Author Grady Hendrix and author-slash-witch historian Katherine Howe join Theresa DeLucci, television and horror fiction reviewer, to discuss the role of witches in the horror genre.
This panel first appeared in June 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
Today on the show, we’ll be discussing the way that witches are portrayed in horror books and movies. This will involve spoilers for the recent movie The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers, so just be aware of that. I’m joined by three guests. First up, we’ve got Grady Hendrix making his eighth appearance on the show. He’s the author of such books as Occupy Space and Satan Loves You. His novel, Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA is being developed for television by Gail Berman, producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. His new novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is out now. Grady, welcome to the show.
Grady: I’m excited to be here talking about witches.
Next up, we’ve got Theresa DeLucci making her fifth appearance on the show. Her Game of Thrones reviews appear on Tor.com, and her Hannibal reviews appear on Boing Boing. Follow her on Twitter at @TDeLucci. Theresa, welcome to the show.
Theresa: Thanks for having me back. I appreciate being invited to talk about witches.
Also joining us today is Katherine Howe. She’s the editor of the Penguin Book of Witches, and her debut novel was the New York Times bestseller The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, about the Salem witch trials. Her other novels include The House of Velvet and Glass, Conversion, and The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen. She also appeared on the National Geographic channel TV show Salem: Unmasking the Devil. Katherine, welcome to the show.
Katherine: Thanks so much for having me.
Katherine, since you’re joining us for the first time, let’s start off with you and have you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in witches.
Katherine: It started because I was in graduate school studying American and New England studies. I was living in a little town right next door to Salem in Massachusetts. I was really interested by the fact that if you go to Salem today, which you absolutely have to do for Halloween—it is an amazing place to visit—a lot of their industry is about witches, the legacy of witches. There’s a lot of pointy hats. There’s a lot of feathered boas, and it’s awesome, and it’s totally fun. I felt like I’d never seen a story that talked about Salem that took the colonial attitude towards magic seriously. I felt like we’re all familiar with The Crucible story and its skeptic version of Salem. And, I feel like we’ve all seen the kind of Harry Potter version of magic and witchcraft. I felt like we were missing a piece by overlooking the fact that for generation upon generation upon generation people actually believed that witches were real. I started to work on a novel, and that was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which is about what if the Salem witches were the real thing, but the way colonists believed witches to be. What does the world look like if having a witch trial is a rational thing to do?
Right, and you’re actually descended from some of these Salem witches.
Katherine: It’s true. Distantly. I have connections to Elizabeth Howe, who was one of the first people who was executed at Salem. Another one was Elizabeth Proctor, who was supposed to be executed at Salem, but who ended up getting by on a loophole because she was pregnant when she was condemned. So they were going wait, very generously, for her to have her baby before they put her to death. Isn’t that thoughtful? She ended up getting pardoned after the fact. And then, only a couple of years ago, I discovered I also have a connection to Deliverance Dane, who was a real person. She was a character in my first novel, and that just about made my head explode when I found that out.
You wrote a book about this person, and then you discovered that she was an ancestor of yours?
Katherine: Yeah, and I only picked her because I thought that her name was the most metal thing I’d ever seen in my life.
You said that there were no actual witch burnings in the US or in England.
Katherine: No. That was something that happened on the continent when witchcraft was treated as a religious crime, as a heresy. Here in North America, we were following English law at the time, and witchcraft as treated as a felony. So, it was punished just like a felony. It was punished by hanging. It’s a pretty common misconception. They did not burn people at the stake for witchcraft in North America or England.
You talked about wanting to look at witches from the point of view of the people who believed in them, and that’s sort of what this recent movie The Witch did. The reason I want to talk about witches right now is that a couple of episodes ago we did a panel on demonic possession, and Grady, you and Jordan got talking about the evil goat in The Witch. At the time, I hadn’t seen the movie. I had no idea what you guys were talking about. But I have since seen the movie, and I loved it, and I really want to talk about it. Grady, why don’t you say a bit more about, other than the goat, what did you think of the movie The Witch? What did you think of it overall?
Grady: I thought The Witch was so weird. I really enjoyed it. It’s a really well made movie, and it was really a lot of fun. But it’s so weird because it takes witches very seriously. It takes that seventeenth century view of witchcraft very seriously, and really portrays the folklore realistically and literally. It’s funny because then it just becomes a movie not really about anything because, ultimately, when you look at the movie, I’ve never seen a movie about witches, or witchcraft, or witch hunting where the point of the movie seemed to be, “We just didn’t kill enough witches soon enough.” If the people in this movie had just taken accusations of witchcraft seriously and responded by killing those accused of witchcraft they would have been fine.
Theresa, what do you think about that? Or what did you think of The Witch overall?
Theresa: Overall, I loved it. I started getting served these Facebook ads for the movie with the trailer with Black Phillip, the goat, and I’m like, “What the hell is this goat? Why does it keep appearing on all of my social media?” Then when I went to check it out, I was just blown away by how unsettling it was and how beautifully it was filmed, too. I haven’t seen a movie quite like that in a long time. I think it had some of the most beautiful cinematography using natural light since The Revenant. I thought both of those movies showed nature and how terrifying and threatening it could be, like the forest was a personality and a character all its own. But, then ultimately, what made me enjoy the movie was the ending, which I felt was super feminist, super unexpected, for that movie. I came out of the movie feeling really energized and wanting to see it again because I was just blown away by that ending.
Grady: Theresa, I want to ask you, what did you find feminist about it?
