Sunday, 22 May 2011

Secret Societies

Transcript from my talk 'Witchcraft and Commodification in Night of the Eagle and Season of the Witch' at the Electric Sheep event about Secret Societies, held as part of the East End Film Festival on 2nd May 2011 at The Masonic Lodge, Liverpool Street, London:

First of all I want to focus in a bit and let you know what kind of witches and covens I’m going to talk about. You’d agree that witches in cinema cover a broad spectrum. We have the films that are based loosely on actual witch hunts in early modern Europe, we also have the broomstick, black hat and cat type, thinking of the Wicked Witch of the East in Wizard of Oz or Harry Potter. But I’m going to concentrate on the ones that are portrayed as living secretly among us, who could be your professor, your family friend or your neighbour.

The films I’ll be looking at are George Romero’s season of the Witch (1973) and Sydney Hayer's Night of the Eagle (1962) - these films expose societies of witches living among ‘normal’ people, for this read everyday, western suburbia...these are law abiding folk...keen to ‘get on’ in the world. In this way I think of them as Society Witches, as well as secret societies! They occupy commonplace spaces - I’m thinking cul de sac as opposed to say Jean Rollin’s exotic castle locales or even as we saw earlier today the closed fairytale reality of Argento’s Suspiria. No, these are the witches who’ll lend you a cup of sugar.

What makes them so enigmatic as subject matter? Well I think films about them tap into the fear and unease that comes with the idea that any secret society could exist in close proximity to your own society. We like to believe that we know people, that they are who they say they are. Films about witches suggest that you can never be sure... ‘these are people so close to you that you wont see them coming’.

I think that the way directors like Hayers and Romero put this across is by really emphasising how normal the worlds the witches move in are. The horror is built in, rooted in the quotidian. It’s the way witchcraft is accommodated by the ordinary in the films that I want to talk to you about and show you some clips that I think have a certain camp black comedy that is priceless but also illuminating.

So, let's start with Night of the Eagle, southern provincial England, husband and wife, Tansy and Norman Taylor have recently been to Jamaica where Tansy was introduced to witchcraft, back in Britain she is convinced that it has provided good luck for her and her rising academic husband. She soon realises that her arch rival, who also hopes her husband at the same college gets promoted is a practising witch as well. On the surface these are society wives, battling it out over the best crumpets, bridge and committee teas, but underneath they are calling on the black arts for wealth and prosperity. The main thrust of the film is to ask ‘does witchcraft exist or is it all just a coincidence’. Norman lectures in superstition and neurosis and fears for his wives mental health as she gets more involved. He throws away her charms, pats her on the head and tells her not to be so silly. But his fortune takes a dive when he does this and he is also accused of harassment. Tansy fears the worst and their bad luck increases, resulting in near death for Tansy.

Night of the Eagle film clip here

Its the way the whole representation of witchcraft practise is entwined with the prosaic that I find so effective. Tansy hides her good luck fetishes all around her well kept house, it all seems like business as usual but look a bit closer and you’ll see that your enemy has tied a voodoo doll into your lampshade tassels. I love the way her acceptable ritual arrangements of domestic objects Norman has financed around the home are interwoven with this unacceptable independent activity that he disapproves of. This gendering of witchcraft is something I’ll come on to in a bit.

So onto the next clip and Season of the Witch (1972). Views on this film vary from Romero’s - who felt it wasn’t successful - 'an attempt at a Women's Lib film', he says in one interview. Again, we have the bored, housewife Joan whose successful husband is away from home alot of the time, she has a mild anxiety disorder and wild dreams where hubby is torturing and controlling her. Joan joins a local group of women who have formed a coven and witchcraft gives Joan the excuse to have an affair with a man years her junior, she believes her spell brings him to her - when really she just gets drunk one night and calls him. And it explains the loosening of her grip on reality that makes her mistake her husband for Satan and shoot him dead.

Season of the Witch film clip here

Metaphors for control are heavy handed in the film, and the plot is out there, but even the dream sequences and delusions have a deadpan reality to them: more so because of the shaky acting and jumpy editing. Here we find a merging of fantasy and the banal that Romero went on to push to it limits.

I love the emphasis in this clip on ‘browsing’, and that buying the witchcraft tool kit is just part of a normal shopping trip. I think this use of the motifs of the witch and the zombie, all constructs based on West African-Yoruba derived religions, (Candomble, Vodou to name a few) combined with modern activity, like shopping and harbouring material goods, is at the heart of Romero’s work. Witches and zombies here are metaphors for the consumers who fetishise material objects to gain power and social acceptance. Ok, so here’s my offering, my analysis of these films. I want to attempt to tie together the idea of the neighbour who isn’t who they say they are, with the portrayal of the domestic and the influence of modern life on all of this, and say a bit more about the role of women here.

So my basic argument has been that the filmmakers raise this question about ‘can you ever really know someone?, and is ‘real really real?’ - the most familiar faces can be false ones. That mousse the neighbour brought round really does have a chalky under taste, it's not your imagination! The films have a strong theme of paranoia, and they really draw on images of women and men loosing their hold of reality as they get more and more involved in witchcraft, or try to work out if witchcraft is real or not.

But why would this be so interesting around this period of their making and still hold some interest now above and beyond the drama? I think these films are saying something about a particular unease people felt about the changes Western modernity brought about in the mid sixties to early seventies. Suddenly your neighbours are getting rich quick, moving around, what was familiar no longer is. Friendship and routine, that once gave us a foothold on reality is now shifting and in flux. The filmmakers propose the question: In this environment where we no longer know our neighbours that well, how can we be sure they are who they say they are? And to add to that, previously, when people wanted to get to know you for who you were not what you owned wasn’t it all alot easier? Indeed, common to both of these films is aspiration, these are aspirational families who are putting professional success and material gain over and above their familial relationships. Tansy and Norman have recently moved to a new area for Norman’s job, Joan’s husband isn’t around to help raise their child etc. Old values of kinship, familiarity and routine are being replaced by mobility and professionalism.

Overarching all of this is the idea that women are the gatekeepers of safe domestic places, the ones who keep order, the ones we can trust when all others fail us. These films pick out the horror of women turning their back on their previous roles as home makers and carers. This horror is the horror of the maternal figure not being who she says she is, she is the ultimate figure of the familiar made strange. The motif of the witch or witches covens echoes the fear that one, more and more we cannot be sure if people are who they say they are, and two, that if these untrustworthy people are women then this is much worse.

So, the 'society witch' is an intricate motif where the witch wives are seen to abandon their house keeping (read the tending to the charmed material objects or rather commodity fetishes that hubby funds) for their own worryingly independent magical activity and use of fetishes and spells. On top of that the witch also stands in for the new fearful, distrusting relationship with the neighbour and those close to us, that comes with modernity and an investment in the commodity. So on one hand you’ve got this real value for material wealth and power portrayed in the films but on the other a portrayal of the cost of these - upheaval and paranoia.
So to round up - the filmmakers I’ve talked about emphasise ‘the normal’ and suggest that the familiar can be made strange at the drop of a hat, and this make us ill at ease. They say a secret society can also be part of your society, and be barely recognisable. Your neighbour might be a witch, so who can you trust? Next time you’re up for promotion, watch your back!

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