13 O’Clock Episode 105 – The Salem Witch Trials, Wandering Wombs, and Clever Corvids

Tom and Jenny return to the American history well on this week’s installment, covering one of the darkest chapters of the colonial era: the Salem witch trials. During a brief, fifteen-month period in the 1690s, numerous people were accused and twenty were executed for witchcraft in and around Salem, Massachusetts. Why did it happen? Was it simply a case of mass hysteria, fueled by jealousy and religious hatred? Or was there some medical cause for the bizarre paroxysm? Listen in as we break down the event, as well as spend entirely too much time yapping about wandering wombs and really smart birds. Heat up the cauldron and ready the eye of newt, because episode 105 is about to cast its spell.

Watch the YouTube version here or download the audio version here.

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Clip at the beginning taken from the 1996 film The Crucible.
Song at the end: “Witch Hunt” by MDFMK.

THANK YOU TO ALL OUR SUPPORTERS! The show is made possible by: Scarlett, Nathalie, Jake, Jen, Victoria, Lana, Duncan, Thomm, Matthew, John, Joseph, Dan, Eric, Brandon, Valtrina, Tara, Sandra, Paul, Weaponsandstuff93, Michael, Ben, Anthony, Ima Shrew, James, Matt, Mary Ellen, Jamin, Joanie, Arif, Natalia, Samantha, Ashley, Kieron, Sophie, Tara, Jana & Scott, Christopher, Elizabeth, Tina, Lars, Veronica, Corinthian, Daniel, Dean, Greg, Lindsey, Richard & Sheena.

13 O’Clock is hosted by Jenny Ashford & Tom Ross. Channel art and audio & video editing by Jenny Ashford. Music & sound effects courtesy of freesound.org users jamespotterboy, corsica-s, enjoypa, capturedlv, luffy, kiddpark, and justkiddink. Video clips courtesy of Videezy & Videvo.

13 O’Clock Episode 49 – Murder By Witchcraft?

In the English Midlands in the 1940s, there were two very creepy unsolved murders: in one, a woman’s skeleton was found stuffed inside a wych-elm tree, and in the other, an old farmer was murdered in broad daylight by having his throat slashed and his body pinned to the ground by a pitchfork. Neither of the killers was ever caught, and in fact, the identity of the woman found in the wych-elm is still unknown. Eerily, both cases had details that suggested that they could possibly have been occult related. Were these killings part of some weird black magic rite? On this episode, Tom and Jenny discuss two infamous unsolved murders: the case known as Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm, and the Charles Walton Pitchfork Murder. Along the way, we also discuss legends about witchcraft in rural England, as well as the possible Nazi spy connection of the mysterious Bella skeleton. Put on your goat’s head and light a few black candles, because episode 49 of the 13 O’Clock Podcast has just been summoned from the underworld.

Download the audio podcast here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. And be sure to check out our shiny new list channel, 13 O’Clock In Minutes!

Song at the end: “Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?” by Gravenhurst.

13 O’Clock Episode 13 – Creepy Superstitions and Death Omens

It’s the special meta 13th episode of 13 O’Clock! To celebrate the theme, Tom and Jenny decided to have a fun little romp through creepy superstitions and omens of death throughout the ages. Aside from the obvious warnings about black cats, broken mirrors, and not breathing around cemeteries, you will also learn why it’s always prudent to put coins on the eyes of a corpse! Why you should start writing out your will if you see a groundhog chilling on your doorstep! Why you should always bury a murder victim’s liver separate from the rest of the body (trust me, this won’t make any more sense after you listen to the show)! Why Victorians were the most morbid fuckers and the snappiest dressers in recorded history!

Along the way, be entertained by amusing digressions about swaggering cockroaches, Mafia-affiliated Sandhill cranes, Tom’s recently shorn dome, and the joys of frying chicken in old motor oil.

Download the audio file from Project Entertainment Network here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

The Devil Went Down to Oxfordshire: An Appreciation of “The Blood on Satan’s Claw”

The small film subgenre of British folk horror is easily overlooked, with most casual fans only being able to point to a single example, the excellent and well-regarded cult classic The Wicker Man. But there were a few other sterling examples that deserve their place in the earthwork circle, as it were, such as The Devil Rides Out (based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley) and the terrific Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General. There is also the rather underrated gem we’re discussing today.

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1970’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (known alternately as Satan’s Skin or The Devil’s Touch) was the follow-up to Tigon British Film Productions’ hit Witchfinder General, and though it’s not quite as great or iconic as that earlier film, it still has much to recommend it. Tigon, incidentally, was a smaller horror production company that got somewhat overshadowed by film behemoths Hammer Films (who were famous for their Dracula films and their pioneering formula of gore and heaving boobies), and Amicus Productions (who were famous for their rad anthology films like The House That Dripped Blood and Vault of Horror).

The Blood on Satan’s Claw is set in a tiny English village somewhere around the end of the 17th century. Affable farmer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) is plowing some fields one day and happens to unearth a janky-looking skull with one staring eyeball and what appear to be tufts of fur. Alarmed, Ralph summons the local judge to come check out his find, but of course, once the judge arrives, the skull is no longer there. The judge (played with great sardonic relish by Patrick Wymark) pooh-poohs all these insufferable rubes and their silly superstitions, and goes about his judgely way.

