We all know of a horror movie with an evil witch figure. An old woman who dances naked in front of a fire during a ritual, where she will promptly murder and eat children. If she’s a younger witch, the violent torture inflicted upon her body will be shown in excruciating, gratuitous detail at the beginning of the movie, with the camera taking pleasure in her pain. She may work with a coven of similarly evil witches, and put a curse on someone, four hundred years out of the grave. In horror, the figure of the witch is a representative of ultimate evil, only lesser than Satan himself, who she usually serves.
But why is this horror trope so persistent, and what does it tell us about our society and beliefs about women? The witch trials across Europe and America started in the 16th century, murdering thousands of women (and some men) up until their standstill in the late 18th century. Yet, despite the witch trials ending more than 300 years ago, the fear of female witches and the danger they pose to society still endures – in horror movies.
Take your pick of any celebrated or notoriously terrible horror flick, and you’ll find a witch being demonised. There’s awful horror, like Sam Raimi’s 2009 Drag Me to Hell, where the main protagonist is cursed by a Roma woman to be followed around by a demon before being dragged to hell, problematic in more ways than its outdated misogyny. Or we have 1999’s groundbreaking found-footage film, The Blair Witch Project, where the entire premise of the film relies on the audience believing witches – especially old women witches, who live alone in the woods – are terrifying. Even so-called ‘elevated horror,’ like Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), falls prey to the trope of an old woman instigating the brutal violence of the narrative, and once again (spoiler alert), kills children.
You may ask, what’s so bad about having evil witches in horror movies? It’s all made-up, right? And there are plenty of male antagonists who are incarnations of evil, like Michael Myers and Freddie Kreuger. Except, the key difference between these two different tropes is that only one is based on people who existed in real life; the slasher maniac is usually an amalgamation of various serial killers. The evil witch, on the other hand, never existed outside of cautionary fairy tales, or far-fetched Christian beliefs, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” It was this sentiment that led to the disproportionate, systematic murder of women in the witch trials by the hands of violent, powerful men. It is this sentiment that still exists today in the realm of horror movies that shows that society continues to fear certain types of women.
And it’s problematic as hell (forgive me for the pun). How can such an outdated, misogynistic trope have survived for four hundred years of human progress? So persistent, in fact, that the first film to portray witches and the witch trials truthfully and humanely was in Leigh Janiak’s experimental Netflix Fear Street trilogy, with its third instalment finally subverting the trope, a decision that made me, an exhausted and pagan-leaning woman, nearly cry with gratitude.
Where did the trope begin? The first depiction of witches in horror was surprisingly neutral, although it was banned upon release, in the 1922 Swedish silent horror documentary Häxan directed by Benjamin Christiansen. It blended fact and fiction to explore the culture and history of witchcraft, and tries to suggest that behaviours which led to women being accused of witchcraft in the past would now be considered to be mental illnesses by psychology.
From the psychedelic ‘60s, the decade where trashy horror and exploitation movies reigned supreme, came a slew of films belonging to the witch horror sub-genre. The now iconic Black Sunday was released in Italy in 1960, which tells the story of a witch killed in 1630 who puts a curse on the descendants of the man who sentenced her for witchcraft. Two centuries later, she returns from the dead to seduce, hypnotise, and murder men, before being subsequently burned to death. Its opening scene, of the accused witch having a bronze mask armed with sharp spikes hammered into her flesh, has set the precedent for following movies, with movies as recent as Evan Spiliotopoulos’ 2021 release The Unholy paying homage to Black Sunday in its opening scene, dwelling on the screams and suffering of a woman.
For the rest of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, horror films featuring witches followed the same formula of perverted sexuality, indulgent violence against women, curses and demons: The Witches (1966), about an evil witches’ coven at school; Rosemary’s Baby (1968), featuring a coven of witches who serve Satan; Cry of the Banshee (1970), including needless cruelty and sexual violence upon women; and Mark of the Devil (1970), one of the most gory and disgusting horror movies ever made, proliferating in the rape, torture, and murder of accused witches. Even celebrated supernatural horror features like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, lazily submitted to the ‘evil witch’ trope by portraying a coven of violent witches at a ballet school who bloodily terrorise and murder with abandon. What’s so terrifying about sisterhood?
Over time, this trope became so overused that even the cheapest horror movies had an evil witch figure, as in Sam Raimi’s aforementioned Drag Me to Hell, or Caradog W. James’ 2016 Don’t Knock Twice, about a ‘demonic’ witch who terrorises the young protagonists after they, yes, knock twice on the door of the house supposedly belonging to Baba Yaga.
Even after the advent of Harry Potter, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and The Craft (1996), which although a horror story about witches, portrays wicca somewhat sympathetically, the murderous witch still persisted. Sleepy Hollow (1999) reveals its main antagonist is the evil sorceress Lady Van Tassel who is controlling the Headless Horseman and responsible for all the violence of the narrative. The Conjuring centres around a family after a demonic entity haunts them after they move into a new house, the previous residence of a woman accused of witchcraft in the 19th-century after murdering her child and cursing the land. How very 16th-century of you, James Wan.
Some newer releases even have the same plot, like Stephen King adaptation Mercy (2014) and The Wretched (2019), both loosely focusing on the concept of a boy finding out that someone once thought familiar to him (grandmother or neighbour) is actually an evil, ancient witch who sold her soul to the devil. Both of Ari Aster’s folk horror films, Hereditary and Midsommar, derive their horror from the violent actions of pagans and witches – essentially anyone who’s not a Christian commits brutal murder.
