film

When I was in high school, I once told a teacher that literary analysis was unfair because all of the authors we were analyzing were dead and couldn’t defend themselves and their work. Over the years, I let go of that notion. This class brought it back. I felt like a conspiracy theorist spouting all manner of insanity. It does, however show communication skills in my ability to judge my audience and to write to their needs. My grade for this madness was 100%.

The Importance of the Occult in Art and Film

            To fully understand the context of our existence, one must seek the hidden. It is not enough to simply glide placidly over the surface of cultural stalwarts, taking for granted that there is nothing with teeth peering at one from behind the bushes. Though modern life has been sanitized, and since the commodification of the electric light the monster under the bed is far less fearsome, much of life still lurks in the shadows. Paintings are not merely “pretty.” The chiaroscuro of Giovanni Baglione in paintings like Sacred and Profane Love and the sfumato of Da Vinci in the Salvator Mundi conceal and reveal great beauty and divine magic. Their techniques live today because they fill an aesthetic need for the hidden. Music, too, is not merely there for self-gratification. Miles Davis “new” release, The Rubberband Sessions, promises layer upon layer of musical genius to discover, as did his Sketches of Spain. Nor is literature solely a diversion, nor every film an Avenger’s sequel, even if it sometimes feels that way. 

The Occult is the subject of ridicule and scorn among scientific communities that specialize in lifting the veil from mystery and “ignorance.”  Is the Occult merely the shadow of its former self, tatters and rags fluttering in the wind of Science and the Rational, only tarted up on Halloween to jump out and scare children, or drenched in blood and paraded across the silver screen? No. Not in the least. The Occult is, in this age of wonder-killing scepticism, more important than perhaps it has ever been. The Occult, representing the hidden, the obscure, the subtext not readily visible, is the palpating heart behind religion and the arts of music, literature, film. 

In an age in which Angelica Huston, Bette Midler, and Sandra Bullock can represent the state of American witchcraft, it is no wonder that the Occult is often a source of mirth or ridicule. The only group of people that reflexively believe in or fear the Occult anymore are often quite as ridiculous as the evil they fear. Pat Robertson and other televangelists use fear of the occult to manipulate kind people and solicit ill-gotten gains, much as the Catholic hierarchy did in the selling of Papal indulgences before the Protestant Reformation. Kenneth Copeland bilked hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his followers to fight the witches of Africa in the 1980s, a scam he runs to this day. This very year, the Republican Party sent fundraising letters after it was announced that Brooklyn witches were gathering to hex then-Supreme-court-nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But is that all that our culture has left of the Occult? The risible and the ridiculous?

Every Eurocentric religion, be it Catholicism, Protestantism, Mesmerism, or witchcraft (plain and simple) is based on the concept of light versus darkness. Both are required to maintain the balance of powers that keep parishioners in their pews of a Sunday… or Saturday… or Wednesday. Without the concept of a dire force opposing it, no religion could gain a foothold. Stuart Clark is quoted in the text of The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts in saying, “Contrariety was thus a universal principle of intelligibility as well as a statement about how the world was actually constituted.” (As the Catholic church is the longest standing Eurocentric faith and the only one specifically mentioned in course materials for this class, this paper will concentrate on dichotomies and divergences therein. ) Though the Occult is usually thought of in terms of darkness, it is shown in the aforementioned text that the labor to remove obscurity can also fall under this terminology. Alchemy and astrology were considered benign forms of occultism before the Inquisition. But once again, in an example of balance, the labor to remove the obscurity of suffering, e.g. herbalism and midwifery, were considered evil and punishable by death. It is this obsession with balance and the power available therein that led the early church to winnow the palpable forces of their world into camps of Sacred and Profane, Good and Evil, Divine (Mystery) and Occult. Isidore of Seville quotes Aristotle in saying that “not all things that are opposed (opponere) to one another are contraries, but all things are opposed by a contrary.” (Tobienne, 23)

