Our Salem Film Festival

Prompted by J. W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch: The Magic and Mayhem of Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts, M. and I held a little Salem film festival. (We skipped The Lords of Salem.)

In order of creation, we watched these three movies:  Three Sovereigns for Sarah (1985), Hocus Pocus (1993), and The VVitch (2015).

(This looks like a bootleg copy, but I wanted this scene. Sorry about the quality.)

Three Sovereigns for Sarah, a three-part PBS documentary, is well-done, using authentic trial testimony in spots. Vanessa Redgrave, playing accused witch Sarah Cloyse, just dominates it — although she has some competition from the young actresses playing the “afflicted” girls. 1)Sarah Cloyce is depicted . . . differently . . . by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am coming to that.

A historical consultant told Ocker, “We had a lot more power on the production than historians usually have on commercial things.” They were even able to nix Alexander Scourby’s casting as a judge, because Scourby would not shave his beard, which was historically inappropriate. Clean-shaven Patrick McGoohan replaced him.

The church meeting house where the Rev. Samuel Parrish holds forth was built for the movie, and like all 17th-century buildings, included recessed fluorescent lighting. OK, that’s a joke. But compared to the moody available-light shooting in The VVitch, Three Sovereigns for Sarah is lit like a TV soap opera, giving a sort of “witchcraft under the microscope” vibe.

On the plus side, it gives you the feel of what happened. And guess what — no one is hung for being an herbalist or a healer. That is romantic mush that started in the 1960s and 1970s. It may make you feel good, but it is not about what happened in 1692 in America — or elsewhere.

Importantly, the film gives Sarah Cloyce a speech in which she explains how neatly the witchcraft accusations matched property disputes in Salem Village. In other words, adults were feeding suggestions to the “afflicted” girls about whom to denounce. That is usually the way it works in “children’s crusades.”

BEELEEVE THE CHILDREN!

Of Hocus Pocus (1993), Ocker observes,

The witches are played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Nijimy in, if not exactly career-defining roles, roles that will probably outlast anything they’ve ever done. There are entire generations of people who know Hocus Pocus, but have no idea about wind, wings, sex, city, hair, or spray.

Yes, but it’s Disney (kids win, witches lose). That is probably why I had no interest in it in 1993, and besides, I had student papers to grade. And Sex and the City will be Parker’s role that I remember.

If Three Sovereigns for Sarah presents a documentary-style take on the 1692 witchcraft panic, The VVitch gives us the imagined European witchcraft of the 16th–17th centuries transplanted to New England, where tiny cleared islands of Christianity struggle to survive up against dark walls of savage forests, In that, it echoes some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s spookier fiction, in which he dips from the same well.

But it’s a horror movie, so the central character witch is herself a teenager, not a mature woman. Of course you have your pact with the devil, the Witches’ Sabbat, spectral flight, possession, and Black Phillip, the goat who is more than a goat. In lighting, costuming, and general atmosphere, it is the best of the three. Unlike the other two, it was not filmed partly in or near Salem but near Kiosk, Ontario, in order to get the best cinematic forests.

Also, it gives me a segue into talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne and witchcraft, coming up.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sarah Cloyce is depicted . . . differently . . . by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I am coming to that.

Mystery Deity in Hitler Hex

Chief hexer Ted Caldwell intones an incantation. On the right, in dark shirt and tie, is author William Seabrook. Thomas McAvoy, Time-LIfe.

Today the Internet served me “Putting a Hex on Hitler: LIFE Goes to a ‘Black Magic’ Party.”

For background, you have to know that the pictorial weekly news magazine Life had a regular feature called “Life Goes to a Party” — and many of these parties featured big-name musicians — Time-Life’s music division sold albums of the associated tunes. My parents had a boxed set, divided by decades: 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and so on.

“The occult ceremony climaxes as hexers hammer nails into the heart and throat of the image of Hitler,” LIFE reported. “The hexers called on the pagan deity, Istan, to transmit the image’s wounds to the flesh of the living Hitler . . . chanting in unison: ‘We are driving nails and needles into Adolf Hitler’s heart!'”

Istan??

