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Witches In History And On Film
Cinema Junkie / October 30, 2018
A discussion of witches through history and on film from ancient Rome to "Rosemary's Baby" and Monty Python.
Welcome back to another edition of listener supported KPBS than I'm a junkie podcast. I'm Beth Accomando. Halloween just around the corner. I decided to dedicate this podcast to witches about. How angry people feel when you dead in Thunder Fang or Ray when they. Win a battle and one. That would be at the top where the things. That make with.
Mac Halloween have definitely cast a spell on me.
Or maybe it's more like a curse.
So my apologies for this episode coming late but it's still on time for my favorite day of the year. So today I'll talk with San Diego State University Professor Elizabeth Pollard about which's in history and on film. But first a quick chat with Jackie Burns who plays a younger version of one of the most iconic WITCHES OF ALL TIME. My Britney. That's right she's Elphaba in the touring company of Wicked. I asked her what was appealing about playing Elphaba who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
I think that was super appealing to me playing this role is that you know we grew up on Wizard of Oz and this is so amazing because this is. It's like you're watching the movie and then it's as if the movie The Director Joe Mantello says it's like the movie. The movie Kamer like slightly turns to the right we see what's going on over there editing are to the left. You know you see what's happening behind the scenes scenes. Find out why things really happened. We have this idea of this wicked witch from the movie and it's not at all what the movie depicts and it's so fun getting to play the character and that is not what the movie is.
This girl was completely misunderstood. She was not wicked at all. In fact she has the biggest most glorious heart in the world. You know she's so passionate about everything and making sure everything is right and fair and and that she doesn't think she does it and then sometimes things don't always go out the way it should.
Do you remember the first time you saw The Wizard of Oz and what you thought of the wicked witch.
Oh my god. Yeah I was young Knowles's I think as a Haider Nerina very brave of her.
Gary Mundy's very scared.
I love the movie. I mean how can you not love a movie. It's so glorious. Yeah I was very afraid of her. So it's funny as she has become such a huge part of my life. What do you think it is about witches that so fascinates people I mean that Magic Magic Magic magic thing which is so you know you have there's an air it just depends.
You know you can have the Wicked Witch where we you know there's like an air of danger. And that's exciting. And you know you don't know you can't really put your finger on the pulse of what they're going to do. So you're currently on edge which is exciting for us you know and then you have or you can have a good witch where you know it's like oh they can grant my heart's desire and give me anything I want because they're magical and you know you just want to be around them because they're going to make you better.
So I think witches are so fascinating to us because they are this other worldly being.
And do you think that overall do you think that people tend to view witches as something that tends to be evil or is there kind of this constant pull back and forth between which is being this thing that are evil in this thing that could potentially be good.
I mean when I was younger I think that way always you know which as being evil. It's funny because this is my mother. I every year wanted to be for Halloween which I wanted to be a pretty which was very specific thing which is you know it's something cool about being evil but also feeling pretty and glamorous.
But I do think that because there is that air of magic and danger that most people view the witches as something a little bit on the dark side.
That was actress Jackie Burns who plays Elphaba in the touring company of wicked that opens this week in San Diego. Now to Professor Elizabeth Pollard you could call this podcast that squared tack on the back. But.
We cover a lot more than just Shakespeare. In fact we covered witches from Rome to Monty Python and Hogwarts. So let's begin.
Beth I was lucky enough to hear you give a talk about witches at San Diego State and that inspired me to seek you out to talk about specifically which is on film.
But before we get into some specific films I just wanted you to kind of give me a little background in terms of how did you get interested in this topic. What is it about it that kind of fascinated you.
So I started to work on witches in historical context back in grad school when I was working on my dissertation and I became utterly fascinated by women who were manipulating their environment their relationships their social situation in a way that you couldn't categorize as religion. You couldn't categorize it as science or some sort of medical intervention. You couldn't categorize it as superstition. It was a fundamentally different category of acting that these women were doing. And I could see women being described doing these kinds of activities in Roman novels in historical narratives describing these activities that women might do.
But then there's this other body of evidence these actual which magic books the magic scrolls that come from the ancient world. And so I was trying to negotiate between these two kinds of evidence. We've got the descriptions of what women do. That looks really witchy and then you've got these books that are telling them that both men and women how to do these things. And and I wanted to try and negotiate between these two different kinds of evidence. And that's how I got interested in it. And there are so many fascinating what we would describe as witches from the ancient world that I just became captivated by them that you know characters like Medea like Circe see the epic witches that then are sort of run of the mill old woman who is drunk and mutters and then something goes awry or these other women who show up in novels who do the full range of what we might think of which is doing you know bringing down the moon shape shifting making their lovers pay either by having the women attached to them unable to give birth or just these fascinating characters that I wanted to dig deeper into.
And so so I wrote my my dissertation on that these women accused of witchcraft in the Roman world. And then when I came here to San Diego State I started to broaden that out and think a lot more about other historical moments of witchcraft and both the doing of which activities but also the accusations of them in medieval Europe and early modern Europe and even in colonial America.
So it's just a fascinating body of material because they get to the heart of what someone might do to get them selves accused of witchcraft. And you know what are the situations where that might happen.
So are you coming at it from both a literary and historical point of view correct.
Not just a literary and historical but also a material evidence point of view. So there are the literary descriptions of witches there are the historical narratives that describe witch trials. And then there's also evidence for the actual practice of witchcraft.
So it's it's in many ways three bodies of evidence and you're talking about looking at these Roman which is now I have to admit that when I think of witches I tend to think colonial America and kind of medieval and Roman witches is not something nearly as familiar with it in literature or like in the real world. Yeah exactly.
They're fascinating because in many ways they're the they're the Forerunners for a number of the witches from these these later periods. So the witches many of us often think of are you from the 16th 17th century the the women in the door are woodcuts flying in the sky to goats out in the middle of the woods. You know we think of those. But the 16th century imagination of what witches might do out in the woods and you're making potions and goats apart from the pact with Satan which is a later development. Much of that is incredibly Roman.
Che potions in the woods women in a workshop with noxious ingredients doing creepy things with creepy ingredients. That is that's textbook first and second century Roman notions of what it means to be a witch.
Now you also mention that you look to documents about witch trials and that's something that's really fascinating because that also brings up a lot of issues regarding the way society tries to control women as well and how how does which craft kind of play into this whole social fabric.
Yeah exactly. I mean whenever you know I'm trying to think about a witchcraft scenario like a trial or even a fictional representation like a like a movie like a film I always try to think about. You're looking at the broader situation. So not just who is being accused you know be it a male or a female who is doing the accusing. And what is being accused. So there's that. It's all very important. So accuser accused and accusation but also that broader context because usually that accusation is happening because of some conflict that might be a conflict between individual parties.
It might be a conflict within a larger political situation. It might be a conflict over values so. So there's there's always a broader situation be it you know religious economic political within which those accusations are taking place.
Because we started to talk about trials. The entry point possibly for the first film to discuss maybe Monty Python and the Holy Grail there of course is my favorite. It's not necessarily the most serious entry point.
However I think Monty Python really nails the extreme to which this can be taken and the ridiculousness of how an accusation can kind of balloon out of proportion and kind of the hysteria that can lays kind of accusations.
Well Father Bob you know she's a forward. I love her. But you are just one.
Trust me have my mind swap.
Well what would you do. No. I'm.
A hat which I just like. Yeah yeah. A bit of a watch.
