Cover Photo: Parker Day Promotional Photo For “The Love Witch”
What would you do for a love as perfect as a fairytale? For Elaine, the ethereal and disturbed star of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016) played by Samantha Robinson, the answer to that question would be: by any occultic means necessary.
She, like many little girls all around the world, grew up being fed the fantasy of the strong and capable Prince who would smite all the Princess’s demons and love her fiercely. In today’s society, this story is largely recognized as one produced by a patriarchal system which, through the use of the male gaze, limits women to damsels in distress worthy of pity and in dire need of a hyper-masculine male savior whose heroism would be rewarded with the damsel’s body and beauty. Anna Biller turns this concept on its head to affirm that in the same way men have fantasies of obtaining a beautiful, female prize, so do women themselves possess sensual fantasies and perceptions of love and romance.
Female fantasies do not exist outside of the influence of the male gaze in The Love Witch, rather it focuses on how women’s ideas of self and relationships, though there own, become twisted and mutated by the normalized stereotypical gender roles and desires of cis-gendered heterosexual men. This all sets the groundwork for the warped and misguided actions Elaine is more than willing to take – whether it be to drug a man so that he embraces her or concoct a witch bottle so that a deceased lover may always have a piece of her – if they bring her one step closer to finding the man of her psychedelic dreams.
When the audience is first introduced to Elaine, she has resumed her fervid search for love after the suspicious death of her ex-husband who she explains to others has merely “left” her. And, of course, she has now, in her own words, been reborn as a witch, equipped with a deeper and truer understanding of men thanks to the teachings of the Wiccan coven that took her in during her time of sorrow and redefined how she was meant to reflect her womanhood to the world.
This is where director and screenwriter Biller, who holds a total of ten credits on The Love Witch, offers a perception of men not bound by the flattery and forgiveness of the male gaze. The inherent nature of men is not the strong, resilient and dependable identity that has been historically favored by mainstream content, but rather a childlike existence so fragile that any refusal of their desires or assertion of power by a woman would shatter their reality thus disabling their ability to love.
How then does a woman on the hunt for a perfectly masculine male specimen to call her own manage to give and to get love?
Witchcraft is at the heart of the Wiccan practice whose indoctrination Elaine has succumbed to, it is at its heart the study and application of magic to enact one’s will on the universe. Love magic is the main point of interest and specialty of the protagonist given that it is not only what she covets most in the world but also the entire basis of her identity.
French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in 1954, a discourse on the second-class status of women during the twentieth century. In it, she explains, amongst others, the archetype of “the woman in love” who “having no basis to form her own identity separate from her relationships … seeks subjectivity through the eyes of another, in this case, her romantic partner” (McBride). With this insight into Elaine’s societal situation, a contextualized understanding can be had when observing her morally objectionable and illegal decision to use potions made of alcohol mixed with hallucinogenic herbs to distort the senses of her non-consenting lovers to generate a reaction from them that she perceives to be the opening of their hearts to her.
Love potions are a fairly commonplace idea due to their repetitive appearance throughout pop culture, from movies to television, books to song lyrics – everyone has been made aware of the magical concoctions being used to entrap a, typically unwilling, partner. That having been said, the love potions of today are described as involving a much more docile and mundane list of potential ingredients that are more or less safe to ingest with proper precaution, much like Elaine’s combination of organic berries, vodka and hallucinogenic herbs.
Historically speaking, folk rituals and remedies that were designed to result in love required much more intimate and unseemly components such as powdered bone, menstrual blood, animal remains, and poisonous plants like henbane (Winsham and Hoare). The Neo-Pagan and New Age movements largely responsible for the revitalization of contemporary witchcraft practicum have reinvented or watered-down some of the less palatable applications of magic in an attempt to separate themselves from negative preconceived notions, specifically, the picture of the witch as an instrument of evil.
Where Elaine’s love potion deviates from modern instruction and morphs into a piece of magic all her own, is her standard inclusion of a burlesque-style dance show for her unsuspecting and enthralled victims immediately followed by a desperate and passionate consummation of what will inevitably be a disappointing and short-lived love-affair.
Nearly an hour into the film, the viewer receives a vital piece of doctrine that informs and guides Elaine’s tactical use of her seductive prowess through two distinctly different filters. One is that of the Wiccan Head Priest, Gahan, who sounds like the living embodiment of the patriarchy when describing to two young, wide-eyed girls, with clear aspirations of becoming ordained witches in their own right, that their greatest power as women rests in their sexuality.