In a stroke of cultural genius, the holy books of Christianity declared woman, opposite of man, to be evil, hence all of the arts associated with women were tarnished, and their mysteries became Occult; menstruation, birth, even cooking. Woman, as a smaller and physically less powerful body, was the perfect target. Woman is just frightening and alluring enough to be terrifying, but rarely strong enough to murder en masse. In a perfect example of the portrayal of women as corrupt from the earliest ages, Marie Louise Thomsen quotes the Maqlut, an anti-witchcraft text of Mesopotamia, in classifying all of the women of neighboring, possibly competing, lands as witches. (122) No other campaign of intentional malice has ever been quite as successful as religion’s assault upon women. It is a theme (scheme) to be repeated in all art, indeed, all Eurocentric and Middle Eastern culture and society, regardless of faith, to the present day. 

But women were not the only evil or Occult. Compared with the Devil, women were but minions provided to man to be thwarted and recreated in man’s image. A devil, The Devil, was the necessary counterpoint to Jesus as God in what Neinke Vos calls the “supernatural combat myth”(Tobienne 81). Where there is God there is Satan. Where there is Satan, there is the Occult. The arts that support and bolster the Evil One, in the Christian mind the Occult, are and have always been hiding just around the corner (or beneath the bed.)

Music, possibly the oldest art, is by nature occult, in that it cannot be seen or touched. It can be written and read, but even then, the marks upon the page are not the thing itself, and much of music resists even that. Scholars cannot know when the first human voice was raised in song, but the oldest known drums were found in the Yellow River Valley in China, and date from 5600 BCE (Gao). It is possible, indeed probable, that drums and songs were not only part of neolithic entertainment, but a Stone Age attempt to drive away the darkness through sound as a first human attempt to dispel the original Occult. To this day, the hidden subtext of music is a source of tremendous joy for its adherents and equal anxiety for those who cannot understand it. Sacred music, as that of Carlos Gesualdo and his divine Sacred Music for Five Voices would seem to be above reproach, but even he of the soaring harmonies is implicated in Helmut Krausser’s postmodern historical metafiction, Melodien oder Nachträge zum Quecksilbernen Deitalter, though it is unlikely that Gesualdo truly stole his inspiration from the luckless Andrea (Szönyi 192). Music, comically granted occult powers by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing when Benedick asks, “Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” is still used to move and manipulate humanity in every setting from ancient cathedral to late-night makeout session. The real power of music is to move humanity, often without consent or even notice, rendering it truly occult. 

Literature, too, though not imbued with the innate powers of music, has also no less an occult power to obscure, transform, and sometimes destroy. The written word has such a power that it has often been banned throughout history.  Fear of occult meaning hiding in books led to the banning of recent classics like Farenheit 451, Good Omens, and even the Harry Potter series. It was not, however, always so feared. In the early Seventh Century, Bishop Braulio begs Isidore to share with him the results of his studies into astrology and even heresy and schism (Tobienne, 27). It is only by diving into this occult, both Braulio and Isidore find, by illuminating the darkness of the fevered imagination with the light of study and self-knowledge, that the occult itself is dispelled. 

The ultimate dance of darkness and light was brought out of a dark room in 1888. With the Roundhay Garden Scene, directed by Louis Le Prince, Film was born. At only two minutes and, as Irfan Shah describes it, “stuttering and secretive,” it was a modest beginning for an art form that would change and challenge the intellect, integrity, and very soul of the world into which it was born. In a culmination and combination of all of the arts, film weaves together the light and darkness of story (literature), vision (arts), sound (music) and the themes of philosophy, science, and religion to create a form that transcends as it entwines. No such combination could be without controversy, however, and almost as soon as it was initiated into the popular imagination it was accused of witchcraft. Even visions created of light were subject to the occult, obscuring action of the uneducated mind. 

