Witch No. 8: Sister Summersisle

“The drone must die!”

This witch is not suitable for children.

The 2006 remake of The Wicker Man is not a great film. In fact, it’s notoriously a pretty bad one. The flashback sequences are tacky, the jump scares are cheap, and Nicholas Cage’s performance as policeman Edward Malus is genuinely weird. Funnier writers than I have already catalogued the abundance of cinematic sins found within this movie.

But here’s the thing: this horror movie really is unsettling. The core premise, which sees a policeman investigating the disappearance of a young girl in an isolated island community, is inherently strong, and the shoddiness of the film often makes things feel even stranger. Did the filmmakers do any of this deliberately? Probably not – but that’s how cult films are born!

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So, Nicholas Cage arrives on a creepy island and begins looking for the missing girl, who he suspects may be his daughter. His ex-fiancée, Willow, seems incapable of giving him any direct answers about what might have happened, and the rest of the townsfolk actively refuse to cooperate with his investigation. It’s as if the townsfolk are operating under some sort of hive mind – an obvious metaphor, as the island is covered with beehives.

The witch here is Sister Summersisle, matriarch of the neo-pagan society. She claims to be the earthly representative of “the great mother goddess who rules [the] island,” serving as the spiritual leader (or queen bee) of the community. The movie never calls her a witch, but she tells Cage that her ancestors hailed from Salem, fleeing persecution before settling on their island home. As played by Ellen Burstyn, Sister Summersisle is calm, confident and calculating, utterly unflinching in the face of Cage’s increasing frustration. Does she really believe in magic? At the midway point of the film, it’s difficult to know for sure.

Spoilers ahead!

Well, if you know just one scene from The Wicker Man, it’ll be this one: Nicholas Cage screaming “not the bees!” while animal-masked cultists break his legs and pour bees onto his face. Yes, it was a trap all along – the girl wasn’t missing at all! Last year’s harvest was a failure, and only the sacrifice of an outsider will restore honey to the hives. Nicholas Cage is hoisted to the top of the wicker man (its wooden limbs acting as cages for other sacrificial animals – very cool) while Sister Summersisle makes her appeal to the gods and goddesses of nature. The wicker man is set alight, and Cage is burnt to death.

And for all its ridiculousness, the nonchalance of the townsfolk as they watch the policeman die is actually pretty chilling.

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Of course, it’s all a remake of the superior 1973 film of the same name, directed by Robin Hardy. The original film still isn’t particularly scary – there’s far too much folk music in it for that – but the clash of faiths between Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) and the pagan Lord Summersisle (Christopher Lee) makes for a far more compelling story, as the devout Christian policeman is forced to confront increasingly bizarre customs and ceremonies as his stay on the island continues. (One of these ceremonies actually generates some genuine tension, when Howie, disguised as part of a carnival procession, must place his head into a deadly ring of swords.) It all ends in the same way, with the townsfolk merrily singing another folk song as Howie slowly roasts.

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I really like Lord Summersisle. He’s a weirdly unorthodox antagonist: a charismatic English lord who talks casually of appeasing old, wild gods. Can he also be called a witch? I’m not entirely sure – which is why Sister Summersisle’s connection to Salem made her the main focus of this post. I do think men can be witches though, as long as they’re identified as such, and as long as they display certain witchy tropes. Organising a blood sacrifice to heal your failing orchards? That’s witchy enough for me!

So, if you’re in the mood for a good story and some slow-burn scares, I recommend The Wicker Man from 1973. If you’re in the mood for some ridiculous jump scares and some unintentional hilarity, I recommend The Wicker Man from 2006. At this stage they’re both cult films, so you’ll get some decent talking points from either one.

Or you could just watch this helpful montage of Nicholas Cage’s truly outrageous performance. Enjoy!

Final Musings

— Horror films fascinate me, because they challenge the viewer to suffer, and also because there are so many subgenres for the daring viewer to conquer. I adore the old Universal horror films – especially Dracula (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – but by modern standards, those films are hardly scary at all. Modern classics like Psycho (1960), The Shining (1980), and The Exorcist (1973) are all good movies, but they too failed to scare me, which in turn failed to make me feel brave for watching them. Slasher films, however, are my weakness. I’ve already suffered through Friday the 13th (1980), and I’m building up to watching Halloween (1978), which is apparently the scariest slasher film of all. Wish me luck.

The Wicker Man (2006) doesn’t fit in with any of those films, though. I’d say its subgenre is “cash-grab remake,” which puts it alongside movies like House of Wax (2005) and The Amityville Horror (2005). I watched those last two films as a teenager, and even then I thought they were pretty bad – but still fun to watch with friends!

