In the lineage of horror cinema, 1922 is certainly one of its most important years. That was the year the scariest horror film of all time was released.
1922 was the year FW Murnau made his unofficial adaptation Dracula Nosferatu, delivering a true masterpiece, even if it fell foul of copyright infringement. However, around the same time as Murnau’s film, another but lesser-known film was released: Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, produced in Sweden by Danish director Benjamin Christensen.
While Murnau defined narrative horror with powerful German expressionist imagery, the Danish director of this Svensk Filmindustri production innovated with the horror form, creating one of the strangest films of the period, the atmosphere of which remains today.
Häxan is an episodic film, part documentary essay, part horror, that explores, in seven chapters, a range of beliefs and themes throughout the Western history of the occult, focusing in particular on witchcraft during the medieval period and the historical persecution of women accused of practicing it. No one describes the film better than the director himself, who suggested at the time that “my film doesn’t have a continuous story, perhaps it could best be classified as a lecture on cultural history in pictures”.
The film is partly a textural, creative reading of the Malleus Maleficarum, a German witch-hunter’s guide from the 1400s by the priest Heinrich Kramer, which offered insight into dealing with all manner of devilish concerns.
The opening chapter of the film is a relatively straightforward lecture with slides and historical information, while the second chapter has a playful series of vignettes describing some basic witchcraft practices. However, in later chapters, Christensen dramatizes a disturbing miniature narrative, following Maria (Emmy Schønfeld) as she is tortured into confessing to a series of occult activities, including the birth of Satan’s children, before being burned at the stake.
After this series of visceral images, the final chapters focus on the more modern psychological potential of the phenomena and explore the possibility that such violent inquisition was itself responsible for many of the confessions.
However, Häxan is not just a documentary or docudrama. Christensen’s skill with special effects means that as soon as the film shifts its essayistic stance, Häxan hits as hard as any horror film of its era.
His images are some of the most disturbing made in the silent period, as they evoke depictions of occult practices and scenarios, from people finding themselves with devils to child sacrifice. “It perfectly balances the beautiful and the grotesque and there are some scenes that are truly bizarre,” says artist and Folk Horror Revival Project founder Andy Paciorek.
Certainly, his early film aesthetic, with the patina of age that the grainy images and early filmmaking techniques naturally evoke, brings him as close to the feel of his Middle Ages setting as cinema has ever achieved.
In creating her terrifying scenes, she also deploys a wide range of visual trickery to special effects, from stop-motion animation and incredibly innovative makeup to the use of a carousel to create the effect of witches flying on broomsticks.
In some cases, it’s almost as if those old carved wooden images detailing the witchcraft and heretical punishment of yesteryear have been momentarily brought to life, with Christensen, as a kind of blasphemer, gleefully surveying it all. It’s equally telling that the director himself gets to play the devil on screen, clearly enjoying every satanic minute.
However, while sometimes funny, such was the visceral and authentic darkness of some of his period recreations that the film stirred controversy upon release. As one reviewer wrote for Variety in 1923, “Wonderful as this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition.”
A frightening horror film that continues to terrify the viewer
Indeed, Christensen’s film has become a whispered and cursed object. In almost every territory where it was released, from Europe to the United States, Häxan was heavily censored for its content, particularly for its incredibly realistic depictions of violence and torture and blatantly blasphemous imagery, especially the desecration of the cross and scenes of witches kissing the devil’s back. Indeed, it was even “butchered” for its home release in Sweden, despite being the most expensive Swedish production made at the time.
The film itself duly passed into cinematic folklore, with the rights holder’s failure to renew its copyright resulting in it falling into the public domain, and amateur throngs subsequently being assembled and released over the years.
This culminated in a 1968 release by British film director and horror expert Anthony Balch, collaborating with jazz musician Daniel Humair and incorporating a newly recorded voice by author William Burroughs, which tied into the burgeoning late 1960s market for occult exploitation cinema. This release, an early example of remix filmmaking, was distributed by Metro Pictures Corporation in the US and was undoubtedly a hit in grindhouse cinemas of the period.
Christensen’s film, however, is more than just a controversial work. It’s a profoundly innovative blueprint for so much horror that was to follow. His playful blending of the real and the fantastic became truly revolutionary. One hundred years after its initial domestic release, the film still plays a notable role in horror history.
Christensen’s innovation doesn’t end in the horror scenes, but extends to the film’s final chapters, in which he offers a 20th-century psychological interpretation of the strange happenings he depicts. It’s a choice that imbues the film with an almost unbearable sadness.
Häxan’s final chapter is built largely around the idea that esoteric behavior has its roots in mental disorder and has subsequently been demonized because of pure prejudice. In addition to this, the film also explores how the persecution of the innocent, including alleged ‘witches’, for unproven indiscretion, occurred through accusations, designed to protect notions of godliness.
However, instead of treating such violence as purely voyeuristic, as those films sometimes did, Häxan offers a real perspective on how misunderstanding earthly psychological issues led to a frightening response to human suffering, a perspective that saw mental afflictions as in communion with the unholy realms.
Even Nosferatu’s frightening presence and negative effects on the other characters in Murnau’s film are everywhere diagnosed as a disease of the mind rather than a result of the supernatural. Ultimately, though, for all his extremely disturbing horror imagery, what makes Häxan stand out is his psychological pathos.
The combination of this with his essayistic form makes him unique. Although the director doesn’t entirely dismiss the possibility of devils and demons, the human pain and suffering he portrays is the same no matter what, and the focus on this leads to a surprisingly humane conclusion for what is still a terrifying film even 100 years later.