The witch is one of the oldest villains in human civilization. Every culture has the concept of a human being, usually a woman, who has violated the laws of nature and society to gain immense power.
Her transgressions vary from culture to culture and religion to religion. In the western world, the witch has usually received her powers by signing over her soul to the Devil himself. Other times she has used some ancient, forbidden ritual to thwart God and order. Either way, the witch in a horror film is a dangerous woman. If you cross her, you will incur her horrific wrath. If you have something she wants, she will take it. Wither her cunning and mastery of black magic, the witch will gain dominion over your body and thoughts. They will force you to do unimaginable things.
That’s the legend, at least.
On the other hand, an accused witch is rarely all people fear her to be, and she hardly ever lives up to the archetype. In real life witch hunts and witch trials, witches were the boogeyman, functioning as social scapegoats. The women (and sometimes men) accused of witchcraft bore the brunt of the community’s frustrations and fears. The accused might have been a cantankerous old spinster or a beautiful young maiden. She might have been financially independent, or difficult and disliked. The “witch” might have been politically powerful and drawn the ire of someone with a vested interest in her demise.
Whatever the reason, the theme becomes clear, whether real or imaginary, the witch embodies our fears of being taken advantage of by those who are smarter and more powerful than us. The stronger a woman is, the more fearsome she becomes. Similarly, we should be wary of those who seem weak and harmless, for we might have gravely underestimated them.
Here I’ve compiled eight of my favorite witch films, full of creepy rituals, jarring horror, and even a few cackles here and there. They include stories of real witches and women who were accused of witchcraft. There are terror of a woman’s rage is the lesson, either way.
There are some spoilers, so watch your step.
Part documentary, part video essay, and part series of fictional vignettes, Haxan is a thoughtful exploration of superstition and witchcraft throughout man’s history. The vignettes feature an academic discussion of “primitive man’s” misunderstanding of the universe. The film also beautifully explains man’s desire to find an explanation at all costs. The vignettes also show scenes of witches practicing their craft, a black mass, and a witch hunt along with the ensuing torture of accused women. The film concludes with an examination of contemporary mental conditions, suggesting that witches were actually suffering from undiagnosed psychological disorders.
Haxan is a silent film, and a weird one at that, but I really liked it. I appreciated the historical bent, as well as the depictions of real witches juxtaposed with the unfortunate women accused of witchcraft. To the modern viewer, the movie isn’t scary at all, but it is creepy and very eerie. Even with 1920s film technology, Haxan creates disturbing images; dark scenes, claustrophobic shots, writhing naked bodies, hysterical nuns, and nightmarish demons. The director, Benjamin Christensen, plays Satan and does an impressive job being goddamned creepy. In his capable hands, stories of witchcraft take on a sharp edge, explaining how morbid and cruel people can be. From practicing sorcery to torturing women without proof of any crime to falsely implicating innocents, fear and anger can label anyone a witch and gives everyone a finger to point.
Black Sunday (1961)
In the 17th century, Asa is tortured for witchcraft by her own brother. Before she is executed, Asa vows vengeance and curses her brother and all his descendants. Centuries later, Asa is awakened from her tomb and seeks revenge as a witch (and also, randomly, a vampire!). Soon she finds her brother’s beautiful descendant Katia and plots to kill her. By drinking her blood, Asa hopes to gain immortality.
Black Sunday is an excellent example of how witches symbolize fears of feminine sexuality. Asa is a gorgeous, seductive, powerful woman, and now she’s pissed and out for blood. Her power and magic are tied to her beauty and sexuality, as she can entice men with her erotic gaze and command them to do as she wishes. At the other end of the spectrum, Katia is just as beautiful, but kind, polite, and chaste. In an interesting turn, Asa and Katia, are played by the same actress, casting them as literal mirror images. Where Asa is mad for power and spits on the established (patriarchal) order, Katia is obedient and passive. That Asa means to consumer her life plays into old legends about witches and virgins, but in Black Sunday, that dynamic is more nuanced. Asa and Katia are two sides of the same woman—one dangerous and wild, the other safe and ladylike. The contrast speaks to the rigid roles women were forced into and provides insightful criticism of historic, religious misogyny. After all, we never see what Asa did to deserve execution. Maybe she’s justified in her anger?
