Peg Aloi: Season of the Witch (2011)

I recently came across a trailer for the film Season of the Witch set for release in the U.S. on January 7. Following is a brief synopsis, with a fuller description available on the film's website:

Oscar winner Nicolas Cage (National Treasure, Ghost Rider) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Hellboy II, Sons of Anarchy) star in this supernatural action adventure about a heroic Crusader and his closest friend who return home after decades of fierce fighting, only to find their world destroyed by the Plague. The church elders, convinced that a girl accused of being a witch is responsible for the devastation, command the two to transport the strange girl to a remote monastery where monks will perform an ancient ritual to rid the land of her curse. They embark on a harrowing, action-filled journey that will test their strength and courage as they discover the girl's dark secret and find themselves battling a terrifyingly powerful force that will determine the fate of the world.

Given that the film touches on the figure of the witch I thought it would be interesting to explore this concept and I am privileged to have Peg Aloi come to discuss the film.

TheoFantastique: Peg, thanks for coming back to discuss Season of the Witch. When I saw the trailer I thought that it would be interesting to have someone with your background in media studies and paganism respond to some questions that touch on the background and cultural context. Before moving to questions related to the film, can you summarize some of your background related to this subject matter?

Peg Aloi: I’ve been teaching film studies for about fifteen years, and have been a professional film critic for nearly that long. I’ve written scholarly essays on paganism and media, and presented them at conferences. My colleague Hannah Johnston and I co-organized a conference at Harvard dedicated to exploring paganism and witchcraft in contemporary media. And I wrote about film and television for The Witches’ Voice website from 1997 through 2008, mostly reviews and interviews. I’ve also been an advisor for some films, including the Blair Witch sequel Book of Shadows.

TheoFantastique: Season of the Witch is categorized variously as action, adventure, fantasy, and sometimes as a horror film. Perhaps one of the best ways to categorize it would be as a "sword and sorcery" fantasy film. As the synopsis and trailers for the film indicate, it involves a woman alleged to be a witch who is held to be responsible for the Black Plague devastating Europe. Fantasy films have often been given a pass from critical interaction, and I know that neither one of us have been able to see this film yet, but what are your thoughts about how the figure of the witch is depicted in this film?

Peg Aloi: I’ve looked at the trailers and a few promotional clips that I found online. The witch, played by Claire Foy, seems to be a victim, falsely accused, who feels powerless and fears she’ll be tortured and executed. Nicolas Cage’s character, a medieval knight entrusted with delivering her to her trial, promises she will be treated fairly and promises to protect her. But there appears to be a connection between them; Behman (Cage) is moved by her protests of innocence. But he also seems captivated by her. She’s beautiful underneath all that dirt and torn clothing, and what we seem to have here is a typical Hollywood trope: the seductive witch who can bend men to her will. Sometimes the “sexy” witch uses her sex appeal directly to enslave others; sometimes she uses her charisma and words to get others to do her bidding. Of course, these kinds of witches are a lot more fun for audiences than old, evil hags: the young, pretty witch is alluring and hard to resist.

TheoFantastique: In the synopsis on the film's website there is an interesting aspect of the description where Nicolas Cage's character has issues with the Church as a result of church-sponsored warfare and bloodshed. In part he agrees to escort the woman to her destination because he feels she may be serving as a scapegoat. Although this film may involve residual problematic concepts of the witch from history, might it also exhibit more recent concerns over Christendom historically?

Peg Aloi: I think there are enough problems with how the Church behaved during the European witch craze that we need not assume there are present-day parallels to this plot. But I do think that more recent issues surrounding the Church’s sex scandals, and the increasing pressure to include women as having equal rights to be ordained clergy, demonstrates that the Church’s problems with human sexuality, and their oppression of women, haven’t really lessened as much as you’d expect after hundreds of years.

TheoFantastique: Are you inclined to view this film with concern or do you think it might provide opportunities for reflection and dialogue beyond its entertainment value, and if so, how?

