Against Identification: The Abject Camp of “The Witches” (1990)




THE MOST UNSETTLING MOMENT in Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1990) — a film in which an assembly of women reveal themselves as child-murdering monsters and their leader, The Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), peels off her human mask to disclose a face as hideous as Freddy Krueger’s — involves no prosthetics and minimal special effects. Having caught our hero, eight-year-old Luke, spying on their annual convention to plot the genocide of children worldwide, the titular witches, redisguised as the ordinary women of “The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” pin the boy to a table on his back. Gloved hands pry open his mouth and pinch shut his nose so the Grand High Witch can force-feed him a potion that will turn him into a mouse.

The memory of the witches in their true monstrous forms — bald and rashy-scalped, with toeless feet and clawed hands — permits and intensifies the more banal (and thus more transgressive) image of a group of benign-looking women and their stylish ringleader overpowering and drugging a child. As a seven-year-old watching this film for the first time, I forced myself to watch as the Grand High Witch showed her true face. During this sequence, however, I was riveted to the screen.

I rewatched The Witches this year with a friend, a fellow gay man in his 20s. When we came to this scene, I tried to articulate my initial childhood response. I recalled feeling a deep embarrassment for the boy convulsing and shrinking onscreen, an embarrassment that implicated me. The image of Luke’s clothes and shoes, left over from his transformation, steaming in a pile on the floor mortified me as if the absent, naked body it implied were my own. But it was Huston’s glamorous evil that cemented my unease. For months after that first viewing, her image surfaced in my mind, shot from below to emphasize her plunging neckline, cackling in ecstasy as I cowered, shriveled, shrank before her.

“I get it,” my friend said slyly. “You thought you were horny for The Grand High Witch. Now you are The Grand High Witch.”

I didn’t dispute his interpretation — not on principle, anyway. According to a popular coming-of-age narrative, we gay boys grow up thinking we are infatuated with the powerful women we see onscreen, when in fact we secretly want to be them. As we grow up, we discover our perceived attraction to have been a latent form of identification, and this is largely true of my own experience. It is a testament to the potency of compulsory heterosexuality that I was able to convince myself, age nine, that I had a crush on Catherine Zeta-Jones even as I stood before the TV in a red unitard trying to mirror her Chicago choreography.

But this model leaves no room for the affective space I occupied as a queer child hypnotized by Anjelica Huston. What I felt was neither simple attraction nor identification, but a sense of total abjection. In the figure of the Grand High Witch, I found myself subjugated by the very kind of feminine glamour I was learning to covet.

David Halperin writes in How to Be Gay (2012): “Gay identity may well register the fact of gay desire; it may even stand in for its wayward promptings, its unanticipated urges and satisfactions. But gay identity does not — it cannot — capture gay desire in all its subjective sweep and scope. It cannot express it.” Halperin rightly suspects gay identity’s capacity for flattening and homogenizing queer affect, a task the Gay Internet has gladly taken up. (“Gay culture is…” begins one popular Twitter prompt; the author then supplies a subjective anecdote that claims, however archly, to be universal.) What Halperin does not anticipate is how identification with the feminine — which he posits as one of the degraded, pre-Stonewall tropes contemporary gay culture seeks to discard — would be reembraced as one of the unquestioned tenets of gayness. As I write this, Gay Twitter is inundated with variations on a meme captioned: “My son can’t be gay, he’s obsessed with women!” followed by images of women of the author’s choosing, usually figures from their own childhood. These women, from Designing Women’s Julia Sugarbaker to Whitney Houston, require no explanation: they are self-evident as vehicles for gay identification.

To adult viewers inured to its terror, The Witches offers a model gay icon in The Grand High Witch. At 26, I can now savor the camp abandon of Huston’s performance. Where the same character in Roald Dahl’s source novel appears in her human disguise as a petite, “rather pretty,” and unassuming young woman, Huston’s incarnation wears the glamour of evil on her black-gloved sleeve. She is styled as a vamp in slim black gowns, swishy purple capes, and blood-red lipstick. She struts, sneers, swings her hips, and lacerates anyone at hand with barbs delivered in a cartoon of a German accent. Her genocidal hatred of children makes her an extreme example of a trope common to camp icons: the independent femme either indifferent or openly hostile to children and family — see also Glenn Close’s Cruella De Vil horrified by the news of her assistant’s pregnancy and Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones’s recurring disdain for children in restaurants. The Grand High Witch is not only vain and imperious — a diva — but openly contemptuous of her subjects who live in terrified thrall to her. All the witches embody Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as “Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” Assembled in the ballroom, assured the doors are locked and bolted, they remove their itchy wigs and painful shoes with the relief of drag queens unencumbering themselves backstage. (A few are even played by male actors, including Monty Python’s Michael Palin.)

I first grasped The Witches’s camp appeal at a party in college, when I overheard a friend recite the line, “Who spoke?” which the Grand High Witch utters before incinerating a back-talking subordinate with lasers from her eyes. Various camp delights were audible to me in those two words: delight in mimicking the character’s ludicrous, nonspecific accent; in taking up, if only for two syllables, the persona of a grandiose tyrant who would zap a minion to ashes merely for speaking out of turn; and of course, the delight of performing a distinctive line of dialogue so it becomes even more distinctive, even more itself — a pleasure increased by the selection of a line that has not yet been camped to death, à la Mommie Dearest’s “wire hangers” tirade or Bette Davis’s “What a dump!” Like an incantation, my friend’s performance transformed The Witches from the source of my own private humiliation into a communal object of veneration.