The Wiccan High Priestess, Barbara, is simultaneously delivering a deluded feminist manifesto that explains how female sexuality has been stifled and weaponized against them and proclaims women must reclaim their inner goddess as a means by which to achieve true equality with men. This secondary message, however, has obviously been conflated with the preachings of Gahan so flawlessly that the High Priestess does not even realize that her female gaze is nothing more than the male gaze under the guise of duplicitous pro-feminist terminology.
Suddenly, Elaine’s use of her body and sex magic as a sort of toxin to ensnare and bewitch men coupled with her belief that it will result in true and everlasting love can be recognized as another case of the successful patriarchal brainwashing of a receptive woman.
The men that fall under the hypnotic gaze of the love-obsessed witch are given a dosage of Jimsonweed, also classified under the nickname Devil’s Weed, resulting in the experience of an acutely intense altered state. The cinematography, sound design, visual effects, and Robinson’s enticing performance all communicate through the screen that the men are enraptured by Elaine who now appears to them as a divine goddess of love and sex ripe for the taking and who is there to fulfill their every want and need. However, Elaine’s perception of what is occurring in those instances is just as much of a hallucination.
Despite the actualization of her sexual fantasy of being worshipped as a goddess through the eyes and hands of these men “‘… when it actually happens, it’s not the same as [her] self-worship. It doesn’t contain any human respect. There’s no real love there. [Because] objectification precludes love’” (Freeman). So it’s unsurprising when both of Elaine’s sexual encounters end with her harboring feelings of annoyance and repulsion as the men crumble into sobbing little boys begging her to play more so the role of a mother than a lover.
Biller presents, in regards to her depiction of men, the overarching question of “‘… what would happen if men loved women as strongly as women want them to; the way women crave to be loved by men. Men are known for being much less emotional than women, but, in my experience, they’re much more emotional. And that’s why they won’t, or can’t, open that gate – it would destroy them. And that’s what kills all the men in my movie – having to experience their own feelings’” (Patterson).
It can also be said that being required to endure such emotional intensity in solitude guaranteed their deadly demise. A causation Elaine was entirely unaware of, not out of carelessness, but because she herself had endured a bleeding heart and risen again with no soul to provide her comfort and never suspected the men of being so weak as to die of the level of heart-wrenching emotions so familiar to women.
The closest that Elaine comes to sympathizing with a male counterpart in the film (who remains the object of her desire for but a fleeting moment in time), is when the audience witnesses the rapid development of her first affair after moving to a new town. Her lover, Wayne, has passed in his sleep after being so overwhelmed by the emotions unlocked within him by Elaine’s love-making that it results in heart failure. She prepares him for burial herself, hinting to just enough of a sense of wrong-doing in the eyes of modern society to know not to call the police.
The most intriguing element of this sequence is Elaine’s meticulous and methodical preparation of a witch bottle, an item of witchcraft constructed for protection that dates back centuries and is known by scholars as a “magical talismans used … to ward off spells or cure disease” (Collinson). Nevertheless, her intended use for it had nothing to do with wanting Wayne’s burial place to be defended from negative energies. The truth is she pitied him; his death had disallowed him from ever being able to appreciate and witness her presence ever again and so she would ensure that some remnant of her bodily essence stayed with him, always.
“‘In witchcraft, personal objects carry a lot of power. Anything anybody’s used, a comb, a lock of hair, a drop of sweat, anything that comes from somebody’s body has incredible magical power. People have historically made witch bottles using their urine, hair, and also herbs, nails, pins, and things, to scare away the spirits. That’s an ancient practice’” Biller stated in an interview when asked about the specificities of the witch bottle depicted in the film (Kelsey). Elaine began by pouring her own urine into a clear, glass bottle, followed by a bloody used tampon, unnamed herbs, and hardware nails. She corked the bottle and proceeded to wheel her lover’s dead body outside, dig a hole and bury him all while the audience listens to her narrated thoughts on her comfortability and familiarity with the death of those she has loved.
