Hail, readers! Welcome to Devils in the Details, a monthly column examining the satanic and occult influences in horror film. This column aims to provide a non-sensational look at these influences by examining their history through the perspective of modern Occult scholarship. The study of the satanic and the occult is a life-long endeavor, and I have much yet to learn. I hope you will join me in this sojourn into the darkness!
Häxan is a silent film directed by Benjamin Christensen and released in 1922. It is an examination of witches and witchcraft with an emphasis of the witch trials of the middle ages. The film mixes traditional documentary style with dramatized scenes. This pays off in a devilishly gritty and nightmarish portrait of witchcraft and its consequences.
“Christensen […] suggests that the scenes actually portray mental illness and mass hysteria. It’s no wonder the film was banned in several countries on release […]”
Before diving into the Satanic elements of this early documentary, it’s important to commend director Benjamin Christensen on his choices that were, frankly, unheard of until this film. Setting aside the special effects, which on their own exemplify Christensen’s innovative style, Häxan is the first of its kind in the way it approaches documentary.
When the film was released in 1922, documentary film had only been explored briefly, and Christensen took Häxan one step further by including dramatizations of his subject matter. We can see echoes of this mix of narrative film and documentary in film and television even today. Further, Häxan‘s subject matter in itself is notable in that the world was still highly superstitious, having only recently experienced a widespread popularity of Spiritualism. Christensen not only presents dark and Satanic themes to a largely traditional audience, but also suggests that the scenes actually portray mental illness and mass hysteria. It’s no wonder the film was banned in several countries on release including the United States.
With that being said, let’s get into the witchiness that defines this film.
Christensen intended Häxan to be academic in nature with an emphasis on dispelling superstition and educating the audience. I feel the need to point out that this is actually aligns well with Satanic ideals, particularly Luciferian ideals as it places an importance on knowledge and enlightenment! Digressions aside, Christensen accomplishes, for his time, a highly accurate representation of medieval beliefs on the topics. Christensen even included a full bibliography with the playbill for Häxan clearly exemplifying his intention to educate.
One of Christensen’s many sources for Häxan was Heinrich Kramer’s 15th century witch hunting manual, the Malleus Maleficarum or “Hammer of Witches.” It’s from this source, along with others such as Demonolatry and the Compendium Maleficarum that Christensen derives much of the dramatized portion of the film. There are issues inherent with this text as it is dripping with misogynistic representations, and seeing as Kramer himself was stripped of his station after a scandal involving false claims, it’s no surprise that this manual saw widespread use in the persecution of women.
“Christensen accomplishes, for his time, a highly accurate representation of medieval beliefs on the topics.”
The text is divided into three parts, with the first being an argument for the existence of witchcraft. It’s in this section that the authors deny any claims that witchcraft is actually the product of an “overwrought mind,” and instead proposes that since the Devil is real, and witchcraft is the result of a covenant between a witch and the Devil, then therefore witchcraft must be real. Solid logic, I know. The remaining two sections go into grueling detail on how to identify and prosecute a witch as well as how to counter some of their spells. It’s clear that the Malleus Maleficarum was one of the biggest inspirations for Häxan as the scenes of torture, accusations, witness accounts, and clergy all seem to depict what is described in the text almost exactly.
Satan and Devils
In Häxan, as well as the source Malleus Maleficarum, the name Devil or devils is used to refer to the demonic entity with which witches consort in order to procure their power. This will probably come up a lot over the run of Devils in the Details, but it is true that Satan has a plethora of other names and identities. In fact, an entire chapter of Anton Szandor LaVey’s The Satanic Bible is devoted to listing and briefly describing every name and identity that has been associated with Satan.
In the case of Häxan, the Devil or devils refers to both the ruler of hell and his demonic servants. This devil is seen as an antithesis to all that is holy. Looking again to the The Satanic Bible, LaVey describes devils in a manner reminiscent of Häxan’s devils.
