[written by Witch Awareness Month contributor, Ruth Merriam]
[Beware of spoilers here]
How is it that I’ve watched Burn, Witch, Burn (ake Night of the Eagle – 1962) four times and never before bothered to read the book on which it was based? Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber, is not only a masterpiece of supernatural writing, it’s written by one of the most influential authors of the last century. The story first appeared in the April 1943 volume of the magazine Unknown Worlds, was expanded and included in an anthology, then finally published as a stand-alone novel in 1953.
The book and film diverge somewhat from each other, as is often the case. The book takes place in southern New England in the States, while the film is set in the bucolic English countryside. The surnames of the main characters are different in the two mediums. No doubt for the sake of necessity, many other details were changed as well.
Watch the film. Read the book. Even doing so back-to-back will not lessen the impact of either. I couldn’t put the book down.
So what’s this all about, eh? I’ll focus on the film.
They couldn’t help it, I suppose. They just had to start the film off with about 2 minutes of schlocky black screen with a monologue.
“ . . . I am now about to dispel all evil spirits that may radiate from the screen during this performance . . .
And now with a free mind and a protected soul, we ask you to enjoy Burn, Witch, Burn.”
Thankfully, once the monologue is over there isn’t a wasted frame in the film. The acting and cinematography are first rate, the dialogue is crisp and believable, and the interactions of the characters is so well done that watching it borders on voyeurism.
We have Norman Taylor, professor of Sociology and critical thinking, who teaches at Hempnell Medical College – a bastion of learning (and spoiled rich kid students) and gothic architecture (the eagle factors in later, but that would be a spoiler)
Professor Taylor in his element:
In his lecture, he emphasizes that, “I do not believe. I do not believe. So, to recap, four words necessary to destroy the forces of:
1) The Supernatural
4) Psychic etc. etc etc.”
While summing up, he tells his students, “Aladdin rubbed a lamp, and a genie appeared. Today, we can push a button and the whole of mankind is obliterated.”
He’s a rational man, a thinking man, a man on the fast track to the position of head of his department. A handsome man (played by Peter Wyngarde) with a seemingly charmed life.
But oh . . . those academic jealousies! This is a tale of witchcraft as well as a scathing look at departmental politics.
Norman is married to Tansy (played by Janet Blair), a woman who splits her time between their house near the college and a seaside cottage. Interesting choice of names as the herb Tansy has historically magical properties (it was allegedly given to the Greek mortal-turned-demigod Ganymede to bestow immortality upon him) as well as medicinal properties.
Their home is filled with items that, to the trained eye, are significant for their magical and folkloric properties. There’s a bell hanging hidden at the front door to ward off evil.
There are statues and significant art ranging from African witchdoctor masks to a statue of Kwan Yin. There’s a broom hanging above an archway. Norman seems utterly oblivious to this. Repeated viewings of the film reveal totems, gris-gris, and charms absolutely everywhere!
Tansy longs to return to Jamaica, where they spent some time while Norman did research. Norman reminds her of the downside, like malaria, but she’s nostalgic. Norman gently scoffs at her fascination with a “warlock” named Carubius with whom she spent time while in Jamaica. Did I mention that she’s also beautiful?
Tansy doesn’t care for the bickering and backbiting that goes along with being in academia, but keeps up with her duties as a professor’s wife by hosting a weekly bridge game for other members of the faculty.
Snark? They’ve got it. Double entendres? In spades . . . so to speak.
After the bridge game is over, Tansy seems distressed and while Norman sits and reads, she goes through their living room obviously searching for something. She opens drawers, looks under tables, slides her hands along the underside of shelves, but when Norman questions what she’s doing she brushes it off with a weak explanation about a shopping list. Just before they retire for the night, Norman is looking for something in a dresser drawer and needs to remove a drawer that contains Tansy’s things. He finds this:
Tansy is nervous and upset when she sees that the drawer has been taken out. Norman asks her about the jar, which she asserts is simply a memento from their time in Jamaica and a gift from Carubius. Norman is dismissive of her attachment to it.
After they’ve gone to bed for the night, she gets up while Norman sleeps and returns to the living room to resume her search and finds what she’s been looking for:
It’s a fetish that’s been knotted into a lampshade. Tansy takes it apart and burns it, but her sense of disquiet increases.
The next day, while Norman is getting out a jacket to give to a dry cleaner, he finds a sachet that’s been pinned to the underside of the lapel. This prompts him to go back to their bedroom where he rifles through Tansy’s dresser drawers. He finds more than he bargained for.
When Tansy returns from running errands, she notices that the bell is missing from over the front door. Upon entering the house, she finds a pile of her magical items on the living room table and an argument ensues. She knows that Norman’s success has been heavily influenced by her and that her protective magic has been keeping them both safe in a hostile environment. Norman all but accuses her of being insane. She insists that her magic has been responsible for his rapid career advancement and in keeping him from danger from jealous colleagues.
“What do you want to believe?
“I want some kind of an explanation!”
“Well, isn’t it obvious? I’m a witch.”
Tansy recounts an experience they had in Jamaica in which Carubius saved the life of a young girl by taking the offered life of her grandmother in the girl’s place. Norman had fallen ill, and Tansy, in desperation, thought of Carubius’s magic. Although she didn’t resort to Carubius’s help because Norman recovered on his own, that was the event that started her down the path of witchcraft.
Norman demands that she destroy all her charms and talismans and come to her senses. Tansy says, “I tell you, Norman, I will not be responsible for what happens to us if you make me give up my protections!” While he’s burning everything, he asks if there’s anything that she didn’t give to him. She pulls out a locket that she’s wearing and gives it to him. Behind his photo are some dried herbs and while he’s dumping them into the flames, his photo goes in as well. Tansy panics and begs him to retrieve the photo, but it’s too late.
And that is when the stuff hits the fan.
The story builds from here with everything from a female student accusing Norman of seducing her to a student with failing grades trying to kill him to Norman nearly being run down by a delivery truck. The faculty politics becomes a nest of vipers. Something tries to break into Norman and Tansy’s home, triggered by sounds coming over the phone. Terrible things escalate rapidly and Tansy becomes desperate to save the man whom she adores.
But . . . Tansy is not the only witch in this tale.
As the tension in the film increases, Norman tries to track down Tansy who has left him a message telling him that she’s going to die in his place. He finds that she’s been at their seaside cottage and discovers stacks of books on witchcraft and black magic. Fighting against reason, but desperate to save her, Norman goes so far as to attempt a spell he finds in one of her books.
He’s too late, though, and the Tansy who comes back to him isn’t quite the Tansy he knows. The film shifts focus from narrative to her POV and back again at this point, creating a sense of disorientation that’s very effective. Shortly after she comes back to him, they return to their home and things get even worse.
Indeed, Tansy is not the only witch in town.
I think this is a good place to stop before I give it all away.
Burn, Witch, Burn is currently available on streaming Netflix for those who have access. It’s available on DVD and can be purchased. I cannot recommend this film, and its source book, highly enough. As I wrote earlier, I’ve watched the film four times. I’m certain that I’ll watch it many, many more times and will likely start writing down a list of all the witchcraft-related objects scattered around their house.
Are you wondering why I’m so interested in all those items? It’s simple. Tansy and Norman’s house reminds me a great deal of my own, and of the homes of many of my friends.