witches” flee into the mountains and cling to their ancestral pagan traditions? What happens if these witches eventually develop (or perhaps always possessed) hereditary transformative magic powers? These witches can’t help it; they’re born with their powers and can’t shed them. And what happens if, over the centuries, these witches (or at least some of their descendants) become so indoctrinated and influenced by the dominant Christian culture that even they believe that witches are evil, sinful, destructive, and dangerous. This is the premise of Cat People.
Val Lewton produced a series of what might be termed horror-noir psychological thrillers containing vaguely metaphysical elements for RKO Pictures. Cat People, shot in one month on an exceedingly low budget, is considered among his finest. Its “witch” is the kittenish French film star Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian fashion artist living in the United States.
Cat People’s persistent motif is a Christian knight (Serbian King John) spearing a black panther, very similar to the image of St George slaying the dragon. Irena explains that the symbol isn’t intended to be understood literally: the panther represents witches and ancient pagan traditions that Irena fervently considers “evil ways.” Reference is also made to the leopard as the evil beast of the Book of Revelation. The panther is Irena’s alter-ego and double.
Sex and strong negative emotions (jealousy, rage) cause Irena’s inner panther to take control. Irena isn’t an ambivalent witch like Gillian of Bell, Book and Candle; she’s a tortured, anguished witch, caught between worlds and torn between desires. (Elizabeth Russell’s brief but powerful cameo as another cat woman indicates that not all of Irena’s compatriots suffer as she does. Her feline features accentuated, dressed in a tight black sequined dress with a hair bow tied to resemble horns, the Russell cat woman recognizes Irena as her “sister,” although Irena fears and rejects her.)
Cat People is something of a Rorschach test: those who watch it may view Irena with sympathy or horror. It may also be understood on many levels: one character points out that Irena never lied, however the other characters are unable to believe her until after it’s too late. Irena knows things that the other characters refuse to believe. On one level, the Balkan witch is surrounded by arrogant American innocents, convinced of their own superior knowledge, but the film, produced by Europeans in Hollywood during World War II, may also be understood on a political level as well as on a psychological one: Irena is terrified of her own sexuality, passion, and power—her animal nature.
Be warned: Cat People does not end happily for either witch or panther.
The film was remade in 1982 under the same title but it is not the same story, and the metaphysical concerns have shifted to erotica.
The Conqueror Worm
Director: Michael Reeves, 1968, United Kingdom
Also known as The Witchfinder General
This move derives its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Conqueror Worm” but the poem has nothing to do with the plot on any literal level. Instead, it affirms that the Conqueror Worm (i.e. death) is the hero of “…the tragedy, ’Man.’” Because Edgar Allan Poe was considered a sure draw for horror movie audiences, this film is sometimes titled Edgar Allan Poe’s Conqueror Worm but this was only a marketing ploy. The movie’s alternate title is more accurate: Vincent Price stars in this costume drama as the East Anglian witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, who adopted the title Witchfinder General.
Although the film is not exactly accurate, it is based on historical events; its premise is that tension between Royalists and Cromwell’s forces during England’s Civil War resulted in women’s increased vulnerability to charges of witchcraft.
Conqueror Worm was considered a very violent film when it was released. It also incorporates scenes of sexuality and doesn’t shy away from the sexual satisfaction witch-finders and torturers sought from their endeavors. Because torture scenes are integral to the plot, rather than just gratuitous, witch trials lend themselves to exploitation by horror movies. Conqueror Worm was revolutionary because it unequivocally portrayed the witch-hunters, rather than witches, as the true source of evil. Matthew Hopkins and his henchmen are portrayed as the monsters, rather than the people he persecutes. True horror is shown to exist, not in witchcraft, but in the pleasure some take in tormenting others. See WITCHCRAZE!: England.
Director: Andrew Fleming, 1996, United States
Troubled teens dabble in witchcraft, discover their power and find more trouble. That about sums up the plot of this movie. Superficially this is a witch-friendly movie but at its core it’s about the dangers of playing with witchcraft.
The heroine, Sarah, has shown manifestations of psychic power since childhood. The movie begins as she moves to Los Angeles. Sarah is enrolled in a Catholic school where she meets a party of three would-be witches searching for a fourth so that each of the cardinal directions may be represented by an individual witch during rituals.
The girls are self-taught. Sarah is seen reading the Witches’ Almanac. (See BOOKS: Almanacs.) They haunt an occult bookshop where the other girls encourage Sarah to shoplift. The store’s proprietor, an experienced, educated witch, is the closest The Craft gets to a true heroine.
The film defines witches as people who “make things happen.” Witchcraft is used for healing scars and protection but is most often used in The Craft for “getting back” at enemies. The Craft features the girls engaging in assorted “witchcraft rituals” that are strongly influenced by high ritual magic and Gardnerian Wicca.
On the one hand, witchcraft isn’t mocked and the girls aren’t shown as ridiculous for engaging in magical practices. Magic is demonstrated as genuine and valid, albeit unpredictable and dangerous. However, it’s crucial to realize that The Craft was intended as a horror fantasy in the same manner as Cat People or Burn, Witch, Burn! One doesn’t expect reality from horror fantasy and although the four young “witches” wear modern clothing and engage in rituals that resemble witchcraft, The Craft is not a depiction of modern Wicca or Neo-Paganism, nor is it any more real than any other cinematic version of witchcraft. If one wished to view this movie in a positive fashion, one could say that it shows that those who play with magic without knowledge or respect destroy themselves and others in the process. However scenes that allegedly depict spiritual invocation are just as false and disrespectful as the way old Hollywood movies depicted Voodoo and pagan spirituality in general.
See DICTIONARY: Wicca; HORNED ONE: Krampus; MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession.
Disney’s Animated Witches
Walt Disney Studios has become synonymous with animated family features; wicked witches are among Disney’s most popular villains. “Popular” is the proper term; although Disney’s animated witches almost inevitably conform to stereotyped visions of evil witches, many adore them and consider them the true stars of the movies in which they star—their power and energy redeeming what many otherwise might consider insipid features.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Premiering on December 21, 1937, this was the very first full-length animated film. Before its premiere, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was considered to be Walt Disney’s folly, his crazy experiment; conventional wisdom suggested that no one would sit through a 90-minute cartoon. Walt Disney literally bet the house on his experiment; he mortgaged his home to pay for the film’s production. Conventional wisdom was proved wrong: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became one of the biggest hits of motion picture history and set the stage for the plethora of animated films that followed.
