Movie posters reflect changing views of witchcraft

"Meine Frau die Hexe" poster
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
"Meine Frau die Hexe"

The Cornell Witchcraft Collection contains documents that are hundreds of years old, including witch-hunting manuals and pamphlets and minutes from 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century European witch trials.

In recent years, the collection has been augmented by a decidedly more modern artifact: the movie poster.

“We decided to document the impact of witchcraft on popular culture,” said Laurent Ferri, curator of pre-1800 collections at Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). “This allowed us to expand the witchcraft collection in a new direction, as well as build our first collection of movie posters. We knew the power of cinema to shape our worldview, including our view of witches.”

The collection, founded three years ago, consists of around 1,200 items – mostly posters, but also related movie memorabilia and advertising such as still photographs, flyers and even a “vomit bag” distributed at a particularly graphic violent movie. Ferri says the collection is unique in its scope and comprehensiveness, and the largest of its kind in the world.

The movie posters complement the older witchcraft materials, acquired in the 19th century by Andrew Dickson White and his librarian, George Lincoln Burr, which include harrowing narratives by accused witches, writings by theologians who opposed the Inquisition and 14 Latin editions of the “Malleus Maleficarum,” an infamous book used to justify the detection, persecution and torture of suspected witches.

This summer, the size of the movie poster collection doubled, with the help of Aaron Pichel ’85, J.D. ’98, LL.M. ’98, owner of the Movie Poster Store on the Ithaca Commons. Pichel – who said he found Ferri’s enthusiasm for the project “infectious” – has helped the library acquire hundreds of posters, starting with the first posters in the collection.

"The Witch" poster
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
"The Witch"

“I was very proud to work with the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections to expand A.D. White’s witchcraft collection, and I hope the posters bring more attention to the witchcraft collection and that people find them useful and interesting,” said Pichel. “The art on these posters is incredible. They’re very dramatic, very evocative. Sometimes, especially in certain genre films, the movie poster is better than the movie – a work of art in itself.”

Ferri hopes the posters can be digitized to make them available to a wider audience. They are potentially relevant to a wide range of scholarly interests, including film, art and design, history, politics, American studies and religion. They could also be particularly helpful to those studying the movie industry, with information on film genres and sub-genres. The frequent use of erotic stereotypes makes it relevant to RMC’s Human Sexuality Collection, too.

Taken together, the posters tell fascinating stories about popular perceptions of witchcraft around the world, and differences in portrayals and themes among nations can be telling, Ferri said.

For example, movies about the Salem witch trials were popular in Soviet bloc nations during the Cold War, as they presented Americans in a negative light. Conversely, the 1956 French movie “Les Sorcieres de Salem” was not released in the United States, as it was considered Soviet propaganda.

“Witchcraft becomes a lens to reflect the issue of the times,” Ferri said.

The posters, some of which date to the 1930s, trace changing perceptions of witches and witchcraft over time. Many older movies portrayed witches as evil, while modern movies tend to find them more sympathetic. In the 1968 movie “Rosemary’s Baby,” for instance, the practitioners of sorcery are satanic; in the Harry Potter series, they are heroes.

The posters also illustrate the persistence of many of the images of witchcraft. The magic circle can be found in a 15th-century book, as well as in a 20th-century movie poster.

“It’s a really enduring image,” Ferri said. “We don’t have that many figures that can capture our imaginations over so many centuries.”

Melanie Lefkowitz is staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.

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