What makes you think she's a weak. Well she Termina when. You.
Go to what I love about this and you know sculler if you dig into these kinds of accusations in literary contexts we always look at what's called Neira Talagi sort of the broader context within a given within a text that a scene takes place. So that witchcraft trial in Monty Python.
Whenever I share it with other people I always back it up and make sure I have those monks.
They hit themselves on the head right. So you've got this this juxtaposition of mortification of the body by these monks are eight. So this is right religious behavior by men and then the Kings are gallops past that and the crowd runs past them and that's when they're dragging her into the sea and so there's a sort of set up of a proper religious behavior leading right into this scene where the local leader is come to you as an authority figure. I know I'm making a Sanborn's it's like the funniest either there. But but but you get into it and you realize that there is there's a court set up that can handle it.
Namely this local authority figure he's the scientist when you when you see him at the beginning of the scene he's he's tapping into an ongoing gag in the film about you know the carrying of coconuts. You know he's trying to launch a bird carrying a coconut and he's trying the scientific experiments. So he of course is the one you come to when you're trying to answer the question of whether or not this woman is a witch. And I love that trial because it talks you through and it tries to be logical way.
Why it is that she's a witch. And you know it has everything to do with what she look like they're trying to you to say she looks like what they expect her to be a witch what they expect a witch to look like she she does the things that they think witches do turning people into the nute and so shapeshifting being one of those things that witches can do so.
So that scene is just fabulous because it sets up a situation a scene within which a witch trial is taking place. So ostensibly reason but it's it's utterly fallacious logic. You know ostensibly religious sincerity. And yet the mockery of what it is to it to accuse this woman and the rationale on that on the basis of which she's accused of coming from the crowd. So it's just it's a great scene it's got so much going on in it.
And it also gets to that sense of mob hysteria.
Absolutely. Absolutely. You know when you actually drag her in the attempt to speak individually within the crowd you see that when forced to speak individually they're they're hesitant when they're all together in the crowd they're shouting and dragging her through the street.
Well what's interesting about this scene too for me I know you haven't had a chance to see this film from Zambia called. I am not a witch. But there are moments in it because there's a young girl who for no real reason. A woman trips carrying water and looks at this little girl who's in front of her and decides you are a witch. That's why I tripped and fallen. And this film is very kind of poetical and uses magic realism. But at the heart of it is this notion of a young child accused of being a witch and put into what they call a witch camp and there are moments in the film that have the absurdity of Monty Python and that trial which.
Is just so. So. So what you mean doing.
Slowly. You mean she's denying that she's doing it.
And yet it also finds the political and social reality and how shocking that is. And this is something that you talk about with your students about this reality.
Absolutely. And there is nothing that brings home the reality of witchcraft accusations to students more than realizing that they that they still actually happen. That witch hunt isn't just a term you throw around. But there are actual witchcraft accusations in many African countries even today and they're cutting to the heart of some of the basic issues that are playing out in an accusation similar to early modern Europe 16th century. There's the notion that oftentimes old women would be accused of being witches not because of anything they had done but because of the guilt their situation placed on the accuser.
You know this idea that an old woman comes up to your door knocks asks you for help and you turn her away. And as she turns away and leaves you give her nothing. She turns away and maybe mutters something or you know grumpily goes off or you see you're sitting on a street corner later.
And then maybe you trip maybe you lose a child maybe something terrible happens in your in your life in your family. And then you remember you remember oh it's because I turned that woman away and she mumbled as she walked off. That was a spell I'm sure of it where she looked at me evil angry and enviously. I'm quite certain that was a spell that she was casting on me and said that that that that situation where the accuser is projecting their own guilt their own issues onto the accused who then has to suffer the consequences of that guilt rather than the accuser who is feeling it and then a lot of times when these accusations are made the women that the accusations are made against tend to be at least like in this current film I am not a witch.
One of the things that's pointed out is that it tends to be women who are not attached to men who don't have men to kind of protect them or stand up for them or women who are on their own widowed or too young or orphaned or whatever. And so again this raises some genuine social issues about how women can be victimized like this.
Women operating outside of the traditional power structures for sometimes operating in a way to bring themselves benefit will often find themselves the victim of witchcraft accusation.
It happens in the Roman period and it happens in colonial America and happens even today in the sort of example you're describing now in that Monty Python example we talked about a few things that tend to define which is for people the nose the had the you know old women. For me one of the places where kind of those stereotypes are those images stemmed from is Shakespeare's Macbeth. I mean I think that's one of almost everyone kind of knows on some level the double double toil and trouble.
On the coast days and nights that the kids we've got boiled down in the comic I guess what I'm saying.
Our kids will know sometimes it's sad don't say and you know the witches huddling over some cauldron and dropping different parts of creatures in for you. What is that scene. How does that scene help to define witches for generations to come.
Well one of the things I love about that scene and you and I were talking about the Old Globe earlier I've seen Macbeth performed multiple times. Sometimes it's performed in its early 17th century context. Recently at the Old Globe it was performed in a sort of like early 20th century context.
And yet the witches remain every bit as terrifying. Yeah whether they're you know these these old creepy. Out in the woods women or in the more recent Globe production where they were chained inhabitants of an insane asylum. They say they can say the same words and they and they literally conjure up the same the same fear and the same terror. So I think they have this timeless quality you can put them down into multiple historical context and imaginations and yet they speak to some of that same that same fear. You know these these older women working in a group usually in threes.
Who who can do the sorts of things that witches are traditionally credited with being able to do in the case of Macbeth which is in their traditional you know 606 context. We've got these these witches who are in the middle of a storm. The play opens in a storm and one of the things which is could do is conjure storms conjure weather that was one of the great the great fears that they could somehow manipulate meteorology and say and they're on a battlefield or in the context of a battlefield when you when you think about the kinds of things which is need for their potions.
A battlefield is one of the most terrifying places you can imagine them being you know hacking off bits of those who have died violently to be able to use bits of their corpses in a future in a future spell a future potion the recently violently dead were great Mansi foretelling the future. And so to encounter these three old women on a battlefield in a storm that's just tapping into some of the most basic fears of what witches are doing working together outside of the context of mainstream society you know unmarried unattached on a battlefield where men have contended for power and yet they're going to root through the dead bodies and get their own power using those corpses at a later date in a potion.
So they're operating on the fringe and yet they're fringe activity impacts the the traditional power narratives right. So you've got these women off on the side doing their thing but they're creepy thing off on the side as impacting the king. The future king and his wife in the the mainstream political narrative of what's what's taking place.
So it's just that from that very first act one scene one you've got you know women on a battlefield digging through corpses in a storm I mean that's like screaming witch and in some ways it's almost like Shakespeare is trying to distract you to overhear.
Here's the creepy word we here so that what's going on with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth almost comes as a slightly more of a surprise somehow it's more scary. I just I love this witches. I just think they're fascinating.
Well and I loved in Polanski's Macbeth. But you're talking about is very visceral in the film because you see them and I think the first thing you see is they're burying burying a severed hand or something in the dirt. And when they concoct their potions for Macbeth to drink it's it's like blood goblet that they hand him so you feel a very kind of you know tangible form of what their kind of witchcraft is in that film.
