Witch No. 11: Medea

“Oh, what an evil power love has in people’s lives!”

And we’re back! This week, we’re taking another deep dive into Ancient Greek mythology, to examine a witch so powerful, so wicked, that even her own family were subject to her evil wrath. This is the story of Medea, granddaughter of the sun itself, and the spells she cast to steal the Golden Fleece.

Medea 1

Some backstory: long before Medea enters this tale, trouble was brewing in the kingdom of Thessaly. Aeson, the rightful king, was overthrown by his half-brother, the villainous Pelias; Pelias assumed the throne, and killed as many of Aeson’s children as he could find. But, one of those children – Jason – escaped, and was trained as a hero by a centaur named Chiron. Some years later, Jason returned to Thessaly, and Pelias agreed to give up the throne if Jason could bring him the Golden Fleece. Jason agreed, bringing together a crew of famous heroes (including Orpheus and Heracles) to join him in his boat the Argo. Thus, Jason and the Argonauts sailed forth.

Eventually, after a number of incidental adventures, the Argonauts reached the kingdom of Colchis, where King Aeetes held the Golden Fleece. Upon hearing of Jason’s quest, Aeetes agreed to hand over the treasure – on one condition. First, Jason had to succeed in harnessing the Khalkotauroi: two fire-breathing bronze bulls which grazed in the king’s field. Jason immediately realised that the task was impossible, and hung his head in despair.

Enter Medea.

Now, here’s a difficult truth: in the pantheon of Greek heroes, Jason isn’t really that heroic. If he hadn’t had 50-60 Argonauts by his side (who are, remember, a crew of heroes and demigods), he probably wouldn’t have made it to Colchis in the first place. But, Jason’s one saving grace at this point in the story is that he once helped an old lady cross a river. That woman was the goddess Hera in disguise – and now Hera wants to help Jason succeed. So Hera speaks to Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who in turn speaks to her baby son Eros (ie Cupid), god of desire, and promises him a magic golden ball if he’ll go and shoot a love arrow at Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes. Eros agrees – and so Medea is overcome with an absolute, burning desire to help out the new hero in town.

This is where the story gets really good. King Aeetes is the son of the sun-titan Helios, making Medea part-titan as well, and it turns out she’s channelled those innate powers into some particularly potent witchcraft. As described by the ancient poet Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica, Medea has succeeded in harvesting an extraordinarily rare plant: a purple flower on twin stalks, which only sprouts in blood spilled from the titan Prometheus. The root of the plant looks like newly-cut flesh; to harvest it, Medea had to travel deep into the underworld, gathering the dark sap in a seashell that she wears around her neck. Luckily for Jason, the so-called “charm of Prometheus” bestows two specific powers upon the user: immunity to cuts from bronze, and immunity to fire. With Medea’s magical assistance, the bronze Colchis Bulls don’t stand a chance.

Medea 2

So: Jason performs a sacrifice to Hecate, goddess of magic (which includes “pouring from a goblet the hive-stored labour of bees” – a beautiful line), and smears his body with the dark juice of the flower, after which he is able to yoke the bronze bulls and plough the king’s field. Understandably, King Aeetes is furious, and begins plotting a new scheme to ensure Jason’s downfall. Medea, fearing for Jason’s safety, flees the city, promising Jason that she will help him steal the fleece. She leads him to the grove of trees where the fleece is guarded by an enormous serpent, subsequently performing her biggest spell yet:

But right in front the serpent with his keen sleepless eyes saw them coming, and stretched out his long neck and hissed in awful rise … and as he writhed, the maiden came before his eyes, with sweet voice calling to her aid sleep, highest of gods, to charm the monster … but still he raised aloft his grisly head, eager to enclose them both in his murderous jaws. But she with a newly cut spray of juniper, dipping and drawing untempered charms from her mystic brew, sprinkled his eyes, while she chanted her song … and on the very spot he let his jaw sink down.”

The serpent sleeps; the fleece is stolen; Jason, Medea and the Argonauts sail away; King Aeetes furiously gives chase. Infamously, Aeetes has a son, Apsyrtus, who leads the charge to recover the fleece: Medea, out of love for Jason, captures her brother, kills her brother, and then sprinkles the pieces of his body in the ocean so that her father has to stop and pick them up. That scene isn’t included in the version of the Argonautica I read, because in the 3rd century BC poets were already censoring Medea’s awful deeds. What a witch!