Theresa: Well, she chose. The whole movie, Thomasin, who is the teenage girl, she’s become a scapegoat for her family as things start to go wrong for them. I just felt like because she was a beautiful young girl who was coming into womanhood that was seen as a threat. The ending, when the mother is screaming at her, being like, “I see the sluttish way you looked at your brother, and you made him look at you, and you’re going to do it to your father too.” Puberty is out of her control. She’s a young woman coming into herself in a religion that says she is less than a man. She’s weaker than a man, automatically, just by her nature. They’re all corrupt in nature, according to their beliefs, but I think with the Puritans, women had to speak to God through a man, their husbands and their fathers and their priests. They didn’t have a direct line to God because they were women. Man was made in God’s image. Woman was made from man.
Katherine: I don’t know if I entirely agree with that, Theresa. You’re correct that it was an incredibly hierarchical society, and that hierarchy was based on gender, but it was also based on class and on race. One of the things that made the Puritans interesting was that they had a very individual relationship with God. It’s one of the reasons that literacy was such an important part of that religion. In fact, Puritans founded both Harvard and Yale, and it was partly because they were originally founded as schools of religious instruction. Puritans were encouraged to read the Bible, to have their own relationship with the Bible. In fact, the modern day descendants of the Puritans are the Congregationalists, and they’re called that because of the “congregational” organization of each community of faith. You’re one-hundred percent correct that Thomasin lived in a world in which her father was the head of the household as Christ was the head of the church, in which her opinion was taken to be less important than it would have been otherwise.
Katherine, what do you make of Grady’s idea that the message of this movie was “we should kill more witches and then we’ll be safe?”
Katherine: It was interesting to me. First of all, I agree with everything everyone said about the aesthetic of the film, and I know that Robert took the research for it very seriously. The monologue that the son speaks before he coughs up the apple and is in this kind of ecstasy of possession—I actually recognized it. It was taken from a speech from a primary source that I’d read. I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So, that was all incredible.
I agree with Grady, though. Ultimately, the plot is: there’s a witch, she messes everything up, the end. One thing I found myself wondering was how, and this is probably just my own interest in historiography, and in the ways our understanding of reality change from time to time. I would have been so curious to see a version of that film, maybe like an edit of the film, where we never see the witch at all. If we don’t see her even once. If instead, we see people wandering in the forest. If we see the explosion of the barn and the kids are missing. If we see Thomasin walking nude into the forest at the end. That would have scared the pants off me if we never saw the witch whatsoever because it would have made it an open question of “what is really happening to this family?” Is this a family falling apart in the face of religious mania? Is it a family being stalked by a wolf that they simply can’t see? It would have been so terrifying. And, so often, in the early modern period, witchcraft is used as a way to explain otherwise unexplainable phenomena or instances of bad luck or instances of bad feeling. I am curious to see how that version of the film would feel.
Grady: It’ll probably be on the Blu-ray. The witch-free edition.
Like, The Witch without the witch like Garfield without Garfield.
Grady: Theresa, I never thought about that. I think you’re right that in the sense that if you do identify strongly with Thomasin, there is a feminist reading of the movie. I guess, to me, because the movie posited that witches are old ugly ladies who eat babies, and live in the woods, and screw up your life, I sort of didn’t see that reading, but I see what you’re saying.
Theresa: The whole movie, she is scapegoated for all of these bad choices—which point, the first bad choice was made by the father to leave the plantation. Because I don’t know that much about Puritans, how hardcore was he that he got kicked out of the Puritans? Honestly.
Katherine: Rhode Island was founded by people who were kicked out of Massachusetts. There were a lot of religious dissensions and religious distinctions and also people moving deeper into the wilderness to claim more land for themselves. I mean, at this time, Maine was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was called The Eastwood. It seems strange because I always imagine Maine as being up, but actually relative to Massachusetts it’s to the east. The idea of splintering away from a community is not all that out of hand.
It’s funny because this movie first came to my attention because it was endorsed by the Satanic temple. Presumably there are people out there who feel that there is a pro-Satan interpretation of this movie, right? That it’s not just “the witches are evil and we need to kill them all.” Like Theresa is saying, there does seem to be a substantial empowerment interpretation of this movie.
Grady: But, it’s a super problematic interpretation because it’s like, even if you go along with the reading that Thomasin is rejected and has to turn to this group of outsiders to feel any power in her life or any validation, it’s still a group of outsiders who steal and eat babies.
Theresa: Different strokes.
Grady: Yeah, I feel like once you belong to a group that’s eating babies and turning them into body lotion, you kind of lose any moral authority you may have had.
Katherine: Grady, you’re being so bourgeois.
Theresa: Knowing a little bit about the Church of Satan—I read this really fantastic interview with the founder, Anton LaVey, in Rolling Stone a number of years ago, and he said Satanism was mostly about selfishness, like owning your selfishness and your self-interest. That’s what the devil did. It’s a reading of what the devil had done when he got kicked out of heaven. He was acting in his own best interests. That’s why I thought it was kind of interesting that the Church of Satan endorsed The Witch because if you look at Thomasin from that way, again, scapegoated. She’s in this family being blamed. She chooses to go with the witches. She’s choosing the taste of butter, to live deliciously. That’s on her own terms, and she’s kind of accepting it, and then that ecstasy at the end when she’s rising. It’s her fulfilling this wish to act in her own self-interest for a change and not have that fear of condemnation on her all the time, which I thought was an interesting interpretation. Also, the Church of Satan kind of loves publicity, so . . .
Grady: They’re like professional trolls these days. They’re kind of great.
