The following is an excerpt from The Supernatural Sublime: The Wondrous Ineffability of the Everyday in Films from Mexico and Spain by Raúl Rodríguez-Hernández and Claudia Schaefer. It is part of the New Hispanisms series, which publishes innovative studies that investigate how the cultural production of the Hispanic world is generated, disseminated, and consumed.
The figure of the witch has a long and varied history in the cosmovisions of both the old and the new worlds, undergoing multiple mutations ranging from wearing a pointy hat and flying on a broomstick, to Hollywood’s Rosemary’s Baby, and to the special effects magic of the Harry Potter films. New Spain (Mexico) presents examples of the witch as part of an inherited cultural imaginary, a characteristic that continues to be notable in the twenty-first century. Each image of the witch responds to a different notion of “the real” in a worldview that includes the concept of witchcraft and is distinctly imagined, constructed, and perceived.
In this chapter, we propose to explore the carryovers and commonalities, as well as the innovative oscillations, between worldly figures and supernatural ones in visual representations of the witch and witchcraft. We address the transitional decades of the 1960s through the 1970s in Mexico, following this in our next chapter with films from both Mexico and Spain between the 1980s and the threshold of the twenty-first century. The earliest appearance of the witch is more literal with later films turning her into parody and satire.
Even one hundred and twenty-five years after cinema was first experienced by the public, many of the vestiges of the magic enthrallment created by its quasi-ethereal images of light and darkness continue to provide the perfect device for displaying the sublime feasibility which, either physically or psychologically, the known natural world and something outside or beyond it might coexist in some sort of continuum. This interrelationship can open up space through a combination of states; matter or known natural outcomes can coexist simultaneously. The two worlds can complicate time (When do entities cease existing? What of our faith in progress?) or a conjunction of space-time to unexpected possibilities for contemporary audiences who have grown up inculcated within the reign of reason.
The cultural imaginary around the witch figure has undergone enormous changes over time from being an accepted popular belief to the development of a demonology of witches and witchcraft by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Emanating from some innate and incomprehensible power resulting from a pact with the devil, the striking knowledge, mastery, and dominion of the witch then became redefined as a misreading, an illusion, or the result of a spell cast over the person by the devil himself. Witches didn’t really fly as legends had told; they were just living under a demonically inspired misconception and thought they did. Witnesses were functioning under an equally powerful and monstrous distortion if they reported seeing children abducted, or if they espoused the truth of seeing figures in flight. Committing real or imagined deeds, material or illusory actions, witches and their powers have represented the cosmic battles on earth between good and evil across centuries and across cultures. In both the theological and juridical senses, the figure of the witch, even more than the corresponding male wizard or sorcerer, has played a critical role in defining or representing allegorical forces of suspicion and secrecy. These, it is feared, still haunt civil society, embodying the awe-inspiring temptation of magical powers beyond rational control and provoking an encounter between the forces of good and evil. Thus, witchcraft as a body of knowledge outside the realm of empirical observation offers an alternative narrative about human beings and the natural world, one that advances different explanations or indeed refuses to offer any at all and escapes the confines of control and orthodoxy (in effect, the sources of its persecution). Instead, it offers an experience of the occult defined as the esoteric knowledge of hidden things. The cinema can aid in making such hidden things visible. Of course, the possibility of being counted among the small number of those initiated in specialized, unconventional knowledge such as witchcraft is even more awe-inspiring and exhilarating to some as it is terrifying and fearsome to the religious or secular forces attempting to retain their authority.
With the advent of modernity, an ongoing process at best, one might suppose that the narratives of witchcraft might disappear from the Western imagination. Technologies have penetrated almost every facet of contemporary life, leaving little or no place for the preservation of traditions thought to belong to the past and escaping the classifications of the modern and its empiricism. Part of being modern includes an altered perception of time and of a human being’s relationship to history (chronological time), focusing on acceleration, discontinuity, and a rejection of the past as an unwelcome vestige of society belonging to the realm of the premodern. Tom Gunning observes that the advent of cinema opened up “a systematic disorientation of conventional experiences of space and time” (2006, 298), inherently questioning what was “real” by representing objects and places that were not materially there. The “motion picture” stood in for movement, acceleration, and as Gunning reminds us, not “the ideal of pictorial beauty as repose” but rather “combin[ing] motions into new configurations” (2006, 301) that permitted opening different avenues of perception. As remakes prove, images are always becoming, dissolving, and reinventing themselves. Jürgen Habermas defines modernity and an aesthetic of the new that defied the normative bourgeois version of history and historical progress: “the new time consciousness, which enters philosophy in the writings of Bergson, does more than express the experience of mobility in society, of acceleration in history, of discontinuity in everyday life. The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive, and the ephemeral, the very celebration of dynamism, discloses a longing for an undefiled, immaculate, and stable present” (1983, 5). That longing for some sort of certainty can filter into the material objects of cultural modernity despite—and perhaps even owing to—societal modernization.
Paradoxically, one of the spaces open to the fleeting, transient experience of otherness as opposed to an impossibly “immaculate” stasis is one of the developments in technology itself: the cinema. The cinema is especially suited for representing witchcraft and the supernatural. It is the space where epic battles between good and evil, light and dark, can literally be represented through light and shadow. It is where something inexplicable may be brought into our vision that otherwise lurks in the margins. Cinema reveals the notion of “stability” to be an ideological one. The exposure of an oppositional narrative of the obsolete in capitalist modernity through recourse to black and white film, sepia photographs, handheld cameras, underlit images, inexplicable figures, irrational activity, supernatural acts, and characters is produced alongside the resurgence of the witch and other forms of the supernatural in Mexican and Spanish film at the height of their highly touted transitions to modernity.
Of course, economic change accompanies modernity, a majority of the time related to capital and material accumulation, and to a redefined relation between human work, production, and consumption. What might be the value of preserving such premodern modes of thought and figures as the witch? The role of the supernatural appears as a shadow in the political unconscious. The question of chronotope—the configuration of time and space as represented through language by Mikhail Bakhtin, or alternately by Henri Bergson as Habermas notes above—embeds these figures as bridges between epochs to defy the burden of time. The witch figure is not always fully fleshed out on screen, but an aura of difference and power surrounds whatever character or image she assumes, or whatever spaces she inhabits, literally imbuing bourgeois culture with remnants of the past considered superseded by a modern worldview. This includes superstitions, passions, economics, the value of craft over wasteful commercial expenditure, and the power of persuasive language within consumer society. In a recognizably natural universe or a familiar cultural institution, the witch is the unnatural, the indefinable, a paradox of modern times and modern places calling into question identity, the power of reason, and processes of change. For some, she is an unnatural threat; others find her mystery and difference an appealing antidote to the boredom of bourgeois life. In her role as oppositional character, the witch also manifests an intrinsic value in her defiance of contemporary values.
Neither a figure of horror nor totally sympathetic, the witch breaks into the routines of domestic life, disrupts the normal workday, seeks revenge for wronged women, challenges scientific inquiry, embodies values today’s parents would never encourage in their children, fits no acceptable mold of behavior, has no timetable, and possesses unlimited funds from mysterious sources. When the unexplained or incongruous intrudes into the confines of the stately mansion or the urban architectural wonder, it is startling to witness how quickly the discourse on witches is resurrected and deployed. Both familiar from inherited narratives about witchcraft and strangely unfamiliar in a modern setting, such uncanny experiences arouse simultaneous attraction and repulsion—a true cognitive dilemma for characters and audiences alike.