But witches must be punished above all else, regardless of who is right and who is wrong. Despite how hard Asa tries to overthrow the system, she is eventually defeated. Order is restored, and she is burnt.
Rendered in dizzying, gorgeous washes of color, Suspiria is the story of innocent Suzy, a ballet student who arrives in Germany to attend a prestigious ballet academy. As soon as she arrives, other students being to die in horrific, gruesome ways, with no clue as to who is responsible. Suzy tries her best to focus on her studies, but numerous creepy occurrences, her own faltering health, and more deaths prevent her progress. That is, before Suzy stumbles upon a deadly secret.
Suspiria is the first part of director Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” film trilogy, each exploring a different witch of lore. In Suspiria, the featured witch is the “Mother of Sighs,” the most powerful and fearsome of the witches. However, this back story isn’t included in the film, and is fleshed out only in later films. Consequently, the witches’ motivation in Suspiria is unknown, and their murder of young women and performance of black magic goes unexplained. For me, I appreciated how much more terrifying and unsettling things were when the spells and killings were not explained. It makes the viewer feel a degree of powerlessness, not knowing what the hell is going on, just as the students feel.
And just as the students are powerless to defend the witches, so too is the viewer powerless to resist Suspiria’s visual spell, concocted with garish color, breathtaking core, and frantic camerawork. He overwhelms us with sensation, bewitching us from start to finish.
The Craft (1996)
Troubled teenager Sarah has just transferred to a new high school after a serious bout of depression. Sarah finds it hard to fit in where popular bitches and jocks run things, but soon she finds a clique of her own. Bonnie, Rochelle, and Nancy are all like Sarah, with troubled pasts and a deep interest in witchcraft. Sarah becomes the fourth member of their coven of wannabe witches, giving them the power they need to cast real spells. Soon, the strength of their craft grows too powerful, and the girls lose control over the magic the wield.
I love this movie, as I’ve written about before. It’s cool, edgy, stylish, and fills me with 90s nostalgia every time I watch it. The Craft isn’t very scary, though it has some disturbing imagery (the end with poor insane Nancy will haunt you). I’ve written about this before, but I absolutely love ow the film takes care to build up each of the girl’s backgrounds. They’re each dealing with some dark psychological turmoil above and beyond the average high school angst. The girls turn to witchcraft to one up their tormentors, to even the score, to gain control over their lives. But the power corrupts them, turning them into the very bullies wanted to punish. The Craft is a warning against reveling too much in one’s pain, lest that pain become justification for hurting others. That way lies darkness.
As The Craft warns, “Whatever you send out there you get back times three.”
The Skeleton Key (2005)
Caroline is a nurse living in New Orleans. After her favorite patient dies, Caroline decides she needs a change and agrees to work as a private caretaker for Violet and Ben Devereaux. The couple seems kind at first, but Ben begins acting very strangely. Caroline begins to notice more and more odd occurrences, eventually turning to magic to get to the bottom of it. Once she digs into the Devereaux family past, she uncovers a terrifying secret.
I’m going to try really hard not to give too much away, but spoilers! Set against the ominous backdrop of southern gothic Louisiana, the film has all the makings of a fine horror film (whether or not it fully utilizes them). I’m a sucker for all things southern gothic. And The Skeleton Key is notable for portraying witches outside of a religious context and avoids using the religion of voodoo as the source of their black magic, instead opting for the folk magic Hoodoo. It is a pretty straight-forward witch movie until the end, because what an ending! I remember watching this in the movie theater and being bored until that ending! I don’t care how many people hated the end or the movie in general, The Skeleton Key is one of my guilty pleasures.
