Witchcraft and Gender. The Depiction of Women and Witches in Contemporary American Movies

Bachelor Thesis, 2018

35 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. The Creation of the Western “Witch”
2.1 The Cathars in Western Europe
2.2 The Medieval Mindset, Heretics and Witches
2.3 What makes a Witch a Witch?
2.4 What makes a Woman a Witch?

3. Film Theory

4. Film Analysis
4.1 “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”
4.1.1 Summary
4.1.2 Film Theoretical and Gender Analysis
4.2 “The Last Witch Hunter”
4.2.1 Summary
4.2.2 Film Theoretical and Gender Analysis
4.3 “The Witch”
4.3.1 Summary
4.3.2 Film Theoretical and Gender Analysis

5. Conclusion

Works cited

1. Introduction

“It is associated with old age, frightful ugliness, and female wickedness on the one hand, with youth, beauty, and female sexual power on the other.” (Karlsen xi) In this sentence the author and historian Carol F. Karlsen refers to the term witchcraft. Furthermore she mentions:

The story of witchcraft is primarily the story of women [...] Especially in its Western incarnation witchcraft confronts us with ideas about women, with fears about women, with the place of women in society, and with women themselves. It confronts us too with systematic violence against women, (xii)

The term witchcraft represents one of the darkest sections in the history of mankind, but today, hundreds of years later, our society uses the term on a daily basis.

In the past centuries, women who were believed to be witches were seen as threats to humanity and therefore as monstrosities. They were charged for negative events that randomly occurred and struck their community. One of the best examples would be the so called Salem Witch Trials, of course. According to Karlsen, most of today's authors would deny the fact that women were attacked out of misogyny. They argue that witches were scapegoats for other hostilities and tensions during that time (xii). Our today's depiction of witches derived from these innocent women and the myths that people created about them.

Since witches, just as vampires and werewolfes, were seen as monsters, the topic offers a lot of potential for modern media. For example, there are movies, TV shows, musicals and songs regarding witches, using them as both protagonists and antagonists, in order to entertain the audience. In this context, Karlsen mentions:

“The diverse image the subject elicits in some of our most respected writers, not to mention Hollywood and the advertising industry, attest to the continuing power of woman-as-witch in our collective imagination.” (xiii)

In some cases, the women who were charged for witchcraft were homeless, poor or old widows, which still can be seen in today's depictions of evil witches in popular culture, such as movies. But there is another development when it comes to the depiction of the witch in films. Some movies bring up the idea of so called “white magic” alongside kind-hearted witches as a counterpart to the already known “black magic” and evil witches. Despite the fact that in the past also men were accused of witchcraft, in most cases there are solely female witches depicted in contemporary movies.

While studying this field of research, the following questions arose: what makes a woman a witch? What kinds of stereotypes do witches in movies share with women? What is the source of these stereotypes? How are good and bad witches portrayed in movies and how is “white” magic depicted? In order to investigate these questions, I am going to conduct an analysis of the witches' depiction in three different, contemporary movies.

My hypothesis is that despite multiple attempts to reform the movie character of the witch, for example via the introduction of “white magic” or good-hearted witches who support the protagonists, their depiction still consists of mainly negative, female stereotypes, so that an unchanged negative representation of the female gender can be observed in the movies I am going to analyse.

This paper is structured as follows. First, I am going to start with a historical contextualization of the topic. In order to investigate the origin of the idea of “witchcraft” there will be an analysis of the historical events that led to its creation. Hereby, I will investigate the sources of the stereotypical “witch”. Therefore, I will provide an overview of the persecution of a “heretical” movement, which correlates with the later witch-hunts. Then, I will investigate the mental frame that led to the witch persecutions and the influence of the Catholic Church on the common sense in order to understand the development of this phenomena. After that, I will have a closer look on the characteristics of “witches” as women in order to clarify the stereotypes concering gender.

Furthermore, I will introduce and discuss specific aspects of film theory, which are essential for the following analysis of the movies. Subsequently, based on the film theoretical aspects, I am going to analyse the depiction of witches in the movies “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”, “The Last Witch Hunter”, and “The Witch”. Finally, I will finish this paper by concluding the overall outcome and by answering the research questions and the question whether my hypothesis was confirmed, based on my findings.

