Friendship in the Time of Phantoms



Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers

We write together out of friendship.

Answering for our motivation in this way mostly disappoints those who ask why we wrote such an “unusual book” together.

Still, this is our best answer. Lacking reference to some kind of high-minded metaphysics (“making a difference”) or blatant self-interest (“why not write a book about a wild film?”), we suspect that this sounds like a put on. Far from it.

The “unusual book” is Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema and the Mastery of the Invisible (Fordham University Press, 2016). In it we show how Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 film Häxan (The Witch––re-released as Häxan, Witchcraft Through the Ages in 2001) relates to wide debates taking place in the 1920s regarding the relationship of film to scientific evidence, the evolving study of religion from historical and anthropological perspectives, and the complex relations between popular culture, art, religion, medicine, and psychology.

Realizing the Witch is expressed in a single voice that differs from either of ours alone. In many ways, so is Häxan. Christensen channels the spirits of his sources (medieval magistrates, spiritualists, psychical researchers, historians, psychiatrists) as a “scholarly” pursuit in cinematic form. In the same way we channelled a variety of friends––some “in the flesh” or over Skype (contemporary séance), but more often through their scholarship. Such friends provided us not only with a deep resource, but also inflect an ethic of connection through critically engaged work. Such friendships disqualify hard distinctions between passion and rigour but in no way deflect judgement from the work at hand––if anything, this demand becomes more intense. And we like it that way. Our list below acknowledges only a few of those friends we made during our own witch’s flight.

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Naming the Witch

Writing an entire book focused on one, sort-of-obscure Scandinavian film dating from the silent era of cinema is, admittedly, not standard operating procedure for anthropologists. The fact that we even attempted to draw out the complexity and importance of Christensen’s film across a book-length argument owes greatly to our commitment as anthropologists to an understanding of the phenomenon of witchcraft: the powerful (yet always fragile) ways in which people seek to prove to themselves and others that a witch is, in fact, afoot. James Siegel’s Naming the Witch (Stanford University Press, 2006) and Jeanne Favret-Saada’s Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage (Cambridge University Press, 1980) are particularly important to our study. In detailed ethnographic accounts of contemporary appearances of the witch, both authors take up the crucial fact that the witch is always sensed to be present well in advance of being found. This insight is central to our argument that nearly all forms of evidence, particularly what we accept as evidence of “a fact” in the human sciences, becomes “truthful” following more or less the same arc as what was taken as valid in the verification of a witch. Specific facts may be subsequently disproven and disavowed over time, but the way we make facts, even scientific facts, remains constant (yet seemingly beyond belief).


Demon Lovers

Walter Stephens’s Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief (University of Chicago Press, 2002) provides an unflinchingly historical account of how any witch tale is really the story of our mania for proof in a world vulnerable to skepticism, doubt, and nonknowledge. This was as true in the late Middle Ages as it is today, and Stephens demonstrates how putting accusations of witchcraft to the test was itself a form of reassurance for theologians and clergy who were otherwise displaying doubt about the reality of a Christian version of life and existence. Since God is “beyond proof,” it was Satan who was put to the test. And how could one gain proof of Satan’s evil in the world? By locating the women who had, through acts of sexual union, formed diabolical pacts with him. So women, seduced and ravaged by Satan, provided evidence of Satan’s existence, which in turn undercut the unthinkable position that God may not exist after all. The bibliography for Realizing the Witch lists a wealth of fine historical works on witches and the “witch craze” in Europe (Christopher S. Mackay’s brilliant The Hammer of Witches: A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum [Cambridge University Press, 2009] being one); none were so important to our project (viscerally and logically) as Demon Lovers.


The Invention of Hysteria

The passion for investigating, displaying, and proving how something invisible can nevertheless be real was central to our exploration of Häxan. How this passion could be expressed as systematic scientific inquiry is an insight we gained from Georges Didi-Huberman’s Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (MIT Press, 2003). Didi-Huberman’s account of Jean-Martin Charcot’s use of photography as a means of establishing a medical diagnosis of hysteria is meticulously reconstructed by the author. Again, the relation between something “sensed” and a judgement of the real is at the center of the analysis, but in Didi-Huberman’s case the impassioned figures at the heart of the story are a bit closer to home. The collaboration between scientist (Charcot) and subjects (particularly Augustine, Charcot’s most famous “case”) in forming a “real” image of hysteria was particularly important to us when trying to make sense of Christiansen’s own relationship to “the witch”. Didi-Huberman’s dexterity in bringing together the histories of science and art, his subtle grasp of the nature of images, and his ability to account for affect and passion within scientific work (often misrepresented as “hard objectivity”) served as a great model for our aspirations in Realizing the Witch.

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Wonders and the Order of Nature

Not all intellectual friends are featured quite so prominently in our book as those mentioned above. Sometimes, the inspiration is not explicit at all. And yet such works remained pivotal to what we ended up writing. Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park’s Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Zone Books, 1998) is a good example of what we mean. When we first read the book as students we were blown away by how artfully the authors take up seemingly insignificant or even weird topics (“Wonderment”? “Curiosities”? Monsters? –– who writes about these things in a serious way?) and forge a sharp intellectual project from it. More than this was the fact that the authors began their project while students together. Perhaps we were arrogant, but it seemed to us that if they could do it, and really do it beautifully, then conceivably we could do something similar. Having an excellent (intimidating) model before us of how one can take a burning graduate school obsession and fan those flames into something much more, the idea that our passion for an obscure, possibly insane, silent “horror” film could sustain an intellectual project took shape.


From the 1922 film Haxan

Finally, we should not forget Benjamin Christensen and Häxan itself as a kind of “friend.” It would be too mawkish to say that seeing the film “changed our lives,” but the fact remains that Christensen’s film leaves no viewer unmarked. At first we had no idea what to say, we just knew that we wanted to say something and say it together. Intellectual friends such as the ones we’ve mentioned made it possible to turn an inward conversation outward. At the very least, perhaps introduce one friend (Häxan)––a true phantom among phantom friends––to others.

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-16-17-30Richard Baxstrom is Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology and co-director of Atelier: Creative Arts and the Social Sciences Network at the University of Edinburgh. Todd Meyers is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Society, Health, and Medicine at New York University–Shanghai. Their most recent book together is Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema and the Mastery of the Invisible (Fordham University Press, 2016)

The image featured at the beginning of this post is from the 1922 film Häxan