Witchcraft and magic; film and academia

In which we ponder why both serious historians and the entertainment industry were dealing with the same subject at the same time

There’s a lot of pressure on the Symbolic Towers bookshelves at the moment, stacked several deep with books falling off the ends. The pile of books-to-be-read is growing, too, with books arriving on it faster than I can read them. Frankly, the cause is obvious – apart from me not spending enough time reading, I mean. The cause is: shopping trips to Whiteladies Road and Cotham Hill, and to the charity shops thereon. Several are specialist charity bookshops, and all seem to have a better quality of book stock than charity shops elsewhere in Bristol, presumably because of the university being close by. Recent selections have included God’s Architect, a biography of Pugin by Rosemary Hill; 25 Jahre Deutsche Einheitslokomotive;* and a classic historical work from 40 years ago: Religion and the Decline of Magic by Sir Keith Thomas. I’ve just started making my way into the latter, and it has started a few thoughts going round in my head. Not because of the book itself, interesting though it is, but because of other things that have coincidentally come together alongside it.

Last Friday, by contrast, we went along to The Cube for the monthly Hellfire Video Club horror night. This month’s theme was Folk Horror, with a British cinema double bill: Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (also 1970).** The latter has rather higher production values; the former, although a British-made film, was part of American International Pictures’ series of Edgar Allan Poe films. It’s one of the later, lesser-known entries in the sequence: directed by Gordon Hessler rather than Roger Corman, but still with Vincent Price as the top-billed star.

What struck me straight away was the similarity of content: which, obviously, was why they were put together on the same bill. Cry of the Banshee is set around the start of the 17th century; Blood on Satan’s Claw is set around its end. Both deal with witchcraft, beliefs about witchcraft, and intra-community conflict; in very different styles, and with different levels of seriousness, but still at heart the same subject. It was not, moreover, a particularly unusual subject for British film at the time: a couple of years earlier Vincent Price had starred in Witchfinder General, covering similar subject matter and with slightly more claim to historicity. Not coincidentally, it was a co-production between American International and the producers of Blood on Satan’s Claw, Tigon. Recently, in his BBC series A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss put forward a claim for this group of films to be considered as a “folk horror” subgenre,*** together with The Wicker Man (1973): another look at essentially the same themes, updated to a modern-day setting.**** In that film the side of witchcraft is represented by a modern pagan revival; Cry of the Banshee shows the mythical pagan witchcraft of Charles Leland and Margaret Murray, and Blood on Satan’s Claw shows the Satanic witchcraft which the real-life witchfinders of the 17th century believed they were hunting down.

The point of this post, though, came when I realised that the subject of these films – the period ones, at least – is in effect the same subject as their contemporary Religion and the Decline of Magic. That book covers the same period: roughly, 1500 to 1700. It covers the intersection between religion and folk magic, and how folk belief in magic and witchcraft changed due to the political-religious upheavals which occurred in the period under study – following the anthropological distinction between magic and witchcraft.

Being an academic history, it is slightly easier to see how Sir Keith came to write the book when he did. His interest in the period came from studying under Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian of 17th century England; and at the time he was writing magic and witchcraft were being seen in a new light as a subject of historical enquiry. Thomas received input from Alan Macfarlane, whose research on witchcraft prosecutions in East Anglia is another work that is very much still on the historical and anthropological syllabus. The significance of Dr Macfarlane is that, as a historical anthropologist, he married anthropological frameworks and theories to historical primary sources. This level of academic interest in historical witchcraft beliefs is also what led to the complete discrediting of the previously-accepted idea that early modern witchcraft was a fully-fledged ancient and pagan religion, in works such as Norman Cohn’s Europe’s Inner Demons, published in 1975. In general, it is fair to say that Religion and the Decline of Magic is a major work within a subject that was getting a great deal of interest in academia at the time, and for the first time was getting serious interest paid to it which involved deep analysis of primary source material.

What intrigues me about all this, however, is the confluence here between academia and entertainment. What was going on, what underlying forces were at work, which led to the production of both horror films and weighty academic histories on the same topics at the same times? It is worth saying that Blood on Satan’s Claw, at least, does appear to present an underlying thesis which is not unrelated to that of Keith Thomas. Thomas points out that the Reformation led to the Church in England abandoning a large number of practices which can be described as magical; or which, at least, are barely distinguishably from magic both in an anthropological analysis and in the minds of the ordinary population expected to take part. In Blood on Satan’s Claw the village priest, apparently a Low Anglican, is ineffectual against the forces of witchcraft, and knows it; the heroes are the scientifically-minded local physician and the Jacobite judge, presumably still secretly following the old religion just as he secretly follows the Old Pretender. To defeat Satan, only a Catholic will do; but nowhere is this spelled out explicitly for the audience, and you will only realise it if you have some awareness of the film’s historical setting.

I’m not, of course, trying to posit a direct connection between the two things: for one thing, both of the films shown at Hellfire Video Club were released the year before the book was. Rather, there seems to have been an undercurrent of some sort, forty years ago, which made this sort of subject a popular one in several ages. I have a feeling it was important in music, too. Also on the squeezed bookshelves is a work which for once I didn’t get second-hand: Electric Eden by Rob Young. It is a history of the folk themas which pervaded English music in the 20th century – which makes it sound also very academic. It isn’t, and its writer is a very approachable sort of chap, but it doesn’t exactly answer the question I’m posing, because it tends to follow a linear path of musical trends, parallel to the rest of culture.

There is possibly an answer in the growth of modern paganism. Modern Wicca emerged in the 1950s; by the time we are talking about, it was well known in mainstream culture and in the popular press. Moreover, as historian Ronald Hutton has shown, not only can the view of spirituality expressed in Wicca can be shown to have strong antecedents in British culture from the Romantic poets onwards; but even though the view of pagan witchcraft expounded by Margaret Murray can be shown to be false, modern witchcraft can nevertheless be seen to be descended from the types of magical beliefs and activities described by scholars such as Thomas.***** In other words, as a religion, it is a concrete expression of a number of strands of British philosophical thought and folk belief which have been rooted at some level in the national psyche since the medieval period.

However, that argument would seem to be the tail wagging the dog. Rather, modern Wicca became known in the mainstream for the same reasons that academics were studying the history of magical belief, and for the same reasons that popular entertainment was portraying the same themes. What these reasons were is presumably something deeper, and I am not enough of a cultural historian to tell you what they were and are. I do think it is somehow significant, though. At the start of the 1970s, something important was happening, culturally, that made the same themes arise right across the cultural spectrum: in academia, in film, in music and in religion. I feel as if, noticing the parallel dates between books and films, I’m trying to grip the edge of an iceberg.

* published in 1950 by Miba, in case you were wondering.

** you can see the event’s poster on Flickr.

*** Of course, other people might have said it before him, but I’m not well-versed enough in film history to know.

**** Incidentally, both The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw have fantastic soundtracks, although each very different in form.

***** Also incidentally, given that I bought my copy of Religion and the Decline of Magic on Cotham Hill, and that most of it has been marked up by a studious reader, the chances are it used to belong to someone studying on one of Professor Hutton’s courses.

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