Yeah absolutely. And here it subverts the kind of thing that good women are supposed to do good women make food they make they make stew you know hearty stew good stew out of good ingredients or they don't make a potion made out of nasty tits tidbits you know things like Yeah I was looking at some of these nasty ingredients. Yeah I have Nute toe of frog wool of bat and tongue dog. This is like a scale of Dragon tooth a wolf which is mummy Ma Ma and golf. Yeah I just these these creepy ingredients are.
That's not what you put into a hardy stew simmering. Smelling good when you know when the family gathers together.
I mean this is a nasty something you made you make from you know weird bits out in the middle of the woods and it's not meant to be consumed in a way that nourishes but rather in a way that that that achieves some some ill ill omened. And so as super creepy. And you're exactly right.
And then of course Macbeth is the only play of Shakespeare's that is considered cursed. And you know in theatre companies you're not supposed to mention the title yes in a theater and some people feel it's because those witches curses were somehow that Shakespeare had actually gotten them from some real spell book and that that's why every time you perform it there's this danger.
There's a specificity to the creation of that person that makes you wonder doesn't it. Yes.
When you look to film are there any witches that really stand out to you that are scary which are your kind of favorite witches.
That's just such a great question because there's so many which obviously coming into this conversation with. And a lot of thinking about who are my favorite witches. And as I thought about it I was thinking yeah oh my goodness it's it depends on what you're thinking. What aspect of a witch or a moment of witchcraft that you want to emphasize. But I think you know if you're asking me what's what's the most terrifying. Which to me in film. I think I have one favorite maybe two runners up. OK so so my favorite which I answer you know it's hard to articulate why but it's you.
Have you ever seen the movie paranormal. Yes. So wise it's like a production stop motion. And it came out in 2013. And there's people who think that's a zombie movie but when you watch it it's not a zombie movie it's a textbook witch movie. I can see ghosts too. And I know that's not only you but you make. Things you can't quite explain.
String theory through the veil and hope but no one told her about the witches curse.
Because at the heart of it and you don't realize it until the very end. At the heart of the crisis in that movie is a young girl named Agatha. Agatha Prendergast who was accused of being a witch because she heard voices and the community turns on her and executes her. I suppose it's just the executes this young girl.
Go Prendergast of his Majesty's province of Massachusetts.
On this day you have been a painful the horrible crime of witchcraft witnessed by those whose testimonies have been you have by this court being found guilty and it is Pashtun you according to your grievance crimes execution.
Do you have anything to say for yourself. Oh I. Went.
While you were speaking with Baghdad.
I'm not die. Good people you will be.
Over time. Her spirit gains and angry power that begins to vex this town of Blye. Hello ENSA. And the climax of the movie. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler. Is the young the young boy. Norman comes face to face with Agatha the young boy Norman who can also hear voices comes face to face with Agatha and tries to help her cope with the anger and the the vicious accusation that she faced. Once upon a time. There was a. Girl. Who. Was different.
Who was different from the older people in her village. Something. That. They. Took away. With. The. State. And then the communities that surround it are you the young people of Norman's time but also those zombie Puritan characters who seemed to feel bad about what they did 300 years earlier. But that scene with Agatha her electrifying anger at literally electrifying anger. That is so terrifying at the end of that scene makes her for me the most horrible witch that I've seen and I think it's in some ways it has to do with just the sadness of it being a child a child accused of witchcraft.
And and put in that particular position we were talking about child which is a little bit earlier but I think that's what makes her for me the most the most terrifying because her her power comes from this this long simmering anger over the unjust nature of the accusation against her. So for me she's maybe the most the most terrifying.
Well I have to I have to thank you for pointing that out because I really did not remember the witch in that story. And I did kind of go back and look at it and go wait a minute. If you look right here on my bag that's Agatha appeared with Agatha on my honor because she's just so unexpected.
Maybe it's because it was unexpected because you go to that thinking oh this is a zombie movie how cute and a children's film kind of. Exactly. Anyway you know I took my children to do the movie. We watched it all together. And you think oh I need to keep my my my kid's eyes covered for the zombies because that's what's scary in the summer.
But then Agatha was just so surprisingly terrifying because you know it's you know the whole movie is set in a town that is reveling in its witchy past. The kids put on a children's pageant that commemorates the treatment of of the witches long ago and said the idea that you've got kids who are who are celebrating commemorating this past not really fully coming to grips with what it what it meant.
And so I think it's just the surprising nature of it yet coming in at the end. That makes it so powerful. And you have some runner up here. Yes I do. So I don't know why maybe it was because I was actually working on my dissertation at the time. But Blair which terrified me. This is Burkett's Bill.
Formerly Blair. It is a small quiet Maryland town. Much like a small quiet town anywhere. No more than 20 families leave their roots here over 200 years ago. Many of whom remain.
Either on this hill or in the town below. There are an unusually high number of children laid to rest here.
Most of whom passed in the 1940s. Yet no one in the town seems to recall anything unusual about this time.
To us anyway. Yet legend tells a different story. One whose evidence is all around us.
Etched in stone with that one. It was more just the cavalier curiosity of the three young people going into the woods that made it scary. You are watching it having yet doing all this research into the kinds of things that witches did you as I was watching this movie the first time this film the first time and then just to see them just walking into this trap of of a child killing which and just their lack of care and they're like I would say they're cavalier curiosity that gets them into it and that just the building suspense in that in that film and you never even see the which you hear about her.
There's hints about what she does and. And then to come to that climax of the house in the woods and the way she sucks in young people that just terrified me.
The scene that I liked best in that is when the kids are the student filmmakers are interviewing people in the town. Yes. And there's this one scene where they talk to this woman who's holding her daughter in her arms yes. And the mother is just blabbing away like oh yeah I think the witches and the little kid is crying and trying to cover her mom's mouth as if the things she's saying are too horrific to be spoken. And why doesn't she realize it. The creepy. Word that I ever heard.
Was the two men were out hunting and they were camped near the. Cabin or something that you're supposed to have. And.
They disappeared off the face of the earth. Really. OK. All right Ingrid I'm just telling the scary story but it's not true.
Not true. That to me was the scariest scene in that film.
I think you're exactly right because it's almost like children know better get better in some ways because they are the ones that feel the threat of witchcraft right.
So many of our terrifying witches in film what they are doing is luring children.
And so children have that that sense of of this evil if it came out of Hansel and Gretel I mean they have that sense of this evil This alluring evil we're going to see one of our other films but then they also there's also that aspect that children can be accused of witchcraft as well and they're powerless to do anything about it. And you Agatha being one of those examples and then yeah I think you for this third which you would have been my favorite wedge. Except for that it was so recent and so new but Thomason and in the witch although the more I watched that movie I'm sure we're going to talk about it.
I think the mother was a witch all along. But but just though the Wikinews in that film you whoever it is whether it's the old woman out in the woods whether it's Thompson getting drawn into this other world or you know in my interpretation of it the mother who may well have been involved in this Sabbath all along just that construction of.
Of witchcraft in that that film it was that that was terrifying. It was textbook. I can see why every student I've had in the last three years has asked me Have you seen the witch frustra Pollard. Have you seen the witch and now I know. Well in that film really built this sense of.
Dread through it where. And this a setback in her Puritan times. And one of the things that self a Puritan vitamin. Director and one of the things it gets to is. How isolated these people are and at night how pitch black that forest is you really can't see anything so it is as as if you're looking into space. It's as infinite and as black as looking into a moonless sky. And so the imagination can run wild swings can exist out there. And I mean there's a certain quality of the film where you never know exactly what's real and what's not.