There are some more good stories from the long journey home (including one scene where Medea kills an enormous bronze warrior named Talos by summoning a pack of hellhounds), but the story is best concluded in the play Medea by Euripides, produced in the year 431 BC. Set some years after their quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece, the play sees Jason abandoning Medea to marry the princess of Corinth, thus exiling Medea and their two sons. Suffice to say, Medea is not impressed. She takes an enchanted dress and a golden coronet (left to her by her grandfather, the sun-titan) and sends them to the princess as a wedding gift; the coronet bursts into flames around the princess’s head, sending blood and fire dripping down her face, whilst the dress begins devouring her flesh, tearing at her skin with poisonous fangs. Afterwards, the king runs in and picks up his dying daughter, and the dress attacks him as well, melting the flesh directly from his bones.

And then things get even worse.

You see, at this stage Medea will do anything to hurt Jason, even if it means hurting herself. And so – and be warned, because this is pretty terrible – she enters her house, locks the door, and murders their two sons. Grandfather Helios sends Medea a chariot pulled by dragons to aide her escape, and so the witch is able to taunt Jason as she flies away with the bodies, gleefully denying him the chance to bury his children. And that’s the play. Medea gets away. There isn’t any punishment.

So… can we all agree that Medea is the wickedest witch of all time?


Final Musings

— Whoa, this was a big one! Hopefully it was worth the wait. The Year of the Witch is back with a vengeance! (Although it’s still nowhere near as vengeful as Medea.)

— Art credits: the first painting featured in this post is Medea (1868) by Frederick Sandys. The second painting is Jason and Medea (1907) by John William Waterhouse.

— Here’s a good question: what is the Golden Fleece, anyway? Well, one time the sea god Poseidon had a child with a nymph who was also a granddaughter of Helios, and that child was called Nephele. Nephele grew up and had kids of her own, and later helped them escape their wicked stepmother by turning herself into a golden ram with wings and carrying the children away on his / her back (the pronouns get confusing here, because rams are male). Nephele’s son later sacrificed the ram, which sent him / her back to Poseidon, and the son then left the fleece with his new family in Colchis, where it remained until Jason came to find it. Fun!

— An exciting detail: Circe makes a cameo in the Argonautica! I was a bit confused about Circe’s ancestry when I first wrote my post about her, but apparently she’s also a daughter of Helios, which makes her Aeetes’ sister, and Medea’s aunt. Anyway, Jason and Medea visit Circe after killing Apsyrtus, so that she can perform a ritual that absolves them of the murder. It should be really exciting to see these two great witches meeting each other, but Circe isn’t happy about the murder and Medea is completely overcome with shame, so unfortunately they don’t get to bond in any meaningful way.

— There are some cracking descriptions of Medea’s magic in the Argonautica. Here’s the paragraph where she takes down Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete:

And with songs did she propitiate and invoke the Death-spirits, devourers of life, the swift hounds of Hades, who, hovering through all the air, swoop down on the living. Kneeling in supplication, thrice she called on them with songs, and thrice with prayers; and, shaping her soul to mischief, with her hostile glance she bewitched the eyes of Talos, the man of bronze; and her teeth gnashed bitter wrath against him, and she sent forth baneful phantoms in the frenzy of her rage.”

Medea 3

— The flower of Prometheus is just one of the magic herbs that Medea has collected; the Argonautica states that in her room she has “a casket wherein lay many drugs, some for healing, others for killing.” The punishment of Prometheus, by the way, is one of my absolute favourite Greek legends. It sees the great titan chained to a rock, with an eagle visiting him each day to eat his liver; because he’s a titan, the liver grows back each night, ready for the eagle to eat it again. This ties in neatly to the Medea story, because as the eagle flies home after each meal, blood drips from its beak onto the earth, allowing the magic flower to grow. Cool!

— That picture above is of a faux-Greek urn I made in a Year 8 art class. Seriously, I have always loved these stories.

