Witches Reflect a History of Fear and Fascination
Updated May 13, 2022
The old German saying goes, an ill-tempered woman (a witch) is like the devil’s doornail. She strengthens, supports, and upholds his work. Unlike other monstrous figures, witches come from a history persecution and violence. This makes her both real and unreal, woman and other. This history also means that the way we characterize witches speaks to the fears and iconographic traditions of past cultures. Today’s cinematic witch is thus a by-product of a larger conversation about history, femininity, and abuse, aspects which Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan comments on.
Häxan is responsible for the cinematic witch. The film set a thematic groundwork which other witch films have since incorporated. It is a Swedish retrospective documentary which examines the cultural and historical consequences of witchcraft. This article will discuss how Häxan examines witches and demons as problematic cultural icons, and why the film perpetuates certain stereotypes. The film tries to be enlightened while still suggesting that women are prone to victimization and abnormal behaviour. This is largely because of the way the film dramatizes witch lore and elevates its historical subject into something unreal and problematic.
What is Häxan?
Häxan is based on Heinrich Kramer’s infamous Malleus Maleficarium, a 15th century Catholic witch hunting manual. The film adapts the document to highlight the dangers of misinformation. Likewise, Häxan involves the Protestant model of witchcraft, as defined by Martin Luther in the 16th century. Christensen’s movie thus blends Catholic and Protestant witch definitions to create a new cinematic witch. By examining why these models differ, and how the film incorporates these differences, my goal here is to suggest that Häxan is a problematic blend of old and new, witch and woman. The film argues that witchcraft is a type of hysteria, which means that ‘so-called’ witches continue to appear in the modern world. In other words, those accused of witchcraft were simply misdiagnosed. However, the film also notes that those diagnosed with hysteria in the modern era continue to be victimized, which means that abnormal women are an ongoing problem. As such, Christensen’s work replaces the corrupt Catholic church with an equally problematic institution; early 20th century psychiatrics.
What is the Malleus Maleficarium?
The Malleus’ was the first document to truly define the specific characteristics of witchcraft (Brauner 3). It is a compilation of medieval ideas about demons, God, and women. The text provides a comfortable and usable definition of evil and witchcraft, one which gave readers a sense of control and security while also giving inquisitors a way to justify their actions. It concerns the demonic threats which women pose, otherwise known as ‘maleficia’ or ‘evil deeds’ (9). Kramer adds a theological perspective (Broedel 4) to these ‘maleficia’ by blending superstition with Catholicism. This blend made the document more accessible and influential, as its ideas were not entirely unfamiliar. As a result, the Malleus was published fifteen times before 1520, and another nineteen times before 1669 (Rampton 295). By the sixteenth century, authors no longer had to argue about what witchcraft was, just if it existed. The malleus thus became the ultimate definition of witchcraft, one which Häxan highlights.
Although the Malleus’ was extremely popular, many church officials disagreed with the Kramer, so much so that in 1490 the Catholic church denounced the document (Rampton 296). This is largely because of Kramer’s fake persona, or as Hans Peter Broedel notes, while Kramer “claimed extensive personal experience in witch prosecutions…there is an almost complete lack of corroborating evidence” (14). However, this persona helped sell the Malleus, as the document presents itself as an important and official text. It contains an “impressive collection of credentials,” including a “papal bull…two approbations…and finally a letter signed by Maximilian I” (Broedel 19), many of which were cut or taken out of context. Kramer also relied on the popularity of his co-author, Jacob Sprenger. There is an ongoing debate around Sprenger’s involvement, and I have chosen to focus on Kramer as primary author. While it is generally accepted that Sprenger wrote the Malleus’ preface, any other contributions were either minimal or nonexistent (Broedel 19). This implies that the document is more concerned with convincing people to accept a persona and definition rather than using that definition. For instance, neither Kramer nor Sprenger attended a witch trial after the publication.
The Malleus’ Main Objective is to Suggest that the World Suffers because of Evil Women
To summarize, witch trails following the publication of the Malleus incorporated its three-part structure; how witches and the devil were real, what witches do, and how to torture witches into confessing. These persecutions were centered on the document’s suggestion that “the world now suffers on account of the evil of women” (Kramer 168), a phrase which justified the torture and execution of countless women.