And on a certain level you could also read into it that the whole thing is just hysteria and there's no witches right because these people are so isolated and kind of that tension just gets turned up so high but it really examines kind of you know superstition fear hysteria and so many interesting things as well as this kind of concept of witches.
But but it cuts to the heart of some of the basics of of your average witch trial from the late 17th early early 18th century.
This this this idea of a lot of the tensions between the Puritan commune within the Puritan community and and male rivaling for power within that community and how the women in the family could get caught up in that because you have that proud father who takes his family away from the safety of the enclosed settlement. So you've got those Puritan tensions you've got you've got the tensions internal to a family. The mother daughter relationship is is striking as this as this young girl is beginning to get her own power you find her own power in her and her maturing hermit her body her maturing self.
So the struggles between mother and daughter the struggle of the daughter Thomasson with her siblings. And one of my favorite scenes in that movie is the moment by the brook where the irritating twins come out and you know start to tease Thomason. And she responds by claiming that witches powers she claims to be a witch and you can see the way that you know something playing out between siblings. You know just a nasty petty quarrel between siblings gets taken up a notch when things begin to go wrong within the family. So Thompson saying I'm the witch I'm the one who's doing these things as she's doing it to gain control over her little sister who doesn't behave well.
But that that self claiming of the identity of being that which comes back to haunt Thompson in the context of her of her brother's bewitchment his own unique situation that takes place out in the woods. So. So I I like how that movie gets those the larger tensions right of the of the father and the Puritan community and being separated from the safety of the of the enclosed settlement. But then the family tensions of of husband wife of brother sister of sisters with one another of daughter with mother and those internal family tensions and how they play out and manifest an accusation.
Yes one of my favorite films. It's fearsome.
Talking about this I'm kind of the timeframe of this. You know it makes me think of all these fairy tales that have witches in them. Yes and fairy tales and fables were you know often used as devices to teach kids something.
So what kind of is the role of which is in these kind of fairy tale world or behave in many ways that behave step in line follow the rules is many ways these these the which serves as a as a as a corrective to create proper behavior in women and in children and in some ways in men as well but said the woman realizes you know it's my job to make good food you know hearty wholesome nourishing with hearty wholesome nourishing ingredients in order to feed my family nourish my family care for my family.
Otherwise you know I could be accused of the noxious potions they are trying to lure other people to me I should be obedient to my husband not. You seem to be the sexual being so there's that. That cautionary tale to the wife and there's the cautionary tale to children not to wander out in the woods right. Not to speak to strangers not to not to fight with one another not to wish for power that they do not yet have. So. So the witch accusation works as a as a as a corrective as as as a threat in some ways to keep women and children obedient and filling their proper role and one place where we tend to find some of these fairytale witches is in the Disney universe.
Yes I think a lot of children were traumatized by the way. And I remember there was a story about the witch in snow white that Radio City Music Hall had to reach Polster a number of seats because children pee their pants. Yes. At the early screenings of. And Disney is is known for I think a lot of people who grew up at a certain time will cite Disney films as kind of the the starting point of something that terrify them whether it's Monstro the whale or some of these witches how shall you deal with a male friend.
And not ours. What's your take on Disney and witches.
Yeah you know as the mother of a young daughter I have to say what are the things that bothers me with Disney is that there's never a good mother right. There's just never a kind and caring mother until very recently I would say Mérida for instance you. But even there there's the tension between the mother and the daughter. There's not this great mother figure but usually what there is some terrifying stepmother who the mother is dead right. The father is often in the picture.
And instead what you have is this terrifying female figure. You're some kind of witchy character. And say. And you're right. It's yeah I know.
Disney kills me because there's always the female influence is it is a witch too as a counter to the princess or whatever she is. Know for instance you know whether it's Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty or like you were saying the evil queen who goes from being beautiful to a hag offset to Snow White more recent Disney movies.
I give them credit.
I've come up with slightly more nuanced notions of of spellcasting and witchery. One of my favorites is in Princess and the Frog where you've got that that juxtaposition between Dr. facil yay. The voodoo man the voodoo magic man in New Orleans who's in the urban context and helping people get what they want as compared to Mama Odie out in the swamp of the bayou of beyond the bounds of New Orleans. So you have a juxtaposition of a male evil as up against a female good working of magic of some sort. Mamati.
We don't want to take up too much of your lonesome ending. Not really. No no thank you. Thank you. What a tone. Yeah but you know somebody like Ursula the Sea which in the Little Mermaid great spell you know something like a robust Bouba calm winds of the Caspian Sea. When. Not.
She said drawing on his powers from all over the place.
I would just make sure this year this great which he's reaching out to the farthest regions to manifest her power. So there's that there's some great Disney which. And I think most people's favorite is Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. I think what makes her so fascinating is that her evil is is all out of it's out of whack with the wrong done to her. She shows up on the scene of the the presentation of Aurora and she seems to be angry because she's not invited to this event.
I really felt quite distressed that not receiving an invitation from Ron Paul.
Yeah. What an awkward situation.
I had hoped it was merely due to some oversight with that event at best be on my way and you're your EX Why oh just to show I bear no ill will.
I too shall bestow a gift on the child. Well all of you. The princess shall indeed grow and grace and beauty beloved by all who know. But. Before the sun sets on the 16th birthday shout got all of us spinning. And. Die.
And yet the the anger and the wickedness she brings with her seems out of proportion to being dissed on an invite to celebrate the birth of this child. So I think molested whose name means evildoer which woman you know just the the disproportionate nature of her wittiness to the to the apparent slight. She's responding to I think makes her terrifying. And of course the fact that she becomes you know the shapeshifting wicked dragon at the end of the film spoiler because you see but.
But no the disproportionate disproportionate nature of her evil and the power of her shapeshifting is so striking in that film I think it's still it still terrifies what we've been talking about so far.
Disney's animated witches which had a major impact on a lot of children but Disney has also ventured into the live action. And what do you think of what they've done with live action.
Well I think what they've done with live action especially with Maleficent the one in which Angelina Jolie plays a far more fully fleshed out like literally fleshed out Maleficent. What's striking is it's keeping with our contemporary notion of wanting to understand the motivations of this this which that the witch can't.
Whereas in 1959 with the animated Maleficent her evil comes from out of nowhere. You don't understand why she's so witchy. Whereas this is more contemporary fleshed Maleficent played by Angelina Jolie. The idea is try to understand where she coming from that there must be something misunderstood here that there's there's got to be a reason why she would show up and be so angry and say and I think this this live action more recent version of Will FSN is is in keeping with this modern desire to to understand this. This witty woman you know where she coming from surely there's a motive.
There's a backstory and we want to know it.
What have you done to my beautiful self. Would you rather I let them beat you to death.
I'm not certain. STOP SAYING. I saved your life.
Forgive me. I can be about on a return to saving my life. I am your servant. Whatever you need. Wings.
I need you to be my way.
You know it's not unlike the back story in Wicked where where we're trying to understand where we're coming from you know the green Wicked Witch of the West. How does she get that way.
Surely there's a backstory that makes this more complex and does it make this woman's evil inexplicable but rather there's there's a there's a there's a reason for it there's a core that we can get to the heart of. So I think that's part of what's going on with these these modern exculpating versions of witches.
Well you mentioned Wicked Witch then of course references back to Wizard of Oz. And there we have another witch. The Wicked Witch of the West who yes and and a good which also going Glenda but I dressed as Glenda for Halloween many times as a child who knew right.
