Serpent

Which Witch?

by Magus Peter H. Gilmore
Which Witch?—Magus Peter H. Gilmore

(Please note—this essay includes “spoilers” regarding plot points of Robert Eggers’ new film THE WITCH)

The truism that “everything old is new again” is touched-upon in Anton LaVey’s Seventh Satanic Sin: “Forgetfulness of Past Orthodoxies.” It should be recalled that in Satanism, our “sins” are behaviors which we wish to avoid, rather than acts forbidden by some supernatural entity. In this case, if we aren’t aware of what has gone before, then we can be duped into thinking we are being given something fresh, as the marketers of such goods would have us believe, when instead such is just another recycling of things offered previously.

In October of 2000, the sequel to the seminal “found footage” movie THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was being released. Titled BOOK OF SHADOWS, BLAIR WITCH 2, this was a typical horror movie detailing the psychological unravelling of characters in the wake of the supposed events of the first film. The publicists for this rather tepid effort did have an original concept for promoting it—they invited representatives of alternative religions and practitioners of and experts on occultism to appear on an event from October 18-20 to be live-streamed over The Internet. This would serve as a means for drumming-up attention for a movie which was in all likelihood going to be less profitable than its ground-breaking predecessor.

From their correspondence with me:

“Blair Witch Webfest is a ground-breaking live international entertainment convention offering the web community an immersive first-person internet experience. Included are three days of round the clock live programming and participatory events including exclusive footage from the highly anticipated “Book of Shadows” Blair Witch 2.”

I, as a member of the Council of Nine and spokesperson for the Church of Satan, was flown via first class from New York City to Los Angeles so that I would be filmed as the celebrant of a Satanic Ritual and then field live questions about Satanism coming in from the event’s global audience. I had been in touch with the Webfest’s art director, who was a bright fellow quick to admit that he’d read and been inspired by The Satanic Bible in his youth, towards setting up the rite. They hired a congregation of extras to wear hooded robes and an altar girl, to be nude as is our tradition. I met with all in advance to prepare them for their roles—explaining when to repeat “Shemhamforash!” and “Hail Satan!” and how to give the sign of the horns, much as Dr. LaVey had done for the film THE DEVIL’S RAIN back in 1975. Since our ritual practice was known to this fellow, he found the proper implements and had a large Sigil of Baphomet created to hang above the cloth draped altar platform.

When I arrived, I was given a tour of the set and noted that the studio was circular and had a rotating camera in the center which could be directed towards the circumference. The space was divided into wedge shapes, like a pie being sliced, and each representative of witchcraft, paganism occultism and myself for Satanism had a finely decorated set that was meant to be filmed by this camera. We broadcast on October 19th. On cue, my robed congregants and lovely altar lass responded with gusto to my recitations from The Satanic Bible, offering up history’s first live-streaming Satanic Ritual. When the dramatic rite was concluded, I was seated in front of the camera and spoke about the facts of our atheist philosophy as well as the tendency for extreme faith to lead to religious hysteria. Questions came in from the audience and I answered them live—they were typed lines scrolling down a monitor placed next to the camera. I spoke for about an hour, if my memory serves me. The producers of the event were very pleased and considered my segment the highlight of the Webfest. And so it was done—I had a global audience to which I demonstrated our rites and explained our philosophy. None of the participants were shown the film as we were not required to endorse it in any way. Of course later, upon seeing it, I was not impressed and discovered that the released version had been altered to make it “more commercial” against the director’s will. C’est la guerre in Hollywood.

Flash forward to early 2016. Writer/director Robert Eggers’ film THE WITCH is about to be given its US release and has people buzzing since it was well-received at Sundance and other festival screenings. I’ve seen it—a very slow-moving, artsy horror film wherein Eggers does a fine job creating tension as he depicts a family whose father’s religious fanaticism causes them to be banished from a Puritan plantation community to eke out an existence on the edge of the woods. The shadowed forest is meant to be frightening and the dark barrier of trees is underscored from the start by Ligeti-esque, dissonant, music—no time is wasted establishing the divide between William’s Christian family and the dark mystery and hostility of nature bordering the clearing which will be their home. Cut to the family’s established farm and structures. They now have a new infant son, Samuel and seem to be doing well until Sam is abducted mysteriously while under eldest daughter Thomasin’s care. While she is dumbstruck, we are shown from above the black-cloaked witch rushing through the forest with Sam in her arms. We briefly see the witch slaughter the child whose flesh is then ground for making a flying ointment, explained by the shadowy image of the witch rising on her broom in the moonlit night. Father William expresses to his eldest son Caleb that likely a wolf took Sam, but that they must conquer and not be consumed by nature.

