Some pictures from the silent era, like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, couldn’t look more clearly like ancestors of the modern horror film. Tracing the distant origins of other forms — of documentary, say — proves a trickier task. Hence the value of a movie like Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, also known as Witchcraft Through the Ages, which not only mounts a nonfictional investigation into humanity’s perception of “witches” throughout the ages, but does so with the aid of dramatic sequences as eerie as any of Count Orlok running amok. Given that Christensen’s meticulously researched historical creation demanded a larger budget than any other Scandinavian film to that point, you could also view it as an antecedent of today’s visually elaborate, spectacle-intensive blockbusters. Like many well-known silent films, Häxan has undergone multiple releases, each running different lengths, with different scores. You see above the 1968 version, which reduces Christensen’s original 104-minute cut to a brisk 77 minutes and accompanies it with a jaunty, richly incongruous five-piece jazz score by Daniel Humair.
Atop the music we hear the history of the persecution of “witches,” from the primitive era to medieval times to then-modern times, when the idea of the “hysterical woman” gained purchase in the zeitgeist. Narrating this story in the 1968 version is none other than writer and Beat icon William S. Burroughs, who, despite his flamboyantly artistic personality, delivers an ultimately sober analysis. The film takes the position that witchcraft, far from a reality in and of itself, arises and re-arises as an invention of the superstitious, the irrational, and those disinclined to understand the nature of mental illness. If that subject sounds more suitable for an academic paper, remember that this research comes delivered by the bold visual strokes of proto-horror silent film, close reading of the fifteenth-century inquisitor’s treatise Malleus Maleficarum, and the man who wrote Naked Lunch.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.