Another animated wicked stepmother witch-queen complete with magic hand mirror exists in the 1933 Fleischer Studio’s Betty Boop cartoon Snow White. This witch sings “Magic mirror in my hand, who’s the fairest in the land?” and flies on her broomstick as Cab Calloway sings St James Infirmary Blues over the seemingly dead Snow White.
The movie’s plot is loosely based on the Grimm’s fairy tale of the same name. A cartoon witch also appeared in the 1932 short, “Babes in the Woods,” one of Disney’s Silly Symphonies. She may have served as the model for Snow White’s crone-witch. The actress Gale Sondergaard was among the inspirations for the coldly beautiful witch-queen. Ironically, Sondergaard would eventually be considered “too attractive” to portray The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.
The witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs literally has two faces: she is a coldly beautiful, villainous queen but when she wishes to appear otherwise, she is able to transform herself into the very stereotype of the fairy-tale witch: the old, bent-over, warty crone. The witch is shown as a true occult practitioner; her prize possession is an interactive magic mirror complete with accurate astrological sigils. Her pet raven serves as her familiar and she possesses an underground laboratory fit for an alchemist.
Although now considered a children’s classic, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was initially considered too frightening for children. The film was considered terrifying—particularly the scene with the witch’s dungeon-laboratory with its spider and skeleton. In England, censors ruled that children under the age of 16 couldn’t see the film without adult accompaniment for fear that it would cause nightmares.
There’s no witch in Disney’s Cinderella! Or is there? Hmm, who might the witch be? Could it be the evil stepmother? Well, if one subscribes to the definition of “witch” as an evil, abusive woman, then I suppose she could be made to fit the mold. However, what about that other character, the older woman with her peaked cape, magic wand, magic spells, proclivity for pumpkins, and magic chant of “Bibbidi, Bobbidi, Boo!” Could she be the witch? Oh, no, that’s right she’s the “fairy godmother!”
What makes her a fairy rather than a witch? Well, she calls herself a fairy godmother. Maybe more importantly, she’s good rather than wicked. In truth, there’s often very little difference between supernatural witches and supernatural fairies, however Cinderella’s fairy godmother demonstrates the inability of Disney animated features (and many others as well) to allow for any witch other than an evil one.
That Cinderella herself, who is portrayed as conversing with animals, communing with fairies, and covered in soot like some pagan devotee, might also be construed as a witch—or at least a witch in training—is another story…
See FAIRIES; HORNED ONE: Chimney Sweep.
World premier: January 29, 1959.
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s “witch” is the flipside of Disney’s Cinderella’s “fairy godmother.” What is initially introduced as a “bad fairy” quickly transforms into an “evil witch.” The evil fairy-witch’s very name, Maleficent, derives from Maleficia: the practice of negative—and often fatal—witchcraft. The word, although obscure, is most famous from its use in the titles of witch-hunters’ manuals such as the Malleus Maleficarum. The movie’s “three good fairies” take the royal baby so as to keep her safe from the “evil witch Maleficent.”
The film is extremely dualist: the “good fairies” are completely good; the evil witch has no saving grace although, like Disney’s other witches in such films as The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Maleficent lights up the screen with her vitality and is often considered to steal the show from the “good” characters.
Maleficent is a goddess-like witch whose elements derive from traditional visions of witchcraft. She wears a black and red cape, the witches’ colors. Ravens serve as her familiars; her tool is the spindle and she has a magic staff. Maleficent shape-shifts into Hecate’s creature, the dragon, complete with bat’s wings. (The three good fairies may also be understood as stand-ins for the Fates or the Weird Sisters.)
See DIVINE WITCH: Hecate; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning; Spinning Goddesses.
The Little Mermaid
This 1989 animated feature film was very loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid. (The fairy tale lacks singing crabs or a happy ending.)
Ariel, the title character, is a sea princess who’d rather be human. In this context she may be understood as descended from Bell, Book and Candle’s Gillian or Bewitched’s Samantha, except that Ariel is a mermaid, not a witch. In order to fulfill her dream, Ariel must negotiate with Ursula, the sea witch. Ursula, another of Disney’s goddess-like witches, is an octopuswoman who dwells in a grotto to which she has been banished. The plot hinges on Ursula’s past history as a ruler and her desire to return to power and wreak revenge on those who have supplanted her, namely Ariel’s father, King Triton. Ursula’s personal myth is strongly reminiscent of Lilith and of Medusa. She possesses the accoutrements of the traditional witch: she has a magic mirror, crystal ball, potions, and two eel familiars, Flotsam and Jetsam, who resemble sea snakes and venture out to do her bidding. Pat Carroll voiced Ursula’s character, which (according to rumor anyway), was inspired by the actor Divine.
Director: Paul Wegener, 1920, Germany
According to legend, the golem was a huge, powerful artificial man crafted by Rabbi Judah Loewe to serve as a magical bodyguard for the oppressed Jewish community who lived locked in Prague’s Ghetto. (See HALL OF FAME: Rabbi Judah Loewe for further details.) The story was wildly popular and inspired many others, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The tale also inspired no less than three Paul Wegener movies, all loosely based on the original legend. This one, the last, still exists, as does a 1914 version, although a third is believed lost. Wegener was a pioneering star of early German cinema; in addition to directing this film, he also played the part of the Golem.
The Golem presents a vision of Rabbi Loewe casting a magic circle and engaging in high ritual magic as part of the creation of the Golem. He conjures up a spirit who breathes out smoky letters spelling the magic word that will animate the clay man. It is one of the most complete and complex scenes of magical work and is also considered a masterpiece of early cinema because of the effects used and created. Occult themes inspired much of Wegener’s work (see also Alraune and The Magician).
Harry Potter Film Series
There are scheduled to be seven books in author J. K. Rowling’s series featuring the boy wizard Harry Potter, however at the time of writing The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft only five books have yet been published. Likewise, seven movie adaptations are scheduled, one per book, however only three are, as yet, complete:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Director: Chris Columbus, released 2001
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Director: Chris Columbus, released 2002
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Director: Alfonso Cuaron, released 2004
The movies are fairly faithful, although edited, versions of the books and are thus discussed in depth later, in Literature: Harry Potter.
