Though witchcraft is often used as an allegory for specific contemporary social issues, its perennial popularity hints at something more universal. SARAH WARD looks at key texts from a number of eras in order to find out why the filmic witch refuses to die.
As a term, a practice and a label commonly denouncing spiritual activities that defy dominant beliefs, witchcraft comes to the screen loaded with meaning. Over the course of centuries of human existence, it has become shorthand for preternatural opposition to or deviance from normality --and during just over a century of cinema, filmic depictions have reinforced and dissected this interpretation. The best movie contemplations understand the extremes of individuality and conformity inherent in the word, as filtered through and heightened by the presence or suspicion of the occult. More than that, they acknowledge the power that even daring to mention witchcraft can have, and the complicated societal splinters and fright-driven reactions it can cause.
So it is that a girl's claims of otherworldly influences sets Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible in motion--and the 1957 (Raymond Rouleau) and 1996 (Nicholas Hytner) film versions that followed even if witchcraft itself isn't uttered in her exclamations. 'I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osborne with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!" (1) erupts Abigail Williams, mere moments before the first act comes to a close. The seventeen-year-old's outburst evolves from a heated line of questioning regarding the state of her ten-year-old cousin Betty Parris, who has been found silent and motionless, causing her father, Salem's Reverend Samuel Parris, to worry. The evening prior, the two girls were spied cavorting in the woods with a group of the town's other youths, with gossip about the nature of their nocturnal wanderings now circling. Gathered by Betty's bedside with her friends, Abigail is subjected to panicked inquiries by a congregation of the town's elders, including local witchcraft expert Reverend John Hale, a selection of wealthy and influential villagers, and her former employer and lover, John Proctor.
When 'unnatural things' (2) first come up in conversation, it is initially hastily dismissed by Reverend Parris. However, once such a concept rears its head at a time and place as steeped in the fear of the supernatural as Salem, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century, it cannot be forgotten. Indeed, Abigail herself first advises that 'the rumor of witchcraft is all about', but is quick to clarify that while the girls danced in the forest by the dark of night, they 'never conjured spirits' and that 'Betty's not witched' as a result. (3) As the discussion continues, first between an uncle seeking the truth from his niece to quell mounting conjecture from his parishioners, and then with the involvement of other interested parties, the notion of 'the Devil's touch' (4) and of 'some power of darkness' (5) becomes increasingly entrenched and accepted. Eventually, in the name of self-preservation in a community quick to hang suspected practitioners, Abigail can do little but take advantage of the swelling distress by blaming other women for the assertions charged against her.
Both truth and mania exist within the opening act of The Crucible, and in the three others that follow, though it is the latter that not only proves more potent, but dictates the version of events that is soon taken as gospel by the bulk of the text's characters. As revealed in snippets of chatter between Abigail, her peers and the Barbados-born slave Tituba, who also accompanied their evening excursion, the girls did take to the woods to do more than sing and dance, trifling with trying to raise dead children from the grave and cursing John Proctor's wife, Elizabeth, due to Abigail's schoolgirl-like jealousy. To a modern reader, their deeds smack of youthful folly; to their families and the broader Salem populace, it's the behaviour of lost souls who have strayed from the prevailing Christian faith and therefore should be condemned for their proclivities. Casting doubt and shifting attention elsewhere may be a despicable act, but for young minds afraid of the consequences of admitting the reality of their actions, it is perceived to be the only alternative.
Accordingly, The Crucible probes perceptions of defiance and compliance, as tied to supernatural fears. Sitting at opposite ends of the spectrum, the two cannot exist in tandem; Abigail and her cohort can either embrace and admit to their unconventional ways and wear the punishment for daring to defy the traditional order, or ignore their true selves, direct the burden of being different towards others, and adhere to the accepted order. From those subsequently accused to the few that rally against the pervading hysteria--particularly John and Elizabeth Proctor--everyone surrounding Abigail is forced to confront the same dichotomy. Written by Miller as an allegory about McCarthyism when communism became the twentieth century's incarnation of witchcraft, such a reading was intended by the playwright to reflect his own times, but remains as relevant now as it did five decades ago.
Indeed, though inspired by real-life events and massaged into play and then film form to reflect similar occurrences, The Crucible's contemplation of the ramifications of resisting the norm remain universal. And more than that, it taps into deep-seated concerns about the adversarial ideas of fitting in and standing out that have furnished an entire subgenre of witch-related films. It is far from surprising that cinema keeps returning to a topic that has existed as long as recorded history; what is less expected, given the multitude of witchcraft manifestations that have arisen since the dawn of civilisation, is the commonality evident in their depictions and in the themes those depictions dissect. In entertainment as in life, the contentious nature of such enchantments acts to heighten the us-versus-them divides that can fester at the heart of every insular group, family, town and community.
