srijeda, 29. kolovoza 2012.

Benjamin Christensen - Häxan (1922)

Legendarni, zloglasni, nijemi dramatizirani dokumentarac iz 1922. o povijesti vještičarenja. U svoje vrijeme bio je zabranjen u cijeloj Europi. Zapanjujuće rekonstrukcije okultističkih "perverzija": pljačkanje grobova, mučenja, opsjednute časne sestre, sotonski Sabbath. Iako se cijeli fenomen vještica htjelo svesti na psihijatrijaski poremećaj, uglavnom na histeriju, to je zapravo potpuno nevažno, film je prije duhovit a vizualno je jedan od najfascinantnijih filmova svih vremena. Sada je u cjelini dostupan na YouTubeu:

"What was it about 1922? In the same year Nosferatu showed the world how to make a vampire movie and Dr. Mabuse took a near-supernatural journey to Berlin's criminal underworld, a film opened in Sweden that was to become notorious for its bold depictions of torture, madness, carnality, and — most memorably — horrific acts performed by and for bestial, nightmarish demons, including Satan himself. But while Nosferatu and Dr. Mabuse presented their stories as fiction, filmmaker Benjamin Christensen's Häxan appeared in the guise of a documentary, its very realism at the heart of its hypnotic allure and its scandalous notoriety.
Officially banned outside of Sweden for decades due to graphic imagery and an unabashed anti-clerical theme, Häxan has grown into a cinema legend one hears about but rarely, if ever, gets a chance to actually see. Is it true that it displays witches cavorting naked with lusty devils? Is a baby really drained of blood before it's tossed into a stew pot? What's this about women lining up to kiss Satan's bulbous ass? Inquisitional torture? Flying on broomsticks? Hysterical nuns? Sacrilege and perversion? Demonic orgies? Otherworldly monstrosities emerging from between an old crone's legs? And it's a documentary? And is there really a version narrated by Beat generation writer and hipster icon William S. "The Naked Lunch" Burroughs, complete with acid jazz soundtrack?
It's all true. Häxan (pron. "hexen," meaning "witches") was long available only in rare, diminished forms, the most well known being a 1968 re-edit given the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. That edit sports the add-on Burroughs' narration and an anarchic musical score featuring Jean-Luc Ponty. Few versions of either incarnation have been released on home video, but restorations have appeared on VHS through Great Britain's Redemption label and, in 1999, Home Vision Entertainment's pairing of the Swedish Film Institute's restored Häxan and (unrestored) Witchcraft Through the Ages.
Now this infamous curio is finally available on DVD under the Criterion Collection folio. Criterion offers a strikingly beautiful print of the fully restored and re-tinted Häxan and again pairs it with the Burroughs version. Its superb audio track features a new score recreated from the original list of musical cues. Plus, Criterion maintains its reputation for delivering a generous assortment of supportive supplemental material — including an audio commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg, outtakes and test shots, and click-through selections from the centuries-old documents writer/director Christensen used for his diabolical source material. It's presented in an attractive and mindfully produced package.
The Reefer Madness of devil-worshipping witchcraft movies

