So-called “Pop-Culture Pagans” should find the new Wolverine movie a marked improvement over the last one (I love Superhero movies; like The Hulk, if you make one and it doesn’t work, just wait awhile and make it again). Pop-Culture Pagans believe that Paganism is not only located within an ancient past: it can be discerned within living Popular Culture; superheroes and superheroic storytelling are the obvious examples, as is the living legend (created in the mid-70s) of an animal-man who seems so like a human wolverine that he takes that name for his identity, and the beast as his totem. (Wolverine is a little like folklore told in comic books: once there was a man who was part man/ part wolverine.) A figure in the X-Men series, Wolverine’s mutant status gives him extra-human powers, but causes him at the same time to live an outcast life, separated from the “mere” humans around him (I maintain that this is a powerful metaphor for the modern Pagan as well, as we are currently somewhat outside of the mainstream, sort of the current “mutation” in modern religion). At the same time, this movie is the first in which Wolverine’s powers have been seriously threatened, making this movie more heroic than any of the previous ones, in that we see an increasingly non-superheroic man pushed to his limits, yet keep standing and fighting. If you are a fan of the comic books, the movie’s location in Japan (mirroring story-lines from the series), and the inclusion of Viper and the Silver Samurai are enjoyable (I kept waiting for Sunfire to show up). An excellent and exciting film, The Wolverine should be appreciated by both Superhero movie-fans and Pop-Culture Pagans alike.
Nicolas Cage has made an unusually high number of Bad Pagan Movies- so many, that they can be gathered together into “Nicolas Cage Bad Pagan Movie Night” once the Pagan Television Network, or PTN, is up and running. (I define “Pagan movie” as one that contains characters, themes, situations, or circumstances, relating or of interest to Pagans.)
The original Wicker Man is such an interesting and unique film, it didn’t need remaking- and certainly it didn’t need this ham-fisted 2006 American redo, which is made worse by Mr. Cage’s ludicrously over-the-top performance. As the British Isles have a native tradition of Paganism, the premise of the first film made sense, a sense that was lost by transporting it to the American Northwestern coast. Worse is its seemingly rabid hostility to the female-centric Neo-Pagan ethos, as the island is run by women, who apparently keep the men enslaved and cowed; the characters’ habit of taking their names from natural objects seems less a reflection of a modern Pagan impulse than a contemptuous parody. Ellen Burstyn, one of the great movie actresses of the ’70s, takes the role of “Head Lady” and High Priestess of this women-run community- a sad commentary on the parts available to women “of a certain age.” As with the original, the Pagan scenes look so much like modern Paganism as to be deceptive; once Nicolas Cage knocks out a Pagan lady to steal her bear costume and is then discovered, to have his head locked in a bee-filled cage, however, any sense of connection to today’s Pagans is lost. This movie has very little to recommend it- except for possibly the title, “Worse Pagan Movie of all Time.”
Having overacted strenuously in The Wicker Man, Mr. Cage appears to overcompensate by underplaying to the point of dead-eyed dullness in the hysterical Season of the Witch. As a disillusioned Crusader, Mr. Cage is miscast: he doesn’t do “period” well, and his attempts to portray a man struggling with having Seen and Done Awful Things translate into a leaden performance. Since Cage’s character is charged with transporting a suspected Witch to an abby where she can be “interrogated,” the medieval torture and unjust execution of Witches makes a potent subtext, but the final revelation is so dementedly out-of-the-blue, it moves the film into a whole other field altogether. This is one of the worst “Witch” films ever, and sinking it like an anchor is Mr. Cage’s ponderously flat screen presence.
Mr. Cage is an odd choice to play The Sorcerer, a Wizard alive since the eighth century, in Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, except that he had already starred in their National Treasure franchise: heavy-handed and “non-transcendent,” he doesn’t project as someone who has spent hundreds of years negotiating Magickal Consciousness. Nonetheless, here he is, greeting The One whom the universe has chosen to be his apprentice, his impression of stomach discomfort substituting for the weight of years and responsibility. The film is mildly Arthurian, involving the wicked efforts of Morgan La Fey to unloose “the Rising,” which dire event will End Life As We Know It. The film basically serves as a Magickal cinematic tour of New York City, zooming from one historic location to another as the Sorcerer and his Apprentice try to thwart La Fey; it’s not really an offensive movie, but it’s not great either, and Cage’s doleful performance makes it seem worse than it is (a better chosen actor would have improved things): hence, a natural candidate for the Pagan Television Network’s Bad Pagan Movie Night.
Maybe it’s best if modern Witches and Pagans appreciate the controversial new movie The Conjuring from a Camp perspective- a sublime Camp perspective. We are in a time when the cultural meaning of the word “Witch” is undergoing revision: once it unquestionably meant a perverse, malevolent being dedicated wholeheartedly to evil and maliciousness, and yes, the service of Satan (for the 300 years of the Burning Times, this was the going definition of “Witch”). Now, however, it increasingly denotes a Nature Worshipper, committed to healing and positive charming- a process missed a bit by The Conjuring (the title alone should tip you off to this film’s point-of-view, as the “conjuring” in question unleashes hate-filled horror). The film features a pair of paranormal investigators as sort of Christian supernatural super-sleuths and a real-life X-Files duo; and the ghost of a descendent of one of the Salem Witches as akin to the demon haunting Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Much has already been written about the fact that an actual victim in the Salem hysteria (and certainly not a Satan-worshipper; it is really doubtful that any of the Puritans accused as Witches in Salem actually gave themselves to the Devil in any way, ritualistic or otherwise), that one of the historical Salem Witches is imagined as the ancestor of the Satan-loving Witch whose ghost in this film is as depraved and malicious a spook as one would wish never to encounter. I agree that it is a bit much to take the memory of someone genuinely put to death unjustly, and by implication turn her into a rage-filled ghoul; I think that this film will probably be remembered as something of an anomaly, however, as so many Witch-themed movies these days seem to feel compelled to treat historical Witches as victims of injustice, a trend that I call The Crucible-syndrome. (Nicolas Cage’s Season of the Witch, for instance, while a really bad movie, had an effective sequence depicting the medieval execution of Witches in a very sympathetic manner.)
