Unearthed documentaries show us the changing face of the modern witch, and how the neo-pagan became a viable alternative for the era’s disillusioned youth
In modern society, we’re totally past burning people at the stake, or dunking women in the town lake because our crops died. The tendrils of witchcraft have found their way into contemporary fashion, zine culture and sharp-tongued 90s rom-coms. Not that this change in global consciousness towards the magical practice was smooth sailing. Up until 1951, the practice of witchcraft was outlawed in Britain. When it was finally repealed with the enactment of the Fraudulent Mediums Act, witchy practices and elements began to seep into the mainstream narrative; and so began bringing the witch out of the underground in the ‘occult explosion’ of the 1970s.
From here, witchcraft permeated popular culture, reaching its peak in the 1970s. Gary Parsons, the filmmaker behind Thelema Films and an expert in this period of the esoteric and documentary, recalls growing up at a time when it was everywhere. TIME magazine ran a cover story in 1972 that declared “Satan Returns”. Horror mainstay Hammer Film Productions was in its heyday and Children of the Stones was a popular serial show for kids based on pagan folklore. There was children’s encyclopedia magazine Man, Myth and Magic, detailing everything from witchcraft to cults, drugs, zombies and ESP, talking about each topic on an academic level. Mainstream cinema saw the underground rise up in the form of The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw – basically witchcraft was a cinema ticket or trip to the newsagents away. The prolific writings and teachings of famed English occultist Aleister Crowley, who championed the Thelemite religion, also ran rampant at the time, and similar figureheads of witchcraft and other elements of the occult found their way into daytime TV and BBC documentaries.
“I collected Man, Myth and Magic every week and put it into binders. It was everywhere,” says Gary Parsons. “Myself, I got more involved in investigating magic properly as a teenager. My dad worked for Hammer films so it was in the house really, but it was Aleister Crowley that kicked the thing up for me. By then it was getting a bit difficult though, because of the ‘satanic panic’. I was getting my mail opened up all the time.”
The ‘satanic panic’ that Parsons refers to is the mass panic that characterized the 90s. Thousands were investigated when unfounded cases of sexual abuse were linked to witchcraft and devil worship. Though witchcraft was dwindling in popularity as the decades of free love and revolution came to end, it was this moral panic that snuffed out the most outward of practicing.
Preceding this however, the lifted ban on witchcraft gave light to pieces of literature like Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The White Goddess (1948) by Robert Graves, which illustrated what had been a movement working quietly from within the shadows. However, it was the writing of Gerald Gardner that initially helped witchcraft to ascend into a viable spiritual alternative in the every day psyche. Other authors followed his lead with DIY books to getting initiated and practicing, but it was Gardner’s book Witchcraft Today that became a go-to for modern Wiccans. It was the basis for the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca: a neopagan religion that led the charge of British Traditional Wicca practiced mostly in the south east of England.
“Instead of an old woman living next door practicing some underground religion, witches were younger and hip” – Gary Parsons
Parsons recently held a talk on the importance of British witchcraft documentaries in the 1970s at The Underground Gallery. Here, he explains how Wicca rode on the countercultural sentiment of the late 60s onward. The 60s were a technicolour era, when recreational drugs got big, as did sexual liberation and a mass distrust of authority. “People were looking for alternative religious beliefs, a lot of people went to India to try and find themselves, being gurus,” Parsons tells Dazed. “Folk music was coming back again, so bands like The Incredible String Band were forming communes, getting people back into nature. Witchcraft is so intrinsically linked with nature, it was a natural progression, but it had been in the doldrums since the 40s.”
Gardner was popping up on television to do interviews, and later, so were Alex and Maxine Sanders – who Parsons called “the witch king of Britain. “He was suddenly everywhere. In newspapers, on TV, releasing music,” says Parsons. There’s a famous incident of Maxine performing rites on stage with the band Black Widow live in 1970.
“They upped people's interest in it. Out of the very few films that have survived from that era, Alex and Maxine Sanders feature in most of them,” says Parsons.
