This was a terrific year for movies and TV, and of course that has in some measure impacted media that portrays or references paganism and the occult. There were also some media stories that came from within or directly impacted the pagan community. Here, in no particular order of importance, are some highlights…
Zombies just won’t die. It’s finally becoming clear that the proliferation of “zombie” (or, if you’re a purist like me, you call them “ghouls”) stories in film, TV, comics and other media goes beyond viewers’ willingness to, uh, devour them. This genre (for it has become a genre) is now understood as a metaphor, one that mirrors back the panic of a pre-apocalyptic society whose odds for survival depend upon stockpiling of ammunition, antibiotics, and carefully-applied birth control. The more extreme factions of survivors might be religious zealots, or oppressors of women (see the excellent indie film STAKE LAND); or they may be a rag tag bunch of citizens thrown together fighting for dominance and compassion (see the excellent AMC series THE WALKING DEAD, now in is second season). Who are the zombies? Are they faceless, voracious consumers? (Romero explored this idea in DAWN OF THE DEAD) Or are they the weak-willed, the physically-soft, the masses who would not stand up for decency? There is a political allegory afoot here, and a sobering one, and the parallels between pagan community marginalization and survivalist in-fighting is hard to miss: will our desire for self-sufficient pagan homesteads necessitate finding ways to reconcile our differences in light of external threats? But the key point is this: the scariest thing in the zombie apocalypse is not the threat of being eaten by a ghoul, or even becoming a ghoul once bitten. The scariest thing is the downfall of an artificial society in which the illusory web of our safety, our belongings and our autonomy can be torn asunder by anyone mean or ruthless enough to reach out and do it. Rule Number One: Cardio.
Indie Pagan Cinema makes its mark. From the ambitious music-based SPIRIT OF ALBION (with songs by Damh the Bard) to the spooky, blood-soaked, folklore-laden horror flick CALL OF THE HUNTER, there’ve been a lot of great attempts to bring paganism into the theatres. There is also AMERICAN MYSTIC, a fascinating documentary by Alex Mar (interviewed here by Jason Pitzl-Waters) about alternative spirituality which profiles an African-American Spiritualist, a Native American Sundancer, and a Caucasian Wiccan priestess.
THE WICKER TREE becomes a reality. Beset with funding difficulties (most famously when some Christian backers, perhaps confused by the earlier working title COWBOYS FOR CHRIST, pulled their support when they learned of the film’s pagan themes), this sequel to the well-loved film THE WICKER MAN is helmed by director Robin Hardy, who gave us the brilliant 1973 film (with screenwriter Anthony Shaffer), which was perhaps the most influential and controversial film portraying (a version of) modern paganism ever made. Sadly Mr. Shaffer died before he could see the sequel project come to light, but Hardy has worked hard to make the project a reality, and a third film is also in the works. After much difficulty with funding, filming is nearly complete and THE WICKER TREE should open sometime in 2012. Speed the day!
Pagan podcasts make a surprising impact. Radio is not radio anymore: its internet radio. This means it is not bound to specific broadcast times or constraints, and so people can link in and listen at their leisure. Some new voices already going strong: disability rights activist Jane Hash (who with typical self-deprecating glee refers to herself as “The Gimp Avenger” on her blog) started her new show “Hashing it Out with Jane” just a few weeks ago and already has a huge fan base. The archives all linked there so give it a listen. Witchvox lists a number of pagan podcasts here, some of which record sporadically, some weekly, and some, like the “Pagans Tonight Radio Network,” feature nightly shows.