Häxan (The Witch)
Director Benjamin Christensen, 1922, Sweden
Born in Denmark in 1879, Christensen is considered a cinematic innovator and film-pioneer in the same league as directors like D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade. The surrealists found him inspirational and he is considered a major influence on the Spanish master director, Luis Buñuel. His epic silent film Häxan (pronounced hek-sen) was made in Sweden at the invitation of Svensk Filmindustri.
Häxan presents itself as an examination of witchcraft from a “cultural and historical perspective.” Initially it looks just like a straightforward documentary, but Christensen constantly plays with notions of reality. Häxan switches back and forth from documentary mode to reenactments of different eras told from different perspectives. The film is dizzying—like trying to define witchcraft. Häxan begins with ancient spirits (Pazuzu, Taweret, and Set, although Häxan identifies none by name) and progresses to medieval woodcuts that depict witches as grotesque. Eventually these woodcuts are brought to life. Christensen’s first witches are no less grotesque than the woodcuts they inspired, nor is their magic. A love potion, for instance, is crafted of cat feces and doves’ hearts.
Christensen casts himself as the devil, complete with horns and protruding tongue, and seems to have a lot of fun playing the part. Witches are portrayed making compacts with Satan and kissing his hind-quarters. (This may also be Christensen’s sardonic comment regarding what actors will do to gain a director’s favor.)
Häxan eventually shifts to tell the tale of witch persecutions from different perspectives and with very different witches. These witches include an old beggar woman as well as a very pretty young woman whose only crime may be stimulating lust in the heart of a repressed young priest. In general, women are depicted as susceptible to the wiles of Satan, including nuns. The witches’ sabbat includes heresy and desecration of church rites.
In 1967, the British film-maker Anthony Balch produced a sound version of Häxan, retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages, with a narrative provided by the writer William Burroughs and a jazz score featuring violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
Häxan contains some nudity and was risqué for its time. Just when you think Häxan is an extremely unsympathetic, negative view of witches and their persecution, the film’s perspective and sympathies shift. It proceeds to demonstrate fairly historically accurate renderings of the physical and emotional torture suffered by those accused of witchcraft. (Christensen really did make an intensive study of witchcraft and the Witchcraze.) The film graphically demonstrates instruments of torture and how they were used. Häxan doesn’t shy away from the sexual aspect of torture and the perversities of the torturers. It demonstrates how a mother’s desire to do anything to protect her child is fatally turned against her. Häxan eventually shifts again, bringing the history of witchcraft up to its own day. “Witchcraft” is now defined as an emotional disorder linked to depression, hysteria, and kleptomania. The film quotes eight million as the number of witches burned during Europe’s Witchcraze, although it does not cite its sources.
I Married A Witch
Director: René Clair, 1942, United States
Europe’s political turbulence stimulated the acclaimed French film director René Clair to labor in the United States. He brought his surrealist influences with him and thus created I Married A Witch, a magical film about a revived Salem witch and her old sorcerer dad. I Married A Witch is a smart, charming, funny fantasy and thus questions of historical accuracy are irrelevant, although obviously witches were not burned in New England.
I Married A Witch was very loosely based on Thorne Smith’s unfinished novel “The Passionate Witch.” (Smith, the author of the work on which the movie Topper is based, died before this, his final novel, was complete.) Veronica Lake stars as the witch Jennifer, although according to Lake’s autobiography, Clair initially did not want her, considering her to be little more than a starlet and fearing that she lacked the necessary comedic skills. (According to Lake, he apologized for his error within one week of start of filming.) Cecil Kellaway plays her incorrigible old sorcerer dad. (And just how old is father Daniel? He claims to be 80,000 years old. There’s some discrepancy in the movie as to whether Jennifer has existed since at least the time of Pompeii or whether she is only 290 years old.)
Various special effects include the witches traveling as smoke, Jennifer flying on a broomstick, and disapparating, as well as a flying automobile decades before Harry Potter. Jennifer is a charming, beautiful, child-like witch with a hearty appetite for food, fun, and romance. And although she does fall in love with a mortal (unwillingly; a spell goes wrong) she doesn’t suffer the angst of Bell, Book and Candle’s Gillian or the self-doubt of Cat People’s Irena. Jennifer is self-confident, determined, and happy with herself. The movie ends with the strong suggestion that this lineage of hereditary witches hasn’t ended just because Jennifer married a mortal.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Director: Hayao Miyazaki, 1989, Japan
The premise of this animated children’s feature film is that when witches turn 13 years old they must leave home for a year of independent study before they can become full-fledged witches. Kiki is one such student witch and the movie chronicles her adventures during this year.
Kiki’s Delivery Service ostensibly takes place in France but it’s really an alternative universe where towns have resident witches who provide services to the community including healing, spell-casting, and fortune-telling. (Kiki’s mother, for instance, is a potions master.) There is no suggestion that witches must hide their identity or skills. Kiki gets in trouble when her shaky broom-flight almost causes a traffic accident; however had she flown well, her appearance on a broom would not have raised eyebrows.
That flying broom is among the traditional witchcraft motifs in Kiki’s Delivery Service. (A crafty witch, Kiki makes her own brooms.) Witches look like regular people and are shown to come in various shapes and sizes; Kiki’s costume includes a big red hair bow and red shoes. She has a talking black cat, Jiji, as her familiar. (Black cats are the prevalent familiars in Kiki’s Delivery Service.) According to this movie, having a good heart is what makes a fine witch.
Macbeth remains among William Shakespeare’s most beloved works. The play and its witches are discussed in further detail in Literature: Macbeth, including why certain of the play’s witch scenes, including those incorporating the goddess Hecate, are most frequently omitted from modern productions.
There are many filmed versions of the Scottish play including animated feature films intended for children. The following are some of the most significant recent versions.
Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth
Director: Trevor Nunn, 1978, United Kingdom
Although the film was released in 1978, it features the Royal Shakespeare Company in director Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production of Macbeth featuring Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench as Lord and Lady Macbeth. This Macbeth is played in modern dress. The witches aren’t portrayed in stereotypical fashion in terms of resembling Halloween witches with pointy hats but are portrayed as ragged and disheveled. They could be any homeless women; nothing about their appearance particularly identifies them as witches. (Likewise the king, with whom the film visually contrasts them, wears no crown and appears clerical, rather than royal.)