— I’ve deliberately omitted a few films from the paragraphs above – the witchy ones, of course! We’ll be hearing about all those movies as the Year of the Witch rolls on. But be warned: one of them is my pick for the scariest horror film of all time.

— Last year, the band Radiohead released a single called “Burn the Witch,” with a stop-motion music video inspired by the original Wicker Man. I love the song (I love most Radiohead songs), and the video aptly captures the creepy inevitability of the film – even though it’s being acted out with cute wooden dolls. It’s The Wicker Man, but for kids!

— A pro tip: the infamous “not the bees!” scene is an alternative ending only available on the DVD release. I missed out on it when I first watched the film, and I’d hate for you to face that same disappointment.

— Do you remember when I said that Jessica Lange was one of only 23 people to have won the Triple Crown of Acting? Well, Ellen Burstyn has also earnt that achievement. She was also in The Exorcist, so her horror credentials are a lot stronger than her appearance here would indicate.

— And let’s not even start on what a horror icon Christopher Lee is. Suffice to say, the man was one of the greats.

— Sister Summersisle is an important witch for me because she makes explicit a certain element of witchcraft that I’ve been pursuing in my own writing. I don’t want to say what it is just yet – it might ruin a surprise later in my series – but for all the schlockiness of the remake, I do think it gets certain things right.

— Weirdly, I can’t find a YouTube link to the last shot of the original film, which really is pretty spectacular. Haunting, even. Highly recommended – seek it out if you can.

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 7: The Sod Hut Witch

“For the rest of your life, ha, ha, ha!”

For our next witch, things are going to get a little more obscure. This post is about a video game: a video game from 1992, set in medieval Germany. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, even though very few other people have heard of it.

Because Darklands is a game about witches.

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I first played Darklands when I was in Grade 5, after a classmate of mine installed it on our school computer. Playing as a group, my friends and I designed four adventurers to send out into the medieval world, giving them strange occupations (“Novice Monk,” “Vagabond”) and even stranger skills (“Religious Training,” “Artifice”). A few clicks later and we were sneaking around a Germanic city in the middle of the night. To our dismay, we were accosted almost immediately by the night watch, who demanded we pay a hefty fine for breaking curfew.

What were we to do?

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So, we attacked the night watch. And, as far as I can remember, they beat us pretty handily. We got taken to prison, where we attempted to tunnel out with a spoon; unfortunately, the turnkey found our “embryo tunnel,” and so we were moved to an even worse cell. Eventually we were taken before the magistrate, and quickly sentenced to death; unable to break free of our bonds, each of our four adventurers was beheaded, one by one.

Suffice to say, our first attempt at playing the game was not a success.

We got better, though. Darklands is largely a text-based game, and as we learnt to make smarter decisions, our party of adventurers began to find more success. We fought brigands in the woodlands, selling their clothing to buy lock picks, weapons and armour. We sought out robber knights (or raubritters) in their castles, sneaking into their bedchambers at night to duel them one-on-one. We survived attacks from wild boars, roasting their meat and slicing off their tusks for good luck charms.

But as the game went on, stranger things began to happen. You see, Darklands is a game set in medieval Germany – as imagined by the medieval Germans. It’s a world where a priest can routinely perform miracles by praying to the saints, and where seemingly innocent hamlet towns can be found cavorting with genuine demons. It’s a world where a secret witch-cult is plotting to bring about the end of all things, protecting their evil work with a series of magic seals. It can take hours for the player to discover any of this, but once they do, it becomes clear that the witches must be stopped.

And so we come to my favourite encounter in the entire game.

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The witch in the sod hut is one of the earliest witchy antagonists a Darklands player can encounter. As soon as you approach, she bursts out of the hut, screeching; wolves appear on either side of you, howling out blood-curdling shrieks. Combat begins at once: the wolves attack as expected, but the witch begins throwing potions, which are extraordinarily rare in this game. Sometimes she’ll slow you down with a stone-tar potion, which turns the ground to mud; other times she’ll stun you with a vial of sunburst, or try to blind you with Solomon’s Eyeburn. When your adventurers finally reach her she draws a knife for the close-quarters combat, slicing and slashing with unbridled fury.

Alright, I admit it – I’m embellishing things a bit. It’s an exciting fight, but the graphics aren’t that great. It actually looks like this:

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If you can win the combat, you’ll get to loot the battlefield, claiming the witch’s dagger and maybe even some of those super valuable potions. The blonde witch is left cowering before you, trembling with fear as she begs for her life. The player is given five options to decide the witch’s fate. Two options progress the main storyline, two give the player a boon, and one option is a deadly trap. Which one would you choose?

