In the first installment of our series looking at vintage occult documentaries, we looked at three that spanned the 1960s into the early 1970s. Today, we move forward, looking at documentaries that span up to the mid-’80s.
Historically, this takes us to the heart of what would become known as the “Satanic Panic” in the United States. None of these documentaries cleanly fit into a category of being full-on Christian propaganda against the occult (with Power of The Witch perhaps being the only exception) but there is a sense that the tide has turned against the occult. No longer is it being viewed as an oddity or a joke. It is real, and it is in your neighborhood, kicking over your plants and stealing your cats.
All of these docs take magic seriously. What sets them apart is whether they think the occult reality is a good thing, a bad thing, or just another thing in culture. They are by turns silly, fascinating, and a little creepy, and provide some rare interviews that can’t be found anywhere else. Dim the lights, and come on a journey with us.
The Power of The Witch (1971)
There are some interesting interviews in this British doc that make it incredibly valuable to those who study Occult history. Doreen Valiente, Alex and Maxine Sanders, and Cecil Williamson, important figures in the history of modern witchcraft, all make appearances. However, while this piece starts off floating the idea that witchcraft might be perfectly nice, it quickly takes a turn for the sensational.
Witches are murderers! Witches all worship Satan! Witches cannot be trusted! All of this is true, if you believe this documentary’s findings. Experts are quickly dismissed in favor of Christian Evangelists. The testimony of true witches is displaced by those who claim to have simply met them. Of course Charles Manson is brought up as a key example of why the Occult is bad, and there is a passing reference to Anton LaVey to prove that yes, Satan is alive and well and that’s a terrible thing.
While the Satanic Panic would not come to full fruition across western Christian cultures until the 1980s, the groundwork is being laid for it in this documentary. Witches and Occultists are decidedly outsiders, and as such are threats to the very fabric of society. The tone is not “what do witches do” it is “what are witches up to?”
Nothing good, obviously. Several times throughout the piece witches are blamed for murders across the English countryside. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream documentary getting away with such baseless claims nowadays, which might be what makes this doc so morbidly fascinating.
This isn’t to say Power of The Witch isn’t a fun film, it definitely is. There are awkward exorcisms, secret rituals, and quaint English people telling truly bizarre stories of witches they supposedly know. For fans of British Folk Horror, this will be a delight.
In Search of: Salem Witches (1980)
In contrast to Power of The Witch, this doc takes a much more forgiving tone to modern witches, and is willing to take a more “live and let live” attitude towards them. Even the one person interviewed who seems to have a problem with witches doesn’t make too big of a fuss about them. It’s a nice break from the usual sensationalism of the era, and unfortunately rare in Occult documentaries from the 1980s.
The piece primarily follows Salem Witch Laurie Cabot and her coven through witchcraft classes, initiation rites, and various rituals. It’s intercut with historians espousing the now debunked “ergot theory” behind the Salem Panic, so take the historical information given with several grains of salt.
What makes this doc interesting is that it’s one of the few of its kind to look exclusively at American Witchcraft. There are plenty of documentaries on American Satanism, British Witchcraft, or a blend of Occult flavors, but this stands out as unique in its examination of New England witches and their practices. Laurie Cabot arguably created the culture of the modern “Witch Store” when she opened the first witchcraft shop in the United States, Crow Haven Corner. Say what you will about the commodification of Witchcraft, but it feels right that the woman who started it all has her own documentary.
Oh, and did I mention Leonard Nimoy narrates the whole thing?
The Occult Experience (1985)
Like its predecessor in 1970, this documentary tries to capture the entire occult world in one piece. There is more of an emphasis on goddess worship (the controversial Z. Budapest is interviewed) and paganism here, and practitioners are given ample time to explain themselves; however, something feels off.
Perhaps it’s the prolonged exorcism scenes, or the constant spooky chanting, or the fact that this film makes shamanic journeying look so painful, but this doc doesn’t seem to think the occult is something people should get into. You get the sense the documentarians don’t think highly of the occult, even in their most objective moments.
And it’s hard to tell why. It doesn’t come from a Christian perspective, nor does it outright call occultists silly, but you get the feeling it wants to. If older documentaries feel leering or voyeuristic in how they treat naked practitioners, this one seems to have its tongue firmly in its cheek. “Look at how silly these people look in their robes” it seems to whisper.
Not only that, but the world of the occult feels much smaller in this doc. In the first Occult Experience, indigenous practitioners were interviewed along with white people. This film mostly has white people. In the original, Christians who practiced magic were interviewed, in this Christians only exist to drive out the occult. The scope of the world feels more limited, and that just makes the edges of the map seem darker.