The rather well-known phrase “as above, so below“—as stated in the title of this piece— comes from the religious, philosophical and esoteric tradition of Hermeticism, which follows Hermes Trismegistus, or the thrice-great Hermes. More specifically, this phrase descends from a school of thought in The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, which states, “That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above…” This is a meditation on the ebb and flow of the universe; whatever happens on any level of reality also happens on each other level of reality. More colloquially it is used to embody the tides of the universe and the relationship between oneself and the universe. Witchcraft tends to follow that same philosophy, which is why this phrase is often associated with the craft. The ability of the individual to understand, interpret and manipulate the workings of the universe is one way of understanding witchcraft. However, this piece is not about whether any single person reading this actually believes that witchcraft is real or not (on any sort of plane) but rather about why witchcraft has captured so many artists, especially filmmakers, throughout time.
Looking specifically at witchcraft—and not magic in the larger sense, which can be associated historically with multiple genders—there is an obvious connection to women and social issues, particularly male violence, general misogyny and the forced silencing of women. For example, not a single woman accused or otherwise in the Salem witch trials was actually practicing the craft (from simple herbalism to divination or necromancy…none of it). In fact, the trials were entirely caused by a combination of deeply seeded misogyny, racism, and classism which grew rampant throughout the town. More generally, the burning or hanging of alleged witches and the general fear of these women was significantly caused by a fear of women who avoided social norms. This is not just a colonialist American or medieval European issue. In classical Greece and Rome, witches of myth were seen as manipulative and virulent beings and were associated with the bad and uncouth. Hecate/Hekate, the Greek goddess of magic, is viewed much differently than Hermes, who was also associated with magic.
There are many stereotypes invoked by films which center around witchcraft. They range from the old ugly hag (Hocus Pocus), the alluring temptress who curses men (The Love Witch) and the innocent girl who gets lured into “following Satan” (The Witch). These negative connotations of witches or witchcraft actually stem from a history of misogyny. It is important to note these films are more of a commentary on this particular way of viewing witchcraft and therefore women. Using The Witch as an example: Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a young teenage girl living in colonial America. This is a time when tensions are high and anyone (particularly women) seen as other are cast from society. Thomasin’s family was banished from their village at the beginning of the film, and as a result, lived in isolation. The plot essentially follows Thomasin being accused of witchcraft (and other devilish things which live in the woods) by her family, until it reaches a violent bloody peak.
To get a historical perspective on The Witch: the patterns of witchcraft accusations in Europe shifted extremely from 1450 to 1550. Before this time period, individual witch hunting was more popular, and what witches actually were was seen as fairly elusive and was more associated with heresy than anything extraordinarily malicious. After this time, witchcraft persecutions took on a much more misogynistic tone, and women became the only target. This also led to witches being accused of specifically satanic worship, which is not actually a tenet of the craft. This exact mindset bled into America during the colonial period. The Witch studies this misogynistic sentiment in detail as we follow Thomasin’s story. Thomasin is blamed for the disappearance of her baby brother—partially a result of unfair responsibility being placed on a young woman—and her parents begin to accuse her of meddling in something other. Thomasin, amidst the accusations of her family, begins to actually turn towards the other and begins to believe what they tell her she is. Eventually, Satan comes to her in the form of Black Phillip, the family’s goat, and asks of Thomasin: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” She answers in the affirmative, giving her soul over to the darkness her family thought they had seen in her before.
The Love Witch is an especially interesting case study. It delves into the nearly constant stereotype that pins a woman as a femme fatale. Throughout mythological history, temptresses have been portrayed in a variety of forms: most commonly sirens, mermaids, nymphs, faeries and of course witches. Quite famously, the beautiful sirens of The Odyssey, daughters of the river god Achelous, sing and attempt to seduce Odysseus/Ulysses to his death (they are only unsuccessful in this quest because Circe had warned him ahead of time). In The Love Witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses love spells and potions along with her beguiling looks to lure men towards her so that she may ultimately kill them.
Although Elaine falls into the archetype of the temptress, she uses her role to commentate on the men around her. She has become a temptress and killer of men because of the misogyny she has experienced, which I find fascinating. An immensely impactful line, Elaine talks about how all of her life she had been cast aside, except for when men wanted her body. In her craft, she has reclaimed her agency, her feminity and her body for herself. The Love Witch takes a role historically given to women with misogynistic intent and uses it for the purpose of empowerment. “According to the experts, men are very fragile,” Elaine observes “They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way.”
Suspiria (both 1977 and 2018) is a deeply interesting take on witchcraft, particularly given the intentionally violent, brutal and vicious women in both films. Although there are many differences between the two versions, the original Italian cult classic, and the new remake, they both explore the possibilities of a tumultuous and gory world in which most of the players are women. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is one of my favorite films, and easily my favorite horror film of all time. A bloody, vibrant, technicolor painted feverish death dream. I adore it deeply, and I especially enjoy that there was a conscious choice not to force the witches into any sort of role; they are entirely witches of Argento’s own creation, a force unto themselves. Additionally, the women are the victims, villains, heroes, etc.; the men have hardly any bearing on the plot, simply a passing cameo. Everything revolves around the thrumming power of united women. The coven, whom all draw power from their leaders as well as each other and the students, who rely on information and advice from each other as a means of survival. When the students are murdered, they are murdered in solitude. Pat dies alone in a bathroom, and Sara dies alone outside Suzy’s room while Suzy is passed out. Suzy lives because of the knowledge she has gained from her female friends.
The witches in Suspiria are, as I stated earlier, deeply savage and nearly uncontrollable in their brutality. They fight desperately for their power, for no reason other than their thirst for it. This is strangely human. Additionally, their womanhood doesn’t determine their desires or morals or how they act as witches and use their power for murderous evil. In this, I find Suspiria to be strangely refreshing. There are definitely moments to criticize, particularly Argento’s odd fascination with violence directed towards women; however, overall the fact that nearly every player in the story is female creates an engaging dynamic.
There are so many films and television shows which I haven’t touched on in this article and won’t be able to, just because of the sheer number. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, witchcraft has always been something which has fascinated filmmakers, writers and artists alike for centuries. Perhaps it’s because it is something they will never fully understand, perhaps it is the strange power of women, or perhaps something entirely different. Some may use witchcraft as a lens through which they hope to understand women or to portray women in the way they desire, negative or otherwise. Witchcraft in this context is a reflection of society itself and how society comprehends and digests what womanhood means.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.