The mentalese of Horror refers to an intense feeling of fear or shock that generates a feeling of repulsion, which is akin to ravaging terror to the sense. Consequently, horror films of our time, ranging from the 80s to the present, are filled with gory details of anatomical dissection with teeth and blood conjured up by the inflated creatures of scariest nightmares. That is why I have a soft spot for the 70s films of the supernatural phenomena with an intelligent storyline focused on the mysterious force of the beyond that subtly agitates our most primitive fear of the unknown, the uncertain, the unresolved entities lurking in between a thin line of reality.
The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardly, is a unique supernatural film that merits its name engraved on the obelisk of memorable films with the elements of folklore, belief system, music, and history unfolded in a vibrant kaleidoscope of scenes and scenery. It records fear in the ordinariness of landscape and people with the subtly suspected evil power lurking in the hidden alley of defenseless equilibrium. Such fear is not, therefore, forced upon the audience but tantalizing the anticipation of the sensation culminating in the extraordinary frisson of epileptic suspense blocked in a mental airlock.
The story begins when policeman Neil Howie from Mainland Scotland journeys to the remote island called Summerisle in search of a missing girl. A young devout Christian and virgin into the bargain, Howie soon discovers that the whole island is a pagan territory of old gods to whom the pleasant-looking islanders with names of flora practice a human sacrifice when crops fail for harvest. Besides, eroticism abounds with lovers in the field and the cemetery. Sensuality is ubiquitous and free because the instinctual desire is a ritual practice of appreciation of natural beauty, which elevates the licentiousness into sacredness by the innocently joyful acts of the actors. Howe sees himself in a cultural and religious twilight zone and thinks himself as a lone Christian hero, a sort of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Young Goodman Brown figure stranded in the deep forest where Satanic Sabbath is taking place. Both characters distance themselves from the diabolical influence. They belong to the tribe of Wicker Man in the reality of supernatural power translated from their most deep-seated terror sealed in dreamscapes.
The efficacy of music used for the insularity of the proudly pagan island away from the Christian mainland shines through the film against the idyllically pastoral scenery and its happy-looking islanders joyfully practicing everything contrary to contemporary norms and mores. They are all beautiful and peaceful in their ways and see Jesus as a loser flopping in changing the world. It is this habiliment of pleasant appearance that insidiously pervades a sense of fear without blatantly exploiting it. Perhaps, that is why some people find this film monotonous or unsatisfactory in their touchstone for the ecstatic sensation. For this reason, it is not a statement film pontificating about the significance of endangered paganism but a visual story that tells a legend of the Wicker Man. If you are a fan of the supernatural tale clear of buckets of blood and chops of mutilated bodies, you will find this film worth watching.
Edmund Burke’s canonical adage of “Superstition is the religion of the feeble mind” fits the American perspective of witchcraft as well as other supernatural views on the world. No wonder literature and media are chockablock with adolescently burlesque images and sensational accounts of the mysterious phenomena in comparison with the European approach to the subject matter in terms of historical and social contexts. However, Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore by Thomas White is an excellent antithesis to the stereotypical American attitude toward the thematic that should merit its place in the history of American civilization. The book is concise in its volume but rich in the spirit that deserves its academic and cultural contribution to the history of the New World.
The book treats the thematic of supernatural accounts of witchcraft and magical folk (the equivalent of the British Cunning Folk) with a sense of respect for the belief tradition held by the Germanic settlers of Pennsylvania and the origins of it in academic approach. Based on his close and observant reading of the multidisciplinary subjects from history to religion, White fills the erudition pages after pages with many unknown historical facts about witchcraft before the infamous Salem witch trial in Massachusetts and the lasting legacy of the supernatural belief still alive among the common folk. The omission of the witchcraft elements found in other cultures, such as African-American and Native-American, is not a supercilious gesture disregarding their values charged with ethnic pride or cultural jingoism. It is to isolate belief tradition in the form of folk magic and witchcraft from a cultural identity of ethnic traits that many people like to associate. Instead, it intends to distinguish it from the established religion that has deeply affected the psyches of the ordinary people, which ultimately has become a folk religion of its own with efficacy.
Whites provides insightful intelligence about the use of folk magic as a sense of control in the world beyond human control. Recourse to supernatural means of relieving the malady of hearts is the last straw a person can think of in a recurring series of losing streaks without jeopardizing his/her self-esteem. The story of Hex Hollow, for example, is the most well-known and representative of the subject matter, manifesting the effects of folk religion on the psyches of the residents in the predominately German-American region. To dismiss the culprits of the case as good-for-nothing superstitious crybabies looking for figures to blame for their unlucky strikes of lives is, therefore, an arrogant display of willful ignorance of the truth about folk religion and its impacts on the psychosomatic functions of individuals. The best illustration of such evidence comes in the form of The Long Lost Friend by one John George Hohman, a German-American Catholic printer, bookseller. It is an impressive collection of herbal remedies, magical healings, and charms that have been known for their potency for years with wide perennial circulation. The book is still going actively available on Amazon.
This book is an excellent read for those craving for academic perspective on witchcraft and magic folk existent in the U.S. without the assistance of parapsychology, paranormal investigators, psychics, and mediums, distinct from the genuine witches, wizards, and hex doctors. It is a collection of supernatural events and narratives recorded in case law and annals of history, told in a plain language comprehensible to eager readers of mysterious knowledge. You will find the book read fast as if you were cast a spell on by its arresting attention and wondrous truths about the existent world we still do not know in its entirety.