It should be stated that Häxan is a documentary to roughly the degree that Citizen Kane is a biopic of William Randolph Hearst. Ostensibly an exposé of religious persecution born from ignorance of science, Häxan can be easily classified as a masterpiece of silent horror — or, when filtered through the bong water of the psychedelic '60s to become Witchcraft Through the Ages, as a trippy exercise in surreal pop filmmaking extravagance.
Christensen drew information and inspiration from the dreaded Malleus Maleficorum (The Hammer of Witches), a 15th century how-to manual on the detection, persecution, and torture of witches, a book Christensen called "the most scurrilous document in the history of the world." Häxan blends documented fact, outrageous fiction, objective observation, hallucination, social commentary, and different levels of representation to keep us from ever being too certain what the director is up to.
Christensen opens the film with a calculated deception titled "Chapter 1: Sources," a dry lecture complete with slideshow of medieval woodcuts and a pointer stick entering the frame to guide our education. So for the first thirteen minutes or so, we're given a classroom course in the cosmology, mythology, and social orders that generated witchcraft hysteria, a contagion that ravaged Europe like a virulent plague throughout the Middle Ages. The approach is academic and somewhat condescending toward the ignorance and pious malice that turned harmless ancient folk beliefs into powerful tools for repression and Church-sanctioned mass murder.
Then Häxan presents its first twist. "Chapter 2: 1488" dramatizes a witch's lair in the darkest of Dark Ages. The decomposed corpse of a hanged thief is relieved of a finger ring — and the finger — as the witch comments that from the odor it's clear that the poor bugger was left swinging a bit too long. She then drops the finger into a potion vat. Various acts of witchery and devilry play out on elaborate sets and with clever special effects (including stop-motion animation). The intertitle cards continue a sense of the lecture mode, but soon the film slides into audacious theatricality, replacing a lecturer's notes with boldly visualized vignettes that pull us into a medieval world where demonic beings and profane witches' Sabbaths are as real as the filth, diseases, and squalid conditions that marked European life for centuries.
Christensen goes to great lengths to underline the fact that to the medieval mind sorcery and Satanic presence were not mere superstition. This deeply rooted truth of the existence of witchcraft and its heretical nature bred an "antidote" that was in reality every bit as pernicious as the Hell-spawned forces were believed to be. So in "Chapter 3: The Trials" and "Chapter 4: The Torture" we witness a clerical tribunal employing brutal confessional aids on an old woman. It's her forced confession that springs the viewer into the most eye-popping and famous scenes in Häxan. As she describes giving birth to demonic "children" — nightmarish insectoid beings straight out of H.P. Lovecraft — and a Satanic Sabbath, women young and old revel in gleeful desecration of holy symbols and partake of unholy acts that include flying through the air on broomsticks, feasting on toads and unbaptized babies, and cheerfully having sex with hideous demons.
Subsequent chapters — there are seven in all — further the roles of the witch-hunters. These religious zealots moved in packs from village to village, ready to perform the most extreme penalties on anyone considered the least bit suspicious or deserving. A victim's innocence was at best an inconvenience difficult to prove, and even that proof might come via methods that left the accused just as dead as a confession would leave her. As if the devils Sabbath scene wasn't sufficient, Christensen guaranteed Häxan's notoriety by depicting the Church's holy officers as fat, leering, deceitful barbarians more interested in sadism than in dispensing their Lord's benevolent justice. This anti-clericalism may have endeared Häxan to the Surrealists, but in predominantly Catholic countries it helped arm the censors with further ammunition to use against it.
Not even convents were immune to Satan's devastating influences, even though flagellation and self-torture were means of purifying oneself against the rampant diabolism. When Sister Cecilia is overcome by his tempting power, the entire nunnery is immediately gripped by madness, blasphemy, and a frenzy of dancing, a scene that's almost as humorous as it is unnerving.
In Häxan's final scenes, "Chapter 7: 1921," Christensen returns his narrative to solid documentary mode. He parallels the medieval practitioners and victims of witchcraft with modern victims of mental disorder, Freud's concept of female hysteria, and other more (relatively) enlightened social stigmas. The pop psychology and real-world flatness of this section render it less engaging than what came before, and sometimes Christensen's reach for meaning yields unintended results — a statement that witches no longer fly on broomsticks cuts to a woman pilot taking off in her biplane. Similarly, a sauna is equated with a witch's cauldron. So perhaps there's a taint of 1920s misogyny here. If so, it's mild and even rather quaint now even as it accidentally sets up some parallel between the horrific misogynist hysteria of the Middle Ages and the more antiseptic yet still harmful attitudes prevalent five centuries later. Or it may just be part of Christensen's offbeat sense of humor.
It's all mesmerizing, voyeuristic, and sometimes a bit goofy. The film's uneven flow and varying tone range from ribald humor to macabre excess to coldly objective scientific study. Often it's so bold even by today's standards that it seems as though Christensen was curious to see how much he could get away with. And fortunately it's all aged remarkably well.