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Meanwhile, lanky local Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams), who looks like a Bee Gee doing Renaissance cosplay, brings his betrothed Rosalind (Tamara Ustinov) home to meet the family. His aunt is a stone-cold bitch to the girl, and forces her to sleep up in the stinky, unused attic. Peter tries to make the best of things, and promises he’ll be up for some farm-fresh lovin’ after his disapproving relatives have gone to bed.

But later that night, Rosalind apparently sees something horrifying in her room and starts screaming her hussy head off, prompting Aunt Twatface and the other old guy living there to do the only rational thing, which is to board her up in the attic until the men with the butterfly nets can get there to cart her off to the nuthouse. As she’s carried away, she shoots her fiancé a wicked grin, and we see that one of her hands has morphed into a claw. Peter, understandably, is bereft, but his relatives are all insensitive and shit, essentially telling him that he dodged a bullet and he should be happy that he didn’t end up married to some wanton demonic harlot. Peter, obviously, seems less than convinced.

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Soon afterwards, all hell literally breaks loose in the village. All the young’uns start hanging out together and playing creepy “games” out in the woods, and some of them develop icky patches of crepe werewolf hair on various parts of their anatomy. They stop turning up to their Sunday school classes, and act defiant and contemptuous toward village priest Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley).

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Incidents begin to escalate. Peter has a vision that his hand has also become a claw, and slices it off in a frenzy. The children lure friendly young Simon le Bon lookalike Mark Vespers (Robin Davies) into the woods and murder him, bragging to his mother that they have done so. It soon comes to light that all of the town’s youngsters have fallen under the spell of nubile hottie Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), who apparently got in on the ground floor of the Satan worship and is now running the show. Angel attempts to seduce the Reverend and then accuses him of raping her; orders her followers to hack off their own limbs or forcibly take limbs from others to apparently reconstruct her coming Master out of the severed parts; and perhaps worst of all, paints on crazy Wolfman Jack eyebrows just a touch too high over her natural ones, making her look like some pagan blonde version of Frida Kahlo.

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After Ralph’s intended, the adorable Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury), is brutally raped and sacrificed by the child cult (in what is actually a fairly disturbing scene, due to the frighteningly realistic terror on Cathy’s face), the judge is persuaded to come back to the village to deal with all the devilry that his rational ass was initially so dismissive of. The end of the film is actually a bit of a letdown, as it’s somewhat abrupt and anticlimactic, and I’m not too sure how I feel about the final reveal of the Supreme Evil Overlord, who looks a bit too much like a short dude wearing a gorilla suit and a papier-mache Halloween mask, but hey, it was 1970, and I can forgive a touch of cheesiness in costuming, especially since the camera doesn’t really linger on the monster before he is summarily dispatched.

If you’re a fan of this type of pagan British horror, you probably owe it to yourself to see this one, even though it’s not quite at the same level as the other folk horrors I mentioned. Despite the cast looking oh-so-painfully seventies, and despite the over-the-top accents and regionalisms, and despite the pacing being slightly off, this is actually quite an enjoyable little horror flick with some genuinely tense scenes, a bit of decent gore (such as one character having her fur patch sliced off by a doctor, and later getting her leg caught in a bear trap), and some pretty fantastic cinematography of the English countryside.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends, and if you suddenly develop an unexplained area of coarse black hair somewhere on your person, consult your local witchfinder immediately.

Goddess out.

Hulu Horror Double Feature: The Inhabitants and Wax

It’s another lazy Saturday afternoon, my horror honchos, and that means it’s time for another random double feature to while away the weekend hours. Today’s mix was a pretty strange juxtaposition, I gotta say, but it ended up a generally better viewing experience than last time, so let’s jump right in. Oh, and I know I usually forget to say this, but there will probably be some spoilers ahead, though I’ll try not to ruin anything completely.

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First up, The Inhabitants from 2015, directed by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen. Hot damn, this was a good one. It had pretty much everything I like: a spooky old house in New England, an atmosphere of increasing dread that never showed too much or went too far over the top, and best of all, Salem witches, you guys! Yay, I love witches!

The setup of the story is simple in the extreme. Jessica (Elise Couture) and Dan (Michael Reed) are a young married couple who decide to purchase the March Carriage Bed and Breakfast when the elderly folks who previously owned it died (in the husband’s case) or got sent to a nursing home (in the wife’s case). One thing I should point out that gave this movie an added bonus of historical eerieness is that the house where it was filmed actually once belonged to the Reverend Samuel Parris, whose daughter and niece kicked off that whole Salem Witch Trial thing with their crazy accusations. Nice job, girls. 😦

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So, pretty standard creepy shit starts to go down once the couple get moved in; floorboards creak like someone’s walking around, some kinda menacing teenagers hang out in the woods like they’re watching the place, and so on. Jessica begins to research the history of the house so she’ll be able to tell their potential guests some interesting anecdotes, and it turns out that the house was once the home of a 17th-century midwife who was accused of and eventually hanged for witchcraft. The couple find a “gently used” birthing chair in the basement, to boot. Eeeewwwwwww.

The festivities don’t really begin in earnest until Dan is conveniently called away for a few days on a business trip, leaving Jessica in the house alone. I won’t spoil too much, but when he returns, he finds that Jessica has…changed, and not necessarily for the better.