Peg Aloi: My main concern in terms of any negative repercussions for modern witchcraft is that one of the trailers I saw does include images of the pentagram, and seems to be equating it with evil. This is typical Hollywood occultism, and of course the symbol probably was associated with the occult in the Middle Ages. But since modern witches use this symbol, I suppose this film may provide yet another example of negative associations. But this kind of thing then opens up the possibility that the type of witchcraft portrayed in the film should somehow be equated with Wicca or modern witchcraft, which is problematic, because of course it shouldn’t.

As for the story itself and any relevance it has to contemporary discussions of religion, or of modern witchcraft, I do think that it may provide an opportunity to consider how we view images of the witch in history. Why is the witch a dangerous female? Why is she not always what she seems? Why is she thought to be so powerful that she causes disease and destruction? Why has witchcraft historically been such a lynchpin in so many eras of cultural turmoil? In any case, this looks like it will be a fairly entertaining film, if not a remarkable piece of cinema, although it has a great cast and a very fine production designer. I’m hoping it will be pretty good. Of course, some audience members aren’t inclined to forgive Nic Cage’s last foray into occult stories after the diabolical remake of The Wicker Man. So there will no doubt be some who think he’s “got it in for us.”

TheoFantastique: I recently interviewed Thomas Sipos on the definitions and aesthetics of horror, and we discussed something of a typology of witches. He mentioned what he called a "horror witch" in films. After defining this he said, in part: "Some Wiccans don’t mind the icon. Others complain that the horror witch misrepresents real-life Wiccans. It’s a silly complaint, for the same reason that it would be silly for real-life scientists to complain that Dr. Frankenstein misrepresents the work that goes on at Harvard Medical School." What are your thoughts in regard to this, and how might it relate to our consideration of the Witch in Season of the Witch?

Peg Aloi: I’m a fan of Mr. Sipos. I referenced some of his work in an article I wrote on aesthetics in contemporary horror cinema. I must agree with his assessment that the witch portrayed in horror films is in no way construable as the modern “Wicca” witch. I’ve always had a problem with the way that some Wiccans and modern witches take offense at the archetypal witch image. I mean, the kinds of prejudice that affect modern witches and pagans can be really serious: child custody issues, bullying in schools, accusations of criminal activity. In my early days as a media critic for Witchvox, I did sometimes fall prey to the notion that any negative media portrayal harmed our community. But I grew to understand that this archetype is deeply ingrained in the fabric of our culture, and that ultimately, Hallowe’en or horror images of green-faced hags or cackling witches stirring cauldrons, or even of attractive, seductive witches like the one in Season of the Witch, aren’t really harming anyone. The problems arise when people who aren’t very educated or sophisticated lump all these images together: for them, the witch in this movie is indistinguishable from the Wiccan who owns a crystal and herb shop downtown. To them, the “Harry Potter” books are an evil plot to indoctrinate our youth into Satan worship. The problem isn’t occult imagery in media, it’s the inability to discriminate based on an understanding of history and culture. Ignorance is the problem, not witch imagery. I’m sorry to say, sometimes modern witches seem unable to make such distinctions themselves. I predict there will probably be a vehement backlash to this film among some portions of the pagan community. But I hope I’m wrong.

TheoFantastique: Peg, thanks again for discussing this film. It will be interesting to see how the film unfolds, and what audience responses are.

Related posts:

"Peg Aloi: Cinema and the Occult Revival"

"Karen Beeler: Seers, Witches and Psychics on Screen"

"Carrol L. Fry - Cinema of the Occult: New Age, Satanism, Wicca, and Spiritualism in Film"

"Metaphysical Media and a Typology of Media Portraits of the Witch"

"Jason Winslow Interview: Esotericism and Witchcraft in Entertainment and Commodification"

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There are 6 Comments to "Peg Aloi: Season of the Witch (2011)"

  • [...] Morehead’s always wonderful TheoFantastique features a discussion with Pagan academic and film critic Peg Aloi over the upcoming Nicolas Cage film “Season of the Witch”. In it, Cage stars as a 14th [...]