Although two of the women are fair, their clothes are dark, as opposed to the king who is dressed in glowing white and wears a prominent cross. There is a strong visual contrast between the immaculate king in shining white and the dark ragged witches during the film’s opening scene. There is a primal, almost animal-like quality to these witches. The shining eyes of one of the witches suggests the ecstasies of shamanism. These dark storm-raising witches are contrasted with images of devout Christianity and are potent enough to scare and unnerve the warrior Macbeth.
Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth includes depiction of image magic, the piercing of a poppet (see MAGICAL ARTS: Image Magic). The movie omits Act 3, Scene 5 (the scene with Hecate on the heath).
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth
Director: Roman Polanski, 1971, United States
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth was produced by Playboy Productions. The screenplay was written by Polanski and Kenneth Tynan.The film opens with the Weird Sisters on the beach. There are no Halloween-style witch costumes but these are witches that witch-hunters would recognize. Their spell ingredients are grotesque. A gallows scene evokes witchcraze-era woodcuts. A young witch performs ana suromai, the ritual act of exposing the female genitals.
The story of Macbeth obviously held personal resonance for Polanski who lost his own wife and child through murder, as does McDuff. His is a very passionate version of the play. Polanski doesn’t soften Macbeth nor does he flinch from the cruelty of its times (scenes of bear-baiting are included, for instance), or the darkness and desolation of the play. Roman Polanski’s Macbeth powerfully depicts the true violence of what was done to McDuff ’s family: arson and the rape and murder of women and children. The killers enjoy themselves in the process.
An entire crowd of naked witches is shown at a sabbat, not merely the three Weird Sisters, although there is no devil present. Until Macbeth’s arrival, only women are present. In Polanski’s version of Macbeth, the “something wicked” of the infamous witches’ line, “by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” clearly indicates Macbeth. The extra witches’ scene with Hecate is omitted but there is a surprise ending with Donalbain, who is jealous of his brother Malcolm, seeking out the Weird Sisters.
Orson Welles’ Macbeth
Director: Orson Welles, 1948, United States
Orson Welles’ Macbeth is not the version of Macbeth the director is most famous for. His Black Macbeth, also known as The Voodoo Macbeth, set in nineteenth-century Haiti was not filmed. This 1936 theatrical production was created for the Negro Theater Unit, an off-shoot of the Federal Theater Project, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal program. It featured an all black cast set in Haiti with voodooist witches. Allegedly a “genuine witchdoctor” was hired to serve as consultant. The Hecate scene was left in although the goddess was played by a man. Like his later film version, Black Macbeth met with snide reviews but was enormously successful, and had a sold-out ten-week run as well as a national tour.
This dark (literally!) low-budget production and expressionistic vision of Macbeth was completed in 23 days. Welles created a new character, a monk, to serve in opposition to the witches. His version explores the question, do the witches reveal his destiny or do they tempt Macbeth to do evil? The first image in the movie is of the three Weird Sisters, the witches as Fates. The witches brandish the Y-shaped sign of ancient womanhood (the downward facing triangle atop a staff) but are chased away by the sign of the cross.
She may be understood as summoning spirits but also fulfills the classical Greek definition of witch as poisoner. (She drugs the king’s guards’ drinks.)
The “extra” witchcraft scenes are omitted.
Orson Welles’ Macbeth was the last film the director made in the United States before beginning a long European exile. His intent was to prove he could make a low-budget film. The film was not initially a success; the studio for which he made it hated it, although the film has since achieved much praise. The studio objected to the Scottish accents that Welles used to provide authenticity, redubbed the voices and insisted on sizable edits.
Director: Ingmar Bergman, 1958, Sweden
Also known as The Face
Dr Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre arrives in Stockholm in 1846. The troupe features Vogler (Max von Sydow), a traveling conjurer, his young male assistant, who turns out to be Vogler’s beautiful wife disguised in drag, and his 200-year-old grandmother, a traditional witch. Naima Wifstrand plays Granny Vogler. The troupe, an old-fashioned medicine show, incorporating sleight-of-hand with healing, fortunetelling, and magical practice, is on the run from the law. They must obtain legal permission to perform in Stockholm and so attract further attention from the authorities, who seek to humiliate Vogler.
A wealthy merchant and a menacing physician conspire to experiment on Vogler to determine scientifically whether or not magic powers really do exist. Vogler’s tormentors hold him captive and insist that he demonstrate his alleged powers or expose himself as a fraud. In the meantime Granny Vogler is selling her surefire home-made love potion underneath the nose of the authorities and a grieving mother fervently hopes that Vogler’s powers are real.
Granny Vogler is a wonderful witch: smart, sharp, and confident of her power; simultaneously the genuine article and a con artist.
The Magician illustrates the split caused or aggravated during the witch-hunt era between various branches descended from shamanism. If sleight-of-hand artists publicly acknowledged that their act was mere tricks and illusion, than theoretically they were free from accusations of sorcery or witchcraft. Safety arises from denying magic and denouncing witches.
Director: Rex Ingram, 1926, United States
This black-and-white silent film starring Paul Wegener as the title character is considered an early horror classic and served as inspiration for many others movies. The film is loosely based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Magician, which was inspired by Aleister Crowley. (See Literature: The Magician.)
Ingram read Maugham’s novel shortly after it was published in 1908. Crowley was then still alive and at the height of his notoriety. The film is rumored to have contained fairly “realistic” scenes of necromancy and diabolism, although exactly what is meant by this is unknown. Critics hated the movie, describing it as sordid and vulgar. Maugham allegedly wasn’t pleased with it either. Within a few years, the three existing prints had disappeared and have never been found. The Magician is believed lost forever. Only a few still photographs survive. Ingram’s career, previously very distinguished, went into decline and never recovered amid some muttering about “the curse of Crowley.”
The Mask of Satan (La Maschera del Demonio)
Director: Mario Bava, 1960, Italy
Also called Black Sunday (US) and The Revenge of the Vampire (UK)
Mario Bava (1914—1980) was the master and originator of gialla, the Italian genre of horrorthriller films. The Mask of Satan was Bava’s directorial debut. (The cameraman/director of photography had “rescued” other projects behind the scenes, however.) The plot was very loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s story The Vij first published in 1835. Bava allegedly wanted to film it ever since he read it aloud to his children and terrified them.