Katherine: Talking to Grady’s point about life stages and the way that the film represented them at different moments—both Thomasin, who is on the cusp of being a woman, and the unnamed crone that we spot making body lotion in the woods— statistically the age of a woman who was most likely accused of being a witch was a woman of middle age from between about forty to about sixty. So, anyone who should have been accused as a witch, statistically speaking, was the mother. If you look back at the Salem trials, for instance, it was girls Thomasin’s age who were accusing women of Thomasin’s mother’s age. I think that the crone archetype is something that we actually get later. We get that in nineteenth century fairy tales to some degree; the idea that witches are all old and bent. But, typically, there is a tangled relationship between the historical idea of witchcraft and women’s power.
I thought it was so interesting when I heard you say that, Katherine. It occurred to me that it seems like every witch that I can think of in a movie—they are virtually all super sexy or super old and scary. Hollywood has this tendency to make middle aged women invisible. It seems like there’s kind of an interesting clash between the historical reality and Hollywood reality.
Katherine: Most definitely.
Speaking of pacts with the devil, I got an email from the Satanic Temple saying that they were going to have a screening of The Witch and I would get to see their Baphomet statue that they crowdfunded.
Grady: Oh, it looks good, actually.
Theresa: Oh, I love that one. It’s gorgeous.
I wanted to see it so much, and so I followed the link, and I went to their website, and I couldn’t find how I got my invitation to the party. The only thing I could find was there was this link and it said, “Sign the Devil’s book.” And so I thought, “Well, maybe that’ll get me on their mailing list or something.”
Katherine: Oh, Dave, we’re going to miss you.
So, I did that, and the next thing I know I’m on their list of Satanists in the New York area, right? So, that’s how the Devil got me.
Katherine: Do you want us to call someone for you?
Theresa: You’re still a protected class. Satanists are still a protected class under court of law. It’s all good.
I wanted to ask Theresa, though—speaking of the movie The Witch, I thought the responses to the movie were interesting because some people thought it was terrifying. I did. The power actually went out while I was watching it, and I was totally terrified watching it. But, then a lot of people said they didn’t think it was scary, but then also a lot of people really liked it and a lot of people didn’t. I noticed that on Rotten Tomatoes this movie is at 91% among critics and only 55% among viewers. I was wondering as a film critic-type person if you have any thoughts about that stuff.
Theresa: I hate to always play this angle, but when something gets a lot of acclaim for being feminist, whether that’s right or wrong, or the critics kind of feel like, “Oh hey, this is a really cool girl power interesting kind of movie,” sometimes I feel like IMDB, internet forums, Rotten Tomatoes, places where people can vote has that Gamergate effect. Like MRA people just gang up and down vote, you know? Not that that would be the only reason that there would be such a disparity between critics and user reviews, but sometimes I do think that can factor into it, if there’s a certain narrative about how this movie is received as a response to that. Also, if you’re like, “Oh yeah, a witch movie. It’s going to be gory. It’s going to be scary. People are saying it’s so scary.” And then you go and you find this Puritan family with thick accents that you might have trouble understand and a lot of ominous shots of the woods. You might be disappointed.
It sounded like Grady that you had kind of mixed feelings about the movie?
Grady: I think, look, I definitely think Theresa is right. Anytime a movie has a feminist read, I think you’re going to pull out people who just object to it on principle, and they can often be very vocal. But I also think part of the problem that I have with the movie, and I think other people might have, is that the family never stands a chance. When you think they stand a chance, it just turns out you’re stupid and you don’t understand how screwed they really are. It does take the wind out of your sails a little bit. Theresa is talking about coming out feeling really invigorated. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy, and I feel a castration or something. But I came out of it going, “Oh, we might as well just lie down and wait for the witches to eat us.”
Katherine: I mean, the dad got off relatively easily by dying the way he did. In the Malleus Maleficarum, there’s a whole lot about how witches are able to steal men’s penises, so it could have been a lot worse.
Grady: Well, but the penises get to all live in boxes together like baby birds, which kind of sounds fun for the penis.
But, I mean, you don’t think Thomasin had a choice at the end? Couldn’t she have gone to the town?
Grady: She would have just starved to death, and why is she going to go to the town? Who is going to be accused of killing everyone? Probably her. Nothing good is going to happen to her.
Katherine: She would have been bound out to service, which is what they were planning to do with her, which is what poor families did all the time. Which really sucked.
Grady: Yeah, so I get some of the objection in a way because you’re watching this movie that’s really great, and then it’s so depressing.
Theresa: That’s why I think I liked it, because it has some of the nihilism to it where it’s like, “Fuck it, we’re all doomed. Bad things happen.” I think actually seeing the witch and all her different forms added this weird-with-a-capital-W fiction element to it, which I’m always interested in, where it’s the order of nature subverted, and you’re kind of helpless and small in the face of it. That sense of awe. There’s something out of the natural order of the world that I can’t explain. I either stand against it or let myself be lost to it, and I think that is nihilistic, but also kind of refreshing to see that in a movie. I just wasn’t expecting it.
Grady: It’s so funny though, because they do posit that the witches are somehow more in touch with nature and the forest and all these things in the film when the worldview at the time was that witches were completely unnatural. They were the least natural thing of all. They were viewed as the most unnatural thing possible, because they had taken the most unnatural act possible.
Did you think this movie was scary, Grady? Because there were no jump scares in this movie, but man, when the goat talked, I jumped out of my skin, and I don’t think I’ve ever jumped so much just from somebody speaking in a soft voice.
Grady: This movie has one thing that they really did well: it had so many unexpected moments. I did not expect the baby lotion so early. I did not expect that at all. I did not expect Satan to appear. I didn’t expect the folklore to keep so much fidelity to how it was. So much of it was unexpected.