But this calls upon the reader to expand the concept of the occult, or to recognize that the term occult, though defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning, “Not disclosed or divulged, secret; kept secret; communicated only to the initiated. Now rare.” and “Of or relating to magic, alchemy, astrology, theosophy, or other practical arts held to involve agencies of a secret or mysterious nature; of the nature of such an art; dealing with or versed in such matters; magical,” is also a verb. To intentionally obscure is to occult as well. Both the act and the object are occult. 

It is this intentional obscuring, the act of occluding, that gives to film its fearsome power. The natural act of suspension of disbelief renders the audience complicit with the film-maker in their act of creation. Film theorists  would have one believe that there is a Grand Theory that can be applied to the effect of filmic act upon the audience. Blank screens are called upon to act as stand-ins for breasts, and the sensation of the prenatal infant is suggested as a known quantity. (Tobienne) One problem with this Lacanian approach is to assume that the effects of breasts upon the average human being or the sensations of the pre-born can be known or quantified. Another is that preexisting psychoanalytic theory is applied to the filmic event without taking into consideration the uniqueness of each event and the singularity of its effect upon each viewer. Carroll and Bordwell would have us consider instead each film as a piece unto itself. Their Cognativist view is to follow “problem-driven research generated by the actual practice of watching films. Through such scientific deduction, Bordwell and Carroll evolve categories for studying film derived from parallelling the perceptual behaviour of humans with the reasoning capabilities of computers” (Smith 1998). Though it is true that few human beings share reasoning faculties with computers, does it not make more sense to study the effect of each film on each audience, rather than to apply rigid, readymade theories designed only to deal with pathologies (Tobienne)? 

That is not to say that there are not a few directors who could personally use a few hundred hours on the couch. Polanski, Annaud, Murnau, Coppola, all unique and fascinating artists, share a fascination that borders on obsession for good and evil, sex and gore, oppression and redemption. Each has his own peculiar way of administering them, a visual language that inculcates these themes into the consciousness of their viewers. It is in the hands of brilliant, if imperfect, directors such as these that Film unites its artistic predecessors. 

A close up of a logo

Description automatically generatedPolanski’s Ninth Gate, based on El Club Dumas by Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte, is filled with dime-store occultism. The famous “Sign of the Beast” from Revelations is ubiquitous: The code of Balkan’s elevator, the lock for his library, the year of publication of the Novem Portis (1666). Mrs. Telfer, in her business-like heaving, sports an ouroboros on her bare backside. Polanski’s use of color theory, however, waxes almost comically poetic. The protagonist Lucas Corso, played by Johnny Depp, dresses in neutral colors, showing his position as skeptic and observer. Evil, danger, and death all arrive in red. Balkan and the Telfers (both) wear it. It marks every scene of death or malfeasance, as does the color black. Yet, the Devil, or his agent, dresses in green, and the light at the end of Corso’s journey is distinctly emerald. This in itself is curious, as green is usually a color associated with fertility, growth, birth, and nature. It is possible that Polanski considers the quest for the book of Lucifer one, not for the true believer in evil, but for Corso, the Tarot’s Fool? In the Tarot’s quest for knowledge, the Fool sets forth obliviously, holding the white rose of innocence, stepping serenely off of a cliff. In both the source material and in the movie, it is notable that Corso, as he walks ultimately into the Chateau Puivert, casts no shadow, signifying that he has no soul. Nor, curiously, does the Fool (Fig. 1)