But how exactly did Elaine become the morally-perverted practitioner of magic with such an apparent lack of empathy for men and their suffering incapable of acknowledging her own wrong-doing and evil? It takes more than brainwashing to erase all of one’s ability to consider the emotional turmoil and personal livelihood of others. There is an extensive level of disconnect, trauma and hatred that is usually programmed, due to environmental circumstances, into the psyche of someone with the sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies that Elaine exhibits throughout the movie.
Her story is one of pain, filled with a trauma that runs so deep it blinds her to the trauma she inflicts on others. In the eyes of her father, she was ‘a crazy bitch’ with too many extra pounds on her bones. In the eyes of her ex-husband, she was a dissatisfactory homemaker who should spend more time brushing her hair, cleaning the house, managing her weight and preparing his meals in a timely fashion so as not to be an embarrassment to him. In the eyes of her Head Priest, she was the bearer of a woman’s body; his sacred altar space meant to be worshipped through penetrative sex by “divine design.”
“‘Everything that constitutes Elaine’s character is something that has been socially determined by being a woman living in a man’s world, and [from] being disappointed and abused and shamed over and over again’” Biller explains (Tsjeng). Elaine is the survivor of a vulgar father, a verbally abusive husband, and a predatory priest, now the hunted has become the hunter and it grows clear that the remorseless monster she has become is a direct product of the crimes of men.
Having realized that the only way to truly obtain a man’s heart forever was by carving it out of his own chest, Elaine’s story ends by doing just that to her final lover. She cuts open his sternum with a silver dagger and as the corpse of her beloved rests by her side the perfect fairytale ending plays in her head complete with a wedding ring, a kiss, and a white horse.
All the hallucinogenic herbs, love spells, and witch bottles in the world couldn’t make Elaine’s romantic fantasy anything more than an imagined future too impossibly idealistic and unapologetically feminine to ever come true. Because, as Biller has pointed out, in the real world female fantasy and pleasure don’t have the luxury of being acknowledged as important concepts worthy of attentiveness.
More often than not, the pain, humiliation, and punishment of women are held in higher regard than even their basic humanity. So then, perhaps the deadliest drug of all is the one most often sold to women as the bringer of eternal happiness and fulfillment: the love of a man. But not the love of reality which involves compromise, tension and patience. Rather, what ultimately makes Elaine’s version of love so deadly is that she does not realize that what she is addicted to is a misogynistic lie cultivated by men for men with no regard for women’s autonomy or desires – the kind of love that exists within the pages of fairy tales and is better off left there because it resembles a horror story when brought to life.
But women and femmes have plenty of nightmares, visions, and stories of masculine monsters who drug pretty girls and exact unspeakable violence upon them to satisfy themselves, so maybe Biller blessed and diversified pop culture by conceiving of a female villain so undeniably linked to modern-day patriarchal society as to strike fear and insult into the hearts of men for a change.
Collinson, Alwyn. “Sorcery on Display: Witch Bottles.” Museum of London, 29 Oct. 2018, https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/sorcery-display-witch-bottles.
Freeman, Ellen. “‘I’m a Freak, I’m a Witch … I’m Just a Female.”.” Lenny Letter, Lenny Letter, 26 Jan. 2018, https://www.lennyletter.com/story/interview-the-love-witch-filmmaker-anna-biller.
Kelsey, Colleen. “Anna Biller’s Practical Magic.” Interview Magazine, 14 Nov. 2016, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/anna-biller-the-love-witch.
McBride, Kellye. “The Female Gaze and Agency in Anna Biller’s The Love Witch: Horror Movie.” Horror Homeroom, 28 Mar. 2019, http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/the-female-gaze-and-agency-in-anna-billers-the-love-witch/.
Patterson, John. “The Love Witch Director Anna Biller: ‘I’m in Conversation with the Pornography All around Us’.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Mar. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/02/love-witch-director-anna-biller-conversation-pornography.
Tsjeng, Zing. “The Woman Behind ‘The Love Witch’ on Creating a Film for Female Pleasure.” Vice, 11 Nov. 2016, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/zmbv3x/the-love-witch-director-anna-biller-interview.
Winsham, Willow, and James Hoare. “Mandrake & Menstrual Blood: 10 Medieval Love Potion Recipes and Ingredients.” History Answers, 28 June 2017, https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/medieval-renaissance/gunnhild-mother-of-kings-a-viking-witch-queen-slandered-b y-the-sagas/.