Tag Archives: witchcraft

Magic Hour

Swaying grass, rippling water, towering trees, cobblestone streets, and of course magic: from these elements Hayao Miyazaki and his animators crafted the world of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). They provide such a rich backdrop for the tale of teenage witch Kiki, a girl for whom witchcraft is both vocation and an emblem of outsider status. Just as in other Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away or Ponyo, magic functions here as metaphor, as the storytelling device that sets a young woman’s bildungsroman into motion. These movies may be enchanted fantasies on the surface, but at heart they’re all about a small set of real-world issues: family, responsibility, maturation. They’re driven not by supernatural contrivance, but by the simple fact that life is difficult.

Kiki can fly on a broomstick, an action the film exploits for maximum spectacle. And she can talk with her black cat Jiji, who (in the fine tradition of witches’ familiars) acts as her foil and confidante. But beyond these powers, she’s like any other 13-year-old girl thrust out to live on her own. She’s still a little childish, a little naïve, but also resourceful, hard-working, empathetic. When two old women need help baking a pie for her to deliver, she throws herself into the labor of stoking a fire—not because she has to, mind you, but because she enjoys putting her skills in the service of these newfound friends. She’s still anxious, still self-conscious and vulnerable, but over the course of the film she grows. She overcomes her fears and develops a series of new, supportive relationships.

It all makes for a ideal example of how to write a complex female protagonist. The film explains how to animate her, too: with four quiet colors and a round, expressive face. For a supposed “kids’ movie,” everything about Kiki’s Delivery Service is executed with a startling amount of subtlety and restraint. I especially love the rhythm of the film’s editing. The pace is relaxed, just enough room to breathe, drawing the audience in with its graceful classicism. The same philosophy informs the sound design, which grows simpler as narrative tension mounts, even descending into total silence at the height of the film’s airborne climax. Miyazaki crams power into every detail and every elision.

One detail in particular walloped me with overwhelming emotional force. Late in the film, Kiki experiences some mild depression, losing her self-confidence and her magical abilities with it. She can’t fly and Jiji no longer speaks. It takes some soul-searching and a life-threatening crisis, but pretty soon she’s back on a broom and up in the air. Yet even after every loose end is tied up, Jiji doesn’t say another word. He’s a normal cat now, with a girlfriend and a litter of kittens. I know that this counts as a happy ending, I know that he’s still around and that Kiki has human friends now, but it still engenders a deep sense of loss in me. But then, that’s growing up. That’s magic used as a poignant metaphor. That’s the kind of unremarked-upon detail that makes Kiki’s Delivery Service truly special.

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One Hour Mark: Häxan

During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty either.

Horror can be a powerful tool in the hands of the right director. Take Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre Häxan (1922), aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was probably 50-60 years ahead of its time. Using all manner of grotesque iconography, Christensen makes his film simultaneously a collection of vignettes, a documentary, a twisted satire, and one hell of a spectacle. This is an image from 1:00:00 into the film, as the nameless sister of Anna, wife of the late printer, crouches by the table. It’s far removed from the film’s infamous shots of gore, torture, and taboo-splattering debauchery, yet it’s still seeping with creepy potency. It still speaks the film’s dark messages about religion, sexuality, and ignorance. It’s rife with the same real-world horrors that are unveiled in Christensen’s more explicitly demented fantasies.

When I showed Ashley this picture, she was quiet at first; when I mentioned, “There’s a person in the lower right,” she immediately cried, “Eww!” and had to stop looking at it. Taken as a still, there’s definitely something off about it – how Anna’s sister is so far from the center and so low to the floor, almost hidden behind the table and its contents. She’s just witnessed the inquisitors hauling off her sister and mother, who are merely the latest casualties in an ongoing cycle of small-town treachery. (They had earlier named their accuser, Maria the weaver, as a witch.) She herself has been shoved to the floor, and will momentarily rise, only to faint. So this scene is of a 15th century Danish household in crisis, with all of its matriarchs about to be interrogated and killed; this imminent catastrophe is embodied in the maiden’s anomalous position within the frame.