Barbara Steele plays the dual roles of Princess Asa and Princess Katia. The Mask of Satan is a very dark fairy tale. Many were confused as to whom the movie was targeted and so it was a controversial film upon its release. It was clearly oriented for adults yet the story is a fairy tale complete with witches and vampires, popularly perceived as fare for juveniles, during those pre-Anne Rice, pre-occult renaissance days.
As a result, American International Pictures barred its theatrical exhibition to children under the age of 12. When the film was released in the US in 1961, it had been re-dubbed and rescored, with over three minutes of erotic and violent content deleted. (The original director’s cut is now available on a DVD from Image Entertainment.) The film remained banned in the UK until 1968. It was reassessed following the success of Conqueror Worm (see page 257).
Mask of Satan begins with a witch burning that takes place circa 1630 in Moldavia. Princess Asa is a vampire-witch although in this part of the world there is traditionally a close connection between the two. (The belief is that witches transform into vampires when they die.) Princess Asa remains in her crypt for 200 years until a scientist inadvertently releases her and she sallies forth to wreak revenge on the descendants of those who tortured her and her beloved partner, who was also burned at the stake as a witch.
Exactly what is Princess Asa—a Satanist, witch, vampire, some or all of the above? It’s never definitively clear. Although she is accused of devotion to Satan, there is nothing to indicate exactly what form that devotion takes. One could substitute the name for any pagan deity and the film would still work. There is no traditional diabolism as in Rosemary’s Baby, although these are traditional vampires who cringe and flee when faced with the cross.
The Grand Inquisitor is the witch Princess Asa’s own brother. (There is also some question as to the relationship between the Princess and her faithful companion Juvutich. Although this is glossed over in the English dub, the original version suggests that he is another brother and that incest is their true crime.)
Although conceived as a “horror” film, the horrors are real: the witch is branded and a “mask of Satan” is hammered onto her face, practices that existed. (The film’s mask is described as bronze; real-life ones would likely have been iron.) Satan’s mask is tusked like a boar. Of course Mask of Satan is not realistic: even when lashed to the stake, Barbara Steele is very beautiful. If the film were to be true to life, all her hair, including her eyebrows, would have been shorn and she would have been naked rather than clothed, as she is here, although she is disheveled and her clothes are erotically torn.
As the mask is hammered onto Princess Asa’s face, it is filmed so that it appears to momentarily be placed over the viewer’s own face. For that moment, we too are lashed to the stake and gaze through the eyes of the Mask of Satan.
This cinematic fairy tale features many elements of traditional witchcraft: the magic powers of the forest, swamp, and cemetery are illustrated. Toads, bats, and dragons appear and a portrait of Princess Asa depicts her naked with a snake. The film also includes the popular theme of the skeptical, arrogant scientist who is confronted with mysterious, unbelievable (to him) occult truths, as in Burn, Witch, Burn! or Weird Woman.
Note: this remains a horror film even if by the standards of the twenty-first century it is no longer quite as scary as when it was first produced. Certain touches remain grotesque: for instance, the vampires must be staked through the left eye, rather than the more customary (and discreet) heart.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Director: Clint Eastwood, 1997, United States
This film adaptation of John Berendt’s book of the same name, itself based on true events, opens with a shot of the root-worker Minerva, played by Irma P. Hall. Although she is not as significant a character as she is in the book—based on the movie alone, it’s unclear how important a part Minerva plays—she still exerts her power over the film. She is shown in the courthouse, the graveyard, and in a park and is responsible for articulating one of the movie’s major themes when she says that in order to understand the living, one must commune with the dead.
Minerva is a conjure woman in her own right but is also introduced as the widow of the famous hoodoo doctor, Dr Buzzard. Minerva is much more fully fleshed-out in the novel. Whether you understand why Minerva is introduced as the “most important person of the defense team” depends largely upon how many stories about Dr Buzzard you’ve heard; the movie doesn’t spell it out. Dr Buzzard acquired much of his renown because of his alleged ability to magically “fix” court cases for his clientele. A flamboyant, easily recognized man, Dr Buzzard attended daily sessions of court on behalf of his clients; his was a very public presence. Minerva, as Dr Buzzard’s spouse, presumably learned his tricks or maybe even taught him a trick or two. She is seen faithfully attending court, the way Dr Buzzard did; the implication is that her client’s final victory may be credited to her magical skill.
Director: Roman Polanski, 1968, United States
Rosemary’s Baby was adapted from the Ira Levin novel of the same name. Both the novel and film were extremely popular. Mia Farrow stars as Rosemary, a young, devout woman originally from the Midwestern United States, the “heartland,” now living in New York City with her husband Guy, an actor. The film begins as they move into a spacious Gothic-styled apartment building, the Branford, although a trusted friend with metaphysical interests has warned them of the interesting people who were once tenants. Apparently some cannibal witches known as the Trench Sisters lived there at one time; another witch, Adrian Marcato, was allegedly murdered in the building’s courtyard. Guy and Rosemary laugh but Rosemary, at least, won’t be laughing for long. (In actual fact, the building Rosemary’s Baby calls the Branford is really the Dakota, genuinely renowned for its interesting artistic residents, most notably John Lennon and Yoko Ono.)
Initially everything seems to be going so well for Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse: their apartment is beautiful, the neighbors are friendly, if perhaps overly solicitous, Guy’s career soars, and Rosemary becomes pregnant, but odd occurrences with the neighbors and what seem to be disturbing dreams make Rosemary fear that something is very wrong. Indeed she is correct. Those lovely neighbors, an eccentric elderly couple named Minnie and Roman Castevet, played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer, are witches, and they have big plans for Rosemary’s baby.
When first released, Rosemary’s Baby was considered shocking and surprising: the film begins so innocuously that its diabolical plot, complete with scheming, secretive devil-worshipping witches, was perceived as a surprise twist. The face of evil, in Rosemary’s Baby, wears a kindly smile and is, at least superficially, warm and nurturing. The closest thing to a “telltale sign of witchcraft” is the witch Minnie Castevet’s knowledge of herbs and her production of home-made healing potions. Spells are cast through food, most notably the delicious chocolate mousse that, as Rosemary comments, possesses an “undertaste.”