The Devil's in the details

Christensen is one of the unsung technical masters of the silent era. Born in Denmark in 1879, he had a varied career before he entered the Danish film industry as an actor and writer in 1912. His early films have a visual sophistication that has invited comparisons to D.W. Griffith and other renowned innovators. In Häxan, Christensen's dense atmosphere of gloomy superstition is buttressed by an expert use of light and shadow. Silhouette, tableau, and framing are often used for stark theatrical effect. This mastery of lighting effects, combined with beautiful — some might say painterly — compositions, found expression in Richard Louw's remarkable scenery and the photography by Johan Ankerstjerne, Svensk Filmindustri's chief cinematographer. In its day, Häxan was notorious within the Swedish film world for its abundant use of close-ups, then considered improper because the technique blew up the human face in all its raw nakedness to unnatural proportions.
To modern eyes, the special effects are crude but no less effective for it. The demons are masterworks of design and makeup effects. The massive, tongue-wagging Satan — played by Christensen — is a realistic depiction of medieval imagery, masculine and lustful and obscene. A skeletal horse walking through a demonic bacchanal is clearly an old-fashioned panto technique, but it's damn creepy all the same. A miniature stop-motion demon clawing through a door remains a startling sight, the camera dispassionately observing its work as if we're watching a documentary on termites.
As an early exercise in near-surrealism, atmosphere, and imaginative techniques, Häxan's influence on 20th century filmmakers, notably Luis Buñuel and Val Lewton, should not be underestimated.
After Häxan, Christensen's reputation rested mainly on his (note the title) Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), an American-made satire on Hollywood musicals.

William S. Burroughs and Witchcraft Through the Ages

The best-known incarnation of Häxan is unquestionably the shortened re-edit titled Witchcraft Through the Ages narrated by William S. Burroughs, of The Naked Lunch fame. This 1968 release was prepared by British filmmaker and distributor Antony Balch, who had previously worked with Burroughs in making a number of short films. Percussionist Daniel Humair wrote the chaotic '60s-bop score. The jazz combo features, among others, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin.
Burroughs' voice opens Witchcraft Through the Ages with a droning incantation against a black screen. His one-note monotone sets the style for the remainder of his narration, which consists primarily of English translations of the original intertitle cards. (The few intertitles that remain are in an English translation.) It says something about the power of silent cinema that Burroughs' narration adds nothing to the goings-on unfolding on the screen. Indeed, it detracts from the full scope of Christensen's work.
Still, it's a memorable curiosity that remains evocative of the 1960s and an era of experiments in expression. The score fits the imagery quite well, though it may come across as harsh or abrasive to modern ears.
Witchcraft Through the Ages clocks in at an hour and sixteen minutes, compared to Häxan's hour and forty-five. Possibly still popular on college campuses, Witchcraft Through the Ages might just be best viewed through a haze of sweetly scented smoke.

About the DVD

This Criterion disc presents the Swedish Film Institute's restoration of Häxan, which began with the creation of a fine-grain master from the original camera negative. The intertitles, most of which had been lost, were replaced with new film titles. They are presented here in the original Swedish with optional English subtitles.
Then the SFI recreated the tinting that had originally been present in theatrical prints of Häxan, bringing this version much closer to what audiences might have seen at the time of its original release.
Häxan is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This new digital transfer was made on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm low-contrast print at the Swedish Film institute's recommended speed of 20 frames per second. During shots of rapid motion, there is a "tracer" effect that is present in the original film image.
Naturally some defects in the film stock remain. Expect minor speckling and a little wavery framing on the left-hand side. Nonetheless, this print is superb. Detail and depth are remarkably crisp. The black levels — vital in this film — are solid and true. The tinting tones, chiefly dark blues and ambers, enhance the visuals without appearing oversaturated.
In a word, it looks great.

The musical score

Silent films were seldom watched in actual silence. Huge cinema "palaces" often featured chamber orchestras. For this Criterion Collection release, film music specialist Gillian Anderson attempted to recreate the music played at Häxan's Danish premiere on November 7, 1922. She based the score on a list of musical cues printed in the theater's weekly program notes and conducted an 11-piece ensemble from the Czech Film Orchestra in Prague in June 2001. Details on the score and its recreation are included in a special menu item and in the keep-case's pull-out liner notes booklet.
The score is available in Dolby Digital 5.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Clean, solid, and free of distortion, both options sound fine.

Witchcraft Through the Ages

Witchcraft Through the Ages is also presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and likewise was made on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain master. It is untinted and displays a great deal more wear than the restoration of Häxan. But it looks and sounds fine. This soundtrack is available only in Dolby 1.0.