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Have you made a choice? Alright, here are the spoilers. The alchemical formulas are a rather useful boon, as they’ll allow a skilled character to brew potions of their own; getting three of these formulas at once is a significant windfall. Asking the witch to do penance for her sins is also good, as it will sometimes increase the virtue of the party; this is essential for calling on saints, which becomes increasingly necessary as the difficulty of the game increases. If you picked either of these options, you’ve chosen very well indeed.

Asking for unnatural strength is the trap. In fact, it’s one of the nastiest traps in the entire game.

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So getting a boon is better than dying – but perhaps better still is learning the time and place of the High Sabbat. To break the first of the great seals, your adventurers will have to infiltrate a meeting of the witch-cult, disrupting the wicked ceremony from within. By asking about the secret calendar, or about the High Sabbat directly, the player can learn where to direct their heroes next, and so continue their virtuous quest.

I’d love to tell you all about the High Sabbat (it’s one of the most thrilling encounters in the entire game), but I think this post has already done enough to introduce you to Darklands. The game is very old, and very difficult, but if your interest has been piqued, I encourage you to seek it out. I’ll leave you with just a taste of the meeting with the witch-cult, as the party first enters the site of the ceremony. Spooky!

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Final Musings

— One of my favourite things about Darklands is the sheer amount of content packed into the game – and how long you can play for without stumbling across any of the good stuff. Dragons in particular are so darn rare that you can go an entire game without ever seeing one, even though the developers must have spent a significant amount of effort programming them in. There are numerous other secret monsters hidden across the map as well, and discovering them is always an absolute thrill.

— The Darklands manual (which I never had as a kid) cites the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (1486) as a key influence on the game’s folklore. I skimmed the Malleus Maleficarum a couple of years ago, but I must admit that I’m yet to read the book in its entirety. If I get it read anytime soon, my review may turn up as a witch post later in the year.

— No joke: this is a hard game. I first played it in 2002, but I completed it for the first time in about 2012. I certainly wasn’t playing the game non-stop for that ten year period, but it took me a very long time to build up enough tips and tricks to make it to the end. It’s a fun game no matter how you’re playing it, but if you want to beat the final evils, you’ll have to put in quite a bit of practice. (Or maybe I’m just really bad at it.)

— So, here’s a pro tip, based on years of Darklands experience: to get far in this game, your party will need to consist of a charismatic leader, two warriors, and an alchemist. For this play through, my leader was called Jeff Winger, my warriors were called Indiana Jones and James Bond, and my alchemist was called Walter White. All of these names please me greatly.

— The game also features my favourite ever description of broomstick flight. Here’s another snippet from the High Sabbat:

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— The unsung hero of the game really is the artwork. Sure, it’s dated by modern standards, but I really love those pixel art backgrounds, and it’s such a thrill when I find one I’ve never seen before – which is still happening in 2017, 15 years after I first played the game. Huge credit goes to art director Michael Haire and the rest of the team at MicroProse.

— I eventually bought my own copy of Darklands for $2, in a toy store in Horsham. You can now buy it for slightly more than that on Steam.

— Special thanks to Matt K, who first installed Darklands on our class computer, and to my good friend Jarryd, who has similarly been playing this game for far too many years. Thanks for the memories!

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 6: Ursula (The Sea Witch)

“Life’s full of tough choices, isn’t it?”

Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is a good fairy tale. It has a princess, and a prince, and it’s full of magic and wonder, transporting readers to an ocean world that is entirely unlike the dark forests where such stories commonly take place. Most importantly, it has a really good witch, who demands an almost impossible price for her wicked services. In theory, this should be one of my all-time favourite tales.

But it isn’t. The imagery may be iconic, but Anderson’s ending leaves a lot to be desired. So, in this post we’re going to be comparing the original 1837 fairy tale to the 1989 Disney film, so we can see how the story (and the witch) improved over time. Fun!

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For the most part, the stories start the same way. The little mermaid swims up to the surface and spies a human prince; she rescues him from drowning, and quickly falls in love. She visits a sea witch, hoping to exchange her mermaid tail for legs; the witch demands her voice as payment, and warns the mermaid that if she cannot win the love of the prince, her life will be forfeit. The muted mermaid travels to the human kingdom, where it looks as if she will succeed in winning the prince’s heart… until another woman catches the prince’s eye.

Here, the two tellings diverge. In Anderson’s tale, the prince meets a princess who had helped care for him after his near-drowning, and plans to wed her at once: this is the deadline that will cause the mermaid’s death. But – and this part is actually really cool – the mermaid’s older sisters are determined to save her, and so make their own bargain with the sea witch: they cut off their long, beautiful hair, in exchange for a magic knife. If the little mermaid can kill the prince with the knife before the next morning, her life will be saved, and she will become a proper mermaid once more.

