Witches In Cinema On 'Stuff Mom Never Told You'

On this episode of Stuff Mom Never Told You, Anney and Samantha explore “witchsploitation” films of the 1960s and ‘70s. Exploitation films are a genre of cinema that emerged in the 1930s, described as “the film version of freak shows.” Bordering on pornographic, these films usually had heavy-handed moral messages, using shocking imagery to condemn rather than glorify bad behaviors, such as 1936’s Reefer Madness. But by the 1960s, the moral messages had been discarded in favor of just shocking or arousing the audience with graphic, raunchy, or gory images and dialogue. Examples include I Spit on Your Grave, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Blacula, and Dolemite; most B-movie slasher and monster flicks belong in this category as well.

What’s this got to do with witches? To explain that, they’ve got to take it back all the way to the 1480s, when witch hunting was at its peak. Though some men were caught up in these hunts, this phenomenon primarily targeted women, especially childless women, healers and midwives, and women who controlled property. The fear of witches was all wrapped up in sexuality and childbearing: Witches were said to rob men of their virility, stealing their “members” and putting them “in birds’ nests, or shut up in a box” where they would move around on their own and eat things like corn and nuts. Midwives performed abortions, killed children as they were being delivered, or offered newborns to the devil. In all these ways, witches were a threat to procreation. Historians point out that controlling women’s bodies was a building block of capitalist society; by forcing women to procreate, they would provide a new generation of workers. Especially enslaved women, who were often called an “increase” because they could have children that would also be enslaved, thereby “increasing” their owners’ wealth. Targeting midwives also forced women to rely more and more on male doctors for information about their own bodies. Witch hunting ultimately killed more than 100,000 people in America and Europe, 80% of them women. 

The 1960s saw a renewed interest in witches, paganism, and the occult – partly because of the use of hallucinogens – so films exploiting that interest were quick to follow, starting with The Virgin Witch in 1972. The big difference? Witches weren’t old hags anymore; they were beautiful, sexy seductresses who used men and discarded them. Instead of being a threat to childbearing, it was women’s sexuality that was to be feared and punished. Anney and Samantha discuss and critique several examples of these films, including a feminist send-up of the genre from 2016; brush up on your cinema history and get some solid Netflix recommendations on this episode of Stuff Mom Never Told You.

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