‘Witchfinder General’: From Historical Novel to “Horror” Film

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

One of the developments in the representation of witchcraft at the end of the twentieth-century is that the portrayal of witch-hunters moves from approbation to repulsion. In part, this was due to wider cultural movements: a concern for social, gendered and racial justice, and distaste for arbitrary authority.

The demonisation of the witch-hunter in this context follows the pattern defined by ‘The Crucible’. But a specific historical milestone was the rediscovery of the Hopkins trials of the 1640s in Ronald Bassett’s 1966 novel ‘Witchfinder General’.

Bassett was an ex-naval PR man who wrote historical novels exploring the seamier side of military and naval adventure. These are not obvious contexts for the rediscovery of the witchcraft sublime. But like the post-Great-War fictions that began this book, ‘Witchfinder General’ is preoccupied with war and its trauma.

Bassett thus creates a background for his Matthew Hopkins in Civil War military service. This ends in a breakdown after he witnesses the murder of Irish Catholics and is, he believes, “cursed by the dying breath of a witch”.

After this collapse, Hopkins becomes a witch-finder, driven by obscure fears and a desire to regain his self-possession, ranting about “spawn of the Devil […] gather[ing] in packs” and constantly touching his lips because he believes the “witch” placed a sore there. Stearne, another ex-soldier, is a different type of wartime threat: an unabashed lecher and robber, exploiting the opportunities of anarchy and driving the action by his vices.

In this sense, ‘Witchfinder General’ is not about witchcraft: like the film it became, it defines a new horror genre between ‘Peeping Tom’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘Straw Dogs’, exploring damaged, psychopathic characters. For instance, whilst the novel’s first accusation (of Elizabeth Clarke) is genuine, after that, witchcraft is irrelevant as Stearne and a gaoler beat and rape Clarke and fabricates her confession.

Hopkins and Stearne also abuse John Lowes’ ward, Sara (a character without historical origin), coercing her sexually in return for sparing her adoptive uncle. An interlude when Hopkins discovers a suspected “Lammas Sabbat” — actually an orgy — is symptomatic of the novel’s uninterest in witchcraft: despite the episode’s origins in Murray and Wheatley, Hopkins does not consider it witch-related. Instead, it is an exploitation vignette.

The witchcraft sublime thus began its return in the unpromising setting of mid-century pulp fiction, with a reprise of the linkage between witchcraft and war-trauma, and a commitment to noting that a witchcraft prosecution is an encounter with human evil.

But the 1960s rediscovery of witchcraft is not characterised by either the bohemian experimentation or middlebrow security of earlier fictions. Instead, it dwells on violence and sex with a queasy fascination, so much so that Benjamin Halligan dismisses Bassett’s novel with the damning labels “tedious” and “low-brow”.

Yet the novel caught the zeitgeist and was adapted to become Michael Reeves’ film ‘Witchfinder General’ (1968; also titled ‘The Conqueror Worm’). As in the book, Reeves’ Hopkins (Vincent Price) and Stearne (Robert Russell) are sadistic predators.

Stearne tortures and swims Lowes (Rupert Davies), hanging him without trial from a tree. The book’s sexual violence moves from Clarke to Sara (Hilary Dwyer): in this version, she offers herself to Hopkins but is forcibly raped by Stearne. Meanwhile, Clarke is conflated with Mary Lakeland and burned by being lowered into a fire, Hopkins’ “new method of execution”.

Horrified, the British Board of Film Classification’s censor rejected the script’s first draft, commenting: “there are few pages on which some helpless human being is not shown being hanged, burned, drowned, raped, beaten-up, dragged about or otherwise bullied and threatened”.

After redrafting, some reviewers, such as Alan Bennett, still found the film “sadistic and morally rotten […] degrading”. However, Reeves’ response to Bennett shows that he had intended the film to be “entirely factual” in important respects, “a serious picture”, both “anti-violence” and “moral”. It was in the horror genre, he argued, because it was progressive, concerned about real-life horrors and had been researched accordingly rather than simply lifted from the novel.

Reeves explained to Bennett that as well as reading Bassett he had based his film upon an “article about witchcraft in the Middle Ages” in the New Statesman. This claim relocated the film from pulp fiction into the discourse of scholarly left-wing politics. In fact, it was inaccurate, but Halligan suggests Reeves might have misremembered Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Witches and Witchcraft’, a two-part piece for the similar magazine Encounter in 1967.

Halligan’s identification appears correct. Trevor-Roper anticipates Reeves’ reading of witch-hunting as a relevant theme in modernity, arguing that persecution accompanied, rather than being overcome by, Renaissance “progress” and that in contemporary life, American anti-communism and Nazi anti- Semitism replicated it. Anti-Semitism was “a new witch-craze”, whilst “the Red scare” in America was equally a “collective emotion” in “stereotyped form”.

‘The Encounter’ piece also seems to have shaped Reeves’ film visually. It contains woodcuts of torture instruments and burnings and the title-page illustration of Hopkins’ ‘Discovery’ with its cloaked, hatted figure, and its text “Matthew Hopkins Witch Finder Generall” as a caption.

This is, in fact, the full name of Reeves’ film, according to its title-credit. It is a filmic version of the pamphlet’s woodcut in many ways. This may derive from Trevor-Roper’s historical essay, itself inspired by recent, horrifying American and European events and by an understanding that witchcraft persecutions could be used, as in ‘The Crucible’, to explore these.

