“Here, young maiden, take a potion of cat faeces and dove hearts, boiled during the full moon. A drop of this in a man's drink will soften his heart at once.” - The Witch
I love silent movies – I always have. I appreciate their quirkiness, the mime-like acting, the imaginative use of light and shadow. In particular, I have a great deal of respect for Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis and The Phantom of the Opera. Having seen those and several more, I thought that perhaps I had seen the best of the silent – at least until someone somewhere unearths a copy of London After Midnight.
Then, someone recommended Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages to me and I took them at their word and bought the film for a Halloween night showing a couple of years ago.
It’s, as I said, a silent film, dating back to 1922. Danish made, and based on the director’s investigations into perceptions of witchcraft through the years, from the dark ages to the then-present of 1921. So, essentially, it’s a documentary. (I’m guessing at this point, you’re thinking why this fool has chosen a documentary to headline Shocktober this year – bear with me.) The director Benjamin Christensen made a study of a German guidebook for Inquisitors called the Malleus Maleficarum dating back to the fifteenth century and this is the basis for the film, which was banned in the USA for years due to its graphic content.
The second I watched this, I was enthralled. It’s one of the strangest, most weird, disturbing, thought provoking and effective films I’ve seen. Ever. I’m not certain, but I’m guessing this is the first use of dramatic re-enactments in history. And those re-enactments are crazily both funny at times and viciously disturbing with haunting imagery of the suffering caused by the pious few to the largely innocent many. By many, I mean over eight MILLION men and women were tortured and killed on suspicion of witchcraft in the middle ages. Eight million! That’s insane!
The film kicks off with depictions of how the Earth and the planets were believed to be in ancient times – for instance, the earth was believed to have mountain ranges that held the sky up, and the stars were suspended by ropes from the ceiling of the sky.
As the movie progresses, we discover that notions of hell and devils and demons as basically a man-made fiction. Various incarnations of witchcraft are shown, from a portly spinster buying a love potion to arouse the interest of a pious monk from an old crone to the devil himself coaxing a young woman out of her husband’s bed to go cavorting on the night. To be honest, these are pretty funny to watch. Christensen himself plays the devil in some make-up that is pretty effective for the time – with a leering demeanour and a constantly flicking tongue.
Then, we get a series of re-enactments that become truly horrific and disturbing.
An old penniless woman is accused of witchcraft when a man becomes fatally ill. With no evidence, she is named to the Inquisitors and is taken away in a steel cage mounted on wheels. There is no attempt here to find her innocent – she is only there to be proven guilty and is tortured both psychologically and physically until she does so. The look of sheer suffering on the elderly actress’s face during this scene is hauntingly hard to forget.
But – the old lady, in her confession spins a wild tale of a Witches’ Sabbath, giving birth to the devil’s own demons, and seeing members of the household who accused her of also being at the Sabbath and kissing the devil’s rear. That’s how homage was paid -the witches literally kissed the devil on the ass.
So, now the good men of the church must be about their mission – they have more witches to uncover and torture until eventually the whole family is wiped out. That’s how hysteria spread.
One of the even more disturbing sequences actually shows some of the barbaric and ruthless devices used to extract confessions. A large pincer-like implement was used to pinch and twist the skin. A suspected witch was made to sit, while her legs were strapped with blocks of wood on the outside of the legs, while a huge mallet was used to drive another block of wood between the legs from the knees down, which would shatter the bones. The rack would dislocate limbs, spiked collars – and the thumbscrews.
One of Christensen’s secretaries actually volunteered to be filmed having the thumbscrews applied. In less than one minute, she would confess to anything he suggested.
Christensen concludes that most of the cases of suspected witches were simply that the suspects looked or acted different, or had a disability of some kind. Many were put to death suspected of being possessed when in fact, the cause of their behaviour is what was in 1921 called hysteria, or now – anxiety.
Food for thought – and startling. A fitting conclusion to this year’s 13 Screams. You can watch it free here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Shocktober 2016 as much as I’ve enjoyed watching the movies and writing about them. Let’s do it all again in eleven months.
Copyright © 2010 - 2016 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.