Witchcraft was not always a symbol of monstrosity. In ancient societies, witches were known as healers, and in many cultures, they took on the role of the mother, who was responsible for discovering herbs and plants to make medicine with. Hollywood, however, branched away from this idea and chose to portray them as heretics to profit from the concept of witches as monstrous figures. In the 1920s, films such as Häxan1, a horror and documentary hybrid film by director Benjamin Christensen, exploited the evil of Witchcraft and Satanism and their written doctrines and historical representations that was deemed to be heresy.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) by Piers Haggard referenced theories from the ’60s and ’70s to portray movements that evolved from the notion of what Witchcraft and Satanism was perceived to be at the time. The film manifested a metaphor that existed as a pre-conditioned concept in rural British culture, hence contributing it to the status of “folk horror”. Films such as Witchfinder General (1968) and Satan’s Claw were labeled as counterculture examinations mainly because of their contribution to the resistance against the ideologies of the authoritarian and patriarchal spheres. The contextual core and aesthetic of the branch of films produced under Hammer2 Horrors reinforced this countercultural perspective.
Hammer horror films, however, shifted its focus away from the witch as the primary driving entity and rather chose to revisit witch-hunting, a more insignificant representation of Witchcraft, in films such as Black Sunday (1960), by director Mario Bava and starring “the High Priestess of Horror” Barbara Steele, and Burn Witch Burn! (1962), directed by Sidney Hayers. This later paved the way for films such as Season of the Witch (1972) Suspiria (1977), Carrie (1976), and The Witch (2015) to carry on the tradition.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw follows the story of a small rural community taken over by occultism after deformed body parts of an unknown creature are unearthed from the fresh soil of cultivated fields. This strange creature is, in fact, the Devil. After realizing this, Ralph (played by Barry Andrews) immediately informs the town’s judicial authority, the Judge (played by Patrick Waymark). After the judge’s initial skepticism, a series of bizarre, occult instances occur that reassures him of the madness. The strange events begin when the nephew of the Judge’s acquaintance brings home his soon-to-be-bride. The Devil reveals himself and possesses her. As a result, she is barricaded in her room for other’s safety.
The Devil’s mark gradually appears on the weak-minded, non-believers of the ‘true faith,’ the Catholic decree. The Devil manifests himself through the heretics of the community, first through whispers and dreadful diseases of the mind and soul before his physical presence becomes evident as patches of fur, Satan’s skin. Those marked by immorality soon become violent and are consumed by chaos. They wreak havoc and torture members of the community. They form a cult, led by Angel Blake (played by Linda Haydon), who holds on to Satan’s Claw. Those who are not deemed heretics by the Devil also become consumed by his presence and become obsessed by rumors of witchcraft. This is depicted especially well in a scene where a young group of men hunts down one of the accused, a young woman. They are seen to chase her through the woods and eventually down to a river bend where they throw her into the water, and thereby displaying the ultimate form of crimen exceptum3. They do this to test whether the girl is indeed a witch- saying that “if she don’t sink, she be one.” Ralph, the most empathetic character in the film replies that “if she sink, you done her murder”, and saves the young woman (who is a member of the cult) from drowning.
The film followed the usual narrative of witchcraft. Nonetheless, the film’s philosophy extends beyond the image of Angel, who does not merely appear as a witch. Neither does it portray a town that falls victim to witchcraft and occultism. This leaves the question of whether it instead suggests that the idea that witches exist in the abject form they have been fabricated as, is a misconception of the truth? The film is about God and the Devil’s duality. Angel is placed in the middle as the deviant scapegoat. At the beginning of the film the Judge appears as one of the judicial authority figures. Yet, the opening sequence reveals that he does not believe in pagan ideas about evil. He mocks the idea of witchcraft and the powers of sorcery until he witnesses it for himself. Being a Catholic in the seventeenth century in England, was known as a felony. Therefore, the judge is, in actuality, a rebellious character as well. Satan’s Claw is based in the late 1600s, during the end of the Glorious Revolution4, which saw Catholic King James II overthrown. The Judge exhibits his loyalty to the exiled Catholic King, during a scene in which a toast is made to celebrate England’s restoration. As an outsider in his own right, he does not accept the newly founded authority of William III and Mary II (Adams 356)5.
