‘Queer Horror’ preview: season of the witch

Halloween installment in Hollywood Theatre's film series celebrates the infernal feminine


The witches are coming. No longer are they meeting just in thunder, lightning, or in rain, dancing at the Sabbat’s fire and clothed only by its flickering glow. No longer do they tap their claws against bedroom windows hungry for a feast, tethered to the pagan holidays of old or the worship of Yahweh’s prosecutor-turned-nemesis. Witches today emerge from the dirt and the swamps, from your schools and grocery stores and homes; no longer green and hooknosed, they approach in all shapes, sizes, and colors. From Lady Gaga’s sorceress in American Horror Story to Kristen J. Sollee’s sociological text Witches, Sluts, and Feminists and a whole canon of modern women-centric horror films, the witches are here, and they are legion.

Lady Gaga in ‘American Horror Story.’

These witches aren’t exactly the “perfect love and perfect trust” neopagans who combine ceremonial magic with New Age appropriations like smudging while protesting “negative” stereotypes of witches. No, these are satanic feminist witches – and yet not entirely capital-S Satanists, either. Just as the horror genre is experiencing a retro-throwback in media like ItIt Followsand Stranger Things, so too is witchcraft – the satanic feminist earth witch is a resurrection of the classic witch-used-against-women, the haggard crone thrown to the fire and dropped from the gallows.

W.I.T.C.H. PDX at the PDX Women’s March. Photo: Leigh Richards.

The witches are even making their way to Portland, and they’re ready for justice. Recently the whitest city in America has been treated to pop-up rituals and protests by W.I.T.C.H. (or the Witches’ International Troublemaker Conspiracy from Hell), itself a reboot of a 1960s feminist protest group of the same name. First appearing at the Portland Women’s March in January, Portland’s W.I.T.C.H. chapter has spawned a resurgence of similar covens across the country, all acting anonymously and championing an intersectional feminist code of protest from behind black veils. And on October 27, Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and its bimonthly program Queer Horror will launch a short-film festival of satanic feminist films as a Halloween tribute to these wild women and a new order of witchcraft.

In this era of reboots, everything old is new again – but despite the antique imagery, today’s witches couldn’t be more relevant. In films like Robert Eggers’ The Witch, the misogynist trope of the child-eating witch in the woods becomes a symbol of power, turning the bogeywoman myth on its head as a feminist rejection of Western Christian patriarchy – of men’s efforts to control women’s bodies and the earth. And as these women are no longer subservient to God nor man, the devil becomes a symbol of resistance. According to Vancouver, Canada-based burlesque performer and actress Tristan Risk, star of feminist horror films like American Mary and Harvest Lake, the satanic witches of today have “always been there, but it was through the male gaze before. It was the visual manifestation of men’s fears about women in control. Now when we see it, it’s not fearing the feminine occult power, it’s a celebration of it.”

Tristan Risk in ‘Madre di Dios.’

Satanic feminism, then, is not the worship of a Judeo-Christian Satan by equality-minded individuals. Satanic feminism is a political – and sometimes spiritual – aesthetic movement equating progressive ideals of intersectional feminism, anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-oppression, environmentalism, and the rejection of toxic masculinity and its consequences. As Risk notes, the moral code of Satanism makes a natural familiar to accompany today’s feminism. “One of [the Church of Satan’s] main tenets is that women have autonomy,” she says. Comparatively, “feminism is about choice. It’s about equality. I find that the two both offer a more progressive stance on the way that people interact with each other.”

After the election of Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by several women just the same as Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein (though, unlike Weinstein, Trump was given a promotion, even after bragging about sexual assault on a hot mic), the Hollywood Theatre’s series Queer Horror re-focused its programming criteria. As the only exclusively LGBTQ horror screening series in the country, its 2017 program responds to a woman-hating administration with femme-centric films where women rage, rise up, and reject.

Lately, female filmmakers have blessed horror with a new pantheon of rebellious, avenging women in modern classics like The Lure, RawThe Love Witchand A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. As Risk puts it, “a scream queen isn’t only a female character screaming in fear. Now the female character is now much more likely to be the one inciting that fear, and causing those same screams.” Even Disney and shock rocker Rob Zombie have ventured into exceptional feminist horror with witch revenge tales Maleficent and Lords of Salem.

Sign of the Beast Burlesque. Photo: Peter Carlson.

Inspired by these films and hosted by my own drag clown alter-ego Carla Rossi, this year’s Queer Horror has celebrated everything from lesbians escaping the mafia and finding love and $2 million in Bound to the first slasher film written and directed by women, Slumber Party Massacre, in which a targeted band of high school girls gang up and sever the killer’s phallic drill before taking him out together. And each year Queer Horror features an evening of short films punctuated by live stage performances.

For Queer Horror Halloween on October 27, Portland’s premier drag clown is gathering satanic feminist short films and placing them between performances by the women of Sign of the Beast Burlesque, a Portland burlesque troupe famous for riotous, satanic death metal numbers and their weekend-long Metalesque fest. Local filmmakers like Caleb Jeremiah Wells, Kaitlyn Stodola, and the Sign of the Beast ladies themselves are submitting new horror films commissioned personally by Carla, while national filmmakers will contribute their own pieces to this celebration of the infernal feminine.

Still from Izzy Lee’s ‘Rites of Vengeance.’

Filmmaker Izzy Lee’s Rites of Vengeance tells the shockingly compassionate and simultaneously brutal story of three nuns enforcing contrition on a priest who’s abused the trust of his parishioners. Mexican director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Madre Di Dios depicts two chthonic Brujas kidnapping a white woman – portrayed by Tristan Risk – and showing her a different side of the local culture.

That’s not to say this satanic celebration comes without levity – Ama Lea’s From Hell She Rises questions the patriarchy inherent in traditional Satanism in a campy gorefest tribute to The Vampire Lovers, while Instagram drag luminaries Susan and Denise present a Halloween special revolving around a possessed pizza. Sign of the Beast’s short includes a pizza demon of its own. Satan’s hot right now, and so is the pizza.

Susan and Denise bring a Halloween special to this fall’s Queer Horror.

The witches are here. If you listen closely, you can hear them singing and laughing by the Sabbat fires – but rather than the Enochian chanted by the coven in The Witch, these devils steer more towards their own compositions: new ones, fresh ones, more just ones lined with their own histories and triumphs. And as you listen, they may even drop in a line or two from the dark chanteuse Lana Del Rey – who famously led a call to hex Donald Trump and sang “God’s dead, I said baby that’s all right with me.”

Queer Horror Halloween is 9:30 pm Friday, October 27 at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, followed by an after party at The Know bar. Tickets are available at hollywoodtheatre.org. Find out more at thecarlarossi.com and queer-horror.com.

Anthony Hudson is a Portland-based artist, performer, and filmmaker who – full disclosure – is also the programmer of Queer Horror and the human avatar for Portland’s premier drag clown, Carla Rossi. When Anthony isn’t working on their new play Still Looking For Tiger Lily, they spend the majority of their time watching horror movies and fantasizing about being swept away by a coven of bloodthirsty witches.

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