Witches and movies

Witches, as they’re popularly conceived, do not exist.  Cackling ugly hags flying on broomsticks and casting evil spells; that’s what doesn’t exist.  No such thing. I mean, we’re all agreed there, right?

Okay, so, William Shakespeare, glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a play in 1606, Macbeth, that includes three witch characters.  It’s an awesome play, and the witches are awesome characters.  I directed a production of it some years ago, for my daughter’s fifth grade class.  I cast my daughter as one of the witches.  Other parents were upset about this casting choice, calling it ‘nepotism’; whispering that I’d cast my daughter in one of the coolest roles just because she was my daughter.  This criticism was 100% accurate, wholly justified.  I put the time in; my daughter was going to have a good experience, and she wanted to play a witch.

But the witches are such cool presences in the play that, depending on how they’re used, they can distort and damage productions.  There’s always the temptation to include witches throughout the production, but if they control the action, if they are seen as controlling Macbeth and his choices (and his wife’s choices), he becomes a less volitional and therefore less compelling character.  So you have to use them judiciously.

In Macbeth, anyway, the ‘weird sisters’ are clearly evil.  They make potions, they curse the characters, they make prophecies.  They’re bad.  And while I love the play (and its playwright), their presence in the play is also a bit troubling.  The play comes from a time in world history when people really did believe in witches, and persecute them and try them, and hang them, and burn them.  And innocent women were murdered.  As many as 60,000 women executed between 1480 and 1720, according to such historians as Lois Martin, Anne Barstow and Brian Levack. This scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is funny, but also maybe not quite all that funny, right?

Anyway, I’ve just seen several not-very-good movies with witch characters.  These movies are numerous enough to constitute ‘a trend’, and in my mind, a worrisome one.  But they’re also bad enough that maybe that trend isn’t as worrisome as I’m making it out to be. Judge for yourself.

One movie–just watched it–was Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, one of the emerging ‘brilliant young Norwegian directors,’ and maybe the craziest of the lot.  (A previous film of his was Dead Snow, a Nazi zombie horror flick.)  Anyway, Hansel and Gretel, (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) having killed a witch as children, now go around killing them professionally. It’s a sort of medievally setting, but they have these weapons, like a kind of machine-gun crossbow thingy, that never did actually exist.  So, that’s the movie, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton hunting down and killing witches.  With a sexy love scene in the middle, and a final big massive fight scene–our Two Heroes vs a zillion witches.

Okay, it’s a silly action movie, one of those things Jeremy Renner made before he was a movie star which then got released after his Bourne movie came out. But wouldn’t you agree that any movie based on the premise of someone hunting down human beings and killing them is, uh, at least morally questionable? Especially since this actually factually did happen?  Killing ‘witches’, I mean?  But see, no one can ever be falsely accused of witchcraft in the world of this movie.  Because, as Hansel/Renner explains, real witches are easy to spot.  They’re really ugly.  Evil seeps out, from the inside, rotting away their faces. And teeth–evil witches have terrible teeth. Ugly women=evil women=women we can feel okay about executing.  What a reprehensible film.

Second film: Season of the Witch. Awful Nicolas Cage film, 14th century setting.  Cage and Ron Perlman play knights tasked with transporting a young woman accused of witchcraft to an abbey, where a book of spells can de-witch-afy her.  The Plague, the Black Death, is omnipresent, and is thought to have been caused by this girl, this witch.  Claire Foy is really good in the movie, playing the girl. But here’s the thing.  Either the Black Death is caused by witches, or its not.  Either this girl is a witch, or she’s not.  Either the medieval Catholic Church had the power to drive out evil spirits or it had no such power. In Reality-land, the answer to those questions are all clear: no, no, and no.  The Black Death is caused by a bacterium, and the medieval Church couldn’t even name a pope, let alone drive out witchy spirits, which anyway don’t exist. But movies aren’t based on truth, they’re based on artificially generated excitement. By answering all three questions ‘yes,’ this director, Dominic Sena . . . was able to make another bad, unsuccessful Nicolas Cage movie. Meanwhile, we got to perpetuate the idea that the biggest problem with medieval Europe was that they just didn’t kill enough witches. Gosh darn it.

Third movie, and certainly the best movie of the three, and the most financially successful: The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, the guy who made Saw.

The Conjuring isn’t so much a movie about a haunted house as it is a movie about paranormal experts investigating and eventually exorcising a haunted house.  The Perron family (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor), buy a house out in the country, and they move in with their five daughters, only it’s haunted.  So Famed Paranormal Investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) check it out, and eventually Ed exorcises the ghost of a witch.  One of the witches, in fact, from the Salem witch trials.  Who, it turns out, really was a witch. Genuinely evil.  Salem got it right.

The Conjuring is a very competently made and exciting horror film.  It was also kind of a hit; according to IMDB, cost $20 million to make, and grossed $137 million.  I saw it; scared the wee out of me, which is exactly what scary movies are supposed to do. My guess is that for most audiences, it was an effective commercial film.  Exciting and frisson-generating. But the Salem witch trials are central to the film’s plot. And the Salem witch trials did really happen, and remain a blot on the historical record. They were about public hysteria and panic and a mob mentality.  They weren’t about real witches. Because real witches don’t exist. Not, at least, in the sense of being able to fly on brooms and cast spells.

Look, I get that witches are fun.  I like scary stories about witches.  I think The Blair Witch Project is one of the scariest films ever made.  I think it’s awesome that Hermione Granger is a witch, and I love it when Elphaba decides to ‘defy gravity’ in the musical, and I loved The Witches of Eastwick and I grew up on Bewitched and I think The Lion and the Wardrobe needs a Witch in the middle, for balance.

But let’s not forget that there’s a history here. I’m troubled by a film that says that ugly women may well be witches, and if so, it’s okay to hunt them down.  Witch killing really happened, and it’s a horrible, terrible part of Western history.  And today, perfectly gentle and nice people share in the Wiccan belief system, and we should accord their religious beliefs the same respect and tolerance and honor we would any other belief system.

So by all means, let’s continue to stage Macbeth. And make scary movies.  And create fun fantasy worlds in which witchcraft is a real thing.  But maybe let’s also interrogate the narratives we create.  Because there is a history here, and it’s an ugly one.



2 thoughts on “Witches and movies

  1. Reed Williams

    Hi Eric,

    I am starting work on a research paper about contemporary attitudes about LGBT issues/characters in LDS drama. I was partly inspired to choose this topic because of the characterization of Brian in your play Borderlands. If you would be willing, I was hoping to ask you a few questions about your development and purpose of Brian in the play.


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