4 17th-century women over a fire, AI generated

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

October Chills: What Scary Movies Are You Watching?

(Beware the hunters of witches)


18 October 2023. First, do you even watch scary movies? I'm talking specifically about the horror film genre but scary is broader than horror. As a small child, the Wizard of Oz scared me. Not because of the witches. But because I thought the rattling of our Venetian blinds on summer nights meant that the Tin Man was coming to get me. Go figure.

Subscribe to get my newsletterBut in general, growing up, I loved all the old monster movies: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, King Kong, and the heartbreaking Wolf Man. (The Bride of Frankenstein [1935] is my all-time favorite among them.)

Now, every October, Z and I go searching for some spooks.

Where do you draw the line? I don't like gore or slasher films. I don't like teen screams, which mix gore with overactive hormones. Not a fan of zombies.

What are the films you watch over and over? I have to admit my bourgeois choices: Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). The Shining (1980), too. The trope of "what's wrong with my child/family?" is apparently the one that gets to me.

Also, Young Frankenstein (1974) is satiric perfection. And I can't help occasionally searching out Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Anything 21st century? This month we've gotten the shivers watching Get Out (2017) and the remake of The Invisible Man (2020) with Elizabeth Moss.

Do you ever search out something new? Last year we OD'd on all the classics, including their awful sequels. This year, we've turned to witches. So far, we've watched Practical Magic (1998), Hocus Pocus (1993), the two-season series The Witches of East End (2014-2016), and The Witch (2015). Practical Magic and The Witches of East End have sanitized the devil's-consort aspect of witchcraft, leaving a race of clever (mostly) women with the genetically inherited power to cast spells. Hocus Pocus gets the 17th-century lore correct, but has a comic gloss and a happy ending.

Witches is truly frightening. 1630s New England hysteria around witches causes a God-fearing family to be exiled to the wilderness. Madness ensues. It definitely follows the "what's wrong with my child/family" trope.

While checking out witch-y fare on TV, I listened to the Great Courses lecture series The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition. What differentiates witches from other creepy creatures is that the witch craze of the Early Modern period actually resulted in the trials and deaths of thousands of (mostly) women across Europe and, finally, in Salem, Massachusetts.

It was a time of mind-blowing transition out of the Middle Ages. The Earth was round and no longer the center of the universe. Society was secularizing, privatizing. Catholicism splintered into cantankerous Protestant sects. Among the elites, the adherence to orthodoxy among the rural peasantry was key to maintaining power.

It was the elite who stirred up fear among the peasants through the witchcraft mythology. Don't look to local gentry for solutions when your crop fails. Investigate the curses muttered by those penniless old women who live at the edge of town, who pester you for alms.

My October thirst for mad scientists and imaginary haunts is sobered by these thoughts. Even in our advanced society, political and economic "influencers" are demonizing (or should I say witchifying) migrants, poor people, transgendered people, and others who don't fit their narrow orthodoxies. Conspiracy theories abound.

So I think maybe the movie Witches got it right. Fear comes first. Madness follows.

Tell me your scary October thoughts.


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.