Archives For film

I am starting this journey in the early days of American cinema; from its inception in 1895 through its development into a viable culturally-influential industry. I’ve dated this period as “pre-1939.”  Many of you will recognize 1939 as being the release date of Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM)’s classic film The Wizard of Oz, a film that contains the most iconic Hollywood witch in American cultural history.

From 1895 to 1916 moving pictures were just a technical novelty. As film historian Jeanine Basinger said, “No one really took movies very seriously. It was thought that they were a fad.” Most early movies depicted actual events, landscape photography, historical re-enactments or popular stories. (Basinger, American Cinema, 1994)

During these first two decades, only nine American films contained a witch.  Of these nine, five were dramatizations of beloved fantasy stories. The list includes The Magic Sword (1901), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910), His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mary PIckford in Cinderella (1914), and Snow White (1916).

In all of these films, the witch is a non-threatening, non-theological fairy tale construct. Her appearance and behavior recall the circus-clown or court jester with a big round collar and colorful patchwork clothing, or a heavy wizard cape and cone hat.  She plays the role of the buffoon.

William Wenslow's Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

William Wenslow’s Wicked Witch from the original printing of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Because this is the silent film era, filmmakers primarily used visual cues to define character. To do so, they had to draw from pre-cinematic cultural sources in order to speak to their viewers.  The witch as clown motif can be found in still renderings from that time period. It is even a common element in Mother Goose drawings. Additionally, all of these stooped, elderly witches are surrounded by other non-cinematic icons such as brooms, cauldrons, and pointed hats.

The concept of magic focuses on transformation and trickery. For example, In His Majesty the Scarecrow (1914), Mombi the Witch transforms her three ugly companions into beautiful maidens. In Snow White (1916), the witch transforms the Queen from bland to beautiful. The use of magic in this way is reminiscent of something you might find in a Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity (e.g. As You Like It)

Of the earliest nine films, the remaining four did not recreate fantasy stories. However, they have very little influence on the construction of the Hollywood witch. These include a lost animated experimental short called Bewitched Matches (1913). The first filming of Shakespeare’s MacBeth (1916) and an historical narrative called The Witch of Salem (1913).

The fourth film, The Mysteries of Myra (1915), is the most interesting of these early witch movies. The popular seventeen part film serial recounts the tale of Myra Maynard, the daughter of an Occult leader, who is repeatedly hunted by her dead father’s devil-worshipping Order. In each episode, the narrative tackles an Occult subject with no mention of witchcraft until episode thirteen. In this aptly numbered episode, a cloaked witch helps Myra escape the satanic Order.

Film restoration artist Eric Stedman, notes that episode thirteen is the only one to “introduce traditional fantasy – magic and characters rather than concepts derived from then – current spiritualism.”  What spiritualism? He is referring to  the public’s growing interest in Occult practice and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Some of the film’s Occult imagery  recalls the popular images of Crowley himself.  Interestingly, at the time of filming, Crowley was living in New England not terribly far from the production lots in Ithaca, NY.  .

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Shot from one of the Occult scenes from The Mysteries of Myra (1915)

Despite the narrative proximity of witchcraft and Satanism in the serial, the writers clearly separated the two magical practices.  In this way, the witch remained a fantasy construction.  At some point in the pre-cinematic entertainment world, the witch was separated from her satanic connection and became trapped within a fairy tale.  As such, she is denied all theological relevance or esoteric meaning – good or bad.  Although it is outside my exploration, I would speculate that this is the result of Victorian cultural styling and the increasing dominance of rational thought.

Now, let’s move to the period ranging from 1916 to 1932.  During these sixteen years, there is only one Witch film – a lost animated short called At Rainbow’s End (1925).  Why did the witch disappear? At this time movies had transitioned from novelty to commodity. The new industry, now located in California, had to maintain viewer interest through realistic sensationalized marketing strategies.  Remember, this is before the Production Code. The fantasy witch had no place in salacious, adult entertainment and, therefore, disappeared.  (Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture, 1993)

However, by 1932, the world and Hollywood had drastically changed.  Silent films turned to sound (Talkies) and the Hayes Commission began enforcing its Catholic-based moral censorship code. Additionally, the country had lived through a World War, the free-wheeling roaring 1920s and was now in a deep economic depression. Hollywood responded with wholesome, upbeat and glittery escapist films. Not surprisingly the fantasy witch reappears.  From 1932-1939, Hollywood produced five witch films including Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), Betty Boop’s Snow White (1933), Betty Boop’s Baby Be Good (1935), The Greedy Humpty Dumpty (1937) and Disney’s Snow White (1937).

