Since there are few sociological phenomena as troubling as the Witch-Hunt- not to mention, of more alarm to modern Pagans- it seemed worthwhile to point out some films that deal specifically with the historical issue of Witch-Hunting; perhaps some Pagan cinemaphiles will wish to check them out for cinematic perspective on the subject:
One of the first notable experiments with new-fangled film-technology was 1922′s Swedish Haxan (subtitled “Witchcraft Through the Ages”). Born of a visionary attempt to mount a historical presentation of the medieval Burning Times through the new art of “moving pictures,” the film may seem awfully quaint to 21st century audiences (part of its charm, to my mind). It takes great pains, however, to establish the Magickal belief-system of the Middle Ages; explain how Witchcraft fixed into this; and to examine the routes and procedures employed by the medieval church to associate Witchcraft with diabolism. Most damningly of all, Haxan bluntly displays the torture devices used to force victims into the confessions necessary for execution. One of the first times in the 20th century that the subject of medieval Witch-Hunting had been studied thoroughly, with an eye towards generating public understanding of the phenomenon, this film is one for which I have great admiration and affection.
There were apparently two methods of burning a condemned Witch to death, in the Middle Ages: the one most familiar to us, whereby you set up a stake, build a pyre around it, fasten the Witch to it, and then set the pile ablaze; and the other, whereby you build a huge fire, and having fastened the Witch to a wooden frame, pitch the frame and Witch into the blaze. The latter is depicted in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film-masterpiece The Seventh Seal. A sort of traveling tour through the Swedish Middle Ages- you meet strolling players, roaming flagellants, and sufferers of the Black Death, as well as victims of Witch-persecutions- the movie follows a disillusioned knight as he continues a prolonged chess game with Death. Moody and expressive, Seventh Seal is regarded as a cinema classic of world renown, preoccupied with the point and futility of Life, and the fear of Death. Few scenes match that of the hysterical, doomed woman, fated to die pitched into a bonfire as a medieval Witch.
Likely as not, when you think of late ’60s English horror films (especially ones starring Vincent Price), you think of something kind of campy and over-the-top. However, 1968′s Witchfinder General is apparently of another sort altogether- more of a historical drama, based upon the horrors inflicted in England in the 1640s, through the criminal activities of the notorious “Witchfinder General,” Matthew Hopkins. Taking advantage of the turmoil of the English Civil War, Hopkins and a disreputable associate made a brief career “finding” Witches in East Anglia: meaning that they perfected a series of torturous “non-torture” techniques to crush their victims, forcing confessions from them (due to the upheavals of the period, records are difficult, but it may be that Hopkins was responsible for some 300 deaths, in just about two years). Caveat: I have not seen this movie, but I have read such good things about it, that it is on my Witch-Movie Wish-List: apparently it is a cut above the usual low-budget “horror movie” standard, gathering many champions over the years; held at the time to have been extremely violent in its torture scenes, I gather that the shocked reactions came out of watching innocent people broken into acquiescence with charges that will condemn them. Mr. Price is said to be unusually restrained in the menace of his performance, and despite the lurid depictions of Witch-Burnings on the adverts (Witches were not burned in England), Witchfinder General appears to be a good (fictional) representation of the worst episode of Witch-Hunting in England’s history. (When the movie was released in the United States, it was re-titled The Conqueror Worm: which is such a strange identification and term, I’m not clear why they wished to do this.)
Then there is one of 20th century America’s masterpieces of theater, Arthur Miller’s 1952 play The Crucible. Written in both courageous and brilliantly intuitive response to the McCarthy “Communist Witch-Hunting” hearings, Miller’s play is the defining dramatic representation of the Salem Witch-Trials (although not necessarily the most historically accurate). Miller takes some perfectly acceptable artistic license- for instance, “upping” the age of Abigail Williams to approximately nineteen or so, in order to script a dramatically compelling illicit relationship between her and John Proctor (the real Abigail was something like thirteen); as well, for dramatic value, Miller envisions an actual Witches’ Meeting in the Massachusetts woods, led by the Witch-Slave Tituba, with the Salem Witch-girls participating. Again, very exciting and compelling- but probably not something likely to have genuinely happened in 17th century Puritan New England. However, this is the scene upon which the 1996 movie The Crucible opens. Faithful to the source material, yes, and a thrilling visual to start the film- but an invention, to start things off on an active (supernatural) note. The movie is, however, a very distinguished presentation of Miller’s text (still relevant in the 1990s and the 2000s), performed by a very impressive cast. For an accessible viewing of a well-done adaptation of a brilliantly written play, depicting the quintessential American Witch-Hunt: please check out this movie.
A curious Gallic film-fact, of which I was unaware: There is also, by the way, for those possessed of a penchant for incurable elan, a 1957 French film-adaptation of Miller’s work, called Les Sorcieres de Salem with a screenplay by Sartre (of all people), starring (as proto-American Puritans) Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. I appreciate what must be the existential sympathy felt by the peoples of France, for the victims of New England Witch-Hunting; still, I’m thinking that watching this movie must be a kind of surreal experience.