Riding the not-insubstantial coat-tails of their hugely successful screenings of silent cinema classics Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Newcastle Castle skewed a touch more niche with a very special presentation of rarely-seen silent masterpiece Häxan.
Introducing the film – accompanied once again by a sinewy live performance from the Old Police House Collective – I looked back on the centuries of folklore and legend that inspired Häxan, and the devil that just won’t let us go.
I want to tell you about an extraordinary moment I had while watching Häxan in advance of tonight, a moment that I can trace back to a creaky, creepy old book titled Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain.
This book was my grandmas, and I remember the first time encountered it as very small boy, exploring her house and first seeing the image on the front; a diabolical, terrifying horned man.
who among you would find themselves swept up by the dark fervour?
He didn’t stop me. I pored through the pages and devoured what was inside. The text being a bit too dense for my tender years, the next trip to the library saw me heading straight for the supernatural section to find something more age-appropriate.
I picked up a black book with a sea monster on the cover and lurid, dripping neon-green letters. I loved it. It was a fun, gripping read. Despite it being chock-full of macabre tales and grisly supernatural goings on, the only thing that really disturbed me was an image inside, a black and white photograph of a nun at one end of a corridor with an arched doorway at the other, and round that doorway a horned man – the devil – peeked round.
While I was sure even then that there must be a rational explanation as to the source of the photo it was scary regardless, and it was the disturbing, sharp realism of it – different from the fanciful imagery and paintings I’d seen up to that point – that really lingered.
So I continued to be fascinated by the paranormal throughout my childhood and teenage years, a fascination that matured into a healthy scepticism over time and I forgot about the photo. Until I watched Häxan, and I saw that exact image again.
one of those legendary films that many people have heard about but few have seen
It hit me then that this haunting image of the devil has been with me all through my life, and even as a non-religious person living in secular western Europe, the iconography of that figure is still inescapably around me – and around all of us – religious or not.
Encountering that iconography for the first time as a child in my nan’s house in a former mining village in the north east of England, I was compelled to find out more about the stories drawn around and inspired by the doings of this dark entity, stories I first thought of as scarily entertaining and would eventually come to see as a fascinating insight into the human condition.
But encountering that same iconography and folklore in medieval times, in a world where these aren’t merely fanciful tales but instead the very reality of the universe around us, how different would my response be?
That’s the question threaded through the film we are about to watch tonight, in director Benjamin Christensen’s legendary work. For some context on the times we are about to visit, that old book of mine sets the spectacularly gory scene.
“Sorcerers, it was thought, controlled the spirits of air, fire and water, and through them were able to change the weather, influence fertility in crops, beasts and men, and kill by means of spells and incantations. Though such magic inspired great fear, its practitioners were not necessarily evil; white, or good, magicians were held in great esteem and their services were frequently sought.
Witchcraft, as it was understood during the penal centuries, was different. However good its apparent results, it was by definition evil. Witchcraft was heresy, and was denounced as such by Pope Innocent III in a Papal Bull of 1484. From then until about 1750, when persecution died away as the scepticism of judges increased, some 200,000 supposed witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in western Europe.
Some modern authorities believe that the witch hunts were little more than a form of mass mania initiated by the Church and prolonged by the vested interests of professional witchfinders. Others, while agreeing that many of the accused were innocent of even the intention to bewitch, argue that the similarity of confessions obtained all over Europe indicate the existence of a genuine witch cult. Such confessions, however, were extracted by means of the thumbscrew, the rack and red-hot irons, and have little value as evidence.”
Terrifying stuff. Yet given that as the starting point for the reality of the universe around you – that there are literal malevolent entities and forces that have an influence in the world and that you can have a transactional relationship with – the horrific actions of the people involved in this persecution become not forgivable, but nevertheless unsettlingly understandable. Who among you would find themselves swept up by the dark fervour?
Through a series of dramatic, occasionally deeply violent vignettes Häxan explores many pathways to the same mass-madness, the working hypothesis being that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients.
Sparked into life by the directors study of a 15th century inquisitors guide, the main narrative is bookended by almost powerpoint-like presentations on the beliefs of ancient civilisations and the beliefs of what was then the modern day.
The exploration of witchcraft and the church’s response to it is showcased with an almost procedural, forensic dramatisation – and a clearly anti-clerical one – interspersed with hallucinogenic scenes featuring some truly grotesque and violent imagery, imagery that saw the film banned in US and heavily censored in other countries for decades.
an almost procedural, forensic dramatisation
The director too is very much a presence as the narrator. He also plays both the Devil and Christ himself, so make of that what you will. His unforgettably-sketched devil has an influence within the film both as a narrative character, and through an extraordinary, disturbing moment involving one of the actors that the director chooses to leave in, an outtake that captures an elderly actress claiming “the Devil is real. I have seen him sitting at my bedside.” The influence of this figure on our culture was still present at the time of shooting, and remains never far away around all of us today.
Through a near-100 year old film reflecting on attitudes of times past, we are compelled ourselves to reflect on the attitudes of the time of production itself, attitudes towards the mentally ill, sexuality, and those different from us; attitudes that move forward, but remain in flux today as we still struggle as a society with the consequences of irrational belief.
Perhaps in watching it we can consider our own irrationalities, our own considerations of the other, and wonder too how a society 100 years hence will judge us.
Leigh Venus at Newcastle Castle, 27 November 2016