By Luke Beale
I was very shy and introverted growing up and often felt as if I floated through the world in a bubble. It felt like there was a distance between me and the world around me as if I was not quite part of it. Although I made friends, I would usually feel more comfortable in my own company drawing comics, writing fan fiction, or constructing hugely convoluted fantasy dramas acted out by Lego characters. In these dramas, one character would inevitably find themselves adrift in space, or thrown back in time, isolated and desperate to find a way back home. Only as an adult am I able to put this time into more context and understand the reasons why I, as many children do, unconsciously decided to escape the real world into fantasy and fiction.
Looking back, I find it difficult to identify dates or my age relating to specific memories. I’m always amazed people are able to say they went on holiday in 1992 or were seven years old when they were given a pet mouse. I can try and work things out, but my sense of time is always slippery. In fact, I’m not 100% convinced time moves in a linear fashion. I’m comforted whenever I see this concept expressed in books like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or films like Arrival. This is my longwinded way of explaining that I have no idea how old I was when I first watched The Witches. It was released when I was 6, so I guess I would have seen it whenever it came out on VHS tape. It makes a lot of sense that time would have a fuzzy quality to it when I’d spent more time in my own head than in the real world.
Although I read a lot of Roald Dahl books when I was young, it was the Witches film that left the longest-lasting impression on me. I loved it yet was terrified by it; the witches glowing purple eyes, the false smiles, the incredible and horrifying prosthetics, Angelica Houston’s mesmerizing performance, the witches’ aim of killing all children, and not forgetting that the main character Luke (Jasen Fisher) shares my name.
The story of Erica, the childhood friend of Luke’s grandma Helga (Mai Zetterling), is one early part of the film that has always haunted me. In that story, Erica is sent off to fetch a pail of milk but is kidnapped by a witch. The police search for miles but do not find her, only her empty pail in an alleyway. A few weeks later as Helga is visiting Erica’s parents, the dad approaches a painting in their house as if he has seen a ghost, his face twisted in horror. There, as if it had always been there, was Erica trapped in the painting. As the years pass, the picture of Erica ages. Many years later the picture of Erica as an old woman, bent and frail, starts to fade until she disappears completely.
Erica’s story can be haunting to any child, and it certainly resonated with me. I believe I felt empathy for little Erica trapped in the painting because she had also been separated from the world, forever gazing out at it but unable to join. On some level, I was afraid that I would meet the same fate, trapped living a two-dimensional life by forces I couldn’t comprehend. As an adult, I understand that children can withdraw like this when the real world becomes too scary. In my case, there was no specific event, no traumatic horror from which I had to escape, for sometimes terror can hide in plain sight, and unless you are very attuned to it, it can be hard to tell the difference between what is safe and what is not.
Just after Luke’s grandma finishes the story of Erica, Luke does experience a specific tragedy — his parents are killed off-screen in what is only described as an accident. The story of Erica and the death of Luke’s parents all happen within the first 15 minutes of the film. The implication seems to be that the world is a terrifying place filled with unexpected horror. However dark this sounds I believe that such darkness can have a place in children’s films. If done well, fictional horror can be incredibly important for children. It can provide a safe place to explore difficult themes while providing some catharsis for difficult feelings. Being able to be scared by fiction can help children manage their feelings. Navigating the world can be scary even for children who don’t experience anything explicitly traumatic like parents arguing, adults keeping secrets, new school environments, interacting with strangers, navigating a world that is made for adults, the lack of agency, and so on can all be difficult experiences.
The Witches, and films like it, provide a way to explore difficult feelings in a safe setting, just like old fairy tales acted as explicit warnings (don’t go into the woods alone, don’t trust strangers, etc). Many of those fairy tales include prejudices of the time, especially when it comes to the concept of witches. The concept of witches is of course steeped in misogyny, and while Roald Dahl certainly included some misogynist stereotypes in his book, in the film Angelica Huston seems somehow to subvert these tropes, combining the ‘seductress’ and the ‘old crone’ tropes simultaneously with her performance becoming even sexier in her monstrous form. While the warts, scalp rash, and long nose all fit with the appearance of a classic misogynist witch, the Grand High Witches’ sensuality seems to undermine this. The film certainly doesn’t posit that women are evil since Grandma Helga is the most trustworthy character while the few men in the film are pretty useless. In children’s films, adults generally don’t believe the children, but in Helga’s case, she is fully supportive of Luke.
The Grand High Witches’ appearance is more in line with the kind of body horror David Cronenberg loves so much or other Jim Henson productions like The Dark Crystal. It’s particularly effective whenever characters are transformed into mice. One of the scariest moments in the film is when the Grand High Witch gets a taste of her own medicine (literally) and transforms into a hideous mouse. The gross body horror is another reason the film works so well for me, as it echoes the kind of transformation we all go through as children into adolescents. Watching the film as an adult I still see those elements that scared me as a child, but I understand why much more. Particularly interesting is understanding this as a Nicolas Roeg film, the director of Don’t Look Now, and understanding how he uses close-ups from low angles to both make the witches seem more distorted and to view them from below as a child might. Strange as it may seem, seeing this kind of body horror as a child provided a way of beginning to process my negative perceptions of my own body. It was comforting to see that Luke’s horrific transformation into a mouse wasn’t as bad as it might’ve been: he turns out pretty cute, can still talk, has a whole new set of skills, and once again his Grandma is completely accepting of him. For me, the ending of the film undermines this by turning Luke back into a human. I had actually forgotten this ending upon my rewatch because in my mind he stayed as a mouse and lived with his Grandma taking down witch covens all over the world.
The Witches helped me start to grapple with the difficulties I faced as an introverted child unsure about my physical self and uncertain about fully joining the world. The film still holds up as horror, although clearly aimed at a younger audience. The themes of body horror, untrustworthy adults, and the way it deals candidly with real and imagined horrors make this a great horror film for adults and young people alike. 🩸
Luke Beale is a writer interested in horror films, fantasy, comic books, and psychology. Follow him on Twitter @mutantgenes.
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