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  • Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible by Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers
Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers, Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016, 285 pp. $29.95 paper.

Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible is an eye-opening study of the masterful silent innovative 1922 film Haxan (The Witch—the Danish word for witch is heksen). The book makes significant contribution to film studies. It will also be of interest to anthropologists, critical theorists, women's studies, folklorists, scholars of the occult, intellectual historians and historians of ideas, legal experts, sociologists, and psychologists. This book shows that the film Haxan blends spectacle and argument with use of early twentieth-century cinematographic techniques. The authors brilliantly reveal how Christiansen translates his profound insight into artistic representation. The focus of the film and its analysis in this book incorporate staged historical scenes of satanic initiation, confession under torture, possession, exorcism, and misogynistic persecution.

Christensen gathered a vast library of historical and contemporary sources together for his film. He draws on visual accounts with direct reference to writings, art, and literature on witchcraft and witch trials from the Middle Ages through the Reformation and after. For example, chapter 4 notes how Christensen draws links between diagnostic strategies for identifying nervous disease and forms of interrogation used by magistrates of the Inquisition outlined in guides such as the infamous Malleus maleficarum (1487). Such handbooks created forms of the witch stereotype by which Inquisitors could "match" their findings with the accused witch. Realizing the Witch shows us Christensen's use of historical sources. In chapter 5, Christensen draws on Johann Weyer's De praestigiis daemonism (1563) to reveal the complex nature of the sensual, if not sexual, relationship of the practice of exorcism. Chapter 6 reveals the appearance of possession, ecstasy, and insanity relating to the reach of demonic influence. The authors show how Christensen draws from the neurological writings of Jean-Martin Charcot and his followers, especially the volumes they produced in the Bibliotheque diabolique that explicitly deal with the relationship between witchcraft and nervous disease.

The filmmaker's weaving together of documents and of the culture of demonology gives the film not only the documentary power of representing knowledge of the witch with "objective criteria," but also "gives the witch life" (p. 13), according to Baxstrom and Meyers. Christensen creates an artistic work filled with irrationalities that make the witch real and plausible while at the same time tempering such representation with a psychological diagnosis of the phenomena in order to correct the errors of belief in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that led to witch trials. [End Page 553]

Like Favret-Saada (Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage [Cambridge University Press, 1980]), Christensen provides a diagnosis of the symptoms of the viral catching power (contagieux) of the witch by bringing the powers that animate them to life on the screen. Both Favret-Saada and Christensen acknowledge that witchcraft is difficult to study because of the inaccessible materiality of the witch to anthropologists and believers, since witchcraft is usually performed clandestinely and sorcery constitutes an invisible mobile field of force. While others such as John Ernst, Jytte Jensen, Casper Tybjerg, Arne Lunde, and Jack Stevenson have examined Haxan, none have exposed, as do the authors of this book, Christensen's vision that it is not enough to think about the film but instead that "one must think with it" (p. 9).

Christensen advances the thesis that the appearance of witchcraft in Europe during the late medieval and early modern periods was actually due to unrecognized manifestations of clinical hysteria and psychosis. The symptoms of hysteria were thus misattributed to the being in league with Satan. Christensen attempts to allow the cinematographic possibility of making nature speak. Christenson thus offers a diagnosis of the phenomena of the witch as a form of nervous disease described by psychologists and its uncanny (unheimlich) abnormal behaviors. Thus diagnosis of nervous disease as a more humane way of dealing with the "witch" is substituted for the religious, superstitious, demonological thinking leading to fear of "the other" as an extreme form of misogynistic persecution of the female displaying hysteria and abnormal irrational behaviors. Christensen's method is to employ the scientific demystificaton of witchcraft by an enlightened Humanistic re-evaluation of witchcraft in European history by drawing on the modern findings of neurology, psychiatry, anthropology, and psychology.

