Need some historical groundwork on covens and witch hunting to go with your rewatch of Vincent Price classic Witchfinder General or Robert Eggers The Witch? Look no further than these films that delve into the mythology, legends and real-life hysteria surrounding witches through the ages.
And learn the difference between the Church of Satan—founded by Anton LaVey in 1966—and the modern political activism of the Satanic Temple that began in 2016.
1. Häxan (1922)
The most notorious, most censored silent film ever, this eyebrow-raising cornucopia of witches cavorting with Satan and Medieval witch hunting has to be seen to be believed. (Chances are, you’ve already seen clips of it—it’s used in just about every other documentary about witches.) Director Benjamin Christensen based his epic four-part documentary on the Malleus Maleficarum, the notorious 15th-century guide for witch hunters.
Among the most memorable sequences are the Devil (played by Christensen himself) tempting a woman away from her husband and the trial of an accused witch. The torture and nudity depicted in the film resulted it being banned in the U.S. and censored around the world and is still shocking today.
Since it’s in the public domain, it’s readily available to stream, including on YouTube.
2. Witchcraft ’70 (1970)
If you’re looking for a scandalous, sensationalistic documentary on witches and satanism, look no further than this Rosemary’s Baby-era doc. It features footage of a Black Mass (complete with a naked woman as the “altar”), voodoo rituals, an initiation that involves pouring pig’s blood over the inductee, a visit with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, people supposedly channeling the dead, and hypnosis—a whole grab bag of occult practices.
Warning: Several animals are sacrificed on camera.
3. Hail Satan? (2019)
In this irreverent, subversive documentary, director Penny Lane follows the roots of the Satanic Temple, which end up challenging all the ways that Christianity dominates a country that supposedly has separation of Church and State.
Among the Satanic Temple’s legal battles has been insisting that a statue of pagan idol Baphomet be placed next to a statue of the Ten Commandments to show that all religions are treated equally. (Upshot: The Biblical statue was removed.)
As one member states in the doc, “As a Satanist, I believe confronting injustice is an expression of my Satanic faith.”
Other members make the case that Satanism is patriotic, and more inclusive and supportive, than Christianity.
4. The Pendle Witch Child (2012)
This BBC doc explores a lesser-known trial in 1612 England, during which a nine-year-old girl testified against her own mother, and how it set the stage for the notorious Salem witch trials in America.
This trial followed rules laid down by King James himself, whose book Demonologie decreed that children should be allowed to testify in trials and that witchcraft was a crime against the King as well as God. (King James, having survived the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow him up, was more than usually paranoid.)
Little Jennet Device condemned not only her mother, but her brother, sister and many of her neighbors, all of whom were hanged, thanks to her damning testimony. She and the other 17th century characters are rendered in eerie black-and-white drawings.
5. Mansfield 66/67 (2017)
Shortly before her shocking demise in a car crash in 1967, star Jayne Mansfield posed for a series of photos with Anton LaVey. The fading star, who had peaked in the ’50s, got the news coverage she wanted, but was LaVey to blame for her cataclysmic death?
That’s the dishy—if flimsy—premise of this documentary, which uses animation, re-enactments and several dancing Mansfields to tell the story.
Skip the first 30 minutes if you just want to get to the LaVey part, and for lines from commentators like, “You can see why they go together so beautifully: They’re both publicity whores.”
Kenneth Anger (director of the provocative ’60s short film Invocation of My Demon Brother and author of the gossipy classic Hollywood Babylon,) weighs in, saying “Curses schmurses. I think it’s all a bunch of bullshit.”
Sharon Knolle is a film noir buff, dog lover and founder of Moviepaws.com. You can follow her on Twitter.