At first glance, these animated witches appear to be similar to the earlier variety.  They are “hags in rags” with cauldrons, brooms and pointy hats.  However, there is a difference.  In Disney’s Babes in the Woods (1932), the witch plays the buffoon, but she is more grotesque in form.  Her pointy face and emaciated body are gangly and sharply angled.  Her clothes, now dark and ragged, are topped with a flowing torn cape.  This iconic look is repeated over and over throughout the period.


Walt Disney’s Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Then in 1937 Disney released what would become his masterpiece – the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  In its wake, the film created a famous American Hollywood witch – the Wicked Queen. She is the first witch to step out of the side-show act and enter the realm of macabre.  Disney’s Queen is an amalgam of the early fairy tale witch, the 1930s animated hag and something new, something darker.  While she is still trapped within the fairy tale narrative, she is frightening and intense in both her forms:  “a hag in rags” and glamorous queen.

In addition, for the first time in Hollywood’s history, we witness the witch as a representative of “transgressive female sexuality.” Film professor Elizabeth Bell notes that Disney’s production papers describe the Queen’s “beauty as sinister, mature [with] plenty of curves.” The Wicked Queen is a femme fatale who is defined as “represent[ing] demonic natural forces that, like a cyclone, threaten to uproot man from himself.”  In this historic film, the Hollywood witch transmutes into what feminist film theorist Barbara Creed calls “the monstrous feminine.”  (Elizabeth Bell, “Somatexts at the Disney Shop,” From Mouse to Mermaid, 1995)

During the Pre-1939 period, the witch began her journey as a side-show act devoid of any esoteric or theological meaning.  By the end, she had transformed into an allegory for the powerful, independent, sexualized woman.  Was this a function of America’s need to reinforce traditional gender roles during the Depression? Or was it simply a function of Disney’s own conservative nature?

In the next post, we’ll move on and follow the transformation.  Next stop, the year 1939 with the release of The Wizard of Oz and the birth of the all-American Hollywood Witch.


I fear that some of us living in the developed “first” world have developed a tendency to romanticize the European witch persecutions of the early modern period, a time where between 35 to 65 thousand men and women were killed for crimes of sorcery and witchcraft. It was so long ago that we have taken to fictionalizing the witch-hunts in films like “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” “Black Death,” and “Season of the Witch.” Blurring the line beyond mere romanticization into utter fantasy, a fantasy fed by the very lies used to initially convict those men and women. This fantasy is problematic not only for the way it warps history in the minds of the uncurious, but because witch-hunting has never stopped. The witch-hunts in Europe may have ended generations ago, but in other parts of the world they are still burning innocents.

Kepari Leniata being burnt to death in Papua New Guinea for the crime of "sorcery."

Kepari Leniata being burnt to death in Papua New Guinea for the crime of “sorcery.”

“A young mother accused of sorcery was stripped naked, doused with petrol and burned alive in front of a crowd including schoolchildren in Papua New Guinea, reports said on Thursday. The woman, named by The National newspaper as Kepari Leniata, 20, was reportedly tortured with a branding iron and tied up, splashed with fuel and set alight on a pile of rubbish topped with car tires. According to the rival Post-Courier newspaper she was torched by villagers who claimed she killed a six-year-old boy through sorcery, with police outnumbered by onlookers and unable to intervene.”

The source of that blaze is a woman. A crowd gathered to watch her die, swept up in the hysteria and panic of the accusation. That is what “killing witches” looks like. In Nigeria, another woman, 70-year-old Rebecca Adewumi, was recently killed for being witch.

“Mrs Adewumi was accused of being responsible for the sickness of a local evangelist. She was dragged to the palace of the monarch, where she was forced to drink local concoctions. The concoctions were given to her to make her confess or die within seven days. But after seven days she did not confess or die. Subsequently local thugs stormed her house. They dragged her under the rain and flogged her. According to a family member, her attackers scrapped her hair with broken bottles and used a big scissors to cut her fingers, then placed her on a tyre and set her ablaze.”

