Eigen League of Monsters, Part Four: Witches

Posted: October 20, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, monsters, October Horror
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Part of my ONGOING SERIES about just what distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other.  The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why I think it’s meritorious to discuss this subject.  Long story short:  in a group of monsters like the kind on the hierarchy, my theory is that they sufficiently fulfill a necessary number of roles in the human consciousness with regards to horror.  Today I am going to talk about witches, because witches are a kind of monster and…

Hey, you know, I just realized…how many good witch movies are there?  How many witch movies are there at all?  I guess The Craft, that’s a pretty great movie.  Thinner?  I never saw that one, I don’t know how big a part the witch has in it.  There was that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where she fought a witch…there’s a bunch of sorcerer/wizard movies, too, like The Black Cat.  Not a lot of witch movies, though.

Hey there...ladies.

Bitches Be Evil

So, look, I’m not TRYING to pick fights with Sady Doyle, but she’s got a post over at The Rookie where she points out that a lot of Western Civilization’s history of the paranormal has been rooted in a fear of female sexuality and…I think that this isn’t exactly true.  I mean, I don’t think it’s rooted in a fear of female sexuality, I think it kind of absconds with female sexuality for its own purposes sometimes, or other times it marries some other kind of horror to female sexuality, either by coincidence or because there is some kind of anxiety there that it’s trying to exploit.

It’s like, if you look at the Possession Narrative, the best one is pretty much The Exorcist, and Sady rightly characterizes it as a bunch of sexually-repressed religious dudes flipping out because a teenaged girl starts masturbating and saying “Fuck” a lot.  The problem is that I think talking about this as being about a fear of girls turning into women may be a little off base.  One of the things I was saying about G-g-g-g-ghosts is that the core of their mechanic involves people behaving in ways that that they definitely aren’t supposed to — naturally, this fits pretty well with puberty, there’s a kind of resonance there that’s useful to exploit.

What if Jason Statham was possessed by a demon of kung fu? How would you even know?

But there’s more to it than that.  If you’re going to do a monster-movie narrative, you want to juxtapose the horribleness of the monster with the vulnerability of the victim.  It’s like, don’t do a possession narrative with Jason Statham, because Jason Statham is already pretty terrifying without being possessed by a demon.  What, is he going to kick people in the face evilly now?  That’s bullshit.  So, you go for the most vulnerable person that you practically are able to:  girls who are twelve.  You don’t want to go too much younger (but you can, like in Poltergeist), because little kids aren’t good at acting, and also you can’t have, like, a baby get possessed by a demon.  That’s the Horror/Humor problem — babies are on the wrong side of the fine line.  I’m not saying it’s more ridiculous for a baby to be possessed by a demon than it is for a twelve-year-old, but yes, it’s completely fucking ridiculous.

(Think about that, if there was an evil baby, and it just said “fuck” and “cunt” all the time and tried to bite you and smoked cigars and drank bourbon and shit like that, tell me you wouldn’t think that was ridiculous.)

Uggghhh I am kind of freaked out just looking at her

I think that’s how it goes with a lot of poltergeist and g-g-g-g-ghost stories, too.  Like, The Ring has a young girl as the central monster, but I don’t think it betrays any underlying terror of female puberty; I think it is just exploiting a really unsettling juxtaposition vis-a-vis Samara’s aspect.

On the other hand, why do we think of little girls as being the most vulnerable members of society?  So, there is some sexism there, it’s true, and definitely sometimes witches narratives ARE about a fear of female sexuality, like in the 1964 Lilith (I guess we’ll call this one a witch narrative), or the Malleus Maleficarum which spent a LOT of time talking about just how witches could seduce you.

(Incidentally, there were a couple of other neat perceptual things in the Malleus; they talk about how a witch could make you see an illusion of a mountain of gold even though you’ve never seen a mountain of gold, because you’ve seen both a mountain AND gold, and the witch could just combine them in your mind.  It’s a shame Kramer and Sprenger used their powers of thinking logically about things for evil, I guess.)

I had a Classics professor who used to talk about the story of Circe, from the Odyssey, as being a femdom narrative — like all those Greek dudes got off on the idea of a witch just calling them “pigs” and turning them into animals and such.  I guess that’s also a fear of female sexuality, but also a fascination with female domination.  That’s Julia Kristeva and her theory about abjection at work, in case you are interested in some feminist theory.

Anyway, the point is that misogyny is complicated, and so is horror.  I think a lot of times they overlap in weird ways, but I think it’s reductive to put all witch narratives into the category of “fear of female sexuality.”  I don’t think that’s what The Craft is about, anyway, especially because it is mostly chicks who dig on that one, and they presumably have the least anxiety about the whole female sexuality thing.  (I don’t know, though, maybe they have more.)

Moreover, I think there’s a strong Dudely counterpart to Witches that gets overlooked because we spend too much time thinking about the cosmetic qualities of the story, rather than the basic mechanic that’s at play.