But that's another instance of a film kind of aimed at children that terrified a lot of children between the Witch and the flying monkeys. I think there were a lot of traumatized children.
Yes. How did Boston bring the girl and her dog to the other. I want her alive. You know I promise you that. I. Said I want.
You know when I was a kid my my best friend was terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West and the monkeys. And I I was flabbergasted. I had no idea why she was so terrified. Which was awesome. She was fabulous. I loved the way and I loved the witch. I guess she's the Wicked Witch of the East to get the house or that lands on her at the very beginning of the film that produced the you know this produces the ruby slippers. I just I loved all of these witches.
I wanted to meet the Witch of the South where she said I found that which is fascinating even as a child. They're just great.
See the groundwork was set for an early age. What's truly sad. Yes. Now you talked about how you started your interest in these Roman witches and there was actually a television series that focused on this time frame as well. I have not seen this. I did not even realize there were witches in there because I think I probably would have been much more attracted to the series. So tell me a little bit about this show Roehm and how it dealt with witches just over 10 years ago.
There was a miniseries rum on HBO. It was great miniseries. I was so disappointed when they took it off air. The miniseries Rome is based in that that moment of political turmoil at the end of the Roman Republic the late 1st century BCE and the family interactions that are playing out in the political strife that's taking place.
And at the heart of the narrative is the relationship of the women to the powerful men. And so one of the women civilians. There's a moment in the miniseries where she casts what is a just a perfect representation of a Roman cursed tablet where she has the sheet of metal. She's got her stylus and she's you know tracing out the the curse and doing it with such ferocity and anger. You can tell that there's almost a catharsis that's going on for her as she is casting the spell. By the spirits of my ancestors.
My. Guys to use. Caesar his paintings with a. Let him see his legions drown. Plot. Quotes the theme. Of his limbs. His head. His heart his.
Thoughts. You see so deeply by choice.
She's summoning the powers of of the of the underworld and not the traditional Roman pantheon gods and goddesses of good.
But you know she's she's digging deep literally to there's canonic deities. And she's she's wishing evil on Julius Caesar. She's she's even calling on his family gods to help effect this curse. She wants him to have a lack of success in his military and political ends which is good to have just dramatic impact.
So you see where this woman's anger. And just just ferocious hate ferocious hatred towards this male politician could could if it played out properly have some dramatic political impact. So you see what's going on in the personal potentially having an impact in the political but but civilly it traces of this curse and she's angry and she's like stabbing at the at the metal of her cursed tablet and you can see that just even just the process of creating the curse is an almost catharsis for her to get her anger out and then she goes to deposit the cursed tablet and she and she does exactly what you're supposed to do.
She folds up this bit of metal. She stabs through it with me. She pierces it with a nail and then she goes to deposit it at the house of of of Julius Caesar. And one of the things that would make one of these curses effective is if a corpse demon were summoned to effect its end a corpse demon as someone who was violently dead. Who is who is able to achieve the ends of the cursed tablet and civilian needs a cursed tablet. So what does she do. She goes to the House of Julius Caesar and one of the striking things about it as well is for magic to work in antiquity.
It had to be private and public at the same time. Everyone had to know you were cursed in order for the curse to actually happen so civilian goes to the House of Julius Caesar where her female rival Attiya is located and she calls her out. She's moaning and groaning outside of the house and said the people within the House come out to to to see what's going on and the crowd has gathered you know watching this cursing and civilian. She would drink a good Kirstein which probably would have gone in the middle of the night and shoved it into a corner.
But she wants to this public public event and so to create a corpse demon she killed herself. Yeah right there. Making herself into a into a restless dead character who will affect the ends of this curse and the beauty of this one scene as she kills herself. Her hand maiden is right there dies as well. I think she kills herself as well. They fall onto the ground. Your blood sort of streaming out and the camera pulls back and up and what you see is there like the pupil of an eye.
Yeah the crowd is gathered around it sort of looks like this symbol that that is so important for entertaining magic in the Roman world namely the evil eye. As he said there's this cinematic representation of the of the evil eye which is at the heart of of the magic that the envy that's that's there in the midst of the evil eye is part of the way the magic is working.
So it was just it was just beautiful. I don't know if the person who created the minis are meant for it to be that way. Surely they did.
But it's just this. It's just a great example of how a cursed tablet was supposed to have worked. It's got that public component the private component and it's just creepy and it can have you know it's it's it's trying to deal with a personal enmity. But in a way that's going very public and political ramifications and repercussions if if it if it plays out properly there's just a great scene you should watch it if only for that scene with Servais Leah.
I am definitely going to see that. Yes. Are there other films you feel capture that spellcasting sensation.
Well yeah. So yeah back to Disney I know you don't have to do that.
But I think probably my favorite scene of the casting of a spell I occurs in a Disney film. Namely an unexpected one at that. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. There's there's a scene in it where minister followed the individual who has Quasimodo up and up in his tower up in the up in the cathedral he has fallen under the spell of Esmerelda. He's he's he's bewitched by her beauty and he's trying to deal with this fact that he's so in love with her. And so there's a scene where he is.
It begins with him in confession. The. Writers.
Of Shreveport and similar to the Monty Python scene right which begins with the chanting. Oh don't I use Requiem. This word begins with monks chanting instead instead singing to Maria a blessing. Mary says beginning in the very chaste way I was asking for Apperson to be forgiven when you hear these monks in the background during their chats but then you've got Minister Frollo who is the Aldama although I am a righteous man as he's dealing with his guilt in the midst of his righteousness and he goes from guilt to destroy Esmerelda within the space of about two minutes and he's yeah he's blaming the woman he's guy he pulls out of his cloak her scarf.
My. Name. Is. The. Devil. So. Much. Like.
To make a spell work you have to have the stuff from the person you're wanting to curse. So he's got her scarf. He throws it into the fire. He's say he wants her to burn. He wants her to be tortured. So it goes from him taking his his angst over loving someone he ought not to love. And it morphs from confession into outright brutal spellcasting where he wants her Esmerelda to feel. Every bit the pain that he feels for loving her and it just turns into a wicked curse.
I highly recommend that that one scene for the way it juxtaposes proper religiosity and add furloughs. Just to guilt venturing then into a vicious spellcasting and it's just it's just a great scene and you don't see a whole lot of men casting spells in films. No no you don't. And that's where it makes that particular scene so so powerful because he goes from being the warden of the cathedral to being just a mean evil spellcaster all the like I said the girls of two minutes. And so it's it's shocking in that shift and drives home the power of the spell he's casting.
It's just a great scene. You have a couple of other live action ones.
That involve women and these have a little humor to them as well. Yeah.
Have you seen these films. I think you know it's hard. I think maybe my favorite which movie is practical magic again. I don't know why.
Maybe it's because I saw it in proximity to Blair which terrified me.
It's something about the kinder gentler sisters Sister Power just spoke to my soul by the Owens sisters and in practical magic are just again. I think they are a part of this more contemporary know Escobedo which. I was talking about the issue of Maleficent. Making her understandable I read the O.N. sisters Gillian and Sally where they worked together and a part of their power comes from their sisterly bond and it's generations of sisters going back that spoke to me and said there are a couple of moments where they or they where they work spells but my favorite is when they're attempting to bring Jimmy Angela back to life.