Rarely is this clearer than in Hytner's movie interpretation, which has become the screen version of record. With the screenplay written by Miller himself, The Crucible of 1996 proves a product of a comfortable period untouched by obvious comparable parallels with McCarthyism, but forever shaped by the events of four decades earlier. By then, the threat of communism taking over the world had long since passed; however, its tangible presence within contemporary society, at least in the minds of those frightened of it, had become a matter of record. Accordingly, the film labours to provide a more blatant justification of the community's heightened response through a glimpse of the questionable activity at the centre of the story, rather than relying on the recollections of the parties in question and the scared interpretations that follow.
In a striking scene as notable for the deeds depicted as it is for its air of joyous communion--a sensation otherwise absent throughout the film, as befitting the material--Hytner endeavours to make the basis for the initial accusations against the teenagers (as well as the rhetoric those accusations inspire and the amplified emotions they cause) more apparent than in the source material. He prefaces the feature with vision of their deeds, showing Abigail (Winona Ryder) and the village's other girls secretly frolicking through the trees, casting spells that will help them pursue their dreams of love and for the life that awaits. As a result, the question of what the group did in the woods is never in doubt, affording greater substance to the fears of deviant behaviour that sprang in their wake--but neither is the fact that they're merely indulging in the playful antics of trying to fulfil their hopes and wishes by channelling their energies into something less earthly and more fanciful.
Swiftly, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) interrupts their fun, with his expression of fright, horror, concern and confusion destined to grace other faces throughout the feature to become its recurrent visual motif. He's next seen fussing over the prone Betty (Rachael Bella), hearing tales of Ruth Putnam's (Ashley Peldon) similar plight from her aggrieved parents (Jeffrey Jones and Frances Conroy), and then discussing the situation with fellow locals Giles Corey (Peter Vaughan) and John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). Meanwhile, after conversing with Parris, Abigail conspires with her friends, names Tituba (Charlayne Woodard) as an agent of the Devil, and sparks the plot that will capture the entire village in one way or another. The later conversations are as underscored by anxiety as the earlier, which Hytner stresses by cutting between them, frequently framing the key players tight and close, and employing camera angles that subtly emphasise authority and subservience where relevant.
As Abigail's accusations land most heavily on Proctor and his wife (Joan Allen), both of whom refuse to admit dallying with the Devil even though it would mean escaping a hangman's noose, The Crucible presents the impetus to belong and the difficulty of doing otherwise inherent in the fear of witchcraft at its most blatant, both on the page and on the screen. Other cinematic contemplations of the subject endeavour to achieve the same task, albeit with varying subtleties. In recent times, witches have furnished everything from horror-movie hoax The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) to fantasy-action effort The Last Witch Hunter (Breck Eisner, 2015), which may place their supernatural subjects within genre confines, but still make clear their difference from--and the corresponding terror and apprehension by the majority of the populace. Even more accessible interpretations, such as family-friendly fantasies Teen Witch (Dorian Walker, 1989), Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993) and Practical Magic (Griffin Dunne, 1998), and small-screen efforts Bewitched and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, all highlight the traits that make their witch characters stand out, even if approached in less scare-inducing, more inclusive terms.
With Rosemary's Baby in 1968, Roman Polanski adapted Ira Levin's bestselling novel of the same name and unleashed a post-Crucible vision of groupthink onto the screen. Crafted during a time of war and uncertainty as conflict in Vietnam raged despite growing opposition, and the US still struggled to come to terms with the assassination of John F Kennedy, it's a him that's as much a reflection of its surroundings namely the agitating paranoia about imminent threats coupled with dissatisfaction regarding the societal status quo--as it is an interpretation of notions of witchcraft. Consequently, an important twist makes Miller's point about the dangers of needing to conform to rather than daring to question the norm even more potent: calling out witches can't be a source of power or a way to comply with the accepted order when the supernatural figures in question comprise the majority of a given community. The eccentric Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) indoctrinate their new neighbour and aspiring actor, Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), before subsequently conspiring to impregnate his titular young wife (Mia Farrow) with satanic progeny. As Rosemary attempts to rally against their influence, she's the outsider, not the empowered accuser, even when the film's climax presents the truth behind her fears.
Polanski crafts his feature as a psychological thriller--a label that could also easily apply to The Crucible--unnerving audiences with the insidious nature of the situation, rather than making blatant the miscarriage of justice and cowardice masked as indignation. From the lullaby an uncredited Farrow sings over the film's opening credits, to the way the camera lurks through the apartment building, the director toils to cultivate a pervading, primal sense of unease. In fact, to steep his feature not just in the duality that witchcraft commonly trades in, but also in his subversion of the subgenre's usual tendencies, he employs every filmmaking tool in his arsenal to simultaneously distance Rosemary from those around her and immerse both the character and the audience in the sinister side effects of the witchy deeds. Framing Rosemary through doorways and hallways continues to isolate her from her surroundings; littering splashes of fiendish red throughout frames and scenes gives the images an eye-catching reminder of the bodily horrors at work; emphasising the tinkling sounds of Krzysztof Komeda's score proves both childlike and calculating.