The Catholic doctrine rejects the belief that witches exist, but Christian mysticism existed as a spiritual movement within the Catholic Church. The fear of witchcraft, the wild flesh of the female body, deviant and obscene, vile, and vulgar opposed the patriarchal authority. Christian beliefs in male witches were mentioned in passing but disregarded. For the sake of art, witches were primarily portrayed as being female. As the disease spread through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, everyone turned their eyes towards the Devil as the perpetrator of illness, infertility, and the reason for the failure of crops every season. Thus, religious propaganda began to spread, of which one propaganda piece in particular stood above the rest, and “catapulted the female sorceress to fearful heights” as mentioned in The Malleus Maleficarum.
Published in 1487 by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum became known as an inquisitor’s manual written explicitly for witches’ prosecutions during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Christian Church did not fear witchcraft and witches as agents of the Devil, but they did believe in the power of possession that existed at the witch’s disposition. The Malleus Maleficarum states that there are three necessary concomitants of witchcraft. It is believed to be manufactured by the Devil, through a Witch, and the Almighty God’s Permission. Kramer, a German Catholic inquisitor, attributed his ideas to the text by claiming that heresy was the cause of many brutal deaths and lead to old-medieval erotica. There are plenty of derogatory remarks and questions regarding witches and their relationship with Satan, including “the method in which witches copulate with Incubus devils” or “whether witches may work some prestidigitator illusion so that the male organ appears to be entirely removed separately from the body”. However, the Catholic Church had recognized these claims and refuted The Malleus Maleficarum in 1490, although this was too late for heresy as it quickly spread through the Catholic community.Thus, witchcraft trials commenced. The jury was primarily made up of Catholic and Protestant authority figures, although in the film the Judge presents himself as a non-jurist.
This juxtaposition appears in Dante’s Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, written over one-hundred years before The Malleus Maleficarum, which is made up of three different sections: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise). Inferno sees Hell being divided into nine circles. Heretics are gathered in the sixth circle of Hell. Their punishment is to burn for eternity since they consciously rejected God while being aware of His existence and the Christian religion. The Catholic doctrine rejects the notion that witches exist. Christian mysticism, however, existed as a spiritual movement within the Catholic Church and acknowledged the idea of sorcery. This would explain why, in both Inferno and The Malleus, heretics (those accused of witchcraft or worshipping false idols) were deemed evil and had to suffer execution by being burned at the stake. Those who bore knowledge of the existence of God, yet rejected Him, had to endure the ‘ultimate death’ and were tormented by fire.
The powerful analogy between Malleus and Inferno’s contrasting manifestation is not just limited to the architecture and landscape constructed within the semiotics-gestalt, or the exhibitions of good vs. evil and the different embodied consciousness but it is also reflected through patterns in character associations. Angel, the Judge, and Ralph, are metaphors for the Devil, Virgil, and Dante in Inferno. The setting of the film, the rural village, can be described as a metaphorical frame-world of the infernal city of Dis, the capital of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno’s sixth circle. Here, the metaphorical and symbolic presence of Satanic motifs and the semiotics of Dante’s imagery of Hell can be traced through subtle Easter eggs in the tone, setting, and theme of The Blood on Satan’s Claw. An allegory exploring Satan’s journey in the corruption of a community that has lost its religion. In reference to The Malleus Maleficarum, this is something that God himself could order Satan to do if He so wished.6
In horror films, the Witch is generally a representation of the enemy of the symbolic order of patriarchal discourses established by the male figure. In reality, especially in the fourteenth century, women were subjected to various kinds of heresy, as Barbara Creed states in her book, The Monstrous-Feminine:
“The Witch sets out to unsettle boundaries between the rational and the irrational, symbolic, and imaginary. Her evil powers are seen as part of her ‘feminine’ nature; she is closer to nature than man and can control forces in nature’ (Creed, 76).”
The portrayal of the abject woman (Angel), in Satan’s Claw, is not solely a result of patriarchal discourse. Although patriarchal authority enforces female subjectivness, in this film the portrayal of patriarchal authority does not merely reflect the literal aspects thereof but becomes a symbolic, philosophical manifestation of God’s command. Even though the Reverend is the Sunday school teacher, Angel attempts to exploit her role as the ‘seductress’ to seduce the Reverend. The Reverend, however does not give in to carnal nature, which is supposedly the true nature of the abject woman. Nonetheless, the Reverend is blamed for a crime that he did not commit, even when he chose not to follow the same path as those who worship false idols and devils. As displayed in the scenes where the wild youth mock the Reverend and the idea of Sunday school, due to their rejection of Him, it is within God’s power to grant Satan the authority to punish and allow evil to sustain in the community. This notion is reinforced in the doctrine of The Malleus, which argues that God possesses the power to authorize this when He is insulted.
