Why documentary horror Häxan still terrifies, a century on
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(Credit: Alamy)
As it turns 100, this utterly chilling silent film deserves more celebration – given it set the template for The Blair Witch Project and many more horrors besides, writes Adam Scovell.

In the lineage of horror cinema, 1922 surely counts as one of its most important years. It was the year when FW Murnau made his unofficial Dracula adaptation Nosferatu, providing an early scare for audiences even as he fell afoul to copyright breaches. However, around the same time as Murnau's film, another seminal, but today less celebrated, horror was released: the Swedish-produced Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages by Danish director Benjamin Christensen. Whereas Murnau defined narrative horror through powerful German Expressionist visuals, the Danish director of this Svensk Filmindustri production innovated with horror's form, creating one of the strangest films of the period – whose eerie atmosphere, stark visuals and experimentation still stand up today.

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Part documentary essay, part horror mood board, Häxan is an episodic film, which across seven chapters explores a range of beliefs and themes throughout the Western history of occultism, in particular focussing on witchcraft during the Medieval period, and the historic persecution of women accused of practising it. No one describes the film better than the director himself who suggested at the time that "my film has no continuous story, no 'plot' – it could perhaps best be classified as a cultural history lecture in moving pictures".

The film purports to offer a guide to the history of witchcraft in the Medieval period – but it is no mere essay (Credit: Alamy)

The film purports to offer a guide to the history of witchcraft in the Medieval period – but it is no mere essay (Credit: Alamy)

The film is in part a textural, creative reading of the Malleus Maleficarum, a German witch-hunters' guide from the 1400s by clergyman Heinrich Kramer that provided insight into how to deal with all manner of devilish concerns. The film's opening chapter is a relatively straightforward lecture with historic slides and information, while the second chapter has a playful series of vignettes depicting some basic practices of witchcraft. By the later chapters, however, Christensen is dramatising a disturbing narrative in miniature, following Maria (Emmy Schønfeld) who is tortured into confessing a range of occult activities, including bearing the children of Satan, before being burnt at the stake. After this series of visceral images, the final chapters focus on the more modern psychological potential of the phenomena and look into the possibility that such violent inquisition itself was responsible for many of the confessions.

The visceral horror

Yet, Häxan is not simply a documentary or docudrama. Christensen's skill in special effects and sheer visual panache means that as soon as the film shifts from its essayistic stance, Häxan punches as hard as any horror film from its era. Its imagery is some of the most unnerving made in the silent period as it conjures up depictions of occult practices and scenarios, from people cavorting 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 founder of the Folk Horror Revival project Andy Paciorek.

I don't believe for a moment that the director's real motive was anything other than to shock – Stephen Volk

"It is a visceral experience disguised as an erudite thesis," adds Stephen Volk, noted horror screenwriter of the BBC's infamously scary Ghostwatch (1992), another horror masquerading as a documentary. "I don't believe for a moment that the director's real motive was anything other than to shock, if not to rock the audience from complacency, as good horror does. A lot of guff is written about 'cursed films' being 'imbued with evil' – but with this one, you can almost believe that. There is something about the format that does that to you – the authenticity of an earlier era, I suppose." Certainly, its early film aesthetic, with the patina of age that the grainy visuals and early filmmaking techniques naturally conjure, renders it as close to the feel of its Middle Ages setting as cinema has ever attained.

In creating its terrifying scenes, it also deploys a vast array of visual trickery to great, haunting effect, from stop-motion animation and incredibly innovative make-up, to even using a carousel to create the effect of witches flying by on their brooms. In some instances, it's almost as if those old carved wood images detailing witchcraft and heretical punishment of yore have been momentarily brought to life, with Christensen as a kind of blasphemous ringmaster joyfully overseeing it all. It's equally telling that the director himself ends up playing the devil on screen, clearly relishing every Satanic minute.

"Christensen doesn't shirk from both the salaciousness and surrealism that appears within the historical documents that inspired it but instead seems to roll with it," says Paciorek. "For such a dark topic, you cannot help but feel he had a sense of gallows humour when making it."

'Unfit for public exhibition'

However, even if it is amusing at times, such was the visceral, authentic darkness of some of its period recreations, that the film aroused controversy on its release. As one reviewer wrote for Variety in 1923, "Wonderful though this picture is, it is absolutely unfit for public exhibition". Indeed, Christensen's film became a whispered, cursed object all of its own. In just about every territory in which it was released, from Europe to the United States, Häxan was heavily censored for its content, in particular its incredibly realistic depictions of violence and torture, and overtly blasphemous imagery, in particular the desecration of the cross and scenes of witches kissing the devil's backside. Indeed, it was even butchered for its home release in Sweden, in spite of being the most expensive Swedish production made at the time.