What strike me more is the presentation of the paranormal investigators as reluctant witnesses and religious defenders against supernatural depravity- the sort that is released (in true horror movie fashion) by moving into the wrong abandoned country house or by playing with the wrong antique toy. The movie seems to perceive anything supernatural as inherently “demonic,” and is rather rigid in its perception of a “good versus evil” dynamic at play in anything regarding the metaphysical versus the physical. The investigators lecture sagely about the “stages” of demonism: infestation, oppression, and finally possession. They keep a special room in their home, where they maintain objects recovered in their investigations- objects that have been either “cursed, haunted, or used in ritualistic practice.” This room, which sounds a bit like a plutonium-containment chamber, is blessed on a monthly basis by a visiting priest, and their objective in stockpiling “objects used in ritualistic practices” is described as something akin to “keeping guns off the streets.” They seem to use rosaries and crucifixes as holy talismans, and appear to enjoy a once-removed access to the Vatican; they are also in the habit of alluding darkly to the terrible, terrible things that they have seen or been exposed to, in the course of their paranormal investigation work. The lady investigator explains at one point that Witches will offer their own babies “to Satan, because it elevates them in his eyes”; she has previously explained how the Witch hung herself “proclaiming her love for Satan.” (The fact that the Ghost-Witch’s speciality is commandeering the will of mothers, causing them to kill their own children, plays upon a dreadful canard of the Burning Times- that Witches take the maternal instinct and turn it into something murderous and inhuman.) This all seems like those sensationalistic ’70s paperbacks that purported to reveal “The Secrets of Witchcraft”; it feels a little bit retro, kind of like a step back, in social consciousness for modern Witches, whose actual experiences tend not to be anything like the above, and indeed who often tend to view the realms-beyond-the-realms and the metaphysical as meaningful and potentially powerful. They might also be a little uncomfortable about “the Satan thing,” being probably Pagan and not “into” the Satan-Guy.
As a horror-movie, The Conjuring is effective, creepy and suspenseful without being awash in blood and gore, although the ending feels over-the-top and way-too-long; the actors were all good (I loved both women, very subtle and skillful actresses); the movie is well done. Its excessive treatment of “the Witch,” however, and its hero-worship of religiously inspired ghost-detectives, who feel that “God has brought them together” for the purpose of combating hate-filled Witch-Ghosts, and its belief that anything supernatural (as the movie has it) or anything beyond-the-realms (as modern Witches would put it) is threatening and demonic, argue for a candidacy on Campy Pagan Movie Night, especially in that it is enjoyable in its haunted house spookiness. Maybe it’s best if Pagans appreciate The Conjuring for its Camp value. Think of it as excessively dry parody.
Postscript: what would be truly revolutionary in this genre, would be a Wiccan or Neo-Pagan family moving into a ghost-house: at the first hint of creaking floorboards, or clocks that mysteriously stop, or strange shadows darting about- a few salt water purifications; a couple of banishing pentagrams; some healing crystals to readjust the energies; I bet the problem would be solved by sunrise. The movie might not be as suspenseful, but I expect the family would be a lot happier.
On the day when the Pagan Television Network (PTN) is up and running, I want to nominate 1955′s The Prodigal (starring MGM starlet Lana Turner) as the first on the PTN’s Camp Pagan Movie Classics Night: cause there are just so many, many, many things wrong here.
The Prodigal was made in response to the mid-50s craze for epic-scaled, Biblical dramas, and was based upon the New Testament story of “The Prodigal Son”- stretched out to two hours. It stars then-reigning screen queen Lana Turner, who at her best was said (as one reviewer put it) to have an essence that combined “luminescence with carnality,” but who was held generally to be a limited actress who could nonetheless “camp up” a role: like she does here. The Prodigal represents the movie in which Ms. Turner is wed to the Mesopotamian Fertility Goddess of Love Astarte, for playing Her High Priestess.
As you can tell, MGM wasted no expense in researching the Middle Eastern culture in which the worship of Astarte flourished: how else would you know that Mesopotamian and Phoenician Priestesses were dyed-haired blondes who wore push-up bras, corsets, and pumps?
Just watching the film’s original Trailer tells you a lot about the film, and about the extremely pious and conventional attitudes of the conformist-minded 1950s regarding religion and spirituality, as it announces The Prodigal’s setting in a “time before Christianity, when few believed in One God,” and Astarte was among the “most notorious of Pagan idols.” In this, one of the “all-time spectacles in film history,” staged against a “lavish background,” Astarte’s worshippers are “immoral and shameless,” participating in the “weird rites of the strangest cult known to civilization.” One can see the cultural indoctrination into “proper and appropriate” belief-systems, and appreciate the stigmatizing of any other form of belief-system (such as Pagan ones). Flash forward 10-15 years, and it is easier to understand the resistance early Paganism met, as one considers the maligned impression formed unconsciously by folks who had spent decades absorbing the opinion that monotheistic religions were more enlightened than polytheistic ones, with Pagan religions not only primitive and non-enlightened, but also “immoral and shameless.”