As such, Angel and her followers are subjected to their ultimate death at the hands of the Judge, aka ‘Virgil’- as seen in the sixth circle of Hell (where the heretics wander in damnation). The rural horror of the village exemplifies all the characteristics found in Dante’s Hell. The cinematography is fixed on individual static shots of fields, woods, and the town itself, like layers the layers of evil but as different symbolisms. As the heretics draw closer to Satan’s claw, the movement of the camera becomes more fluid, revealing the direction of the horrors of Hell with a dash of Mephistophelian tones as Satan’s possession over Angel becomes stronger. What we see is the trapped heretics turning on each other or on those who believe in the power of religion over witchcraft; a young woman is raped and murdered (including the elderly), people are mutilated, and the believers begin to disappear. By corrupting the entire village, Angel is paving the way for true evil to take over and declare the town as part of Inferno’s nine circles. Patches of the Devil’s fur begin to appear on those marked as heretics.
The Church ruins, is where most of the horrific scenes of the film take place and where the final climax transpires, the perfect example of the symbolic representation of the sixth circle of Hell. It represents the declining faith in God and religion. As the cult’s belief in God falters, Satan’sClaw digs into the souls he is to claim for his own; the more heretics, the merrier.
One horrific scene that unfolds sees Cathy, who has just lost her brother to the members of the cult, picking flowers for his grave. She mistakenly follows two young men and is captured by the rest of the members of the cult, only to be sacrificed as part of the Satanic ritual. It is here where she is marked by the ‘Devil’ aka Angel and viciously raped and murdered by a young man. Ralph desperately tries to search for her and hears her cries in the forest, but he cannot save nor find her. The Church’s violent setting and aesthetic lead the audience down the path towards the final battle between good and evil, between faltered faith and withstanding religion as the climax’s backdrop. The Judge decides to return to save Ralph aka ‘Dante’ (who is captured by the cult) and the rest of the community. The Judge, aka ‘Virgil’, has the same resources and knowledge that helped ‘Dante’ escape the circles of Hell, as Ralph is also captured by the cult by the climax. In the film, he uses others’ help (the un-corrupted) to uphold the philosophies of The Divine Comedy which reads as Virgil reminding Dante of the philosophy set forth in Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics,7 which posits the existence of “|three dispositions counter to Heaven’s will: incontinence, malice, and insane brutality” (xi. 79, 80).8
In the climax of the film evil finally reveals itself in its ultimate form. By gathering strength from the corrupted souls of the cult members, through Angel, the Devil manifests into his ultimate physical form, thereby revealing his true-self, and leaving both Ralph and The Judge to accept the divinity of God and the journey of the soul towards God. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is not only a study into men and women’s moral reflection, but also embodies the subjective acts of expression and perception of heretics in the form of anti-authoritarian dynamics that rebel against Man’s Decree, God’s Divinity, and finally Satan’s philosophy. This is more than just another film about occultism and witchcraft. It is one of the best ‘folk horror’ films ever made because of its gestural expression of evil that challenges the spectator’s cultural and intellectual experience.
- Witchcraft Through the Ages is a hybrid of documentary and fiction, this silent film explores the history of witchcraft, demonology and Satanism. It presents a narrative about the persecution of a woman accused of witchcraft.
- Founded in 1934, Hammer Film Productions Ltd. is a British film production company based in London. The company is best known for a series of Gothic horror films made from the mid-1950s until the 1970s.
- ‘An exceptional crime that was not subject to regular judicial procedures or standards of proof.’
- First used by John Hampden in the late 1600’s. The Glorious Revolution of November 1688, refers to the deposition of James II and VII, king of England, Scotland and Ireland who were replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband, William III of Orange.
- George Burton Adams, Constitutional History of England (London: Jonathan Cape, 1963), 356.
- Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York, Routledge), 1993.
- Aristotle argues that the correct approach for studying such controversial subjects as Ethics or Politics is to start with what would be roughly agreed to be true by people of good up-bringing and experience in life, and to work from there to a higher understanding.
- Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XI, The Heretics, 79-80.