no. 7: Anna Biller’s The Love Witch: Medieval Witchery in the Modern Day

in which Sydney recaps medievalism in The Love Witch, Mikey P. Jr. discusses la Bruja in The Old Ways, and Kati (rightfully) brings witches back to the American South.

no. 7: Anna Biller’s The Love Witch: Medieval Witchery in the Modern Day

This week’s watchalong is all about Witches and Demons, so naturally I had to dive into The Love Witch, which is one of the best films I have seen!

Samantha Robinson as Elaine in the Love Witch in a 70s style blue dress surrounded by medieval-looking glassware and apothecary items
The Love Witch plays with audience perception of time. Present day? The 70s? Middle Ages?

There’s not a film more visually stunning than Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016). A love letter to the horror films of the 60s and 70s, this film carves out space for itself within the horror canon of the past, while being remarkably modern at the same time. Biller, though, places love witch Elaine at the center and throughout the film’s two hour runtime, we join her on her journey of love and magic.

I don’t know how I first came upon this film—Twitter or Letterboxd, probably. I watched it lying in my tiny student apartment bedroom, my computer sitting atop a laptop stand. The room was dark and I did not realize the film was two hours long. The Love Witch isn’t a long two hours, though. It’s difficult to look away from the screen, as if the film exudes in its own type of entrancing magic, a witchcraft that pulls in audiences and then roots itself in their minds. A friend of mine to whom I recommended the film hated it at first, but in the years since first watching it grew on them, its charm and seduction hard to ignore.

The set design, too, contrasts the story’s message with its look. While watching, it’s easy to forget that the film takes place in modern day. The set design and costuming are styled to look like the 60s, after all. This highly stylized appearance gives off a feeling of tradition, both in terms of dress, but also in terms of lifestyle. Biller consistently imbues the film with trangressive ideas and even transgressive actions. In a scene where Elaine talks to a couple about the role of women in marriage, the couple’s discussion is interspersed with shots of a stripper wearing nipple tassles. In contrast to the films The Love Witch is styled after, which often would include a female character who needs saving by the male protagonist, Elaine is both the protagonist and her own savior, redefining the role of women in pulpy horror classics altogether.

Elain laying on a ritual rug with arms stretched out
We all need our own witchy rugs for spells and rituals

Elaine’s sex witchery begins as a way for her to pushback against “traditional” views of womanhood. Prior to the beginning of the film, she murders her husband Jerry—we meet her as she heads to her new apartment, where she will live alone. In asserting her own agency, Elaine becomes an outcast; women, after all, are supposed to be good, obedient wives. Despite the film’s 60s grooviness and modern-day setting, the story feels simply medieval. Not medieval as in outdated, medieval as in mother witch Morgan le Fay (or Morgana, if you’re familiar the wonderful BBC show Merlin).

Morgan le Fay is often cited as one of King Arthur’s sisters (the other being Morgause). In most Arthurian literature, including Malory’s classic Le Morte Darthur (which you should definitely give a try—Middle English is easier to read than you think!), Morgan le Fay is the downfall of Arthur, responsible for the crumbling of his kingdom and the dissolution of the Knights of the Round Table. Her legacy is a heavy one to carry. In fact, it’s her power as a witch that forces her out of Camelot. Powerful women are dangerous, after all.

Chivalry!!!

Touches of medievalism—both accurate and perceived—are littered throughout the film, from the singer at the tea house to the Renaissance Faire. In sprinkling in these references to the days of olde, Biller places Elaine as the Morgan le Fay of her own narrative. Instead of being the downfall of King Arthur, though, Elaine is the downfall of men.

In contrast to medieval texts, which seem to punish Morgan le Fay for her witchy actions, The Love Witch celebrates Elaine’s development as a self-sufficient woman. Her continuous romantic (and sexual) failures both as a seductress and a witch are not failures of self, but failures of men who refuse to let go of misogynistic “traditional” beliefs about womanhood. In the end, when Elaine stabs her most recent lover, she realizes that she doesn’t need to be part of “Camelot” any longer. She has asserted herself as a woman and a witch, filled with the power she needs to keep going.


Bringing the Witch Back to Her Motherland in ‘The Old Ways’

by Mikey P. Jr.

Julia Vera as La Bruja in The Old Ways
Julia Vera as La Bruja in The Old Ways

Everyone loves a good witch. The spells, rituals and themes surrounding them usually make for a cinematically fun time. Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz is a great embodiment of how a witch was presented in the past. The Wicked Witch of the West, also known as Almira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton), is seen cackling, wielding a broom and wearing a pointy hat. Although Hamilton did a fantastic job with the role she was given, these characteristics may seem outdated and misrepresented by this point.

Christopher Alender’s The Old Ways ignores American depictions and brings la bruja (Spanish for “the witch”) back to her motherland in Mexico. While The Old Ways follows the typical tropes of an exorcism story, the film excels in one aspect of the film. La Bruja named Luz (Julia Vera) is depicted as an indigenous healer. Having the film set in Veracruz, Mexico is no mistake as the city of Catemaco is known as the center of witchcraft. This city offers brujas performing spiritual cleanings on tourists and locals.

The film gathers more than just location for the depiction of la bruja. It follows certain traits that are told through oral stories from generation to generation. Having chickens roam the location of la bruja in The Old Ways may seem as a choice to demonstrate the rural living in the village. But from the stories involving brujas in my family, chickens were always present in some way, shape, or form. This is what Puerto Rican writer Marcos Gabriel gets right with the script. The rituals performed on Christina are rooted in a mixture of Latin American culture and folklore. Although the film uses the deity Postehki, which is an artificial spirit, the way that la bruja counters his possession isn’t. The use of smoke, rhythmic chanting, and fire are tied to the many kinds of Latin American brujas and their old ways.

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Screen Break

by Kati Bowden

We've got witches everywhich way this week, and thanks to Genevieve Hudson, we've even got witches in my neck of the woods. In Hudson's debut novel Boys of Alabama, readers are convinced to fall in love with the American South and all of its peculiarities. Romantic, gothic, and disturbed, this coming of age story set in a strange world is rife with backwoods magic.

For shy, reserved Max, moving from Germany to the rural roads of an Alabama small town is a chance to start over. While his more progressive parents don't quite understand the community they've moved into, Max finds himself thriving in the heavy southern heat. He flourishes on the football team, growing strong as the other boys bring him into their fold. Soon enough, he's drinking beer in basements, going to church on Sundays, and enjoying watching his new friends be every bit the stereotypical American he expected.

But even as he falls in love with the scenery and the rowdiness around him, Max can't resist practicing the very skill that drove him and his family from Germany—he can bring dead things back to life with nothing more than a touch, and gets caught doing so by the school's local "witch," a goth gay boy named Pan. Pan is beautiful, the self-assured descendant of what he insists was a real witch in Mexico, and he becomes obsessed with Max's gift. The two boys fall together quickly, with Pan's flimsy mysticism enchanting Max in the humid southern nights, even though he represents everything that Max has learned not to be in Alabama.

Combining Southern Gothic elements with queer romance and unworldly magic, Boys of Alabama is a dark tale about identity, love, and change. How does an outsider become a part of a community when he cannot reveal his deepest truths to the ones who accepted him first? Can one completely immerse oneself into a culture that goes so violently against their understanding of the world, and come out unscathed? And when there is supernatural power involved, how do we reconcile that with a reality that opposes its existence while simultaneously revolving around an otherworldly deity? Genevieve Hudson's prose carries this magical story to another level, and The magic of the South mixed with the occult will enthrall all fans of literary fiction interested in a contemporary twist of classic themes.

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