However, while Reeves’ ‘Witchfinder General’ is often historically well-informed, and realist to some extent, it is also influenced by romantic genre fiction including pulp horror and pornography. Critics such as Marcus Harmes regard it therefore as surprisingly conservative in its politics.

It is undoubtedly more Bassett than Trevor-Roper in mood, and while it recalls ‘The Crucible’ in its themes, it could not be further from Miller’s stark simplicity and earnest commentary. Instead, it recalls cinematically the Lewtonesque films of the 1940s to 1960s. ‘Witchfinder General’ is surprisingly beautiful, and it titillates, repulses and disturbs for unpredictable, deliberate shock value.

Its landscapes are painterly and the film’s music, by Paul Ferris, recalls Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Tudorist compositions with its lush, folky strings. Its sweet ‘Love Theme’ — released on 7” because of its appeal — introduces images of soon-to-be rape victim Sara with troubling ambiguity.

The film’s American distributors rightly, if clumsily, drew attention to its traditional Gothic pleasures in retitling it after a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Moreover, the film sits — albeit uneasily — within an emergent exploitation genre that included slashers and bodice-rippers. ‘Witchfinder General’s producer, Tony Tenser, also made ‘Naked as Nature Intended’ (1961), ‘My Bare Lady’ (1962) and the stripper film ‘Secrets of a Windmill Girl’ (1966).

Tenser’s ‘A Study in Terror’ (1965) perhaps best illustrates his interest in exploiting fear and desire without serious intent, and it anticipates ‘Witchfinder General’ in its linking of historic horrors with cinematic pleasures.

In ‘A Study in Terror’, the real Ripper murders are investigated by the fictional Sherlock Holmes, oddly combining Hammer-ish shocks with cosy Baker Street detection and exploitation visuals. In one sequence, the viewer occupies the murderer’s viewpoint — as in Peeping Tom — as a prostitute strips for him.

The fact that the film’s cast includes “legitimate” theatre stars such as Anthony Quayle and Judi Dench, the ‘Carry On’ actresses Barbara Windsor and Edina Ronay and the horror and exploitation actress Adrienne Corri suggests its generic uncertainty.

‘Witchfinder General’ too problematises genre: too legitimate to be exploitation, too exploitative to be legitimate, too romantic to be wholly realistic, too real to be comfortably romantic, it is sensation cinema, like a Victorian sensation novel. It even has a comedy. Reeves told Bennett that humour was out-of-place in horror, but how then to explain the presence of Wilfrid Brambell? Brambell, best known for his role as a rag-and-bone man in a television sitcom, appears as a villager horse-trading with Hopkins.

Part of ‘Witchfinder General’s appeal, then, was based on the pulp, exploitation, “low brow” and comic genres that flavoured its narrative. Yet, as Reeves claimed, the film did also possess a genuine, Crucible-esque campaigning aspect, knowingly connecting past horrors with contemporary ones: racist lynch-mobs, the Vietnam War and Nazi genocide.

The film begins as a woman is hanged by her neighbours and there are scenes showing troops massacred by forest guerrillas. Stearne describes the witchfinders’ trade as “extermination”. And despite being repelled by the ‘‘hero’’ Richard Marshall’s murder of Hopkins at the film’s end, audiences are invited to hate the witchfinder. Tenser described attending one screening where as he watched Hopkins die a viewer shouted “kill the bastard! […] Smash him! Kill him!”

Gone is any sense that the witch-finder might be justified. However, even here is an element of camp and Gothic. Price was celebrated for his pantomimic villains, and was known to declare proudly “I have never been realistic”.

‘Witchfinder General’ thus revisits aspects of the Romantic interest in witches as victims of tyranny, but there is an undertow of sensationalism, artifice and generic self-awareness that problematises its representation of witch-finding as simply a reprehensible crime.

After ‘Witchfinder General’, it was uncommon to portray witch-hunting in anything other than a horrific context, however. Moreover, during the 1970s, the seriousness of this endeavour became more evident. For example, the Scottish writer Stewart Conn’s 1971 ‘The Burning’ (begun in the late 1960s) dramatised the story of King James, “Effie McCalyan” and (in his version) her lover Bothwell, not because of “any predisposition on my part towards Scots historical drama” but because of its “theatrical potential”, demanding a stage “as bare as possible — where practicable, completely bare”, and resisting historical specificity to emphasise the universal relevance of the story.

“The play was not triggered (compare ‘The Crucible’ vis-a`-vis the McCarthy trials) by any topical event or events” he told me. Instead, ‘The Burning’ summed up “a general climate and an awareness, as James puts it, that in any struggle for dominance it tends to be ‘those trapped in the middle, must pay the price’”. Conn sees the ultimate arena of the play as being “the human heart”, and so in pursuit of that emotional truth, he read Pitcairn, Daemonologie, Murray and histories of Scotland and Jacobean life.

The burning of Effie for witchcraft — to which she is betrayed by both James and Bothwell — is then seen to be the horrific, predictable outcome of human conflict, whether as a result of the political strife of the 1590s, the Civil War (as in Hopkins’ time), or in Conn’s own time of the Vietnam War or the Irish Troubles.

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