Necromancy, Witchcraft and the Occult in British Horror

Leon Hunt
Leon Hunt

Dana Andrews pursued by the fiery footprints of Professor Karswell’s demon. The Duc de Richleau preparing his companions for a night in the pentagram, during which “something will come”. The eye of some unholy “fiend” found in a freshly ploughed field, waiting to return, waiting to be worshipped once more.1 Some of the British horror film’s most memorable images deal with the occult, “black magic”, witches and warlocks. But while ‘Night of the Demon’ (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) and ‘The Wicker Man’ (Robin St. Clair Rimington Hardy, 1973) have established cult reputations, the films overall have not been seen as constituting a distinct sub-genre in the manner of either the British vampire film or “demonic” films made elsewhere (‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (Rajmund Roman Thierry Polański,1968), ‘The Exorcist’ (William Friedkin, 1973), ‘The Omen’ (Richard Donner, 1976)). Certainly this is a stylistically and thematically diverse group of films, encompassing the “Lewtonesque” frissons of ‘Night of the Demon’ and ‘Night of the Eagle’ (Sidney Hayers, 1962), the bleak cruelty of the witchfinder films, the fleshy covens of ‘Virgin Witch’ (Ray Austin, 1971) and ‘Satan’s Slave’ (Norman John Warren, 1976) and the pagan ethnography of ‘The Wicker Man’.

The British occult film falls roughly into two periods. Initially, from 1957 to 1964, it emerges as a counter-tradition to the dominant Hammer Gothic in its play on the unseen and the unrepresentable. Moreover, films like ‘Night of the Demon’ and ‘Night of the Eagle’ are often seen as being only nominally “British”. Not only were writers, directors and stars imported from United States of America — Jacques Tourneur, Richard Burton Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Dana Andrews — but, by implication, the films’ aesthetics, too. ‘Night of the Demon’, in particular, has been linked to Jacques Tourneur’s films for Val Lewton in the 1940s:2 black and white “expressionist” photography, mobile camerawork, an emphasis on “mood” and “suggestion” over exposition and graphic horror. Peter Hutchings goes so far as to call ‘Night of the Demon’ and ‘Night of the Eagle’ “British ‘Lewton’ films” (1993: 92), while William Keith Everson describes ‘Night of the Demon’ as “the last genuine horror ‘classic’ that we have had” (1974: 184) in contrast with the “shock, sensation and speed” of the colour Gothics (ibid.: 206). ‘City of the Dead’ (‘US: Horror Hotel’, John Llewellyn Moxey, 1960) has the most “imported” look of all, with its New England setting and dry ice-shrouded Lovecraftian atmosphere, looking for all the world as though Mario Bava made it during an exchange visit to Shepperton. It would be tempting to detect here a disavowal of the occult as a part of British life, but a second look at ‘Night of the Demon’ complicates matters. The film has a North American star, producer, director and narrator, and a British émigré writer (Charles Daniel Bennett). But the first thing we see on screen is Stonehenge, accompanied by a portentous reminder that “man, using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols, can call forth these powers of darkness, the demons of hell”. In contrast with ‘Night of the Eagle’, ‘City of the Dead’ and ‘Witchcraft’ (Donald Herman Sharp, 1964), these powers are at least partly indigenous and Dana Andrews’ imported scepticism is not entirely welcome — “Take it easy on our ghosts,” pleads one minor character, “we English are very fond of them.” There’s certainly much pleasure to be had from fire demons materializing on the 8.45 to Southampton. Most importantly, Professor Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), the leader of a “devil cult”, is British cinema’s first allusion to Aleister Crowley, the prototype for the genre’s charismatic Satanist.3