Alex and Maxine Sanders represented the new age. Rather than pointy hats and wrinkles that hid years of magical secrets, they were young and open about what they were doing in their fast multiplying coven. Stories of their initiations were fascinating – Maxine had been involved in astral projection and a cult since her early teens, and Alex told the media the story of having his scrotum nicked by his grandmother to welcome him to the fold (a story he later admitted as false). Their practice – which fostered Alexandrian Wicca – involved a lot of nudity and dramatic rituals. It was seriously good fodder for local tabloids, and opened up the demographic for those in their teens and their twenties that wanted to embrace another faction of counterculture. Gardenerianism became “fuddy duddy” according to Parsons, and this new ideal was very attractive.
“Instead of an old woman living next door practicing some underground religion, they were younger and hip. You didn’t have Sybil Leek doing witchcraft at the roadside anymore, but young, hip, and most of the time barely clothed people.”
This pretty much defines Legend of the Witches (1970), one of the most complete, serious investigations into modern day witchcraft on film that’s been salvaged from the era. It was one of the biggest contemporary features too, with an actual gala premiere, as well as a brief cinematic run. However, because of its nudity, Parsons relates that it was advertised as “effectively a softcore porn, shown in Soho”. It premiered alongside a porno called Do You Want To Be A Virgin Forever? – meaning it probably wasn’t given the opportunity to be as serious as it took itself. It features men and women, performing long – if a little tedious – naked ceremonies while telling folk stories about the gods. Sanders’ coven makes an appearance in the black and white rural setting.
There’s also The Dunsmore Devil Worshippers, a rare cut that shows something slightly more sinister. Parsons says, because of its short length, it was probably a featurette in a bigger show. The witches involved are practicing a black mass, killing a cockerel to initiate a naked woman. “They’re very polite, very posh people in a mansion somewhere. It’s very different from Alexandrian witchcraft which was nature-based, so we’re seeing two ends of the same spectrum,” says Parsons.
A lot of misconceptions about paganism, and more generally witchcraft, were whipped up at the time by ‘witchsploitation’ fiction films – a genre that was birthed and peaked in the 70s. Sex, violence and scenes of gore were massively far removed from the quiet, remote, rural practices documented elsewhere, but it proved popular with the crowds. This form of sleaze was riddled with historical inaccuracies too.
“Certainly horror films didn't help at the time, you had a film called Blood on Satan's Claw, that mashes together Wicca with what had happened with the Manson family – you're getting a warped view of it. Most fictional films get devil worshipping and black magic, then meld the two together in an uneasy way,” explains Parsons. Other films from the era, like 1972’s Virgin Witch or Black Death (conflating the witch-hunting plot with the plague) and Mark of the Devil (1970) offered a debauched, hedonistic lens on the culture. And though this porno perspective on witchcraft is all sorts of awful, the genre is a product of its time; illustrating conservative factions of society’s struggle with the spiritualist, sexually liberated rebels and hippies of the era.
Today, Parsons is in the editing process of his film Conjuration, due to be premiered at the British Museum’s Folk Horror Revival convention. Parson’s draws on the work of occultist heavyweight filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, particularly the dark angel-summoning film Lucifer Rising (1973) and Alejandro Jodorowsky for his esoteric cult film The Holy Mountain (1973). It’s partly filmed in areas of ‘magical interest’ in the UK, like Stonehenge, and also in Pompeii. “It’s a film about how magic is an energy that goes back beyond Christianity, back into ancient time,” he explains. “So it's looking at someone who worshipped at Stonehenge back in 2000bc, but also tapping into the energy of someone who is doing magic today. There is a recreation of an Alexandrian ritual from the late 60s in there, and I like to think of it as almost a homage to those 70s witchcraft documentaries.”
Though this is his thirteenth film on witchcraft, he’s definitely noticed an exponential growth in interest with what he’s doing. It’s the fastest growing religion in America, and we see witchcraft conventions regularly – the upcoming Witchfest in London and Brighton for one – and Facebook groups for finding your coven. There’s even websites for self-initiating, and running DIY covens online. So why are we now seeing one of the biggest modern resurgences in witchcraft since the 70s? Maybe counterculture and mass disillusionment is at its strongest once more, spurred on in a post-Brexit, live-in-a-zone-3-shed-for-600-quid environment: and we need something a bit magical.