The witch-hunts aren’t some relic of the past, they are happening now. Nor is it isolated to the “third” world.

“A teenage boy underwent “unimaginable physical torture” before being drowned by his sister and her partner because they believed he was a sorcerer who was practising witchcraft, a court heard on Thursday. […] Over four days Kristy, who was visiting his sister from France, was tortured with metal bars, wooden sticks, a hammer and a pair of pliers in a “prolonged attack of unspeakable savagery and brutality”, the court was told.”

We live in a strange time. In America we concoct fantasies about killing “witches,” we build thrillers that suppose our own witch-killings were justified, while thousands are killed by mobs in towns and villages across the world.  Surely we should be feeling some cognitive dissonance, but we seem to accept “The Witch” as just like any other fantasy creature: zombies, werewolves, vampires, winged fairies. We make no real connection to how much our fantasy is built on the horror of killing innocents (and the propaganda that fueled it). Nor do we realize that Hollywood is a global business, and that our fantasies about witch-killing might be seen very differently in lands where witch-hunts have not become a relic of history. For modern Pagans and Witches living in countries where these witch persecutions happen, they are in a constant struggle to change a culture of misinformation and dangerous propaganda (South African Pagans are currently circulating a petition to their Human Rights Commission).

Yesterday I wrote about a large number of film projects featuring witches and witchcraft that are being released this year, and that those of us who identify as Witches should start discerning our response to them, because what pop-culture does impacts our collective thinking and beliefs. This is not because these films are about “us,” but because the lines are far blurrier than we realize. That it’s problematic that we are entertained by fake witches being killed while Christian groups in America fund witch-hunters overseas. Meanwhile, the unscrupulous have no problem issuing polemics that deliberately try to blur the lines further between modern religious Witchcraft and the witch-persecutions. We seem to forget that we are not immune to moral panics here too.

I’m not saying we can’t have fantasy witches riding broomsticks and cackling, I’m simply saying that we can’t enjoy them in a vacuum. When we blur the lines between the fantasy witch and the innocent women and men that were killed in early modern Europe, when we make them the villains while witch-hunts rage and people die in places like Papua New Guinea, we have to start examining what we are saying to ourselves through our art. The reality of burning witches is not fun, entertaining, or exciting, it is horrifying and tragic, it should gain the world’s attention and mobilize us into action. The figure of the witch, in fantasy and reality, has always been a dangerous and complex idea and we cannot ignore what we invoke in its name.

Pop-cultural moments come and go, and the witch has had its share. Each time the figure of the “Witch” means something slightly different, though often focused on the power of women. In the 1940s and 1950s, films like I Married a Witch (1942) and Bell, Book and Candle (1958) showed a witch’s power conquered by their love of a “mortal” man; a trope that was subverted in the 1960s and early 1970s by the television series Bewitched, where it’s clear that Samantha is the smarter, more powerful, partner.


“Samantha was representative of suburban domestic ideals. However, at a time when women were beginning to have their horizons broadened, Samantha’s supernatural abilities conjured up the promise of women’s liberation and the unleashing of female power that was to come.” 

However, this particular theme of housewife witches turned to darker territory in the late 1960s and the 1970s. You had the Satanic coven in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) trying for an Antichrist, and the evil witch coven in Suspiria (1977), perhaps reflecting the darker turn culture took during that era. When you start examining witches in movies, you’ll see the pendulum swinging back and forth, empowerment, and fear of that very empowerment. By the 1990s, the rising religious Witchcraft movement started influencing these films, blurring the lines between the fantasy witch and real Witches, most evident in films like The Craft (1996) and television shows like Charmed (1998) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997). Still, the evil fantasy witch persisted during this time, most famously in The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Today, the figure of the fantasy witch, influenced both by religious Witchcraft, and the pop-cultural ups and downs of previous generations, seems more popular than ever. In an atmosphere where vampires, werewolves, and zombies are big box office, there seems to be an ongoing expectation that witches will join that pantheon of tortured pathos and veiled commentary about modern life. This time television led the way with witches (and sometimes Wiccans) regularly appearing in True Blood, (the now-canceled) Secret Circle, and The Vampire Diaries. This year, 2013, seems to be the biggest yet, with a variety of big-budget films featuring an assortment of good and bad witches heading to the screens, starting with the (by all accounts very bad) movie Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

That clunker of a film will soon give way to something even darker, Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem which seems very much an homage to the Rosemary’s Baby/Suspiria Satanic witch-meme.