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The thing I loved most about this movie was its consistently tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. The house itself is so eerie and so effectively filmed that the whole movie just drips spookiness during its entire running time. I also liked the measured pacing of the film; steady, not in any hurry to get anywhere, but subtly ratcheting up the dread as it went along. Another thing I really liked was that everything was done through suggestion; there was no splashy gore, not many jump scares, and a lot of plot aspects were left ambiguous for the viewer to puzzle over. For instance, who installed those video cameras in all the rooms? What were those teenagers doing out in the woods, and exactly what were they planning to do when they broke in? What ultimately happened to Dan and Jessica’s dog Wylie? Where did the “children” originally come from, and why did they need to be “fed?” These questions are not answered outright, but it doesn’t matter; it all just adds to the overall ambience. I would recommend this film unreservedly to anyone who enjoys slow-burn haunted house flicks as much as I do; I thought it was really fantastic and effective.

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Next up was a film that was a whole different kettle of fish, and while I didn’t dislike it, it gave me a lot more mixed feelings than The Inhabitants did. Part found-footage, part torture porn, part self-referential homage, the 2014 Spanish movie Wax was directed by Victor Matellano and featured a bunch of genre-specific cameos, including Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie), Jack Taylor (who starred in some of Jess Franco’s films), and the voice of Paul Naschy. It was a fairly enjoyable movie on the whole, but I feel like it was a little unfocused and too long and drawn out to really ring my bell, if you know what I’m saying.

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The conceit is this: Muppet-haired smart-ass and horror geek Mike (Jimmy Shaw) is hired by a TV producer (Geraldine Chaplin) to be locked into a supposedly haunted Barcelona wax museum overnight, and film a documentary-cum-reality-show while he’s in there. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the subject of the museum’s newest exhibit—a notorious and cannibalistic serial killer named Dr. Knox, who had a thing for gadding about dressed like Vincent Price’s character in House of Wax and eating his victims’ internal organs while they were still alive.

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So Mike is wandering around the dimmed museum, filming his reality show, and every now and then there’s an intercut of footage of Dr. Knox addressing the camera and describing whatever indignities he is visiting upon his current unfortunate victim. These interstitials are described in-film as being videos that were found in one of Dr. Knox’s hideouts after his arrest, and the museum has them playing on a loop near his wax figure. Fun for the whole family! These bits of the movie are actually fairly gruesome, but nothing to really put you off your lunch or anything, unless you’re super squeamish.

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At about the halfway point of the movie, some paranormal-type stuff starts happening around the museum, like figures seemingly moving, props falling over, mysterious lights, and a red ball that is significant to the plot turning up in the darnedest places. Then, during one of Mike’s scheduled phone calls with the TV producer, it comes to light that Dr. Knox has escaped from prison, and wouldn’t you know it, Mike soon starts seeing him lurking around the museum and understandably begins to freak the fuck out.

One thing I will say about the found footage aspects of the film, is that I thought the trope was pretty effectively utilized here, especially near the end, when Mike is being pursued around the museum by Dr. Knox and only has that creepy green night-vision mode to see by. The museum itself, which I’m guessing is probably a real one, also looks terrific and suitably unsettling, especially in Mike’s POV shots, because you can really get the palpable sense that you’re walking through this spooky-ass place in the dark yourself.

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But overall, I felt like the movie just didn’t hang together all that well, like it was trying to be too many things at once. And I was also left pretty confused by what was actually going on at the end of the thing. AHOY! SPOILERS AHEAD! Okay, so at the end, we’re led to believe that the TV producers had actually set the whole thing up, that Dr. Knox was not actually in the museum, and that they were deliberately trying to drive Mike crazy (or crazier) to make a good TV show. Were they actually planning for him to die of fright, or was that just a lucky side effect? Also, Mike’s wife and kid were killed by Dr. Knox? And he didn’t know it? I mean, he must not have known, because he didn’t seem any more squicked out by the Dr. Knox murder footage than a normal person would be. It wasn’t really made clear whether he even knew his wife and kid were dead, honestly. I mean, there was that one scene where he was kinda getting weirdly friendly with a wax figure of a prostitute and saying how much he missed his wife, but I thought that was because she had left him, like she said she was going to in that one flashback he had. If that’s not what happened, then what was the point of that brief flashback where she said she was gonna leave him? And when he showed the picture of his son Rob to the museum curator at the beginning, he referred to the kid in the present tense and didn’t act all sad or like the kid was dead or anything. So like, in light of the ending, were we supposed to interpret that as a symptom of his mental illness, or what? I just feel like that whole situation wasn’t conveyed effectively, and neither was the line between what was really in the museum, what was set up by the producers, and what was only in Mike’s imagination. It didn’t really ruin the movie or anything, but it was sort of frustrating nonetheless.

This one…eh, I could have taken it or left it. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you think it’s the kind of thing you’d be into, but keep in mind that it’s kinda meandering and goes on way longer than it needs to. Not bad, but not great.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

First in a New Series: Scary Silents: “Häxan”

Since I’m always looking for ways to keep this blog as fresh as a livid corpse, I’ve lately been casting about for ideas on a new series to supplement my “Creepy Scenes” one (which will continue, don’t fret). Just two days ago, I had a moment of kismet when I ran across a Cracked article titled “9 Terrifying Old Movies That Put Modern Horror To Shame,” and just like that, the fabled witchlight switched on in my head. So without further delay, I’d like to introduce a new series here on Goddess of Hellfire, “Scary Silents.”