“The concept of witchcraft as devil-worship by the church unleashed authoritarian control, & the denigration of women, many of whom were burnt at the stake, drowned, etc., simply for growing herbs or liking cats! For me, these are heroines & warriors.”
I happened on the above-quoted tweet, which impelled me to unravel in me a thread of complex feelings about a common popular conception of witchcraft as institutionalized persecution of women of unique professions and different opinions and canozing them as martyrs of Feminism or Paganism.
First of all, it wasn’t just that iconic ‘Men v. Women’ or ‘Christianity v. Paganism’ facade that dominated the thematics of witchcraft. Of course, religion played an important role in enforcing the authority of the church as the one absolute administrator of justice and punishing anyone who dared to defy it. However, when the Church itself incorporated paganistic esoterism in its rites of ceremony and mechanical device of prayer, it cared less about the divinity of a pagan deity that the cult worshipped, unless it openly threatened the dogmatic foundation of the teaching of the Church. Rather, it was more of a societal practice of giving a tight rein in communal harmony that allowed no misfits or outsiders or recluses. It was grudge-filled, insular-minded, and jealousy-driven vendetta against whom you wouldn’t particularly like or whom you would harbor a kind of animosity because the targeted subject looked unpleasing, unprepossessing, or simply ugly of introverted disposition.
Women were the worse. Forget Community of Sisterhood. The Daughters of Eve can be both ecstatically passionate and formidably vengeful. A single unmarried woman, both young and old, living in the bliss of solitude, minding her own business away from the vociferous melee that she didn’t feel related was likely to be a lamb savagely herded by the hateful melee to the inquisitional slaughterhouse. Modus vivendi of social norms was the armor that would protect her from the arrows and spears of the public attack on sovereign individuality that we take for granted in our time.
Witchcraft is neither synonymous with Feminism nor Liberalism, both of which as proverbial party ideology have beocme the dogmatic foundations of Arts and Huaminities. It’s not a grand unified campaign against smart women with peculiar religious belief when you contemplate the fact that greatness results from simplicity, which is the answer to all complexities. The inquisition of popular sentiment in practice overrides freedom of individuals asserted in theory. Albert Einstein knew exactly about the dualistic nature of humanity that would return to the basic animalistic instinct such as persecuting the innocent because of their individuality: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe!” For this reason, I dare to defy the notion that the persecution of witchcraft was synonymous with the denigration of women in general.
The art of memory has been a popular subject for occultism and academicism throughout the centuries. The subject deals with our incredibly flexible human intelligence with its general multipurpose learning strategies that can work wonders if the doors of imagination are opened to the mystery of the knowledge without constraints of religiosity and fears of the unknown territories of human possibilities. Of the intellectual trailblazers of the craft of memory, none other than the figure of Giordano Bruno stood out blazingly even at the burning stake as an accused wizard. For it was akin to a witchcraft of perfect knowledge as expounded in his Thirty Seals & the Seal of Seals, the book banned by the Church in fear of losing the faithful to the Power of Knowledge.
The book illustrates a set of “basic” rules that reads more like Euclid’s Elements or Pythagorean Theorem, which means it is not written for general readers. This is because the book was part of a job application for a teaching post at the Oxford in the Elizabethan England, demonstrating his admirable erudition, superb command of the English language as a foreigner, and naked flattery to the academics at the university. Bruno got a few lecturing opportunities at the Oxford, but his cerebral mind devoid of wit in addition to his short, unprepossessing appearance was regarded as far-fetched and unfavorable to the attainment of the sought-after position at the Oxford. In fact, this book does not provide the reader with special spells for obtaining perfect memory but gives the method of encoding letters or syllables of the name of the thing into a set of predetermined images. It is magic in the sense that if this method is perfected, it works wonders. It’s a psychological mind game, the magic of psychology per se.
This magical book, this banned book will betray anyone who expects it to be something of magical Rosetta Stone for obtaining the secrets of perfect or better memorization. But that doesn’t mean the book is entirely abstruse to enjoy; the idea of the intellectual trinity comprised of Pallas Athena (The Senses), Vulcan (Imaginations), and Mars (Judgment/Reason), all of whom are overseen by Jove (the Soul) is quite intriguing and related to Socrates’s idea of reasoning. As a matter of fact, this book is not so much an esoteric book as deeply psychological literature that boasts Bruno’s indomitable intelligence and recalcitrant individualism that stigmatized him as a renegade. Maybe that’s the reason this illustrious intellect was burned at the stake as a dangerous pagan.
Witchcraft as popular belief system may sound anachronistic, if not extinct, in our age of the Internet, Satellite TVs, and planned colonization of the Moon, in the same way, that people in Renaissance regarded the Medieval times culturally backward and religiously superstitious. Yet, it has survived the leaps of time and waves of persecution, withstanding like a flickering candlelight in hours of stormy dark nights and remains in modern landscapes of buildings, cars, airplanes, and people with mobile phones on their hands.
Thomas Waters in his Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times tells us how this ancient belief system of faith-based healing at its lightest and of maleficent bewitching at its darkest has kept its vitality from the rural areas of provinces to the bustling streets of cities in Great Britain throughout the centuries based on his extensive research of historical documents and scholarly analysis on the uncanny but very real phenomena that grips your attention on every page of this fascinating book.
If you are keen on historical facts and anthropological evidence of human nature in relation to the ancient esoteric knowledge that looks so appealing and tempting, this is an excellent book.