In his movie Rosemary’s Baby, we are treated to a similar hero’s journey. The eponymous Rosemary is another gentle Fool. Oblivious and bubbly, she wanders blindly into the ultimate occult nightmare. (Viewed with modern eyes, a millenial feminist might view Rosemary feeling obliged to have Guy’s snack ready for him when he gets home with the same horror that the original audiences reserved for the actual spawning of Satan’s baby.) Though it was made twenty-two years earlier, Rosemary’s Baby shows a much more subtle use of the occult. Instead of the Satanic easter eggs liberally sprinkled in plain sight in The Ninth Gate, here Polanski dives into real visceral evil. A husband sells his young wife to be raped, then drugs, gaslights, and isolates her throughout her pregnancy. He forces her to give birth at home, is complicit in the theft of the offspring, and then tells her that he did it all for her. The fact that her rapist and offspring are both demonic is entirely beside the point. They could both be Orson Welles and the effect would still be horrific. The curious correlation between the two movies, however, centers on the genders of the protagonist and the outcomes of their copulation with the Devil. In The Ninth Gate, Corso is redeemed by a consensual sex act and allowed access to the mysteries of the Universe. Rosemary, in contrast, is impregnated during a nonconsensual sex act, and becomes a Stockholmed nursemaid to a deformed halfling. In this contrast, Polanski shows that, for all of his lauded brilliance, he is still laboring under the delusions of male superiority. 

Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Name of the Rose does little better for women on the surface, but he is not Roman Polanski. Though this movie is a pale shadow of the original tome, there is enough hidden to make it of interest. This is where the invitation of the occult to dive more deeply and look more closely can be appreciated. Though the only female figures are quite literally the Madonna, a Whore, and a skeleton, Annaud allows each to be a means to ultimate salvation. Though he seems to make fun of the leering Brother Ubertino and his doomsaying protestations of the Apocalypse, each of the murders aligns with the Seven Trumpets of the Apocalypse as imagined by St. John the Divine of Patmos. The appearance of evil and terror  hides only simplicity in Salvatore, while the power of the Church itself hides the true evil of cruelty and inhumanity in the Inquisitor Bernardo Gui. 

Both of the adaptations of Dracula assigned for this class, Murnau’s Nosferatu and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, depart significantly from the original text by Bram Stoker. They do, however, do it justice in their treatment of the leering, creeping evil of the vampire and their creation of a dark and occult atmosphere in which such a creature can only thrive. In both films, the addition of music makes each that much more haunting and terrible. The antique overture of Nosferatu perfectly expresses the oppressive terror of the “Great Death of Wisburg” as does the lush soundtrack of Coppola’s Dracula. The themes of light and darkness in these two films that bookend the entire history of the art are achieved in very similar ways. Though the techniques and tools may have changed, the effect of terror as a shadow creeps up the stairs toward an unwitting victim cannot be overestimated. Philosophically, the themes of light and darkness are treated similarly as well, with dawn always marking the ultimate dispelling of the beast. 

What did not become clear until the very end of the semester, however, was the occult framework of the very class itself. Hidden in the Latin readings, monastic texts, film lectures, and obscure Medieval poetry was the information necessary to reveal the real point, that being the narrative arc of the film component of the class. Looking back at the films and the order in which they were assigned creates the distinct impression that there is a larger lesson to learn than simply the fact that many facets of Medieval Catholicity are borrowed from earlier pagan practices. No, there is a distinctly moral path to be followed. In order, the films and their lessons are:

