Though witchcraft is often used as an allegory for specific contemporary social issues, its perennial popularity hints at something more universal. SARAH WARD looks at key texts from a number of eras in order to find out why the filmic witch refuses to die.
As a term, a practice and a label commonly denouncing spiritual activities that defy dominant beliefs, witchcraft comes to the screen loaded with meaning. Over the course of centuries of human existence, it has become shorthand for preternatural opposition to or deviance from normality --and during just over a century of cinema, filmic depictions have reinforced and dissected this interpretation. The best movie contemplations understand the extremes of individuality and conformity inherent in the word, as filtered through and heightened by the presence or suspicion of the occult. More than that, they acknowledge the power that even daring to mention witchcraft can have, and the complicated societal splinters and fright-driven reactions it can cause.
So it is that a girl's claims of otherworldly influences sets Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible in motion--and the 1957 (Raymond Rouleau) and 1996 (Nicholas Hytner) film versions that followed even if witchcraft itself isn't uttered in her exclamations. 'I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Goody Osborne with the Devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!" (1) erupts Abigail Williams, mere moments before the first act comes to a close. The seventeen-year-old's outburst evolves from a heated line of questioning regarding the state of her ten-year-old cousin Betty Parris, who has been found silent and motionless, causing her father, Salem's Reverend Samuel Parris, to worry. The evening prior, the two girls were spied cavorting in the woods with a group of the town's other youths, with gossip about the nature of their nocturnal wanderings now circling. Gathered by Betty's bedside with her friends, Abigail is subjected to panicked inquiries by a congregation of the town's elders, including local witchcraft expert Reverend John Hale, a selection of wealthy and influential villagers, and her former employer and lover, John Proctor.
When 'unnatural things' (2) first come up in conversation, it is initially hastily dismissed by Reverend Parris. However, once such a concept rears its head at a time and place as steeped in the fear of the supernatural as Salem, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century, it cannot be forgotten. Indeed, Abigail herself first advises that 'the rumor of witchcraft is all about', but is quick to clarify that while the girls danced in the forest by the dark of night, they 'never conjured spirits' and that 'Betty's not witched' as a result. (3) As the discussion continues, first between an uncle seeking the truth from his niece to quell mounting conjecture from his parishioners, and then with the involvement of other interested parties, the notion of 'the Devil's touch' (4) and of 'some power of darkness' (5) becomes increasingly entrenched and accepted. Eventually, in the name of self-preservation in a community quick to hang suspected practitioners, Abigail can do...