There is an interesting article by “Post Modern Joan” about The Prodigal worth checking out, as well as the original New York Times review; or you can Netflix it; or wait for the Pagan Television Network, and Camp Pagan Movie Night, for a hoot-fest and a holler.
After the turbulence of the ’60s settled into a kind of depression in the late ’70s, Witches disappeared from the Pop-Culture scene for awhile. Curiously, it was not until the happy prosperity of the ’80s that another notable set of Witches made an appearance in American film.
Derived from John Updike’s 1984 novel updating the classic New England Witch-Story (Witches covenant sexually with the Devil, gaining Powers of Witchcraft as consequence), 1987′s The Witches of Eastwick introduces a number of significant elements, such as the fact that there are Three Witches (Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher), who work together as a Group. As the film is based upon the Puritan assumptions that underlay the Salem Witch-Trials- that Witches will align themselves with the Lord of Evil and Darkness- Witches of Eastwick features a hilarious Jack Nicholson as the Devil (watch for the scene when he stamps his “hoofed” foot on the floor, in an argument with Cher). However (here’s the thing): Witches of Eastwick plays a twist upon the Puritan Witch-Trope, and shows how the three Witches wise up to the ways in which “Daryl Van Horne” is using them. In a very Modernist, Post-Feminist manner (and in an unprecedented display of Cultural Empowerment, Witch-Wise), they turn the tables on him. In short, in this film, these Witches out-Witch the Devil. As a Women’s Lib metaphor, it’s genius; as a display of Witches’ Moral Conscience, it’s admirable. As a metaphoric “throwing off” of the weight of 300 years’ Burning Times: Witches of Eastwick is notable.
It also makes viable significant actresses playing Witches, something that Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy discover in 1993′s Comedy-Witch movie Hocus Pocus (well, Witches of Eastwick is a comedy, too, but of a different sort), as well as Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, and Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, in Practical Magic. (Well, Nicole Kidman discovers this twice, once in the movie-remake of Bewitched: but that’s another decade.)
Given some time for the idea of Empowered Witches to settle: American Pop-Culture underwent a veritable explosion of Witches in the latter 1990s (often in configurations of Threes). The gateway Witch-Movie, the one that purposefully opened the box on Wicca, was of course 1996′s The Craft. Famed as the “Teen Witch Flick,” it concerns alienated Goth-Girls, who turn to Wicca Witchcraft, in order to blast the school’s Mean Girls with hexes- and in order to get rid of some unfortunate burn-scars, and to lift their family out of poverty, and in order to find true love (or at least to make that really cute boy from Homeroom fall in love with one of them)- and then to bind the psycho-Witch from harming herself or others. The Craft may be a little short-sighted, in adolescent manner, but it presents the Craft as a means of Transformation and Life-Change: as long as you keep yourself grounded and don’t try to go nuts with it (don’t go all Nancy). For all that its milieu is very High School (and High School Horror-Flick), it does offer a Witchcraft-Parable about young people empowering themselves and their lives through Witchery- a cautionary tale with both the do’s and the don’ts.
The Craft nevertheless ushered in the Rise of the Witch, in late 1990s-2000s Pop-Culture. Making its debut that year was a television show (derived from Archie comics), also about an adolescent Witch: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. A bit more grounded than the girls of The Craft, Sabrina receives the tutelage of two Witch-Aunts, as well as an enchanted Familiar-Cat named Salem; the show ran until 2003. Starting in 1997 was one of the most phenomenal TV series of the ’90s/ early 2000s: Buffy the Vampire-Slayer (which ran until 2003). A very Supernaturally-themed affair about a teen-aged girl who slays Vampires (and other assorted Demons) with the help of her friends, Buffy took a Witchy turn in the fourth season, when Willow began to study Wicca, commencing in the process one of television’s more notable Lesbian romances. As with The Craft, a certain strangeness began to settle around Wicca through Buffy, as the show’s more fantastic aspects appeared to encourage the perception that not only was Wicca a form of Magickal Earth-Worship, but apparently a means of acquiring Supernatural Powers as well (I doubt that any other religion can be incorporated so well into Supernatural story-lines, as “Wiccans” can represent a modern form of “Witches” of old). As with The Craft and Sabrina, Witchcraft in Buffy serves as a dramatic metaphor for the period of female adolescence.