I’ve always had a fascination with the very earliest days of cinema, particularly as it relates to horror film. There’s something so enthralling about the films that were made when the medium was brand new, when all the possibilities were first becoming apparent. There were limitations, sure, but oftentimes, limitations can be the spur to mad creativity, and that was certainly the case in many of the earliest movies in the horror genre. These films, many of them now nearing (or surpassing) a century old, have such a pleasingly otherworldly feel, with their shuddering camera work, their luminous black and white tableaus, and their broad theatricality. Watching the best of them, it’s easy to imagine that they seeped in from some other, creepier dimension, one of flickering lamplight and mystery. Obviously, some of the effects are crude by today’s standards, and much of the acting is necessarily exaggerated due to lack of spoken dialogue, but to me, that only contributes to their eerie charm. And some of them, particularly the non-American ones, contain some pretty shocking imagery for the time.

As is my wont, I’d like to discuss some of the slightly lesser-known films in the silent film oeuvre. Yes, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Phantom of the Opera, and Un Chien Andalou are fantastic, but they already get a ton of ink and bandwidth, so I probably won’t discuss them here (although I may change my mind about that, who knows). I would like to focus mainly on excellent examples of the genre that perhaps haven’t been so widely seen and discussed.

To that end, in this first post I want to talk about the 1922 Swedish-Danish co-production Häxan, known in English as The Witches or Witchcraft Through the Ages. If you’re curious, there was a Criterion Collection version that came out in 2001, or if you’re impatient like me, you can watch the whole thing (with English subtitles) right here:

The film is structured in four parts, and was actually conceived as a documentary. Writer/director Benjamin Christensen had done a two-year study of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, and sought to bring his knowledge to new audiences. For that reason, the first part of the film (comprising about fourteen minutes of runtime) is basically a short summary of both the history of witchcraft and the perceptions of Hell and the solar system common in the Middle Ages. This section of the film is illustrated with stills of woodcuts that will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of medieval witch legends, which I would assume is most people reading this blog. Bunch of sickos, all of ya. *kisses*

Hey, there's a cockroach there, might wanna squash that.

Hey, there’s a cockroach there, might wanna squash that.

Anyway, it’s the second part where Häxan becomes more like a traditional film, with short vignettes reenacting various aspects of witchcraft in the medieval period, and then a longer story in the middle that dramatizes one particular case of an accused witch being brought before the Inquisition. This middle section is the best part, chock full of curses and flying ointments and torture and old crones mixing potions by moonlight from pieces of corpses pulled from the gallows, and anyone who’s read my novel Red Menace knows how much I love all this kind of old-school witchery stuff.

Damn, I think all the murderer's sweat boiled off.

Damn, I think all the murderer’s sweat boiled off.

About 15 minutes in, a witch pulls a grody corpse hand out of a pile of straw and pulls off a finger, sniffing it experimentally. Weird, but you do you, babe. She then pronounces that the thief’s corpse had been too long on the gallows, and that the old, stinky finger isn’t gonna be any good for the brew. She soldiers on, though, throwing frogs and snakes and other unidentifiable things into her pot.

A woman then comes to the witch for a concoction that will melt the heart of her beloved, a fat monk who is later revealed, in a shocking plot twist, to be one of the main Inquisitors. The witch makes a delicious potion of cat feces and dove hearts. But then the woman wants the stronger stuff, so the witch gives her a potion boiled with a male sparrow, which evidently makes it like EXTREME love potion. Also, as a kinda two-for-one deal, the witch gives the woman an ointment that will let her and the object of her affections fly through the air and make kissy-face among the clouds. There are some broadly comic moments as the woman imagines the porcine monk taking the potion and then chasing her around a table and out into the woods before macking the hell out of her.

Things get REALLY interesting in later vignettes when the Devil (played by the director himself) shows up and starts pulling all kinds of evil shenanigans. “The Devil is everywhere and takes all shapes,” a title card informs us after his scary ass has popped up in a monastery and begun screwing with the chubby monks therein.

Surprise, mothafucka!!!

Surprise, mothafucka!!!

There are some really lovely silhouette shots of a naked woman walking zombie-like across a moor after being called by the Devil. One of my favorite scenes included one where the Devil comes to the window of a sleeping couple and begins banging on the shutters to call the wife to him, going all GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE, HO with his big clawed hands. Delightful.

One particularly cool sequence occurs when the Devil summons his minion, a poor woman named Apelone, into her “dream castle” where he showers her with money and a sumptuous feast, then begins to claw his way through the wooden door. The stop-motion animation here is great, and the little Devil figure, with his creepy beaked face, is super well done. Very Lynchian, this part.

In the longest segment of the film, there is a family gathered around the bed of Martin, a printer who has suddenly fallen ill. One of the male relatives wafts a ladle of hot lead over the sick man, and then drops the lead into a bucket of cold water, since the shape the lead takes will determine whether the man’s illness was caused by witchcraft, obviously. The guy pulls the lead shape out and is all OH SHIT, Y’ALL, THAT’S A BEWITCHING ALL RIGHT, and the gathered women are like AWWWW, HELL NO. The printer’s wife, Anna, gives food to an old beggar woman who comes in, and the old woman stuffs gruel in her face like a pig and totally blows a snot rocket on the floor and also has the evil eye, so the lady calls in the Inquisition, yo, since this beggar woman is clearly the agent of the bewitchin’. Family members throw the old woman in a bag (with one of the older female relatives making a particularly amusing YEAH, GET HER!!! gesture) and take her away.