Theresa: I was watching it again last night, and we had a house guest who is a screenwriter in China, so he works on a lot of Chinese horror movies, and looks at film from a screenwriter perspective for him and how it would play in certain markets. He had never seen The Witch before, and he likes horror movies, so I’m like, “Oh, let’s watch it.” He just kept remarking on how . . . he’s like, “Nothing is happening, but I’m so scared.”
A good part of it was just the music. Let’s recognize that the soundtrack was fantastic. Best witch movie soundtrack since Suspiria. I thought there was some definite Goblin nods in there. Maybe I’m crazy, but like, the clanging and the hollering and stuff like that. It was really effective at creating dread. I could see why people wouldn’t necessarily find it super scary. It’s just like a pervasive dread and then punctuated with these moments of extremely bizarre, unsettling, disturbing imagery, like the knife above the baby. That one really bothered me. Then the next scene to see her pounding . . . ugh . . . it was gross.
Katherine: There were some really intense images in that film, it’s true. The crow is what sticks with me.
Theresa: Oh, can I say that that actress . . . poor Lysa Aaryn (Kate Dickie) always breastfeeding something really weird. That actress really plays to a type, and it’s a very specific, uncomfortable type. Poor Kate Dickie.
Grady: I think that was one of the things that’s so strong about the movie is you’re right, the imagery is so strong and so squick-making, and yet it’s all pulled out of this past folklore and accounts of witch trials and stuff that are generally considered musty and dusty these days. And clichéd. It’s interesting that they could make that stuff have a frisson to it again.
Katherine, was there anything that you thought was not historically accurate?
Katherine: I don’t want to nitpick, all things considered, like I don’t think that that is the point. It’s not a documentary about witchcraft in the past. The farm should have been many times bigger. Little things. None of that is important though, because the point of the film is to talk about the development of this one fictional thing and to put them in this historical context. I thought that was done very well. I’m intrigued by the relationship between the family and the woods. I think that that is actually one of the most historically accurate parts of it. Anglo-People who were colonizing North America both relied on the woods and had a tremendous fear of it. Actually, if you look at one of the best history books on Salem—In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton—the author makes that case that a lot of the early modern English accounts of the Devil used the same language that they used to describe the native population, the first people who were here.
That’s interesting, because when I used to go hiking a lot with my family as a kid, you would always hike by “Devil’s Panhandle” or “Devil’s Tower” or all these things. I always thought that was really cool, but I eventually found out that those were just all the sacred sites to the native peoples.
Grady: I’m going to get my names and dates wrong, so I’m leaving them out, but there was a belief, I think it was relatively obscure, that North America was the Devil’s country, and that the native peoples who lived here had been lured to it by the Devil originally, many hundreds of years ago, and that this was his place. This was his hangout, and it had to be reclaimed.
I guess one other thing that I wanted to say about the movie, Theresa, is that you said that your friend said nothing happened, and a lot of the reviews from people who didn’t like the movie said something similar. “It’s too slow. Nothing happens.” I feel like if you diagram the plot of this, that every single scene moves the plot forward. It’s just, it does so in sort of like an understated, quiet way. I don’t think there’s any scenes in this movie that aren’t directly advancing the plot.
Theresa: Oh, I totally agree with that. It’s just a quiet sort of plot. What I thought was great about the movie is it’s only an hour and a half long. I’m like, thank God. Why does every movie need to be two and a half hours? Especially a horror movie. It could be really effective to keep it short and keep everything tight and necessary to the story. Yeah, so when he said “Nothing is happening,” he meant it was more like, “No one is getting owned.” He kept saying, “No one is getting owned yet. Oh, now the ownage is going to come.”
And then at the end, when Black Phillip speaks, then he lost his mind. “Oh my God, this is crazy.” That scene was so impressive, so amazing. I think that’s when I really was just like . . . my jaw fell open in the theater, and I was like, “Oh my God. That man, you never really see his face.” The first time you see his hands and hear his voice, and you’re like, he must be the most beautiful, most seductive-looking man she’s ever seen. We can’t really picture him, because it’s better to have that in our imagination. Like, who would Satan be to you when he comes to you to make you an offer to write in his book? How would he seduce you? When you think about how dry and really void of pleasure their lives were, that butter is something that would be a luxury to you.
Katherine: Butter was a big deal.
Theresa: I know. It’s like, I’ve tried the Whole Thirty diet and in like two weeks and had a piece of chocolate, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is the sweetest best thing ever.” Can you imagine not tasting butter for months? Or apples? They keep wishing for apples. “We haven’t had an apple since England.” England is the land of apples and butter and Shakespeare and fun.
Katherine: And glass windows.
Theresa: Yes, and they’re over here living these very hard scrabble, dour lives.
It’s funny because that scene, I actually watched that scene with my girlfriend a couple of times, and the first time I just thought it was all dark in the background, but you can actually see the figure a little bit if you look carefully, and as he circles around behind her, I think what happens is you see him step with a human foot and then he steps with a goat leg. That didn’t register for me, if I’m seeing it right, when I first saw it, but I think it did register on some subliminal level because I was so creeped out by that scene. Like I said, I really, really liked this movie The Witch, and I feel like I can’t really think of a ton of witch movies I’ve loved in recent—
Katherine: How did you feel about Blair Witch?
I actually really liked Blair Witch. I feel like that was a really long time ago.