Witchcraft becomes literally a Sisterhood affair in 1998, with the movie Practical Magic and the TV show Charmed, in a metaphoric reading of a very post-Women’s Lib sensibility (Cue Ms. Franklin and Ms. Lennox, in the ’80s: “SISTERS! Are doing it for THEMSELVES!!”) Both shows present a generational past to Witchcraft; Practical Magic (derived from Alice Hoffman’s novel) is most charming in its depiction of a Witches’ Coven at the end; in its depiction of Witches with brooms; and in its delightful showing of subsequent Generations of Witches (presented in the archetypal fashion, in black, with peaked hats). Charmed (which ran until 2006, and which is credited as the longest-running hour-long series that features a Trio of women in Television History) represents best the incursions of Pop-Culture (specifically comic-books; Sabrina is literally derived from a comic-strip) into the depictions of Wicca/ Witchcraft on television: both Buffy and Charmed basically present Witches as Super-Heroes. Like The Craft and Buffy before it, the undeniably Supernatural elements to Charmed (perhaps the first TV show to identify itself by means of a Celtic Mandala, or to the eyes of the uninitiated, an Occult Symbol) places Wicca into a kind of surreal light, presenting just enough “Wicca” (such as the Book of Shadows inherited by “the Charmed Ones” from their Ancestor-Witches; the first episode was titled “Something Wicca This Way Comes,” a pun on the Witches’ line upon greeting the Scottish Thane in the Cauldron Scene [IV.i], in Macbeth) to suggest that Wiccans rouinely manifest telekinesis and astral projection, and as a matter of course, confront malevolent Ghosts and Vampires and Warlocks and Werewolves (well, I do, at any rate, but I don’t know about the rest of you).
But maybe here’s the thing; maybe the Zeitgeist (which often manifests itself in LA) needed to “come to terms” with Wicca in the late ’90s, by first imagining it in its most Supernatural “Witch-Like” light; while simultaneously reassuring itself that Witches (Wiccans), like Willow and Tara, and the Charmed Ones, and the Witches of Practical Magic, are basically Good, and can be counted on to utilize the Forces of Ancient Witchery for the benefit and protection of the Good: should the situation come to that.
We see the incorporation of many Traditional Witch-elements in these latter ’90s representations of Witches: the Ancestral Background of Witches is a feature in Sabrina, Practical Magic, and Charmed; the tutelage of older generations is seen in the Witch-Aunts of Sabrina and Practical Magic. Witches operating in Threes is seen in Witches of Eastwick, Hocus Pocus, Sabrina, and Charmed. A Coven performing Magick through Broom-work is notable in Practical Magic; an association of Witchcraft with Candle-Magic is noted all over the place.
Unlike the very threatening depictions of Witches in ’60s films: Witches in ’90s Entertainment represent primarily Women achieving Empowerment through Witchcraft: a perfect media-metaphor for the post-Feminist Female.
At the absolute last of the decade, however (the last decade of the 20th century), there is another Witch-Movie, that is a throw-back to the Malevolent Witch-Movies of the ’60s, as well as back to the Grimms’ Tales and antique European Faerey-Story.
Making its debut in July 1999, after its showing at Sundance, was a strange, quirky indie-film called The Blair Witch Project. It has been imitated so thoroughly, both in professional film and in innumerable parody videos put up on YouTube, that it is difficult to remember how auteur seemed its premise and execution at the time. I promise (cause I can remember) how totally this film took the cinema-afficionado crowd that summer of 1999; I remember sitting in the local film art-house, rapt with an audience at the Horror of the Blair Witch.
Of course, the question might be: why did this film hit such a chord? An answer might be that, by July 1999, we were all anticipating the Turn of the Millennium, a dramatic change, bringing we knew not what. A certain urban-myth regarding the Y2K virus was making the rounds, alleging that the computer-grid of the world would deconstruct, and all but the most hardcore of Survivalists would be thrown back into the Dark Ages; a fear that failed to arise, but nonetheless perhaps prepared us a bit for 9/11, and the start of the Age of Terror, wherein the Bush/ Cheney administration never tired of warning us darkly that- like the Blair Witch- Evil, Malignant Forces Out There were plotting without cease to Harm Us and Destroy Our Ways (so kind of medieval, actually, in regards to the historical Witch-Hunts): the Pop-Culture place of The Blair Witch Project should not be underestimated, and demonstrates how necessary to Human Story-Telling is the Witch who can serve as the Malign Force that can strike Existential Terror into Humans; for something about confronting Terror in a Supernatural vein can prepare us for the sometimes Terrors-of-Life. Hare Krishna, and Blessed Be, ye Gods of Paganism and Witchcraft- keep the Terrors away, and bring Happy Fortune only!!
Looking away from The Blair Witch: do we not see something remarkable in all these Empowered Femmes of Witch-Entertainment of the 1990s? At least since the violent repression of Witchcraft by the Dominant Culture Christian Churches, in the Burning Times of the 1400s-1600s: when have we seen women connecting with the Magicke Female Power of Witchcraft- other than this period, which perhaps coincides with the Rise of Wicca in the Popular Consciousness?
While undeniably one of the most exciting of the Elizabethan/ Jacobean plays, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (c. 1592) was also one of the most problematic from the point-of-view of Christian Theology, dealing as it does with Casting a Magick Circle (a device well-known through medieval occultism), in order to summon the Devil. (I hope you can appreciate why medieval Christians considered this alarming). All the more fascinating, then, that Murneu’s 1926 silent movie of Faust probably counts as the first representation of an Invocation of a Ritual Circle in cinema- surely a point-of-interest for engaged Pagan cinematistes (the scene may be seen on YouTube): please check out the location of a crossroads; the significance of a Full Moon (shadowed over as Faust demands that Mephisto appear); Faust’s quartering of his Circle, by holding aloft his Magick Book at each Quarter; and the special-effects of late ’20s German cinema that signal the Activation of Faust’s Conjuring Circle.
