A Journal Of The Dark Arts
The Witches Of Hollywood is a short but essential documentary on witches in cinema, analyzing 80 years of horror movies through a feminist and psychoanalytic lens! It’s as entertaining as it is informative.
Hook-nosed shrew; malicious seducer; devilish beast; potion connoisseur; magical spell-slinger; Satanic temptress of unbridled sexuality; seemingly harmless neighbor; or caring housewife; Halloween character, alone or gathered in a coven.
So intones a narrator’s voice, in the first few moments of The Witches Of Hollywood, like a litany of misdeeds, detailing some of the nearly infinite ways that witches have been portrayed in film and television and spelling out this short but detailed and thorough documentary’s central thesis. Also in the film’s first moment, author and Witchcraft expert Peg Aloi discusses the enduring popularity and power of the image of the witch. “A witch is so many things, and seems to have been with us almost since the beginning of human history. They embody every possible permutation of what a woman can be and the ways that women have been celebrates and worshipped and valorized but also demonized and misunderstood. I think that the witch has absolutely embodied all of those things.”
In her influential collection of essays on horror and feminism, The Monstrous Feminine, Barbara Creed discusses the timeless fascination of witches throughout culture. “Historically and mythologically, the
witch has inspired both awe and dread. In ancient societies all magical
powers, whether used for good or evil purposes, inspired the deepest dread
amongst the members of the community.” Creed postulates that the fear and awe of women, witches, and witchcraft actually predates Christianity, thus negating the idea of a Satanic anxiety, but instead is rooted in men’s nearly superstitious fear of women’s ability to create life.
Of course, every culture and every era has a different attitude and approach to how they view women’s empowerment and women in general. The Witches Of Hollywood uses this tenet as a springboard to deconstruct and analyze the figure of the witch on film and television as an illustration of that era’s attitudes. Beginning with the first popular depictions of witches in cinema, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Wizard Of Oz. The Witches Of Hollywood wastes no time in delving deep into feminist philosophy, discussing The Wicked Queen from Snow White as an illustration of the dual pressures facing women in Western society – be beautiful, but not too beautiful. She’s a symbol of what women often suffer under patriarchy and toxic masculinity – she has a power, but one that is fleeting, as it’s based on youth and beauty. Men are still afraid of that power, as well, making it a razor’s edge that women are expected to walk.
Likewise, The Wizard Of Oz is viewed as a parable of emerging womanhood and female sexuality, with Dorothy’s ruby red slippers being a shorthand for menstruation and blossoming sexuality. The “Good Witch” and the “Wicked Witch,” represent conflicting attitudes and approaches to that power. Likewise, Glinda and Elphaba represent two different attitudes toward’s women’s power. They’re also coded in a particularly Western/Judeo-Christian dichotomy, where “pretty” = “good” and “ugly” is bad, where the sky is good and the Earth is evil. In this, The Wicked Witch is a symbol of witches’ chthonic power and fascination.
For students of witchcraft, horror, and feminism, many of these insights aren’t exactly new. The fact that they’re laid out in the first 5 minutes of the film, however, shows that The Witches Of Hollywood doesn’t pull any punches. It’s an in-depth work of impressive scholarship as well as being eminently watchable.
The Witches Of Hollywood proceeds to hurtle through 80 years of witchcraft cinema, analyzing the most popular witch movies of that era as an illustration of that era’s attitude towards feminism and women’s empowerment and placing each in a cultural and historical context.
Much is made of World War 2, where witch movies were almost a tool of propaganda, in movies like I Married A Witch, where the wild witch must give up her power to have love and family. This attitude continues through the early ’60s with 1958’s Bell, Book, and Candle. With this vantagepoint, the popular TV show Bewitched is revealed to be revolutionarily feminist as Samantha is able to be married and be a witch. It’s telling that the Women’s Liberation Movement would begin in earnest around the same time.
The Witches Of Hollywood doesn’t restrict itself to celluloid or cathode ray, either. They touch on, albeit briefly, how witchcraft has re-emerged from the late 90s to today as a force of resistance, a powerful feminist symbol, and a motivating banner for those who wish to dismantle the patriarchy and the oppressive systems it perpetuates.
No matter how steeped you are in horror and cinematic history, no matter how ardent a student of feminism, you will get something out of watching The Witches Of Hollywood. Some rare gems are dissected, like George Romero’s Season Of The Witch from 1972, an early example of legitimate witchcraft being depicted on film.
Even if you’ve seen every movie discussed in The Witches Of Hollywood, you’ll still get a lot out of the viewing. The experts they turn to are beyond fabulous, having gathered together nearly every leading expert on witchcraft and witchy cinema you can imagine, all of whom are women, to boot. Dianca London’s contributions are particularly interesting and necessary, offering an intersectional take on witches in cinema, which hint at future directions for horror studies and analysis to delve into.
Interesting, smart, fun, insightful… if only all documentaries could be as good as The Witches Of Hollywood! This is exactly the kind of horror scholarship i’m here for!
The Witches Of Hollywood made its world debut as part of the Salem Horror Festival, happening 10.2 – 10.11. The Salem Horror Festival is entirely virtual this year, due to the Coronavirus, which is actually great news for those of us who don’t live in Massachusetts. You can purchase tickets for individual films as well as weekend passes. The first weekend has already passed but you can also get tickets for an encore performance, giving you access to 36 films and extras that have already premiered. Finally, you can get a full pass that gives you access to everything. You get the movies for two weeks and access to the extras until SEPTEMBER of NEXT YEAR! I got the All Access Pass and have already gotten more than my money’s worth!
There’s a ton of great stuff on the roster for the Salem Horror Festival and i’m going to be covering as much of it as my bony fingers can keep up with! Stay tuned and check back often, and go check out the Salem Horror Festival, treat yrself to a treasure chest of horror goodies and support independent horror and cinema!
Welcome to 31 Days Of Horror! Each day this month, i’ll be reviewing and recommending horror movies, in addition to other media, art, and culture relating to the Horror genre. Make sure to check back as this site’s about to run red with more delicious horror madness than you could shake a stake at.
We’ve got a pretty stacked queue already, but am always open to suggestions, recommendations, and just knowing what y’all would like to see on this site. And what are y’all watching, reading, and listening to, this Season of the Witch?
Also, follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Letterboxd, for even more horror aesthetics and inspiration. Every day is Halloween here in the Forestpunk turret, so we’re looking forward to unleashing our plague of madness and wonders on the world. Happy October!