When it comes to horror and documentaries, in the sense of horror films that are deliberately planned to be documentaries, you have two main stripes represented by two big names. On one hand, you have Legend of Boggy Creek, a historical reenactment heavy documentary about a Texarkana cryptid that effectively recounts a variety of local myths and legends in an uncritical manner. On the other hand, there’s Haxan, the film I’m covering today, which is not only a very early work in the documentary genre, it’s also a work that is also very critical of historical accounts of witchcraft.
The film is based somewhat around a historical text called the Malleus Maleficarum, a historical guide to witch hunters from the 14th century. However, rather than simply accepting the material at face value, instead, the film approaches the work from the perspective of then-modern psychology to debunk the descriptions of witchcraft.
The film is presented through historical reenactments of claimed acts of witchcraft, and of witch trial techniques, with the gist being that historical witches weren’t sorceresses, they were people with mental health issues who were born at a time where psychology wasn’t understood, and where there were enough bad things happening (like crop failures due to the Little Ice Age), where they ended up becoming scapegoats because of this – and with modern advancements in medical science, these women could have been helped.
This is technically correct, but considering the state of mental health in the early 20th century, particularly when it came to rural and poor populations (instead of the high-end clinics for rich people we see in the film’s conclusion), the improvement isn’t quite that great. With electroshock therapy still being a common practice at the time, and lobotomies still being considered ethical, the state of mental health care could be described as “better” in the sense that getting stabbed in the leg is better than getting stabbed in the lung.
Further, there isn’t much discussion of the misogyny of the witch trials of the time, which is particularly notable considering that the diagnosis writer and director Benjamin Christensen uses to describe these the issues these women experienced is “Hysteria”, a term that is no longer used in the psychological community and has a heavy history of misogyny itself (the recommended treatment for “hysteria” in the 18th and 19th century was heterosexual sex).
It’s still an interesting film, and one that I’d like to see re-visited with modern knowledge of psychology, history, and gender studies – without diving straight into neo-paganism.
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