Another example of the Magick Circle in Film is this, from 1968′s English movie The Devil Rides Out (adapted from a 1934 novel, and released in the U.S. as “The Devil’s Bride”). According to the Wikipedia entry (I regret that I have not seen this film yet), the film concerns a supernatural war conducted between an Evil Occultist, and a Good One (played by Christopher Lee). Following the dramatic Apparition of The Devil Himself at a Cult-Ceremony, the Good Occultists repair themselves to defend against a Night of Satanic Retaliation (hence, I take it, the Circle). The original trailer for the film may be found at YouTube, showing many good camera-shots of the protective Ceremonial Orb (as well as shots of reveling Satanic Occultists).
Speaking of summoning the Devil, and bringing this post around to a conclusion: the Puritans of the late 1500s/ 1600s were very, very alarmed over plays that depicted Magick-Use onstage (to say nothing of plays that purported to summon the Devil). The reason for this, as you may see, is that there will be a necessarily slender line between “performing Magickal Ritual” onstage, and performing it for real. A type of Elizabethan urban-mythology sprang up, whereby A Group of Actors (somewhere) had been performing Faustus- when of a sudden, they were “all dashed,” for there was “one Devil too many” among them. Some of these stories concluded by promising solemnly that there were many “still living” who remembered the “fearful sight” of the Devil onstage. A few of these stories are alluded to, in the Wikipedia entry on Faustus above; the first I came across them was in Katharine Briggs’ excellent study of the Witch-Plays of the Elizabethan/ Jacobean eras, Pale Hecate’s Team (1962).
I hope this is not abetting some dreadful act of Internet piracy: but I notice that Hammer Films’ 1966 Camp Witch-Classic The Witches (released in the U.S. as “The Devil’s Own”), starring early ’40s Hollywood Star Joan Fontaine, is up on YouTube (put there by someone who is not I). As it is there: well, it’s a convenient opportunity for Jugglers to check out this marvelously Campy late-’60s English Witch Flick.
Why is this Witch-Flick so campily good? Well, it does have Ms. Fontaine in the lead, who is a very skillful, talented actress, with a solid professional career and a certain degree of fame (including an Oscar). She is definitely committed to the part, and is never less than convincing and sympathetic (many times she is excellent). The thing is, she acts in a very Old School Hollywood style that went out of date with the revolution of the Method, and actors such as Clift, Brando, and Dean; her performance, while brilliantly proficient and admirable by the standards of the 1930s: looks a little over-the-top to us. But like the Mad Men Era chic of her wardrobe, it adds to the Vintage feel of the piece.
The Englishness of it all is very charming; one can’t help but reflect how all these Witchcraft Incidents might have played out in this placid village, 300 years earlier. You will want to keep your eye out for the stylishly Butch Lady Journalist, who has written on the subject of Witchcraft, and serves as the in-house expert. Through her, we receive (what sounds to our ears, like) such Witch Call-Outs as : “coven” is the “technical term” for a band of Witches; it’s quite possible that, all over England (in the 1960s), there are pockets where remnants of Witchcraft continue to be practiced; and perhaps most importantly: Lammas-Tide is the Period when Witches will offer Virgin Sacrifices.
My favorite moment is when she examines a decapitated doll, stuck through with pins, and goes: “Witchcraft? Someone having a dabble? Yes- that’s the look of it alright.” (Of course it’s the look of Witchcraft; it’s a decapitated doll, stuck through with pins.)
The best moments, though (even better than when the bewitched flock of menacing sheep trample Joan Fontaine into the mud), are the last ten minutes of the film: when we get to see the Witch-Cult in action (led by their deranged and diabolical High Priestess). They are so zombie-like; un-lucid in their bizarre abandonment to Witchery; inhuman in their psycho-states. The High Priestess is literally rolling her eyes back entranced, commanding this twisted crowd with a wave of her arms. What gets me, though, what absolutely gets me- is the fact that this bizarre, deranged induction of Virgin Sacrificing Psychosis: is brought on by drumming.
Yes, that is right; drumming, the Sacred, Sacred Act of Community and Trance-Working shared by all Pagans: damned, demonically inspired drumming is what works these Witches into this Virgin Sacrificing state.
One can appreciate better how Rock music and the Freedom-embracing mindset of the ’60s Counterculture must have seemed alarming to the conservative English types portrayed in this film: if you consider the dangerous, dangerous abandonment imagined to result from drumming, in this instance.
However: The Witches has justification going for it, for being an innocent ’60s flick. No such dodge has The Wicker Tree, the latest film egregiously warped in its depiction of Paganism. Check out the Wicker Tree ”Pagan” scenes, and the crazed derangement of the “Pagans.” There’s no difference between The Wicker Tree, and The Witches in 1966.
Was there ever a period more obsessed with Witchcraft (outside of the Middle Ages), than that which the Counterculture Musical Hair termed “the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius”?
This might seem like a convoluted beginning, but- in Michael Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things, he quotes a sociologist, who comments thus about outbreaks of Witchcraft Mania: there is no “better index to social disruption and change, for outbreaks of witch mania have generally taken place in societies which are- confronting a relocation of boundaries.”
