Foul is Fair: My Cinematic Journey into Witchcraft
Oct 31, 2019 by Nickelodeon Theatre on The Nickelodeon Blog
In partnership with Women’s and Gender Studies and the Honors College at the University of South Carolina, the Nickelodeon is proud to present “Weird Sisters: Power, Possession, and Feminine Abjection,” a three film series that examines the political complexity of female monsters in an era when “the witch is having a moment.” Here, Alice Lilitu explores the meaning behind the series and her own experience with the “weird.”
I’m often asked what I mean when I talk about the Devil. I think the best way to answer is with a story.
I walk out into the warm, heavy void of night, to a crossroads by the river and the woods. In a sheathe to my left is a ritual knife with a revised version of the seal of Astaroth, the Goddess Astarte turned grimoire demon, painted on the hilt in red. In my right hand is a wand marked with signs and sigils specific to this place. I am going to present an offering of wine and dance and song. I make this walk often. And it always strikes me how much my younger self would see me as a character in a fantasy story. The witch at the edge of the city.
One of the first movies I saw at the Nickelodeon Theatre, in the old building south of the state house, was Antichrist (2009), and it struck a chord in me whose reverberations I can see moving out in ripples before and after. Amidst sequences of nature as wild and frightening and incomprehensible, we are told “Nature is the Devil’s Church.” From a self-disemboweling fox we hear, “Chaos reigns.”
I wouldn’t officially become a Satanist immediately after that, but something clicked in my body and mind slouched in those decaying, non-stadium seats (the amenities and accessibility of the theatre have changed dramatically at the current location) that sent me on the weyard path. I did become a magician shortly after. And then a witch. And then I met the Devil for real.
But in a way I already had. When I was about five, I recall walking with my dad and my aunt through the woods behind my house. At that age the woods seemed infinite, and we walked much further than I was allowed to or dared walk alone. And then the infinite woods stopped. Suddenly before us was a street and power lines. If it were a David Lynch movie, we’d zoom in on one of the transformers as the haunting electric buzz grows louder.
It’s hard to explain, but that’s the moment I met the Monster in the Woods. After that, my childhood explorations into the wild chaos of nature were filled with stories of the Monster. I only ever caught furtive glimpses. I’d see every fallen tree or startled creature as a sign of her displaced presence. And I followed her deeper into the woods, that preternatural buzz still ringing in my ears.
Flash forward to Halloween 2013, at the new Nickelodeon Theatre downtown, before our screening of The Dance of Reality. That same buzz drenches the theatre from my collaborators arcane noise music devices. As planned, I raise my orange Nerf battle axe high over my head. I move it as if through water, feeling the spiritual presences in the room around us, now swirling with excitement. Before this, I made a deal with Cronus, with Saturn, the keeper of the labyrinth, of the great celestial bureaucracy, of the cosmic hourglass. This is a play for power. I shriek, “Cut off the head of the patriarch!” As I strike with the foam axe, the rest of my band Ritual Abjects collapses all into a thick wall of noise. And slowly the buzz seeps into new cracks. The wild always gets in.
Years later, I found myself working the Nickelodeon. If you saw me in concessions or the box office about two years ago, you may have seen me reading a huge black tome with a Lovecraftian-looking dragon printed in gold. This book is “The Game of Saturn,” and it sits on my altar now. In it, Peter Mark Adams describes a Renaissance-era satanic cult to a cosmic dragon-serpent. Whenever I see and touch this book, and its associated tarot cards, I feel myself pulled through time, the threads of fate being tugged by a massive, incomprehensible presence, deeper into the Devil’s Church.
The word “weird” comes from the Old English “wyrd” which meant fate or destiny. As the Fates, and the seers they possessed, were pushed further and further to the margins, it took on the modern meaning of strange or uncanny. It is largely through the figures of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth that this happens. Horrifying crones making potions of all manner of illicit and grotesque substances to summon phantoms and commune with the Goddess of Witchcraft. This is largely still our image of the witch and our cultural root image of “weird.”
But I don’t want to go too far into a 70s revisionist feminist reading of what the witch is. It can be easy to forget as, to quote “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” “the witch is having a moment,” but witches have always been unsettling. This is not merely a modern demonization of healers. In fact, not all witches are human. The experience of being “ridden by a hag” has much in common with contemporary UFO experiences, invasions of the body and interdimensional travel included. Witches have always held a certain dread power.
In calling our October horror series “Weird Sisters: Power, Possession & Feminine Abjection” we attempt to ride this wave of weird and weirding. Pulled along the strands of fate, barrelling headfirst into the uncanny and preternatural, we tumble into a world that feels “wrong” or “off,” perhaps the “wrong timeline.” Here in the abyss of forgotten pasts and futures is where our secret power lies. Here we fly.
When I met my collaborator (and coworker at the Nick) Max M-ith, we were both going by different names. Fittingly, my assumed last name at the time was “Wyrd.” We’ve changed names both for gender and for magic, and in a way the two are inseparable. It was still early in our journey into witchcraft. They were not there for the beginning of my Ritual Abjects magical performance experiments. But by the time we had our second performance at the Nickelodeon opening for the genre-defining The Witch (2015) we already had a small coven going.
