Häxan: “Let Her Suffering Begin”

The witch has a long history in Western cinema. Nowadays, we tend to associate her with horror, but early depictions resist easy categorization. She appeared in American silent films as early as 1908 (in a short called The Witch). The silent period also brought a short historical drama called The Witch of Salem (1913) and screen adaptations of such well-known witch narratives as Hansel and Gretel (1909) and Macbeth (1916). Perhaps the most iconic cinematic witch is the Wicked Witch of the West, from Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939). Injecting terror into the Technicolor fantasy of Oz, Margaret Hamilton’s green-skinned hag has become a kind of template for the witch stereotype. 

Seventeenth-century accusations of witchcraft in Denmark inform Carl Th. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), a harrowing examination of repression and paranoia made and released during the bleakest days of the Nazi occupation of that country. In René Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942) and Richard Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle (1958), the witch is played for laughs, but there is a tension between the comedy and a more sinister suggestion about the dangerous power of women to confuse and compel their male victims. In mystery films of the forties, witchcraft is often bound up in exoticism, as in Reginald Le Borg’s Weird Woman (1944), in which a college professor must defend his foreign-born wife against the suspicions of his hometown. It is perhaps not until Black Sunday (1960) that witchcraft becomes an explicit theme and visual source of horror. This Italian gothic film by Mario Bava pays homage to the Universal monster movies of the thirties, as a vampire-witch seeks bloody revenge before herself meeting a violent end. Black Sunday blends folkloric witchcraft with satanism and the occult, elements reprised in Roman Polanski’s mainstream horror hit Rosemary’s Baby (1968). 

These later horror-movie depictions of witchcraft did have an anachronistic cinematic forebear, however. The dramatized sequences that Benjamin Christensen intersperses with documentary ones in Häxan could not have been classified as horror on the film’s release in 1922—their graphic scenes of torture and sexual perversion notwithstanding—as that label would not exist for another decade, but they clearly anticipate what we now consider the horror genre, even if the film’s depiction of the figure of the witch is richer and more complex than this may suggest. Christensen focuses on the history of witchcraft in order to show the way that the oppression of women takes on different guises in different historical periods. Using ideas from the psychoanalytic theory that was emerging at the time, Christensen suggests a link between contemporary diagnoses of hysteria and the European witch hunts of the medieval and early modern eras. This connection casts the twentieth-century physician who would confine troubled young women in his clinic in the role of inquisitor.

“Rather than repeating old ideas about dangerous women, Christensen wants to open a dialogue between the past and the present.”

Häxan points most presciently toward a subgenre that would emerge in the sixties and seventies: folk horror, associated with skewed or archaic belief systems, geographical isolation, eerie landscapes, fairy-tale elements, and, very often, witchcraft. In the countercultural heyday of this form, such films as The Witches (1966), Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973) stopped short of invoking the witch as a radical image of female power, but they also abandoned the archetype of the “incontestably monstrous” woman found in other kinds of horror movies, as Barbara Creed has pointed out. Häxan’s quasi-feminist examination of witchcraft and the representation of witches in these later films naturally resonate in the twenty-first century as well, with recognition of the persistence of institutional misogyny from some quarters and violent reactions against feminism from others. In fact, the witch has become prominent in popular culture once again, emerging as a central figure in the folk-horror cinema revival, from Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015), which returns to early modern historical material, to Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), a modern-day Swedish-set horror film that directly evokes The Wicker Man. In these films, female witches are treated as ambiguous characters, victims of sexist oppression but also as potentially dangerous wielders of destructive power. 

Like the late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century folk-horror films, Häxan looks to the past, reflecting the fact that the figure of the witch has been with us since ancient times. Christensen incorporates elements from multiple sources, contemporary and historical, including texts from the early modern period, during which the myth of the satanic witch crystallized. The idea of the witch that emerged from the witchcraft trials that took place in Europe roughly between 1420 and 1650 brought together elements of Germanic folklore with Greco-Roman mythology and medieval Christian depictions of heresy. This witch was not necessarily female but was associated with female monsters, such as the Greek lamia (a child-killing demon that would also roam the night seeking to tempt and then devour young men) and Medea or the Roman strix (an owllike creature that likewise preyed on children). These horrors of the ancient world persisted in various guises in central Europe, becoming conflated in early accounts of maleficia in Germany, for example, where clergy recorded local beliefs in women whose bodies lay in their beds at night while their spirits traveled, or who turned into owls, or who ate the flesh of people. 

As the witchcraft myth developed into the early modern period, tropes emerged: cannibalism, the theft and murder of infants, the ability to enter homes uninvited, transformation into animals, eating the flesh or sucking the blood of infants, powers of flight conveyed by ointments made from infant flesh, and riding demons or brooms through the air. Häxan references most of these, along with other details from trial documents, including the “tests” for witchcraft. It is not difficult to see, given these old myths and the way they suggest the illegitimacy of female power, how the evil-witch stereotype has become such a convenient tool for the propagation of misogynistic ideas. Christensen’s attitude toward the matter, however, is a more nuanced one: rather than repeating old ideas about dangerous women, he wants to open a dialogue between the past and the present. In Häxan’s first part, the director appears as a rational academic, scorning the primitive beliefs of the past and taking the unfortunate female witch as his object of study. As the film progresses, the lines separating reality, myth, superstition, and history blur considerably, and Christensen even reappears in the guise of the devil, styled after Hieronymus Bosch’s fifteenth-century depictions of demons and hell and Eduard von Grützner’s 1895 portrait of Satan himself (Mephisto).