Dramatizing the Malleus
Like the Malleus, Christensen’s Häxan was a product of troubled times. It was released in 1922, shortly after WWI, and was inspired by the overwhelming trauma and anxiety in Europe. Christensen’s film implies that the Malleus’ definition of witchcraft is harmful, and that ‘so-called’ witches exist in the modern era. It makes this argument very clear with Christensen noting, “This is no ordinary film. It is not merely entertainment. Häxan is a thesis” (Baxstron 33). Häxan was banned in the United States and censored everywhere else (Alexander 55), primarily for its voyeuristic imagery and demonic figures. This censorship led to the film’s popularity and status as a cult classic. It remains one of the earliest witch films in history.
Häxan dramatizes one of the primary arguments in the Malleus; explaining why evil, specifically evil women, can exist in a world governed by a just God. In other words, why can women access otherworldly power? Because witches are women, they challenge both the normative order (where women are passive) and God’s authority, or as Doty Alexander summarizes, “the anxiety in the Malleus stems not simply from women (and men’s) impotency, but the idea that ‘God himself might be impotent’” (33) and powerless. The Malleus solves this issue by suggesting that God grants witches permission to use magic on the Devil’s authority. This makes witchcraft like any other sin and suggests that women have no real power, as they work “under the direction and control of the Devil” (Rampton 295). They are just the Devil’s tool or doornail. This suggests that witches can be dealt with, as they are mortal and, without the Devil, powerless.
The Devil Motivates the Witch But it Not Responsible for Her
The Devil is a complex figure in the Malleus and Häxan. In the Malleus, he is equally threatening and trivial, something which Broedel describes as “an oddly bifurcated devil, a being of transcendent but mechanical power for evil…whose physical presence was…almost trivial” (4). The devil had to be both dangerous and manageable for Christians. One way the Malleus depicts this duality is by diminishing the Devil’s power, suggesting that he uses the illusion of magic to cause damage. God is the only one who has true power, which means that the magic used by witches and the Devil is artificial.
Another way the Malleus undermines the Devil is by not focusing on him. Although he is often referred to, the Devil himself is absent for most of the text (51). This makes the Devil more of a force rather than an entity. He motivates a witch but is not responsible for her actions. According to Broedel, this implies that “the devil is merely the efficient cause of the effect; he bears no responsibility for the injury himself” (51-52), which means that witches can be punished for their actions, as they are ultimately responsible for accepting the Devil. Broedel describes this as “although a witch may utilize the devil’s power…she does it for reasons that are her own: witchcraft may be perilously tied to the demonic, but it is an entirely human sin” (27) and thus punishable. This is a contradiction, as the Malleus argues that women are too weak to not be tempted, but also too weak to have any power.
The Devil in Häxan
Häxan approaches the Devil very differently and he is played by the director (Christensen). The film explores “the materiality of the Devil and sexual encounters with him” (Baxstrom 74) to visualize how witches operate. These visuals make it easier to examine witch stereotypes such as “the Wild Ride, the pact with the Devil…sexual intercourse, [and] cannibalism” (Baxstrom 110). By depicting the Devil in these scenes, the film reaffirms that witchcraft is managed by the Devil and that women do not have power.
The film continues this visualization by explicitly sexualizing the Devil, showing him with his tongue out and panting. In one scene, the Devil sneaks into a married women’s bed to corrupt the household. Another scene shows women kissing the Devil’s anus and signing his book. The Devil is also depicted with a butter churn to insinuate masturbation. Most of these features are mentioned in the Malleus, but Christensen film gives them life. It refuses to distance these scenes by just discussing them, instead showing the audience the terrible things suggested by the Malleus.
The Witches’ Voice (Or Lack Thereof)
Both Häxan and the Malleus suggest that evil women can be managed. The Malleus argues that women are like door nails, holding and supporting evil. Häxan extents this to argue that women have no agency or power. It also implies that they have no voice, which it emphasizes as a silent film. Silent films collapse words and speech onto one another, as all dialogue and information appears on title cards, which means that all speech become visual.
Title cards creates a disconnect between the actor and their words, as speech becomes genderless and voiceless. The director is responsible for this space as he controls the timing and general expression of these cards. As such, the women in the film have no control over their words. Although it is a female centric film, women are thus notably absent. This incidentally reflects the Malleus’ argument about women’s voices. A witch’s voice is equally threatening and revealing, as she can curse people but must also confess her sins. The Malleus interprets this as “the voice of women is…the song of the Sirens, who attract those…with sweet melody and eventually kill” (169) and deceive them. It suggests that women usually lie, noting “For she is lying in speech just as she in nature” (169), which implies that while a witch’s confessions is reliable, anything else she says is a lie. Because she lies so frequently, any document about witches must be written by a man. Häxan adheres to this by silencing its women and having their confession dictated by the director’s written translation.
