Cinema is ripe with occult-themed films at the moment, with perhaps the most recent successful example being Robert Eggers’ The Witch . The film was at the top of the box office during its opening weekend and has since become “the most successful film of all time with a goat in a starring role.” All kidding aside, The Witch’s popularity has generated a historical interest in witchcraft, Satanism (thanks to the Satanic Temple‘s support of the film), and the occult. Here are ten documentaries that explore occult themes, including witchcraft.
Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan started life as a documentary study of a 15th-century guide for inquisitors and the hysteria surrounding the witch hunts. Dramatized scenes of interrogations, Sabbath ceremonies, and other devilry shifts the tone of Häxan into supernatural horror territory. Look for Christensen in the role of the tongue-wagging devil. From a 1921 review by Variety:
Swedish and Danish pictures easily hold the palm for morbid realism and in many cases for brilliant acting and production. Witchcraft made by [Danish director] Benjamin Christensen [funded by a Swedish production company], leaves all the others beaten. It is in reality a pictorial history of black magic, of witches, of the Inquisition, and the thousand and one inhumanities of the superstition-ridden Middle Ages. Many of its scenes are unadulterated horror.
The Power of the Witch (1971)
Dry, occasionally charming British commentary on witches in the UK during the ‘60s and ‘70s. According to YouTube:
An extremely rare documentary about Witchcraft aired once in the UK in 1971. Featuring contributions from Eleanor Bone, Cecil Williamson, Alex & Maxine Sanders [above], Doreen Valiente et al. Very much of its time and with some very rare footage, also includes reference to the famously unsolved murder of Charles Walton on Meon Hill.
Many believe that Walton was murdered as part of a blood sacrifice during a pagan ritual and was a witch himself. He was killed on Candlemas Day or Imbolc, which “is a Sabbat of purification.”
Legend of the Witches (1970)
For the witchy completist with a love of Britannia. From Fandor:
The historical origins of witchcraft in moon-worship and the witches’ legend of creation; initiation rites undergone by the modern witches’ divination by birds and animals; Christianity’s absorption of pagan rites; revenge killing; the Black Mass; Cecil Williamson’s Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall; investigations into the efficacy of witchcraft; extra-sensory perception; foretelling the future. Featuring the only footage in existence of the infamous “King of Wicca,” Alex Sanders, who uses this documentary to guide us through his coven. By then, Sanders had been endorsed by a group of 1,623 practicing Wiccans as “King of the Witches” (with his wife Maxine as “Witch Queen”) and turned into a media celebrity. There were television appearances, late-night talks on radio, a sympathetic biography, record albums of his rituals and this film, LEGEND OF THE WITCHES, based on his exploits. These were said to include healing people of warts by “wishing them on someone else, who’s already ugly.” Another woman was supposedly cured of cancer by Sanders sitting with her in the hospital for three days and nights, holding her feet and pouring “healing energy” into her. Sanders and Maxine parted in 1973 and he drifted into semi-retirement before moving to Bexhill in East Sussex (where he died in 1988). Like Gardner, his legacy was his own tradition of ritual and belief within the Wicca movement, dubbed “Alexandrian” in a play on his first name.
Witchcraft ’70 (1970)
Witchcraft ’70 goes by many names (the British edit is known as The Satanists) and stands as a prime example of the mondo subgenre — a cross between an exploitation film and a pseudo-documentary that looks at taboo subjects and foreign cultures. We witness voodoo rituals, witchy orgies, and pagan weirdness, plus footage of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey in action at the former Bay Area “Black House.” The Piero Umiliani score is a fan favorite. This version of the film is in Italian, but Internet sleuths should be able to find an English version easily.
Aleister Crowley: The Wickedest Man in the World (2002)
Actor Brian Cox narrates this Masters of Darkness documentary about Aleister Crowley, who founded the religion/philosophy known as Thelema, and whose own mother nicknamed him “the Beast.” Described as a “black magician, drug fiend, sex addict, and traitor to the British people,” the four-part BBC 4 series features interviews with figures like Gavin Baddeley, an ordained Reverend in the Church of Satan and author.
Secrets of the Occult (2007)
From Top Documentary Films:
Secrets of the Occult explores the world of the occult from the ancient and modern magicians who practice it to the cutting edge scientists attempting to explain its mysterious claims. This program highlights the advances that have been achieved by innovators who challenged established reality like Newton, Galileo, Carl Jung and Einstein. The claims of the occult magicians are put under the microscope to reveal the fascinating interface between ancient Egyptian and Greek beliefs to modern discoveries of the mind and the physical world.
Rasputin: The Devil in the Flesh (2002)
It was recently announced that The Witch director Robert Eggers will be writing and directing a six-to-eight-episode miniseries about Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin. Now seems as perfect a time as any to watch this dark portrait of Rasputin’s spiritual journey with creepy reconstruction à la American Horror Story.
The Occult Experience (1985)
The life and work of Australian artist and occultist Rosaleen Norton is the greatest (albeit too brief) highlight of this 1985 documentary, which also features an interview with the Temple of Set’s Michael Aquino, artist H.R. Giger in action, and more. Interviews come from occult author Nevill Drury. The film won an award at the 1985 International Film and Television Festival of New York.
The Burning Times (1990)
The Burning Times is part of the National Film Board of Canada’s Women and Spirituality series, directed by Donna Read and written by Erna Buffie. The film presents a feminist account of the European witch trials, which occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries, as well as interviews with experts like Wiccan priestess and NPR correspondent Margot Adler, and author and Beliefnet.com columnist Starhawk (aka Miriam Simos). Beloved Canadian composer Loreena McKennitt created the theme music.
Satanism and Witchcraft (1986)
This extremely ‘80s production features interviews with some divisive figures like Paul Douglas Valentine, the founder of the Church of Satanic Liberation, and demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose occult exploits were referenced in the films The Conjuring and Annabelle. The hysterical organ music and bad FX of the opening title sequence brings the camp.