Katherine: I feel like it was the last time I saw a witch movie that I found really exciting. I remember watching it when it came out right after I graduated college. I saw it in New York City, and I was living up by Inwood Hill Park, and I had to walk past the park to get to my apartment, and my friend and I were clutching each other, trembling as we walked past Inwood Hill Park. It’s this very last stand of wooded Manhattan, and it’s really eerie and creepy. I felt like I was thinking a lot about The Blair Witch project while I was watching The Witch.
Well, it’s another movie where “nothing happens” but it’s terrifying.
Grady: And another movie set in the woods.
Katherine: In the woods with a small cast having an intense experience. They’re isolated from the rest of their community, and maybe that’s one of the reasons that I’ve fantasized about seeing a supercut of The Witch without the witch in it, because in Blair Witch we never see the witch.
Grady: I was just about to say Blair Witch is your dream movie. You never see it. Speaking of that, The Conjuring, isn’t the ghost in The Conjuring a witch?
Yeah, like Bathsheba or something.
Grady: Yeah, and used to no great effect, I thought. I mean, I like The Conjuring fine, but it doesn’t feel like a witch movie, and she doesn’t feel like a witch the way something like The Witch or The Blair Witch Project or Black Sunday or Suspiria do.
Theresa: I agree. I like The Conjuring a lot, actually. I thought it was really atmospheric, but it didn’t have that element of weirdness to it that Suspiria does. Blair Witch did. Where it’s something just off kilter but in a different way. In a way we don’t see a lot in movies. Like not always outright. They could show killing a baby, but to hint at it is ten thousand times worse.
Theresa, I haven’t seen Suspiria or Black Sunday. Are those worth watching?
Theresa: Oh, absolutely. I really love Suspiria. I’m a huge Dario Argento fan. He uses soundtracks, vivid colors, and his stories, Suspiria in particular, has this nightmare logic, and I guess that’s what it is about witch movies that I like when they’re good. They have this dreamy, trapped in a nightmare logic where things might not make sense from a plot perspective, but emotionally they do. That’s what Suspiria is. It’s directed by Dario Argento, and based on a screenplay from his then-wife Daria Nicolodi, who is a famous Italian noir actress. She had a relative who went to a boarding school in Germany in these woods that were supposedly haunted by a witch, so that’s where Suspiria came from. And it’s so brutal and colorful and garish. It’s part of this trilogy, the Three Mothers trilogy. Mater Suspiriorum is the Mother of Sighs. There’s Mater Tenebrarum and then Lachrymarum. He finally made the last film, The Mother of Tears, in the early 2000s. It wasn’t quite as good, but it did have this corrupting mother witch force ruining lives wherever she went, which I thought was really creepy and effective and super violent, because it’s Dario Argento.
Grady: I wonder if, in movies, the more effective witches are the invisible witches or the witches you see less of. Like, in The Conjuring she’s front and center a lot. But, Blair Witch Project or The Witch or Suspiria even, the witch is largely unseen, because the fear of the witch is often a fear of conspiracies and things moving in the shadows and the invisible forces behind daily life that seek to corrupt and overturn it. I wonder if the less you see a witch in the movie, the cooler the witch is, because that’s where that original concept, that urge, comes from, maybe.
Theresa: Yeah, I would totally agree with that.
Katherine: I would agree with that too. The reason that Arthur Miller hit upon witches for making his ultimate statement about communism was because the central question of witches in early modernism is: Who is and who isn’t? How do we recognize who or what a witch is? It was an ongoing problem for people at that time, and it gets to a fundamental sense that we have among the essential unknowability of other people. People that you think that you know.
Grady: It’s a story I hated the first time I read it, and I’ve come back to it as an adult, and I realized that I was an asshole, and it actually is great.
Katherine: Which story is that?
Grady: “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is such a simple story. Dude goes for a walk, he gets caught up in a black mass, and discovers that basically everyone in his community belongs to Satan and is a witch or practices black magic. Then suddenly he is back in normal time, and now he’s returned to his home, and he’s like, “I don’t know. Is my wife a witch? Is everyone a witch?” There is something really destabilizing about that conspiracy idea that witches seem to embody on some level.
And James the First. He was killing witches left, right, and center, but I think a lot of that had to do with the idea that, at the time, that people were secret Catholics, and they had to be rooted out and destroyed or converted, and that fed right into witches.
Katherine: James’ writing about demonology is also partly his attempt to reassert the authority of his claim to the throne, to show intellectual mastery for his position as head of the Church of England. It’s funny, some of the comments I’ve read about his book Demonology say that none of the witch hunting stuff that he has to say is in any way original. He just lists ideas from other people who were writing around the same time. But he still has to show that he knows his stuff in order to demonstrate his authority.
Grady: It’s weird because he took witches super-duper personally too. People probably know this, but he really got after witches in Britain after he thought that witches tried to drown his bride, Anne of Denmark, on her way over to get married to him. The first thing he did when he went over to get her and bring her back is like, “I’m going to kill all the witches!” And had a big trial in Scotland where, I don’t know if it was seventy people who were accused or if there were seventy executions, but somewhere in there. Between the threat to his home, the threat to his wife, the threat of Catholics—he just hated them on a really deep level.
Katherine: He had a lot to deal with.
Katherine, are there other fictional treatments of witches in books that you want to recommend?