“The grotesque appears in concert with a carnivalesque atmosphere, suggesting an intersection of gender and social class: witches are not only women, they are poor women.”

Christensen also makes use of the grotesque in scenes in Häxan that recreate a witches’ Sabbath, drawing on not just Bosch’s hellscapes but also Francisco Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath (1798), with its horned devil, and Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Dull Gret (1563), which depicts an army of women on their way to pillage hell. The grotesque, as theorist Philip Thomson points out in his 1972 work on the literary mode, elicits both disgust and fascination, humor and terror. These contradictions are especially vivid in what feminist scholars call the “female grotesque,” an aesthetic that reveals binary ideas of women as either hags or temptresses, angels or whores. As Häxan shows, the figure of the witch encompasses such dualisms; she may be “young and beautiful,” Christensen tells the viewer, or “old and miserable.” The female grotesque also relies on a long-standing cultural association of women with nature that is not always empowering. For example, in the third part of the film, a woman identified as Maria the weaver confesses, after being tortured by monks, that she is a witch who has given birth to many children fathered by the devil. This is illustrated by a parade of monstrous animal-human forms emerging from between her legs.

Elsewhere in Häxan’s re-creations, the grotesque appears in concert with a carnivalesque atmosphere, suggesting an intersection of gender and social class: witches are not only women, they are poor women. Christensen associates the witches with the carnivalesque through scenes of excessive and uncouth eating and other bodily functions—a pair of witches urinate in the street, fashioning a charm against their social betters. The carnivalesque lends the oppressed and impoverished a degree of power to subvert the usual social order and mock figures of authority. A witch’s love potion turns a pious priest into a lustful heathen, for example. As well as inviting laughter, Christensen is issuing a social critique that provokes sympathy for the plight of the poor. The witch Apelone is granted access to a “dream castle” in which the devil fulfills all her secret wishes, but the gold coins she finds inside disappear more quickly than she is able to gather them. Häxan also reveals the limits of the carnivalesque—the power it grants is, of course, only temporary, and the social hierarchy is quickly restored with repressive force.

The precarious nature of the witch’s power is evident in her shift from a figure of terror to a pitiful victim through the stories in Häxan of Maria the weaver and Anna, the printer’s wife. In these latter parts of the movie, Christensen focuses on the cruel practices of the clergy and witch­finders, who impose mental and physical torture on Anna, a young mother who has been accused of crimes she did not commit. While the priests are keen to “let her suffering begin,” Christensen laments the “ravages” of witch-hunting hysteria, which led to “one pyre after another.” Interestingly, Häxan is contemporaneous with the “witch-cult theory” of the English Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, and folklorist Margaret Murray, which she first advanced in the 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, claiming that the early modern witch trials were the coordinated persecution of a matriarchal pagan religion, which they drove to extinction. Though Murray’s thesis has by now been thoroughly rejected by scholars, her association of witchcraft with the plight of women and other social outsiders who are targeted for persecution has cast a long cultural shadow. Christensen echoes some of Murray’s wilder claims when he tells viewers that the trials claimed eight million lives; the historical record suggests the number of those executed for witchcraft between 1400 and 1850 was more likely around eighty thousand. 

These common myths about the witchcraft trials have often been bound up in feminist revisionist narratives, particularly in the work of second-wave feminists in the 1970s, which Christensen’s film anticipates. Like Christensen, those scholars drew on the literary tradition of the female gothic, which mediates women writers’ concerns about motherhood, a claustrophobic domestic ideology, and their relative powerlessness and social restriction through the language of the gothic and the fantastic. In many ways, Anna the printer's wife resembles a gothic heroine, incarcerated and mistreated by a corrupt and violent patriarchal authority. 

Like the folk horror that has followed it, Häxan does not provide an easy position for the viewer. We are granted the role of voyeur, invited to enjoy the grotesque spectacles of the witch’s hovel and the riotous Sabbath. At the same time, we are encouraged to feel empathy for the impoverished and abused. The movie excites horror and disgust but also pity and humor. There is an obvious critique of women’s precarious status (it is dangerous to be old and ugly but also to be young and pretty), but Häxan also reinforces early modern stereotypes that are rooted in misogyny. The association of women with hysteria, depicted in the nuns’ contagious insanity late in the film, is likewise informed by patriarchal pathologies of female behavior. Häxan flirts with gothic transgression in scenes depicting nakedness, torture, sex, violence, and the eating of corpses, a kind of spectacle that ultimately serves to undercut its social critique, since the grotesque serves neither reactionary nor radical ends. Yet viewers cannot but be moved by the movie’s final images and the words of the aging witch who sees the devil at her bedside: “I am a broken person.” By complicating the age-old stereotype of the evil witch, Christensen not only inaugurated a tradition of continual reinvention of the figure within horror cinema, he also gave us an ambiguous representation of female power and victimhood that remains effective to this day.