The Medieval Review 16.06.15

Walter, Brenda S. Gardenour. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. pp. 241. £40.50/$40.00 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0786476800 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Willem de Blécourt
independent scholar

This book seeks to link "medieval" principles of opposition and inversion to modern horror films, concluding that their core structures still follow patterns established in medieval times. It examines "the continued power of medieval structures to signify evil alterity in modern horror films" (5). I admit in advance that I came across too many inaccurate conjectures or unsubstantiated generalisations to find it a comfortable and stimulating read and this is reflected in my assessment. I may well have missed some of the book's good points. The author has obviously taken considerable effort to research and write it; the more is the pity that she was not warned beforehand that her approach was not very fruitful or was plainly wrong. Writing about witches without consulting any of the available historical introductions to the subject, not even the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Western Tradition (2006), does not attest to a committed scholarship. As a result this is a study one could easily do without. But let me discuss the book in more detail, since that is where the devil resides.

Brenda Walter follows a not uncommon practice among students of culture to skip lightly over the early modern period and to ignore issues of continuity or historical development, although in this particular instance I suspect that she was inspired by Robert Chazan's Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Anti-Semitism (1997). In as far as Our Old Monsters is based on demonologies, adjectives like "medieval" and even "late medieval" are overabundant and an irritating misnomer, since they concern an early modern phenomenon rather than a medieval one. It could even be argued that, together with the fall of Constantinople or the discovery of the Americas, the start of witch prosecution actually inaugurated the early modern period. This notwithstanding, the period of the seventeenth to the nineteenth century is not covered in the book. Twentieth-century films are portrayed as the direct descendants of fifteenth-century demonology; instead of considering this as problematic and asking why that was the case, it is simply taken for granted. Moreover, the analyses of fifteenth-century demonologies invariably lead to questionable conclusions about how common certain concepts were (late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century demonologies are only partially consulted and then only those written in France). Apart from the fact that witches travelled nowhere on "animal familiars," the "salient elements" of the witches' sabbat are here taken from the early seventeenth-century treatise of Pierre de Lancre which is unrepresentative, and the sprinkling of the Devil's urine was extremely rare (39). The remark on the same page that the sabbat was "open to regional and authorial permutations" is unfortunately not followed up by appropriate analyses.

There is a lengthy discussion of how the "medieval" view of the body of the witch grew out of the concept of saints' bodies. An emerging medical science converted it into a cold and dry old woman's body; the "cessation of menstuation did not signify a purified body, but instead instigated the creation of a radically toxic creature whose body continued to produce superfluities which now had no monthly means of escape" (96). In practice, according to Walter, the witch's influence should have manifested itself through "poisonous gasses" and toxic "fetid menstrual vapors" (99). Apart from citing a single example from a demonology this assertion remains unsubstantiated. However relevant melancholia may have been, it was never a way to diagnose witchcraft and the role of physicians in identifying witches was minimal. This also leaves the emergence of the male witch in the late sixteenth century an open issue. The latter surely does indicate that witchcraft theory never concentrated solely on female witches.

The question of the significance of the medieval period reaches a nadir in Our Old Monsters with the equation of the vampire with the "medieval" figure of the Jew. Although Walter is well-aware that the "vampire did not enter Western consciousness until the early eighteenth century" (151) she nevertheless insists that the "medieval" imagery of the Jew, with his blood-lust among other things, contributed to the subsequent nineteenth-century construction of the vampire. While this might help to solve the discontinuity between the Slavonic vampires and their West-European derivatives, I am not convinced; for one reason there is a need for more evidence of the Jewish association in nineteenth-century vampire novels (which the author skips), for another because this link denies the uniqueness of both vampires (undead) and Jews (alive), even if they could both be seen on the level of "imaginary creature" at all. The author turns Count Orlok, the vampire in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), into a "melancholic Jew" (155), rather than acknowledging his bat characteristics or Murnau's indebtedness to Stoker's Dracula (1897). She likewise explains Herzog's remake Nosferatu (1979) by using the medieval terminology of humoral pathology. The gentleman vampire as portrayed in a series of other horror films is, according to Walter, merely a guise and female vampires are mainly Satanic witches. The brief length of this chapter, especially its film analyses, is troubling. It is particularly short compared to the earlier discussion of witchcraft films which are, however, much rarer than vampire films. There is also an abundance of scholarly literature on the latter, but it has paid little attention to the vampire's physical construction in the image of the medieval Jew. This reveals the flimsiness of Walter's thesis and its forced application at places where it hardly fits. If, as she suggests, vampire films had appropriated Jewish imagery, this would surely have been based on contemporaneous Christian stereotypes derived from the New Testament, rather than on medieval pathology.