If one considers all the decades of the 20th century: none are as intensely fascinated with the Occult as the period from the late 1960s-the early 1970s. As well, no period evidenced more anxiety over the subject. In previous decades, Witchcraft was seen in movies as innocent Faerey-Tale and as the subject for Romantic comedy. Indeed, in 1964, American Pop-Culture introduced one of its most beloved Witches, in the TV series Bewitched (which ran until 1972). However: reflect upon the fact that the late ’60s sees an explosion of extremely lurid Witch-movies (both in America and in Great Britain). As an example, check out Hammer Film’s 1966 The Witches (released in the United States in 1967 as The Devil’s Own). Starring 1940s Hollywood star Joan Fontaine, the movie depicts a school-teacher uncovering (shock of horror!) an actual Witch-Coven operating in an innocent-seeming English village. If you check out the Trailer here on YouTube, and this Scene from the movie: you will get an idea of the strange cult-like presentation of Witches. These are very subversive Witches, living undercover amongst their neighbors: but dangerous and threatening to their neighbors, to the extent (as you see from the advert to your left) that these Witches endorse Ritual Human Sacrifice- in a very strange, cult-like manner. (They also employ Ritual Circles, as you see, and High Priestesses who wear Horned Head-dresses.)
Of course, nothing can equal a strange, cult-like presentation of Witches like Roman Polanski’s 1968 Rosemary’s Baby. Derived from the earlier novel, the film is one of the greatest horror-movies ever made, and one of the film-classics of the ’60s: a creepy, claustrophobic, paranoid affair. TOTAL SPOILER ALERT: if in the 40 years that this film has been out, you have never seen Rosemary’s Baby; jump to the next section now: I’m totally spilling the beans on Rosemary’s Baby. A really well-acted, well-crafted, well-directed movie (one of Polanski’s accomplishments is to give you such a good sense of the couple’s apartment- the world seems turned upside-down for a minute, when something happens that we don’t expect towards the end), set in a magnificently Gothic haunted house (it was famously filmed at the Grandest of Baroque Manhattan apartment buildings, the Dakota, also the site where John Lennon was murdered): Rosemary’s Baby concerns a young couple’s first pregnancy- a strange, painful pregnancy, the weirdness of which is explained wonderfully when the young mother figures out that her next-door neighbors are Witches; Witches who have summoned the Devil to impregnate Rosemary with the unHoly spawn of Satan.
Witches in this film are the equivalent to Satan-Worshippers in another context. The fact that they are (literally) Hell-Raising WITCHES is made plain (the word is used to describe the coven next-door). It is difficult to argue that this is invalid as a fictional premise, as for the better part of the Middle Ages, “Witch” meant “Devil-Worshipper” (200,000 people were not put to death for “Witchcraft,” but for “Devil-Worshipping Witchcraft”; Witches were not executed at Salem for “Witchcraft” per se, but for contracting with the Devil, to harm through Witchcraft; both the novel and movie continue this trope). Granted, Rosemary’s neighbors could be “Satanic Ritual Occultists”: but Rosemary’s line of shocked apprehension, “They’re WITCHES!!” loses power if it becomes, “They’re Satanic Ritual Occultists!!” Like The Witches, Rosemary’s Baby imagines a world wherein apparent innocence and normalcy can turn dangerously sinister, in the revelation that the most innocuous of neighbors could turn out to be Satan-Summoning Witches and practitioners of the Dark Arts. (In the Pop-Culture Call-Out Category, one has to note that the marvelous actress Ruth Gordon received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, as the deceptively batty Satanic-Priestess Witch in the apartment next to Rosemary; so popular was Rosemary’s Baby, a TV sequel was broadcast in 1976, a sort of late ’70s fascination with Satanic Occultism.)
Witches become the victims in England’s 1968 Witchfinder General, starring that master-of-horror Vincent Price and based upon the sadistic career of 1640s Matthew Hopkins: a film in which Witch Mania erupts in a society undergoing terror and upheaval, reflecting times of such dangerous uncertainty that cruel Witch-Hunters may flourish; the innocent with no recourse save to suffer the tortures under which they must break, sooner or later, to the confessions that will earn them execution as “Witches.” (For all that England did not actually burn Witches, as the advert might imply: gentle England, they “merely” hung Witches.)
1968 was quite the year, Occult-Movie-wise: Another Hammer Film from then (Hammer Studios was quite prolific in the late ’60s, we see), that deals with, in Rosemary’s Baby-like manner, the Summoning of Satan is The Devil Rides Out (released in the United States as The Devil’s Bride). Starring Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee as a Good Occultist, the film depicts a Satanic Cult under the leadership of a Bad Occultist (who has gained hypnotic powers over his victims through his Occultism). If you check out the scene that someone has put up at YouTube, you will see the climatic sequence when the deranged Cult, abandoned to wantonness (and wearing pajamas reminiscent of Hugh Hefner), actually (wait for it; no really, wait for it) summons THE DEVIL HIMSELF!! (Christopher Lee’s line: “My GOD!! It’s The DEVIL HIMSELF!!”) Fortunately Mr. Lee pitches a Cross right into that Damn Bastard’s Face and sends the Fiend exploding back to Hell. One of the more campier of the ’60s Occult-Horror Films (check out that Ritual-Circle, though).
