The occult loomed large in several British horror films of the latter part of the twentieth-century. ‘Night of the Demon’ (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) is a typical case, where ancient folklore, arcane writings, séances, and a malevolent magician are subject to the sceptical inquiries of a team of international paranormal investigators.
In several of Hammer’s ‘Dracula’ films, the vampire prince, having been killed off in the previous film, is brought back to life, or at least to something resembling life, by arcane rituals carried out by modern students of the occult; notable examples include ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ (Peter Sasdy, 1970) and ‘Dracula AD 1972’ (Alan Gibson, 1972).
In Amicus Studio’s ‘The Skull’ (Freddie Francis, 1965), Peter Cushing plays a modern writer on occult subjects who stumbles upon a cursed skull, of the Marquis de Sade no less, with predictably bad results.
This article argues that the portrayal of the occult in British horror films reflected contemporary realities of gender, class, race, colonialism and modernity as post-war Britain dealt with the end of empire and profound social changes.
Such films also reflect popular conceptions of, and reactions to, various aspects of the Western occult tradition, such as ceremonial magic and Wicca, the latter a set of neo-pagan beliefs that was becoming known to a wider public for the first time as these movies were first released.
I focus on two films released by Hammer during the 1960s. ‘The Witches’ (Cyril Frankel, 1966) follows Gwendolyn Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), a school teacher recovering from a mental breakdown while working in Africa as she takes up a new post in a peaceful and rather conservative English village.
She soon finds out that not all is what it seems as she encounters the evil forces and sinister rituals lurking below the surface of an otherwise tranquil rural setting.
‘The Devil Rides Out’ (Terence Fisher, 1968), based on the novel by Denis Wheatley, offers a glimpse into the occult experiments of the 1920s British upper-class. Devil’s world is one of the ecstatic rituals, esoteric texts, demonic conjurations, and the figure of Mocata, a practitioner of the magical arts based on the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley.
These two films follow a similar narrative arc, with the protagonist uncovering an occult conspiracy. Both films feature villains who try to use occult knowledge to accomplish ambitious aims, in ‘The Witches’ to extend life, and in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ with the obscure objective of “transference of the soul.”
Both films put forward the proposition that the supernatural, and those who know how to manipulate it in order to advance their nefarious plans, are not mere legends from the past, or the features of less-developed areas of the globe, but are with us today, in the stately homes and picturesque villages of modern England.
Importantly, both films are conscious of the British class structure. In ‘The Witches’, the upper-class magician’s plans are foiled by a persistent member of the professional classes, while ‘In the Devil Rides Out’, the magical battle takes place almost entirely within an aristocratic landscape.
In both cases, the larger society of commoners, whether they be villagers or servants, have little impact on the final resolution of events.
By the early twentieth-century, we can speak of a Western tradition of occult knowledge. Individual practitioners and organized groups can be found in London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg.
Elements such as astrology, numerology, divination, and spirit summoning can be traced back to Babylonian and Hellenistic times.
This occult tradition drew on the traditions of Christianity (demonology and ceremony), Judaism (especially the Kabbalah) and to an increasing extent, European interpretations, or misinterpretations, of Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism (notably yogic techniques and the concept of enlightened, usually hidden masters).
Much of its symbolism and organisational norms were taken, in some cases directly, from such esoteric groups as the Freemasons. Its direct ancestors would be the alchemists of the Late Middle Ages and the ceremonial magicians of the Renaissance.
Occultism was also tied to a new phenomenon from America — spiritualism, the idea that it was possible to contact the dead via séances— as well as early experiments in hypnotism.
Occultism often had a different character depending on the society in which it was practised: that is, the occult traditions in France would be different from those that emerged in England.
In its early twentieth-century incarnation, occultism should be distinguished from mystical, heretical or syncretic takes on religion such as Gnosticism, Sufism or Theosophy.
James Frazer’s (1961) division between religion and magic might be good to note, in that occult adepts aimed to manipulate, rather than ask the favour of supernatural forces, although, in reality, the line between magical incantations or religious entreaties was quite blurry.
As the twentieth-century progressed, new religious movements and this occult tradition became in some ways indistinguishable. The claim was made that these religious movements were not occult practices at all, but the resurrection of older religious traditions.
For example, Gerald Gardner, the retired British colonial administrator who claimed to have revived and went on to popularize ancient English pagan practices and who earned the title “The King of the Witches” in the 1950s should probably be seen as the founder of the new religion of Wicca, rather than an occult adept like Aleister Crowley.
The public reaction to the occult and its followers veered from fashionable or sensationalist interest to mockery, to downright hostility, although it was seldom actually persecuted, outside of areas under Nazi control during World War II.
What is most notable in the public reaction to the occult is the degree of confusion and ignorance with which it was met. In some cases, this reception is understandable, as the occult was a very diverse phenomenon, its practitioners operated away from the public eye, and media coverage was, when not openly hostile, at the very least uninformed.
Instead, what comes out of the public take on the occult is a series of tropes, which are easily understood by readers of a newspaper or magazine article, a popular novel, or the audience for a horror film.