Katherine: There was kind of a bloom of Salem fiction around the same time that my first book came out. One of them was The Heretic’s Daughter, which came out, I think, in 2008, and is also a Salem story. It’s about Martha Carrier, who was accused later on during the Salem panic and was called “The Queen of Hell” during the course of her trial. She was from Andover. Most people don’t realize that actually more people were accused in Andover than were accused in Salem Village. The panic started in Salem Village and then spread very quickly. That one is really good. The Lace Reader is a more contemporary Salem story by Brunonia Barry, who is a Salem writer. A lot of people really enjoyed that book and connected with it really well. It depends on what your taste is, what you’re in the mood for. I really enjoyed The Witches of Eastwick, which I think most of us first think of the film with Cher and Jack Nicholson, but before that it was a novel by John Updike. He actually did a sequel, too, called The Widows of Eastwick. It’s also very beautifully steeped in knowledge about the early-modern North American beliefs in witchcraft: how it worked, what it could do, how it could function. And, in typical Updike fashion, it’s very drenched in sex and tomatoes compared with testicles.
Theresa: That’s what I remember, because I read Witches of Eastwick when I was really young, and I was like, “What?”
Katherine: And you were grossed out?
Theresa: Yeah, I was grossed out, and we’re Italian, so there’s always lots of tomatoes in our house.
Katherine: Now you can’t look at a tomato the same way.
Theresa: I can’t unsee it.
Katherine: It’s worth a look. For someone who is interested in this stuff, and is interested in maybe a more magical realist rather than a fantasy approach to witchcraft, that is one that I often point people to.
I haven’t read the novel, but I saw the movie for the first time yesterday.
Katherine: How’s it hold up?
It’s weird. It’s uneven, I would say. I enjoyed it, but I found it more fascinating than enjoyable. There’s just so many weird things in the movie. There was a line I wanted to ask you about, Katherine, because there’s a part where Jack Nicholson’s character says that witches were hunted by the medical profession because they wanted to remove the competition of midwives. I was wondering if there was any historical basis to that at all?
Katherine: That was a hypothesis that was advanced, I want to say, in the 1980s. The short version is, there’s not much to hold that up. The long version is that when we talk about early-modern beliefs about witchcraft, we’re actually talking about two different cultural phenomena. One is the belief in witchcraft on the legal level—the public belief in witchcraft, the trial kinds of beliefs in witchcraft, the stuff that’s talked about by theologians, the stuff that’s legislated against. And that is different from, but kind of related to, a folk belief in witchcraft, cunning folk.
Cunning folk, in the early-modern period, would be someone who offered occult services for a fee. So dousing for water was something that a cunning person would do. Charms to find lost property was a big part of cunning folk business. There is this widespread sense of folk belief that is magical in basis that is walking the line of what is morally acceptable. In English the word cunning has, as I’m sure you know, kind of a morally ambiguous sense. It means really smart, but it also means sneaky, potentially, so it’s not a totally positive connotation. There is, in some cases, the sense that a cunning person could be someone that you would want to watch out for.
For the most part, people who were accused of being witches were not accused because they were of this netherworld, interstitial moral space. People who were accused as witches were Christian people who didn’t fit in with their culture for whatever reason: because they were argumentative, because they were too poor, they were too grasping, they were too hard to deal with, they were mentally unsound for whatever reason. It is true that the early-modern period is when medicine was beginning to professionalize, and it was a professionalization that was, of course, on gendered lines. But it was not, by any means, a conspiracy or anything like that. There is something to be said about the gendering of knowledge and the hierarchies of power within that gendering process. But, for the most part, if you were accused as a witch during the early-modern period, it was because you were the wrong kind of person and you had the wrong attitude, not because you were doing anything wrong.
I’ve heard you make this point—Grady said something similar in our demonic possession panel—but these people who are accused of being witches have never become rich and powerful and beautiful as a result of their deal with the devil.
Katherine: Exactly! Which is actually a point that one of the best known skeptical writers made in the early-modern period. Reginald Scott made this exact point. He’s like, why, if witches are able to make a pact with the devil to get whatever they want, why are they all poor, bleary eyed, distracted people? And that’s exactly his point. Reginald Scott makes the case that in the early-modern period the people who were accused as witches were at the fringes of society.
Grady: It’s interesting because I thought the theological response to that was: “Because Satan is tricky.” I remember this thing where they were like—
Katherine: That they were fooled.
Grady: Yeah, they were all fooled.
Theresa: That could work for anything. It’s a great retrofitting.
Grady: Yeah, but they made a deal with the devil and the devil has taken advantage.
Katherine: The devil tricked. That’s true.
I watched The Witches of Eastwick yesterday, and then I also watched The Witches based on the Roald Dahl novel, and The Craft. Theresa you said that you liked The Craft, right?
Theresa: Oh yeah, The Craft was super fun. I mean, ’90s goth girl in high school? Of course I loved The Craft. Fairuza Balk was like, aspirational. There are some scenes that I always remember there, with Neve Campbell’s character she had been disfigured in a fire, and people are mean to her because she’s ugly, well, Hollywood ugly. But as soon as she gets her witch powers with her coven, she becomes super-hot and starts wearing midriff tops, and making the people who are mean to her, like her main bully, go bald. How scary that was when I was a teenager—like, oh my God, what if I had this power? Would I use it for good or bad?
The Craft was a way better version of that ’80s movie Teen Witch with Robin Lively. I don’t know if anyone else saw that.
Grady: Um, yeah. It’s amazing.
Theresa: One of the best rap battles in all of cinema history, right? But, The Craft was just so creepy and so much about Fairuza Balk’s performance because she sells you on the crazy from the moment she bugs her eyes out. She is fantastic.
What makes it better than Teen Witch?
Theresa: Well, it’s a hell of a lot less cheesy. It’s not as dated. Although, I guess it depends. The Craft isn’t a great movie, but it’s fun. Teen Witch is just really bad, and that makes it kind of hilarious to watch. They actually did a really wonderful reading of it on the “How Did this Get Made?” podcast that I highly recommend checking out. If you have any nostalgia for that movie at all, you will laugh your ass off about how dated it is and how awful it is.
