A History of Horror #6: Witchcraft

The Witch, 2015 (A24)
On 22nd March, 1895, the corpse of Bridget Cleary was found in a shallow grave in her hometown of Ballyvadlea, Ireland. Cleary had been reported missing the week before, and prior to that she had been gravely ill with an unspecified disease. During the final days before she disappeared, Cleary was visited by physicians, priests, and several members of her friends and family. It was believed by some that she had been replaced by a fairy sent to take Cleary's place, and a number of home remedies were administered on her. She was carried before a fireplace to cast the fairy out before she mysteriously disappeared. When the coroner examined her body a week later, he returned a verdict of death by burning.

Throughout the history of folklore, there's never been anything quite as unsettling or mysterious as the practice of witchcraft. Its concept as a device of horror dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

While the existence of black magic and mysticism has long been dismissed by its lack of scientific credibility, much of the world once believed in witchcraft and its charms during times of religious upheaval. The strict definition of the culture has been strained over the years due to its difference between every culture, but the two most common denominators are the beliefs of dark magic and spiritual voodoo.

 "Examination of a Witch" Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853.
In the Western world, witchcraft first gained footing within consensus belief in the early modern period (c. 1500-1800) and during the Protestant Reformation. This was due to its association with evil and worship of the Devil, which many used as a scapegoat for casting blame for human misfortune. It ultimately lead to witch hunts and trials, and led to the deaths of many perceived to be witches. It was during a 50-year-period, from 1580 to 1630, that the bulk of this mass hysteria took place in Europe, whereas Colonial America would soon pick up the pieces in the latter half of the century with the infamous Salem witch trials occurring in 1692. 

It was also during this period that the practice found itself ingrained into legislation. In Great Britain, a series of Witchcraft Acts consecrated itself into law and thus became a punishable offence. The Witchcraft Act of 1542 was the first to define it as a felony without benefit of clergy, a legal device that spared anyone able to read a passage from the Bible from hanging. Several more versions of this act came in the years that followed, and was not legally repealed until the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 which prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic, medium, or other spiritualist with the intention of profiting from the deception. This act was then also repealed in 2008 by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.

Witchcraft has been revived in the modern era by feminists to try new alternatives to wellness and self-help. In 2010, twenty-eight-year-old Erica Feldmann moved from Chicago to Salem, Massachusetts whilst writing her thesis on the witch as a feminist paradigm. Speaking to The Independent in August, Feldmann said, "The world needs the witch right now. We need a strong, powerful woman who doesn’t bow to societal norms. There’s been an imbalance of masculine energy for too long."

Erica Feldmann, modern day witch (Photo: Content Beauty)
Taking a glance at Erica Feldmann's Instagram page will show you that modern witchcraft couldn't be further from the stereotypical cackling old ladies that fly around on broomsticks and bake young children into pies. Instead, she says it's about "being in touch with your inner power. Being grounded, centred, setting boundaries and intentions." Of course, the concept of modern witches may invite many skeptics to comment, but these disciplines to live by aren't as far-fetched as many should think.

In the world of horror art and fiction, witchcraft has become a popular subject for writers to explore. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, three witches appear to the eponymous character foreboding treason and doom. They represent darkness, chaos, and conflict, with their roles as agents of these horrors occurring during pivotal moments. This airs back to the times of Shakespeare's day when witches were seen as being in league with evil and were "spiritual and political traitors". They use temptation to cause this evil, by placing thoughts in Macbeth's mind that leads to him murdering King Duncan.

The boom of the novel a few centuries later coincided with the surge in witch hunts and common fear of witchcraft. Wilhelm Meinhold's 1838 novel The Amber Witch dealt with a father almost losing his daughter after she is accused of witchcraft by a rejected suitor. The 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum - inspired in many forms by the sense of magic and wonder in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) - featured several witches  of all morals playing key roles within the story.

The Wizard of Oz, 1939 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
The latter half of the 20th century also founded the popularity of the witch within children's novels. C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) featured The White Witch as the primary antagonist, who acts as the land of Narnia's self-proclaimed queen and imposes a tyrannical rule over it via an existence of "always winter but never Christmas". The most popular modern form of witchcraft in children's fiction has to be the Harry Potter series of books and films. Author J.K. Rowling crafted a universe in which children are selected to attend a school where they learn how to use magic and must use it to face a dark sorcerer whose power is slowly growing. For many people my age, I'm pretty sure this was their first exposure to witchcraft and magic in a fictional setting, and it continues to be a worldwide phenomenon to this day.

While television took more light-hearted takes on witchcraft, such as the 1960s sitcom Bewitched and the teen fantasy series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the subject has brought about a more darker tone in film. Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) features an American woman who enrols at a prestigious ballet academy in Germany, before discovering the institution is a front for something far more sinister. It featured the signature blood and gore effects of Italian horror cinema that Argento would become a key pioneer of. 1993's Hocus Pocus features three witch sisters who are resurrected on the night of Halloween. The Blair Witch Project (1999) chronicled the fictional story of three teenagers who go missing while filming a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend. Not only did this bring witchcraft horror to a millennial audience, but it also popularised the found footage genre which would become incredibly overused over the next two decades.

Within the last few years, two of my favourite films featuring witchcraft is The Witch (2015) directed by Robert Eggers, and The Love Witch (2016) by Anna Biller. Both films integrate the more classical depiction of witches with its modern feminist aspects. I think Eggers' film might even be one of the best horror films from this decade, with its clever use of atmosphere and depiction of period-appropriate dialogue.

For me, witchcraft as explored in horror has always been scary due to its real-world inspirations. The juxtaposition of women killed for their beliefs with a pseudo-fictional magical aesthetic has never sat right with me on many occasions. Some would say that the more real a horror story can become, the scarier it would be. I believe that horror can't get any more real than this. When you consider the horrible history behind witchcraft, nothing else comes that close.

Thank you for joining me for the beginning of the next season of A History of Horror. I had a lot of fun doing this last October and will be doing the weekly posts once again for this Halloween. If you didn't read #1-5, you can catch up here.

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