Happy new year, readers! Now that the long dirgey coda of 2015 is finally over (I thought it would never leave...) and the winter solstice sees the beginning of lighter, longer, warmer, less penury-inclined days ahead we can finally look forward to what 2016 holds in store. And one thing it does hold in store is lots of lots of Horror (and, probably, horror too – but that's a different matter).
March this year sees the UK release of 'The Witch', another not-particularly-successful attempt to bring the much contrived tropes of witchcraft to the big screen. The key ingredients of dark, primitive forests, puritanical superstitious townsfolk and pagan evil are present and correct. Such stuff is surely trope-on-a-rope these days. Only recently Vin Diesel heroically flopped in the abysmal 'The Last Witch Hunter' which was the latest exploration of the corresponding witchcraft-related trope – that of the ruthless witchhunter, witchfinder or similar emissary of righteous justice. Movies and other cultural portrayals of these confrontations are plentiful. But what, exactly, is this stuff all about?
In order to edit the lengthy exposition which starts this discussion it is first necessary to get out of the way what witches really were – namely, the predominantly female cultural leaders of village ceremony and healing that was prevalent in pagan societies before attempts were made by Christian authorities to violently suppress them. The notion of witches as hideous crones linked to Satan and evil was a cultural creation used to justify what amounted to a widespread genocide of female power and alternative spirituality, and it has since become embedded in popular culture.
So, moving swiftly on from that...what is the witch/witch-hunter dynamic really about? Well, we must first look at what the witch represents in these stories. The witch is almost always portrayed as female, despite it being a unisex position (much in the same way that a nurse is portrayed); she also has a link to the 'wild', often found living in the forest, controlling the elements or literally riding the wind – a literal 'force of nature'. Her skills are arcane, occult and pre-Christian, and her power is portrayed as primitive and fundamentally sexual: much talk of 'spells' and 'enchantment', either literally cast or metaphorically cast as sexual attraction. In short, all sorts of casual misogyny abounds with various allusions to 'original sin', Lilith, women's innate corruptibility and ability to corrupt, and so on.
The witch hunter predictably plays a more blunt role in this paradigm. Universally portrayed as a man ('Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters' doesn't count), the witch hunter is charged with a dour moralism, a pious sense of certainty and incorruptible integrity. A man of god, brave enough to be so over-the-top ruthless and determined that he is impervious to any charms (physical, spiritual or otherwise) that the witch may use against him. He is also uniquely violent, allowed as he is to accuse and torture without any objective proof of guilt and armed with the judgement of God he is particularly cruel.
The contrast here is very straightforward: one between a heathen, anarchic, pagan femininity and a phallocentric, masculine, centralising authority. The interrogations that the witchfinder undertakes are a sadistic attempt to break the spiritual, sexual and political independence of the woman - and furthermore this is something he appears to take great pleasure in doing. It is a Freudian power dynamic come to life as much as it is a glib demonstration of a gender essentialism viewpoint.
But why does it have to be so? Why can't the witch hunter and the witch come to a better way of settling their disputes? Does the basis of such tales always have to remain this way? It is tempting to ask how the dynamic would change if the witch hunter was female, or how the tale would play out if the witch hunter was more fallible and the witch less so – maybe they would fall in love and form a more equal partnership, one based on recognised uniqueness and mutually respected difference?
Of course, don't expect much of that at the Cineplex; but still, it's worth considering the next time you consume this particular piece of cultural candy.