Voodoo, Voodon’t, Voodoes, Voodoesn’t

I mean, just goes BATSHIT

So let’s just go with The Craft for now.  The Craft is about some outcast young ladies who discover that they have magic powers, and they use it to get revenge on their tormenters, only then their powers start to go horribly wrong and then Fairuza Balk just goes NUTS and kills Skeet Ulrich.

The basic unit of spooky here is when the magic powers that Robin Tunney and everyone invoked start getting out of hand — like, the one girl (Rachel True) puts a curse on this other girl to make her hair fall out.  And it does, and the girl starts to freak out…and then the thing is that it keeps happening and the girl gets just completely traumatized by it in a way where you kind of feel bad for her even though she was a bitch.  But the thing is that Rachel True can’t figure out how to stop it; it’s like it was her spell, but it isn’t anymore.  Now it’s just doing it’s own thing.

So, what I think this is really about is:  Being Subject to Invisible Forces. That’s the creepy part about The Craft, when shit starts happening but the ladies realize that they don’t control it.  And that’s the part about Circe I think that creeps people out (it hell of creeps me out, by the way; I am going to be straight up with you and admit that transformations like that freak my shit out, I attribute it to watching Warlock [the one with Julian Sands, not the one with Henry Fonda] at a young age).  You know, you can’t protect yourself from a magic turning-into-a-pig spell.  You can’t block it or kick it or wear armor against it, you know?

So, Heinrich, Jacob...what...uh...what have we got here? Some kind of weird sex thing, huh?

I think that’s what Kramer and Sprenger (the guys who wrote the Malleus Maleficarum) were freaked out about, too:  mostly about being subject to forces they couldn’t understand or explain or protect themselves against.  And because they were misogynists, and also they were probably kinky sex addicts, they got pretty scared of witches (though “addicted to grody sex” is really the vampire narrative…but lo and behold, back in the Undifferentiated Monster era, wtiches, succubi, incubi, and vampires often switched off on seducing uptight Catholic priests).

(Oh, I just thought of another witch movie:  The Witches of Eastwick, which is a movie that I also like a lot; and what is the scariest part about it? The part where that lady pukes up the cherry pits, obviously, or alternately the part where Jack Nicholson is doing horrible voodoo on Michelle Pfeiffer with fruit — the stuff about the women and sex is ancillary to the fear of being subject to invisible, incomprehensible forces, see?)

Anyway, this is a pretty broad category that includes a lot of regular, misogynist fear of chicks and their magic sex powers, but also some other sorts of things that might freak out people who are less afraid of that — getting turned into a pig, or making all your hair fall out, or a spell that makes your mouth disappear (and thus FREAKING ME OUT), or a curse that makes you get too skinny (Thinner) or where a fly climbs in your nose and then you go insane (Drag Me to Hell).

It also exposes the dudely counterpoint to witches.

Any Technology That Is Distinguishable from Magic Is Insufficiently Advanced

Obviously there are stories about male witches, like in The Black Cat (which I SAID already, god damn it) and also the one that’s like The Craft but about fratly dudebros.  (The Covenant.)  But there’s a whole genre that I think is basically the same story as witches:  The Mad Scientist.

As a kid, I always found the fact that Dr. Cyclops didn't really have a laser eye to be pretty misleading

If you think about it, really crazy mad scientist stories have the same horror mechanic at the root:  the protagonist ends up at the Mad Scientist’s house (or castle or compound or whatever) and the Mad Scientist has, through science, gained access to secret powers that the protagonist can’t stop or protect themselves against.  Functionally, there’s basically no distinction between Circe’s ability to turn men into pigs and the shrinking machine in Dr. Cyclops — it’s definitely not an issue of realism, because there’s no way that any of this shit is realistic, it’s just a difference in terminology.

And while there’s kind of a dearth of witches movies, there’s a buttload of mad scientist movies.  I think basically every movie from the 1950s was a mad scientist movie, because in the 1950s people were hell of terrified of science (contrastingly, in Nigeria they have all kinds of movies about witches, because these days apparently Nigerians are hell of terrified of witches).  The thing about strong narrative mechanics like this is that they can be re-used and repurposed, depending on what kinds of things that people are afraid of — that’s why it’s so easy to turn a witches story into a story about being afraid of women and their deadly, deadly vaginas.

So, Where Did We Go Wrong?

I think the big problem here is actually one of sexism.  If you look at the long history of horror movies, the villains are almost overwhelmingly dudes, and that’s not because dudes are better at being witches that women.  It’s just that we have an easier time believing that a guy is a villain because we live in a society that makes it easy to believe that kind of thing.  But also I think there’s some other stuff at play, here:  like, these days we’re leaning pretty heavily on “realistic” horror, and that makes it really hard to manage a story about stuff that we obviously know is superstitious hokum (though, it’s crazy and stupid that we live in a society that refuses to believe in witches because that’s crazy, but has basically no problem believing in ghosts and demonic possession).

And we don’t see much of the mad scientist narrative mostly because 1) we don’t really think that science can do all the crazy shit that scientists were promising us we’d be able to do back in the 50s, and 2) I think a lot of people are just impatient with science. Who wants to sit around and listen to Max von Sydow explain how he’s adapted an fMRI and collated it with thousands of pages of data using a billion teraflop computer that he can couple to a quantum-locked magnetic fffrrrrzzzzzzzzzzz….