2. The Creation of the Western “Witch”

In the following, I will primarily use two pieces of literature by Stephan Quensel, which will help to define the characteristics of the historical space of time. Despite the fact that the European witch hunts were executed in a brutal and rather medieval manner, it is actually a phenomenon of early modern times. The witch huntings emerged at the end of the 14th century (Quensel, Hexen 75) and reached their peak in the time of the Thirty Years' War (Hexen 8). It is surprising that this procedure took place in a time of discovery and reformation. Famous personalities and scholars like William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei were contemporary witnesses of the European witch huntings (Behringer qtd. in Quensel, Hexen 8).

In order to understand the development of the witch, a few aspects, like previous historical events, procedures and the mindset of that time, including fears, religious beliefs and superstition, have to be investigated. In the following subchapters, I will shortly introduce a movement that inspired the later image of the witches, the Cathars. These were persecuted as heretics by the Catholic Church. After that, there will be an outline of the relationship between heretics and witches and the Medieval and early modern mindset, which was a significant basis of the witchhunts. This will be followed by a characterization of the historical witch and the relationship between especially women and witches.

2.1 The Cathars in Western Europe

The history of witches is closely linked to the history of the Cathars. The Cathars were members of a Christian dualist movement that arose in southern France, mainly in the region Occitania, and spread to Spain and Italy from the 12th to the 14th century. The Cathars were also known as “Albigensians” because of their historical connection to the French city of Albi, which is located in the province Languedoc in Occitania. The Cathars were seen as a legitimate religious movement in Occitania and were supported by the Occitanian nobility (Quensel, Ketzer 15).

The movement was growing and competing against Catholicism, therefore it was seen as a rival and as heretical by the Catholic Church. It got under pressure when Pope Innocent III called for a crusade against them in 1209. He excommunicated the Count of Toulouse, Raimund VI., who highly supported the Cathars (Ketzer 18). The crusaders besieged and devastated most of the cities and castles under Albigensian control, for example Béziers, Carcassonne and Albi. In most cases, Albigensians in the defeated cities were banished or immediately executed, which rapidly decreased their number (Ketzer 20, 21). The crusade which lasted twenty years, ended in 1229 with the Treaty of Paris, but the persecution of the Cathars continued. Raimund VII., son of the deceased Count of Toulouse Raimund VI., lost the war against the French Crown. Languedoc was then annexed and became a part ofFrance (Ketzer 25).

The further persecution was then conducted by the inquisition. By command of the pope Gregor IX. the leadership of the inquisition was taken over by the Dominican Order in 1233. As a result, more and more Albigensians fled into their last strongholds in the south of France. They also were besieged and defeated by the inquisition, who imprisoned them or burned them at the stake (Ketzer 28). The inquisition carried on to penalize Cathars in cities like Toulouse and Carcassonne, where they were executed until the movement was eventually annihilated in 1321, when its last “perfectus”, an Albigensian monk, Guillaume Bélibaste was burned at the stake (Ketzer 30).

2.2 The Medieval Mindset, Heretics and Witches

As mentioned in the previous subchapter, “heretics” like the Cathars were members of a religious movement, which deviated from the Catholic Orthodox Church. They were seen as dissenter from the “true” Christian religion and since they became a powerful and influential movement, the Catholic Church seeked to erase them. The main difference is the magical aspect. The heretics were not persecuted because they were a threat for society, but for following a religious ideology that was different from the Catholic one. Witches however, were seen as threat for the community (Quensel, Hexen 26, 27).

An important aspect we have to consider is that magic was part of the common sense. The world-view was in fact a Christian magical-religious one and before Christianity arose, the popular belief was influenced by heathenish magic (Hexen 26). There always have been men and women, who were believed to have magical powers. These people were alchemists or doctors, who were highly respected by the community (Hexen 43). In prinicple, both, priests of the Catholic Church and sorcerers were operating in the same metaphysical field. But after the rise of the Catholic Church, it was able to control what would be seen as heretical or not (Hexen 44, 45).

During the time of the heretics' persecution, the magical-religious belief was dominated by the fear for a denial of one's salvation and the purgatory. In contrast, during the time of witchcraft the citizens feared Satanic interventions in the form of the so called “maleficum”. The maleficum can be seen as threatening sorcery or cursing, that was believed to be casted on the community by witches, who agreed to a pact with Satan (Hexen 27).