— You might recall that when Odysseus and his crew came upon the Sirens, they were able to resist the alluring songs by stopping their ears with wax. The Argonauts found a different solution: Orpheus just played his lyre really, really loudly. One of the Argonauts still jumped overboard and died, but for the most part the plan was a success.

— I highly recommend the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey. It’s a hugely entertaining film, complete with iconic stop-motion monsters animated by Ray Harryhausen, but unfortunately Medea’s role in the story has been greatly reduced, to the point where she no longer even performs magic. Still, it’s marvellous fun, and this famous sequence with the skeleton warriors is really top notch:

— The play Medea is really gruesome, but it’s also remarkable for its progressive portrayal of the female protagonist: Medea is villainous, yes, but she’s also given the agency to pursue her own narrative, despite the machinations of Jason and the king. Best of all, Euripides clearly knew what he was doing. I’ll leave you now with this wonderful musing on gender equality, as first spoken by a “chorus of Corinthian women” more than 2000 years ago:

Legend will now reverse our reputation;

A time comes when the female sex is honoured;

                That old discordant slander

                Shall no more hold us subject.

Male poets of past ages, with their ballads

Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion;

                For Phoebus, Prince of Music,

Never bestowed the lyric inspiration

                Through female understanding –

                Or we’d find themes for poems,

We’d counter with our epics against man.

Oh, Time is old; and in his store of tales

                Men figure no less famous

                Or infamous than women.

Happy witching!

Witches 13

Witch No. 10: Witchiepoo

“Calling all evil trees! Come in! This is your gorgeous leader!”

As a kid, I was a big fan of the television show H.R. Pufnstuf. The show first aired in 1969, long before I was born, but in the early 1990s I owned a VHS cassette with two whole episodes on it. I remember watching those two episodes over and over again, marvelling at the technicolour world of Living Island: the talking trees, and the walking clocks, and the boy with his magic golden flute.

But none of that compared to Witchiepoo.

Witchiepoo 2

Of all the witches I’ve ever encountered, Witchiepoo was almost certainly the most formative. She’s a pantomime villain of the highest order, cackling her way through every scene, her tattered black cape flapping perfectly behind her. Most alarmingly, she can also teleport herself at will, and so can appear suddenly in any scene, her wicked wand pointed directly at “the good guys.” There were Witchiepoo moments that terrified me as a kid: particularly the moments when she would freeze Jimmy and his friends, laughing maniacally as her spell took hold.

But… Witchiepoo is also kind of funny. Her witchy servants, Orson Vulture and Seymour Spider, are always getting in her way, and so the scenes in the witch’s castle are always rife with slapstick hijinks. During the day the witch wears a pointy black hat and a ragged red dress, but during the night she wears a frilly pink nightgown and sets her hair in curlers. Plus, her evil plans are foiled so often that on occasion you even feel sorry for Witchiepoo.

Did I have my fear of witches before I met Witchiepoo? I’m not entirely sure. But because Witchiepoo made me laugh, she was the first witch I was able to keep on watching – no matter how nervous she sometimes made me feel.

Witchiepoo 1

Each episode of Pufnstuf unfolds in much the same way. Jimmy (an eleven-year-old boy) and Freddie (a magic talking flute) are trapped on Living Island; Pufnstuf (a plump yellow dragon) and his friends are looking for ways to help Jimmy and Freddie escape. But Witchiepoo covets Freddie, and so will always attempt to foil any escape attempts, so that she might steal Freddie for herself. Because everything on Living Island is alive, almost every character on the show is a puppet, or an actor in an extravagant costume; only Jimmy (played by Jack Wild) and Witchiepoo (played by Billie Hayes) are discernibly human.

But Witchiepoo is also a master of disguise. My favourite joke in the whole series starts in the episode “Show Biz Witch,” which sees Jimmy and Pufnstuf organising a concert for the residents of Living Island. Witchiepoo, Orson and Seymour decide to join the show, and so disguise themselves as “The 3 Oranges,” a groovy musical trio who only speak in cool 1960s lingo. They’re eventually found out, of course, which is all wryly amusing – but four episodes later, in “The Birthday Party,” Witchiepoo, Orson and Seymour again decide to disguise themselves as a band, so that they can infiltrate Jimmy’s birthday celebration. What do they call themselves? The 3 Lemons!

