#15. Haxan (1922)

Haxan is fucking nuts, but it’s also really moving in a few parts, and for like the first half, maybe the first three quarters, it seems like a solid feminist movie too – parts of it definitely are – until the third act basically subverts every good thing. But to have made like 66.6% of a great movie is better than making one whole movie that’s just sort of decent throughout.

Haxan is a semi-documentary that explores how people throughout history have conceptualized the Devil and the occult. It dwells mostly on witchcraft and has a few dramatized scenes that demonstrate the persecution of women (particularly the elderly) during these witch trials. It seems, with those dramatized bits, to be the work of a director who’s got a way more progressive idea of womanhood, and of its sociopolitical disadvantages, than his peers. Then the third act of the movie has to do with then-modern treatments of feminine hysteria and the movie’s thesis, in the end, seems to say, “So it’s not that women are evil, they’re just crazy.”

Here a woman
Here a woman has what I guess is a sexy dream (*cue tongue*), whereupon Satan knocks on her window to invite her out. She goes.

Up ‘til that, however, it’s great and progressive and rich with all of these gorgeously innovative depictions of the macabre, of witches and Satan and torture – which brings me back to the “progressive” things because apart from paying serious attention the suffering of women, and in a way working as a commentary about how they’re still basically persecuted for having the temerity to exist, Haxan also seems to be winking at its audience about the thinly-veiled fetishism inherent to lots of the religious gobbledygook about demons. The kinky dark stuff. Like how there’s a notion from long ago that one of witches’ many practices is to kiss and lick the ass of Satan (seriously) and thus there’s a collection of illustrated depictions — all by men — of androgynous people down on their knees, in ecstasy, to tongue the ass of a larger androgynous person. Meanwhile the medieval artist at his first gallery show is sweating in the corner, trading salacious glances with the bar tender, explaining to his robed admirers, “These evil witches, yes, very naughty witches…”

This is supposed to be demons on a rooftop, celebrating the flight of witches, but looking at it for even two seconds also suggests it might be something else.
This is supposed to be demons on a rooftop, celebrating the flight of witches, but looking at it for even two seconds also suggests it might be something else.

Susan Sontag said in an interview with Rolling Stone that human sexuality can sometimes be a “theater of the demonic” and that’s basically what this movie is trying to explore.

I thought it was made more poignant to watch this while keeping in mind the many millions of people who have at this point elected to write erotica, or film themselves having sex, or take naked selfies and then post those things to the Internet. In other words: the number of people who are eager to share their sexuality, showcase it. And in thinking of how natural that desire is, like with the way kids wanna share their toys (if only to let you look and not touch), and how we’re lways sharing our interests and impressions and selfies on social media, I got to suspecting that there were probably just as many people wanting to showcase and explore their sexuality back then as there are today. Probably they didn’t have the words for it (“By what curse hast thine foot beguiled me?!”) and almost definitely not the anonymity or the means for such explorations, such expressions, but the thought of how many people must have been walking around back then with brains that frothed a sexuality from which they were forbidden expression, at penalty of torture or death or disgrace or whatever, made me surprisingly upset all throughout.

Or maybe I’m just hypersensitive to shit like this because I’m currently like three years into this spell of being freaked out by sex. I had this scare a few years ago while visiting New York City in August. It was really hot and humid. I was walking like ten miles between boosktores and bars all day, for four straight days, and somehow, in all of that hustlebustle, managed to hook up with two people, the first being a former colleague from my college newspaper, who’d recently gotten a job at the Post, and the second one a 29-year-old grad student from UCLA who was there for a conference (and turned out to be married). Anyway. After my tryst with the second person, who skedaddled from my hotel room to make her plane, I got a rash between my thighs that proved debilitatingly painful, and I freaked myself out for like a week, basically diagnosing myself with leprosy, until I got back to Miami and went to Planned Parenthood where a doctor told me that this ostensible STI was really just what it looked like: a rash. All of that walking and chafing in the City’s heat. She told me to be more thorough with my showers, and to buy some Tinactin maybe, and then she lectured me about condoms before asking for some money and sending me home. In bed that night I sighed a lot, gracious and relieved, and vowed that I would break this habit of blindly sleeping with every person who expressed an interest. The risk of STIs was too real now.

Some suggestive framing for the scene when our tyrannical religious figure finally meets the "devil" he's so afraid of.
Some suggestive framing for the scene when our tyrannical religious figure finally meets the “devil” he’s so afraid of.

A couple weeks later, after blindly sleeping with the next person who expressed interest, I had a second scare. This one was worse. I’ll tell you about it some other time. But after that second one I was like, “Fuck this: sex is terrifying. I’m done with it.” Which I’m not, of course, but my activity has definitely been, um, curtailed. I’m anything but promiscuous. I’ve also gotten into the habit of asking lots of really invasive clinical stuff in the moments before sex. I don’t know why I wait that long. Like literally as they’re undressing I’ll ask to see their tongue. My sex life is a huge source of anxiety about STIs and romantic repercussions and also just the general social tolls of being intimate with somebody. How they stay on your mind while you’re trying to get shit done. The general inconvenience of craving somebody’s company when you can’t have it. Ahdunno. Anyway. My point is that I’m sympathetic toward people for whom sex can’t be fun – which isn’t to say that I understand the plights of people whose personal sexuality is stigmatized. It’s one thing when you’re somebody like me, and just complicating your life by being neurotic, and immeasurably worse when other people are telling you shit about your sexuality that then makes sex into a burden or like this painfully illicit business.

Which is basically what was happening with the persecution of these “witches”, as depicted in Haxan.

I think this movie is pretty great just on its own, without any sort of political framework around it, and that as a work of art – whether documentary or fiction or whatever you wanna call it – it looks like a greater founding father of modern horror than Nosferatu (whose legacy still kinda puzzles me).

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