The next bit, we cut to the Inquisition in progress, where the ancient old woman (Maria the Weaver is her name) is getting her torture on while the gathered monks swig wine and harangue her to CONFESS, CONFESS! At first she denies any witchy doings, but then the pain is too much for her and she’s all OKAY, FINE, I BIRTHED THE DEVIL’S BABIES, YOU HAPPY NOW and yes, they are happy, because now Maria is gonna confess all kinds of scandalous shit that the monks get to listen to and write down for later, masturbatory perusal. Maria starts telling the monks about all the witchery, and there are extended flashback sequences of a sabbath. The scenes of the witches flying are pretty cool, I gotta say. There are more beautiful shots with the witches flying across the sky in the background while the silhouetted devil orgy goes on in the foreground. The imagery of the witches’ sabbath is really gorgeous and unsettling, especially the weird skeleton-horse thing that lopes into the frame at one point, and the potion that one of the witches drops a dead baby in. There’s dancing and some (tasteful) nudity, and ladies making out with demons and doing jigs all over a cross on the ground. The monks are listening to this raptly, all WTF THIS IS KINDA HOT YOU GUYS. Maria tells them about the Devil-butt-kissing ritual, and the monks laugh and laugh like twelve year old boys.

That's my fetish.

That’s my fetish.

Through some plot contrivance, the comely printer’s wife also ends up accused of witchcraft, because payback is a bitch. I think it happened because the youngest Inquisitor had the hots for her, so the other monks assumed she had bewitched him. For his sinful thoughts, the littlest Inquisitor gets a whippin’, and when the whippermonk stops, the younger guy is kinda like WHY DID YOU STOP I WAS TOTALLY INTO THAT. You know those monks are total freaks.

One of the monks tells Anna he will let her free if she shows him one of them there witchy spells, and I’m all DON’T DO IT, GIRL, IT’S A TRAP, even though of course she’s not really a witch and can’t do magic, so what the hell am I even saying. The monk then tells her that her baby will be alone in the world without her, and then the monks actually bring the baby to the prison to show her, because monks are just the worst. Meanwhile the other monks are listening in, waiting for her to do the spell for the first dude so they can later testify that she’s a sorceress for real. See? Trap. CALLED IT. So then she starts telling them how to make thunder out of the water, because y’know, baby and freedom, and then the main monk pokes his fat face through the window and is all like GOTCHA, GONNA BURN YOU ALIVE TOMORROW, LOL and Anna is all YOU MOTHERFUCKERS and starts beating on the one monk in the cell with her, as you would, so she gets hauled off too. Cut to all the monks packing up their shit and moving on to the next town, because their work here is done (that work being torturing the shit out of innocent women and getting their sadistic jollies, obviously).

The next chapter is kind of an overview of witch confessions, torture equipment, and so forth, and opens with a creepy image of a door flanked by two people wearing scary pig heads.

Furries were a known scourge of the Middle Ages.

Furries were a known scourge of the Middle Ages.

And then all these other people in scary animal heads come shuffling out of the door and to be honest it kinda freaked me out. This bit’s kinda uncomfortable, because even though they don’t show anyone getting tortured for real, they do show actual people in the contraptions and show how they worked with a very matter-of-fact, “like so” kinda vibe. “One of my actresses insisted on trying the thumbscrew,” the director says in a title card, and then there’s footage of a laughing young woman wearing the thing while the hand of someone off camera begins tightening it. And suddenly her laughing mouth starts looking more like YOOOOWWWWCCCCCHHHH!!! “I will not reveal the terrible confessions I forced from the young lady in less than a minute,” the next title card reads. Very droll, Mr. Director.

Then there’s a nun putting on a spiked belt as a weird sort of self-flagellation, then there’s a whole convent of nuns running around like lunatics. And then the Devil’s back, wagging his tongue at another nun.

No thanks, I use toilet paper, hurr hurr.

No thanks, I use toilet paper, hurr hurr.

The Devil reaches into a box and pulls out what looks like a big spiked dildo and hands it to the nun and she takes it from him, looking horrified, before the cut. In the next scene we see that it’s a knife, and I guess the Devil wants her to stab someone with it, but she’s all GET THEE BEHIND ME and flings the knife away, only to have the Devil pop up behind her and brain her with a club. This is kind of a weird movie, if you hadn’t noticed.

She gets up off the floor, all flummoxed, and the Devil cracks open the door and gestures to her, so she picks up the knife and zombies her way after him, lookin’ all pop-eyed and crazy. She goes to the altar and with the devil’s encouragement, pulls out one of them Jesus crackers and goes to stab it while Jesus appears all like NOOOO, DON’T DO IT, MY CHILD, but I guess she does because then all the other nuns file in and find her all zonked out and they look in her hand at the wafer and they’re all like SISTER CECELIA’S IN LEAGUE WITH THE DARK ONE, Y’ALL and the nuns freak out and scatter. Then Sister gets up and starts lurching toward them, and the Mother Superior is giving her a piece of her mind vis-a-vis consorting with evil, and the sister sticks her tongue out at the Mother. And then all the nuns start dancing around and laughing, because I guess the Devil got them too through the power of the nunly raspberry, and the Devil wags his tongue and happily surveys his handiwork. In the next scene, another nun kipes the baby Jesus statue off the altar and carries it to the Inquisitors and tells them they need to burn her at the stake tout suite because the Devil is making her do some bad shit. She then spits on the baby Jesus and screams that the Devil is RIGHT IN THE ROOM, YOU GUYS. Fade to black.