The later part of the film stresses that witches are merely delusional women or those punished into confessions by a corrupt institution. It goes on to suggest that modern medicine and psychiatrics are a better way to treat abnormal women. However, the way the film dwells on its fantastic and demonic scenes undermines this thesis. The magic depicted in film is too engaging to dismiss. By examining witches at face value, or showing scenes with magic and no explanation, the film elevates witchcraft rather than deconstructing it.
Magic Vs Science
Christensen film juxtaposes science and superstition while suggesting that women are inherently mysterious and ill. For instance, Christensen plays both himself and the Devil, meaning he is both a scientific and religious authority, as a documentary filmmaker and a Devil.
There are two scenes which emphasize this comparison of magic and science: the two old witches and the two male scientists. The men are falsely accused of witchcraft after they are caught operating on a dead woman. Their attempt to learn about disease is misinterpreted as witchcraft. There is a huge difference between this and the old women scene. These men are looking for knowledge, while women already have knowledge, albeit a demonic kind. Meanwhile, the women are performing real magic and do not get caught. This implies two things. First, the justice system is corrupt and rarely catches the right person. Second, that magic exists in the same realm as science, as neither are given any real explanation. By showing magic without explanation, the film implies that magic is just as real as science as they operate in a similar way, but with different expectations. This scene also suggests that men who study science are victims rather than inquisitors. Likewise, because these scenes follow one another, they suggest men are misunderstood while women are devious.
The Difference Between the Christian and Protestant Witch
Today’s European witch was constructed by Catholic and Protestant models, but mainly reflects anxieties around femininity and theology. These models contrast one another as they embody different fears. For example, Catholic witches are typically young and centered around sex, while Protestant witches, or Lutheran, are old and envious. Because the Malleus is a Catholic document, it suggests that sexuality is both a sign and cause of witchcraft, or as Broedel notes “unbridled female sexuality…[becomes] indistinguishable from demonic power” (7). The Malleus argues that witches are “governed by carnal lusting, which is insatiable in them” (170) and is what draws them to witchcraft. This explains why women are more susceptible to witchcraft in the Catholic faith, as “just as the devil’s power is greatest where human sexuality is concerned…[sexuality] is woman’s greatest weakness, for she is naturally more sexual than men” (Broedel 25). The Catholic model thus suggests that women “become witches because they are weaker, less intelligent, and…fall easy prey to temptation” (14) and sin. The Malleus defends this with a quote from James I, noting “When this lusting conceives, it gives birth to sin, and then, when sin is consummated, it begets death” (182) to those involved. As such, the Catholic model of witchcraft is not just about sexuality but the devaluing of sex and its instruments. Witches are thus an attack on idea of sex and fertility.
Unlike the Catholic model, the Protestant “witch is denied sex appeal…her intention is destruction rather than seduction” (Schimmelpfennig 35) and is a direct commentary on the Malleus. While Luther never published a specific document about witches, he refers to them during his discussions about the Devil.
Luther agrees with some of the Malleus, like witches’ gender and what qualifies as witch activity, but he also argues that “women do not become witches by nature, but rather choose whether to practice witchcraft” (56). Protestant witches thus have freedom of choice, whereas Catholic witches are morally and sexually weak. This also means that witchcraft is a type of idolatry as it represents earthly and personal gain. According to Sigrid Brauner, “the idolatry of witchcraft stems from a lack of faith in God” (58). Therefore, the Protestant witch is not a young single woman, but an anxious and existential housewife. She could either be an old woman envious of those who can have children (Brauner 64), or a mother who resorts to witchcraft to protect her children (64) from other witches. Both versions challenge God’s will by trying to control the fate of the household. This means that Catholic witches corrupts fertility while Protestant witches corrupt the product of fertility; babies.
The Cinematic Witch
Häxan considers and combines these models, something which Hollywood has continued to do. As such, the cinematic witch is a transition between Protestant and Catholic models, one which gives “the witch a face, or several different faces” (Schimmelpfennig 34). A good example of this transformation is the Evil Stepmother in the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While the original fairy tale also combines Catholic and Protestant models, Disney’s film visually experiments with them to a greater extent. The Stepmother moves between these models to achieve evil, being beautiful and elderly at separate points.
Häxan technically comes from a more Protestant perspective in the way it criticizes the Catholic church. It suggests that the violence against women was caused by the church’s ignorance. It often does this through parody, like the scene where a gluttonous monk is bewitched and tries to sleep with his maid. Another example is when a young priest becomes obsessed with a woman on trial. He asks to be whipped in what becomes an erotic scene. This sequence plays with the Catholic fear of sex, where a women’s brief and casual touch is enough to drive a priest insane.
