Monday, March 29, 2010

Which Witch is Which?

I've been thinking about witchcraft lately. I know, that's bizarre, but there's a reason (two, actually). First, I've got a fantasy/horror short story, "The Burning of Sarah Post," under consideration by a couple periodicals, and it's a tale of witchcraft set in a quasi-Puritan past and full of archaic diction and psychedelic imagery. If anything comes of it, you'll be the first to know.

The other reason my thoughts have turned to witchcraft recently is that I was asked to contribute an essay about The Exorcist to a forthcoming book commemorating the film (and the novel on which it was based). The invitation sort of came out of the blue, and I've been trying to think of an angle to approach the essay, something that hasn't been said a hundred times before (always a challenge when dealing with a text that's become such a cultural icon). It seems to me, though, that one might approach the story of The Exorcist as a continuation of a very old tale we've been telling in America for hundreds of years, dating at least back to the Salem witchcraft hysteria: the tale of pre-pubescent girls whose supposed dalliance with malign powers confounds the social order. I won't go into great detail here--in part because I'm still formulating my ideas--but I do wonder why this tale has proven so durable. In an earlier post ("Domestic Terror"), I commented on the pervasiveness of invasion stories in American literature and culture: perhaps because our nation was founded on invasion, we Americans seem to have an obsession with the idea that some alien threat is trying to invade us. But the witchcraft story poses an intriguing variant: while on the one hand it's consistent with the invasion narrative's broad outlines, involving an invisible agent's insinuation into a domestic enclave and the ensuing collapse of personal and social boundaries, its focus on girls just entering sexual maturity is striking.

Maybe this says nothing more than that women historically have been the prime suspects of witchcraft accusations--but that still doesn't answer the question of why adolescent women are featured so prominently in these American versions. What is the particular cultural threat embodied by these youngsters? What is the particular cultural fascination in seeing their bodies spectrally ravaged (and ravished)?

I'll have to do more thinking about this, obviously--in some ways, I'm using this post just to get some of my thoughts on the page--but I'm as eager as anyone to see how it all turns out.

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