How progressive would this fairy tale have been if the mermaid princess had killed the man who spurned her? But that’s not how it goes, of course. The little mermaid throws the knife into the ocean (where it turns the sea blood red – again, really cool) and accepts her fate. But then instead of turning into sea foam (which is how mermaids die) she randomly turns into an air spirit, and then another air spirit tells her that she’s now going to have to spend the next 300 years doing good deeds, at which time she’ll earn an “immortal soul.” And that’s the end.

It’s a bit stupid.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid makes some smart changes to the original fairy tale. As voiced by Pat Carroll, Ursula the Sea Witch is a villain for the ages: a half-woman, half-octopus sorceress who brews potions of awesome power in her undersea cauldron. The entrance to her ocean lair is carpeted with a garden of polyps, the withered forms of those who failed to pay her price. Two enchanted eels act as her animal familiars, and she can look out through their weird, yellow eyes. She even gets a song!

In the Disney film, it is Ursula herself who steals the prince away from the mermaid (now named Ariel), captivating him with the mermaid’s stolen voice – a truly evil plot point, for which the writers deserve huge credit. Ariel’s animal friends manage to steal the voice back before the prince and the witch can be wed, but their intervention comes too late: Ariel was only given three days to win the prince’s affections, and the sun sets before he can kiss her. Ursula carries Ariel away, before striking a deal with her father, King Triton: in exchange for his daughter’s freedom, the King will take Ariel’s place amongst the polyps, surrendering his magic trident to the witch.

Now, this is an ending:

I’m honestly not sure how I managed to watch this film as a kid. The scene where Ariel sacrifices her voice is truly haunting: the moment when she signs the contract is so terrible, so final, that my poor little witch-fearing mind could barely cope. But the finale, which sees a titan-sized Ursula rising out of the sea, makes me flinch even as an adult. Ursula has the trident. She’s literally the queen of the ocean. The witch has won.

Mercifully, the film then cheats a bit. The final showdown is swiftly cut short; Prince Eric sails into the maelstrom and spears Ursula with the prow of a ship, which kills her immediately. It’s a tad anti-climactic, but given the absolute victory achieved by the witch, the writers really must have had their backs against the wall. At least the ship-spearing is appropriately nautical.

I’ve read criticisms of Disney where the company has been accused of homogenising fairy tales (which is to say, stripping them of their darkness and complexity), but based on my own experiences of watching Disney films, I reject those accusations pretty wholeheartedly. Sure, the original texts can sometimes be a bit blunter when it comes to descriptions of pain or death, but there are images in the Disney films that are much scarier than anything written by Anderson or the Grimms – Anderson may have invented the sea witch, but it was Disney that gave her those twisting, nightmarish tentacles. Ariel and Prince Eric may get a happy ending, but there are so many moments of body horror throughout that any claims of sanitisation simply don’t hold water.

Anyway, this post has been massive, so let’s finish up. Join me below for some final musings!

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Final Musings

The Little Mermaid kicked off the ten-year period known as the Disney Renaissance, during which Disney released a series of absolute animated classics. You’ve surely seen all these films already, but just in case you haven’t, be sure to check out Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Mulan (1998).

— In my opinion, Ursula is the second scariest Disney witch. Who do I think is the scariest? Well, I’m sure we’ll delve into that later in the year. Until then, feel free to speculate wildly!

— I really like witches who offer Faustian bargains, and Ursula may well be the ultimate example of this archetype. In the original tale the bargain is even worse for the poor mermaid: the witch tells her that, upon gaining her feet, every step she takes “will be as if [she] were treading upon sharp knives.” I like that Disney removed this extra condition, as it’s a bit ridiculous that the mermaid in the fairy tale so readily accepts this deal.

— It’s not very witchy, but I’ll take any excuse to post a link to “Under the Sea,” because it’s amazing:

— I wish more attention had been paid to the sea witch’s magic knife. My entire first book is about a magic knife! I really could have used some more details here.

— In other news, this blog has been getting a lot more views lately. Unfortunately, I know that most of those views have been from my parents, and they’re possibly the only people in the world who were going to buy my book anyway. Oh well – g’day mum and dad! Thanks for reading!

— Reflecting on this post, I think I may have been a little bit unfair on Anderson, who did originate some rather spooky imagery. We’ll close off this post with the most delightfully horrific passage from Anderson’s tale, set as the mermaid princess approaches the witch’s lair. Enjoy!