There’s subtle irony in this particular framing as well. Christensen uses shots identical to this one several times earlier in the film to present the activity in Anna’s house through long, static takes. It’s through this perspective that we’re introduced to her family, and this is how we see Maria the weaver dragged away by the inquisitors. Using the same angle to view the abduction of Anna and her mother, and her sister’s subsequent anguish, links the series of events both causally and morally, but also connects the family’s downfall to its earlier complacency. After all, this isn’t just a room – it’s also the space that connects the bedroom with the outside world (background), and the site of eating (foreground). It’s a spacial representation of domestic existence.

Granted, repeatedly viewing areas from the same angle was pretty standard in early silent films, going back to the fixed camera of the Lumières. But Christensen’s mise-en-scène here directly adds to his broader arguments about hypocrisy and resentment as the roots of witch hunts. For him, the persecution of witches starts in the home, aided by religious fervor, and eventually returns to destroy it. Despite all of the film’s graphic depictions of occult behavior, it ultimately takes a very Enlightenment stance, debunking its own gruesome images and replacing them with a model of “witchcraft” far more sinister: as a self-destructive way for the town’s women to express their petty grievances. This is a totally natural form of horror, the fruits of malicious human selfishness.

This is the conclusion of Christensen’s documentary and his satire, which operate side by side throughout the film. Witch hunts are located with a larger institution of violence and oppression whose processes are curiously gendered. The women are the accusers and, in turn, the accused – the witches whose sexuality is equated with a satanic pact. The men are the monks, totally puritanical and militantly resistant to the possibility of sexual desire. They are distinct from the home; their realm is the church. The story sees the two spheres as attached in a self-sustaining loop of accusation, arrest, and confession. And it’s in the torture/confession that both genders express their hatred and lust. The visualizations of satanic rites are just projections of the hidden urges that motivate the witch hunt in the first place.

That was a slight digression, partially inspired by Carol Clover’s reading of The Exorcists Father Karras, which I’ve been reading recently, but my point is that this single frame contains a number of threatened values (womanhood, motherhood, family, home), and implies the existence of their opposites. Häxan is an audacious and intelligent film that functions at once as delirious horror cinema and as sober historical inquiry. This image is a rich example of Christensen’s multi-tiered imagination feverishly at work.

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Pop culture and the world of Jack Chick

And now, after another (couple of) sad weeks of blogging inactivity, I return. Since Ashley now has Internet, she’ll hopefully be inspired into a spate of blogging soon, but until that happens, this will have to suffice. It’s important, after all, to keep on writing, generating ideas, weaving this giant ball of digital ideas together. I’m really tired from two consecutive nights of very little sleep, but nonetheless I’ll try to write coherently. I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, and intend to discuss the Oscars soon, but first, I must discuss a vital topic very near and dear to my heart.

That’s right: the art of fundamentalist cuckoo Jack Chick. I’ve gone on at length about Chick’s extremely idiosyncratic style and his wackily illogical messages before, and I feel like it’s worth doing again. He’s one of those artists toward whom I have a strange yet powerful set of mixed reactions. He’s full of acidic hatred aimed at millions of people, but his art is so out there, so irrational, and so un-self-aware that it somehow becomes compelling. He has these immediately visible authorial trademarks, from his mediocre and often nonsensical drawing style to his attitude of seething, pervasive paranoia. His comics are so very easy to mock, but so intensely sincere that they couldn’t be an elaborate prank, although sometimes it feels like they can be nothing else.

So today I specifically want to address Chick’s relationship to the rest of the world – you know, the comparatively “normal” world you and I inhabit – and the language it speaks, namely pop culture. Unsurprisingly, considering that he’s an 85-year-old religious extremist who considers Bewitched sinful, Chick doesn’t really have his hand on the pulse of today’s youth. But knowing nothing about young people, to say nothing of how they think or behave, doesn’t stop Chick from making America’s youth one of the primary markets for his evangelism. Countless tracts feature “hip,” dissolute young folk on the road to hell, sinning freely until a tract-brandishing Christian shows them the way. Granted, a lot of tracts also appeal to little kids (easier to convince) or middle-aged men, but teenagers seem to be a special target for Chick.