The authors and the film look at the power of "received dynamics of confession" by religious Inquisitors or modern psychological professionals. Freudian psychology thus can shed light particularly on the sexual dimensions of the dynamics of witchcraft whereby a repeating paradigmatic phenomena of the succubi that steals semen to impregnate females as a succubus, raised by female witches without men, which causes fear of female independent sexuality. Freudian psychology thus relates the fear that the female witch inspires to the reproductive process. The wild ride on the phallic brooms leading to orgy-like sexual union consecrated with the devil by a host of female witches is thus seen from Freudian spectacle as a fear by men of womens' promiscuity. The goal of the filmmaker was, however, not only to describe the dynamics of the witch trials simply as external events but through cultural history to shed light on the psychological causes of these witch trials. The film explicates the witch and her relation to the hysteric.

The authors of the book thus place the film in the historical context of the wider debates in the 1920s regarding the relationship of film to scientific evidence, the evolving historical and anthropological study of religion, and relations between popular culture, artistic expression, and psychology. They provide an anatomy of witchcraft as Burton in his Renaissance work attempts an Anatomy of Melancholy. Certain paradigmatic elements such as the (a) The Black Sabbat (Sabbath), (b) the wild ride, (c) child sacrifice, cannibalism, and necromancy to commune with evil spirits, (d) diseases and ruin caused by spells, and trances induced by evil eyes, (e) torture and masochism, (f) trial by water and other modes to procure alleged "evidence," (g) the witches' dangerous brew with repulsive ingredients such as toads and snakes in boiling cauldrons, (h) witch powder and salve containing narcotics causing visions of tales of night rides, (i) the old ostracized and marginalized hag witch as outcast and the young beautiful witch as enchanting temptress, both of whom exercise a pact with the devil solemnized by sex . . . provide recognizable patterns in the science of demonology. [End Page 554] Haxan attempts to expose viewers to these elements and enable them to realize the power of the alleged witch, leading the the authors of the book to suggest that viewers of the film are themselves "bewitched," seized, captured, and drawn in by a Haptic vision. Christensen "does not dispense with the witch as an aberration from the past haunting the unfortunate and superstitious in the present, but instead shows the potency of her various forms over time" (p. 12).

One area that this reviewer would have liked to have seen expanded is the relationship of persecution of witches to persecution of Jews associated with the demonic. There is only passing reference to Jews on pages 80, 90, 120, 122, and 217n1.1 It was felt by the papacy that a Jewish physician had an advantage over other doctors because his alliance with the demonic could help to "Jew down death" and heal the sick. While the book does mention Marlow's attack on conjurors and Jews in his circa-1593 play Doctor Faustus, the authors conclude that "its setting would have been completely unknown to the people depicted in Haxan" (p. 80). On page 81, the authors mention Martin Luther but not his works Die Juden und Ihren Lugen (The Jews and Their Lies) and the Shem HaMephorash (The Tetrogramaton as a Name for God), which accused the Jews of sorcery and being in alliance with Satan and advocated, in these two works, burning down the Synagogues and murdering Jews. Haxan was made in 1922 when much anti-Semitism was brewing. To not develop the fear of witches with fear of Jewish satanic alliance is to leave unexplored an important avenue for the historical context of the time period of the film.

Reference is made in passing to Jews grouped with others branded as degenerates.

Georg Pencz's woodcut Saturn and His Children (1531) captures the belief that Saturn serves as patron to social outliers, including the poor, elderly, and disabled as well as criminals, Jews, cannibals, magicians, and witches. Throughout the century Saturn's mythological violence was increasingly associated with the demonological violence of Satan. Witches were understood to be clients of the Devil's patronage much as Saturn's children were bound to the ancient god and to one another.

(p. 90)

The Nazis also sought to group the Jews with social outcasts, including communists, homosexuals, and other branded "deviants." Such marginalized, ostracized groups are thus in the anti-Semitic mind allied with the demonic forces of witchcraft thought to be in alliance with the devil, which the authors of the book trace back to the mythology of Saturn.

The authors describe a scene of Satan taking a baby from a witch and tossing the child into a boiling cauldron. The authors write,

Christensen avoids performing the blatant anti-semitism that conjoins the cannibalism of the witch with the supposed ritual infanticide attributed to Jews that runs through much of the demonological literature. . . . Haxan frankly deviates from the Christian account here as a faithful re-creation of the Sabat (Sabbath) based on demonological accounts which contained almost by definition strong anti-semitic undertones. To Christensen's credit he does not hide behind an ahistorical ethic of accuracy sacrificing historical fidelity in this case to avoid the violent reproduction of such symbolizations (of the blood libel).

