If you follow Anatomy of a Scream on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve likely seen us post about Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film, an upcoming book from House of Leaves Publishing. Due to be released in early 2019, the book explores the relationship between the supernatural and the religious in horror cinema through a collection of essays written by a diverse group of critics, historians, and academics. The book covers an eclectic collection of films ranging from Cat People to Hellraiser to Onibaba to The Conjuring, among many others. A crowdfunding campaign is set to drop in September 2018, promising some pretty tantalizing perks, including Professor Douglas E. Cowan’s fabulous book, Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen.
To peruse the full list of contributors and their chapter topics, visit House of Leaves Publishing — you’ll find a ton of familiar (and exciting names!)
In fact, full disclosure: I’ve contributed a chapter exploring the figures of the Medieval witch and the Victorian hysteric, the political utility of these labels in identifying and containing disruptive femininity, and the lingering cultural ramifications of these discourses. I’m happy to offer a sneak preview excerpt of my chapter below!
EXCERPT: From the Stake to the Sanitarium: Taming the Unruly Feminine in Häxan (1922) and Antichrist (2009) by Valeska Griffiths
“Medieval or modern, the witch/hysteric remains caught, disturbed, disturbing, and
thus in need of rescue and rehabilitation.”
— Alexander Doty and Patricia Clare Ingham (2014)
2017 marks the year the concept of the witch hunt came back in vogue in popular culture in a big way—or perhaps “bigly” would be more appropriate. Two distinct (but not entirely disparate) cultural events precipitated this—the explosion of the #MeToo movement exposing widespread sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry, and a high-level investigation into the Donald Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian agents to secure the U.S. presidency. In the former, the term is used to describe allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful men against (primarily) women. In the latter, the beleaguered “witches” are Trump and the core members of his inner circle (primarily male), currently under intense scrutiny by a Special Counsel. The term “witch hunt” is deployed in both cases to support a narrative in which men are falsely accused and unfairly punished, a misuse that ignores and erases the particularly gendered history of the figure of the witch, and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) legacy of Medieval witch narratives on modern gender politics. While it is important to note that the concept of the witch as a person possessing supernatural knowledge or power has appeared around the world in geographically and temporally unique ways, the primary focus in this study relates most strongly to the Medieval European witch.
The witch has long been a destabilizing and tantalizing figure. Alternately reviled and celebrated, feared and fetishized, she has throughout history been linked to oft-shifting sets of symbols and meanings, including that of disruptive femininity. Cultural narratives are regularly used to uphold white supremacist patriarchy; both witch hunts and the concept of witches in general are very real historical phenomena, strongly rooted in religiopolitical strategy and steeped in a tradition of misogyny—misogyny validated and supported by cultural narratives regarding women. As Christina Larner (1984) observes: “On average, witchcraft, the ultimate in human evil, was sex-related to women in much the same proportion as sanctity, the ultimate in human good, was sex-related to men” (cited in Barstow, 1988, p. 7). Accusations of witchcraft during a certain period in parts of Europe and the United States could result in torture and death. Those accused were often women who had lain claim to a level of power or clout in their communities—healers, midwives, and wise women. When a widespread shift from religious to secular modes of thinking diminished the power of the witch discourse, society embraced a new label and narrative through which they could identify and control unruly women, the hysteric, which took its place as a primary figure of female disruption and instability, sending a clear message regarding cultural expectations and the dangers of flouting them. The tortured body of the Medieval witch gave way to the tortured mind of the Victorian hysteric—the stake replaced by the sanitarium. Female sexuality and idealized maternity play an outsized role in the narratives surrounding both archetypal figures. “Abnormal” desires and practices were frequently ascribed to both and the punishment/treatment for the witch/hysteric often involved exploitative methods that put the heretic/patient in sexually vulnerable or exposed positions, reflecting the historical and ongoing cultural preoccupation with the sexual lives of women.
Both Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Swedish-Danish quasi-documentary Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages and Lars von Trier’s polarizing 2009 horror film Antichrist address the archetypes of the witch and the hysteric, and their shared lineage of misogyny and oppression. Themes of disruptive female sexuality and maternity play vital roles in both, as does the dichotomy between male rationality and female emotionality. Through Häxan, Christensen links Medieval witch discourse to the hysteria of the modern era, complicating beliefs about the static nature of these archetypes and, deliberately or not, highlighting the political utility of these labels in identifying and containing disorderly femininity. Antichrist similarly attends to the narratives connecting the supernatural, emotional instability, and the unruly feminine, offering a more intimate tour of the psychic wounds they cause. Like the previous examples of the modern usage of the term “witch hunt”, these films highlight the ways that narratives are weaponized to develop and maintain hegemonic cultural beliefs, as well as to support institutional measures designed to curtail threats to patriarchy. Together, these films provide valuable insight into the use of narratives in upholding historical and contemporary misogyny, and their impacts on both a societal and individual level.