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Scary Good Films Vol. 4: Häxan

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Matt Kalo
| February 8, 2023
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Ah, silent films. There’s just something about them that I find so mysterious. Maybe it’s because they’re windows into what filmmaking used to be long ago. For me, they show what specific movie genres, in this case, horror, were like back then. I have watched some scary 1920s films, and one from Sweden stood out the most. For this installment, we will look at Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 pseudo-documentary Häxan (English translation: Witch). I will be examining the uncut, 105-minute version. I do not recommend the 74-minute one because it removes clearer explanations as to what happens.

Häxan examines the history of witchcraft from the Middle Ages to more modern times. The film has seven parts told by Benjamin Christensen himself. Part 1 is like a typical historical documentary. It introduces peoples’ interpretations of witches through various art, some of which go back to Egyptian times. Viewers also get to see then-historically-accurate concept models of the Solar System and, eventually, Hell. Next, Part 2 is when it shifts to fictionalized events. This time, we encounter Satan (actually played by Christensen!). The main story in this segment involves a woman purchasing a love potion from a witch named Karna (Ella la Cour). The reason for this is that she wants to seduce a monk. Stories like this illustrate the interpretations people had of witches in medieval times.

A common vision of what people feared the most in the medieval era.
(Svensk Filmindustri/Skandias Filmbyrå)

Next, Part 3 is when things take a turn for the worse. More prominent characters begin to show up, and they will leave a lasting impact on the viewer. A printer named Jesper dies while bedridden, and the village cannot figure out why. They find out soon enough: after doing a test with, of all things, molten lead, the townspeople conclude he must have been bewitched. Eventually, an old woman named Maria the Weaver (Maren Pedersen, ironically credited as “The Witch”) becomes the prime suspect. Part 4 shows the interrogation methods, each more brutal than the last. 

Meanwhile, Part 5 centers around Jesper’s wife, Anna (Astrid Holm). During Maria’s confession, she names Anna as one of the witches who have been causing mayhem. Anna is tried like Maria, and she eventually confesses, too. Next, Part 6 describes what kinds of torture devices were used during these so-called trials in lingering detail. It is unknown how many fell victim, but the number is implied to be very high.

…Yeah, it’s best if I don’t show too much.
(Svensk Filmindustri/Skandias Filmbyrå)

Finally, Part 7 is where Christensen drops a bombshell. He suggests that the confessions may not have been true at all. Say that you are under a tremendous amount of pressure (it doesn’t have to be torture, I promise!). You are thinking of ways to get out of the situation. At some point, you may resort to drastic measures. In Häxan‘s case, that way is confessing during all the pain. Unfortunately, this caused many people’s deaths thanks to the abuse of power, sadism, and primarily misogyny.

Part of the reason why I wanted to do Häxan is that it has been over a century since its release. A lot happened during that time, and I thought, “What a perfect time for some retrospect.” When this movie came to the United States in 1922, the censors lost their minds. The ban didn’t get lifted until 1929. Compared to what modern horror films are capable of, the banning now seems like an overreaction. Let’s face it; Christensen was way ahead of his time.

The United States censors’ presumed reaction when they saw the movie.
(Svensk Filmindustri/Skandias Filmbyrå)

The other reason I felt motivated to cover Häxan was its mental and neurological health commentary. As I watched Parts 6 and 7, I began thinking of something I learned long ago. It involved the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 and what might have been the actual cause. During that period, the crops became infected by something called ergot, a fungus that causes hallucinations when ingested. This made me think, “Could these witchcraft cases throughout history have natural causes rather than supernatural?” Natural science was nowhere near as advanced as it is right now. We should be considered lucky to live in modern times like these!

Häxan‘s examination of mental illness also deserves special mention. Very few films at the time were willing to discuss something so sensitive. Of course, even the most severe cases back in the early 20th century were lumped into the “hysteria” category. Thankfully, there are currently much better ways to diagnose and treat these disorders. Through a modern lens, the movie unintentionally becomes a reminder of how far the world has come and how far we still need to go. I walked away from Häxan with a better understanding of history and witchcraft, and I hope others did the same.

That wraps up this installment of Scary Good Films. This was, believe it or not, one of the most emotional horror movies I have ever seen. What other media do you want to see me examine? Sound off in the comments below!

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