“Häxan”: Dutch Horror Film

Though a black-and-white film flickered across the screen of Kemper Auditorium on Sunday Afternoon, not a sound was heard. “Häxan,” a silent Dutch film, was the next installment in the Spring Sunday Film Series, titled “International Fantasy and Horror,” presented by John Bird, Instructor in English. “Häxan,” translated as “Witchcraft Through the Ages,” is a 1922 Dutch horror film.

“I prefer films that I can be reasonably sure that students have not already seen,” said Bird. “I chose ‘Häxan’ because I wanted a silent film in the mix this term and because it happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies.”

The film is divided into four parts, each of which makes its own claim about witchcraft and builds off the previous part.

The first segment depicted medieval illustrations of demons and witches, making use of paintings, woodcuts and photographs of statues to portray how witches first entered the realm of medieval culture.

Told through vignettes, the second part of the film presents medieval beliefs and superstitions about witchcraft. In one vignette, the devil tempts a sleeping woman away from her bed, and Satan terrorizes a group of monks in another.

“I enjoyed it verily. Particularly when the convent goes hysterical, flailing about all knees and elbows like a Whirling Dervish,” said Bernhard Fasenfest ’12.

The third section follows the narrative of a woman facing accusations of witchcraft put on her by a dying man’s family. The woman is then tortured until she admits to performing witchcraft, revealing the harsh and unfair treatment of suspected witches during those tumultuous times. During her confession, the woman names other witches in the area, one of whom is the dying man’s wife. The wife, after being tortured as well, admits to falsely accusing the first woman of witchcraft.

The fourth and the final part of the film is used to show how these ancient superstitions are better understood now. Odd behaviors that would have been associated with witchcraft in the Middle Ages are now sometimes considered symptoms of psychological disorders. Simple acts such as sleepwalking and the urge to steal items were seen as demonically-influenced behaviors, worthy of an accusation of witchcraft.

“This term is, obviously, ‘International Fantasy and Horror,’ while last term was ‘Comedy and Satire,’” said Bird. “The main purpose of the Sunday Movies is to add something to the intellectual and cultural life of the campus. I like to think that the Sunday Movies are really a chance to experience–merely for the sake of experiencing–art that is in some way challenging, difficult, unexpected.”

Bird’s Sunday Movie Series features thrilling films with elaborate plot lines, many of which are rarely viewed today.

“So many of the works of art that have affected me the most deeply were ones that I found by accident or on which I took a chance, not knowing at all what I would experience,” said Bird. “It’s just me, a movie and some homemade treats.”

The next screening in the series is Mexican horror movie, “Misterios de Ultratumba,” or in English, “The Black Pit of Dr. M,” which will be shown this Sunday at 3:30 p.m. in Kemper Auditorium.