“[The princess] crossed her hands on her bosom, and then darted forward as a fish shoots through the water, between the supple arms and fingers of the ugly polyps, which were stretched out on each side of her. She saw that they all held in their grasp something they had seized with their numerous little arms, which were as strong as iron bands. Tightly grasped in their clinging arms were white skeletons of human beings who had perished at sea and had sunk down into the deep waters; skeletons of land animals; and oars, rudders, and chests, of ships. There was even a little mermaid whom they had caught and strangled, and this seemed the most shocking of all to the little princess.

She now came to a space of marshy ground in the wood, where large, fat water snakes were rolling in the mire and showing their ugly, drab-coloured bodies. In the midst of this spot stood a house, built of the bones of shipwrecked human beings. There sat the sea witch, allowing a toad to eat from her mouth just as people sometimes feed a canary with pieces of sugar. She called the ugly water snakes her little chickens and allowed them to crawl all over her bosom.

Creepy.

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 5: The Swamp Witch

“I think you meddlers must be taught a lesson in witchcraft!”

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is a really, really good cartoon. It’s funny and scary, with so many twists and turns in every episode that it can’t help but be entertaining. Over the course of the first season, the Scooby gang encountered ghosts, phantoms and evil robots – but it was in the thirteenth episode that Scooby and his friends met their very first witch.

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On their way home from a fishing trip, the Scooby gang – Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma – stop to ask for directions, only to discover a strange zombie shambling along the roadside. They flee, but later stop in the township of Swamp’s End to ask about the creature. The owner of the general store, Zeke, tells them the local legend of the swamp witch, who brought the zombie to life with her voodoo magic. He recounts the time he and his brother Zeb first saw the witch, repeating her wicked spell:

Smoke of darkness, demon of evil: take the form of the living, and come forth from the flame!

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And so the Scooby gang begin their search for clues, sniffing around a series of typically creepy locations. Zeb’s abandoned shack yields a pin-pricked voodoo doll; a boat ride into the swamp results in a sighting of the witch herself, flanked by her zombie henchman. When the gang sneak inside the witch’s house, the witch appears and casts a spell, causing Daphne to vanish; Velma and the boys track her to a decaying river boat, left rotting in the swamp.

What happens next? Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But I can only imagine how surprised you’ll be when you find out who the zombie and witch really are!

“Which Witch is Which?” first aired on December 6, 1969. It has all the classic ingredients for a great episode of Scooby-Doo: a Gothic setting, beautiful painted backdrops, a spooky local legend, meaningful clues, villainous jump-scares, and slightly naff animation. Perhaps the only disappointing feature is the design of the witch herself; the purple costume is adequate, but not as scary as most other early-season ghosts. (More suspects would also have been good.)

Because this is Scooby-Doo – original, no-nonsense, no-magic Scooby-Doo – the swamp witch doesn’t actually have any real powers. Daphne’s vanishing is carried out with smoke pellets and a trapdoor; the flying effect is achieved with a sheet and a balloon; the zombie is just a man in a mask. Some of the other details, however, are harder to explain. How much time went into the set-dressing for the witch’s house, given that it includes a self-portrait? Are those real skulls lining the path to the witch’s home? And who made the creepy warning signs that are spread throughout the swamp? I guess all hard-boiled criminals know that the devil is in the details.

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There’s a lot to love about Scooby-Doo, but I’ve always loved those painted backdrops the most. I mainly like the haunted houses (not seen in this episode), but the decaying River Queen is also a wonderfully unique setting. In my own writing, I’m always sending my characters into stereotypically spooky scenarios, and I suspect that I developed the knack for this from watching old Scooby episodes. Looking at the end credits, I think Walt Peregoy is the man chiefly responsible for the delightfully creepy background art. Thanks Walt!


Final Musings

Scooby-Doo has been running for a long time (from 1969 to the present day), but the only seasons I recommend are the original two runs of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, which aired in 1969 and 1970. Don’t be fooled by the alleged “third” season – it’s from 1978, by which time the animation had already lost a lot of its warmth. Some people like Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, which aired from 2010-2013, but that incarnation includes a lot of real magic, which in my opinion breaks a cardinal rule of the show. The most recent version of the show – Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! – has an ultra-modern animation style which I don’t entirely appreciate, but I have to admit that it’s made me laugh a few times. It’s actually really funny.

— Despite my aforementioned cardinal rule, I also really like Scooby-Doo Meets the Boo Brothers, a direct-to-video movie from 1987. Yes, it has some real ghosts in it, and yes, it also includes Scrappy-Doo, but none of the “mystery” ghosts are real, and the treasure hunt theme is really well executed. The bicycle-riding civil war general is probably my favourite Scooby villain of all time.

— There’s a big new Scooby-Doo film planned for 2018, but it’s going to be 3D animated, and they’re calling it S.C.O.O.B., so I’m not terribly optimistic. A Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe sounds fascinating though, even if it does turn out to be a train wreck.