The supporting supplements

The scene-specific audio commentary track is provided by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg. Erudite and with an encyclopedic knowledge of things Christensen, Tybjerg may not be the most riveting audio-track scholar (Dr. Mabuse's David Kalat having set the gold standard so far), but he keeps his commentary moving forward and doesn't permit the great gaps of dead air that dog the commentaries of some other "historical" discs. He has a pleasing voice and does a thorough job of fleshing out the context of Christensen's work, illuminating the production itself, and detailing the sources that Häxan was built from. Among other worthwhile moments, Tybjerg soundly refutes the common figure (used in Häxan) of eight million women put to death during the era of the witch hunts. Explaining where that figure originated, Tybjerg gives us a more accurate figure of some 40-50 thousand women murdered — still a ghastly sum by any measure.
In 1941, Christensen filmed an eight-minute Director's Introduction for a re-release of Häxan. It's offered here in Swedish with English subtitles. Addressing his audience on a small set that looks more like a doctor's office than a movie studio, Christensen notes that even in our era of sound technology adding a vocal track to Häxan would diminish its effect. He then offers a preamble for things to come with the intellectual objectivity of a genial scientist introducing a biology lecture. One of the highlights of this segment is a plausible theory behind the common witches' trope of flight through the air.
Bibliothèque Diablolique provides an annotated click-through tour of the centuries-old woodcuts, church wall paintings, and other illustrations Christensen used in "Chapter 1: Sources." The illustrations and commentary occupy roughly 115 frames, including an extensive bibliography by Casper Tybjerg. Fans of The Exorcist will recognize the ancient Near East statue of a winged demon seen in that movie.
A click-through stills gallery contains 40 photographs from the sets and production of Häxan.
An item called The Häxan Score provides notes on the score plus a playlist of the 18 titles used to recreate the original music. Familiar titles include segments from Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and Rosamunde Overture, Wagner's Tannhauser, Mozart's Titus Overture, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and Ave Maria. For a nifty feature, click the music title to jump to the segment in Häxan that features the music selected.
Note: Here's my only complaint about the layout of this disc's menu options. The menu item The Häxan Score is the only place within the Main Menu where you directly select the Dolby Digital 5.0 mix or the Dolby 2.0 stereo mix. The disc defaults to the 2.0 mix and no obvious audio set-up menu item exists for the audio track options. So the 5.0 mix took some searching before I found it. You can also, of course, access either music mix track or the commentary track via your remote's Audio button.
A four-and-a-half minute collection of Outtakes gives up footage from a reel of test shots that include pre-production footage from the convent set, rehearsal close-ups of an actress playing a nun "trying out a variety of ungodly titters," and test shots for the scenes of witches in flight — with Christensen himself playing the flying witch.
Finally, the keep-case's pull-out liner notes booklet is a handy compendium of facts and commentary by Chris Fujiwara, who writes on film for Hermenaut, The Boston Phoenix and other publications. He details Häxan's history and influence in a casual yet scholarly manner. The booklet also includes two pages of insight into the music of Häxan, prepared by Gillian Anderson.
Nightmares before Christmas
Whether as a unique feature of your annual Halloween video fest, or as an addition to the growing collection of silent classic restorations becoming available on DVD, there's plenty to enjoy in Criterion's Häxan / Witchcraft Through the Ages release. If your aim is to induce nightmares in small children, this is the disc you're looking for. As an exegesis on the damaging effects of superstition and religious distortion used as a pretext for harming others — sadly, a sickness still prevalent throughout the world today — this disc makes a fine companion to Carl Sagan's excellent treatise on pernicious fantasies both ancient and modern, The Demon-Haunted World. And as another example of the fact that The Criterion Collection is doing much more than living off the reputation of its Laserdisc years, this restoration of a remarkable work by a filmmaker who deserves greater name recognition gives, you might say, the Devil his due.—Mark Bourne