So yeah I think the Nicole Kidman characters like Jimmy's already dark unnaturally dark and unnaturally bring her back it doesn't matter if he's creepy. But this idea that they're trying to bring this this guy back from the dead. Are you sure you want to do this.
Lips first at Windover tongue in motion teeth on edge. Touch balance much of blue say the beats jaw insert needles through eyes of corpse.
Eye in the eye.
And they improvise you. They got their spell book that they pull out. They lay it out on the counter. They're digging through it and trying to find the spell for four vivifying a corpse and say and just there they're practical approach to it. They need something white with when we make a star out of with cream on Jimmy's chest I need for you to get me something like Duret on top of the star chopped up.
So she knows this is good. They're supposed to say.
Like it's nice to say and then the way that they're just kind of grossed out by what they need to do. The sticky of the needle in the eyes right. I can't do that.
So it's just it's a great scene that that in some ways puts humor into this sort of terrifying moment where they're trying to bring. Yeah. Horrible individual back to life. They're not going to have to. Take responsibility for his death in the first place. But but you see the the practical components of trying to effect dispell where you're looking you're like oh I need this you're going back to this Macbeth which is how you die of nudes.
I don't have I have Nuge and you want to google it. What does this substitute for.
I have no idea like you do when you when you need a baking soda and you don't have it to make whatever thing you're cooking up you google it. Figure out what will substitute for baking soda and so you see that sort of pragmatic resourcefulness in spellcasting with these with these sisters and there's that there's so many spells in that that movie but. But the one where they're. Vivifying the dead. Angela is probably my favorite from it and then very similar to that. Witches of Eastwick of course a great a great film based on a great book but the the efforts by Alexandra Jane and Sukhi to first they conjure up the man they want.
But then at the end of the film when they're trying to get rid of them and they create a puppet that represents the Jack Nicholson yeah the Jack Nicholson character were there just stabbing him and spitting pits at him and then you see him in a church throwing up and moving around like this poppet is being mistreated just. Like. Just. Like. You. She. Said. There. Is. This little funny. Thing going to get. Into just. Changed. So it's just a great scene where you see how these things play out.
So this problem my best my favorite spellcasting scenes and witches of Eastwick taps into kind of using the witches as more instead of showing women simply as being accused of witchcraft or victimized. It's kind of these women who are using the witchcraft and then kind of empowering themselves and putting a man in his place so to speak. Exactly.
Even if it's the devil himself. Yeah exactly.
But this ability to to have these very different women as well different women working together to achieve a particular end and not in competition with one another but in a genuinely co-operative way.
And I think that's one of the reasons why so many of these which are which scenes speak to women that instead of getting to yes some sort of petty discord between them and the last women to get to see the possibilities of working together to achieve something whether it's the O.N. sisters or Alexandra Jane and Sec'y. So it's kind of neat that it plays on that.
So in witches of Eastwick this was kind of an empowering use of witchcraft for women. What are some other positive images of witches are of this kind of magical world.
Well you know I think we were talking earlier about the film practical magic and one of the reasons I'm fond of that movie in that depiction of witches is it is it gets at that whole Sister Power idea women working together with women not in a way where they're vying for power with one another but where they're trying to achieve some sort of end in one of the striking things in the climax of that movie is the two sisters are working together to cast out this this demon Jimmy Angela. But they use the PTA phone tree to call on just all of these women within the community who had shunned them and their family over generations.
And you said the same girls who had mocked the sisters in their youth are showing up you know excited to find out what's going on in this house and to help and come together as women to get to cast out this this evil force. And then women sitting around saying things like oh you know my daughter she cried out she was sick across town and I I heard it I felt it. And one of the older aunts of the two main sister characters and tactical magic saying oh there's a little witch in all of us dear Yeah and just that sort of empowering sense of of women working together not in competition with one another but bonding together to face the evils of the armies.
Are. Strung. Out by Guy says. Would each of you know pick up your brooms hold them at staff length.
Handle to brush. Remember that as we go forth it is only with our hearts beating as one that we can save the life of this child.
Call to. Time to. Take a.
So there's there's a there's a power that I think and in practical magic. So it's not creepy dark side of witchcraft that we see in a lot of movies. But it's you know empowering sister bonding and sisters not just biological sisters but women as a sisterhood.
Working against the world. So I like that a lot.
And recently we've had not specifically called witch but her mini in the Harry Potter films is a wizard.
So does that count as a witch on a certain level. I think so yeah.
The Harry Potter films are just fabulous for creating this amazing world of magic. J.K. Rowling has done just a tremendous job of imagining a full magical world. Everything that the scholars who study the kind of stuff that I look at in antiquity everything we might want the answers to but our sources have limits. She has thought out to its extreme weather the full sense of how do you train witches in wizards from age 10 to age 18. Yeah how what does the world within which they operate look like how do magic users and non-magical users interact with one another.
That world of the witches and wizards versus the muggles yes or the magic versus muggles and in some ways that world is even more fully fleshed out in the Fantastic Beasts series that is being filmed. Now the Nuits commander and Fantastique be somewhere where to find them. And and how witchcraft is imagined. And the broader witch and magic world of of J.K. Rowling's imagination but. But exactly that the way that competition is at the heart of that magical world whether it's Harry versus Voldemort or the competition within the school that what scholars who do what I do call the agonistic competitive context of magic where it's always taking place in the context of an issue where the outcome is in doubt ends and whoever can manipulate their surroundings in a way that's most effective can can win that that competition.
So the magical world of Harry Potter is just fabulous for imagining out all of the issues that scholars which wish list me which wish they knew the details of from say into that room. But J.K. Rowling has has imagined it to its logical conclusion especially the schooling especially the interactions of magic users and non magic users and especially the idea of the transmission of magical knowledge across generations and how people choose to use it. And then of course speaking of women who who can't love her mind you know then know it all the most talented which of her age right.
And from the time she's young and is scolding Ron on the proper pronunciation of Weingard idiom Livio sağ stop stop stop. Don't take solace. On. The. Side.
Saying wrong. If he saw not you saw you doing so clever. God SA.
Oh wow. Everyone is great just dotted.
And the way she says it as compared to the way Ron and everyone else says it sounds almost identical and yet she somehow has done it better with the flip of her wand or the flicking swish of her wand and her enunciation of those terms when Guardian saw her as she just she's just fabulous as a as a witch in that fabulously imagined world and also by putting it in a school setting.
It's this educational process when you get the rules and the how to and all those other things that kind of give it a different sensation than just kind of scary thing that sometimes is on the periphery of a horror film where it seems to be bound by no rules and and no form or anything.
Exactly. And the rules are so clear and the fields of magic are so clear as well. Even the types of magic classes that Harry and his his colleague his peers take everything from potions to transformations to future telling each of the classes that they go to our categories of magic that you'll see in accusations of witchcraft in the early modern period and then going back to books were those kinds of magic are described in the Roman period. So even the kinds of magic that populate that world are they are a filling out of this and imaginative filling out of of what we see in the historical records.
And are there other films that kind of give you this sense of which is in practice like what they do on a daily basis or what kind of activities are exactly like the real life which is are there you know films were or are there films where we get to see aspects of a which is life. I think you had mentioned something about Sabbath which is Sabbath.
Yeah well that idea of of it which is working together outside of the community wandering out into the periphery the forests on the edge of town we were talking at one point about the the movie The Witch. The recent movie and they are we let's talk about spoilers yes OK we shouldn't get spoilers so. So at the end of that movie when you get Tamasin wanders out and leaves the the brutal horrific scene that is the climax of that of that film and and finds these these women not not close the cavorting with pitchforks and goats and there's yeah they're rising up into the sky flying in a circle.