Before that hits this Fall, we’ll have Oz The Great And Powerful in March, which updates the “good” and “bad” witches of that fantasy world, a prequel to the film version of The Wizard of Oz, perhaps the most famous film featuring witches (a film which has been reevaluated in recent years thanks to the musical Wicked).

Those are only the beginning. We also have The Seventh Son and Beautiful Creatures on the way this year, and another witch-hunting movie, The Last Witch Hunter, slated for next year. Television will also see a new witch-themed series in Witches of East End out this year, joining an already-impressive lineup of fictional witches and spell-casters on cable and network TV.

I’m commenting on this now because I think it’s important that we start discerning what all these witches are telling the viewers. What does the witch do? Is witchcraft evil? Good? A neutral technology? What theology, if any, is included in these works? How will it reflect on those of us who call ourselves Witches in the real world? As much as some of us would like to simply ignore pop-culture, we know first-hand that it does inspire people to seek out the “real” thing. Those of us who lived through the “Teen Witch” boom of the 1990s know how powerful films like The Craft were in making kids curious about Wicca and other forms of religious Witchcraft. 

A still from "The Craft."

A still from “The Craft.”

Organizations and groups that advocate for modern Witchcraft will have to be ready to field questions, to handle journalists that will inevitably want to talk to “real” Witches when these various films come out, and to deal with blatant self-promoters who want to grab this moment by the tail. As “witches” join the paranormal urban fantasy soup in greater and greater numbers, we will have to be savvier than ever, because these works  do shift perceptions, and we can’t ignore their magic.

Winnipeg is a city of 691,800 people nestled in the Southern portion of Manitoba, Canada.  It is the capital of this central providence and the 8th largest metropolis in the country. On the map, Winnipeg is about 90 miles north of the U.S. border and 650 miles NW of Minneapolis, Minnesota. According to the tourism industry, Winnipeg calls itself a “little big city” and the “cultural cradle of Canada.”


City of Winnipeg
Photo Credit: donnieslarue, Flickr

Within all its hustle and bustle, Winnipeg is home to a group of people who call themselves the WinniPagans. It’s a catchy term; the origins of which are unknown. However, it is used endearingly to refer to a small, tightly-knit community of approximately 600 Pagans who live in and around Winnipeg. In 2012, these WinniPagans became the subject of a short documentary that was written, produced and directed by one of their own, Dodie Graham McKay.

Dodie, a native of Winnipeg, is an indie filmmaker who found a love of filmmaking through unexpected circumstance. In 2005, after returning from living in England, Dodie needed a job – any job.  With a friend’s help, she was hired as a production coordinator in a local documentary film office. From there she learned filmmaking skills which eventually led to her co-directing the documentary-short, “West Central: A View From Here” with her husband, Jeff McKay.

Filmmakers Dodie McKay & Jeff McKay

Filmmakers Dodie McKay & Jeff McKay

“WinniPagans” is Dodie’s first solo “flight.”  She recalls:

My high school English teacher used to say “Write about something you love”. When I wanted to make my first film I had to think about what I love that would be the subject for my project. My pagan community was the first and foremost thing I could think of.  

The 25-minute documentary explores this thriving Pagan community that resides in Canada’s cultural cradle. Dodie remarks:

“I really felt quite strongly that this community was due for some sort of document to mark the progress we have made. Many of the folks in the film have been active since our community went public in the mid to late 1980s and I wanted to capture some of these stories before they are forgotten.”

In late 2011 Dodie took her idea to MTS, a local telecom company that finances and airs indie films about Manitoba that are produced by local filmmakers. As explained by Craig Lawrence of MTS’ communication department:

MTS TV (Manitoba Telecom Service) supports community producers through Local Expression funding as a condition of our license as a broadcast distribution undertaking (BDU) in Canada… “Stories from Home” programming is quite varied and often represents a personal connection between the filmmaker and the subject, resulting in programming that – like The WinniPagans – can offer glimpses into different ways of life. 

Because of her experience, Dodie had a golden opportunity to pitch “WinniPagans” to Cam Bennett, executive director of “Stories from Home.”  He readily accepted the project and production began on January 21, 2012.


