Benjamin Christensen’s “Häxan” is a Danish film about witchcraft from the silent era. It features dramatized horror sequences that will send chills down your spine. The film is split into four parts. In the first segment, Christensen walks us through some disturbing diabolical artwork from the dark ages. Where does it all stem from? The film plainly states that “the belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naïve notions about the mystery of the universe.” But the real horror that the film presents has nothing to do with demonology. What man is capable of doing when clouded by superstition and strict religious beliefs is far more sinister than anything that witchcraft brings to the table.
In the second part, we are exposed to a series of vignettes demonstrating medieval practices, beliefs and superstitions. The purpose of this film’s first half is to put viewers in the mindset of someone who was brought up before the enlightenment age- a time when divinity ruled over reason, and people believed in all kinds of wicked superstitions. But the second half of this macabre masterpiece is when things get very interesting. First, we get a demonstration of a typical witch accusation. We then learn of the torture methods used against the accused by religious authorities of the time. The only way the torture would stop was if they confessed and gave up twenty names of other accomplices, and the rest, of course, is history.
The witch-hunt reached epidemic levels, and over eight million were burnt alive in one of mankind’s darkest chapters. But the film argues that modern times are just as horrific. Torturing people into confessions is still practiced to this day, only the church has been replaced by the law. The modern hysterical woman inhabits all the behavior traits of what people back then would consider the devil’s work, and the way we treat the insane today is just as upsetting. We may not burn them on stakes, but we surely give them hell in mental institutions. When I first heard of this magnificent film, I thought it would illustrate so called witches as “the evil ones”. Instead, the film portrayed perfectly normal human beings with everyday professions- priests and policemen- as the true villains. “Häxan” is the most fascinating horror documentary I’ve ever seen; a haunting document of a time when the practice of medicine was considered sorcery. This thesis film is a scholarly dissertation of one of the most horrific chapters in human history, and it hasn’t aged one bit.