  • Fire Chylde says:

    In agreeing with Mr. Sipos, both he and Ms. Aloi sound ivory-tower elitist when they say that complaints about this or other movies are "silly." Furthermore, the Frankenstein/Scientist comparison is a false equivalency.

    For every "Frankenstein" or "The Fly," there's a "Kinsey" or CSI. The same equality in negative vs. positive portrayals of witches doesn't exist.

    I can count the number of positive portrayals of witches and witchcraft over the past 100 years of film and 60 years of television on one hand. If you can name more than 5 films (or franchises) and tv shows COMBINED, that portray witches in any positive way, please email me.

    Saying that "that the witch portrayed in horror films is in no way construable as the modern “Wicca” witch," ignores the impact mass media has on our cultural narratives. Just because it's no longer around a campfire and told to people who actually can read and write, doesn't mean that these stories are any less the vehicles for imparting social norms and conventions. When those norms and conventions have traditionally been harmful, then there is valid cause for alarm when they crop up again. Trust me, if movies didn't have an impact on how people think, talk and behave, the people making them wouldn't sink the millions of dollars into marketing that they do every year.

    "Witchvox," the website for which Ms. Aloi used to write, knows this. They have a FAQ on their site to dispel the pernicious myths about the craft that still poison our cultural consciousness.

    Please believe there are still plenty of people "who aren’t very educated or sophisticated [who] lump all these images together: for them, the witch in this movie is indistinguishable from the Wiccan who owns a crystal and herb shop downtown. To them, the “Harry Potter” books are an evil plot to indoctrinate our youth into Satan worship. " I have a family member who believes exactly that about witchcraft and the Harry Potter books. She attends a huge church with people that share this belief. They and other, similar churches are the reason a good-sized, evangelical Christian film and tv industry has sprung up.

    So, "ignorance.....not witch imagery" may be the problem. But it's willful ignorance that not only has an " inability to discriminate based on an understanding of history and culture," but revels in it. A bumper sticker that some of them have says it all: "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." That's what makes these people so dangerous.

    Finally, if negative portrayals of marginalized groups wasn't something to be vigilant about, propaganda wouldn't exist, much less be as successful as it has always been.

  • Peg says:

    I am not an "ivory tower elitist." Trust me, f I were, I'd be using far more lofty and inscrutable language to write my commentary.

    I think you may still be missing my point. Dispelling myths and stereotypes about modern witches is very important. But modern witches and the archetypal witch of history are not the same thing. Portrayals of the ancient witch stereotype should not be the standard by which we judge portrayals of modern witchcraft. This makes no sense, and perpetuating this parallel leads to negative attitudes about modern witches.

    But the confusion and conflation around this issue does make it clear that modern witches should become as well-versed as they can in the history of witchcraft, both ancient and modern.

    I agree that evangelical Christians who fear the occult are a problematic presence in our culture. But when modern witches complain about archetypal portrayals of the witches of antiquity, they seem defensive (not to mention uninformed). And there is no better target for a fearful zealot than a defensive citizen. I think the best approach is to continue to clarify the differences between modern witchcraft and the fantastical witchcraft portrayed in the movies and on TV.

    As for examples of witches portrayed positively, some of the the shows that portray modern witches in a negative way also portray them in a positive way. For example, in The Craft, Sarah uses her powers to bind Nancy from doing harm. So despite the portrayal of witchcraft with special effects magic and illusion, there is still a lesson of balance and restrain and morality contained within the film.

    This positive-negative balance of witchcraft is also present in various examples in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Practical Magic, Midnight Offerings, The X-Files, Sabrina, Bewitched, Hex, Drawing Down the Moon, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and, of course, Harry Potter. And that's just off the top of my head.

  • [...] I interviewed Peg Aloi who shared her thoughts on how the film Season of the Witch might depict the witch and how this [...]

  • ruvie badando says:

    this movie is really great , cage is such a great actor

  • [...] “Peg Aloi: Season of the Witch (2011)” Back to Top Tags: Christianity, horror, occult, Paganism, Witchcraft Cancel ReplyWrite a Comment [...]

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