Ruth Gordon won the Oscar and Golden Globe awards for best supporting actress for her role as the chatty Upper West Side witch, Minnie Castevet—the only person ever to win an Oscar for playing a witch.
Rosemary’s Baby’s witches correspond to the deepest fears of the medieval witch-hunters. These witches aren’t just casting little money spells or playing in the herb garden; they’re part of a murderous conspiracy whose raison d’etre is to fatally undermine the Roman Catholic Church. And how one perceives the Vatican, frankly, will color just how frightening and evil Rosemary’s Baby’s witches will be perceived.
The true underlying theme of Rosemary’s Baby is betrayal and whether one ever really knows those whom we think we know most intimately. This reflects medieval witch-hunters’ warnings that one never knows where Satan and his attendant witches lie in wait.
The Seventh Seal
Director: Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden
The movie’s plot revolves around a fourteenthcentury crusader knight and his burly squire, who have returned home to a Sweden ravaged by the Black Death. Among those they encounter is a young “witch” convicted of having carnal knowledge of the devil.
The Seventh Seal is not necessarily historically accurate for its specific time and place; however it is a reasonably accurate depiction of what was done to those accused of witchcraft at the height of the witchcraze. In other words, what is shown may be not accurate for fourteenth-century Sweden but is reasonably accurate for sixteenth-century German or French territories.
The witch is first seen in stocks. She has been accused of causing the plague. Her hair is shorn. She has clearly been tortured and is emotionally as well as physically broken. She is then transported to her execution, carried backwards in a wagon. Her hands are broken; she is tied to a ladder. Through the eyes of the various witnesses (the knight, his squire, and the motley entourage they have acquired) the witch’s burning is perceived as terribly brutal, even evil (the burning, not the witch). It is vividly clear that this burning is a horrible miscarriage of justice—cruel, callous, corrupt, and pointless.
Siberian Lady Macbeth (Sibirska Ledi Magbet)
Director: Andrzej Wajda, 1962, Yugoslavia
Also known as Fury is a Woman
The great Polish film director Andrzej Wajda filmed this Yugoslavian production adapted from a story by N. S. Ljeskov Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It also obliquely draws on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Macbeth’s trio of witches does not appear in Siberian Lady Macbeth. So then, who is the witch? There are scholars who consider that Lady Macbeth may represent a fourth witch or that if the Weird Sisters are understood to really be Fate goddesses, then perhaps Lady Macbeth is the true witch. This is particularly so if her speech in Shakespeare’s Act 1, Scene 5, regarding the spirits, is understood literally. In that case, Lady Macbeth conjures her own spirits independently.
The “heroine” of Siberian Lady Macbeth, Katarina Lvovna (played by Olivera Markovic) doesn’t know her “place.” Her father-in-law suggests that she’s ungodly, doesn’t read her scriptures and, in short, is not a good Christian woman. She’s too bold, too sexually assertive, doesn’t do housework, although she brews a killer cup of tea, and is accused of infertility, which is understood as her “fault,” a punishment on her ungodly ways.
The witchcraft in Siberian Lady Macbeth is subtle. Katarina casts a fertility spell involving a mare, which sets the rest of the plot in motion. The spell comes true but in an unexpected manner, as spells are often wont to do. Siberian Lady Macbeth obliquely cautions that the danger of spell-casting is that a chain of reactions is initiated that can’t necessarily be predicted or stopped.
Spirited Away (Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki, 2001, Japan
This animated feature film is considered to be among director Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces. Spirited Away won Miyazaki an Oscar for animation and shared the prize for best film at the Berlin Film Festival.
Spirited Away plots the adventures of tenyear-old Chihiro, first observed moving to a new home with her parents. On the way, they wander into a mysterious abandoned ghost town. In a scene worthy of Circe, the parents wolf down the delicious food discovered in a deserted restaurant. As night falls and the spirits who reside in this town wake, Chihiro’s parents transform into pigs.
It turns out that what appeared to be an empty landscape is actually a resort-town centering on Abura-ya, the Bathhouse of the Spirits. Spirits journey from all over Japan to visit the bathhouse, take the herbal baths, rest, and recuperate.
Chihiro is rescued by a mysterious boy, who tells her that the only way to save herself and her parents is to labor in the Bathhouse of the Spirits. The manager of the bathhouse is the witch Yubaba. (Suzanne Pleshette does Yubaba’s voice for the English language version of Spirited Away.)
Yubaba resembles an elderly, elegant Central or Eastern European lady, although she does possess the stereotypical witch’s large wart. Yubaba is greedy, sharp-tongued, and hardhearted. In nature, if not in appearance, she resembles the great Russian witch, Baba Yaga. Yubaba is able to transform into a bird and fly. The plot will eventually hinge on her rivalry with her sister-witch.
See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; PLACES: Bathhouse.
Throne of Blood (Kumonosu Jo)
Director: Akira Kurosawa, 1957, Japan
Also known as Castle of the Spider’s Web
Throne of Blood transplants William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to sixteenth-century Japan, a period of tremendous feudal conflict. It stars Toshiro Mifune as Captain Washizu, the Macbeth role. The film is strongly influenced by Japanese Noh theatre, and perhaps because it is a Japanese film it doesn’t play into Western stereotypes of witches.
The characters corresponding to Macbeth and Banquo, Washizu and Miki, are lost in the woods, in this particular case the labyrinthine “Cobweb Forest.” There they discover a mysterious, solitary apparition, an elderly spinner who may be a witch, an old lady or a spider spirit. The witch resembles a white spider (and in East Asia, the color white is often associated with death and decay). She proceeds to sing their fate.
The “witch” or “old ghost woman” is played by Chieko Naniwa. She’s identified as a “witch” or as the “woman in the forest” in the English subtitles. The “witch” spins and sings in a little hut in the forest. Although the witch is not stereotyped, the reactions to her are. One character suggests that Washizu and Miki are “bewitched” and acting under her spell rather than responsible for their own actions, which refers to the paradox central to Macbeth: does a prophecy reveal reality or create it?
Eventually, Washizu goes back to the forest seeking what he calls the “Evil Spirit.” The very forest mocks him. The old forest woman now manifests to him as a shape-shifting androgynous witch who prophesies near a human skull and bones, similar to a Baba Yagalike death goddess. (See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga.)