I think the movie is underrated, especially for how powerfully it depicts the evil cunning of witches. Their spells are diabolical and strong, almost unbreakable for anyone unlucky enough to believe in magic. You’ll never guess the full extent of their dedication to evil until the story unveils it for you, once it becomes clear that these witches were too powerful to ever lose, and Caroline was never going to defeat them.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Christine’s life is almost perfect. She has a loving, successful boyfriend and a good job. In order to compete for a promotion, Christina denies a loan extension for an old, sick woman. After begging for the extension, the old woman attacks Christine and curses her very soul. Christine’s life becomes a waking nightmare where an evil being stalks and tortures her. Desperate, Christine enlists the help of a psychic to save her soul.
Sam Raimi is the brains behind this film, co-written with his brother Ivan. Consequently, you know exactly what you’re getting with Drag Me to Hell, which is a lot of camp, a lot of grossness, and a whole lot of messed up scares. Combining a deft sense of humor and horror, this film is one of the most enjoyable horror movies in recent memory.
I was struck by the film’s depiction of the witch. She wasn’t just scary, she was human; a woman who felt like she had been pushed to her breaking point by Christine’s callousness. I kind of wish they hadn’t made her a gypsy. It’s a problematic characterization at best and, honestly, the character would have been as effective, if not better, had she simply been an old, sick woman at the end of her rope.
But anyways, Christine kind of got what was coming to her. She didn’t have to turn down the old woman; she did it for her own gain. And she didn’t think anything would come from turning away such a feeble woman. And such wrath! Seriously, Christine did a shitty thing in turning down the extension, but it’s not like she killed anyone, right? And still she is cursed to hell? The way the witch unleashes her rage upon Christine is like something out of a nightmare fairy tale. And in fairy tales, you don’t get to choose your punishment, especially if you have wronged a witch.
Witching and Bitching (2013)
A group of not-so-smart jewel thieves knock over a pawn shop and make a disastrous getaway. They flee into the Basque forest, trying for the French border. On the way, they stumble upon a coven of witches, who have their own nefarious plans for the men.
This movie was crazy and gross but tons of wicked fun. Surprisingly, it was also an interesting piece of commentary on gender relations. The witches are so maniacally evil and the men are such incompetent idiots; I was snickering the whole time at the over-the-top interpretation of an MRA rage fantasy, turned on its head.
Sometimes, when I hear too much nonsense about how women are crazy, how they eat men alive, how they’re evil and powerful at the same time that they’re weak and stupid, I wish those men could finally come face to face with such a woman. And Witching and Bitching gave that to me. After listening to those misogynistic loser asshole thieves in the car, I was ready for the witches to do their worst. And I wasn’t disappointed! It was perversely gratifying to see the very worst female stereotypes personified as the coven of witches, brought to life to persecute the men, just as they had always feared.
Witching and Bitching is an impressive and fun bit of horror-satire. It’s not the sharpest satire, to be frank, but I appreciate the ambition of this film, presenting the eternal conflict between the sexes in such a package. It’s also just a ludicrous, entertaining story.
The Witch (2015)
Set in the wilderness of 1630s New England, a family has been banished from their colony. Led by their prideful father, the family settles into a new, isolated homestead. Things go wrong almost immediately—the baby vanishes into thin air, the crops die, and cherished items go missing. The family begins to think a malevolent force has descended upon them, and they believe teenage daughter Thomasin is to blame. With winter approaching and another child falling deathly ill, the tension boils over into hysteria as the family members believe a witch is among them.
I know this movie disappointed a lot of people because it wasn’t very “scary.” I grant you, The Witch was light on gore and scares, but the film was about much more than that. As I wrote back when it was released, The Witch is a tale about fear and how it pits people against each other. When confronted with forces beyond their control and understanding, people develop a nasty habit of pinning the blame on a scapegoat. The scapegoat is almost always a powerless person, someone resented by the accusers. Thomasin finds herself in such a position, when the family blames her for things she could not possibly be responsible for.
And yet, this film isn’t pure psychological horror, because there are real, frightening, devil-worshipping witches in the woods. One of the worst things about watching the family disintegrate into madness is knowing that the witches have incited the madness. They are waiting for the family to rip itself apart. And worse still is watching thoroughly traumatized Thomasin submit to her anger and fear by signing her name in the Devil’s book. The Witch is a gripping slow-burn about how fear is an easy, powerful weapon to tear people apart.