With reporter and photographer on hand, this ceremony is better attested than the alleged Lammas 1940 ritual by English witches that was supposed to turn back a threatened German invasion.

The south coast of England was a worried place in the summer of 1940. France had fallen, leading to the Dunkirk evacuation (now a major motion picture that I have not seen), and also to France and Britain abandoning their assistance to Norway, which Nazi Germany had invaded in April 1940.

Even Gerald Gardner had joined the Home Guard, a force of lightly armed volunteers prepared to fight and die along the coast when the expected German invasion crossed the Channel.1)Conventional military historians suggest that the Germans cancelled their invasion plans because (a) Hitler really wanted to invade the Soviet Union more than the UK and (b) the British Royal Navy was still powerful and capable of disrupting the invasion.

Gardner himself is the main source for that story. His museum collaborator, Cecil Williamson, wrote a magazine article on British witchcraft in 1952 that also mentions it, but he had been working with Gardner for a couple of years at that point, and Gardner may have been his principal or only source. Doreen Valiente, who was not there either, said the rite was worked on May Eve 1940, at the two following full Moons, and at Lammas.2)My source here is Aidan Kelly’s Crafting the Art of Magic, Book I: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939-1964. Or did the story just grow in the telling?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Conventional military historians suggest that the Germans cancelled their invasion plans because (a) Hitler really wanted to invade the Soviet Union more than the UK and (b) the British Royal Navy was still powerful and capable of disrupting the invasion.
2. My source here is Aidan Kelly’s Crafting the Art of Magic, Book I: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939-1964.

“The Love Witch” — “Twin Peaks” Meets “Bell, Book and Candle”

Photo: Anna Biller Productions.

Last November, Peg Aloi of The Media Witches reviewed The Love Witch under the deadline, “Why Real Witches Are Going to Love (or Maybe Hate) the Love Witch.”

A pagan friend I watched the film with was shocked and called it “irresponsible and potentially damaging.” His concern is not unreasonable; the film’s portrayal of witches could easily be misinterpreted by viewers whose understanding of modern witchcraft is grounded in horror film imagery.

Its almost satirical air and its wooden dialog give it a period feel, the period being the mid-1960s to 1970s, the era of Rosemary’s Baby or The Trip — an earlier highpoint of Occult Revival. (Is it the classic Ford Mustang in the opening scene?)

But to me, it felt like Bell, Book and Candle (1958, female witch obsessed with love) meets Twin Peaks (1990–1991, detective in over his head, mysterious goings-on, red draperies) with additional dialog by Gerald Gardner.

Put The Love Witch on the list for when you and your fellow cultists get together for Semi-serious Occult Move Night.

I Lived in Magic: A Video Biography of Oberon Zell

Produced and directed by Danny Yourd (Animal Studio), this meditative interview with Oberon Zell (co-founder of the Church of All Worlds and the man who put “Neo-Pagan” into the American religious vocabulary in the 1970s) is a valuable piece of American Pagan history. (It can also be viewed at the Vimeo site.)

Interspersed with video clips from the 1970s, 1980s, and on to the present — including the quixotic New Guinea mermaid quest — it pivots on his relationship with his life partner, the late Morning Glory Zell. (Their lives are also examined in John Sulak’s  The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism, which might be the best inside look at the American Pagan scene ever written.)

Oberon reflects on his life, on his loss of Morning Glory, but he is not giving up. “Don’t let it die,” were among her last words, and so the grey-haired wizard carries on. I know that he will do so until he is gone, and something like the mythic cry of Merlin is heard in the redwoods of California.

Books and Movies for a Pagan Mindset

I have been thinking that I needed to add a new category of reviews — not just books etc. deliberately focused on Paganism (which to my mind automatically includes polytheism), but those that promote a Pagan mindset without coming out and saying it.

Go ahead and say it: Pagan-ish.

My first candidate is a movie from last year, Captain Fantastic, starring Vigo Mortensen. Oh, there some hints — check out his necklace. But it is all done in a low-key, positive way.

Review: “The Sisterhood of Night”


Pagan film critic Peg Aloi has interesting things to say about a new movie, The Sisterhood of Night.