Furthermore, it was part of the common sense that on the one hand microcosmic actions would have a macrocosmic consequense. This means that it was believed for example that witches could manipulate the weather by using a caldron or that the utterance of curses and other spells would have an immediate effect on the surroundings. On the other hand, it was believed that non-human powers were influencing all areas of life. Everything, including “Satanic” actions, seemed to be a product of a supernatural, divine power (Hexen 27, 28).

Also, the system of duality and opposition was embedded within the divine, hierarchical order of the time. The opposition of good and evil, light and dark, God and Satan was part of the common sense. The witch as evil maiden of Satan, who usually was a woman and a counterpart to a member of the clergy, a priest, who usually was a man, as executers of God, fits into this pattern. Furthermore, the system's duality provided the possibility ofinversion (Hexen 33).

In this context, the clergy claimed that heretics would convert holy entities into unholy ones by inverting them. They claimed for example that heretics would invert Christian prayers and witches would invert sexuality from a pure act into a sinful one. Also witches would celebrate Witches' Sabbath in order to worship Satan in contrast to the catholic mass. If we take a closer look on these aspects, it can be observed that the heretical counterparts always have a stronger negative connotation within the hierarchy, and that the Christian aspects were seen as naturally good (Hexen 33, 34).

2.3 What makes a Witch a Witch?

First of all, we have to consider the characteristics of a witch at that time. Some of the most important characteristics of witches like the maleficum and the Witches' Sabbath were already mentioned in the previous section. We will have a closer look on both in this chapter. Other characteristics are the witches' flight, the pact with Satan and the sexual relationship with Satan (Hexen 76). Additionally, in the further progress witches were also accused of killing children and eating their flesh, which eventually became one of their characteristics (Roper 103).

As mentioned before, the maleficum distinguishes the heretic from the witch. It was believed that the ability to cast the maleficum, a supernatural power that is used to harm people, was granted to women who agreed to a pact and sexual relationship with Satan. In fact, every negative event that struck either the community or a single person could be interpreted as maleficum, including children's death, miscarriages, diseases or crop loss (Quensel, Hexen 77).

The Witches' Sabbath was one of the main characteristics of witches, which is connected to the widespread fear of Satanic conspiracy (Hexen 77). Satanic conspiracy has to be distinguished from “normal” conspiracy by the fact that the Satanic one involves demonical elements. It was assumed that women would receive help from demons to accomplish a complot against men, in change for worship, sacrifices and marriage with Satan (Hexen 77). The ruling class feared these complots and apprehended revolts as a result. Therefore, the aspect of conspiracy actually was relevant, since it was a main point in justifying the witch huntings also by the secular authorities (Hexen 78, 79).

The notion of conspiracy originated from previous crises, like the outbreak of Leprosy or Plague, which both were seen as complots by lepers, who were seen as sinners, and jews, who were seen as deicides under the leadership of Satan. Interestingly, the persecution oflepers andjews took place in the same region as the previous persecution of the Cathars (Hexen 79, 80). The name “Witches' Sabbath” also originated from the antisemitism and the persecution of Jews during that time, since these were believed to have agreed to a pact with Satan in order to destroy Christianity (Hexen 79, 80). Actually, in the Jewish religion, the term Sabbath describes the seventh day of the week and the day of rest, which was then abused and corrupted by the antisemitic parts of the society, in order to connect Judaism to heresy.

In this context, another movement, the Waldensians, pre-Protestant Christians, were also persecuted as heretics. They were also accused of working together with the Jews, performing witchcraft and cannibalism, killing and eating their own children and worshipping demons and Satan (Hexen 82, 83). Furthermore, they were accused of hosting sexual orgies, to which the Witches' Sabbath directly refers (Hexen 83). Each of these persecutions had in common that there was the notion of conspiracy against the Catholic Orthodox community (Ginzburg qtd. In Quensel, Hexen 83).

A whole chapter in a book by the Australian historian Lyndal Roper covers the topic of cannibalism. She mentions that especially women were forced to admit performing cannibalism, especially the eating of children's corpses, by torturing them (Roper 103). In Roper's book, cannibalism is primarily connected to child murder. She mentiones that child murder was punishable by death in the Constitutio Cnmmalis Carolina from 1532. This was passed in response to women killing their children because they were not able to feed them (183).