With such a generic formula set in stone over a century of horror movies, it seems unlikely that directors will ever break free from such a curse. Robert Egger’s slow-burning 17th-century The Witch (2015) has been acknowledged as semi-feminist, in its protagonist Thomasin’s transformation at the end, breaking free from the shackles of Puritan patriarchy to to join a coven of witches and revel in the newly discovered powers of her female sexuality. Despite this, the film still falls prey to the tendency (dating back to the 1600s) to portray witches as evil, old women who live alone in the woods and eat children, and over-sexed young women who are weak enough to be seduced by the devil. It does frame itself as a ‘New England Folk-Tale,’ and offers an overwhelmingly accurate portrait of the ways in which people viewed witches at the time, so I’ll give it that.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark (2019), based on the children’s book series of the same name, uses the ‘evil witch’ trope, through the figure of Sarah Bellows, a suspected witch whose magical book is writing the scary stories that unfold over the course of the film. Although much of the film’s horror does rest on the premise of us believing that Sarah is a violent, wicked witch, (spoiler alert) a twist at the end shows that she was actually an innocent woman accused of witchcraft by her family, and her true story is finally told to the town by protagonist Stella. Both films offer a semi-subversion of the trope, but ultimately derive their horror from the idea that certain women, witches, are evil, inhuman creatures, as they were perceived in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This was all the genre had to offer up until the Fear Street trilogy, a Netflix film series directed by Leigh Janiak, a ramped-up, gorier version of the classic R.L. Stine books. It mixes varying sub-genres of horror in its three parts, with its main story focusing on a group of teenagers, led by protagonists Deena, Sam, and Josh, who fight to break the cycle of murderous events caused by a witch’s curse in their hometown Shadyside, a place where bad things always tend to happen, in contrast to their neighbours in Sunnyvale, a privileged, idyllic suburbia. ‘90s Scream-esque slasher in Part 1: 1994 leads on nicely to a summer camp slasher in the vein of Friday the 13th and Halloween in Part 2: 1978, finally concluding with eerie folk horror inspired by The New World in Part 3: 1666, set at the time of the town’s witch trials.
Initially, I was concerned that the series would follow the same storyline as all the lazy horror movies that had come before it. Evil witch, Sarah Fier executed for witchcraft. She places a curse on the Shadyside residents, swearing revenge on the descendants of those who killed her, to cause the mysterious string of murders that we see in the first film. Graffiti sprayed across the town sums up the apparent plot: “She reaches from beyond the grave to make good men her wicked slaves, she’ll take your blood, she’ll take your head! She’ll follow you until you’re dead!”
The first two movies seem to play on this narrative of the evil witch, with each film ramping up the stakes and gore of the previous one. At the end of Fear Street Part 1: 1994, we close with Sam, Deena’s girlfriend, literally possessed – is there any clearer way to demonise a witch? Except at the end of Part 2: 1978, when Deena’s nose bleeds on Sarah Fier’s grave in the woods, she finds herself transported back in time to 1666, to relive the events up until her execution for witchcraft. This is an amazing narrative device that not only ties together the second and third Fear Street instalments, but immediately creates more sympathy for Sarah, as we see her perspective through Deena, a character the audience has become familiar with – they are played by the same actress, Kiana Madeira.
Once we reach Fear Street Part 3: 1666, it’s obvious that this is a different type of horror to the first two films. The gore is downplayed, in favour of a creeping dread and gradual increase of tension in the village as Sarah gets closer to being accused of witchcraft. Janiak shows Sarah Fier as an actual human being, a respected member of the community and her family, rather than simply the monster she was painted out to be. We also see the reason she was suspected of witchcraft in her village; because of her intimate, queer relationship with the pastor’s daughter, Hannah, played by Olivia Scott Welch, the same actress who plays Deena’s future girlfriend, Sam.
As Part 3 develops, we gradually realise that Sarah has no connection to witchcraft or the devil, and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, being a queer woman in 1666. In a particularly powerful scene near the end, a twist reveals that Sarah was entirely innocent of the string of Shadyside murders that have been plaguing the town. It was Solomon Goode who framed her, a prominent man in the village, a man of power and privilege, to cover up his own depravity of sacrificing a person to the devil every few years in exchange for prosperity to come to his family. His descendant, the seemingly kindly Sheriff Nick Goode, brother of Sunnyvale’s mayor, rekindled the carnage in the 1994 timeline, by giving up one person to the devil for his own gain. The only curse Sarah Fier set was on her accuser, Solomon Goode, affirmed in a beautifully moving scene: “The truth will come out. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but it will. The truth shall be your curse. It will follow you for eternity. I will shadow you forever. I will show them what you’ve done. I will never let you go.”
After Deena discovers the truth about Sarah, with her friends, works to trap Nick Goode in the mall. In a bloody struggle, Deena is nearly killed, but invites the spirit of Sarah Fier into her body to get the strength to show Nick Goode a vision of all of his family’s murderous actions over the years and summons her strength to kill him, stabbing him in the eye. And just like that, Sarah gets her justice after nearly 400 years, the Shadyside curse is broken, and the supernatural killers are stopped.
This makes Fear Street Part 3: 1666 the first horror film to depict witches in a positive, truthful light, not as the evil monsters previous movies have made them out to be, but innocent women, people, accused of crimes they did not commit. Thank you, Leigh Janiak, for breaking another curse: the demonisation of witches in horror movies.
by Mia Kellner
Mia (she/her) is a fourth-year English Literature student at the University of St Andrews. Originally born in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, she grew up in Scotland, where she lives now. A few of her favourite films are the Harry Potter series, Arrival and Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women adaptation. She loves watching anything with a nuanced female protagonist, as well as The Walking Dead TV universe, elevated horror and sci-fi. You can find her on Letterboxd.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, Films, Women Film-makers
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