In a guest piece for Indy Film Library, horror academic Irene Cuder examines the ideological tropes surrounding witches, and how the Spanish horror-comedy Phenomena inverts many of them, to counter patriarchal traditions of demonising female empowerment.
When we think about witches, and more specifically witches in film, our mind takes us mostly to two types of representations. On one hand, we find a youngish type of witch, usually sympathetic, like a teenage witch, Sabrina, The Craft, a good witch, as seen in Charmed or even Bewitched and, on the other hand, we have the crone, the hag, the Cailleach. The inevitable role for ageing women in horror. Older witches tend to be scarier, wrinkled, with long, bony, twisted fingers who look very far from the cool younger witch. This shows how age and not just gender is a key element in the construction of this female monster.
This double-standard experienced by female characters in the male-dominated and ageist film industry is refreshingly challenged by the Spanish film Phenomena (Carlos Therón, 2023). Its narrative not only brings three middle-aged women to the centre of the story, but it also introduces some interesting aspects to some old horror tropes. Produced by Netflix, the film was released on April 14th on the platform and, talking about tropes, it is based on the experiences of the real members of a paranormal research team – the Hepta group, from Madrid – active since the late eighties.
The original group was founded by a Roman Catholic priest, Father José María Pilón, but in the film’s narrative, the whole weight falls onto three middle-aged women, who are witches: Sagrario, played by The Orphanage’s Belén Rueda, Gloria (Toni Acosta) and Paz (Gracia Olayo). Their age is mentioned in the dialogue several times as late fifties and sixties. Whereas ageing female characters are scarce and usually left to the margins of their storylines – or, when magic is involved, may fall into the previously mentioned tropes – these women are the protagonists, and their roles are explored in depth, as they fight evil spirits in a very active, hands-on way.
Accordingly, while Paz asks Sagrario if maybe they are getting too old to fight evil spirits, she replies with a high kick to an evil entity that is trying to kill them and states “speak for yourself!”. Beyond these women actively engaging in a physical fight with the forces of evil, they are also frequently depicted at a bar, drinking, and smoking heavily, or dating, challenging the widespread construction of ageing characters in relation to illness, frailty, or social isolation.
While the group members may change in number and gender across films, the role of the medium is inevitably female. If we think of representations of mediums in recent horror films, the image that comes to mind is that of an older woman, frequently blind, with grey/white hair and dark clothes, very similar to the crone. Within the Spanish context, some powerful referents are provided by the ageing mediums from The Orphanage or The Others. This last film even uses the medium’s ageing body for exploitative purposes. It is worth remembering the scene in which the little girl, Anne, dressed in her veiled first communion dress, plays with a puppet when her hand is suddenly aged and wrinkled. Just like the girl from Demon Witch Child (Amando de Ossorio, 1975), the source of horror is her becoming hag or, in other words, ageing.
In Phenomena, the team psychic, Gloria, is also female, but unlike other cinematic representations, she is a middle-aged woman in her late fifties, prescinding the age aspect of the medium/witch archetype. More interestingly, in addition to leading séances on her Ouija board, or talking to the dead, she is a woman of science, with a degree in Pharmacy. Accordingly, she embodies both the rational and the paranormal explanation when facing occult forces, a response that is deeply gendered in similar narratives in a binary female-paranormal versus male-rational (Clover).
Another interesting aspect regarding the cinematic portrayal of paranormal investigating teams is that while the medium/psychic is inevitably a female character (a witch), the technical support is almost exclusively offered by a male one. Many examples can be found in horror films, from classic ones like Poltergeist, to more recent titles, such as Insidious. Phenomena however introduces an all-female team, so the technical approach to the beyond relies on Paz, the loving grandma, who always carries her camera ready to capture the events. Paz not only challenges this in terms of gender, but also in relation to her age, as the notion of ageing citizens struggling with technology and online tasks is widespread by the media.
The way these witches look is also very aesthetically different from the crone/hag archetype. Whereas the crone wears strictly black and old fashion clothes, the trio of middle-aged women wear smart, fashionable clothes and matching accessories. Moreover, while the older witch is usually portrayed with long, unkept grey or white hair, as seen for example in Witching and Bitching (de la Iglesia, 2013), these witches dye and style theirs, and wear make-up.
There is one common aspect in witchcraft narratives that continues to have a strong presence in this film, the fact that the ultimate good versus evil fight is still gendered. Just not in the way stories in this genre tend to normalise. Here, this binary involves a male repressive force, frequently a Roman Catholic priest, who wants to discipline women who do not follow the female role established by the patriarchal order. Although Phenomena includes a more sympathetic Roman Catholic priest, the founder of the Hepta Group, the evil entity trying to burn these witches is the spirit of Father Sarmiento, another priest who is trying to kill as many witches as his predecessors.
Consequently, Phenomena offers some very interesting revisions to the cinematic representation of the witch, mostly in relation to gender and age. It places an all-female paranormal investigating team formed by middle-aged witches, giving cinematic space to this severely underrepresented sector of the population. Moreover, the film also challenges the highly stereotypical depiction of middle-aged women onscreen, showing empowered, sexually active, highly skilled, women of action.
It is still very significant how such a refreshing narrative still relies on the violence and repression exerted by the Church over women. As seen in other contemporary Spanish horror narratives, Spain’s recent past, particularly the Francoist Fascist regime, is still an open wound that permeates our cinema. Phenomena is set in the early years of Spain’s democracy, a key moment in the development of women’s rights after years of fierce repression. Portraying these empowered women as witches, victims of a Roman Catholic Priest coming from the past to try to eliminate them, seems like the perfect materialisation of this struggle.