The last chapter is sort of from a modern perspective, with the director pointing out that poor old women were usually the innocent victims of these medieval wackos, and then enumerating all the ways a woman could “stand out” back then and get the fingers of the Inquisition pointed at her. Like here’s a woman with a hunchback, or who is blind in one eye, or otherwise looks kinda fucked up or diseased. And then the director says, via title card, that we shouldn’t think that the Devil is only consigned to the past, because the actress who played the old witch Maria in the film once told him that the Devil was real, and that she’d seen him at her bedside.

He called me out into the yard; apparently he had a new lawnmower he wanted me to look at.

He called me out into the yard; apparently he had a new lawnmower he wanted me to look at.

But he says that now we know that all of the so-called symptoms of witchcraft were simply physical or mental ailments, and he has an actress portray a few of these ailments as examples, including pyromania, sleepwalking, hysteria, and the like. It then goes into a discussion of witch’s marks, and shows a naked and prone woman on an altar with the devil’s claws touching her back in various places. Then there’s those Inquisitors, leering at a topless woman while poking at her for signs of those “insensitive” areas. Contrast that with the next scene, which shows a modern doctor poking at a woman’s back, understanding that such areas on the body are completely normal and merely a symptom of that good old feminine complaint of “hysteria.” (This WAS almost 100 years ago, y’all; they weren’t THAT modern.)

And then it’s kinda weird, because one of the doctors says something to the mother of the patient about “Y’know, it would be a shame if your daughter’s hysteria made her have a run-in with the police” (WTF) and then the title card says, “Poor little hysterical witch! In the Middle Ages you were in conflict with the church. Now it is with the law.” I can’t really tell if the director was actually feeling pity with the women, or if he’s just being a sarcastic douche. That’s one of the downsides of silent movies, I guess; you can’t hear people’s tone of voice, and the text in silent movies doesn’t have emoticons.

Then, inexplicably, there’s a scene of a woman in a jewelry store totally pulling a klepto while the jeweler’s back is turned. So I guess that’s what the law thing was all about. The jeweler peeps in the ring box and is all HEY, THERE WAS ANOTHER RING HERE and the chick’s all I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU MEAN, WHAT ARE YOU ACCUSING ME OF, SIRRAH? Jeweler’s all, INTO MY OFFICE MISSY OR I’M CALLING THE FIVE-O, so she sheepishly goes into the office and hands over the ring she swiped. And then the jeweler’s all GIVE ME YOUR CARD IMMA CALL YOUR MOM even though the woman is like forty. The woman begs him not to contact her family, or else she will be “forcibly detained,” which doesn’t sound too good, and wait, weren’t there witches and devils and stuff just a few minutes ago? This is taking a turn into crazy town.

Anyway, she tells him she’s not well, and that her behavior is seemingly caused by something outside herself, and I suppose we’re just trying to draw parallels between the treatment of mentally ill women in the modern day as opposed to the days of the Iron Maiden, but it’s still a bit odd. And then the woman is like YEAH, I’M BROKEN, AND LOOK, HERE’S SOME OTHER SHIT I STOLE, I’M SO CRAZY, and probably showing your other pilferings to a guy you just tried to steal from isn’t the brightest idea, but she’s arguing for her life, you guys. Then she pulls out the pity card by saying that her husband died in the war and she hasn’t been the same since. And it totally works! See, we have compassion nowadays, not like those bloodthirsty medieval fuckers, and the jeweler lets her skate. I admit I actually did feel bad for her, so good on ya, jeweler guy.

At the very end, there’s a little recap of the medieval view on Hell and such, and the implication that it’s awesome we don’t really believe any of that silly shit anymore. He says there are no more witches on broomsticks, and then there’s a shot of a smiling woman piloting a biplane. YEAH, GIRL POWER! But wait, he says! Superstition is still rampant! There are still tarot readers and crystal ball gazers galore! We no longer burn the old and poor, but don’t the poor still suffer? Are we really that different? No, Mr. Director, we are not. Food for thought, my minions. Food for thought.

And because happy endings are not very Swedish and all, the final shot is of bodies burning alive at the stake, so that’s nice. I also enjoyed the ending title card that simply said, “SLUT” (which is Swedish for “end” or “out,” but don’t spoil my juvenile fun).

Until next time, Goddess slut. I mean out.

Slut.

HaxanPoster

Ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials

Some scholars assert that the mass hysteria in Massachusetts in the 17th century could have been triggered by a common fungus.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

The events are familiar to most Americans and have been dramatized dozens of times on stage, page and film. The tragic episode was set into motion in 1692 by the strange behavior of two young girls, and snowballed into a panic of almost unbelievable proportions. The Salem Witch Trials, as they came to be known, lacked the staggering body count of many of the European witch hunts; nonetheless the series of events was sufficiently dire to cause many people then and now to question how such a thing could have happened.

An Overview of the Salem Witch Panic

It was February 1692. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams suddenly began displaying bizarre behavior akin to epileptic fits. They screamed and raved, twisted their bodies into strange positions, and complained that an unseen assailant was pinching and pricking them. Doctors were called to examine the girls, but no physical cause could be found for their distress, and what was worse, when word of the girls’ mysterious ailment spread through Salem village, other girls began behaving in a similar fashion.