A preoccupation with the Occult, and an expression of existential fright through the Occult, continued into the early ’70s, despite the introduction of another beloved Pop-Culture Witch: Witchiepoo, in HR Pufnstuf. The supernatural soap Dark Shadows ran from 1966-71; the creepily spooky series The Night Stalker of 1974 existed for only one season, but is inevitably fondly recalled by anyone who was a TV-watching kid at the time; even the popular cartoon-show Scooby Doo (that started in 1969) featured supernatural story-lines. Then arrived the Grand-Daddy of horror films, The Exorcist (in 1973), followed by the Anti-Christ movie The Omen in 1976 (I remember both movies causing seismic shock-waves throughout the zeitgeist). Considered in this light, the British cult-film of 1973, The Wicker Man, seems a bit more comprehensible, its Twilight-Zone plot a continuation of the surreal sense of dread explored in Supernatural film since the late ’60s. Even its dramatic conclusion arrives within a context, if you consider that human-sacrifice had been a theme introduced first in The Witches and The Devil Rides Out.
Why was there this intense focus on Supernatural themes (frequently involving Witches) bridging the ’60s into the ’70s? If we believe that Witch-Mania will manifest during times when society is “relocating its boundaries”: we might consider the social pressures being exerted, with the Racial, Gender, and Sexual Equality Movements beginning tumultuous upheavals. Likewise, the Hippie Movement, the Counterculture, and the Youth Movement challenged the norms of more conservative times. The Viet Nam War was a ferociously controversial subject, and the Watergate scandal rocked America’s belief in its own government (generating a cynicism towards government that we have yet to move away from). And then, of course, there was the reintroduction of Occult Philosophy into the Psyche, both through the influence of the Age of Aquarius and the nascent Rise of Wicca and Neo-Paganism. But still- by the end of the ’70s, this jittery quality vanished from the scene (to be replaced by the malaise of the Carter years). Just like the Burning Times at the end of the Middle Ages, the time of ’60s-’70s Witch-Scares-and-Popular-Culture just stopped.
Why? Perhaps it is because by then, the social boundaries had been relocated, and there was not the need for projected acting-out through Witch-Drama.
In the midst of this, a little-known movie made its debut upon the scene- a movie that in retrospect, presaged a lot (such as the entire social movement that causes us all to be here today, at the Juggler). Although its director George A. Romero is famous for films like Night of the Living Dead, 1971′s Season of the Witch could not be more removed from any Horror Flick milieu. It is actually a Women’s Lib movie, albeit one with Occult overtones. It opens upon a suburban housewife confronting her life in a pretty house and a dried-up marriage, going through the meaningless motions of it all. She is aware that the Times, they are a-changing around her, but rather than go mad like the heroine in Lucy Jordan’s Ballad, she discovers Witchcraft. Ah, but it’s not the creepy/ spooky kind of Shlock Horror: it is the kind that will come to be called Wicca, and which will lead the way for the Pagan Revival experienced by all of us, here today. As such, it is a remarkable depiction of our early history, the first days of our movement and Cause (it surely must be the first depiction of Wiccan Witchcraft on film). It also presages the next notable development in 20th century Witchcraft Film: Witchcraft (Wicca) as an empowerment. The heroine of Season of the Witch is empowered by her exposure to Witchcraft; she empowers herself through devotion to the Craft: the implication at the end is that she will go on to empower others, as a Priestess of the Craft. Her journey is that taken by all here within the Pagan movement; she is our first representation and cinematic role-model. She will be mirrored by many other women in film later in the century, with the next explosion of Witches in Movies, in the 1990s, as Witchcraft increasingly comes to be seen as an Empowerment for Women, in a movement that might be called, the Rise of the Witch.
Season of the Witch is available at Hulu.com; please check it out, for being the quintessential modern Pagan Film-Classic.
Since the beginning of humans, there have been Tales of both Gods and Heroes. Gilgamesh, Samson, Hercules, Achilles, Cu-Chulainn, Launcelot, ever so many others- all are Heroes whose exploits are so great as to become Legendary, and whose powers so mighty as to become Superlative. Starting in the late 1930s with Superman, the 20th century’s first (and arguably, still greatest) Superhero- a being specifically created as a modern incarnation of Ancient Heroes such as Hercules and Samson- and swiftly followed by Batman, Wonder Woman, and a sizzling slew of similarly inspired Superheroes: the Golden Age of comic books was achieved into Meta-Perfection when several of DC Comics’ top costumed crusaders joined in the Meta-Conception of the Justice Society, a Meta-Pop Culture realization paralleled in the 1960s, with DC Comics’ revamped series the Justice League, and the assembly of Marvel Comics’ top-selling titles into The Avengers.
One of the distinct Pop-Cultural Phenomena of the 2000s (for all that the Superman movies started in the ’70s and ’80s, with Batman in the ’90s), has been the explosion of Superhero movies: story-lines intended to recreate in cinematic form the proven formula of the Superhero Tale. An especially Meta-Manifestation of this tendency is the recently released Avengers: foreshadowed in the most recent Marvel Superhero features- the Iron Man films, The Hulk (the one with Edward Norton), and last summer’s Thor and Captain America- the Silver Screen’s replication of Marvel Comics first Meta-Moment, now realized in movie-making, in the pulling-together of a bunch of separate titles into one Meta-Adventure (soon to reach another Meta-Level, as Avengers #1, in its customary pattern, ends with a foreshadowing of Avengers #2).