Not only does it have the traditional element of teenage girls, secrets, and occultism (see, not coincidentally, Salem, Mass., 1692) but there is a social-media element too:

The film cleverly allows us to speculate for a bit about the rumor mill’s potential accuracy, and to wonder at social media’s shocking failure as a networking tool when one simply decides to stop using it.

The movie has a Facebook page too.

Teenage boys, of course, are never ever interested in this stuff.

This is Not a Film for Your Wicca 101 Class

On 4 December 1969 a press party was held for a documentary film on Witchcraft, Legend of the Witches, directed by Malcolm Leigh. Among the media types attending was a magazine writer on assignment, a fifty-something man named Stewart Farrar, but that is another story.

Legend of the Witches offers a very Margaret Murray-style reading of the “Old Religion” — which everyone in the Craft wholeheartedly believed in then, I think — complete with the “Plantagenet dynasty as pro-Pagan sacred kings” legend, the bit about Joan of Arc being “really a witch,” and the alleged founding of the Order of the Garter as a group of covens with royal patronage.

One cult-movie site says, “Legend Of The Witches remains one of those films so ephemeral and so synonymous with the very concept of ‘collectable’ that you sometimes wonder if people are refusing to buy it or maybe even refusing to acknowledge its availability in order to preserve the legend.”

It is all presented very seriously:

The narrator (whose name does not seem to appear on the credits, and who employs the quintessentially polite, Ealing-trained yet slightly foreboding tone of voice so beloved of most contemporaneous documentaries, not too dissimilar to the camp voiceover that links the tracks on the equally-legendary 666 album by Greek prog-rockers Aphrodite’s Child) delivers several pieces of information which, although maybe not entirely grounded in fact, seem well-informed and at least blessed with a certain degree of enthusiasm for the subject.

The star is Alex Sanders, assisted by his Witch Queen, his wife Maxine in her bleach-blonde days. Sanders leads coven ritual, sacrifices a rooster and divines from its entrails, performs poppet magic at great length, and officiates at a Luciferian Mass, thus indulging his love of ecclesiastical vestments.

That era was the peak of his publicity seeking, and Maxine was the most photographed nude Witch of the 1960s. In her autobiography Fire Child she writes,

[In 1969] the requests for interviews and documentaries continued; filming took priority over ritual wrok. The new flat was constantly abuzz with people who wanted to know the witches for one reason or another. If we were not filming or appearing on some television show, people would crowd into the living room to listen to Alex talk. They were beginning to worship him. Alex was, in my opinion, developing megalomaniac tendencies. He gegan to use tacky shock tactics that did not portray the Craft in a true light (p. 159).

Other highlights include footage of a pregnant woman eating allegedly unspecified herbal entheogens? (Hey, it’s the Sixties. The kid will be groovy.) and scenes from one of the witchcraft museums founded by Gerald Gardner’s associate Cecil Williams. Sybil Leek is shown but not named.

The video is available on YouTube, as linked, and elsewhere. You can also buy it on Amazon. I would not show it to new students without a lot of explaining, but then I am one who is more offended by historically unsupported statements than by chicken sacrifice.

The Greatest “Occult” Movies

220px-Holy_Mountain

Still need to see this.

From Ultraculture, a list of nine great movies about the occult and magick — and nine more.

But since there are “honorable mentions” as well, you get more!

Obvious choices (Rosemary’s BabyThe Exorcist), as well as films that present the subject in an exploitative manner (such as those of Dario Argento) have been left out… as have the Harry Potter movies, because that’s just too easy.

The list starts with Häxen: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922), and I have to say that that was one I quit half way through because I was falling asleep. Maybe Twenties audiences were different. But there is a YouTube video linked, and you can see for yourself.

They have Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, but give his Orpheus just an honorable mention. I would have reversed them!

Lots of Kenneth Anger, of course.

OMG, Cultural Appropriation of Hallowe’en by Capitalists

chesterfield-halloweenActress Dorothy Lamour, a Hollywood star of the 1940s and early 1950s (who made a comeback in the 1970s.) She appeared in several movies set in the South Pacific and is often remembered for the publicity photos of herself wearing a sarong, making her the “number 1 pinup girl of the U.S. Army” in World War II. The ad mentions her movie Wild Harvest, which appeared in 1947.