— Whilst writing this, I Googled Walt Peregoy. Apparently Walt also did the backgrounds for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty – amazing! Further thanks go to Ron Dias, Daniela Bielecka, Gary Niblett and Rolly Oliva, who are the other background artists listed in the season one credits.

— Ah, I just realised there’s a witch in episode three of season one. Darn. Well, it’s too late now; I’m not changing my introduction. This witch lives in a lighthouse, although she isn’t the main ghost. The episode is called “A Clue for Scooby-Doo.”

— There’s another witch in the ersatz “season three” of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, in the episode “To Switch a Witch.” The whole episode has a nice witchy theme – it’s set in Old Salem – but the design of the witch (below) does nothing for me whatsoever. But the mystery is okay, and the graveyard setting is adequate.

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— I have three young cousins who love all incarnations of Scooby-Doo. When I babysit them, we watch the classics. The correct way to watch Scooby-Doo with children is to sit behind them and wait for the monster to appear; when it does, grab them suddenly and scream. (The show comes pre-edited with helpful jump scares.) Keep doing this until they either beg you to stop, or get smart and sit behind you instead.

— My favourite haunted house episodes are “Hassle in the Castle” (season one, episode two) and “Haunted House Hang-Up” (season two, episode five). The latter is particularly good for jump-scaring young cousins.

Seriously, I could talk about Scooby-Doo all day. But I’ll stop now. Sorry.

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 4: Circe

“Be off to the pigsty, and make your lair with the rest of them!”

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient mythology. As a writer of fantasy, it’s inherently pleasing to imagine a time when gods and monsters walked the earth, and it’s amazing to note just how long some classic monsters have existed in the public imagination. Today’s sorceress, the wise and wicked Circe, lives alone in a forest, brews evil poisons, and can turn men into pigs with a wave of her wand. By modern standards, she is instantly recognisable as a witch – and yet the character of Circe is more than 2800 years old.

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Circe has appeared in a number of ancient Greek (and Roman) stories, but she’s best known for her appearance in Homer’s Odyssey, as one of the many obstacles encountered by Odysseus on his long voyage home. Odysseus and his men have just escaped from an island of cannibalistic ogres when they are washed up on Circe’s shore; exhausted, the sailors make their way to the witch’s stone house in the centre of the woods. They are greeted at the door by mountain wolves and lions, who wag their tails and rub their noses against the men. Circe then welcomes the sailors through the gates and presents them with a feast of cheese, honey, and wine – but the food has been laced with a magic poison, and the men immediately forget their homes. With a final flourish, Circe waves her wand and turns the sailors into pigs, locking them up in her pigsties to await their fate.

It really is a delightfully evil set up, particularly given that the Odyssey was written more than a millennium ago. Unfortunately, the end of the story isn’t quite as good; Odysseus (who stayed behind) sets off to find his men, and meets the messenger god Hermes on the way. Hermes tells him all about Circe, and gives him a magic herb called “Moly” to protect him from enchantment. Odysseus then strolls into the stone house, eats the poisoned food with no ill effect, and then waves his sword at Circe until she agrees to turn the pigs back into men. It may well be the original deus ex machina.

Circe continues to prove her witchy skills, however, as she is able to provide Odysseus with all sorts of useful advice for his future journeys. First she tells him how to reach the port of the dead, so that he might commune with ghosts by offering sacrifices of food and blood. Later, she describes how to sail past the evil sirens, who seek to lure ships over the rocks with their wondrous songs:

There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear. But if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you [to the mast], that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster!

I really love these final passages. In my own writing, I like to question how a witch might have achieved her power; here, Homer indicates that Circe’s power is tied to her immense knowledge of the magical world, including the places and monsters which reside within it. This, for me, is the best answer that can ever be given. Humans, by definition, should not be magical – but a human who has learnt of magical beings might be able to harness some of that power for their own personal use, thus becoming a witch. So how did Circe learn the things she knows? I feel like there’s a great untold story here: of Circe’s own voyage to the dead men’s sea, where she met the sirens and other sea monsters, and learnt to control the winds themselves.

Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Where’s my notebook?

Final Musings

— Circe is most often pronounced “SUR-see,” or “KIR-kee” if you’re Greek. It’s certainly not pronounced “SUR-ss,” which is how I’ve said it for most of my life.

— I read Circe’s chapters in the Odyssey for the first time whilst researching this post. Before this, my favourite telling of the Circe myth may well have been a quest from the video game Age of Mythology. It’s not a very faithful adaptation, but playing the first stage of the mission as a pig was a novel twist on the usual formula. You can watch a YouTuber playing that mission in the video above.