Maybe it’s just a product of living in a world which is already filled with invisible forces that we DO understand, you know?  Like, medieval peasants were probably freaked out by magnets and so forth, and so if they saw a magnet, it probably led to a whole phantasmagoria of weird stories about things floating around and succubuses and God’s wrath about unnatural heathen practices and such.  But these days people just aren’t impressed by magnets, you know?

Cackle cackle cackle! We'll terrify you using the invisible power of the MAXWELL-BOTLZMANN DISTRIBUTION!


Oof, whoah, I don’t even know. The Craft, definitely. I kind of want to put some of those voodoo movies on there, but (for instance) The Serpent and the Rainbow is terrible. Likewise a lot of those mad scientist movies. I guess you could watch Dr. Cyclops if you wanted to, but I think it’s only available on VHS. I’m going to have to get back to you on this one.

  1. Most of the movies I know of that feature male witches are specifically voodoo movies. The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Believers, I Walked With a Zombie … these are all films with West African/Caribbean rootwork/voodoo/Candomblé practice at their core, and although it’s suggested that women are adept too, the antagonists who employ magic in this way are almost uniformly male.

    In a similar vein, have you heard of the Dreaded Penis Thieves of the Congo?

  2. braak says:

    I guess I was unconsciously excluding voodoo movies, but you’re right, they probably should be a part of that.

  3. Hi – long (LONG!) time lurker, first time poster, (I’m not sure why this is the post to get me to finally speak up,but here it goes…)

    You say about how Witches represent a fear of some invisible force that is impossible to protected from. I suppose that’s what my perception has always been, but with a much more specific focus. I always took witches to represent a fear of aging. Two quite different examples I’ll point to on this. Firstly what I think was a lot of people’s first exposure to the Witch concept, Disney’s Snow White. Now I think we were alll scarred at childhood when the evil Queen went from being the snide, middle aged villain (herself contrasting with the youthful Snow White) and then went FULL ON evil and transformed into the evil old hag Witch figure for the final section of the movie. Now the one moment in particular is the transformation itself – the scene that freaked me out, anyway- was the focus on her hands as she grew older. Also, bear in the mind, that what motivates the Queen in the first place is that the Magic Mirror no longer sees her as the fairest one of all.

    Secondly, Evil Dead 3 – “You once found me beautiful”, “Yeah, well, you got real ugly,” (I can’t remember if she’s a witch or a zombie at htis point, but still it shows the old had figure as a personifcation of the inevitable process of aging)

    Aging is some invisible, unstoppable force. So it’s not a huge leap toassume that personifcation of this force would have access to other invisible, unstoppable forces.

    But, how come there is a no dudle equivalent as you ask? Guys are scared of aging too, right? To me, the easiest equivalent with the witch is of course the wizard. I think you’re mad scientist perspective is well articulated, but it’s a much newer phenomenon. You talked in your Vampire post about characteristics of different monsters being attributed ot one another as there was no set-in-stone mythology in ye olden dayes, and the mad scientist trope doesn’t go back as far as all that. I believe the Wizard on the other hand does. (Correct me if I’m wrong,you seem to have done some research)

    It’s much more common and popular, however, to see the old, magical man as a sort of mentor figure, such as Gandalf or Dumbledore rather than a villain. I think this represents some ancint, inherent misogyny in the male psyche . Aging for men seems to represent the chance to accumulate wisdom, to be passed on, whereas aging for a woman is the loss of her sexual appeal and beginning of death and decay. Their two sides of the same coin, one positive and male, the other negative and female (with strong misogynistic undertones).

    I think all this fits quites nicely with your Eigen League theory. Keep up the good work!

  4. braak says:

    I definitely think there’s something to that. If you think about the stereotypical characteristics of the witch, even if she’s not presented as being obscenely old, she’s got that long nose and big chin that almost meet in the front — plainly a caricature of an old person’s face, when they don’t have any teeth.

    And there’s a lot of social interplay that happens here; I think witches are probably the most fully-integrated into our own messy, socio-political context than any of the other monsters, since there was a time when a large portion of the population just flat-out believed they were real and went to some trouble to locate and murder them. Consequently, you definitely see the notion of “witch” being used to oppress outsiders or unusual people in a community…and, you know, olde-timey patriarchal medieval guys, who did they think of as being outsiders? Unmarried women. Unmarried women, which often translated to “old women,” since, if they made it through their child-bearing years (or never had children, even spookier!), women had a tendency to outlive their husbands.

    Unlike men, of course, who could be considered “elders” — respectable members of the community when they were old, even if they were bachelors — there’s something in that misogynist society that sees aging in women as kind of sociopathic. The older you get without finding a husband, the more anti-social you become.

    In some ways, I guess, it’s not only a fear of aging, but also specifically a fear of the elderly, something which, if you’ve ever seen like a really grody old person who *should* just be batty and weird but they seem like they’re sizing you up to kill you with a meat cleaver and throw you into a stew pot, I think a lot of people can understand.

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