Season of the Witch. Written and directed by George A. Romero. Starring Jan White, Raymond Laine, Ann Muffly.
All my life I have been educated that a patriarchal, protective, establishment which created and enforced castes, classes, rules, and mores to protect commoners from making bad decisions (such as marriage out of their classes and deviation from gender roles) that could perhaps disrupt social stability and endanger the prerogatives of the ruling class was a wrong, an outdated, feudal construct. I was taught that the concept of a father-knows-best society had been rejected generations ago by previously disenfranchised peoples—people of color (i.e., not Caucasian), people with non-traditional sexual viewpoints, and women—who vetoed being assigned their places in the world (i.e. living in separate sectors and working less desirable jobs). In my Catholic and Jesuit education and beyond, I was always taught that individual conscience and individual industry were the birthrights of every human being, each of whom had the right to decide the course of her or his own life. I was taught that humans have been valued as individuals, at least in our Western society, ever since the Renaissance.
The Season of the Witch, produced by George Romero in 1972, takes us back to a less free time; it tells the story of the pre-liberation male chauvinist pig-style oppression of a privileged 1960s housewife, played unbelievably well by Jan White. The film opens with a Jungian dream sequence, in which Joanie Mitchell follows her husband Jack through the stages of a woman’s life—infant, girl, crone; she walks several steps behind him, as he leads the way through the forest, reading his newspaper. In the next scene, she is led, literally, on a leash, and Jack hits her with the newspaper and kennels her in a cage next to a dog, to board her while he goes out of town on a business trip. In the following, also surreal, scene, Joanie is shown her dream house in a gated community, by an agent who explains all the conveniences which are included: the latest appliances, a fully-stocked larder, a bevy of bridge club ladies, a teenage daughter, a handyman who provides “et cetera,” and TV shows designed “to give you ideas.” Joanie never smiles. Joanie says little, and her mouth is always tightly set. Her pre-fab life with its proscribed activities, boundaries, and values is a kennel, too, a claustrophobic nightmare. The viewer can feel the tightening of her spring as the plot progresses.
Joanie lives my own recent experiences (and that of many other people) in the pandemic. Joanie is not a free agent, as are few of us in these day of the new Moral Majority. Sorry, but, no, we are not all of us in this together. Some of us choose to take chances, to live, not to hide in a cul-de-sac in the suburbs, sheltering in place behind a corporate husband or a doctor in a white lab coat. Some of our own springs have sprung—witness Black Lives Matter protests and the invasion of the Capitol. Many people, inhabiting all places on the political spectrum, and every walk of life, resent a paternalistic government telling us what is good for us, and taking from us our freedom of choice.
Now that her daughter is grown, Joanie has lost her vocation. She goes to a shrink seeking help with her feeling of being trapped in a now-purposeless suburbia. She tells the psychiatrist, “Just thinking about [extramarital sex] makes me feel guilty.” She mentions this because all her suburban housewife friends either fantasize about, or have, extramarital affairs—which are viewed as a socially acceptable steam valve for the frustrations inherent in oppression: the thrill of the hunt gives them some kind of purpose in their empty nests. After all, their major role in life had been to catch a husband and raise a family. In their discussion a reference is made to Rosemary’s Baby—like Rosemary’s, Joanie’s society is toxic, too.
Joanie accompanies her friend Shirley to a tarot reading, and, while her friend is being warned by the tarot reader of a dark-haired rival for her love interest, Joanie picks up a book and starts reading about becoming a witch. Her wheels have started to turn. After the reading, Joanie drives Shirley to her house, where they have drinks with Joanie’s daughter Nikki and her boyfriend Gregg. All four consider themselves “hip,” which means “loose” regarding pot, alcohol, and sex, and are trying to act very worldly. In this scene, in which Gregg is surrounded by the women in Joanie’s living room, as a pasha is by his harem, he cruelly baits them with mind games designed to force them to admit their doubts and inadequacies. Using the power of suggestion, Gregg makes Shirley believe that she is smoking pot (it is really just a tobacco placebo); and he humiliates her by forcing her to make a public admission that her greatest fear is that she is “over the hill.” “I’m not finished yet. . .I want to do things,” she cries in anguish. Shirley knows that with the loss of her youthful attractiveness, her choices in life have become severely limited. Not only has her chance of finding true love vanished, but even the paltry outlet of love affairs has gone. Gregg enjoys degrading women, and then sleeping with them, emphasizing no strings attached both pre- and post-coitus, to dehumanize the act.
Joanie feels the walls closing in. When her daughter runs away, her husband blames her and strikes her twice. She dreams repeatedly of a masked man breaking into her home. She begins to study witchcraft. A “now” kind of hobby, interest in the occult is socially acceptable, like macramé, among the bridge club ladies. Except that Joanie takes it seriously: she says she wants to find out who Joanie is. In another poignant scene, Jack conducts his business on the telephone at the dinner table, talking loudly and demonstrating, rooster-like, his testosterone and position as head of the house and breadwinner; he does not notice that Joanie is silently working magic (shaking the coffee pot on the table telepathically before his unseeing eyes). Later, as he talks in bed, Joanie lies on her back, mutely staring at the ceiling, in a scene suggestive of passivity in sex. Jack begins to understand: “I’m sorry Joanie. I shouldn’t have hit you.” He misses the big picture, though; Joanie is in his bed and everything is as it should be, as far as he is concerned. At the bridge club, the ladies are still talking about taking courses at “the Y” from a sexy young man. But Joanie’s mind is not on distractions.
Joanie practices her new magic upon Gregg. When she summons him to her home, Gregg assumes that she is hot for him, and he patronizes her, calling her “Mrs. Robinson,” instead of her real name, and repeatedly insisting that their sexual encounter is devoid of personal feeling. Joanie tells him that she understands, and that she has summoned him because she needs two people to conjure the dark lord. It turns out that the lord works in mysterious ways. Having rehearsed the break-in by the masked man so many times in her dreams, when her husband returns a day early from his business trip, Joanie mistakes him for a prowler and shoots him dead with his own hunting rifle.
Joanie joins a witches’ coven, entering the world of Rosemary’s Baby as a willing participant, not as a dupe or a victim. At the end of the movie, another housewife, at another suburban party, asks her to share her knowledge with her. The occult world is a place where woman has equal footing.
All the inducements, the placebos, and the punishments meted out for resistance cannot contain Joanie anymore. The widow Joanie rejects a safe, proscribed life and code of conduct and spreads her wings. She starts to live—at last —when she decides to live by her own rules, and to discover who Joanie is. Joanie, the individual, not Joanie, the wife and mother, asserts her right to be a free agent, not simply a person with a role to play in a social structure based on her gender and ethnicity.
Naively, I had thought that paternalistic government and society, like Joanie’s world, were things of the past, killed by the various liberation movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, such as Women’s Lib, which is a major theme of this film. That is, until I was forced to live the oppression myself in the sadly brave new world, where the individual is reduced once more to the slave of the social machine. Like Shirley, “I’m not finished yet. I want to do things,” and my time is running out. I haven’t got years to wait for other people to be ready. Please stop telling me to “stay safe.” I am not a part in your machine.
Katherine Kerestman holds a B.A. degree from John Carroll University and a Master of Arts degree from Case Western Reserve University. She loves to travel, especially to destinations with literary and macabre associations, including Transylvania, Whitby, Salem, and Stonehenge. She has joined her literary, historical and macabre proclivities together into her first non-fiction title, Creepy Cat’s Macabre Travels.