The film’s small budget consisted of a crew of four with other on-and-off camera volunteers from within the Pagan community.  Production lasted through April 29th with three months of post-production.  In September of 2012, Dodie delivered the final edited product to MTS.  She recalls:

I was so excited that MTS liked the show and accepted it as it was. They even gave us some cash to rent the local art house cinema for a premiere screening. The executive producer, Cam Bennett, asked me if there was a special Pagan holiday coming up. At that point Samhain was the next big date so he offered to make that the broadcast premiere.”

winnipeg cinemathequeOn Monday October 29th, the film premiered at the Cinematheque Art House. Before the actual screening, musician Glen Hoban performed and Kate Bitney read from her book of poetry entitled “Firewalk.”  Then, Cam Bennett stood up to offer some words about the film and to introduce Dodie.

“I was a bundle of nerves the night of the premiere. Just before the doors opened I went to the bathroom to splash some water on my face and then the magnitude of what I had done hit me full force – who did I think I was making a film about my own community? I live here and these are my own people, the people I care about, my friends and fellow pagans. My heart was in my mouth as I went out to make my speech and introduce the film, I was so nervous! As the film was playing I sat in the back of the cinema and listened to the 80 or so viewers as they laughed at the funny parts and clapped when they saw familiar faces, it was great! Nobody chucked rotten fruit or stormed out! The response was terrific. Folks seem to be appreciating the spirit of the thing and enjoy the way we are portrayed.”

After the screening, many of the viewers thanked Cam Bennett for his support and in doing so caught him completely off-guard.  Like so many Pagan communities, the WinniPagans rarely have the opportunity to see themselves, or any Pagan, visually portrayed without sensationalized imagery or stereotypes. Even when such a documentary is made, it is rarely funded and openly supported by a mainstream corporation. Cam Bennett didn’t expect the profound level of appreciation that he and MTS would receive.

Since November 3, 2012, “WinniPagans” has been airing on the MTS’ “Stories from Home” series. The film has also been screened in Southern Ontario and in Montreal.  Dodie’s visual story documenting the lives of “her people” has now touched Pagans across Canada’s wide expanse.   She said, “It was exciting to see that you didn’t have to be from Winnipeg to really get something out of the story.”

Why has the story been warmly received?  She attributes its success to some of the intangibles inherent in film production. When a Pagan filmmaker creates a film about his or her own Pagan community, the main production elements (visuals, narrative emphasis and pacing) will be different than when a non-Pagan (or Hollywood) produces the same film. The goal is different.  The perspective is different.  The entire feeling left in the viewers lap will, as a result, be different.

Dodie made a film about what she sees everyday; not what people want to see.  The film is a slice of life documentary – a true “reality show,” if you will.  In this way, it provides a unique opportunity for Pagan viewers to hypothetically cross the threshold of the silver screen and be themselves.  And, it offers the world a chance to see real Witches – minus the glamour of a Hollywood back lot.

Dodie McKay, Glen Hoban, Norm Dugas

Dodie McKay with musician Glen Hoban,
and sound editor Norm Dugas

What’s next for Dodie?  She is currently working on her second film for MTS about a long-time local social activist.  After that, she hopes to expand the “WinniPagan” project into a longer piece about Canadian Pagans, in general.  She has already been offered support from a number of Pagan communities across the country.

Want to see the film?  At this time, “WinniPagans” is only available to MTS’ customers through the on-demand service. However, she will be holding screenings at Paganicon in Minneapolis in March and at Gaia Gathering in Gatineau Quebec in May.  Not attending either event? Dodie will be selling the film online starting in April. All profits from the sale will be donated to a scholarship fund that offsets travel expenses to Gaia Gathering. To keep up with Dodie and the film’s happenings, you can follow the “WinniPagans” FaceBook fan page.

NOTE:  I was not able to view the film in its entirety before this post. Due to an unexpected blizzard in Winnipeg, mail has been delayed. However, after I receive a copy, I will post a complete film review and update.

Yesterday, and in less than a week, The Wild Hunt’s Fall Fund Drive met, and then surpassed, its $6000 dollar goal. While I was always confident that this campaign would eventually meet its goal, I had no idea it would do so with such alacrity. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of my readers, my community, in helping The Wild Hunt go independent once again. To fund a new vision for the site, and Pagan news. So thank you, whether you donated $5, $50, or $500 dollars, you all made this happen. The campaign will stay up through November, and any donation above the $600 goal number will go towards a travel and a materials stipend for our reporters, and perhaps even towards paying additional contributors. So once again, thank you, thank you, thank you. The links lists, Fall Funders list, new underwriting affiliates, and supporter graphics will be going up soon (honestly, I had no idea I would make my goal this fast).