Additionally, the film examines both Catholic and Protestant imagery by suggesting that “During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly but it was not safe to be young and pretty either” (Häxan). For instance, Christensen’s film plays with Protestant imagery by arguing that the “Devil’s companion can be young and beautiful, but she is more often old, poor, and miserable” (Häxan). In one scene, an old woman gives birth to a demonic creature. This represents a Protestant witch because it is an old woman and a nonhuman baby, or a corrupted product. Another Protestant image is when a young mother is tortured by the church. The priest tricks her into confessing by threatening her daughter, noting “maiden, see the child who will miserable perish as a dishonourable, rejected witch’s offspring without you” (Häxan). Here, the witch is motivated by motherly love, which ultimately kills both her and her daughter.
The main way in which the film unites Catholic and Protestant models is by combining flawed nature with motherhood. For instance, in one scene, a woman steals a statue of baby Jesus from Mary. While doing so, she asks Mary for forgiveness and tells her that the Devil made her do it. This woman is unmothering the holy mother but also has no choice. This is not her nature, but something else. Later, when the Devil beats a woman until she signs his book, the film suggests that the woman has a choice but it is not a free one. These women are not as sinful as other depictions, where a witch is either morally or sexually weak. They are not entirely guilty, and instead they shift between Catholic and Protestant models; mother and weak woman.
Women as Witches
Throughout this discussion I have highlighted female witches, as both Kramer and Luther do. This was not always the case. Before the Malleus was published, both men and women had been accused of witchcraft, and in “medieval tradition, it…[was] usually a male scholar-not a woman-who makes a [Faustian] pact with the devil” (Brauner 8). The Malleus was the first document to argue that women were solely responsible for witchcraft (Rampton 295). Brauner argues that this has to do with the changing social roles of women in the period, both legal and economic (3). It was easier to classify women as either Eve or Mary, evil or good, to content with their uncertain status. Both Eve and Mary categories suggest that women are weak and prone to otherworldly influence and infection, as Eve was misled by the Devil, and Mary was impregnated by God.
I use the term infection deliberately, as Häxan reads witchcraft pathologically as a feminine disease. It suggests that the Malleus was a way to categorize, define, and study witches as a “spiritual plague” (Häxan). This explains why the Malleus characterizes “the creeping power of the witch to pervert and pollute” (Baxstrom 95) society. The Malleus even has a section titled “Why is it that Women are so Chiefly Addicted to Evil Superstitions” (Brauner 34). Here, the term addiction reinforces that women are prone or open to witchcraft and sin, and that witchcraft should be read medically, as Christensen does.
Because Häxan reads the Malleus pathologically, it suggests that witch trials were an ineffective cure for a real problem. This still suggests that women are inherently problematic and ill. Just as the Malleus suggested that “there is a potential of a witch in every woman” (Schimmelpfennig 30), the film implies that modern women are equally prone. As such, both the Malleus and Häxan “agree that there is something very wrong with many women” (45). While the film perpetuates the Malleus’ stereotypes, the way it compares old with new also makes it relevant.
Häxan reminds us that the Malleus was not just a document but an ongoing definition of women, one which endures today. We live in an era where the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witch trial’ have been politically and culturally repurposed. Many of the accused men in the Me-Too movement have misused the term ‘witch trial’, notably Trump. For men, the word witch gestures to ‘unjust victimization’. But, when a woman is called a witch, the term still describes something evil. I mention this because the term witch has consequences, those which Häxan tries to address.
The Malleus unjustifiably demonizes women who are undesirable or unfeminine to a normative system. Häxan tries to highlight this with its final scene; a modern woman stepping into a mild clinic shower and three witches burning at a stake. These shots juxtapose modern and medieval women to suggest that what defined a witch in the 16th century continues to impact women today. It lingers on this shot to imply that while these witches may be dead, the witch continues to burn in the modern era. They are a distant silhouette, but one which shadows our history and cultural landscape.
Alexander, Doty. Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan. Punctum Books, 2014.
Baxstrom, Richard. Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. Fordham University Press, 2015.
Brauner, Sigrid. Fearless Wives and Frightened Shrews: The Construction of the Witch in Early Modern Germany, University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
Broedel, Hans Peter. The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft. Manchester University Press, 2004.
Kramer, Heinrich. Malleus Maleficarium, 1487.
Rampton, Mary. European Magic and Witchcraft: A Reader. University of Toronto Press, 2018.
Schimmelpfennig, Annette. “Chaos Reigns – Women as Witches in Contemporary Film and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.” Gender Forum, vol. 44, 2013.