— Depending on who you ask, Circe might be a witch, goddess, or nymph; she might even be the daughter of Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft. It’s all a bit confusing, and definitely another reason why an origin story would be useful.

— “Moly” is described in the Odyssey as having black roots and a flower as white as milk. (This note is mainly for myself, so that I can remember this authentically witchy plant for future writing.)

— Reading old myths and legends always makes me feel like I’m Indiana Jones, which only makes me want to read even more of them. I’ve never been to Greece, but I travelled to Egypt in 2010, and standing between the Sphinx and the pyramids was probably the closest thing I’ll ever have to a religious experience.

— In reading these posts, you might think there’s a witchy villain in every one of my books. Sadly, there isn’t; the villain in my first book is a vampire. But my series is called “The Witching Hours,” which hopefully does indicate that some serious witching is on the way …

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 3: Fiona Goode

“Who’s the baddest witch in town?”

This witch is not suitable for children.

For our third entry, I’m going to skip to the most recent witch I’ve encountered: the fearsome Fiona Goode. This delightful sorceress is the main antagonist / protagonist of American Horror Story: Coven, the third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology horror television series.

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In the world of AHS, witches operate in covens; the show’s titular coven is run out of a boarding house in New Orleans, Louisiana. The show teaches us that once every generation, one particularly powerful witch is ordained as the Supreme; this witch can perform magic which is varied and grand, and has an implied responsibility to lead the coven towards greatness. At the outset of the season, Fiona Goode has held the position of Supreme for over 40 years.

But Fiona has not been a good Supreme. Despite possessing great magical prowess and a delightfully wicked wit, Fiona has used her powers to grant herself a life of luxury, forsaking the needs of the coven to pursue her own selfish desires. As age catches up with her, these desires are focussed into a single goal: finding a means to recapture her squandered youth. How can she do this? By locating and killing the next Supreme, preventing her power from being sucked away entirely by the ascending witch.

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As a viewer, I loved Fiona. Her wit always cut just as fiercely as her spells, and her insistence on dressing in black was a pleasing nod to witchy tradition – she even wears a pointed hat on Halloween! She is a 21st century witch done right, a heady mix of magic and modernity, played to perfection by the indomitable Jessica Lange. Fiona’s pursuit of eternal youth makes her a relatable protagonist, just as her betrayal of the young coven makes her a barbaric antagonist. It really is an enjoyable arc.

It’s disappointing, then, that the show unravels so completely in its final episodes. Early on, I began to suspect that the writers’ motto for the show must have been “what’s the most entertaining thing that could possibly happen next?” – a philosophy which did hook me for the first half of the season, however ridiculous those twists and turns may have been. But in the second half of the season, it becomes apparent that far too many secondary plot threads have been introduced. Fiona’s quest for youth is buried beneath conflicts with misogynistic witch hunters and puritan neighbours; the show’s preoccupation with racial hate crimes further muddles the season arc. Fiona is absent for most of the final episode, which does both the show and the character a huge disservice. As the major villain of the piece, the Supreme deserved a more memorable farewell.

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Fiona may have been the standout, but I liked all the other Coven witches too. Teen witch Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) was great as a new coven member suffering from a macabre curse. Emma Roberts was delightfully snarky in the role of Madison Montgomery, a young celebrity witch who seems destined to follow in Fiona’s errant footsteps. Nan (Jamie Brewer) made me laugh a lot with her psychic commentaries, and Queenie’s (Gabourney Sidibe) ability to turn herself into a human voodoo doll was possibly the wickedest power of all.

Swamp witch Misty Day (Lily Rabe) was good too, although her power of “resurgence” – the ability to bring dead things back to life – made things a bit boring later on. Here’s a spoiler: by my tally, there are sixteen major characters in the show, and fourteen of them die at some point in the season. Some of them even die twice! It’s pretty hard to create any narrative tension in a world where death isn’t a real consequence.

Still! Critique of the show aside, I enjoyed AHS for its smart portrayal of so many stylish, modern witches. Plus, the first episode of the season is called “Bitchcraft”. Can witches get any cooler than that?

Final Musings

— This is the only season of American Horror Story that I’ve watched; the seasons can be watched in any order, so obviously I started with my favourite setting! I’ve read elsewhere that Asylum is the best season, and I’m also intrigued by Murder House and Roanoke. The writing of Coven may have disappointed me in the end, but I suspect I’ll give AHS another chance sometime in the future.

— Jessica Lange is one of only 23 people to have won the “Triple Crown of Acting,” a feat achieved by winning an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award. One of her two Emmy Awards was for her portrayal of the Supreme witch.