The devils of past religions have always, at least in part, had animal characteristics, evidence of man’s constant need to deny that he too is an animal… (LaVey, The Satanic Bible)
It should be noted, however, that the Devil was a necessity for the church at the time, and was used not only as a boogeyman or scare tactic to keep people pious, but also as a scapegoat for pagan practices that did not align with Christianity. With the highest religious authority confirming the existence of this evil, people were able to exploit this scapegoat. If your crop failed or a woman rebuked your advances, it was easy to blame the Devil or a witch. Häxan portrays this particularly well with the tailor’s wife accusing an elderly poor woman for no reason other than she was there.
As a consequence of the church’s campaign against paganism, some of the ancient practices of pagans were twisted through folklore into Witches’ Sabbaths. The celebrations did exist, but do not directly involve Satan or the devil as portrayed in Häxan. There are eight Sabbaths in the year, known as the Wheel of the Year. Each is typically celebrated on either a solstice or equinox, though some simply mark important dates relevant to the year’s crop such as seeding or harvest. These are your typical folk festivals complete with bon fires and May Poles!
The Sabbaths portrayed in Häxan, however, are straight from the pages of Demonolatry and the Compendium Maleficarum in which witness accounts of these celebrations are recorded. Of course in the Malleus Maleficarum, Demonolatry, and other texts of the time, these celebrations are not called Sabbaths. In the Malleus Maleficarum they are called concionem and referred to as synagogues in other sources, perhaps indicative of anti-Semitic sentiment of the time.
“[…] some of the ancient practices of pagans were twisted through folklore into Witches’ Sabbaths. The celebrations did exist, but …[not] as portrayed in Häxan.“
Nevertheless the portrayal in Häxan is exactly as described in Daemonolatreiae libri tres or Demonolatry which was another witch hunting manual that saw popularity after the Malleus Maleficarum. In this text, author Nicholas Rémy collects accounts from witnesses of several witch trials, and attempts to use those accounts as proof of witchcraft and the works of the devil.
Among these accounts are several reports of people stumbling upon witches’ sabbaths. These eye witnesses are the source for claims that witches would fly off into the night riding goats or dogs or any number of handled tool like a broom or shovel. Here is also found one of my favorite terms to come across in my research, and that is osculum infame – the name attributed to the act of kissing the devil’s butt!
Overall, Häxan provides one of the most entertaining and educational entries into the genre of horror. Especially notable is the surprisingly modern message at the end of the film. There are some issues, though. In the final of the four parts of the film, Christensen attempts to explain the phenomena of the witch trials and contextualize it with modern, that is 1922, psychology.
Though Christensen was on the right track, this is where the almost 100 years of distance in time are most noticeable. Häxan presents the cases described earlier in the film of the woman who leaves her husband asleep in bed and leaves with the devil and that of the possessed nun who stumbles around with a knife. Christensen, having access only to the medical advances of his time, proposes that these are simply symptoms of “female hysteria.”
“For [a] film to still have so much power over an audience today is a feat.”
In case you are unfamiliar, hysteria was used as a catch-all term to diagnose women who suffered from anxiety, sleep disorders, loss of appetite as well as sexual desire and irritability. You know, basic human functions. This was a widely accepted medical diagnosis at the time. Today, the cases in Häxan would more accurately be determined cases of somnambulism or sleep walking as well as sleep paralysis.
Interestingly, it has been proposed that many of the accusations and reports gathered from the accused during the middle ages could possibly be a result of paraphernia, a relative of schizophrenia more common in elderly women that would cause hallucinations and paranoia without any loss of cognition or intellectual capacity.
Regardless, it’s impressive to see such a forward thinking approach from a film that is almost 100 years old.
It’s difficult to put oneself in the mindset of someone in 1922 going to see Häxan in the theater. For the film to still have so much power over an audience today is a feat. In fact, Häxan played during Nightmare on Film Street’s Silver Screams Classic Horror Marathon. If I can quote one comment made during the stream from our spooky podcast host Kimberly Elizabeth, “This documentary is going to give me nightmares… is a thing I’ve never said before[…]”
Häxan is in the public domain, so you can find it on YouTube, but even if you missed the Silver Screams Classic Horror Marathon, you can still watch all of those films including Häxan on the Nightmare on Film Street Facebook page! And while you’re there, give us your thoughts in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook Group as well as on Twitter, Instagram, and the official Nightmare on Film Street subreddit!