With its depictions of people cavorting with devils, among other things, Haxan was viewed as highly blasphemous (Credit: Alamy)

With its depictions of people cavorting with devils, among other things, Haxan was viewed as highly blasphemous (Credit: Alamy)

The film itself appropriately passed into cinematic folklore, with the failure of the rights holder to renew its copyright leading to it falling into the public domain, and ropey amateur cuts being subsequently assembled and released over the years. This culminated in a 1968 edit by British film director and horror expert Anthony Balch, collaborating with jazz musician Daniel Humair and incorporating a newly recorded voice-over by the author William Burroughs, which tied into the burgeoning late 1960s market for occult exploitation cinema. This edit, an early example of a remix film, was distributed by the Metro Pictures Corporation in the US and was no doubt a hit in the grindhouse cinemas of the period.

Christensen's film, however, is more than simply a controversial or salacious work. It is a deeply innovative blueprint for so much horror that was to follow. Its sleight-of-hand mixing of the real and the fantastical became genuinely revolutionary. One hundred years since its initial domestic release, the film still plays a notable role in the history of horror. It wasn't the only film to deal with supernatural folklore – it had various, more fictionalised European peers to a degree, from Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage (1921) to Paul Wegener's Der Golem (1920) – but the film's form and blurring of scholarly realism with the fantastical gives it a more palpable, lingering dread. It became a kind of Necronomicon for occult and horror filmmakers in spite of being difficult to see; a rare unholy text which showed the screen possibilities of the occult.

Its psychological pathos

Christensen's innovation doesn't end in the horror scenes, but extends all the way to the closing chapters of the film, in which he offers a 20th-Century psychological interpretation of the strange occurrences he has depicted. It's a choice that imbues the film with an almost unbearable sadness.

The final chapter of Häxan is largely constructed around the idea that esoteric behaviour had its roots in mental disorder, and was subsequently demonised due to sheer prejudice. Alongside that, the film also explores how the persecution of the innocent, including supposed "witches", for unproven indiscretion, came about via weaponised accusation, designed to protect notions of piety. The dramatic potential for such accusations  later formed the basis of another horror sub-genre that included films such as Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General (1968), Gordon Hessler's Cry of the Banshee (1970) and Adrian Hoven's Mark of the Devil (1970), all finding bloody purchase in the torture such accusations often demanded. Rather than treating such violence purely voyeuristically as those films sometimes did, however, Häxan provides genuine insight into how the misunderstanding of earthly, psychological issues resulted in a fearful response to human suffering, a perspective which saw psychic ailments as in communion with unholy realms.

Häxan wasn't the first film to locate horror within the dark depths of the human psyche though it was certainly the most sympathetic. In fact, it seemed a regular component of European horror of the period. Two years before, German director Robert Wiene highlighted the same potential to beautiful effect in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, in which a fantastical, horror-inflected world is really the product of a troubled mind. Wiene's other great horror of the period, The Hands of Orlac (1924), has a psychological question at its core, too; are the transplanted hands of a pianist really those of a murderer compelling him to commit further crime, or is the psychological trauma at losing his original pair driving him insane? Even Nosferatu's chilling presence and ill-effects on the other characters of Murnau's film are diagnosed throughout as an illness of the mind rather than a result of the supernatural.

Volk is still uncertain as to why Häxan isn't discussed in quite the same league as these peers. "The very concept is so modern," he concludes. "I can't honestly see why it isn’t feted by film historians as much as [Carl T Dreyer's] Vampyr [1931] or Nosferatu. I would certainly say it was the seminal faux-documentary that preceded all others. And the fact it was lost, then found, by horror aficionados puts it at the very vanguard of classic found-footage horror in the most literal sense."

With its occult themes and a quasi-documentary style, The Blair Witch Project is an obvious descendant of Haxan (Credit: Alamy)

With its occult themes and a quasi-documentary style, The Blair Witch Project is an obvious descendant of Haxan (Credit: Alamy)

It's especially telling that Häxan Films, the production company founded by US filmmakers Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick to make the incredibly successful The Blair Witch Project (1999), was named in the film's honour; such is the crossover of form and theme between Häxan and Blair Witch. They share occult themes and a quasi-documentary style, the difference being that. Blair Witch's pretence is to be showing actual "found footage".

Of course "found footage" is now a flourishing horror sub-genre that Paciorek believes Häxan "definitely paved the way for… but it is strange that it took so long for that to build up." Christensen's film isn't itself strictly "found footage": he never pertains to be showing the viewer a recording of actual witch trials. However, his blurring of reality and fantasy clearly does contain within it the DNA of the found-footage genre, even if ultimately he is guided by a greater sense of fantastical intention than these later films, with their feeling of accidental discovery.

Ultimately, though, for all of its highly disturbing horror visuals, what makes Häxan stand out is its psychological pathos. The combination of this with its essayistic form makes it unique. While the director doesn't entirely dismiss the possibility of devils and demons, the human pain and distress it depicts is the same, whatever is going on – and the focus on this makes for a surprisingly humane conclusion to what is still a terrifying film even 100 years on.

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