not in our stars, but in ourselves
There’s nothing quite like Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922). It’s not really a documentary, but it’s not really a narrative film either. Christensen was fascinated by the fifteenth century witchhunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum, and worked for two years to make a film of it. The result is strange, sometimes amateurish, sometimes chilling, and unlike anything else you’re going to see outside of your dreams.
Christensen is, inasmuch as such a thing is possible in a silent film, the narrator: the intertitles are in the first person, and refer to his research, his actresses, etc. That’s the first strange thing about this silent film. The story, such as it is, unfolds in seven chapters. First, he introduces and explains the cosmological beliefs of the ancient world, demonology in the ancient and medieval worlds, Heaven and Hell, and common beliefs about witches in Medieval Europe. Then, he dramatizes typical examples of witches in 1488: an old hag who whips up “love potions” so that one of her clients can seduce a monk, two curious young men who want to cut open a dead body, and women seduced and led astray by the Devil himself. After that, he presents an even more dramatic dramatization of the pecking party that was the typical witch hunt: one person is accused of witchcraft, she confesses under torture, she names dozens of others who were present at witches’ councils, those dozens are all arrested and tortured, dozens more are named, etc., etc., and eventually eight million people (mostly women) were burned at the stake. He takes a long, detailed look at the instruments of torture used by inquisitors, and despite not showing any actual gore – you get the idea. You could make anyone confess to anything.
Finally, Christensen brings out the big guns. He points out that many of the so-called confessions, and records of the lives and times of accused witches, are completely insane. Most likely, that is because those accused of witchcraft were mentally ill in some way. Perhaps they suffered from schizophrenia, or from some sort of tumor, or from hallucinogenic poisons, or from the very popular 1920s diagnoses of “hysteria” and “nervous exhaustion.” In modern times, we may not burn our troublesome women at the stake – but don’t we still stigmatize them? Throw them in nursing homes, institutionalize them, just get them out of the way.
As I say: it is a strange movie. Christensen’s approach is heavily influenced by the then-newish field of study, psychoanalysis. Freud wrote plenty about the psychological roots of hysteria, religious beliefs, the uncanny, and lots more; whether you tend to agree with him or not, I do think Christensen drives at the real root of all this madness. Sex. It’s just sex. It’s the old fear that women will use their sexual powers to undo the patriarchy. To prevent that from happening, they created an atmosphere of blind terror. They make husbands turn against wives, wives turn against daughters, priests turn against nuns, and on and on and on. Whether a woman was old and ugly or young and beautiful, she was likely to be under suspicion – ugly women because they must have been disfigured by Satan himself, and beautiful women because they must have been sent from Hell to seduce virtuous men. You couldn’t win.
I referred earlier to a pecking party, a term I first encountered in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: if one chicken has blood on its feathers, another chicken will attack, and get blood on itself, and then more chickens attack the attacker, and a third wave of attackers attacks the second wave of attackers, etc. Isn’t that the story of every witch hunt? It’s all about naming more names. It’s all about keeping the inquisitors’ wheels turning. Whether they’re hunting witches, Communists, terrorists, the tactic is always to drop a bit of blood on one chicken and let the rest go nuts. Sick, sad world. As I’ve mentioned, I’m from the Boston area, and those of us with deep roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony have a rather too intimate knowledge of the way these things go.
P.S. Speaking of where I am, I should note that, as I write, news is coming in of two explosions at the Boston Marathon. Everything is very confusing and scary, and there are some awful pictures out there. Like most people here in Massachusetts and around the country, I’m glued to my TV; forgive me if I’m a little more incoherent than usual today.