In a guest piece for Indy Film Library, horror academic Irene Cuder’s takes a thought-provoking look at the use of ideological tropes surrounding witches, and how they are often used to demonise female empowerment.
As Barbara Creed stated in her 1993 book The Monstrous-Feminine, “there is one incontestably monstrous role in the horror film that belongs to woman – that of the witch” (Creed, 1993, p. 73). Director Álex de la Iglesia’s 2013 film Witching and Bitching – aka Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi – 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 (1820-1823), which provides one of the main references to the representation of witches in Spain. The film’s mise-en-scéne, including the closed location of a cave and the chiaroscuro lightning – bring the paintings to mind. 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’s 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, men who are 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 are the roots of this fear? As Creed again points out, the Roman Catholic 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 in Witching and Bitching, 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 references vagina-dentata and the fear of castration. Moreover, Maritxu will attack Toni and bite him in the 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.
On top of this, the coven in question meets 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 an intra-uterine cavity.
“These 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 supposedly pose 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, who both wrote and directed 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 children’s custody.