Review of Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)  by karlails

So this early horror classic is actually a weird documentary consisting of various ways of portraying witchcraft myths and truths, while adding up to a creepy piece of silent cinema.
There are some strange illustrations while some facts about the way authorities have dealt with witches are told. This feels like an odd educational film for kids, that kids shouldn’t be watching.
When we actually get to the live-action stuff, they show both the portrayal of people thinking everything is black magic and re-enactments of the myths about witches. The movie has a sort of dark sense of humor as it shows us witchcraft rituals that might ask for a figurative interpretation. Like „all the witches had to kiss devil’s behind” gives us a rather amusing sight of witches lining up behind the devil (played by the director in make-up), who has bent over. I don’t think the filmmakers took these parts too seriously themselves.
Seeing this early example I noticed that often I’ve seen monks portrayed as morbidly obese, gross pigs, eating like whole  cow-legs. Does that mean they are corrupt or just into gluttony? I guess the first option is better since corruption is not a deadly sin. Here the monks are total assholes and one example of a witch-myth actually made sense. Why did this fat monk just rape some girl? Of course! A witch must have slipped him some love potion.
Another great example is a totally absurd way of making sure if a girl is a witch. You tie her up and throw her in the water. If she comes up, it means she is a witch and they kill her, if she does not and drowns, then you should thank God for her innocence. One thing is for sure, they knew a fool-proof plan, when they came up with one. It is an interesting commentary on how people afraid of some things actually create the myths about the existence of such things.
At times I felt like the movie is just throwing examples and concepts at me, but doesn’t do anything with them, they’re just there and don’t lead anywhere. After a while I started wondering what’s the point of all this. I get that people were gullible and stupid, move on!
Some of the imagery is really creepy and for 1920’s the make-up and costumes are pretty decent. Out of the context those scenes are even nightmarishly unsettling. Back then the audiences must have been terrified by this stuff.
Then there’s some presentations of various torture devices, they just show them to you, tell you what they do and almost show you them in action. Sounds boring, but actually was my favourite part, because it is done in the classic horror movie way. They set up how they work and just before you see them deliver the crippling they cut away and you’re left there imagining what did happen.
I wonder why nowadays there are so few mainstream witch movies? I guess we are so PC that they would be instantly considered sexist. Yet having the lead of a vampire/werewolf movie be a blank, selfish and unlikable human girl isn’t a disservice to women.
The score is really great, having some nice classical pieces, like one of my favourites – Beethoven’s „Moonlight Sonata”. On the other hand I’m not sure if they aren’t just randomly thrown on or do they in fact add to the idea of scenes.
Also it concludes with some scenes showing how the alleged „witchcraft” is now recognized as various mental illnesses and they are being treated instead of persecuted.
Overall, it is an interesting piece of cinema history and I would recommend it as such, but it doesn’t really work as conventional movie due to the constant changes of narrative style and it doesn’t work as a documentary, because it spends too much time on just dramatically portraying various myths. Still, recommended for enthusiasts of cinema history, other than that it doesn’t offer much for a modern viewer.

Haxan - Witchcraft Through The Ages 
Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages is a part documentary, part dramatisation about the nature of witch craft, and of those who sought to destroy it. Moving at different stages through the age of man it addresses different notions of the “Witch”, what they were believed to be capable of, and how they operated.
The more interesting areas in the film examine those who would persecute the so-called “witches” through either genuine religious intolerance and fear, or a corrupt patriarchal dominance; relishing the opportunity to stamp out any independent femininity under the guise of hunting for minions of Satan. One particularly impressive section sees a household of woman calling the local monks (or judges in this case) to take an elderly woman away from their home. The old woman is tortured into confessing her witch craft, then subsequently confesses that the woman who implicated her are her fellow witches as well – then naturally all the other woman are executed despite the obvious retaliatory motivation for the deception. The film also examines how the folklore had come to fruition. Still images of various cultures ideas of hell, heaven, and the celestial bodies are presented until the eventual creation of the “Witch” is revealed.
Banned in every country in Europe at the time of release and with various edits of the film released over the years, some of which were lobotomised by the censors, others placed jarring narration over the action instead of the stills which break up the film like most from this era. It is easy to see why this film was met with such wide spread rejection, images of love potions created with the key ingredient of human finger, the devil sexually attacking women, boiling babies, women giving birth to demons. All of which, although antiquated in their presentation and appearance, are still distressing on different levels to this day. Possibly the films most horrific sequence involves an examination of the types and the uses of torture devices that were primarily employed to extract confessions from the accused “Witch”; simple demonstrations of such vicious and brutal devices which can still, and arguably will always make audiences squirm.
Haxan - Witchcraft Through The AgesHaxan has an unusual streak of humour running through it, some of it intentional, some of it not, but it is still refreshing to be able to laugh at some moments in such a serious films. Indeed a lot of the humour comes from the complete absurdity of the tests used by the monks to detect witchcraft at work; for example binding young women and throwing them into a river, if they float then they’re a witch, if they sink then thank God for the blessing of their innocence! Prominent violence and sexuality in this film is surprising for the time in which it was made, and was doubtlessly shocking to those who viewed it in the 1920’s. The draw backs of silent films are known to many, the theatrical acting, broken narrative, the poor quality of the image, the obvious special effects – however all of these problems are indicative of the time, and if the viewer can see past those issues, Haxan is still at its core a film to be seen by anyone interested in the subject or the history of world cinema, of which this is definitely an important part. - M.Dawson