The belief that witches would fly on brooms to the Witches' Sabbath was inspired by the popular belief of female ghosts roaming at night, seeking for sexual adventures and killing and feasting on children. This, in turn was influenced by the idea of the “Wild Hunt” and other phenomenons like female fairys (Quensel, Hexen 85).

As a result, it can be observed that the accumulation of superstitions, fears and the specific context of the time did not create a new phenomenon, but rather transformed the depiction of the heretic into the depiction of the witch. Primarily, it can be observed that witch trials also were trials ofheretics, since heretics like the Waldensians were also accused of witchcraft. Ultimately, it has to be asserted that both, the history and the depiction ofheretics and witches, are highly interdependent.

2.4 What makes a Woman a Witch?

After the correlation between heretics and witches have been investigated, it has to be clarified what particulary makes a woman a witch. This is a significant question since there were both men and women accused of witchcraft and heresy during the already mentioned persections in Medieval times. Furthermore, in the context of contemporary movies, there are almost solely female witches, who serve as main antagonists, whereas other movie characters, played by men, are represented as protagonists even if they depict a typical antagonist role, like a serial killer, a hitman or a vampire.

It has been clarified how witches are conntected to heretics, but what connects witches especially to women? In order to understand this development, the women's field of work during the time of witch-hunts has to be investigated.

In one of their works, the sociologist and economist Gunnar Heinsohn and his colleague the economist Otto Steiger, argued that the so called “wise women” were especially endangered during the Late Middle Ages. In that time, the adjective “wise” was used for people of both genders, who were proficient in magical abilities. Midwives were also called “wise women” at that time, however not all midwives were seen as persons with magical abilities (Heinsohn and Steiger qtd. In Rummel).

In an interview about witches and gender, Kristina Göthling, a contributor at the Ruhr­Universität in Bochum refers to the work by Heinsohn and Steiger and argues that the phenomenon of wise women being accused of witchcraft is an evidence, which supports the hypothesis that women were more endangered by the witch-hunts than men, because of their traditional field of work at that time. In her opinion, the women's field of work, traditional familial activities like cooking, nursing and midwifery would leave them open to witchcraft accusations, since these activities are also associated with illness and death. For example, if a stillbirth occurred, the midwife would automatically be suspected to have something to do with the child's death, which could lead to an accusation of witchcraft (Göthling).

The hypothesis is supported by the Australian historian Lyndal Roper, who claims that women who visited or worked around a mother shortly after she gave birth to a child, like servants, nursemaids or nannys, were often accused of witchcraft, if the child or the mother became ill or died (Roper 177). Moreover, Roper brings in the factor of age by arguing that primarily elderly women, who visited or worked around the mother or the child, were suspected of performing witchcraft (177,178).

The religious and scientific basis for these incriminations was the theory of Humorism, which was still the dominant theory of medicine at that time. Humorism is the system of the four bodily fluids, which have an influence on the temperament of a person. Elderly women were seen to be prone to Satanic seduction, due to their supposed lack of bodily fluids (217). Roper states that there was a general antipathy against elderly women at that time. The statistics show that the majority of women, who were executed as witches, have already passed their thirties or reached the menopause (220, 221). The outer appearance of these women, in other words the visible aging process, played an important role in creating the stereotypical witch. Today's depictions of witches with grey hair, crooked posture and wrinkles still are the same as during the time of witch­hunts (222).

Furthermore, Roper states that women, who suffered multiple stillbirths were either seen as victims of witchcraft or as being a witch themselves. Women were presumably suspected, if they were able to describe their children's cause of death in detail, during their interrogation (182, 183).

But also childless spinsters were endangered to be seen as witches, who enviously curse either the mother or the newborn child. Due to the crises of that time, marriage was a privilege of those who were able to afford it. The women of that time were endangered to become a spinster and thereby a social outcast, if they did not marry and bear children before they reach the age of thirty. However, the childlessness left the spinsters open to accusations for witchcraft because they were suspected to work with Satan and to have killed either their own children or children of other people (182).


Excerpt out of 35 pages


Witchcraft and Gender. The Depiction of Women and Witches in Contemporary American Movies
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (Book)
Witchcraft, Gender, Depiction of women, contemporary, american, movies, literature, cultural, studies
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M.Ed. Timmy Paul (Author), 2018, Witchcraft and Gender. The Depiction of Women and Witches in Contemporary American Movies, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1169270


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