At this point, authorities had raised suspicions of witchcraft, and Betty and Abigail obligingly pointed accusing fingers at a slave girl named Tituba, who they claimed had taught them spells for seeing into the future. Other accusations followed, and more “victims” came forward, accusing still others. When all was said and done, the hysteria had spread across three counties and resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people, twenty of whom were eventually executed for witchcraft. What possible reason could there have been for such a terrible tragedy to unfold? Many theories have been put forth, but Professor Linda Caporael, in 1976, suggested we need look no further than the Salem villagers’ breadboxes.

Hordeum_vulgare_Claviceps_purpurea_23-7-2009

Ergot a Poisonous Fungus, Catalyst for Accusations

In a 1976 article inScience, Caporael theorized that the initial catalyst for the witch craze — the seemingly “possessed” behavior of Betty, Abigail, and the other girls — could have been caused by a reaction to ergot. There are about fifty known species of the ergot fungus, but the one Caporael implicated in the witch panic was Claviceps pupurea, which grows on rye plants and can cause poisoning when consumed by humans or other mammals. If indeed the girls had eaten bread contaminated with ergot, they could have experienced symptoms that were perceived as possession: Seizures, a sensation of itching or crawling on the skin, muscular contractions, nausea, and even hallucinations, triggered by an alkaloid called ergotamine, which is similar in structure to LSD.

Caporael argued that not only were the symptoms of ergotism consistent with those noted in the victims of the “bewitchment,” but that the area around Salem grew a great deal of rye, and that climatic conditions were favorable to the growth of the ergot fungus. It would not even have been necessary for all of the “victims” to have been afflicted with ergotism; a few cases might have started the ball rolling, and psychological and sociological factors could have accomplished the rest.

Arguments Against the Ergot Theory

Many scholars have disputed the claims that ergotism played a major role in the witch panic. Historians Jack Gottlieb and Nicholas Spanos, for example, contend that had ergotism been responsible for the accusers’ symptoms, we should have expected to see members of entire households afflicted, rather than just a few individuals here and there. They also argue that ergotism has other symptoms that do not correspond with the recorded behavior of the “bewitched” persons. Finally, they and other scholars have pointed out that ergotism had been a recognized malady at least since the Middle Ages; it even had a name, St. Anthony’s Fire. Anthropologist H. Sidley in particular doubted whether authorities in Salem in the 17th century would have mistaken the supposedly familiar symptoms of ergot poisoning with signs of supernatural possession.

Despite the voluminous research on the subject, the exact causes of the Salem witch panic are still murky. It is not controversial to speculate that the episode was probably triggered by an unfortunate cascade of converging factors—social, political, psychological, and perhaps pharmacological.

Additional Source:

Macinnis, Peter (2004). Poisons: A History From Hemlock To Botox. MJF Books. ISBN 1-56731-814-2.

 

 

The Goddess Waxes Nostalgic About More Childhood Horrors

In my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me, I mentioned how influential horror stories were on me as a kid, and how much I adored seeking them out and reading them, whether they were intended for children or not (my parents were pretty chill that way). Sure, I delved into the very disturbing adult worlds created by Poe and Lovecraft, King and Barker, Matheson and Bradbury. But I was still a kid, and as such, I enjoyed kids’ stories too.

I can’t remember who gave it to me (it could have been my parents or another close relative), but when I was a darkling little sprog I received a delightful black box set containing five slim paperbacks with different colored spines. I recently searched for the entire box set online, but to no avail; it appears that the books are only sold individually now, and used, at that. But it was the more freewheeling 1970s, and I had more scary bang for the buck, yo. While only one of the books was straight-up horror, the others had enough of a dark fantasy or funny fairy-tale vibe to keep me enchanted, and I read those five books until they literally fell to pieces.

ThingBedBooks

The largest and scariest book in the collection was Maria Leach’s The Thing at the Foot of the Bed. It was an illustrated compendium of traditional ghost stories, urban legends, and poems, with some handy ghost tips thrown in at the end (for example, I distinctly remember the book warning me not to touch a hat that had been left in the road with a stick lying across it, since it belonged to a spirit who was presumably coming back to fetch it at some point. Stay away from haunts’ hats, kids; the dead are really touchy about their headwear). It contained many, many well-known tales, such as “The Golden Arm,” “Sweet William’s Ghost,” and that one about the kid who goes into a cemetery on a dare and plunges his knife into a grave and then ends up dying of fright like a dumbass because he thinks the corpse has reached up and grabbed him. I also recall a few funny ones, like the story about the guy with the super long teeth (which is actually kind of creepy now that I think about it), or the one about an old man shooting a bunch of holes in a nightshirt hanging from the line because he thought it was a ghost.

The two stories I remember the best, though, were naturally the ones I thought were the scariest. The first of these was “Sop, Doll,” an unsettling tale about a guy who is eating some sort of gruel in his shack and is inexplicably visited by a series of larger and larger cats. Did I mention that the cats could talk, and they kept saying they were waiting for someone? And also that the guy was so freaked out by this situation that he ended up slicing off one of the bigger cats’ paws? Oh, and also that the next day, his wife was MISSING HER HAND and thus was probably, you know, a shapeshifting witch? Seems like something you should sort out before the wedding bells ring, guy, but who am I to judge, right?