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

Haxan (1922) Movie/DVD Review

The Last Witch Hunter

image by imp kerr
If witches didn’t exist, early 20th century reverend Montague Summers would have had to invent them
In the 1920s, two very different histories of witchcraft appeared: the 1922 Danish film Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, and the Reverend Montague Summers’s History of Witchcraft and Demonology, published in England in 1926. Both were instant sensations and instantly controversial. Benjamin Christensen’s film, which included nudity and scenes of torture, was a scathing critique of Catholicism, arguing that those accused of witchcraft had perhaps been sufferers of “modern” diseases like hysteria and kleptomania. On its release the film caused riots: By one account, 8000 Catholic women stormed the streets of Paris in protest, incensed that modern Catholicism be compared to a barbaric episode of its past that it had largely forgotten..
Summers, on the other hand, neither criticized nor apologized for Christianity’s persecution of witches—he embraced it. He believed that the church was infallible and that men and women were capable of knowingly giving themselves to Satan: “There has invariably been an open avowal of intentional evil-doing on the part of the devotees of the witch-cult,” he wrote with fervent orthodoxy. Critics found the book compulsively readable, but were aghast at Summers’s argument that the Catholic Church had been just and right in trying and executing untold thousands of witches. In Summers’s mind, the church had been if anything too lenient: “The Church dealt very gently with the rebel and the heretic, whom she might have executed wholesale with the greatest ease.”
The early 20th century saw a renewed interest in the history of witchcraft, after years of neglect and denial by historians who preferred not to engage with such a disgraceful episode. In many ways, the Reverend Montague Summers was the perfect avatar for this resurgence. A cartoonish figure with a broad, moon-shaped face, a black shovel hat, and a flowing cape, he seemed to come from some other era. He had a high-pitched voice and a strange chuckle; friends and colleagues wondered if he was, in fact, in league with the devil, or had participated in a Black Mass; one family who moved into a residence previously owned by Summers complained that he’d left it haunted and went so far as to perform an exorcism.
Born in 1880, son of a banker and the youngest of seven children, Summers grew up surrounded by the well-educated and the literary. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, and in 1907, shortly after he graduated with honors, he published a “distinctly decadent book of verse,” Antinous and Other Poems. The poetry featured sexual innuendo buried beneath layers of Roman and Greek mythological allusions. One reviewer ­labeled it “the nadir of corrupt and corrupting literature”; friends noted that any corrupting influence was somewhat mitigated by its obtuse tone and low quality. The book faded into obscurity.
Summers’s early life was marked by an oscillation between two opposing poles: an appetite for controversy and taboo at one end, and for religious orthodoxy at the other. In 1908, he abruptly entered the seminary: That year he was ordained as an Anglican deacon, first in Bath, then in the Bristol suburb of Bitton, where he spent his days studying Satanism. It was during this time that he became convinced that his church was haunted, exhibiting, according to one friend, “a morbid fascination with evil which, even if partly a pose, was shocking in a clergyman.”
His life as an Anglican deacon was short-lived, however, and he left pursued not by ghosts or devils, but by accusations of homosexuality. In 1910 Summers and another clergyman were accused of pederasty, and though they were ultimately acquitted of the charges, Summers quickly left both Bristol and the faith. Within a few years, he had converted to Catholicism. In later years Summers would claim that he’d been ordained as a priest and wear corresponding vestments, but there is no record of the ordainment.
Summers never headed a parish, nor did he enter a religious order. In lieu of a religious occupation, he turned back to writing, and in the years after the war he became known as a scholar of Restoration Theater. A few years later, he was contacted by publisher C. K. Ogden, who was at the time editing a ­multivolume history of civilization. Ogden had been hoping Summers would offer something about English drama, but Summers responded instead with a proposal for a study of witchcraft.
Summers ultimately produced two separate books: The History of Witchcraft and Demonology and, a year later, a companion volume, The Geography of Witchcraft. In them he presented testimonies, trials, verdicts, confessions, and other primary documents describing the witch persecutions of the Middle Ages—many of them appearing for the first time in English.