Witchiepoo 4

The relative success of the television series led to a 1970 film, simply titled Pufnstuf, which I watched for the first time just last week. The film turns the famous opening credits of the Pufnstuf television show into the entire first act, which was really quite interesting to watch, but it’s not much of a movie after that – more like a couple of episodes of the show stitched awkwardly together. There are also many more witches in the film, including a Boss Witch with a double-pointed hat, but the presence of a coven doesn’t really add much; Witchiepoo is far scarier when she’s the boss witch, rather than a simpering underling. The witches do get to sing a catchy song, but I’d only recommend the film to the show’s biggest fans.

Still, nothing can tarnish my memories of watching H.R. Pufnstuf on VHS: a show from the 1960s that reminds me of being a kid in the 1990s. Witchiepoo’s ridiculous schemes still make me giggle, just as her sudden appearances still make me flinch. She’s everything a witch should be, and – although I don’t want to call it early – she may just be my favourite witch of all time.

Now, how about that theme song!

Final Musings

— When I was little, my parents told me to eat my broccoli because it was Witchiepoo’s favourite vegetable. To this day, broccoli is still the vegetable that I like best.

— Billie Hayes played Witchiepoo a couple of times after Pufnstuf, including a guest spot on the show Lidsville, which was also made by Pufnstuf creators Sid and Marty Krofft. Lidsville is a show about a human boy trying to escape from a land of living hats; these escape attempts are often foiled by the evil magician who lives nearby. So… yeah.

— Billie Hayes also cameoed as a witch in the television show Bewitched. The witch there isn’t explicitly identified as Witchiepoo, but she does cackle in a rather familiar way.

— Witchiepoo has a couple of other henchmen that are well worth mentioning. Stupid Bat has his moments, but I love the evil trees (particularly the one who speaks like Bela Lugosi). Also brilliant are the two skeleton guards, who drop their shields and helmets and flee at the slightest sign of danger.

Witchiepoo 3

— The two episodes on my VHS cassette were “The Box Kite Caper” and “The Birthday Party.”

— I’m not sure who designed Witchiepoo’s costume, but I think they did some wonderful things with colour. The obligatory black hat and black cape are still present, but the outfit also introduces red and white (and even green) through the witch’s hair, dress, vest, face, and socks. It’s a striking design that works perfectly as a whole, and it’s probably done a lot for Witchiepoo’s memorability.

— A weird piece of Pufnstuf film trivia: Witchiepoo’s friend Witch Hazel is played by Cass Elliot, or Mama Cass, who is best known as a member of the band The Mamas & The Papas. This is doubly weird for me, because at the same age I was watching H.R. Pufnstuf, “California Dreamin’” was one of my favourite songs.

— Oh, I didn’t even mention the Vroom Broom! Quick, I’ll mention it now. Has there ever been a more souped-up broomstick? I think not.

— A boy named Jesse said he’d be looking out for this post. Hi, Jesse!

— Need a disguise? No worries; I’ll leave you with one of Witchiepoo’s very best spells:

Squash and cabbage, turnips and peas, make three lemons out of us please!

Happy witching!

Witches 11

Witch No. 9: The Jolly Postman Witch

“Open now – don’t delay – this could be your lucky day!”

When it comes to writing and illustrating picture books, Janet and Allan Ahlberg are truly in a class of their own. Each Peach Pear Plum (1978), a whimsical wander through a nursery-rhyme wood, might just be the quintessential “I spy” book for children; perhaps it’s equalled only by Peepo! (1981), a book for babies that is somehow also about wartime Britain. It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (1993) is a less-recognised masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless: the tale of Antonio and the brigands is so wildly inventive that I rank it as my favourite book of all time.

And, of course, there’s The Jolly Postman.

Postman 3 (clear)

The Jolly Postman (or Other People’s Letters) is an idea so good, so wonderful, that it fills me with joy just to remember that the book exists. Published in 1986, the book is a collection of letters and envelopes, as found in the mailbag of the eponymous postman – but these are no ordinary letters. You see, this postman serves the fairy-tale community, and as such his postal route is unusually perilous. On this particular day, he’s carrying an apology note to the Three Bears, a postcard addressed to a giant, and even a cease-and-desist notice for the Big Bad Wolf.