Director: Reginald LeBorg, 1944, United States
The earliest of the three movies based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, Weird Woman was the second of six low-budget horror movies produced by Universal Pictures as part of its Inner Sanctum Mystery series. (At the time, Inner Sanctum was an immensely popular radio program in the United States; the movie series was an attempt to translate this popularity to the big screen.)
Lon Chaney Jr stars as an anthropology professor whose specialty is the occult and ancient spirituality. For him this is purely an academic subject; he has no belief in his chosen topic and even less respect for it. Anne Gwynne plays his young island bride, a white woman, a professor’s orphaned daughter, brought up by Natives and thus, according to the movie, infected by their primitive superstition. Her new husband wants to return her to civilization and rid her of her superstitious beliefs, although he is not averse to using her as his primary source for authoring a bestseller.
Anne Gwynne, as the witch, is the most sympathetic character in the movie. She is sweet, sincere, spiritual, loving, and good. Her magic spells are cast solely to protect her loved ones. She is shown casting spells in the cemetery, however the worst that can be said of her is that she is weird and misguided. There is never a suggestion that she is evil, unlike her rival, a conniving, jealous ex-lover of the professor, who is clearly not a witch.
A prominent theme of Conjure Wife is that all women are witches. Weird Woman shies away from this; only Anne Gwynne and the Polynesian priestess are depicted as “genuine” witches. However, at the film’s conclusion, one of the rational characters, not a witch, played by Elizabeth Russell (Cat People’s unabashed cat-woman and The Seventh Victim’s Mimi) casts an amazingly effective and deadly spell without realizing what she’s done. Although at the last minute it’s rationalized as a spooky coincidence, Weird Woman clearly shows that anyone—or at least any women—possessing passion and motivation can cast a spell.
Witch Hammer (Kladivona Carodejnice)
Director: Otakar Vavra, 1969, Czechoslovakia
Witch Hammer is adapted from Vaclav Kaplicky’s novel of the same name, which recounts the disasters that befall when witch-hunters are invited to investigate witchcraft in a Moravian town during the seventeenth century. (See Literature: Witch Hammer, page 295.)
Vavra, the renowned Czech director, became fascinated with the topic of the witch trials. He sought out an archivist who translated the original accounts of approximately two hundred seventeenth-century witch trials. Authentic quotes were incorporated into the screenplay, which was written by Vavra himself together with screenwriter Ester Krumbachova.
Kaplicky’s novel is a straightforward tale of the effects of witch-hunting on a Moravian town and its inhabitants. However, in the film version, similar to Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, the witch trials were intended to serve as a political metaphor. In his autobiography Vavra said that the witch trials reminded him of the political trials staged by the Communist government in the 1950s.
In post-1968 Czechoslovakia, witch trial as metaphor was only too clear: fearing that it would stimulate discussion and rebellion, government authorities refused to allow screenings of Witch Hammer in Prague. Witch Hammer was only shown well outside the city but was still a very successful film in Czechoslovakia. It was also shown throughout Western Europe and in Canada. Witch Hammer won a special award for artistic achievement at the Mar del Plata International Film Festival in 1971.
Director: Richard Shorr, 1979, United States
The third and most recent version of Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife featured Richard Benjamin as the professor, Terri Garr as his witchy wife, and Lana Turner in her final role as Vivian, the powerful older witch. (See Burn, Witch, Burn!, page 255 and Weird Woman, page 271.)
The basic framework of the story is retained: a professor of ethnology is successful because his wife has cast various spells. He refuses (or is unable) to believe in magic; when the spells are removed, however, all hell breaks loose, disaster strikes. The wife becomes vulnerable and he himself is forced to resort to witchcraft to save her.
Witches’ Brew takes place on a modern suburban campus. The witches are depicted as suburban matrons. Their spells are disgusting, rather than seductive (ingredients include lamb’s blood, cat urine, and bat guano) and lack any basis in any magical tradition whatsoever.
Unlike the book or the two earlier filmed versions, the witches now openly practice on their husbands. The husband doesn’t believe in magic any more than in other versions, however in Witches’ Brew he humors his wife and cooperates with her spells: he describes witchcraft as his wife’s “hobby.” The notion that a husband can destroy his wife’s personal property and order her about was deemed too old-fashioned for this version of Conjure Wife. Instead, the aggravated wife takes a “vacation from witchcraft” to teach her disbelieving husband a lesson. She voluntarily removes all spells herself, leaving herself as well as her husband vulnerable to magical attack.
Also for the first time, the witches are implied to be diabolical; some of them hatch Lucifer from a stone egg. Witches’ Brew’s witches and their spells and rituals lack any basis in any historical, folkloric or spiritual magical tradition: according to the film the rule of witchcraft is “use only as much force as needed to get the work done.”
The Wizard of Oz
Director: Victor Fleming, 1939, United States
The 1939 MGM film based loosely on L. Frank Baum’s novel of the same name is considered a film classic, an exciting modern fairy tale for children. The story recounts the adventures of young Dorothy Gale of Kansas who gets caught up in a whirlwind with her loyal dog Toto and lands in the magical land of Oz, from where she desperately strives to return to Kansas. Along the way she meets all kinds of interesting creatures, not least being two powerful witches: a good one dressed in pink, and a green-skinned wicked witch whose image draws deeply upon traditional witch-lore.
L. Frank Baum intended his book to serve as a modern fairy tale for modern children. (See Literature: Wicked; The Wizard of Oz.) MGM Studios was inspired by the success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to create a family-friendly fantasy film. The movie was not easy to make: there were dilemmas regarding casting (it was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Shirley Temple, not Judy Garland) and direction. Several versions of the script were written and doctored by several different people before The Wizard of Oz was completed.
Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz has Dorothy encountering many threats and obstacles in an Odyssey-like journey to get home. In the movie, only the Wicked Witch remains. The book is about Dorothy’s Odyssey; the movie is almost as much about killing the witch as it is about getting home. Margaret Hamilton’s witch only appears for a total of 12 minutes on screen and yet her presence is absolutely pervasive.