In the same year that Hytner provided audiences with his version of The Crucible, witchcraft also received a teen-focused makeover in The Craft (Andrew Fleming) and an act of reclamation: while its focus on a coven as the dominant cohort bears similarities to Rosemary's Baby, here the group offers a place to belong, rather than a force to be afraid of. Indeed, as they navigate the difficult social structures of high school, as well as the expectations, traditions and enforced ideas of what comprises proper teenage conduct, it's where four outcasts--Sarah (Robin Tunney), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk) and Rochelle (Rachel True)--find their identities, unleash their preferred selves on their peers, try to conquer rather than cower through their adolescence, and learn the consequences of using their difference for selfish means.
In only his third feature, Fleming leans heavily on the pop culture trappings that were prominent in teen-centric fare at the time to chronicle this journey, but never does he miss an opportunity to explore the core focus he shares with The Crucible and the bulk of witchcraft-themed materials. The methods are obvious yet effective, both highlighting the outsider status of his protagonists and the traits they share with the rest of the populace. Telling music choices, such as The Smiths' 'How Soon is Now?', give voice to the yearning that underscores their deeds (in lyrics such as 'I am human and I need to be loved / just like everybody else does'), while the colour scheme appropriately stresses the visual contrast the central quartet also embodies. The Craft may not come with the weight of a literary or historical background, and may have been designed to bridge the gap between youth clique and teenage horror-focused offerings, but it remains as astute as its supernatural brethren. That high school can be hellish, bring out the worst in people, and promote collective rather than individual thinking might not be a new message, but it feels acutely resonant when paired with witchcraft.
More recently, the supernatural spookiness of the conventionality-versus-rebellion divide returned to the primal urges and elemental responses that made it such a source of horror in Salem, courtesy of Robert Eggers' The Witch (2015). Originally brandishing the subtitle A New-England Folktale, Eggers' debut is a movie that wears its evolution from the stories and the reality of the past on its sleeves--but it also complements existing witch-film folklore. Set in the seventeenth century, prior to the events that inform The Crucible, a puritan family led by farmer William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), depart from the rest of their fellow fundamentalists after a disagreement over religion. The land they claim as their own refuses to yield crops, while the woods surrounding their homestead prove a source of discontent and discomfort--but it is the disappearance of the youngest of their five children and the quick suspicions levelled at their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), that come to define the struggling clan.
Eggers' feature harnesses the hysteria of Miller's text and Hytner's film adaptation, and the carefully cultivated aesthetic creepiness of Polanski's take on the topic, while also--once denial proves a fruitless act, and partially through the introduction of a menacing goat by the name of Black Phillip--embracing the certainty that marks both Rosemary's Baby's conclusion and the entirety of The Craft. And yet, for much of its running length, whether witches exist, and whether Thomasin is in fact a witch, doesn't matter; instead, it's the belief in both by the rest of her family that dictates decisions, as well as the movie's entire narrative. She's singled out because she stands out, and, in one of the strongest manifestations of the fear of femininity, particularly of the blossoming, pubescent kind, she stands out because she's a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood, as her own mother references (noting Thomasin 'hath begot the sign of her womanhood', and then threatening to force her out of the house). While Thomasin isn't initially seeking to differentiate herself, she simply can't conform to the expectations placed on her on account of her bodily changes. Thanks to Eggers' haunting command of his craft, complete with grey-tinged imagery, attentive production design that plunges the appearance of the film back centuries, and an ominous score by Mark Korven that stresses every change in mood and tension, The Witch makes simply existing in witchcraft-fearing times a dangerous act.
Of course, The Witch has struck a cord with twenty-first century audiences not simply because of its choice of narrative and corresponding aesthetic approach, but as a result of how its depiction of witchcraft remains relevant in modern times. Today's version of calling out witchcraft, of fearing communism, and of daring not defy the accepted order comes via keystrokes and is communicated via social media platforms. By pondering the behaviour of an insular group against a perceived threat centuries prior, Eggers reflects the online experience of modern-day society --which too often also focuses on femininity. There's a reason The Witch concerns itself with a family rather than a broader community; to contemporary viewers, something as systematic as the McCarthyism-inspired formal investigations that influenced Miller's prose isn't a necessary precursor to such expressions of suspicion that can now spring quickly in the close (albeit electronically linked) quarters of connected individuals.
Contemplating the war between individuality and conformity is at its most potent when considered through the lens of the supernatural, the occult, and untraditional behaviour and traits that have become synonymous with the term 'witchcraft'. This phenomenon is still best demonstrated by The Crucible in both its page and screen guises, while continuing to echo through the raft of films that have followed in the wake of Miller's play and Hytner's influential feature adaptation. Witch-focused cinema offers similar yet multifaceted interpretations of daring to defy convention--or the consequences of simply being suspected of such--that tunnel to the heart of societal needs to both fit in and stand out.
Sarah Ward is a Brisbane-based freelance film critic and writer.
(1) Arthur Miller, The Crucible, Penguin, New York, 2003, p. 72.
(2) ibid., p. 35.
(3) ibid., p. 36.
(4) ibid., p. 39.
(5) ibid., p. 42.