The word “occult” comes from the Latin occultus, which means “hidden” or “secret”. Society has long associated the occult with the practices of sorcery and devil worship. It has always represented mankind’s strive to know the unknown, the forbidden.
Strictly speaking, the occult can be associated with many religions, both of the right- (direct, conventional) and left- (chaotic/complex, taboo) hand paths. Some would argue both journeys ultimately lead to the same goal; it is, however the dark that seems to fascinate us the most.
For centuries art has been created, depicting mysterious rituals and visions of the paranormal. The Satanic Panic of the 70s sparked a new interest in the occult and religions of the left-hand path. Reports of satanic ritual abuse flooded in from across the world. It was to become our renewed witch-hunt of the modern age. This had a substantial effect on the genre films of the era and it produced some of the best psychological horrors of all time. A few of these films have gone on to become classics within their own right.
From the ancient folk religions of the rolling hills of the British Isles, to the Illuminati conspiracy theories of the digital age, mankind’s fascination with the occult is ever-present. This list merely pays tribute to just a few gems on the subject amongst so many more. The following films are listed in chronological order.
1. Witchfinder General (1968) – Michael Reeves
Witchfinder General is based on a novel written by Ronald Bassett. It was shot on a low budget and the screenplay had to be rewritten a number of times as censors kept returning the script. Despite being heavily cut and most of the extreme gore removed before release, the film was still met with some furore due to its graphic nature.
It follows a cruel and merciless Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. He is accompanied by a twisted sadist and torturer John Stearne, and together they perform “God’s work” travelling across England looking for witches and those in league with the Devil. Witchfinder General features a number of techniques actually used during witch trials, including “pricking” and the “swimming test”.
The two antagonists of the film, Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne were once a real witch-hunting duo operating during the English Civil War. It is said that Hopkins was somewhat of a self-styled “Witch Finder General” who was responsible for nearly 300 of all 500 executions for witchcraft in the whole of England between 15th and 18th centuries. He was never legally appointed to do this job by Parliament, and his bloody career only lasted for around three years in his early 20s. Hopkins died in his 50s at home from consumption.
Witchfinder General is often considered to be one of the greatest British horrors of all time although it is not necessarily lauded for its historical accuracy. One of the main differences between reality and the events in this film is the complete lack of court proceedings in order to establish guilt.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – Roman Polanski
Based on Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby, this film is a well-recognised masterpiece. It is the second instalment in Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” with Repulsion (1966) being the first and Tenant (1976) the third in the trio of movies. Polanski followed the novel very closely while adapting it to film, down to attempting to acquire the correct issues of magazines mentioned in it.
Rosemary and Guy move into a new apartment and encounter an eccentric but friendly elderly couple. They become friends and visit each other’s apartments frequently. Her strange neighbours give Rosemary a good luck charm, and Guy unexpectedly lands a role in a play. In the wake of the exciting news, he suggests him and Rosemary have a baby.
After a night of nightmares about being raped by a demonic creature, Rosemary finds out that she is pregnant. She has a tough pregnancy with excruciating abdominal pains and weight loss. After doing some research, Rosemary begins to uncover the real truth behind the events of the past few months and the real identity of the father of her baby.
Perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of Rosemary’s Baby is the attitude Guy has towards his wife. The troubling issue of consent on the night of the baby’s conception brings to light some very serious problems between the couple. We see Rosemary wither away both in body and spirit as the ones around her take it upon themselves to control her life.
Traditionally, according to Christian views, the Antichrist was to be Satan incarnate on earth. The idea of an evil child born to raise chaos in this world is common throughout 70s horrors. Although this film slightly pre-dates the Satanic Panic phenomenon, elements of it are already evident in this feature. Seen as part of the “Apartment Trilogy” we realise that this is a study of isolation and loss of control.
3. The Devils (1971) – Ken Russell
The Devils is no stranger to controversy. It received an X rating upon its initial release in both the United Kingdom and the USA. Many countries banned this movie outright; those that did not, edited the release heavily. It has not seen a full home video release to this day.
This film follows a handsome and charismatic priest, Urbain Grandier in 17th Century France. He is popular with women and is deemed a philanderer by the town community. After eloping with a woman named Madeleine in a secret ceremony, Grandier comes under fire from the obsessive Sister Jeanne, the Mother Superior of a local convent. She accuses him of witchcraft, possessing and subsequently seducing the nuns at the convent. An investigation ensues in the town of Loudun as a mad and sadistic inquisitor arrives for the trial.