The sub-genre found new life in its second phase, from 1966 to 1976,4 which saw the occult take its place more securely in British horror’s imaginary. ‘The Witches’ (Cyril Frankel, 1966), in particular, brought witchcraft “home” with its rural setting and its combination of pagan belief and esoteric “expertise”. Magic’s prime locale was now the countryside, the site of superstition, savagery and puritan cruelty (the witchfinder films) or a more “authentic” and liberating set of cultural practices and beliefs (‘The Wicker Man’). By the late 1960s, one thing was clear: the occult equals to sex. Tigon Studios, in particular, were not slow in exploiting the occult as a link between horror and sexploitation. ‘Curse of the Crimson Altar’ (Vernon Campbell Sewell, 1968) is laced with sex, bondage, sadomasochism, some nominal inverted deities (Herne, Pan – “Hm, eroticism” murmurs William Henry Pratt sagely) and undigested references to drugs and psychedelia. The end-credits’ cast list is particularly indicative of Tigon Studies’ priorities — “1st Virgin”, “2nd Virgin”, “Woman with whip”. The film acknowledges the hypocrisy of the witch-hunts but can not resist including a full-blown vengeful witch (horror icon Barbara Steele). ‘Witchfinder General’ (Michael Reeves, 1968) is equally important to subsequent “witch” films, even if it is not itself concerned with magic. Rather, its “monster” is the witchfinder himself, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Leonard Price Jr.), the model for numerous corrupt and/or psychotic authority figures, the enemy of permissiveness (see Hunt 1996 and 1998). The film also explores a “gynocidal” narrative that is not dissimilar to some feminist accounts of the witch-hunts, “the story of how perfect our lives would be […] if it were not for patriarchy and its violence” (Purkiss 1996: 8). Yet the film is not interested in witches – Hutchings (1993) argues that its real conflict is between men — and Diane Purkiss cautions against a “myth that portrays women as nothing but the helpless victims of patriarchy” (1996: 17). ‘Cry of the Banshee’ (Gordon Hessler, 1970) and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (Piers Inigo Haggard, 1970) retain the vicious witchfinder, but bring witches back into the frame, so that the films play more as a conflict between the “old” (pagan) religions and the “new” (Christian) one. Again, end-credits are particularly telling, with ‘Cry of the Banshee’s demarcating the film’s protagonists into ‘The Establishment’, ‘Witches’ and ‘Villagers’.

Aleister Crowley’s “Sex Magick” had considerable potential for co-option into countercultural and “permissive” discourses — both saw sex as a liberating, boundary-dissolving force. The publishing blurb for Mayflower’s ‘Masterworks of the Occult’ series suggests how these ideas were passing from the “counter-culture” into broader popular consumption: “a new list of the finest in Occult Non-fiction, the occult being all sciences concealed or ‘covered over’ by the mechanical straightness of society, particularly Western, that hide from the senses and from understanding the more liberating facts and fantasies of our cosmos.”4

This is punching all the right buttons — would you rather be “liberated” or mechanically “straight”? The years 1966–1968 mark a particularly significant turning point for popular understandings of the occult and these cultural shifts are contemporaneous with the horror genre’s gradual break from a Judaeo-Christian dualistic framework. There was a growing interest in pre-Christian pagan cults allegedly representative of a more “authentic”, prelapsarian national culture.5 In 1967, Aleister Crowley was one of the cultural icons to appear on The Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ album cover, and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ appeared the same year. Across the Atlantic, Anton Szandor LaVey opened the first Satanic church in California in 1966 and was the technical adviser on ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ in 1968. As John Symonds (1951/1973: 9) put it in his Aleister Crowley biography, revised in 1973: “the tide has turned in Crowley’s favour. The doctrine of ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, with its encouragement to trample the gods underfoot and to take one’s full of love, wine, and ‘strange drugs’, has seized the imagination of this restless world. Crowley’s philosophy […] invites one ‘to do one’s thing.’”

One legacy of this is a non-generic one — it includes Kenneth Anger’s ‘Magick Lantern’ cycle and Performance (Donald Seton Cammell, Nicolas Jack Roeg, 1971). In the latter, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ is echoed in the words ‘Nothing is true. Everything is permitted’ (see Wollen 1995: 20–3).

Of course, “swinging” witchcraft co-existed with more traditional representations in popular culture, even if the prurient efforts of Dennis Yeats Wheatley and others literally to demonize magic(k)al practices were starting to look a little rearguard. Dennis Yeats Wheatley was enjoying a revival in the early 1970s and novels like ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1934) were reprinted in a choice of formats — paperbacks with “sexy” covers or red-bound book-of-the-month volumes for the “connoisseur”. Dennis Yeats Wheatley also launched his ‘Library of the Occult’, in which Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and Samuel Guy Endore’s ‘Werewolf of Paris’ rubbed shoulders with Aleister Crowley’s ‘Moonchild’ and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s ‘Studies in Occultism’.

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