The primary documents accounted for much of the History’s success. For too long, even serious historians had tended to gloss over this tragic aspect of Europe’s maturation, treating it as an aberration best ignored. Summers recognized that witch trials were at the very heart of European history, and that a “history of civilization” such as Ogden had envisioned required not just its triumphs, but also its horrors. History, Summers saw, consists not only in what is done by great men but also what is done by midlevel bureaucrats and illiterate midwives.
Perhaps the best example of this was the trial of the servant girl Gellis Duncan in Scotland in 1590. As Summers relays, Duncan’s employer became suspicious when he discovered her sneaking out at night, and in short order she was accused of witchcraft, tried, and tortured. During her torture, she confessed and implicated half a dozen other individuals, many of whom in turn were tortured into confession and then executed.
What is noteworthy about Duncan’s trial is that news of it soon found its way to the King of Scotland, soon to be king of England, James I. James was terrified of political assassination by witchcraft, and, having recently sailed through a storm that he was sure had been engineered by magic, he took an active interest in the trials surrounding Duncan, going so far as to personally interview one of the accused, a midwife named Agnes Sampson. James’s fear wasn’t entirely paranoia; real plots were afoot, including one concocted by his cousin Francis Stewart, who himself blurred the line between the real and imaginary threat, employing curses and wax dolls as well as swords and armies.
In laying the occult alongside the political, Summers’s account of these events helps to remind us that history—even royal ­history—doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that even a local witch trial of a poor servant girl can reverberate throughout a kingdom. His contemporary readers were reminded that for centuries the witch persecutions had been central to Europe’s cultural and economic landscape.
But the book was singular for another reason: Summers believed with every fiber of his being that witchcraft was real. “Faith, the Bible, actual experience,” he writes in A History, “all taught that witchcraft had existed and existed still. There could be and there is no sort of doubt concerning this.” Summers found support for his conviction in the views of the great men of history, from popes to scholars. He also argued strenuously for the power and efficacy of bureaucracy itself. His book’s strength, he contended, lay in its demonstration “by a number of citations how in the past this enormous wickedness had been impartially investigated, had been argued, and proven by the keenest minds of the centuries.”
Deluded as to the nature of evil, he was similarly deluded as to the nature of his own success, which he took as proof of the correctness of his attitude. The History was popular, he explained, because it alerted people “to the danger still energizing and active in their midst”: “The evil which many had hardly suspected, deeming it either a mere historical question, long dead and gone, of no interest save to the antiquarian, or else altogether fabled, was shown to be very much alive, potent in politics, potent in society, corrupting the arts, a festering, leprous disease and decay.”
Summers believed in the power of the written word and in the historical record. His work is the 20th century’s last gasp of a sort of history that refused to recognize the evolution of human character, morality, and thought. His rhetoric at times struggles to accommodate modern psychology (“It is not denied that in some cases hallucination and self-deception played a large part”), but repeatedly falls back on the infallibility of the church (“such examples are comparatively few in number, and these, moreover, were carefully investigated and most frequently recognized by the judges and divines”), and his own surprisingly anachronistic views (“The silly body, the blind, the dumb, the idiot, were, as often as not, afflicted by demons; the raving maniac was assuredly possessed”).
For all its fidelity to history, Summers’s work is a confrontation with the various elements of modern life he’d come to detest. He had, as one reviewer later noted, “a flatteringly poor opinion of anthropologists,” and he saw anarchists and Communists (groups he regularly conflated) as direct descendents from the witches of the Medieval world. Witches were “avowed enemies of law and order, red-hot anarchists who would stop at nothing to gain their ends.” When his patron, Lady Cunard, introduced him to her husband, Lord Balfour—who expressed disbelief in the existence of people who craved evil for evil’s sake—Summers produced a political analogy: “Well, Lord Balfour, you have only to think of the views of some of your opponents.” Liberals, socialists, and anarchists, he told Balfour, all bore “the witch philosophy.”
