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.