(p. 120)

Thus, according to the authors, Christensen diplomatically avoids evoking the false blood libel accusation that Jews allegedly use Christian blood to make matzah. This [End Page 555] accusation has raged since at least the Second Temple times, an accusation that led to massacres of Jews accused of blood libel as in the alleged murder of William of Norwich in 1144, blood libels in Gloucester, England, 1168; Blois, France, 1171; Saragossa, Spain, 1182; the case of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, Lincoln, England, 1255 (which is the subject of Chaucer's Prioress's Tale in The Canterbury Tales); Munich, Germany, 1287; Fulda, Germany, 1235; Moravia, Czech Republic, 1343; La Guardia, Spain, 1490–1491; to recent blood libel accusations in 1840 Damascus, Syria and the more recent 1911 Beilis case in Moscow, Russia.2

On page 122, the authors discredit such alleged accusations that have led to persecution not only of witches but also Jews as "the fantasy of ritual slaughter of children by Jews" but also other groups "deemed heretical" and tarred with the "label of cannibal during the late Middle Ages, including the Christian heretical sects the Cathars and the Waldensians" (p. 122). In this sense, the "other"—that is, Jews, outcasts, women, apostates, and criminals—are relegated to the shunned margins and vulnerable to persecution. The Jew thus becomes linked to deviancy along with other "leper" groups allegedly perceived as a threat.

Christensen is to be admired for urging his viewers to consider the rationalist position (psychoanalytic) that replaces the superstitious medieval Inquisition model with modern psychology as the new Inquisition that also may employ methods of talk therapy to elicit confession, but without the irrational beliefs in nonsense and theurgic powers. Christensen suggests that the rationalist position of regarding withcraft is considerably more humane and ethically responsible. The rational view of witchcraft as a form of mental illness known as "hysteria" that can be logically explained thereby views the world as not being governed by forces of demonic evil that are outside the control of human beings, and thereby relegates the universe to a less capricious, unexplainable, sporadic, and accidental condition of existence. There can only be moral accountability and responsibility if rational principles ground reality. Sorcery and witchcraft are not rational but rather caught in the irrationality of nonsense-defying human reason. If reality is not governed by reason, it is susceptible to injustice. The brilliance of Haxan is that Christensen, as demonstrated by the authors of this book, does not put "all of his eggs in one basket" of rationalism to explain everything in reality, for as the parable notes, "life may be stranger than fiction." Christensen thus leaves the door open, by realizing the witch.

Clearly Christensen was motivated to concoct such a film to combat the misogynistic abuses to which witch hunts can lead, and it is more humane to describes alleged female witches as suffering from hysteria rather than being "possessed by the devil." Such a reading debunks the superstitious power of witchcraft. In one sense, this rational explanation of witchcraft withdraws from attributing to women a certain kind of magical power that trumps the logical systems of what feminists call patriarchal hierarchy and what postmodern thinkers like Derrida, Foucault, and Julia Kristeva call male logocentricism that women sometimes feel excluded from. Yet in the film Christensen does not deny women's powers either as "alleged witches" or suffering from hysteria. The film seems to suggest that "reality is stranger than rational explanation."

The book is highly recommended for all academic libraries, students of film studies, and the occult. [End Page 556]

David B. Levy
Touro College NYC
David B. Levy

David B. Levy (PhD; MLS) currently serves as chief librarian of Lander College for Women. David received a PhD (2000) in Jewish Studies from the Baltimore Hebrew University and a MLS (1994) from the University of Maryland at College Park. David received a BA in Comparative Literature and Philosophy in 1990 from Haverford College. David also has attended Middlebury Language Schools, Bryn Mawr College Institute des Etudes Frances in Avignon France, JHU, and the Manfred Lehman Seminars at the University of Pennsylvania of the Hebrew book. David is the recipient of the Gedaliah Cohen Prize in Jewish Studies and the Sidney Breitbart Prize in Jewish Philosophy. David is an avid lover of classical music in the quest for intellectual, moral, and spiritual virtue in the journey for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.


1. See Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Antisemitism (Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 1993).

2. See Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, "Blood Libel," Encyclopedia Judaica, Jewish Virtual Library. 2008,

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