Scholars and critics immediately attacked him for this kind of hysteria. Theodore Hornberger disparaged Summers’s “alarmist themes”: “It is just about time, thinks Mr. Summers, for legislation, a bit more severe, if possible, than the famous statute of James I. The political implications of this logic are indeed alarming, but perhaps not always with the effect intended by the author.” In a similarly scathing review, H. G. Wells noted that Summers “hates witches as soundly and sincerely as the British county families hate the ‘Reds.’” Wells, anticipating Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” saw in Summers’s work a “standing need” of mankind “for somebody to tar, feather, and burn. Perhaps if there was no devil, men would have to invent one. In a more perfect world we may have to draw lots to find who shall be the witch or the ‘Red,’ or the heretic or the nigger, in order that one may suffer for the people.”
Other reviewers castigated Summers for not “judging between different kinds of evidence,” and for his “odd mixture of learning and almost childish credulity.” But Summers maintained that a religion cannot on the one hand assert an unbroken line of pious infallibility, while, on the other, offer the kind of apologetic backtracking that characterized 20th century Church thought. The 1914 entry on witchcraft in the Catholic Encyclopedia (written by Herbert Thurston), attempting to thread the needle between the church’s past and its future, is reduced to equivocations: “In the face of Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers and theologians the abstract possibility of a pact with the Devil and of a diabolical interference in human affairs can hardly be denied, but no one can read the literature of the subject without realizing the awful cruelties to which this belief and without being convinced that in 99 cases out of 100 the allegations rest upon nothing better than pure delusion.”
Summers’s attitude was vile, perhaps indefensible, but at least it was consistent. As the Church lumbered towards Vatican II, it found itself caught between the demands of a tradition and a need for modernization. Despite what apologists like Thurston might have you believe, exorcism was then (and is still today) a sacrament; Summers’s work brought this history out of the Latin and into the light.
In the 80 years since its release, Häxan has entered the annals of film history, a major milestone that remains celebrated despite (or perhaps because of) its salubrious content and suspect diagnoses. As a history of witchcraft it is dubious, but as a cinematic experience it remains arresting. Something similar can be said of Summers’s work: Taken as history, it is flawed at best—yet his books on witchcraft remain milestones in their own right, and continue to offer a compelling (if unsettling) reading experience.
And yet the years have not been kind to either Summers or his work. After The History’s popular success and critical dismissal, Summers continued to present himself as a serious scholar, producing in 1928 the first English translation of the Malleus Malefaricum (“The Hammer of Witches,” the notorious medieval manual for investigating and trying witches), but as he delved further into the supernatural—churning out books on vampires, ghosts, and werewolves—his work became increasingly sensational and marred by increasingly sloppy scholarship. Gradually he faded into obscurity, and, horrified by the savageries of World War II—the Blitz, the atrocities in mainland Europe, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—he retreated to the English countryside and died in 1948.
Just as historians for decades tried to ignore the history of witchcraft, preferring to minimize the impact of such a blight on Europe’s cultural history, historians these days have preferred to downplay Summers himself. Because he was never a formally trained scholar, it was easy for academic historians to write him out of the historiography of witchcraft—even though his translation of the Malleus Malefaricum remained the only English edition until 2006.

By necessity a figure of contradiction, he managed to be, according to one friend, “both near-blasphemous and obscene in his conversation” while at the same time being “a genuine believer, with a sincere desire to serve the Church.” The strange triumph of his writing on witchcraft writings is in their synthesis of the two halves of his personality, the devout and the unconventional. These impulses had once been distinctly at odds, but as the landscape around him changed, and modern culture began to abandon the church, being as religious as he was became itself irregular. Emphatically ill-fitted for the 20th century, Summers was yet its inevitable by-product: an unstable atom spun loose by cultural fission. -

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