And anti-feminist, right?
Theresa: Oh yeah, totally. All she wants is to have Brad, the high school football captain, without his consent—and it’s also kind of creepy then. The Craft was a lot better because at least it did deal with some of that stuff being like, “Yeah, maybe love spells are not morally okay. Maybe we should not do that. It’s kind of dangerous and a dick move.”
Katherine, what did you think of these ’80s witch movies?
Katherine: I don’t remember Teen Witch. I think I saw it, but if so it would have been in the ’80s. A lot has happened since then. I think about The Craft a lot, actually. Obviously, I saw it as a teenager and loved it and aspired to it because I felt like I was a weirdo in high school. One of the things that I really like about it is that it does get to this thing about hunger for power, which I think comes up again and again, both in the history and the popular culture aspects of it. About power and women, and the fact that women can’t seem to get it through normal means, and what happens when they step outside the carefully drawn boundaries that our culture has drawn for them.
Grady: That’s one of those things about those movies that I always can’t stand is that they always turn out to be cautionary tales about power. The sort of “be careful what you wish for.” Oh, you’ve got power and had to go outside society, now look at you, you’re killing everyone you love. Which is why I love movies like Blair Witch Project or The Witch or even Suspiria to some extent that are just like, “These are witches. Don’t fuck with them.”
Theresa: Right, I feel bad for men in a way. There’s all these wonderful witch movies. What do guys have? Guys have Julian Sands in Warlock, I guess? Not that there’s anything wrong with Warlock.
Katherine: I don’t know, Theresa. Guys have Congress.
Grady: Yeah, we’ve got the patriarchy. We don’t need some movies.
Katherine: I think they’re doing okay.
Grady: But we’ll take your sympathy.
Theresa: You’ll take Julian Sands, is what you’re saying.
Theresa, when you were watching The Craft as a teenager, did you believe in magic? Did you ever think, “Oh, I should try some of these spells?”
Theresa: No, I mean, token goth chick. I was living in Brookfield, Connecticut at the time, and all of the weirdo goth kids kind of hung together, and yeah, after The Craft came out, I always thought it was kind of obnoxious because then a bunch of friends became, “Oh, we’re Wiccans.” You know? We used to get the Mormons on the street like, “Hey, kids, let me tell you about my lord and savior.” And I had one friend who would launch into, verbatim, the speech from The Craft, like, “God and the devil are playing on a football field. We’re the football field. We’re nature.” I’d just kind of roll my eyes. There were times in graveyards with candles and incense and stuff, but I never believed like that, no. I was too cynical even then. If witches were real, they wouldn’t be going to New Milford High School.
Katherine: I don’t know. In Twilight the vampires, unaccountably, keep going to high school even though they don’t have to. I don’t understand.
They just really want to learn trigonometry.
Theresa: They’re going back to when they peaked.
Speaking of cautionary tales, I wanted to watch a bunch of witch movies in preparation for this panel, so I just typed “witch” into iTunes to see what came up, and I mentioned, I watched a couple of movies, but there were a couple of movies that I was not brave enough to watch. We have The Last Witch Hunter at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. Hansel and Gretel at 15% on Rotten Tomatoes. And Season of the Witch at 10% on Rotten Tomatoes. Have you guys seen those?
Theresa: I reviewed The Last Witch Hunter for Tor.com. My God. The headline of my review was “Please let this be the last witch hunter” because it was terrible. Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones played Ygritte, and in The Last Witch Hunter she was the last of the witches, or whatever, and she was a super cute goth chick. She worked at a bar and could make the lights go out. Everything was awful. Vin Diesel . . . ugh, I love Vin Diesel, like unironically, I really do, but this was no Pitch Black. It had moments of wanting to be like a D&D campaign, but with a few witches thrown in. There was no logic or rhyme or reason, but not in a creepy, weird way like Suspiria. It was just “who the fuck is writing this?” Why is this happening? It was painful.
Katherine: Because they wanted to buy boats—that’s why it’s happening.
Theresa: The scariest thing I saw in the theater was the guy who was sitting two rows in front of me with his bare feet on the seat in front of him.
Grady: Season of the Witch, I think that’s that George Romero movie that he made early in his career. It’s like a bored housewife in the suburbs and she becomes a witch.
Oh no, this is the recent Nicholas Cage one.
But if there’s another Season of the Witch that you want to talk about go ahead.
Grady: No, no I haven’t seen it.
Theresa: I saw the George Romero one, but it was a long time ago, and I was in high school. I remember falling asleep to it. I remember being really excited because I was like, “Yay, George Romero. Dawn of the Dead.” And then falling asleep after about 45 minutes of housewife drama. I don’t know if Season of the Witch is a remake with Nicholas Cage.
No, it’s like a medieval adventure movie.
Theresa: Oh. No. No, I have not seen that one.
Katherine: Does Nicholas Cage play Matthew Hopkins, witch finder general? That would be awesome.
Grady: Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Katherine: I’d pay money to see that.
Grady: There is a great movie, though, I’m going to pronounce it wrong: V-I-Y. It’s a Russian film from, I want to say, the ’70s, but I might be wrong. It’s based on a folktale, and it’s about a traveling theology student, and he stops in a village. They say that he can stay there, but he has to sleep in the church to guard the body of a young woman who has been accused of witchcraft who is dead, and she has to lie in state for three days before they’ll bury her. Each night, he’s visited by different supernatural things, and there are all these great practical effects.