Thus begins the unraveling of the family who perceive “evil” not only as threatening them from the depths of the woods, but from within. Young Mercy, who has a twin brother Jonas, mimes being the witch of the woods, whom she claims to have seen. Thomasin then jokes that she is in fact that witch, and that she has signed The Devil’s book and cavorted naked in the forest. Thomasin makes Mercy swear she won’t repeat this tale, meant solely to frighten the child to silence, but in the course of the film the idea takes hold, leading to Caleb’s seduction and defloration amongst other assaults upon the gradually imploding family. The idea of witchcraft being the culprit arises from the children, as it had in the infamous Salem incident. To these Christians, “evil” encroaches upon them through nature—the forest, the goat named Black Phillip, and the children who have been taught they are corrupt by their very nature.

The journey concludes with Thomasin being the sole survivor who joins with the deep woods coven, evoked (as explained by a text at the conclusion) according to the legends of the time as recorded in witchcraft trial testimonies and period journals, and also, I think, likely influenced a touch by Hawthorne’s 1835 tale “Young Goodman Brown.” The gathered witches coven chants the Eleventh Enochian Key, which is employed in LaVey’s The Satanic Bible as a funerary call, binding the dead to the Earth. Dee’s keys were penned in the late 1500s and the Puritans came to North America beginning roughly in 1620, so the use of this text would not be anachronistic, though it had served primarily for use by ceremonial magicians until linked to Satanic ritual by LaVey when he employed Satanized versions in his aforementioned book published in 1969. While Thomasin at the film’s end rises in the air as if symbolically liberated from her family’s beliefs, one must wonder what her future might hold, for would she remain amongst the forest dwellers, or return to the “civilization” of the plantation?

The mostly monochromatic cinematography has striking moments, evoking Breughel, Vermeer and Rembrandt. Mother Katherine’s guilt-induced surreal visions as well as Thomasin’s final initiation bring patches of warm and vivid color. The acting is fine, and the score works well to assist in the ratcheting-up of tension. Overall, there is little action and the horrors are primarily glimpsed briefly and obliquely. I imagine that the subtlety of this film will not likely appeal to a mass audience, accustomed to the current vogue for graphic violence and continuous action.

While one could interpret this work as a deadly hallucinatory experience arising from religious fanaticism and paranoia, it is filmed as if the witch and her interactions with the family are actually occurring, rather than as fantasies—more a direct fright flick approach than an ambiguous allegory. So we have here a coven of witches who worship The Devil and murder children as part of their devotions and spell-castings. The film does not offer any solace for the theists as their faith does not protect them from the dark forces. It is a stylish movie, but renderings of witchcraft and Puritanism have long been horror staples, flourishing in the currently active lurid series SALEM, which gleefully embraces both the Christians’ and the witches’ perspectives.

Those publicizing this film have made a deal with a “neo-satanist” group noted for doing media stunts as a means of drawing attention to its release. Additionally, those working to promote the movie in Australia contacted us to see if our members there would also assist them. From their email:

“I would love to show this film in some way to your congregation as a way to not only highlight the film (by having the Church of Satan Australia’s affiliation) as part of the publicity campaign, but to also bring some awareness of your religion/church to the forefront.”

We declined the invitation. While it is an atmospheric horror film, it depicts child-killing Devil worshippers as the alternative to repressive Christianity—both forms of theist irrationality. Having to contradict that imagery with the actuality of our atheism-based rational philosophy is not something we think would be worthwhile. 

By way of contrast, Iñárritu’s THE REVENANT is a current film far more in tune with the actual philosophy of Satanism, portraying a man betrayed who must surmount the harshness of nature in order to claim the justice due to him. That film is an artistic statement about the struggle for human existence in an indifferent universe while dealing with a society whose members can offer deadly hostility. It is something we would see as Satanism in action, rather than what one experience’s in the conflict of murderous goat adoring crones and faith-crazed Puritans from Eggers’ THE WITCH.

I’ve read that Eggers may be doing a remake of Murnau’s classic silent Dracula adaptation, NOSFERATU, which was well-served by the masterful Herzog in his 1979 version. That could be of interest, since Eggers’ work in THE WITCH is skilled in its capturing of a past era imbued with fear. If it comes to pass, I’ll let you know how it compares, since revisiting something that has been done before can at times be refreshing, or it can reveal anew the unique power of the original whose magic it failed to recapture.

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