As readers may recall, I have been interested in the intersection between various expressions of so-called alternative spiritualities, such as Western esotericism, Neo-Paganism, and Wicca, with popular culture and the media. Of particular interest is how film and television has depicted Paganism, and more specifically, the figure of the Witch.
Helen Berger was very helpful to me in recommending a few resources to consider. One that I recently finished was by Emily D. Edwards, Metaphysical Media: The Occult Experience in Popular Culture (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005). This volume looks at the media in contemporary society and how the media has touched on “the occult” as presented in film and television. Curiously, given the modern Western context of the book’s focus, rather than defining “the occult” in keeping with the broad history of Western esoteric thought, Edwards defines the occult “as the remnants of abandoned religious beliefs” (emphasis in original) and due to this definition Edwards includes aspects of nineteenth century Spiritualism, “New Age,” Wicca, Neo-Paganism, as well as Christian charismatic phenomenon in her discussion. After laying a foundation on media studies and defining the occult, Edwards then moves to consideration of witchcraft, atavism, reincarnation, out-of-body experiences, and the divine animal (which includes lycanthropy).
For this reader, chapter four is the most valuable in the book: “Evil, Enchanting, Divine, and Ecstatic: A Century of Witches in Moving Images.” In this chapter Edwards assembles a filmography and describes her process by stating that she searched for “plot descriptions and reviews for keywords witch, warlock, shaman, wizard, spell, potion, sorcerer, hex, magic, and charm and then eliminating any film, video, or television program that didn’t depict in some fashion the idea of a human being with the supernatural ability to influence events.” From this criteria and the resulting filmography, Edwards then developed (or discovered) “eight noticeable portraits of the witch….” This includes
“the historical witch (attempting to describe real historical events and people);
the dubious witch (stressing skepticism about the witch’s magic);
the satanic witch (emphasizing the witch’s devotion and servitude to the Christian Devil);
the fairy-tale witch (emphasizing the singular witch with legendary magic, usually the benefactor or adversary of a youthful protagonist);
the shamanic witch (accentuating the exotic ‘otherness’ of foreign beliefs); and
the New Age witch(stressing the healing power Independence, ecofeminism, and/or goddess worship of the witch).”
Edwards also identifies a portrait which she categorizes as the ingenue witch, a portrait which emphasizes “the young witch’s discovery of self and magical power,”
and the enchantress witch, which may be understood as a figure “who maintains a powerful sexual appetite, seducing young men through deception, force, or uncanny charm.”
Edwards and her research assistants reviewed some 732 films in order to develop this typology or portraits of the Witch in film and television, and some interesting statistics came to light. First, the 1960s saw a dramatic increase in the number of media treatments that addressed the Witch, and this no doubt coincides with the rise of the counterculture and the increasing interest in alternative spiritualities. The number of media treatments remained high in the 1970s and 1980s but took a slight dip from those in the 1960s, but saw another increase equal to that of the 1960s in the 1990s.
Moving from the number of media treatments touching on the Witch by decades to the categories of the Witch by type referenced above, Edwards discovered that “[t]hroughout the century, the most predominant images of witchcraft were portraits of the fairy-tale witch. The second most frequently occurring portrait was the satanic witch, followed by the exotic other of the shamanic witch.” While I have not viewed all of the films that Edwards and her research assistants did in the compilation of their typology, I have seen quite a number of such film and television programs, and my own experience gives me a feeling that Edwards’ results ring true. The Witch is a figure that has come to the attention of most Americans via fairy-tale and folklore, and thus this has translated into presentations of the Witch that reflect this source. Edwards rightly argues that Disney cartoons and Harry Potter provide examples of this type of Witchcraft category. In addition, the horror film and horror television have been the second largest source that has framed the Witch in terms of connections to Satanism, as a review of (according to Edwards’ definition of “the occult”) Rosemary’s Baby, The Ninth Gate, and many Hammer films will remind the reader.