I can’t remember the name of my other favorite story (was it in Spanish?), but I still recall the details fairly vividly because it featured beheading, and beheadings have always been one of my morbid fascinations. A dude was ambling back from the butcher with a calf’s head in a bag. He was going to eat it for dinner, which probably horrified child-me more than the outcome of the actual story did. But as he walked, the bag was dripping blood everywhere, and eventually someone called him on it and asked him to show the calf’s head, because your dinner shouldn’t be bleeding that much when you just bought it from the butcher, right? Hell, everyone knows that. (Note: I did not know that.) So the dude pulls the thing out of the bag, cavalier as you please, and it turns out (DUN DUN DUUUUUUUN) it isn’t a calf’s head at all, but the severed head of a friend of his. Dude was taken into custody and promptly hanged for murder. Even when I was a kid, though, something about this tale didn’t sit right. I mean, I seem to remember that the story mentioned, “Oh yeah, that dude totally cut off his friend’s head,” but if that were so, why in hell would he be carrying the bloody head-bag through the streets where everyone could see him? And why would he whip out the head for the first rando who asked? I guess I just don’t understand crime.

The second book in the set, The Witch’s Egg by Madeleine Edmondson, didn’t make quite as large an impression as the others, though it did feature a crabby old witch, always a plus in any story (take my novel about a couple of crabby old witches, Red Menace, for instance). It was a sort of Grinch-like story, as I recall, about the aforementioned cranky hag having her black, black heart softened when she raises a baby bird that hatches from an egg she finds. Was she planning on eating the egg at first? Did she kill the mama bird? Probably, she was an asshole like that. I really can’t remember. But still, super fucking heartwarming.

Miss Clafooty and the Demon by J. David Townsend will always hold a special place in my heart, because it was this book (along with John Bellairs’s The House With a Clock in Its Walls) that initiated me into the wonderfully grotesque world of Edward Gorey, who did the illustrations. I absolutely loved his fanciful drawings for this book, and I loved the story itself just as much. The prim and miserly Miss Clafooty is simply rolling in loot, but her mansion is all ramshackle and busted up, she wears layers of old, out-of-style duds like a bag lady, she only eats stale bread crusts and expired peas, and she never invites anyone over because that means she’d have to spend some of the oodles of gold and silver coins she keeps stored in an old stocking. Rather like Smaug if he were a doddering middle-aged Victorian hausfrau, Miss Clafooty loves nothing more than sitting in her broken-down house and running her fingers through her coins and congratulating herself on how much money she didn’t have to spend that day. But this douchey one-percenter is soon put in her place by the appearance of a small purple demon (because why not?) with “a mouth like an oven” who shames the woman so much that she finally pulls the greed-plug out of her butthole and buys some actual food and some nice clothes and fixes her house up and invites everyone over for a big-ass shindig. Occupy Clafooty!

And God bless us, every one!

And God bless us, every one!

By far my favorite book of the set was Margaret Storey’s Timothy and Two Witches. I was absolutely enthralled by its darkly fantastical atmosphere and its charming British setting and tone. Timothy is sent to live with his aunt, I believe, after his parents die (probably). His aunt is a white witch, and she’s young and pretty, and all sorts of cool shit happens in her house, like the soap just jumps into your hand when you need it, and stuff cleans up after itself. I also have a clear memory (because even as a child I was a total dessert whore) of the little cakes the aunt would give to Timothy. She didn’t bake them or anything, she just made them magically, but they had his name written on them in icing, and I thought that was pretty fab. Come to think of it, I want to go live with this chick right now. Anyway, there was also a little girl, who was either the aunt’s daughter or a neighbor kid or something, and she befriends Timothy, as well as has cakes with her name written on them. And because it was a dark fantasy with a white witch in it, there also had to be an eeeeeeevil witch. I think Timothy fell under her spell somehow, but the white witch was more powerful and everything worked out okay in the end. I remember being particularly taken with the descriptions of the magical woods where the good witch lived, where the trees and grass all glittered with gold and silver. Damn, I’ve been to England, why can’t I find this woman’s place? I want magical maid service and personalized magic cakes and glittery trees. Goddammit.

Livin' the dream.

Livin’ the dream.

The final book in the set was a wacky fairy tale entitled The Strange Story of the Frog Who Became a Prince, by Elinor L. Horwitz. It was a sort of send-up of the old Frog Prince story, wherein a witch (another one! There were a lot of witches in this box set, dang) who is out doing some freelance witching one day comes across a happy frog and turns him into a prince. Who knew that witches would just do this kind of stuff for free? I learned a lot about witches from these books. Anyway, the twist is that the prince the frog gets turned into looks more like Prince Charles than The Artist Formerly Known As, with big ol’ jug ears and knock knees and buck teeth and so forth. The witch gets points for accuracy, of course, but the frog isn’t too thrilled with the whole transformation jazz and starts telling the witch how much more handsome and kick-ass he was as a frog. Finally he convinces the witch to change him back, but she can’t remember how. So maybe she’s a trainee witch; that’s why she’s going around transforming amphibians into inbred royals willy-nilly. Much zaniness ensues as she tries to remember the spell to return him to his former state. Lots of words said backwards, as I recall. I think the one that ended up doing it was “peanut butter sandwich” said backwards. Which makes total sense.

I want a peanut butter sandwich now. *heads for pantry*

Mmmmm, Jiftastic.

Mmmmm, Jiftastic.

Until next time (burp), Goddess out.