The Devils is largely based on Aldous Huxley’s account of the “Loudun possessions” of the same name. Urbain Grandier was a French priest who was burned at the stake in Loudun in 1634. He angered the Mother Superior of a local Ursuline convent by refusing to become the nunnery’s spiritual advisor. She subsequently accused him of making a pact with the Devil and convinced the nuns to claim that Grandier sent the demon Asmodai to taunt them.
Asmodai is considered to be one of the seven princes of Hell and represents Lust out of the seven deadly sins. After publicly speaking out against Cardinal Richelieu and clerical celibacy, the priest is put on trial, tortured and burned to death at the stake. One of the documents presented as evidence in Grandier’s trial was an alleged pact with the Devil.
It contained a variety of bizarre symbols and was “signed” by different demons, including Satan himself. Its various translations can be found in a vast number of books on witchcraft.
4. Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) – Piers Haggard
This is one of the “folk horrors” (a term coined by the actor/director and avid horror enthusiast Mark Gatiss) to come out during the late 60s – early 70s era of film making in the UK. It is considered to be of the same ilk as Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). There are some elements that all three of the films share. The Book of Witches as well as a witch trial by drowning are present in both this feature, as well as Witchfinder General.
A farmer comes across an unusual skull in one of his fields. He alerts the town’s authorities to his discovery but his fears are written off as insane due to the skull’s mysterious disappearance. Soon, strange things start happening in the town and the children begin displaying alarming behaviour and growing claws and fur.
An evil demon named Behemoth seems to have taken hold of the town’s young people and is causing them to commit hideous crimes. It is up to a local judge to find out the truth and end the demonic creature’s reign of terror.
One of the writers of the plot claims to have in part been inspired by the Manson Family as well as the Mary Bell murders. In a time of newly emerging freedoms and revolutionary change, Charles Manson’s cult’s activities put a damper on the seemingly never ending “summer of love” and inevitably started its decline.
Elements of this are apparent in the pied piper style influence the young woman Ursula has on her clan of possessed youngsters. The demonically motivated horrors committed by the town’s children are faintly reminiscent of the terrifying activities of 11-year-old Mary Bell in 1968 in Britain.
5. Don’t Look Now (1973) – Nicolas Roeg
Don’t Look Now is widely accepted as a significant and important film in the history of cinema. Based on a short story by horror favourite Daphne du Maurier, this is a study of loss and hope as much as it is an intense psychological thriller. At the time of its release, Don’t Look Now was met with some controversy due to the extended sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.
Don’t Look Now follows a married couple recovering from the accidental death of their young daughter. The events unfold in Venice, Italy where they try to come to terms with their loss and move on. The encounter with a couple of elderly psychic women brings new hope as well as tests Laura’s and John’s relationship.
As well as the use of a du Maurier novel as the basis for the film, there are other factors alluding to Roeg’s admiration for Alfred Hitchcock. The fact that the characters keep unknowingly acting out their mental states is reminiscent of Hitchcock. This includes having the couple physically run away to Venice in order to escape grief. A number of different potential literary influences are apparent in Don’t Look Now, among them Proust and Nietzsche.
The cinematography and creative use of narrative makes this movie a work of art as well as a chilling tale that stays with you long after viewing.
6. The Wicker Man (1973) – Robin Hardy
Widely considered to be one of the greatest British horrors of all time, The Wicker Man is a cult classic. It is accompanied by a haunting soundtrack by Paul Giovanni consisting of folk songs sung by the characters. This is as much of an essential part of the plot as the visual components.
This film is about a police sergeant who travels to the fictional Scottish island called Summerisle in order to figure out the fate of a missing girl, Rowan. He discovers that the locals have abandoned Christianity and have been followers of Celtic paganism for generations. He senses some resistance from the locals when he attempts to find out what happened to Rowan. Sergeant Howie eventually discovers the truth about the inhabitants of the island but this knowledge will cost him dearly.
The wicker man was traditionally an effigy ritualistically burned by the Celtic druids. According to his accounts of the wars in what is presently Europe, Julius Caesar told tales of Celtic pagans burning criminals alive inside the statues. However, archaeological evidence suggests that nothing has ever been discovered to point to any human sacrifice by these tribes. It is more likely that due to their hatred for them, Romans and Greeks spread unsubstantiated rumours about the Celt’s cruelty.