Edwards concludes this chapter with the following paragraph worthy of reflection:
“However categorized, the witch remains unconventional. All media witches exhibit some significant divergence from the dominant social conditions through gender, race, economic power, ideology, social status, or maturity. If not a woman, the witch is another character relegated to the fringes of a society: foreigner, child, outcast, or member of a hidden community. Even the male wizards who are the advisers to kings in a public and political sphere will often be regarded by other characters in media stories as illegitimate and suspect. More than discourse about the occult and the paranormal, media narratives about witches endure as meditations on ‘otherness’ and on fear of the ‘illegitimate’ power and enormous resolve this other might possess.”
I found Edwards’ typology and discussion in this chapter important, not only for understanding the variety of media portraits of the Witch, but also that these considerations can help inform the discussion on the relationship between the Witch as portrayed in the media and Witches or Wiccans who make up a part of Neo-Paganism. The lines of conceptualization and portrayal are often blurred and confused in this area, and Edwards’ discussion provides interesting elements to move the discussion forward.
Nevertheless, the book is not without its difficulties. Not only does Edwards include an awkward definition of the “occult” but she does so without reference to any part of the growing body of academic studies on Western esotericism.
The book also seems to adopt a subtle skeptical rationalism that hovers beneath the surface of Edwards’ analysis. In the preface, the author speaks of “occult traditions” that are the “legacy of supernatural beliefs, spurned rituals, and old stories disparaged by many Americans as silly or superstitious.” This is contrasted a couple of sentences later with the “Western heritage of reason” and a page later a reference is made again to “seemingly irrational occult themes.” The author’s rationalist perspective is also interesting in light of the previous discussion of her definition of the occult as “the remnants of abandoned religious beliefs.” Thus, in Edwards’ view, it appears as if the occult represents the superstition of a less enlightened era with a few vestiges that surface in various locations such as film and television. But surely this is inaccurate. While it is appropriate to consider the ramifications of rationality in connection with religious commitments, skepticism is not the only (or primary) perspective by which people approach their spiritual pathways. And “the occult” hardly represents abandoned religious practices or beliefs as the increasing interest in a variety of esoteric practices confirms.
Beyond this, the book incorporates a handful of factual errors. For example, in the endnotes for chapter four the author references the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley and refers to him as endorsing human sacrifice. While this claim is often made based upon a passage from his book Magick in Theory and Practice apparently referencing the sacrifice of a male child that on the surface appears quite damning, nevertheless, the passage is taken out of context which fuels the misinterpretation. In context, Crowley was referring to a process of ritual masturbation and the resulting “sacrifice” of the sexual potency in a spiritual context, but he was not referring to or advocating the literal sacrifice of a human being. In addition, human sacrifice would have been a violation of Crowley’s ethical code as articulated in the “Law of Thelema.”
An additional factual error is found in Edwards’ perpetuation of the claim that Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, was involved in the production of Rosemary’s Baby. LaVey was known to make exaggerated claims, and sorting out the fact from the fiction of his grandiose lifestyle is not easy, but researchers need to take note of this and not perpetuate LaVey’s personal legends that have been countered even by fellow satanists such as LaVey’s daughter, Zeena, and her husband, Nikolas Schreck.
The book also includes other irritating errors about films, such as the inclusion of Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes in a list of “sequels” when Burton claims the film was a fresh interpretation of the 1960s and 1970s Apes sagas. And when discussing the John Landis classic An American Werewolf in London, Edwards makes the claim that the character “David Kessler savagely murders his best friend.” Of course, Kessler’s friend was murdered by a werewolf near London in the film’s beginning, which then passes the curse on to him and which begins a murderous lunar-influenced nocturnal transformation and rampage. He kills many people, but not his friend. Perhaps only a horror nerd such as myself would recognize the problems with such misstatements, but these minor details detract from the overall strength of the book.
Yet despite these difficulties those involved in media and film studies as they relate to the occult in popular culture should include this helpful volume in their research. It provides many helpful considerations for reflection in this interesting area of popular culture.