And naturally, in trying to appeal to kids, Chick tries to speak to them in their own argot by referencing pop culture. But he makes a mistake common to uptight old people who want kids to do what they say: he tries too hard to come across as cool, and ends up sounding dated, desperate, and clueless (which, to be honest, he is). To make my point, I’ll make use of three similar tracts that each drive home a typical Chick argument – i.e., that Satan lures the youth into hell through witchcraft – Dark Dungeons (1984), The Poor Little Witch (1987), and The Nervous Witch (2002).

Dark Dungeons was and still is perhaps the most notorious of all Chick’s tracts. It’s far from the most morally extreme or artistically absurd, but it’s a perfect representation for a mainstream audience of the one-of-a-kind brand of crazy that is Jack Chick. Dungeons & Dragons was first released in 1974, but the big panic didn’t start until the ’80s, prompted by the 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Eggbert III, and the subsequent book and TV movie very loosely based on his case, Mazes and Monsters. (The latter of which starred Tom Hanks.) Not one to be left out of a moral panic, Chick jumped all over it, both by publishing two pieces by Bill Schnoebelen and, of course, by writing Dark Dungeons.

With Dark Dungeons, Chick tries to reach vulnerable teens in the most heavy-handed and poorly thought-out of ways, and as a result depicts a world which exists only in his paranoid, puritanical imagination. Admittedly, I’ve never played D&D or had any interest in it, but as someone who’s been generally a part of nerd communities since high school, I can easily debunk a few aspects of the tract. For example: D&D as something played obsessively by covens? As a gateway to actual magical powers? As a game played in equal numbers by boys and girls? Each of these representations are demonstrably untrue. (Besides, among other questions, if playing D&D gives you access to “mind bondage” spells, why the hell would you then sit in a grungy basement playing D&D?)

It’s not hard to see why Dark Dungeons is seen as the archetypal Chick tract,  serving as the model for many parody strips like Daniel Clowes’ “Devil Doll?” It follows the usual tract storyline to a T – sinner goes on the path to hell, gets saved, old friends go to hell – and, so early on and so memorably, it showed how out of touch Chick was with any part of youth culture. But he wasn’t about to let up. Oh, no. Only 3 years later he struck again with The Poor Little Witch. This time around, he dropped D&D as a gateway into satanism, and broadened his scope to the general high school experience.

Chick does have a definite cultural touchstone here; however, it’s presented pretty obliquely. He’s borrowing liberally from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), which had already been out for over a decade at the time this tract was written. But instead of the female outsider developing psychic powers and using them on her peers, her peers are the ones with the powers, which they’re willing to share with her. Chick uses some familiar names and images from Carrie – the volleyball scene that opens the film and tract, the last name White, even the biblical quote “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live…” – and repurposes them in his own incoherent, self-contradictory ways.

As usual in Chick’s visions of the world, the devil is everywhere (here he goes under the name “Bruth”). Whereas De Palma and Stephen King saw the cruelties of Carrie’s classmates as an evil of its own, Chick portrays it, along with their influence on his Carrie stand-in “Mandy,” their tendencies to drink the blood of infants, and the hypocrisies of the local church as all manifestations of the same big evil in the service of Satan. Chick starts out with a similar premise, but veers off in his own formulaic, counterintuitive directions, unwilling to stop until Mandy has been thoroughly converted by fundamentalists. No matter how convoluted and implausible the storyline becomes, Chick insists on each tract reaching this identical ending.

And just as he shoehorns his stories into these neat little finales, dictating who goes to heaven and hell, Chick has to shoehorn his worldview into his faith, no matter how far the end result may depart from what the world is actually like. Obviously pressures to drink baby blood weren’t the greatest form of evil confronting American girls, but to Chick it only makes sense that blood-guzzling satanists would be causing this decline in teenage morality. After all, it allows him to divide the world up into good and bad, “Christian” and “Satanist,” without having to face any kind of moral ambiguity.