And of course she is a witch, and she is a pain in the ass, and ultimately she does have to go to hell, but it’s really great. And like The Witch, it’s very straightforward. It takes the folklore very literally and very seriously and manages to get a lot of charge out of it, which I thought was interesting. And the fact that it was made in the Soviet Union at the height of communism is kind of fascinating.
Is there something to be inferred from the fact that if you just search for witch movies some of these really low scoring things are among the first things to come up? That there aren’t a ton of good witch movies? Or it’s really hard to make a good witch movie? Or anything like that?
Katherine: I think it’s hard to make a good witch movie. I think it’s easier to write a good witch book because in a book you have so much room to play and greater room for nuance. That’s, of course, my biased position because I like books, but that’s my impression. I feel like, with a movie, ultimately, you have to make the decision, which is something that we keep bringing up with all of the movies we’ve talk about, is the witch real? Do you show her? What does that mean?
Theresa: I wonder with the success of The Witch if we will see more witch movies come out. Because everything kind of comes and goes in waves. Although I don’t think witches will be as popular as zombies.
It seems like the zombie formula is easy to imitate, and imitating The Witch seems very, very difficult to me.
Theresa: Yeah, I would agree.
Grady: I don’t think there is a witch formula. I think like Katherine is saying, you have to make a choice with a witch movie. If your witch is real, then your good guys are the people who are hunting and torturing them to death and killing them. If your witches aren’t real then you’ve made a witch hunt and you may as well just remake The Crucible again.
Katherine: And if the central interesting motivating factor about witchcraft and witches is unknowability and unrecognizability, I think that that is a fairly hard concept to convey in the visual lexicon.
Theresa: I agree with Katherine’s point about books doing it well. When I was thinking about witch books, one of the first ones I thought of was The Croning, by Laird Barron. There’s kind of a cosmic horror, Children-of-Old-Leech, Lovecraftian ancient evil from out of time deities. But it’s the cult on Earth who worships him that’s the problem. It opens with a really creepy retelling of Rumpelstiltskin and moves into modern day where a man’s wife is very mysterious and possibly causing all of these unnatural things to happen around her, and I thought that handled the mysteriousness of witches really well. It took place a lot in the Pacific Northwest, in the forests and stuff, so again you’re getting weird cairns in the woods, and caves, and stuff like that, where darkness could come.
The other book that I thought did it really well recently was Hex by Thomas Olde Huevelt. He is a Dutch novelist, and he’s won the Hugo award. This is his debut novel translated for American audiences, and it is about a small town under the curse of witch who’s got her eyes and mouth sewn shut. It’s really creepy because the elders of Black Springs, this town, have quarantined the town so the hex won’t get out. But the teens are so tired of being cut off that they kind of go viral with these hauntings, and it becomes a big deal, and the town kind of spirals into a death knell. It was really well done. Really creepy.
Wow, yeah, that sounds really cool. Katherine, you were talking about writing witch fiction yourself. Is there anything more to say about that, just in terms of your approach or challenges or interesting experiences you’ve had while writing fiction about witches?
Katherine: I’ve now written two fictional books and edited one non-fiction book about witchcraft. I think the reason I haven’t seen as many of these witch movies as you guys have is because I’m just full up on witches already. My disk space for witches is totally full.
There are many things that I enjoy about it. My approach to writing historical fiction is maybe a little bit different than others, since I came out of an academic background. I spent a lot of time in the archives. I really enjoy trying to understand the mental world of the people I’m trying to write about.
Because I write about these sorts of things that happen in a space between reason and belief, I hear a lot of stories from people. People like to tell me stories. Like, my most recent novel, The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen, is a ghost story, and the number of people who have then come up and told me their own encounters with ghosts is amazing and really fun and really interesting. Once, I was at a signing and a guy comes up and says, “Thank you for your talk, I really enjoyed it.” I say, “Thank you,” and we’re making pleasant chit-chat, and I’m asking how I should make the book out, and he says, “You know? I have memories of being burned.” I say, “Oh, really? Wow. When was this?” He thinks for a second, and he says, “I’m pretty sure it was the fifteenth century. I think it was in Germany.” I was like, “Alright, great, well thank you so much for coming to the talk today.”
At least he didn’t say he was burned in Salem.
Katherine: Yeah, nobody wants to undermine anybody’s sincere feelings about themselves.
Grady: Primary source.
Katherine: Exactly. But it’s neat. One of the things that I really enjoy is thinking about different moments in history when our understandings of reality were totally different, and I think I enjoy that in part because it’s a reminder that our beliefs about how the world works are totally historically contingent, and that holds true for us too. So, I feel like it’s a neat way to try and get back in touch with humility and our relationship with history and human knowledge.
Yeah, speaking of your hard disk being full, Katherine, you were telling us before you got started that you actually spent five years working on The Penguin Book of Witches.
Katherine: I did. Off and on, because I started working on it shortly after The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane came out in hardback, so while I was promoting that book I was also writing The House of Velvet and Glass and starting to work on The Penguin Book of Witches, and I’d never done a primary source reader before, so I learned by doing witches, which was pretty intense. It did take a long time, but if finally came out in 2013, and I’m really happy with it, and I think readers are really happy with it, and I always tell people to make sure they read the footnotes because I put humorous asides in some of the footnotes.
I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Grady Hendrix, Theresa DeLucci, and Katherine Howe. Thank you so much for joining us.
Katherine: Thanks so much for having us.
Grady: Yeah, it was a blast.
Theresa: Thank you for thinking of me when you thought of witches. I’m flattered.
Spread the word!Tweet