“Let us look into the history of mysticism and try to explain the mysterious chapter known as the Witch.”
A silent Swedish/Danish documentary from 1922 sounds about as far removed from today’s culture and concerns as you could possibly be and still be a feature length movie. Yet Häxan was the controversial horror film of its day, a tremendously expensive period production that was banned in the United States and heavily censored elsewhere for scenes involving nudity, torture, and perversion. Titled “Witchcraft Through the Ages” in English, the film explores in great length and detail the medieval phenomenon of women accused of being witches–and argues strongly that society doesn’t treat women much better today. In style and approach, the film has little do with the way we express ourselves now; but its message rings truer than ever.
Although billing itself as a doc, the movie is divided into a number of chapters, most of which feature dramatizations of the historical information being conveyed. After what is essentially a slideshow of paintings and other depictions of demons, witches, Hell, and the structure of the universe in antiquity, Häxan moves on to a series of vignettes depicting witches at work–boiling and distributing potions, for instance–and then a single sustained story about a typical scenario involving the religious inquisitors who roamed Europe holding trials of accused witches. Little of this is new information to anyone casually familiar with the history, but it was probably novel to many at the time. The familiar points are laid out–like the way one accused woman would, under torture and interrogation, implicate others (even, as one old woman does here, pointing the finger at the woman who accused her in the first place!), leading to what the film calls a “spiritual plague” that seemed to follow the inquisitors from town to town. Likewise, time and again we see the unjust Catch-22s the inquisitors would inflict. When put into the river, if the accused floats, she is a witch and will burn; if she drowns, she was innocent. If she cannot cry, she is a sorceress, but if she cries, it is only a trick. Other sequences depict what is essentially a critique of police practices–one woman is literally pulled between two adjacent shots by two men trying to Good Cop/Bad Cop her, and another is tricked into a false confession by a monk who promises she will be freed in secret if only she teaches him a few of her spells. As soon as she starts to make something up, of course, the other monks catch her “in the act.” Even the familiar broomsticks are there, helping the witches fly through the night.
But Häxan has something serious and important to say about the treatment of women, and not just in medieval times. The last section of the film discusses the way modern society’s attitudes toward women are, if not as violent as those of the past, still grown from the same taproot of misogyny and classism. This was the 1920s, a time when medicine and psychology still struggled to know how to deal with so-called “hysterical” people. Häxan argues in clear and convincing terms that the impulses that lead society to mistrust women and to judge their behavior and emotions as aberrant underlie the hysteria clinics as much as they did the torture chamber–that the switch from religious fear of Satan to supposedly more refined and sane fears about mental illness was little more than a pallette swap. In the medieval era, the film relates, any kind of difference would be enough for the inquisitors to notice you–deformity, illness, poverty, etc. The old and ugly were accused, but so were the young and beautiful. The social diagnosis of witchcraft was applied to anyone who did not fit into society–even those, such as the beggar woman who is blamed for a man’s illness in this film, whom society was designed to exclude. (There’s a quietly powerful moment late in Häxan where the narrator points out that social programs that feed and house the elderly are an important way to make them less vulnerable to this sort of thing.) There’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t system here, where women are singled out for being too old, too young, too attractive, too unattractive, too pious, too impious–in other words, for being in any way outside of a nebulous, undefined norm. But by the time of this documentary, had society grown all that much more accepting of those who were different or who had different needs?
Much is made in the film’s stories of the idea of compulsion, an irresistible impulse to do harm that was once labeled as the result of a devil’s temptation and now at the time of this movie, simply deemed the mysteries of a woman’s heart. Yet the exact opposite is true–human beings, men and women, are compelled by impulses that are often mysterious, self-destructive, harmful, or otherwise strange. The lie is that we are rational creatures. But I defy you to look at what happened in these witch trials–where the accused would be led into the room backward, apparently so that she could not ensorcel the judge; where the “witches” would confess to holding wild dances where they literally kissed the Devil’s behind; where the crimes ranged from killing infants to sticking out your tongue–and tell me that any of this is rational. I can’t even tell if it’s ironic, appropriate, or directly correlative that the word “hysteria” referred to women with physical or emotional problems but is more correctly an apt descriptor for the senseless wave of violence perpetrated against women in the past by the very institutions meant to provide structure and morality to society.
As I intimated in the opening of my review, there’s another way to look at Häxan besides a film about the terrible treatment of women that persists in one form or another to this day (just look at the way people react to Hillary Clinton). It’s also a movie that sneakily uses a very serious and academic topic as an excuse to do what horror movies have always done: shock and excite the viewer by crossing lines and breaking taboos. The amount of nudity, violence, and eerie bacchanalia in this movie is astonishing for its time period, and it must have been great fun for its audiences. There are crazy costumes, all sorts of demons and bipedal animals and a Satan with talons for nails and freaky, mottled skin. There are women who seduce and are seduced by the powers of darkness, including a whole nunnery that goes crazy when one of their number is possessed. There’s a recurring image of a devil grinning and frantically working a butter churn between his legs, which cannot be anything but a reference to masturbation. The film has a whole section that lingers lovingly over the various torture devices and implements: the spiked collar, manacles, hammers, spikes, many I don’t even know the names of–and then there’s the thumbscrews, which get modeled by one of the film’s actresses. “I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady in less than a minute,” the narration jokes. (At least, I hope it’s joking.) Moreover, the film is formally innovative, using a multitude of techniques and in-camera effects to demonstrate the power of the supernatural (including an early example of stop-motion animation). The result is a movie that is utterly unique for its time, and yet not so far removed from films like The Blair Witch Project (which takes some visual cues from Häxan) and this year’s The VVitch, which also presented a dramatization of centuries old beliefs about women and the Devil.
At Häxan‘s best moments, it is either a cutting social critique or a lurid phantasmagoria. That both modes can coexist with ease in the same work is one reason why horror is such an exciting and rewarding genre. In the end, the kinds of intellectual or emotional truths these films can convey are simply more believable coming from a movie that has demonstrated an unvarnished view of the world, no matter how scary or controversial that view might be. Horror films show us uncomfortable truths, and in doing so, earn our trust. That’s as true today as it was 94 years ago.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because there’s gotta be something scarier than the words “President Trump.” Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.