Coven plays with a lot of racial imagery throughout the season; most of this imagery involves white people doing horrible things to black people. Like, really horrible things. To begin with, it looked as if the character of Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) was being set up for a redemptive arc, as the friendship she forms with Queenie (a black witch) seems to make her regret the appalling crimes she once committed against her slaves. But then the arc ultimately comes to nothing, which made all the racial torture seem like it was just horror for horror’s sake. A bit unpleasant.

— I loved the Axeman though. Did you know he was a real serial killer?

— I know two contradictory things about witches: that they live alone in the woods, and that they work together in covens. I like both of these ideas, but it’s hard to reconcile them into a cohesive whole within my own magical universe. Witches don’t appear in my first book, though, so I’ve still got a bit of time to work this out.

— It was really hard to choose a pull quote for this post, because everything Fiona says is eminently quotable. I’ll finish off here with one more of the best:

In this whole wide wicked world, the only thing you have to be afraid of … is me.”

Happy witching!

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Witch No. 2: The Gingerbread Witch

“Who is nibbling at my little house?”

Our first witch was big. Is it possible for our second witch to be even bigger?

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The witch from Hansel and Gretel – referred to here as the Gingerbread Witch – is a truly marvellous villain, and is likely to be the first witch many children encounter. As established by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 recounting of the tale, this is a witch who lives alone in the centre of a deep, dark wood, waiting for travellers to stumble across her home so she can cook them in her oven. She enshrines two of the most enduring witchy archetypes: solitude and cannibalism.

What sets the Gingerbread Witch apart, however, is her sense of style. Her famous house is so utterly iconic that it elevates her – and the fairy tale as a whole – to the highest echelons of the craft: a trap so memorable, so wicked, that the story remains essential today, some 200 years after it was first collected by the Grimms. Indeed, “magical baking” is the only power the Gingerbread Witch ever exhibits, although the original text also claims that all witches have a superior sense of smell:

When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked it and ate it, and that was a feast day with her. Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beings draw near.”

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The other factor that makes Hansel and Gretel such a stone-cold classic is its absolute commitment to one theme: hunger. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods because their parents cannot afford to feed them. They cannot find their way home because the hungry birds have eaten their trail of breadcrumbs; they are lured to the witch through the delicious smell of the gingerbread house. The witch has lured the children to her home because she, too, is hungry; she dies when she is pushed into her own oven. Hansel and Gretel returns to the theme of hunger again and again, revisiting the theme in new and unexpected ways as the story progresses. In doing so, it reaches a level of narrative harmony that few other fairy tales have ever been able to match – or indeed, that few other stories have ever been able to match. Come for the witch, but stay for the masterclass in creative writing!

Everything turns out okay in the end, of course. The witch is burnt to death (a nice nod to tradition), and Hansel and Gretel return home to their father, their pockets full of pearls. We never find out what happens to the gingerbread house: whether the birds peck it apart, perhaps, or if another witch moves inside. Regardless, the Gingerbread Witch will always be one of my favourite witches, and gingerbread will always be one of my favourite foods.


Final Musings

— I don’t want to oversell the point, but the thematic resonance of Hansel and Gretel is rendered even more significant by the complete lack of internal logic found in most fairy tales. I’ll admit that a certain level of randomness can be fun – these are the forests where fairies live, after all – but in reading The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales from cover to cover there were many instances where I felt that the authors had quite literally lost the plot. Even so, there are many other delightful witches described in that collection, so expect to hear more from the Grimms later on.

— My copy of The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a beautiful cloth-bound edition with illustrations by Arthur Rackham (two of which are found above). My girlfriend, despite never having shown an interest in fairy tales before, bought it for herself from Paradise Bookshop in Daylesford, Victoria; as far as I know, she never even opened it. I stole it from her and read every single story in the lead up to writing my first book, The Vampire Knife. I like to think of The Vampire Knife as a modern fairy tale, with the horror and excitement ramped up to eleven.

— Neil Gaiman released his own telling of Hansel and Gretel in 2014, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. I call it a telling rather than a retelling because Gaiman’s story is wonderfully faithful to the original text; his own little inventions are integrated so seamlessly that you’ll barely notice they weren’t there before. This entry doesn’t count as being a “Neil Gaiman witch,” but Gaiman is a hero of mine, and has created many fantastic witches throughout his career, so we’ll certainly be seeing a lot more of him further down the track.

— I haven’t seen Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). It’s got a pretty bad reputation, but if it’s ever available on Netflix I may give it a watch.

— How chilling is that excerpt from the original tale? I’ve been trying to make my books as scary as possible, but it’s hard to top the brutal simplicity of that first sentence. Those storytellers from 200 years ago really knew how to frighten children!

That’s all for now. Happy witching!

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