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Capturing Witches: Histories, Stories, Images

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This paper will consider in detail two films made in Britain, with external (American) funding, at the end of the 1960s. Both films, Witchfinder General (1968) and The Devils (1971) ran into considerably difficulty with the system of film censorship then in place in the UK; both offer graphically violent and/or sexual images involving the persecution of witchcraft in the 17th century (the first in Britain, the second in France); and both read the persecution of witches as politically-, financially- or sexually-motivated acts perpetrated by masculine figures of power and authority, sanctioned by superstition and the discourses of institutionalised Christianity. In Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) exploits the disordered state of Civil War East Anglia to engage in predatory and murderous activities, the torture and killing of witches (male and female) often accompanied by his sexual exploitation of accused young women. Although the film suggests belief in witchcraft is itself a kind of folk-religion or even the group dementia of rural communities, besides the sexual/ financial exploitations of Hopkins, there is little analysis offered for the accusations and denunciations in themselves, and therefore differs markedly from texts such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1952). Where the centrality of the trial and of confession marks The Crucible as a text that reflects the political imperatives of McCarthyism, Witchfinder General imagines a motive-less, arbitrary manifestation of power that is depicted in gruesome scenes of torture (some of which were cut by the British film censor) and in other ways throughout the film. Persecution of witches is not part of an ideological system of othering, but is particularly connected to social disorder, communal violence, and corrupted authority. In The Devils, the Puritan/ Parliamentarian matrix which produces persecution in Britain is re-imagined through Catholicism, and the sexual hysteria of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), whose illicit desire/obsession for the sensual Catholic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) motivates orgiastic scenes of nudity, transgression and ‘possession’ (most notably in the ‘Rape of Christ’ scene removed from the theatrical release of the film). Again, the arrival of ‘witchfinders’ and the torture and martyrdom of Grandier is mapped onto a political context, in which the law is not the means by which ‘witchcraft’ may be sought out and removed from the social body, but the very ground upon which the phenomena are produced. This paper will discuss the films in the light of the political, social and cultural changes affecting the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, and the ways in which the films themselves stage critiques of the law that they would themselves become subject to in their exhibition.

Event (Conference)

TitleCapturing Witches: Histories, Stories, Images
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom