Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ep. 17: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Listen to "Ep. 17: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark" on Spreaker.

2.5 / 7.0
Out on Blu-ray April 24th!

Hello, darlings! In this episode we bring you the "ghoul that put the boob back into boob tube," Elvira!

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is a 1988 comedy horror film directed by James Signorelli. Cassandra Peterson plays the role of horror hostess Elvira in the character's feature film debut. The screenplay was written by Cassandra Peterson, John Paragon and Sam Egan.

Local late-night horror hostess Elvira quits her job after being sexually harassed by the TV Station owner and finds herself in a lurch to cover the expenses for her dream gig, her own Vegas show. A telegram serendipitously arrives announcing her inheritance from an unknown Great Aunt in Massachusetts. Elvira travels with high hopes only to arrive in a conservative hostile town and be the new owner of a dog, a book, and a run-down victorian house.

Fallwell, Massachusetts is a "decent" community. They are ultra conservative, with NO FUN ALLOWED. The town name a riff on Jerry Falwell, prominent contemporary televangelist preacher and member of the Moral Majority movement - many of whom were majorly immoral!

In the episode we talk about the use of language in magic and here are some examples of some magical alphabets.  The Enochian or Angelic language of John Dee is an example of a magical language.  Aaron Leitch discusses this magical language in his article The Tongue of AngelsHere is a fun article on how fantasy has used language as magic.  If you are interested in learning more about magical alphabets, Nigel Pennick's book "Magical Alphabets" is a good place to start.

Elvira's great-uncle Vincent uses the energy of the lunar eclipse to fuel his grand rite to become the Master of Dark.  Lunar eclipse magic and folklore is discussed in this post by Patti Wigington.

The Witch and her Familiar
Elvira's great-aunt Morgana is a great example of an ancestral spirit.  Honoring the ancestors and the dead is an important aspect of many pagan spiritual paths.  You can read more about it here, here and here.  This great post also discusses setting up ancestral altars and rituals.

Algonquin (a/k/a Gonk) is Elvira's Mohawk-sporting, punk rock poodle familiar.  Sara Anne Lawless' blog post introduces us to animal familiars.  Emma Wilby's book "Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits" is a good book to explore the relationship between witches and their familiars in early modern Britain.  England has a rich history of phantom black dogs and you can read a little about them here.   This post addresses the lore and legend of the black dog.

Elvira wears a family ring that not only functions as conductor for her magic but also functions as an amulet.  Amulets have a long history in magic.  While most people are familiar with objects as amulets, pieces of written text was also used as amulets.  This movie is full of boob humor but in the ancient Roman world the phallus symbol had some interesting uses including warding.

And the Queen of Halloween is still going strong! Cassandra Peterson still stunning as Elvira at age 65, thanks to good clean living, a vegetarian diet and regular exercise. For all the latest Elvira news, head to the official website. 

Theme music X-Files Theme Parody by Mallon Khan
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Saturday, April 1, 2017

George Romero's Season of the Witch (Hungry Wives)

Season of the Witch is a movie that has been on my radar for a long time but kept getting relegated to my “to be watched later” pile in favor of other movies that I was more excited to watch.  As a result, I did not watch it until very recently when we decided to do a review of The Love Witch and I found out that Season of the Witch was one of the director's influences.  I felt this was finally the right time to watch it.  When I did, I was surprised at how good it was not only for its feminist commentary on the societal role of American women in the early 1970’s but also for it’s portrayal of witchcraft.  The film’s presentation of witchcraft will be the focus of this post but first let’s provide a brief synopsis of the film to provide a context for the magic.

 Season of the Witch is a 1972 movie written and directed by George A. Romero starring Jan White as Joan Mitchell.  The film takes place during the 1970’s in a predominantly white, upper middle class, California suburb.  Joan, our protagonist, is a woman in her 40’s, who is married to a successful businessman.  Her husband Jack is always working and has little time for her.  Joan feels like she is slowly dying inside as she goes through the motions of her daily life. Her daughter is in college and is mostly independent of her. Joan also feels like she is getting older and is losing her beauty and desirability.  In addition, the film implies that she is being emotionally and physically abused by her husband.

One evening, at a social event, Joan hears about a mutual acquaintance who is a witch.  Joan who was raised a devout Roman Catholic, finds herself surprisingly intrigued.  The next day, Joan and a friend pay a visit to the witch’s home to have a tarot card reading. The witch tells Joan and her friend about her family tradition and how she got into witchcraft. Joan borrows a book on witchcraft and takes it home.  She begins reading the book and finds herself connecting with it. She immediately sees it as a way for her to regain her own sense of power and identity. She starts practicing witchcraft using the book as her guide which takes her on the road to both personal empowerment and tragedy.

The movie establishes from the beginning that Joan’s unconscious mind is trying desperately to communicate with her through her dreams. The film opens with a dream sequence in which Joan walks behind her husband through a wooded area. As the husband walks, he reads the newspaper and carelessly let's tree branches hit Joan in the face as he lets them go.  When the couple reaches home, the husband locks Joan up in a dog kennel.  The dream symbolizes Joan’s feelings of powerlessness, loss of identity, loneliness, and neglect. She is disconnected from her husband and feels her life is fully planned and orchestrated by him. She feels like a trained dog which her husband can command at will and lock away for safekeeping when he travels for work.

Joan’s dreams are also prophetic in nature.  In her dream at the opening of the movie, she is offered sexual services by a handyman working on her home. The handyman turns out to be her daughter’s college teaching assistant Gregg who Joan later has a brief sexual fling with.

Joan also has a nightly dream of a masked intruder who enters her home and attacks her. The intruder wears a rubber “Green Man” mask. In Wicca and in some other forms of neopaganism, the Green Man is a nature spirit representing the underlying life-force and cycle of growth of vegetation each Spring. Some Gardnerian Wiccans see the Green Man as derived from the Old God of Fertility and therefore attribute to him some of the same primal sexual energy this deity possesses.* On the surface, the intruder in Joan's dream represents her husband violently exerting power over her and standing in the way of her transformation. On a deeper level, the dream represents Joan’s initial subconscious fear of witchcraft and its philosophy of personal freedom and sexual liberation and her resistance to make that transformation. The Green Man represents her own repressed sexual desires being exhibited in a negative way.  Like the old witch trial accounts, the Green Man could also be Joan’s “Devil” come to initiate her through sex.

The film contains several scenes where Joan is either going through a stressful situation or lamenting the fact that she is growing older and the figurine of a bull is prominently shown. The look of the bull figurine evokes the sacred bulls from Catal Hoyuk, Mesopotamia and the Minoan civilization. In Catal Hoyuk, the bull had a questionable connection to Mother Goddess worship. In Season of the Witch, it’s possible that Romero chose the bull figurine for its lunar and goddess connections or simply for its subtext of raw, primal, sexual energy.  The divine bull of antiquity was a symbol of many things including the moon, fertility, royal power, the gods, rebirth and salvation.

The magic and rituals depicted in the film are all straight out of Paul Huson’s book “Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks and Covens” initially published in 1970.**  Paul Huson is a British occultist, writer, and producer who received his occult training from the Society of the Inner Light and the Order of the Stella Matutina.  He’s authored several books on witchcraft, magic, herbalism, and the tarot.  His book “Mastering Witchcraft” has become an enduring classic since its publication in 1970.  The book has gotten some flack from segments of the neopagan community because it teaches countermagic, vengeance and attack magic.  I know friends who were studying Wicca who were warned off the book by their teachers because it was felt to violate Wiccan ethics.  The warnings however just made them run out to get a copy of the book just to see what all the hubbub was about.  “Mastering Witchcraft” however teaches a non-Wiccan type of witchcraft.  As Mr. Huson explains in his website, “Mastering Witchcraft” was a “hands-on guide for the would-be witch or warlock”  “It was not a Wiccan handbook.”  From my reading of the book, Mr. Huson leaves the decision of whether to use the spells or not in the hands of the reader.

In the film, Joan reads the book on witchcraft and is inspired to go on a shopping spree to obtain tools and supplies with the 1966 song "Season Of The Witch" by Donovan playing in the background. She goes to an organic foods and book shop and picks up musk incense, fennel seeds, and camphor.  She then goes to an antique shop and picks up a silver chalice, cauldron and steel knife. Later, she prepares and consecrates her new witchcraft tools for ritual use by using the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water as described in “Mastering Witchcraft” Chapter 2: Preliminary Preparations, pg 46-50.  Witchcraft tools are usually cleansed to rid them of all previously accumulated energies (positive and negative) and to recharge them with the witch’s power and purpose. They are also re-consecrated for ritual use by the witch.

Joan is also seen taking a verse or prayer from the bible and writing it backwards.  She then recites it backwards.  This is taken directly from “Mastering Witchcraft” Chapter 1: First Steps, pg 19-21 where the new witch is asked to make a “symbolic gesture which will ceremoniously demonstrate your severance from old restraints and inhibitions that in the past have acted as the main obstacles to the development of the powers within you.”  Organized religion is one of these major obstacles and so the new witch is asked to write the Lord’s Prayer backwards and recite it on three successive nights just prior to going to bed while visualizing the great shackles of oppression being struck from her hands and feet by bolts of lightning.

You later see Joan performing a spell on Greg (her daughter’s college teaching assistant) compelling him to come to her.  She stands outside in front of a simple altar consisting of a black candle and a lit cauldron. She recites “By the moon, by the star, by the light in my hand…, Prince of Mercury and Earth, I conjure thee to torment Gregory Williams that he come to me tonight and accomplish my will.”  We see a similar love spell in “Mastering Witchcraft: Chapter 4: Spells for Lovers, pg 107-111. Huson appears to have based his love spell on a spell from the 18th century grimoire the “Grimorium Verum”.  In the Grimorium Verum, the spell is titled “To Make a Girl Come to You, However Modest She May Be”.***  Joan waits for Greg to appear but she becomes inpatient and calls him on the telephone.  He comes over and they have sex for the first time.

Joan invites Greg over the following night in order to help her perform a conjuration of the demon Verago (a fictitious name created for the movie) which in “Mastering Witchcraft” is Vassago who is counted as one of the 72 demonic intelligences in the medieval grimoire “The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King”.  The movie did not indicate the purpose of the ritual or why Joan had to perform the ritual.  In “Mastering Witchcraft”, the ritual is performed for the purpose of divination by questioning the entity, pg 79. The ritual depicted in the movie is based on “Mastering Witchcraft” Chapter 3: Divination, pg 78-86.  Joan completes the ritual and thinks it unsuccessful but two things happen, first, a mysterious black cat appears (he crawled through an open window) and second, Greg apparently possessed by the entity forces himself on Joan and rapes her.  Afterwards, Joan tells Greg she doesn’t want to see him again and he leaves.  She terminates the operation and repeats the words that license Vassago to depart.  At least, she had the good sense to terminate the operation properly! The cat however sticks around indicating he is possibly her witch familiar.

The following day, Joan seems happier, she blows at a dandelion while she gardens and does her housework. At night, a rain storm is in full progress, Joan dreams of the Green Man once more.  In the dream, she loads her husband’s shotgun with bullets and tries to shoot the Green Man but ends up engaging in a struggle with him which wakes her up.  She sees the cat on her altar and screams. Meanwhile, her husband’s friend drops him off at the house during the storm.  The friend drives away and the husband approaches the front door.  He tries to open it but the chain on the door prevents him from entering.  He swears out load and then you see Joan shoot him several times with his shotgun through the window over the door. The movie leaves it open as to whether Joan shot him by accident thinking he was a burglar or whether she shot her husband intentionally. The cops come to the house to investigate and you hear them making misogynistic statements about how it doesn’t matter whether the wife is lying or not because she will get away with it and how women always get everything in the end.

The shooting scene is intercut with scenes from Joan’s initiation ritual into her coven’s tradition.  The ritual is from “Mastering Witchcraft”, chapter 7: The Coven and How to Form One.  It is a combination of the “The Robed Initiation” and “The Sky-Clad, or Naked, Initiation” rituals described in the chapter.  Only a portion of the ritual is shown in the movie.  All the witches participating in the initiation ritual are women and range in age from the young to the elderly.  The high priestess is robed in a purple caftan with a flower pattern.  All the coven members are dressed in black robes except for Joan who is naked or skyclad.

You see Joan being challenged with questions and a sword placed at her breast, by the guardian of the watchtower of the north, the realm of the element of earth.  The guardian asks her where she is going and she replies that she is traveling from the north, the place of greatest darkness to the east in search of light.  She is asked for the passwords and she replies “perfect love and perfect trust”. The guardian of the north states that she cannot enter until she is purified and consecrated.  Joan is next seen being consecrated with all four elements.  She receives the five-fold kiss and a red cingulum (cord) is tied around her neck.  She is lead to the front of the altar where she is tethered to a ring by the free end of the cingulum hanging from her neck. She is ritually scourged by the High Priestess.  She is asked why she has entered among them and she replies that she would know herself for what she is.  She is also asked if she will swear to always be true to the art and she swears to do so while the coveners chant “So Mote It Be”.

 The initiation ritual is respectfully portrayed and beautifully performed by the actors.  Joan is shown to be naked but she is mostly shot from the shoulders up and in shadows never fully revealing her naked body except in the scourging scene where you see her backside.  The scene where she is scourged is not shot in a salacious manner and conveys the spiritual nature of the act.

For me, the initiation ritual felt very similar to the first degree initiation ritual of Gardnerian Wicca which draws from Freemasonry rituals****.  The initiation ritual serves not only to initiate Joan into her chosen tradition but is also a transformative process for her.  It is a form of death (from her previous mundane life) and a rebirth into her new life and spiritual path as a witch.  The initial challenge gives Joan a last chance to back out from undergoing initiation and ensures that if she chooses to continue that she is doing so of her own free will.  It also tests her commitment to her chosen path. Joan is consecrated with the four elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) and is purified body and soul by the act of scourging.

The movie ends with Joan at a party where she is decked out with big hair, dramatic makeup and a fashionable caftan. She looks beautiful and radiates strength and power.  She appears to have been cleared of any charges of murdering her husband.  A woman who is standing next to her can't seem to take her eyes off of her.  The woman remarks that she can't get over how good Joan looks.  She says "aren’t you the….".  Joan replies “I’m a witch” and gives her a defiant look.   The woman stares in surprise and then asks Joan if she can call her sometime so they can get together.  Joan however is not listening and stares into space as she is introduced to an unseen woman as "Jack’s wife".

Season of the Witch despite its low-budget production and overacting by some of the actors has a good story at its core about a woman discovering her agency and independence through the process of “knowing herself”.  It is also a social commentary on the oppressive status of women in American society and the misogyny they live with on a daily basis.  Modern witchcraft is the catalyst and means through which this particular woman begins to manifest her transformation.  While witches and witchcraft in the film are viewed by “normal” society as aberrant outsiders who are objects of ridicule, curiosity and fear, they are portrayed in a mostly respectful manner with magic and rituals that are based on real world practices.  The filmmakers clearly did their research and made an attempt to get it right which is commendable.

My biggest criticism of the film is how it ended with Joan shooting her husband to death which was used to illustrate the misogyny of the police officers but also offered the possibility that she may have actually committed murder to remove him from her life.  To be fair, the movie did show Joan having her recurrent nightmare of the Green Man invading her home just before the husband showed up but the intent behind the shooting was left to the viewer’s interpretation.  For me, the ending somewhat diminished the positive aspects of Joan’s journey of transformation and questionably put her in the camp of spiritual and moral corruption which left me uneasy.  Despite this gripe, I still recommend the movie for its mostly positive and realistic portrayal of witches and witchcraft and its commentary on the status of women in American society.


*   Gardner, G. (2004). The meaning of witchcraft. Maine: Red Wheel/Weiser,LLC (Original work published 1959). pg. 160-162

**  Huson, P. (2006). Mastering witchcraft: A practical guide for witches, warlocks, and covens. Nebraska: iUniverse, Inc. (Original work published 1970)

*** Stratton-Kent, J. (2009, 2010). The true grimoire. UK: Scarlet Imprint: Bibliotheque Rogue. pg. 81

****Hutton, R. (1999). The triumph of the moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft. UK: Oxford University Press, pg. 229