That this Pop-Culture impulse towards Meta-Superhero Production does not exist in a vacuum: consider that the CW Television Network broadcast Smallville from 2001-2011; an altogether Meta-Inspiration, to take the first Superhero (Superman) and explore his Superhero coming-of-age through the highly intensive format of a weekly TV show. So Meta-Popular proved the idea that a CW Meta-Universe emerged on the show, as Smallville came to introduce other DC Heroes such as The Flash; Aquaman; and Green Arrow (the show took on an entirely new Meta-Direction when Green Arrow basically joined as the second male lead). The Smallville version of the Justice League followed suit, before call-outs began for the Justice Society, the Legion of Superheroes, the Wonder Twins, and Isis. Reconstructing the DC world of comic books in a Meta-Fashion impossible to accomplish without a ten-year television series, Smallville reinforces the impression left by the Avengers (to say nothing of, say, Spider-Man and the X-Men): that there is something Meta-Appealing right now in Superhero story-telling.
All of which reminds me of something that I read as a kid, in Stan Lee’s 1975 Son of Origins of Marvel Comics. According to Mr. Lee, he was giving a radio interview; it was the impression of the show’s host that Marvel Comics (and by extension, comics in general) were in effect creating a new form of modern Mythology. Considering that we have even-more-new versions of Batman, and Spider-Man out this summer, with Superman upcoming (in 2013): there may something to that. In that mind, therefore: I can’t wait for the Avengers movie where they introduce the Scarlet Witch- comics’ most famous Witch Superhero. How totally Meta, huh?
Like most of the rest of the country, I saw The Hunger Games last weekend. I was a late convert to the phenomenon that is The Hunger Games. I’m pretty picky about what I choose to read, and I have automatic suspicion against anything with such amazing success. It took me four books to start in on Harry Potter, and I have yet to crack a copy of Twilight. After enough praises from both teens and adults, I finally read The Hunger Games last fall.
Despite some of its bash-you-over-the-head-with-its-message style, I found the book to be compelling. Against my will, I found myself sucked into Katniss’ terrible predicament and, although I found the writing to be clumsy, I was totally hooked. So when the movie came out, I had to see how they handled this painful story. Could they refine a story which takes place so much within the protagonist’s head while keeping the savagery and suspense that made the book so guiltily enticing?
For the most part, yes. The movie version uses the trope of having announcers narrate the games to full advantage, taking much of Katniss’ inner turmoil and decision making, along with much of the basic exposition, and placing it into the mouths of the games’ pitchmen. This technique can be extremely artificial at times, like when the narrators break in to tell you all about how deadly tracker jackers are, it generally works.
Unfortunately, some background elements about Katniss’ life in District 12 are glossed over, but I enjoyed how the movie emphasized the pre-games sequence in the Capitol. I expected a very Hollywood-like rush through the backstory and straight into the blood and guts, but the film actually takes time to set up a love and respect for Katniss, her partner Peeta, and a full understanding of the games, the other challengers, and the sensationalistic shallowness of the Capitol’s citizens. It may be dystopia, but the satire is loud and clear: these people aren’t so much different from us.
The time and attention paid to this element of the worldbuilding adds to the emotional element once the games finally start. By the time the competition is underway, audiences truly care about Katniss, but also about Peeta. Add to that the true affection we all develop for Rue and the ever-present knowledge that all but one of these people you love must die, and you have the makings of a story that keeps you riveted until the final moments.
It’s a good movie, whether you read the book or not.
This morning, I came across this commentary of the movie on Patheos. It’s a very good analysis from a Christian perspective. Indeed, the movie does stress how the expectations of others can change you; how extreme circumstances can change you; how violence against another human can change you. Peeta, in particular, is quite clear about his desire to escape unchanged and show the Capitol that they don’t own his soul.
From a Pagan perspective, what I see is sovereignty and honor. There is so much pressure on these kids to give in to the bloodlust that is the Hunger Games. Some, especially the “Careers” from Districts 1 and 2, completely give over their lives to the Capitol, allowing themselves to be sacrificed and changing into absolute monsters in the name of someone else’s political goals. The most obvious example of this is Kato, a Career player from District 1, who saunters through the games showing off his prowess. He sees himself as in control, but finally realizes that his entire life has been controlled by others – for their own interests – and that his own personal will has been completely annihilated, despite his prodigious strength. Controlled by others his whole life, Kato learns that being strong is more than just the ability to snap a neck at will. Leadership is not about physical strength.
In contrast, many of the less physically able players learn to exercise their own sovereignty. They take charge of themselves rather than bullying others. Obviously, they don’t all succeed, but they die with integrity where the others die in shame. No spoilers here, but Katniss’ ability to remain her own person ultimately becomes her greatest strength.
Honor is a strong value within many Pagan traditions, and honor is valued in The Hunger Games. Related to sovereignty, it is those characters who maintain their self-awareness and control who are able to act with honor. Kato and his band of bullies give in to the game, and so their actions become more and more cruel and reprehensible.
Katniss helps her enemies throughout the game. She feeds Rue. She nurses Peeta back to health. Yes, she kills, but- unlike some of her competitors- she never does so with sheer cruelty in her mind. She kills in order to not be killed. She honors the dead. It is that demonstration of honor that earns her great respect in the book and ultimately gets her significantly further in the game. Unfortunately, this is a part that was glossed over in the film, but one can still feel that her ability to control herself and act with dignity under the most difficult of circumstances is a lesson unto itself.
Early on, Katniss’ and Peeta’s sponsor Haymitch tells them that the way to survive games is to get people to like you. This is one of the take-away lessons from The Hunger Games. True respect comes from acting with honor and with control rather than giving into the system and relying on your brute force to overcome any situation. Sometimes bloodshed is inevitable, but the true measure of a person is if they can deal with the pain, maintain their self-control, and come out worthy of respect.