The word “witch” pops up early in the movie, well before Dorothy’s arrival in Oz: Dorothy calls Miss Gulch “a wicked old witch” with “witch” intended in its pejorative sense. When Dorothy runs away, she meets Professor Marvel, a medicine show conjuror. He is an occultist or at least pretends to be one, illusionist, and bona fide scam artist. His Gypsy caravan, crystal ball, occultist’s turban, and the mask over his door all evoke actual witchcraft traditions. And the cyclone itself may be interpreted as a sign of witchcraft, as it would be in many places from rural Mexico to Russia. Witches traditionally travel in the form of destructive whirlwinds. (Dorothy’s first glimpse of the Wicked Witch on her broom comes in the midst of this storm.)
L. Frank Baum’s book initially had four witches: the movie reduces them to three but only two are actually shown on-screen. No Miss Gulch exists in Baum’s book. The screenwriter Noel Langley, assigned by MGM to write a treatment for the Wizard of Oz, invented Miss Gulch, who then reappears as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Glinda the Good Witch announces “Let the joyous news be spread, the wicked old witch is dead!” An incredibly joyful, catchy song follows as everyone celebrates “Ding dong! The witch is dead!” Can you imagine if any other profession, ethnic, religious or spiritual group were substituted for the “witch” in that song? It is hard to envision that so many would sing it so blithely, carelessly, and happily although it is truly an extremely infectious tune.
The Wizard of Oz turns the notion of witch-burning on its head: instead of burn, witch, burn, it gives us melt, witch, melt.
The Wizard of Oz displays some double-standards when it comes to the Wicked Witch and her alter ego, Miss Gulch:
Why exactly is the Wicked Witch wicked? Dorothy manages to kill two witches and is not described as “wicked.” Although she never intentionally meant to kill them, neither does she show even a moment’s remorse. Dorothy returns to the Wizard quite happily bragging about melting the witch.
What was Toto’s crime? In the words of Dorothy, he chased Miss Gulch’s “nasty old cat.” (The cat is the stereotyped witch-animal.) Why is Miss Gulch not expected to defend her pet in the manner that Dorothy defends Toto? Like Rapunzel’s father, Toto and Dorothy have been repeatedly trespassing in the witch’s garden and although this is glossed over, apparently Toto bit Miss Gulch. Would the movie be this light-hearted if an animal had bitten Dorothy?
When Dorothy says witches are old and ugly, Glinda’s response is that “only bad witches are ugly.” Compare this to the response of the old grandmother witch in Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician. When a pretty young girl comments on how old and ugly the witch is, she calmly responds that the girl will look no better herself when she reaches the witch’s advanced age.
Like the Blair Witch Project (see page 254) and so many fairy tales, Dorothy’s journey through the woods is characterized by fear; fear of darkness, wild animals, lions, tigers, and bears. The Wicked Witch, however, is at home in the “Haunted Forest” just like fairy-tale witches and assorted witch-goddesses from Artemis and Kybele to Baba Yaga.
Dorothy is unhappy in the woods but comfortable and secure in the Emerald City, where everything is artificial and completely controlled. Even if everything is green in the Emerald City, there’s no natural foliage. It is a world of illusion (good, acceptable magic because it isn’t really magic) versus the primal symbolism of the Wicked Witch.
What kind of a witch is the Wicked Witch? In some ways she’s a supernatural witch: she throws fireballs by hand and literally rides through the sky on her broomstick. On the other hand, she’s also associated with traditional and very realistic elements of witchcraft and magical practice: the Wicked Witch is a crystal gazer. She’s also seen with a mortar and pestle, the pestle stained red. She casts a sleeping spell on Dorothy with red poppies, flowers that are not only traditionally identified with anesthesia but also with women’s primal menstrual power and that are sacred to many powerful goddesses. (See BOTANICALS: Opium Poppy.)
The witches were initially not considered central to the movie. Look at early posters and advertisements for The Wizard of Oz: Judy Garland, her three pals, and even the Wizard are featured prominently, but rarely is either the good or wicked witch. The witches were initially understood as so unimportant that an earlier Wizard of Oz movie, director Larry Semon’s 1925 silent version featuring Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame) as the Tin Woodsman, doesn’t even include witches at all. (The wizard does appear as a shyster illusionist identified by the title cards as a “Wizard of the Black Art.”)
Nor was the Wicked Witch of the West originally envisioned as a grotesque green crone. She was initially envisioned being as beautiful as Glinda the Good Witch. The producer’s original plan was to cast Gale Sondergaard, who specialized in playing cold, villainous but gorgeous anti-heroines, as a glamorous, wicked witch. However there were objections from too many people who insisted that a witch must be ugly and hateful. (This early concept of the Wicked Witch as evil and sinister but also seductively beautiful was influenced by Disney’s Snow White’s witch-queen: a glamorous, fascinating, alluring woman.) Screen tests of Sondergaard as a “glamorous evil witch” left viewers dissatisfied: they didn’t fulfill audience fantasies of what a “witch” should be. (Columnist Louella Parsons noted at the time that Sondergaard was “too pretty” for the part of the wicked witch.)
Exit Sondergaard and enter Margaret Hamilton. Initially she was merely intended to look disheveled, but her appearance was gradually adjusted: her nose and chin were restructured to appear scary and grotesque, and her hair was restyled, pulled back tight so as to emphasize her new jagged profile.
Attempts to create a scary witch were almost too successful: in addition to trimming the movie for reasons of length, the director Victor Fleming decided, based on the reactions of preview audiences, to tone down some of the more threatening aspects of the Wicked Witch. Children were apparently terrified; some scared enough to run from the theater. At least a dozen of Margaret Hamilton’s lines were cut from various scenes, including some verbal threats to Dorothy and her friends. Her skywriting threat was edited from “Surrender Dorothy or die WWW” to just the first two words.
Of course, the Wicked Witch of the West is not the only witch in the movie. Billie Burke, the widow of the impresario Florenz Ziegfield, played Glinda, the Good Witch. (Billie Burke was also not originally envisioned in that role; among the first casting suggestions for Glinda were Fanny Brice and Beatrice Lillie.)
Glinda emerges from a bubble, and wears a high crown and wings. While described as a witch, she corresponds to the stereotype of the fairy queen. Although Glinda looks beautiful and is self-identified as a “good witch” she’s not always very nice: Glinda teases the Wicked Witch with the ruby slippers, then slips the shoes onto Dorothy’s feet. After the Wicked Witch goes up in red smoke and flames, Glinda advises Dorothy that the young girl has made a “bad enemy” of the Wicked Witch, but it is Glinda who has orchestrated it.