Assured as Walter is about the validity of her view, her medieval reconstructions badly needed guidance. It must be obvious to everyone with a grain of historical sense that twentieth-century films cannot be said to be based directly on material from four or five centuries ago as this is too distant for images or especially patterns to survive. Yet, at places the reader cannot escape the impression that this is precisely what the author presumes. There are a great many remarks about the link between "medieval" motifs and those in the films discussed. For instance: "In...The City of the Dead (1960) and the Witchmaker (1969), the Black Mass and Satanic ritual return to their roots in late-medieval witchcraft" (46). And: "Late-medieval paradigms for demonic possession and exorcism, as well as the binary categories of warm-male-divine and cold-female-demonic have persisted in modern horror films such as The Exorcist (1973)" (64). Or: "Medieval inversion dominates in The Devil's Hand, particularly in its treatment of women as fundamentally corrupt" (109). About The Witchmaker Walter concludes: "In both his physical appearance and role as Satanic coven master, Luther conforms in almost every detail to late-medieval paradigms for inverted evil" (111). For an understanding of any development in European witch imagery one has to consider European regional variety and take the various witch figures, such as flying or congregating witches, as a specific consequence of the theoretical treatises. It is hard to see, however, how early modern demonological witches ended up on twentieth-century screens. It is also wrong to call Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum a European-wide authority (90), since many intellectuals disagreed with it. Indeed, to consider witchcraft primarily in the polarized terms of good versus evil is misleading since this implies that people in the "Middle Ages" were incapable of making subtler judgements.

If one wishes to take a favourable approach to the author's endeavor, it is best to concentrate on her selection and analysis of modern witchcraft films. Unfortunately, however, even these sections have their own problematic aspects, such as the failure to distinguish British (mostly Hammer) horror from its American counterpart, or the inability to recognise the American figure of the Good Witch. The Wizard of Oz is dicussed without any mention of Glinda, and the highly influential television series Bewitched (1964-1972) does not feature at all, nor does one of the more sophisticated witchcraft films, The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Walter never explains her selection. The films she chose are grounded in the horror genre and feature devils and a sort of witches coven, but a common idiom of those films is only superimposed and nowhere explicitly shown, nor is there any attempt to trace the nineteenth- and twentieth-century roots of the films discussed. It is also rather glib to situate modern witch films "against the backdrop of the Women's Liberation Movement" (8; also 104, 117, 128) without explaining the chronology of the two more precisely. The so-called "second feminist wave" only emerged in the late 1960s, which means that earlier witch films developed in a different context, to say nothing about later films. How feminists subsequently appropriated witches for their own purposes is here completely ignored, even though it means that contemporary witchcraft imagery is likely to have adopted different elements than those portrayed in horror movies. The reader is thus left with a series of reasonably detailed content descriptions of horror films from the 1960s and 1970s, such as The City of the Dead (1960), The Devil's Hand (1962), The Witches (1966); The Black Cat (1968), The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Witchmaker (1969), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), I Drink Your Blood (1970), Cry of the Banshee (1970), Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), The Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Daughters of Satan (1972), Season of the Witch (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), The Devil's Daughter (1973), The Devil's Rain (1975), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The last decades of the twentieth century, however, are only represented by a few films: Superstition (1982), Satan's Princess (1990), and The Haunting of Morella (1990). The filmography at the end of the book (234-236) is misleading because it does not differentiate between films merely mentioned in passing and films discussed. Whether these films are in fact sufficiently analysed is open to discussion. The author claims to have applied the theories of Carol Clover, Barbara Creed, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Laura Mulvey (101), but this seems the case in only rare instances. Kristeva's notion of abjection, for instance, only surfaces in the description of one scene of Season of the Witch (126), and is then briefly mentioned in the form of "an abject mother figure" (129); it only plays a small part in the general description of the vampire (139) and the werewolf (169). Walter is more straightforward in her method to tackle vampire films when she sets out to "focus on a theme that is absent from much of this scholarship: the persistence of medieval paradigms for melancholic evil and the bloodsucking 'other'" in the films (153).

The figures of the vampire and the werewolf convincingly show that any connection with "medieval" demonology is absent; this is especially the case since both are new or reinvented. Walter, however, is undeterred in maintaining otherwise. She presents an uncritical standard summary of werewolf history. Finally discussing the early modern period she confines herself to French demonologies (Jean Grenier, as described by de Lancre, was never part of a pack), again ignoring the seventeenth to nineteenth century. Then she jumps to Freud, without appreciating that his "Wolf man" had a distinct cultural background. It comes as no surprise that the author finds that werewolf films "reveal the persistence of medieval and early-modern structures for inverted and melancholic evil" (185). One of the most revealing features, the full moon, was "rooted in medieval medicine and natural philosophy" (188). Yet there is no evidence for this and what she presents is unrelated to werewolves. Neither werewolf treatises nor werewolf trials feature the moon and metamorphoses were accomplished by other means. When Walter finally discusses Ginger Snaps (2000), she holds, as was to be expected, that the film "reveals the wicked persistence of the witch-virgin binary codified centuries ago" (194). Not only is this inaccurate, she also misses the film's subversive comments on earlier werewolf films.

It is distinctly possible that the writers and directors of horror films on witches, vampires, and werewolves derived some of their ideas from contemporary witchcraft historiography. To trace the history of these films, it is therefore more fruitful to consult existing twentieth-century narratives, as well as the work of such authors as Montague Summers, Margaret Murray, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, rather than medieval theologians and early-modern demonologists. Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon (1999) and Marion Gibson's Witchcraft Myths in American Culture (2007) should also be compulsory reading for anyone embarking on such a project. Only on the basis of contemporary images and opinions can underlying ideas and specific emphases of film makers be teased out. Sadly, such a study is not written yet.

Copyright (c) 2016 Willem de Blécourt

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login