Fall fund large

Now that I’ve shared that happy news, let’s have a few news links, shall we?

  • You may have seen a wire story about a pagan rock carving in Morocco being destroyed by ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslims. Turns out that the report of the sun-divinity’s image being destroyed may have been greatly exaggerated. Quote: “The Moroccan government has denied that an 8,000-year-old rock engraving depicting the Sun as a divinity has been destroyed in the south of the country in an attack residents had blamed on ultra-orthodox Salafi Muslims. Communications Minister Mustafa el-Khalfi took journalists to the site of the pagan engraving in the Toukbal National Park to demonstrate that reports of its destruction were untrue.” So, I guess the lesson here is “pics or it didn’t happen.”
A not-destroyed petroglyph inToukbal National Park.

A not-destroyed petroglyph inToukbal National Park.

That’s all for now, have a great day, and thank you for supporting The Wild Hunt!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

  • Noted early-music performer Owain Phyfe, a long-time fixture on the Renaissance Faire circuit, science fiction conventions, and Pagan festivals like Pagan Spirit Gathering, passed away this week from pancreatic cancer. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, who knew Owain, had this to say about the musician: “Thank you, Owain, for good times, friendship, & carrying on the bardic tradition with old & new songs & stories! Thank you for being part of the Pagan Spirit Gathering & Green Spirit Festival! Blessings of our Welsh ancestor Owain Glyndwr, upon you as you make your way in Annwn, the Otherworld!” You can find out more about Owain at his Wikipedia page, or this article from Renaissance Magazine. What is remembered lives.
  • How do you stop a witch-hunt from happening? In rural India, groups of women who met through micro-loan programs are banding together in solidarity to resist the hysteria that can come with an accusation of witchcraft, and have met with some success. Quote: “In one case, a woman was accused of causing disease in livestock and an attack was planned. Members of the self-help groups gathered in a vigil around the woman’s home and surrounded the accuser’s home as well, stating their case to the accuser’s wife. Eventually the wife intervened and her husband recanted and ‘begged for forgiveness.'” So how do stop witch-hunts? Empowering women seems an important first step.
  • Brian Pulliam, a racist skinhead who has been arrested in connection with a double homicide, is receiving scrutiny for his Asatru faith, which he believes requires him to drink alcohol. The story has prompted a representative of the local Asatru community in the Albuquerque, New Mexico area to speak up and clarify their beliefs, distancing themselves from Pulliam. Quote: “…his claims that Asatru requires him to consume mead for various holidays during the year are baseless. While many of us choose to drink mead or other alcoholic beverages during our celebrations, there is absolutely no requirement to do so. People whose medications won’t allow them to drink alcohol, those who are underage, and active service members in the Middle East, to name just a few examples, are capable of fully celebrating without mead.” The author, Sorn Skald, also noted that Pulliam’s racism would not be welcome in the group with which he worships.
  • The Vancouver Sun has more on the unfolding controversy over Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ move to stop the issuing of new contracts for minority-faith chaplains, including a Wiccan chaplain, because he’s “not convinced” that it is needed. Quote: “For the past six years, Wiccan priestess Kate Hansen has been visiting federal inmates across British Columbia who follow the pagan religion, guiding them in meditation and leading them in prayerful chants […] “If they choose to scrap this, they’re denying the rights of all of these people – their access to spiritual advisement of the religion of their choice,” Hansen told Postmedia News.” For more on this situation, read my post from yesterday, and be sure to check out the comments section, which features input from a Canadian Pagan prison chaplain.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Preliminary Australian Census numbers. (PaganDash)

Preliminary Australian Census numbers. (PaganDash)

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

I was somewhat shocked to discover that the 1985 Australian documentary about Pagan and occult religions, “The Occult Experience,” had been posted to Vimeo (Last year!) by one of the co-producers. Up till now, if you wanted a copy, you either had to track down the out-of-print VHS, watch it in low-quality VHS-ripped pirate copy excerpts on Youtube, or obtain it (illegally) through torrent sites. But now, here it is, a very nice (legal) digital rip from a VHS copy of the master print.