If, at age seven, I failed to pick up on The Witches’s riotous camp sensibility, or the icon appeal of its villainess, it wasn’t because I lacked a taste for the stuff — at the same age, I was drawn to the displays of tackiness and self-delusion on Absolutely Fabulous, even if that show’s references to fashion labels and cocaine flew over my head. My terror simply overwhelmed whatever faculties of irony I possessed as a child. Terror is nothing if not sincere.

My identification with other splendid villainesses was aided by the boringness of the ostensible leads. There was no danger of my identifying with Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora over Maleficent, because the heroine is less a character than a doll to be manipulated by the charismatic villain and the three bickering fairies. But The Witches situates the viewer so forcefully in the child’s point of view that identification with the villainess (no matter how glamorous) becomes all but impossible. The film’s genius, inherited from the Roald Dahl novel, is how it ups the ante on viewers’ habitual identification with the hero and implicates all children in its vision of horror. “Real witches hate children,” the boy’s witch-savvy grandmother warns us at the beginning of the film — all children, who smell to them of “dogs’ droppings.” The film reverses the trajectory of disgust for its child viewers, its true horror lying not in seeing the witches’ raw scalps and claws, but in seeing oneself, through their purple-tinged eyes, as something loathsome and abject.

That both children we see subjected to the witches’ humiliations in the 1990 original are white boys certainly contributed to my identification. The Robert Zemeckis remake, released on HBO Max in October, shifts the setting from the English seaside to a plantation-style hotel in 1960s Alabama and casts Black actors as the boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). A multiracial cast makes up the remake’s assembly of witches, but The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) is again a wealthy and powerful white woman. Mapping these racial and historical hierarchies onto a story already fraught with sadism is a provocation the remake lacks either the courage or the interest to explore. Aside from a few throwaway lines of dialogue, none of these new themes noticeably impact the plot. (“Witches only prey on the poor, the overlooked,” the grandmother asserts, which the film then quickly contradicts.)

As the new Grand High Witch, Hathaway commits camp’s cardinal sin — trying too hard to be camp — and thus flattens any possibility of reviving or complicating the original’s moments of abjection. In the original transformation scene, Huston’s gloved fingers enter Luke’s mouth, then swat at his face and back, coaxing him to stand and exhibit his abject mutation to the crowd of witches. “Loooook,” she coos, a perversion of the sound one might make to acknowledge an adorable child or animal. Here Hathaway dials her predecessor’s hauteur up to a humorless rage. Snarling nearly every line, picking up and smashing furniture, her character resembles less a gleeful dominatrix than a newcomer to an anger management class. Her feeling toward the boy registers as simple hatred. This may indeed scare many child viewers, but it does not invite the unsettling notion that one’s tormentor might take sensual pleasure in her work or how that might register for her victim. Zemeckis’s direction averts any transgressive intimacy. Rather than force the potion inside the boy’s mouth, Hathaway’s Grand High Witch instead pours it into his ear. (In the film’s only note of genuine camp — and the only time I laughed — she makes a Hamlet reference here.) The boy then skyrockets into the air so that he shape-shifts high above the witches’ heads, rather than beneath their mocking faces. He is spared abjection if not transformation.

Some feminist critics have accused Dahl’s novel and Roeg’s film of feeding into a misogynistic narrative as old as the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), a Catholic treatise on witchcraft that depicts women as inherently evil and deceptive. The fact that witches are emphatically not women but instead inhuman monsters only reinforces how their camouflaged existence renders womanhood itself a thing of doubt and anxiety. To me, though, their flamboyant evil was a titillating discovery. At seven, I was surrounded by nurturing women; there were almost no men in my life. I was conscious of being perceived by teachers and my mother’s friends as polite, precocious, cute. If I experienced their displeasure, it was for some momentary lapse in behavior. My mother didn’t stay angry long when she caught me draped in all her necklaces, her lipstick smeared across my face.

But Huston cast me off completely. In an early scene, I remember mimicking the graceful positioning of her hand against her cheek; mere minutes later, I knew her gestures were off limits to me. The epithets she hurls at Luke, with all the panache of dirty talk — “little stinkpot,” “stinking little carbuncle,” “small lump of dung” — defined me in sharp opposition to her. To be repulsed by a figure so elegant and powerful was to be denied the elegance and power I wanted for myself — and that denial was delectable. It was my introduction to the dance of seduction and subsequent withholding — of desire, of catharsis — inherent in the medium of film.

The notion of a gay icon implies a friendliness to the idolator, an invitation to partake in the idol’s power. But the icon who rejects and terrifies can leave just as indelible an impression as the one who welcomes. The witches did not embrace or empower me. But, to use the millennial parlance, they did make me gay.

¤

Charles Ramsay McCrory is a writer from Mississippi. McCrory was the 2019–2020 Senior Fellow in Fiction at Washington University in St. Louis, and his work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Evergreen Review, and Southern Humanities Review.

 

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