Welcome to the latest edition of Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a look at a classic old Hollywood horror film or hidden gem. We’ll explore its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror. Since May is Folk Horror month here on Nightmare on Film Street, we’ll be looking at Haxan (1922), a film that was a remarkable influence on the folk horror of today.
Inspired by Ancient Evil
A young woman leaves her medieval cottage in the middle of the night. Drawn by the seductive call of Satan himself, she wanders naked through the midnight forest, silhouetted against the full moon and craggy trees. Many modern horror fans might assume I’m describing the finale of Robert Egger’s 2015 folk horror masterpiece The Witch. In fact, this sequence is from a silent documentary from 1922! It may come as a surprise that a Swedish docu-drama has had such a lasting influence on the aesthetic of folk horror, but Haxan was a groundbreaking film in many ways. It was a genre breaker and a genre maker. It was the most expensive Swedish film made at the time, and it was deemed so shocking and perverse that it was banned throughout the United States. It still maintains its power to enthrall and disturb to this day.
Director Benjamin Christensen conceived of the idea for Haxan after coming across a copy of Malleus Maleficarum in a Berlin bookstore in 1919. The 1487 treatise, also known as The Hammer of Witches, was written the disgraced German clergyman Heinrich Kramer. It is the most detailed text on late medieval beliefs about witchcraft, and it contains instructions for how to discover and persecute witches. Christensen was spellbound and immediately dove into two years of research on witch hunts.
Christensen approached Haxan as a serious academic study of witch hysteria, but his incredible cinematic eye ended up revolutionizing the documentary genre. Haxan functions almost exactly like the docu-dramas of today. Historical images are presented in the manner of an academic lecture but are interspersed with dramatic re-enactments — sometimes as dramatized vignettes or full-blown mini-narratives. In the same year that Nanook of the North defined the structure of a traditional documentary, Haxan foresaw the multimedia docudramas that flourish on TV and streaming services today. All the while, Christensen created authentic aesthetic and pioneering effects that still influence horror films today.
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Spells, Sabbaths, and Satan
Haxan begins with a series of slides and title cards presented in a style reminiscent of a college lecture. Christensen addresses the audience directly throughout the film, indicating himself as the narrator of what he states is an informative and accurate investigation. But after several slides explaining the cosmological and religious beliefs of the ancient world, it becomes clear that we’re in for far more than your average lecture. By the time we get to an explanation of the medieval cosmology, we are seeing the spheres of heaven, the stars, and the heavenly hosts brought to life in a stunning combination of animation and live-action. Next, we get a fully animated look at the medieval idea of hell, achieved through paper cut out puppetry and smoke effects — with particular focus on the torments of the damned and the delighted demons.
“[Haxan] sets up the powerful visual aesthetic that will eventually come to define folk horror — the intrusion of terrifying images upon rural, historical settings.”
All of a sudden, we are thrust into the dreamlike histories of Haxan. We follow an extended re-enactment of a witch’s underground operation in 15th century Germany, with her assistants returning from grave robbing expeditions and a repeat customer in need of love potions. These scenes, like all the re-enactments of Haxan, have a stunning aura of a painting come to life. They feel simultaneously romantic and rawly authentic. Christensen shot the film mostly at night and used tinting to grant Haxan a dark, moody and authentic atmosphere. The film sets up the powerful visual aesthetic that will eventually come to define folk horror — the intrusion of terrifying images upon rural, historical settings.
As soon as the live-action sequences kick-off, it seems as if the overly dry and academic beginning of the film was entirely intentional. Christensen demonstrates a dark sense of humor throughout Haxan, and it would be very much his style to trick the viewer into believing they are attending a lecture before plunging them into a nightmare come to life. Fittingly — the director himself plays the role of Satan, and he’s clearly having a blast. With his massive horns and reptilian tongue action, he debuts with what is probably horror’s first jump scare. A monk sits in a dark room, solitarily transcribing a book when a towering demon suddenly shoots up from behind the writing desk. It’s a jump scare in the most classic sense, with a moment of buildup before the shock, which no doubt caused audiences to jump in the same manner as the poor monk. This was a full five years before Lon Chaney’s face shocked audiences in The Phantom of the Opera, And it speaks again to the pioneering impact of Haxan in horror.
Haxan used pioneering special effects to bring the medieval vision of witchcraft to life, using superimposed imagery to show witches flying over villages and treetops and leaving their sleeping bodies, reversed film to make coins fly from a table into the air, and more. Christensen uses every trick in the book to pull the viewer deeper into the world of witchcraft — then he presents you with scenes of unabashed horror that are too enthralling to look away from.
“Christensen uses every trick in the book to pull the viewer deeper into the world of witchcraft — then he presents you with scenes of unabashed horror that are too enthralling to look away from.”
The most famous sequence of the film is actually a scene within a scene. An extended dramatization of a 15th-century witch trial makes up part 3 of the film. During the torture of the first accused, the old woman confesses to being a witch, names more witches, and describes a witches’ sabbath in all its gory details. The sabbath is depicted as described, and we see unbaptized infants being drained of blood and tossed into a cauldron, women desecrating a cross, naked witches copulating with demons, people lining up to kiss the devil on his unmentionables, and the accursed old woman giving birth to horrible, tentacled monsters. Christensen makes a point to not hold back in his direct interpretation of one of the historical documents he worked with, and the resulting film is shocking even by today’s standards. The horror of the imagery, along with the nudity, blasphemy, and overall depiction of the Church as corrupt, leering, and sadistic, makes it clear why Haxan was widely banned at the time of its release.
Haxan eventually concludes in 1922, with Christensen theorizing that witchcraft can be explained by a lack of understanding of mental illnesses. It’s not an entirely flawed theory, but this is the point where Haxan really starts to show its age. Much is made of how symptoms of “hysteria” might explain the behavior of accused witches. We know now that hysteria is an inaccurate and inherently sexist mental illness. Christensen also fails to recognize that witch hunts were also a symptom of misogyny and a response to the perceived threat of latent Paganism against the power of the church in Europe. More emotionally, the scholarly conclusion of Haxan is a bit of a let down after the horrifying and off the wall imagery of the rest of the film.
But despite some dated shortcomings, Haxan remains a groundbreaking work of genre-bending horror. Its disorienting imagery made it a favorite of surrealists, the Beat Generation, and the Counterculture. In fact, for some time the most commonly available version of the film was a 1968 re-release with narration by Beat and postmodern artist William S. Burroughs and a jazz score by Daniel Humair. Today, you can enjoy the Swedish Film Institute restoration of the film with a reconstructed original score via the Criterion Collection, both on DVD and streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Haxan’s influence on folk horror can be seen everywhere. The Witch owes a particular debt to the film. Robert Eggers used historical sources to inspire the visuals, dialogue and scares of his film — just as Christensen did 93 years earlier. Like The Witch, Haxan proves that the imaginations of medieval Europeans (or 16th century Puritans) were capable of conjuring deeply frightening and disturbing visions of evil. It’s these historical fears that form the basis of folk horror. It’s no accident that when a group of film students set out to make a documentary and witchcraft inspired horror film, they named their new studio Haxan Films. That film was, of course, The Blair Witch Project (1999).
If you want to witness a film that is genuinely horrifying, often darkly funny, and always bizarre, watch Haxan. If you want to see a film that predicted contemporary docu-dramas and influenced folk horror before the subgenre even existed, watch Haxan. It’s a fever dream of violence and dark magic that recreates witch hysteria like no film since. Give it a watch on a stormy night, and prepare to be bewitched. Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams!
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