But best of all is the letter he delivers to the Wicked Witch.

Postman 5

I read this book countless times as a kid, but no letter excited me more than this piece of witchy junk mail. The very idea – that a witch might receive junk mail – is so ridiculous, so inspired, that it thrills me to open the letter even now. And that’s before I’ve even started reading about the products! There are the Halloween Boots, available in “five lovely colours” – but all the colours are black! There’s the Little Boy Pie Mix – made proudly with the “finest natural ingredients!” And, as a special bonus, you can even get a free “Witch Watch” with every order!

Seriously, this letter blows my mind. Even the envelope is great: it’s addressed only to “The Occupant,” and includes a return address of “Hobgoblin Supplies Ltd., Warlock Mountain.” Who are these hobgoblins targeting witches with anonymous supply catalogues? What is the Magic Traders Circle? And how can you turn some powder into a frog by just adding water?

Postman 7

Suffice to say, I find this book very inspiring. It fostered within me a love of found texts: a passion for documents that look as if they’re just for adults, but which are actually filled with secret, arcane knowledge. I love reading the classified ads in the paper, just to marvel at the weird things people are buying and selling. Community notice boards are even better, with a whole collage of battered posters advertising strange goods and services. Wouldn’t it be easy for a witch to slip in a notice as well, so that she might gather a bucket of snails or some other ingredient for her latest potion? In the age of Gumtree, I doubt anyone would even bat an eyelid.

The witch from the book, by the way, is something of a fairy-tale pastiche: she lives in a gingerbread bungalow, carries a broomstick, and has even trained her black cat to do the washing up. Her generic nature perfectly suits her generically-addressed letter. Actually, it’s a bit sad to see how happy she is to receive a piece of unsolicited mail. Is she lonely, out there in the woods?

Regardless: I love the Ahlbergs, and I’m truly grateful for all their books. Thanks, Ahlbergs. You two were the best.


Final Musings

— There are two more books in the Jolly Postman series: The Jolly Christmas Postman (1991) and The Jolly Pocket Postman (1995), the latter of which was published after Janet’s death. Both sequels are just as good as the original. Really, are there any other picture book trilogies as strong as this?

— Allan and Janet have a daughter, Jessica Ahlberg, who has also become an illustrator. She’s pretty darn good. The Goldilocks Variations (2012), a collaboration between Jessica and Allan, is probably the best Ahlberg book since Pocket Postman – which leaves me hoping that father and daughter might one day revisit the famous postman franchise once more. Allan is mostly retired now though, so it’s very unlikely, and I would also completely respect the decision to leave the postman legacy alone. (But also, what if it was great?)

— The circular from Hobgoblin Supplies Ltd. is my equal favourite illustration of all time. It’s tied with the cross-section of the haunted castle from It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, and probably also the feast scene from that same book. Equal second place is held by every other illustration Janet ever did.

— The Wicked Witch from The Jolly Postman looks quite similar to the Wicked Witch from Each Peach Pear Plum. I wonder if they’re related?

Postman 6

— Janet is a two-time winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for excellence in children’s illustration: once for Each Peach Pear Plum, and again for The Jolly Christmas Postman.

— I’ve been working on a “found text” project of my own, but it’s so big and crazy that I doubt I’ll ever finish it. How did the Ahlbergs possibly manage three of them?

— I’d also love to write some picture books eventually. I think a big part of it is meeting the right collaborator, though, so I’m happy to wait until I know a few more artists. It would be nice if my girlfriend could step up to the plate, but the only thing she knows how to draw is a cartoon chicken.

— I suppose I could write a book about a chicken…

Happy witching!

Witches 10

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!

Summersisle 2

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.

Summersisle 1

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.

Summersisle 3

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!

Witches 9

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.

Darklands 17

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?

Darklands 21

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.

Darklands 14

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:

Darklands 16

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?

Darklands 18

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.

Darklands 19

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!

Darklands 7

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:

Darklands 8

— 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!

Witches 8

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!

Ursula 1

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!

Ursula 2

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!

Witches 7

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.

Scooby Witch 2

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!

Scooby Witch 5

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.

Scooby Witch 3

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.

Scooby Witch 6

— 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!

Witches 6