I mean this is sort of textbook imagination of what which is which is might do and see it and would cut prints from the 16th century Dürer's which is Sabbaths. So. But.
That same sort of fear of what women are doing out on the periphery of community because Ali back to the Roman period and the Greek period before that with concerns about mine ads out in the woods you know tearing animals and babies limb from limb. So that's not exactly an everyday thing that we've got with our which is but it's certainly one of the things that they're imagined as doing.
That's a really good question. Every day. Do you have anything in mind. I'm not.
Not so much in that historical context. But Rosemary's Baby is a film where you kind of have witchcraft brought to this very kind of mundane level with Ruth Gordon right as the most you know. You would never suspect Ruth Gordon of being a witch and she's kind of this annoying neighbor who keeps kind of butting into Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes Newlywed Life. And you just think Oh she she just doesn't have any children. She's ill she has a husband but she just doesn't have enough on her hands to keep her busy.
I get a two inch thick cylinder steak sitting day Foster right this minute guy. Well that settles tonight. What do you say. No we couldn't. Not really that's very kind of you. This will be a real help to us. First I will be alone. Are you sure it wouldn't be too much trouble if there's trouble out here. All right. You go I encounter I'll have to check this guy out and tell him I won't take. It.
But then slowly it's revealed what she is and you get this sense of this kind of mundane day to day existence of a modern witch.
Now it's funny you should mention Rosemary's Baby because I always think of that is more a film about the satanic Petek of the 60s and 70s and being in that historic moment of the Church of Satan in the 1960s. And that film projecting a fear of Satanists and our midst. So yeah we were talking about you. You don't necessarily remember the witch from the zombie movie paranormal. When I think Rosemary's Baby I think the satanic aspect of it and not this annoying neighbor but you're exactly right.
Here she embodies the the old lady whose past childbearing age who who just wants to get involved in someone else's life someone else's formative moments of of of giving birth and then we find out that there's a much darker darker underbelly to all of that but that that use of herbs and the creation of an herbal packet that stinks that said that Rosemary is asked to wear around her neck the tennis route and somehow being powerful and protecting what Rosemary is carrying Suwa. So yeah that idea of the the annoying old lady next door with two potions and her her her insertion of herself into this life giving Momot gets right there with the traditional idea of what witches do another scene we're going along that line.
We were talking about I remember if we touched by the state or not but the movie Hocus pocus and the Sanderson sisters and my favorite one of those is Sarah played by Sarah Jessica Parker. And she's the you know the buxom blonde beautiful one of these of these three sisters. And her her innocuous charmed. Do you know this this little hit song which she said no I don't. I said I think it said come little children. I'll take the away used. To. She sings this beautiful song and it pulls the children out of their houses and is dragging them out to her her house in the middle of the woods here for these children to be used for these ill ends that these sisters have in mind to steal their youth.
You know but it gets to that idea. You know we were talking about it with Blair which I remember when you were struck by the idea of the little girl putting her hand over the mother's mouth as the mother is describing the kinds of stuff that that witches can do in that case with The Blair Witch does. And yet children having this fear this innate fear of witches maybe because stories are used to scare children also because you know in this particular instance it's the kind of thing that which is are imagined to do luring children out of the safety of their homes and out of their parents embrace and protection and then using those children for you know just horrible purposes.
You know the which we were talking about that maybe were the the young baby I think Samuel is taken from Thomas and while she's caring for him and then just put just horrible use brutalized and used to anoint the body of the old which I had at the start of that film. So just that that fear of what which is do with children imagines you in this grotesque terrible way in the movie the witch. But in this humorous almost sexy way with the Sarah Jessica Parker character with her haunting chant her haunting song that she sings to lure children which it gets to another issue and you know just riffing her back.
But the idea of spellcasting and what a spell is. And yet not to go all etymological on you but I'm a trained classicist there's some things we do that are the term for spell is Carmen and Carmen is a word which means song. And that overlap between song Poma and spell is is is is wonderfully ambiguous and and leads to some of the concerns of what women are doing when they're singing these alluring songs or or writing poetry as in the case of Veronica Franco who's another which we might talk about or accused which that we might talk.
So from a historical perspective we're which is always kind of seen in a negative light in the past. And is it only something kind of recent where witchcraft or sorcery or you know the notion of Wiccans has been turned around to say like oh say women have been misidentified as these witches or I mean it seems like there's been a historical change in kind of how wretch's are defined or are viewed.
Well you're asking the wrong person who studies Roman history you can take it back 2500 years you ought to talk about his notes.
But you're right that there is there is something of a change you know and and at the risk of dramatic reduction is in the way I'm describing it. It depends on when you're talking about and which sources you look at.
So for instance just in broad generalities in the Roman period you might have the same activity that might get done you know raising someone from the dead. Whereas if a woman does it she might be cast as a witch in a source. So we have first century sources that describe women out on the battlefields conjuring up the corpses of dead soldiers to tell the future or to achieve some other outcome. But then you also have from almost the exact same time period descriptions of male wonder workers who raise individuals from the dead and the sources reporting that describes as miracles for instance Jesus with Lazarus.
So we have these competing perspectives from the exact same time period where the same thing is being done. A raising of someone from the dead but a woman doing it in a battlefield context to tell the future comes off as a witch story a powerful man doing it to challenge this boundary between life and death and make claims to divine power divine entity himself becomes wonder working and. And you see even negotiation of that taking place with the character of Simon may guess from the canonical story of acts where he wants the power that the Christian wonder workers have.
And they critique him for wanting it for the wrong reasons or wanting to charge for its use. You charge money for it to you to be done to have that skill. So taking him out to the Roman period just again just broad generalities. We see the same activity. A woman described as doing it she's a witch a man doing it. He's a wonder worker. And but but we see examples of that moving through 2000 years of history and even with that with women sometimes it's the issue of what is that woman manipulating the natural world.
What is her goal in doing that you know is she doing it because she wants to heal someone from a sickness. Well that's a that's good that's a good end. And she might be described as you know a white witch or is she doing it. Is she concocting some sort of poison to kill someone maybe to help cause intrigue within a court system of political power in which case she becomes a witch. So I end an evil witch at that. So so in many in many cases it's situational throughout throughout the historical context whether an individual male or female gets seen as being a witch or a wonder worker.
Now there are very real consequences for some of these women who are accused of witchcraft in history. So talk a little bit about witch trials on film. Do any of them kind of capture what was really going on in history and what kind of reality is that were for people. Right.
I mean there's three witch trials that come to mind on film. When you're trying to imagine the historicity of what takes place in a trial. The first is of course Monty Python's Holy Grail which we talked about but see it you know gets gets at that issue of of an attempt to apply reason and rationality to a circumstance which is not reasonable and not rational. And the struggles that that play out as a result as having so that one's utterly yet fictive and made up. But cuts to the heart of some of the same issues are probably my two favorite trials on film of witches are is the trial of Veronica Franco at the end of the movie Dangerous Beauty.
We have this woman Veronica Franco who is who was a cortisone in 16th century Venice in a place where. The. Bad. Architecture in a time when women existed only as possessions as.
Two people might strike a bargain. But you never hear one woman's only chance to fulfill her love. I must go. Tobias would come back. You can still have Mark you'll become a god as. Your mother used to be. We're. Staying true to and I don't.