In it you’ll see vintage clips of still-active Pagan elders like Selena Fox, Margot Adler, and Janet Farrar, in addition to some classic footage of now-passed figures within our community. Because it’s not an American documentary, Skyclad ritual, a Satanic human “altar,” and Alex Sanders accidentally lighting his crotch on fire are on unembarrassed display (though it may not be safe for work, depending on where you work). This being the 1980s, Satanists and Pagans are included together, as is a sequence featuring the surrealistic world of “Aliens” concept artist HR Giger.

While Chas Clifton is rightfully peeved at the film’s many flaws, it is an important historical document. Not necessarily for the footage of our elders when they were young, though that’s interesting, but to transmit how people viewed “the occult” back in the 1980s. The work veers between the sensationalistic and lurid, to more prosaic hands-off documentation. The narration is somewhat diabolical, constantly hinting that we’re entering forbidden, hidden, worlds. Despite its many flaws, it does give a rather international picture of the Pagan and esoteric underground during that era, and should be essential viewing for any scholar or student of modern Paganism’s past.

If the atmosphere in “The Occult Experience” was slightly sinister, and sometimes voyeuristic, a counter-point would be the “Women and Spirituality” series directed by Donna Read. Here we had a woman-directed film series that encapsulated the Goddess/feminine spirituality movement of that era. The first volume, 1989’s “Goddess Remembered,” followed by “The Burning Times,” and 1993’s “Full Circle,” featured several notable movement figures like Starhawk, Carol Christ, and Merlin Stone.

That trilogy of films were highly sympathetic to modern Goddess worshipers, and avoided the sins of more exploitational works from that period, but also encapsulated some of the disputed and debunked history that arose from that culture. These films are an important landmark in documenting Pagan voices, and are an important historical record of how we thought about issues of history and identity during that era.

Today, we might be entering into a truly exciting period for documentaries made by, about, and for, modern Pagans. There’s the upcoming television documentary about Gerald Gardner, which features Ronald Hutton, author of “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,”and Philip Heselton, author of “Gerald Gardner And the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft,” in addition to the excellent 2011 documentary “American Mystic” (Facebook page), directed Alex Mar (read my interview with Alex Mar here), which featured Morpheus Ravenna along with members of Stone City Pagan Sanctuary. As a whole, Pagans today are more media-savvy, willing to get behind the camera (Jo Carson’s “Dancing With Gaia,” for example), and more proactive in making sure the finished product isn’t a mere side-show for curious onlookers.

Pagan and esoteric practitioners are also creating feature films, and that mini-movement may also greatly influence how future documentaries are made and approached. Taken together, you can see how far we’ve come since 1985, how Pagans have moved from being a curiosity (or figure of fear) to a movement that has far more agency and direction over how we are portrayed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

One of my favorite films is the 1973 cult-classic “The Wicker Man.” Set in a remote Scottish island, it pits a priggish Christian police officer against a population that has rejected Christianity in favor of a revived Paganism. As the policeman slowly unravels the mystery of a missing girl, he’s drawn ever tighter into a conspiracy that will seal his fate. While the slow-burning plot is serviceable, it’s really the atmospherics, songs, and attention to detail that make the film transcendent (by the way, if you aren’t watching the restored extended version of the film, you are truly missing out). Many modern Pagans have embraced “The Wicker Man” over the years for transmitting an idyllic vision of Pagan culture that portrayed the inhabitants as happy, cheerful, and well-adjusted. As Lord Summerisle says during the film: “We don’t commit murder hereWe’re a deeply religious people.” Indeed, in the minds of the inhabitants, Sgt. Howie’s dreadful fate isn’t murder at all, but the ramifications of choices he unwittingly made during the film.

Still from 1973's "The Wicker Man".

Still from 1973's "The Wicker Man".

Like many cult films, there had been talk for years about a sequel, or a remake. The remake happened in 2006, a disaster of a film starring an inane and overacting Nicolas Cage. The film managed to remove nuance and any sympathetic characters from its treatment, and is largely seen as an unintentional comedy today (despite that, Cage is talking sequel). Then came word that a follow-up to the 1973 film, written and directed by Robin Hardy, who also directed the original, was in the works. Originally titled “Cowboys For Christ,” the new film would be a spiritual “companion” to the original film, not a direct sequel.  In production for years, and beset by money problems early on, the film, renamed “The Wicker Tree,” finally hit the festival circuit in 2011. It got mixed reviews at Fantasia 2011 and FrightFest 2011, with Total Film complaining that the new film had a “near-absence of momentum or intrigue.”