Animated films take on pagan themes. Not for nothing, animation is the perfect showcase for themes of paganism, and not just because of the association with fantasy and fairy tales. Animated characters are more fluid when it comes to spirituality and the storylines tend to portray adventures that challenge heroes’ weaknesses and flaws: lessons in personal transformation! Case in point: the new Pixar story of a Scottish warrior princess, BRAVE (previously called THE BEAR AND THE BOW). There is still plenty of fantasy mixed in with these pagan themes, as with THE KING OF THE ELVES; and some environmental prophecy, as with the now-cancelled NEWT. 2012 will also see new installments of MADAGASCAR and ICE AGE, both of which deal with important environmental trends. DOROTHY OF OZ will have witches aplenty, and PARANORMAN features a misunderstood boy who can communicate with the dead (it’s being billed as an animated film about zombies).
Exorcism and cults inspire compelling stories. With last year’s THE LAST EXORCISM we saw the beginning of a seeming obsession with the “industry” of exorcism. This year’s THE RITE, based on a true story of a vatican-trained exorcist, made it clear there is a legitimate practice sought out by those in need. Soon there will be more films exploring the topic: THE DEVIL INSIDE and THE POSSESSION, and I have to assume interest in this genre is not slowing down. It’s intriguing that a Catholic approach to dealing with the devil should be dominating cinematic treatments, since the Evangelical obsession with Satan is so much more widespread in the United States. As for cults, there were two wonderful indie films dealing with fringe religious groups that victimized women. HIGHER GROUND stars Vera Farmiga (who also directed) as a passionate, articulate woman who finds that her church discourages her from being a spokesperson equal to its male members. In MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, Elizabeth Olsen stars as a young woman named Martha who is lured onto a rural farm where a charismatic “leader” (John Hawkes) runs a misogynistic “family” according to his rules. After she leaves the farm, Martha is traumatized by memories of her ordeal and has trouble trying to get her life back. As small, independent “churches” continue to flourish across the country, I imagine such stories will flourish as well.
Fairy tales are hot…and sexy. A proliferation of live-action (as opposed to animated) fairy tale movies made for young adult audiences appeared in theatres and on TV this year: GRIMM and ONCE UPON A TIME are two shows dealing with fairy tale tropes and themes. In theatres, HANNA gave us a “Red Riding Hood”-tinged tale of a girl enhanced by military experiments, raised in the woods and forced to do battle with both wicked stepmothers and big bad wolves. Catherine Hardwicke’s RED RIDING HOOD both was a glossy, slightly-erotic treatment of the classic tale, complete with a celebration of young villagers that was straight out of a pagan festival. Look for more of these to come: SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN stars Kristen Stewart in the title role, MIRROR< MIRROR stars Julia Roberts and Lily Tomlin in a comedic twist on the Snow White story, and Emma Watson (our own Hermione Granger) will start in a version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. And let's not forget HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arteron. This is one storytelling trend that is not slowing down any time soon.
Witches are back on TV…again. THE SECRET CIRCLE is a sexy teen series on (where else?) the CW network, and while it’s cheesy, it does seem to have its followers. And of course the big news on HBO’s TRUE BLOOD this season was the presence of a coven of witches led by Irish actress Fiona Shaw. Witches are also popping in and out of GRIMM and ONCE UPON A TIME. I still miss EASTWICK< which was cancelled prematurely, and hope that we'll get a more adult series about witches some time soon.
Oh, and…by the by, the West Memphis Three went free. This, friends, was the top pagan media story of 2011. The power of media to educate and inform is well known, but how often does a documentary film help free innocents from prison? This travesty of justice, informed by superstitious satanic panic and rumors of cults in a conservative Arkansas town, was chronicled by filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger in their trio of films made for HBO, and these films helped attract the interest and support of celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, Margaret Cho, Henry Rollins and many others, as well as thousands of supporters and dozens of lawyers over the last 18 years. It is sad and infuriating that it took so long to free these men; but on August 19th, 2011, justice was finally served for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. The three freed men were able to attend the American premiere of the third film in the series PURGATORY: PARADISE LOST 3 at the New York Film Festival. I was honored to be in attendance to witness this historic occasion, a moment many have been hoping and praying for for nearly two decades. I know there will many more news stories about this case and these remarkable men in the months to come, so stay tuned for 2012!