  1. The Ninth Gate – In this film, Polanski’s protagonist is protected and led on his journey by a beautiful woman who is endowed with fascinating powers and bewitching green eyes. Ultimately she tempts him (no apple involved) and gives him the knowledge of good and evil. Green Eyes is, for the purposes of this class, Eve.
  2. The Name of the Rose – Annaud discovers the classic feminine dichotomy of the Madonna and the Whore,  and through it shows the grossness of the human condition. In the Abbey there is murder and blood, but also books, knowledge, and, if you survive, truth. Outside the Abbey, however, there is putrescence, filth, and a tremendous amount of fecal matter. 
  3. Rosemary’s Baby – Here is the Fall of Woman. In her innocence and idealism, Rosemary is forced to endure the horror of Satanic rape and the oblivion of self into the horror of the Anti-Christ. Differing analyses suspect Polanski of condemning “modern women” for their embrace of birth control and abortion, or alternately speaking subversively in a cautionary tale of woman’s lack of choice.
  4. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Though these films span the gap of filmic history, their stories resonate. Out of greed, man sacrifices what he loves best, albeit unintentionally. Themes of light versus darkness play viscerally on the screen. This is the great battle of the End Times. Murnau’s visual of the line of coffins stretching all the way to the horizon paints a bleak, but inspiring picture. His Ellen is inspired to make the ultimate self-sacrifice to rid the world of evil. Coppola’s film is no less compelling. Her love for her Count overwhelming her love of her husband, Mina risks not only her life, but that of her husband and friends to bring the Count to salvation. Notwithstanding themes of reincarnation and undying love, the denouement, as Mina plunges a blade through Dracula’s chest and hacks off his head is a scene of the ultimate victory of Christ. The sun (Son) rises in the East. His is seen as the ultimate peace as the look of beatified death settles onto the Count’s face. Even in the novel, in which it is not Mina, but Quincey who delivers the killing blow (Stoker, 398), the narrator says, “there was a look of peace, such as I never would have imagined might have rested there.”

            The ability to find and understand the Occult is crucial because it is in the subtext, the hidden, the obscure in which the truth often hides. Surface readings or viewing can be titillating or even offer passing illumination, but to really understand a work of art, one must look beneath the surface to find real meaning. As Umberto Eco says in The Name of the Rose, “True learning must not be content with ideas, which are, in fact, signs, but must discover things in their individual truth.” A truer plea for Aristotelian rhetoric has not been made in cinema. It is in the search for individual truth that the student sheds light on, illuminates, and ultimately conquers the Occult. 

Fig. 1

Works Cited

Annaud, Jean Jacque, director. The Name of the Rose. 20th Century Fox, 1986. 

Coppola, Francis Ford, director. Bram Stoker’s Dracula. American Zoetrope, 1992.

Geusaldo, Carlo. Gesualdo:Sacred Music in Five Acts. Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly –  conductor, NAXOS, (1993) CD. 

Murnau, F.W., director. Nosferatu. Prana Film, 1922.

Nichols, Bill. Engaging Cinema: an Introduction to Film Studies. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 

“Occult.” OED, Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Mar. 2004, www-oed-com.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/view/Entry/130167?rskey=QUXbnW&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid.

Polanski, Roman. The Ninth Gate. Artisan Entertainment, 2000.

Polanski, Roman. Rosemary’s Baby. Paramount Pictures, 1968.

Shah, Irfan. “Man with a Movie Camera.” History Today, vol. 69, no. 1, Jan. 2019, pp. 18–20. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=133451370&site=eds-live.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. MacMillan Collectors Library, 2019.

Smith, Jo. “Film Criticism After Grand Theories.” DeepSouth, University of Otago, 1998, http://www.otago.ac.nz/deepsouth/0498/0498jo.htm. 

“Smith-Waite Centennial Tarot Deck”. U.S. Games Systems, Inc. Retrieved August 2, 2019.

Szönyi, Györgi E. “Music, Magic, and Postmodern Historical Metafiction.” Occultus: the Hidden and Macabre in Literature and Film, ed. Tobienne, Francis, Cognella, 2016, pp. 65-102.

Tianlin, Gao. “On the Neolithic Pottery Drum in the Yellow River Valley.” Acta Archaeologia Sinica199102, Acta Archaeologica Sinica, 2006, en.cnki.com.cn/Article_en/CJFDTotal-KGXB199102000.htm. 

Tobienne, Francis. The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts. Cambridge Scholars, 2008.

Vos, Neinke. “Demons and the Devil in Ancient and Medieval Christianity: Introduction, Summary, Reflection.” Occultus: the Hidden and Macabre in Literature and Film, ed. Tobienne, Francis, Cognella, 2016, pp. 65-102.

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