Now, at the beginning of 2012, “The Wicker Tree” is finally seeing a limited theatrical release. Andy Webster at The New York Times gives it a sympathetic review, but notes that it can’t live up to the “raw, earthy and mythic power” of the original film.

“In “The Wicker Tree,” two born-again Texans, Beth (the fresh-faced if one-dimensional newcomer Brittania Nicol) and Steve (Henry Garrett, slightly better), bring drawls, a cowboy hat and door-to-door evangelizing to rural Scotland (played unconvincingly by genteel Oxford), only to be drawn into a similar conspiracy, led by the nuclear-power magnate Lachlan Morrison (Graham McTavish, vainly trying to match the presence of the original’s Christopher Lee, who makes a cameo here).

Again, the town’s natives are a randy lot, with Honeysuckle Weeks playing the Britt Ekland temptress role and providing abundant nudity. But the decadence is more restrained; the gore, as before, is minimal. Inside references — animal carcasses, a costume horse-head, a sun pendant — drop in amid innovations, like an amusing crow’s-eye perspective. But finding sympathy for the leads isn’t as easy as it was for the forceful if self-righteous Woodward. Still, “The Wicker Tree” does manage to leave you with a haunted, agreeable unease.”

But will Pagans enjoy this new version? Pagan author and philosopher Brendan Myers has seen it, and gives it a thoughtful, somewhat positive, review.

“In a way, the film is about the inexorability of fate: Lord Summerisle himself says as much in a cameo appearance. So the plot of the film is an unfolding of Beth and Steve’s fate. We as audience members know what is going to happen: all the mystery and surprise is in how it happens. In that sense the film is a bit like a prequel. […] I must also say, there were some moments at the end I genuinely didn’t expect. Beth and Steve met their fate as we knew they would, but the shock you feel when director Robin Hardy’s thesis is revealed – the thesis that great evil can come when people’s beliefs in the rightness of their actions is strong enough – came from an unexpected direction. This too helped make up for the weaknesses of the film: the unstable union of comedy and tragedy, the wooden-ness (dare I say wicker-ness?) of some of the characters. I’d give the film three out of five stars, although somehow I feel as if I should be giving it more. There’s still lots of depth and richness to be explored in the world of the Wicker Man, and lots more terrors to be seen as well. Robin Hardy, if you’re reading this, I hereby volunteer to write the script for the third film.”

Most mainstream reviewers are pointing out that this new film simply can’t live up to the original film, and that Hardy’s sensibilities as a director are a touch out of step with modern mores. I predict the consensus will be that “The Wicker Tree” is a noble failure that tries and ultimately fails to capture the magic of “The Wicker Man.” Better, by far, than the remake, but still a flawed attempt to “update” the basic story for a modern audience. Still, I’m interested to see what the wider Pagan response to this new film will be, and I look forward to judging the picture for myself.

I think that “The Wicker Man” caught hold of something at just the right time, British psychedelic folk and folk-rock bands were still riding high, occult practices and modern Paganism were becoming something more than an oddity, and this film seemed like a tuning fork that vibrated to the tensions and possibilities of that era. It became a touchstone for those who recognized that tension within their own lives, the desire to create a new world, to live in a new context, to break from the “straight” Christian world. The intrusion of Howie, and his undoing, can be read as a parable for the irreconcilable differences between the mainstream and the counterculture, the end of a “fool” who thinks this society should play by his rules. In a way, it is much like “The Exorcist,” which also played on tensions between cultures, but for different reasons, and to different ends.

I’m generally not a fan of remakes, and I think attempts to bottle the magic of “The Wicker Man,” no matter how faithful or well-pedigreed, will run into problems. Put simply, we live in different times, and the nature of tensions between Christianity and competing faiths and philosophies are different.  I think an excellent film can be made about those tensions, but I fear “The Wicker Tree” will not be that film.

For those wanting to see the extended version of “The Wicker Man”, you can still get it used for a reasonable price.