To celebrate Halloween, Hollywood Hegemony proudly presents horror academic Irene Cuder’s thought provoking essay regarding the role of witches in demonising female empowerment.
Irene also features in our final Horror Cuts film “Witching and Bitching”
As Creed states, “there is one incontestably monstrous role in the horror film that belongs
to woman – that of the witch” (Creed, 1993, p. 73). The film Witching and Bitching,
aka Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi (de la Iglesia, 2013) offers a good example of a filmic
representation of male tension towards female empowerment by introducing a recently
divorced father who abducts his son and perpetrates a robbery and in her attempt to leave
Spain to start a new life with his son, he encounters an evil coven.
The depiction of the witches in the film seems to be strongly influenced by Goya’s El
Aquelarre or El Gran Cabrón, included in the painter’s famous Pinturas Negras (Goya,
1820-1823), which supposes one of the main referent to witches representation in Spain.
Thus, the mise en scéne, the closed location in a cave and the chiaroscuro lightning
remind of this painting. However, the main difference that the film introduces not only in
relation to Goya’s work but also in relation to other cinematic depictions of witches is the
fact that there are no male figures among the witches, not even the devil or a male evil
spirit. As a result, whereas the witches in El Aquelarre are gathered around a male central
figure known as El Gran Cabrón (The big Male Goat), who represents the devil, in de
la Iglesia’s film, the witches summon a female goddess who represents female power,
matriarchy and the cult to the feminine.
Thus, unlike similar narratives based on the myth of the witch, Witching and Bitching
storyline is not that of a witch hunt in which women try to prove their innocence or that in
which a coven perform a ritual and summon the devil. Instead, this is a male story in which
men are the victims of powerful witches seeking justice so they can recover the place they
deserve in society. They want to bring the goddess mother back to the world and stop the
worshipping of the “false prophet”. The female goddess works as a symbol of femininity
and ultimately, their plan is to end patriarchy.
As a consequence, women are represented as monsters. They bring horror to the
narrative as male characters fear them but, where is the root of this fear? As Creed points
out, the Roman Caholic Church accused women of “copulating with the devil, causing
male impotence, causing the penis to disappear and of stealing men’s penises” (Creed,
1993, p.75). As a result, it seems that the fear of witches and its consequent persecution
is based on a “morbid interest of witch as other and a fear of the witch/woman as an
agent of castration” (Creed, 1993, p.73). A materialisation of this male anxiety takes place
in the house’s kitchen, when Maritxu puts on a metallic, sharp set of teeth and shows
it, menacing, to Toni, who is then shown in a close up shot displaying his face in fear.
This image is a reference to the vagina dentata and the fear of castration. Moreover,
Maritxu will attack Toni and bite him in an arm. It seems then, that the trope of witch to
depict woman is very suitable in a story told from a male point of view in which men feel
powerless and their virility is threatened by intimidating, empowered women.
In addition, the male personae seem astonished when they encounter the witches,
who have an empowered identity, very different from the traditional female othered role
that they expect from women in a patriarchal society. For example, when Maritxu is
introduced in the storyline, running a bar to which the group of men will soon arrive, she
is represented as a very strong, assertive, bad-tempered, bossy old lady. Nevertheless,
when Jose and his friends arrive to the place, looking for some food and rest before
crossing the border, he feels empowered, particularly with his friends’ support. However,
Maritxu does not recognise this authority and she addresses to them in the same way
to the rest of the people in the bar, disrespectfully. Soon the men will feel uncomfortable
around her and decide to leave the place at once. They are afraid of her as witches are
monsters because they reject the “proper feminine role” (Creed, 1993, p.42), bringing
abjection to the narrative. When Eva is alone in her room, sexually playing with a broom,
Jose and Toni observe her as voyeurs. Then, Toni asks the other peeping Tom what she
is doing with the broom and Jose answers: “definitely not sweeping the floor”. The men are
turned on by her sexual game and also point out to how she does not meet the traditional
female role of woman as house keeper, always engaged with cleaning and domestic jobs.
Thus, the witches have broken the boundaries between male and female roles and
stereotypes and they do not recognise patriarchal authority. Moreover, their intention is to
destroy patriarchy and bring back the cult to the primitive mother goddess who ruled the
world before the advent of Christianity in an attempt to establish a matriarchy. As a result,
not only the witches but everything related to the feminine is depicted as monstrous.
Furthermore, the coven will meet to hold an aquelarre and they perform a ceremony
in order to summon the mother goddess. This part of the film takes place in a “terrible
place, most often a house or a tunnel, in which victims sooner or later find themselves
is a venerable element of horror.” (Clover, 1992, p.30). Thus, the group of men become
victims once they have entered and old mansion and the house is a domestic, traditional
female locus. Moreover, the ritual mentioned to summon the mother goddess takes place
in a dark cave connected by dark tunnels that remind to a intra-uterine cavity. “This intra-
uternine settings consist of dark, narrow, winding passages leading to a central room,
cellar or other symbolic place of birth”. (Creed, 1993, p. 53). Finally, the most significant
element of horror in the narrative is the figure of the goddess mother of the world, which is
not only linked to femininity but also represents it. She is shown as a huge naked female
body in the shape of the Palaeolithic Venus of Willendorf, with big breasts and a big womb
that is believed to represent fertility. “In it we see all the strange laws of primitive earth-cult.
Woman is idol and object, goddess and prisoner. She is buried in the bulging mass of her
own fecund body” (Paglia,1990. p.54) As any other power of nature, this eternally pregnant
figure is the giver of life but can also be destructive, as we observe when she steps on
some witches, as she cannot see. Thus, she is a mother and a goddess and she is a
monster too. “Kristeva discusses the way in which the fertile female body is constructed
as an abject in order to keep the subject separate from the phantasmatic power of the
mother” (Creed, 1993, p. 25).
Thus, witches evil power seems to be ”part of her feminine nature”(Creed 1993 p 76-77),
linking monstrousness to the female reproductive system, particularly birth in this case,
since the goddess is the Mother of the world. The primitive ritual’s zenith takes place when
the goddess swallows the chosen one, in this case, Jose’s son, Sergio, and later she
gives birth to him. The process is displayed carefully, including what happens inside the
goddess’ body. The boy travels from mouth to bottom, coming out by the anus and not the
vagina. When the boy is expelled from the body, he is covered in body fluids, like an actual
birth and he is welcomed in her biological mother’s arms.
With the purpose of putting an end to the horror, the male characters will have to
defeat the witches and eliminate the threat that empowered women suppose to them.
Consequently, at the end of the film they are shown happy, as they have restored the
patriarchal order in which they hold the power and authority. Álex de la Iglesia, the script
writer and director of the film has stated in several interviews that his intention was to
share a common feeling among men, particularly among those who have been involved in
a process of divorce and who have seen themselves powerlessness when discussing the