So Chick isn’t just out of touch with the youth culture because he’s ignorant; it’s also because he’s too ethically and intellectually lazy to accept that anything other than Satan himself acts as an obstacle in teenagers’ everyday lives (or that anything other than loving Jesus could give them real satisfaction). The most recent of the tracts I’m discussing, The Nervous Witch, is pretty much a revamp of the other two, reworking the same themes of peer pressure and the occult.

Comparatively, though, it kind of falls flat, since Chick leaves behind the cultural specificity of D&D or the paranoid fantasy of a small town under Satan’s thumb that dominated The Poor Little Witch, and instead creates a mano-a-mano spiritual battle between Sam and Holly, two girls who think that “God… loves us witches!” and Sam’s saintly uncle Bob. (In retrospect, “Bob Williams, Demon Hunter” would have made for a far more compelling title.) The battle never really climaxes, though, since Holly just walks off (and presumably goes to hell), while Bob literally pulls the evil spirit out of Sam.

The tract also suffers, as do so many of them, since the storyline is stopped dead for a heavily-anotated Bible story, immediately and sensibly decried by Sam as “lousy.” (Also, how mature is Bob’s retort to Holly’s “And we win!” with “No, you lose“?) But beyond this poor pacing and his apparent assumption that all pairs of young female friends are also God-hating witches, Chick manages to make even more outlandish, audience-alienating claims.

Bob: Tell me, Samantha… How did you and Holly get into the craft?

Sam: Through the Harry Potter books! We wanted his powers… so we called for spirit guides. Then they came into us… They led us into stuff we found in the Harry Potter* books – tarot cards, ouija boards, crystal balls…

That’s right: never one to be left off of a moralistic bandwagon, Chick takes this last-minute chance to hammer away at the Harry Potter series. By 2002, four books had already been released. The fundamentalist furor against them had already reached its peak, even resulting in an Onion parody in 2000. But Chick, of course, wants to remind everybody that he knows what’s new in the world of evil! Chick somehow even outdoes the Onion‘s coverage of the outrage, going so far as to mention magical phenomena – spirit guides, tarot cards, and Ouija boards – that are completely absent from the books.

The tract then concludes with a good old-fashioned bonfire of demonic paraphernalia, showing that Chick hasn’t really tuned in to pop culture since John Lennon said something about being bigger than Jesus. In the end, comparing these tracts does lead to a few revelations: Chick takes an extraordinarily reductionistic, one-size-fits-all view of morality. This probably helps explain why so many of his tracts follow these rigid narrative patterns. Whether the issue at stake is D&D, Harry Potter, or generic witchcraft, Chick can’t conceive of any cause that doesn’t involve satanic intervention, or any solution that doesn’t involve turning to Christ.

This also points the way to Chick’s greater understanding of humanity itself: basically, we’re all puppets. Even though Chick believes passionately that salvation comes from belief in Jesus Christ and that alone, he still thinks that bad behavior comes from demonic prodding, and good behavior from… well, that’s unclear. Chick demands to eat his cake and have it too in every situation, to the point that Uncle Bob can fail to convince Sam or Holly with his “lousy story,” yet still somehow “win” by the end of the tract.

Chick can also have his treacherous reverend quote the “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” line and give its biblical attribution, then undermine it with another Bible quote. This is one aspect of the tracts that makes them so compelling: their total lack of internal consistency. As long as the final outcome is the same (somebody goes up before God and is either accepted or condemned), it doesn’t matter what came before. And if the logical puzzle pieces don’t quite fit, Chick will nibble on the ends until they do. It doesn’t matter if Harry Potter doesn’t use tarot cards, or if D&D just doesn’t work that way at all. Truth or reality are always a distant second to Chick’s all-consuming faith. Don’t bother trying to figure out how his world works, because it’s not like ours. Jack Chick, you see, is a fundamentalist.

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