Top Image: Still, Legend of the Witches (1970), dir. Malcom Leigh
Think 60s British subculture and your head will likely go to mods and rockers, but a more left-field movement was taking the underground by storm: witchcraft. At its most impactive, its popularity in the 60s and 70s became a major source of cinematic-influence, sparking films like The Wicker Man and The Blood On Satan’s Claw, the likes of which attracted a solid fan-base, and even made some witchcraft stars along the way. Alex and Maxine Sanders the best known, but also Eleanor Bone and Cecil Williamson, whose filmic work even put real-life exorcists under the spotlight (rending the act of exorcism a more conventional procedure, if you may).
As occult filmmaker and subject matter expert Gary Parsons here tells us, the trend was ultimately birthed in 1951 when a long-time government ban on practicing witchcraft was removed. The movement gained particular momentum when ‘witchploitation’ documentaries started to take over the British media, delving into the habits, the rituals, the how’s and why’s of the art of witchcraft, with a slightly dark thematic tendencies to flirt with the devil (black magic, unsolved murders, unsettling initiations tales and graphic rituals), conveying a sense of tragedy which was part of the thrill.
Giving witchcraft participants and pagans a medium for existing – or some room for legitimacy at the very least – film offered the public profound insights into the world of the occult, often examining the relationships between the magical operations and the political, religious scenery of Britain at the time.
Here, Parsons shares his top witchcraft documentaries and tells us why the art of witchcraft is an eternal point of controversy and interest.
Salomé Baudino: Why do you think the culture of witchcraft became such a phenomenon in the 60s and 70s, particularly in the UK?
Gary Parsons: It was cultural at first. The hippie and the occult cultural movements had just started off. In the UK especially, there was a big get-back-to-the-land movement within the hippie culture, and because Wicca is all about nature and nature spirits, it really pushed it forward. By that time, Alex Sanders [famous Wiccan] had also pushed Witchcraft to the mainstream and regularly graced the covers of magazines. Suddenly it was everywhere.
SB: What kind of impact did witchcraft documentaries it have on the arts, the media?
GP: Weirdly, it almost did not become a trend. Witchcraft was used in a lot of Hammer horror films [classic group of horror films made by the British studio Hammer Films] but the documentaries themselves didn’t really affect the media very much. The Legend Of the Witches [witchcraft documentary] was actually advertised as a pornographic film when it first hit the cinemas. They certainly had a knock-on effect on the arts though, especially in music now. There are a lot of bands (Sabbath Assembly, Witchcraft, Electric Wizard) in the occult rock movement.
“There’s an absolute form of equality between sexes and genders in witchcraft. You can’t differentiate between the two.”
SB: What were the public and social reactions like?
GP: It really opened up the idea of witchcraft being understood as a religion rather than just being a flaky thing people did in random woods. All of the documentaries featured scenes of nature and established a strong connection with it. That really appealed to the audience.
SB: Tell us a bit about the documentaries making. Was it male, female dominated?
GP: There’s an absolute form of equality between sexes and genders in witchcraft. You can’t differentiate between the two, that’s the whole point of it all. In terms of production, it usually was as accurate as it can be. In The Legend of The Witches’ documentary for example, they are all real witches. Though doing actual rituals on screen was challenging because the technicians would have to move the cameras around and disturb the whole experience. But there were also a lot of ‘docu-drama’ scripted documentaries, and an actor would sometimes ‘perform’ a ritual or an initiation.
SB: Why do you think people have been, and are still, so fascinated with the subject?
GP: It builds into people’s desires. Books have been written hundred years ago and are back in print again. People seem to still get something from them. And why do millions of people go to Stonehenge over the years? Because they want to feel a connection with something, they want to know what it is about it, there’s a bit of mystery in there. People like a mystery. And witchcraft has that mystery.
SB: I’ve seen quite a ‘pop culture magic’ phenomenon online, would you say there’s a comeback of sorts?
GP: A year or so ago there were a lot less people interested. Again, when you go through tough times – societal or personal – witchcraft offers a sense of safety to people. They want to go and stand in a wood and hug a tree. They want to feel closer to nature. In fact, now is probably the highest point of popularity for witchcraft since the 70s. People latch on to something that feels comfortable and are looking back to the 70s version of it. There’s a sort of nostalgia of being in that comfort zone.
SB: What made you get into it in the first place?
GP: It was mixture between my love for old horror movies and the feel and look of witchcraft. It also spoke to me ‘inside’. There was just something about it that I can’t really explain. I also grew up in the 70s and it was everywhere on TV, there were tons of books and magazines about it, and I used to buy lots of them back when I was around eleven-years-old. I was about eighteen when I started to make connections with people involved in witchcraft, then the films came a lot later on. I remember thinking no one was making films like this anymore and so I just went ‘OK, lets give it a go and if ten people like it, well then good!’
“When you go through tough times – societal or personal – witchcraft offers a sense of safety to people. They want to go and stand in a wood and hug a tree. They want to feel closer to nature.”
Still, The Power of the Witch (1971)
Gary Parsons’ new film ‘Conjuration’ will premiere at the British Museum on 16th October. Learn more here.