I'm. I said perhaps we should make Bersatu. I do believe you are jealous. There's not a woman in Venice. I'm. On a man and. One woman. I confess I embrace freedom over wife's obedience. So. I confess I still. Feel the touch of his lips and in spite of his passionless air. What is this. It's not witchcraft. What could be. The. Dream.
Because it cannot exist in this world that you've created.
And at the start of the film we see the power that's inherent in her sexuality and her ability to use not just sexuality but also her mind her hers her smarts too to entice men to cast a spell over them and when this is going well for the city of Venice when young men are bolstered by her her affections there's a moment where the film describes her depicts her as alluring the French king into supporting the Venetian Navy to go fight the Ottoman Turks. Her wiles and her her her verse writing. She's a poet Tess is seen as as positive.
But when the fortunes of Venice turn and plague comes to the city and the military is suffering defeat all of a sudden this Cortazar who has been lifted up as this great representative of Venice becomes the scapegoat the target of accusation. In particular the Inquisition coming to the city of Venice to to root out this evil and end the trial is pretty fascinating. Veronica Franco in this particular film because she calls it out for what it is namely a hero. Here she is as a woman trying to exert power in a man's world.
And when that goes well for the men that's all fine and dandy but when things start to go badly for the men they point to her as as the heart of all of their troubles. And there's just a great moment where she said you know what other option did I have. You know I am not a man. I do not have money. If I wanted to have a life this was my choice. And so I particularly loved that that witch trial because you see the competing courts the ecclesiastical court and the Venetian court vying for who has the right to try this particular case.
You see the very public nature of of the accusation and how an accusation of witchcraft may not have anything to do about witchcraft whatsoever. But it's often about other issues in this particular case looking to find someone to blame for the fact that Vanessas is is suffering a plague and defeat at that particular moment. And you know you're sort of looking around Oh sexy woman. Yeah you exert so much power. And and a verse writer and we were talking about songs and poems and verse as being you know essentially a spell.
And so she's she had been casting her spell in these wholesome verses. But then it makes it very easy to look at her and call her the witch when things go badly. And then of course I don't even know if this one counts as a movie but the Crucible which you know is a movie drawing on a play but the scenes of the trials and how those play out and the looking to blame again. The most likely scapegoat. The old women in the town who who are midwives make an easy easy target and seeing the the way these young girls at at Saleam have so much power.
And in fact they're claiming power through the accusing of others of witchcraft so witchcraft accusations are fascinating because sometimes it's not at all about what anyone is actually doing. But they allow you to see what the fears are of what a witch in the imagination could do and and how those fears are manipulated or capitalized on by those who do the accusation. So witch trials are you in film and in reality are this this fascinating opportunity to get your finger on the pulse of what's going on in a community. What are the tensions.
What are the fears. What are the power relationships that are getting negotiated by these by these accusations.
And that's exactly what the playwright Arthur Miller was going to be like was around the time of the McCarthy hearings. So talk a little bit about how this term witch trial and witch hunt has become a part of our language and represents something very specific.
Now Ramsey whenever I hear the term witch hunt you know this is a witch hunt.
I think the idea is that you're pointing to to that accusation as being invalid that it's not legitimate in some way. Whereas you know as we see with these films and with historical perspective one steps back and realizes wait a second you know which ones are this this much larger nexus of of of social issues that are are playing out. And and the idea of a witch hunt as being an illegitimate accusation there's some truth to that as a way of thinking of it. But as a historian I want to step back and say OK wait a second.
Who's accusing whom of what. What is the broader context and what can that tell us about about what is facing the community that's using this term witch hunt. And you're exactly right referring to the communism the McCarthy era context for the crucible the that idea of the witch hunt was serving as an allegory for four unjust accusation or accusation that was the point of that was achieved it was was to talk about that broader issue of communism not necessarily to to get to the heart of what any individual had actually done. Does that make sense.
Yeah I mean it's it's which is this is this term that gets used to talk about something else to talk about broader issues of accusation legitimate or illegitimate. But as a historian who studies it I always want to get to the heart of of of of of who is accusing who of what and why and how it plays out in the long run.
Well it's interesting that it caught on so firmly in is so rooted in our language now that people and especially now people bandied about all the time when ever anybody gets accused and feels that they're not being accused with any justification. It's like you know it's a witch hunt. And I just find it interesting that these things are real from history and that point to a very scary time for these women who are being accused now is you know come to represent this.
But we had you know it never fails whenever someone in contemporary political life might shout out the word witch hunt. I'm a I'm a member of a community of Twitter Dorians right. So historians on Twitter. I mean it never fails that you get the endless posting of. Now this is a real witch hunt you know and posting of 16 92 or what was taking place in early modern Europe or even going back to the first century in ancient Rome where you know there are these very real moments where we have women being accused of well and men being accused of manipulating power and end and facing real consequences.
And you were saying as a result.
Well I really want to thank you for coming on and talking about which is we might have to convene again. I hope so. And a lot of fun for some more. So if people are interested in witches you teach a class here at San Diego State but San Diego State also has some resources that people can make use of.
You and I met at that event the Walpurgis knocked out event which was a celebration at the library here at San Diego State especially special collections and universe variety the archives which had acquired a copy of the Malleus malefactor them and said the Malleus Madla for as this text or the dates to the late 15th century. Ed malleus manufacture them as called the Hammer of witches. It's a text that was created by by two monks and it's essentially a witch hunting manual. And so special collections and university archives here at San Diego State recently acquired an early print copy of this of this text.
It's so early. It's classified as something called an enqueue Nabila which is Latin for cradle. Which is referring to the idea of print culture being in its infancy when this when this text was printed. So it's a very early printed edition of the Malleus malefactor from that special collections and university archives has acquired. And to celebrate that in a somewhat subversive way. We hosted a witches night event on Walpurgis Noct which is a night the night before May Day which I said there were a lot but multiple counts is what it is it is a it's a night that has dual meaning.
It was a night when Christians would burn bonfires to ward off the evils of witches. But it was also a night thought to be a moment where witches would gather together and celebrate their Sabbath. And so we thought it would be a lot of fun to celebrate the acquisition of this very important text by the library by holding this public event where I met you and I want to give a shout out to you too. A trio of women sort of like our Macbeth witches I am sure they wouldn't mind me calling them that Amanda lanthorn and Culbertson and Pam Jackson who in special collections and university archives have been pulling together this wonderful study collection that's valuable for making sense of witchcraft and historical context.
They've been accumulating everything from herbal treatises to collections of which witchcraft in comics and it's a real hidden gem here at San Diego State. So I hope if people have the opportunity and interest they might reach out to special collections and university archives that our library and see the amazing collections that are being accumulated there for for the public for people to come and study.
All right well thank you very much. Thank you very much.
That was San Diego State Professor Elizabeth Pollard. I'll have a list of the Witch films we discussed at PBS dot org slash cinema junkie. If you want to check it out. I hope this puts you in the right mood for Halloween and for watching some of these movies. Thanks for listening to another episode of PBS cinema junkie podcast. If you enjoy the show please recommend it to a friend and leave us a review on iTunes. I try to get the show out every other Friday except during holidays like Halloween.
Next month I'll be talking to a stunt driver about the best car chases and car movies from bullet to Mad Max till our next film fix on Beth Accomando your resident cinema junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place