As we developed our craft together, we realized our fates were more intertwined than we had imagined. We had gone to the same high school and not known each other. Our parents had the same names. But most importantly, we had independently lived in directly adjacent neighborhoods when we were very young, and we both had a Monster in the Woods. The same woods. The same Monster.
The concept of our performance for The Witch was “the poison that also heals,” and induction into the witch cult. As the figure of the witch enters a moment of cultural prominence, there is some very real power in the fact that Urban Outfitters and Sephora and the like so desperately want our medicine. But we cannot allow them to dilute it. We are the wild seeping into civilization, we can’t let it tame us.
Our “Weird Sisters” series begins with perhaps our least morally-compromised embodiment of the weird with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014). Our nameless vampire lurks in the shadows, on the edges of town. Watching, embodying horror and the uncanny, to strike fear into the hearts of men, and when necessary punish them for their misogynistic crimes. In this it is a fairly straightforward fable, but its visual lyricism opens onto the void, and I felt more than a little of my relationship to the Monster in its hidden corridors.
Our second movie High Life (2018) goes full-on Book of Revelation. On the surface, it is about a group of convicts in a space station on a doomed flight into a black hole, presided over by a witchy scientist obsessed with elaborate birth experiments. But certain signs make it clear that this scientist is also the Whore of Babylon, riding the Beast into oblivion. Watch for these ritual evocations, and the movie has the capacity to transform and transfigure.
And there is so much I can say about Suspiria (2018). It arrives at a pivotal turning point for me and my magic, few movies have affected me so profoundly, and that’s saying a lot. For now, I will highlight a synchronicity, another tug on the weird thread. This Suspiria takes place in the time and place of the original’s release––1977 in a divided Berlin. A secret coven of witches in a dance studio watches the political turmoil around them and turns it inward, toward conjuring. About a year ago, I traveled to Portland for an occult conference to meet my witchcraft heroes, the same ones who published the aforementioned Game of Saturn and had influenced my journey so indelibly into the witchcraft of the wild. At the conference, one of them gave a polemical talk, and one of them danced. I stayed with a friend who gave me a gift: a belt from the East German Communist Party.
As I stand at the crossroads and contort my body to the rhythm of the breeze and birds and that dread electric buzz, it’s the song Suspirium from this movie that escapes my lips, and it’s the East German belt that holds the sheath for my ritual knife. I writhe and wind until “the charm’s wound up.” I fall into the void, and the Goddess of Witchcraft takes possession of my body. Possession for power. Our wills are now entwined.
Love & War
I first noticed something especially uncanny at the Nickelodeon’s current location on the walk back to my car from The Whig one night. An owl flew a lampost to the top of the building, and this was the first time I really noticed the art deco masks on the facade. The owl’s haunting glare mixed with that of the masks and I had the unmistakable sense of an apparition’s gaze that was all and none of them.
My co-worker Cade later had a similar experience with the Nickelodeon’s facade. On a smoke break, he happened to look up at the masks and was immediately filled with a sense of dread, of being watched, and the taste of blood in his mouth. Immediately after, several flies landed on his arm.
Later on, I brought a Ouija board to the Nick after hours and with several co-workers attempted to talk to the building’s resident spirit. We asked what it had been trying to communicate to Cade in that experience and the spirit said, “Luck.” In this and several other spirit contact sessions after we learned various things about this spirit; the biggest, most encompassing spirit among many that haunt the building. Some of these revelations are secret, and some I can reveal here.
She is a spirit of the wild, of the river. She arrived in this building by way of the Congaree River in 1956. She comes to bring both love and war. She is a natural performer, she loves an audience. I’m sure she’ll make her presence known again in future screenings and events at the Nick. I believe she plays no small part in shaping the ethos of our new late night series, “Nick After Hours.” Before this building housed the Nickelodeon it had long been a home for genre movies, B-films, “adult films,” all the discarded and outcast detritus of civilization that may yet be repurposed for rupture and revolution. It all spills into Her chalice.
As I first conceived of this piece, I thought it would be more of a paranormal investigation. “Who is the Nickelodeon’s mysterious poltergeist?” Ghost Hunters with witches in charge. But I soon realized that this is not a detective story. This is not a secret origin. We cast aside all that Oedipal nonsense long ago for greater powers. This is a becoming. This is a birth.
There’s a scene in Suspiria where the coven sits around the kitchen table plotting their long-term spell. They are bringing a Goddess more fully into the world. The kind of Goddess hinted at in the Margaret Murray’s Pan-European Witch Cult hypothesis that would have still been very much in vogue at the time. The story goes that this is an ancient religion to a Goddess that predates the Christian Empire, and that the horrors of the Inquisition brought Her devotees into hiding in secret covens. In truth, much of the ritual material of any existing covens was made-up, or repurposed from that very Empire. But to construct an alternate history, one with more liberatory potential, this is a spell in itself.
The witches in this coven will often abuse their power in pursuit of this goal. It is a dangerous working, and there are many casualties. But these witches survived the Third Reich, and are still surviving the wreck of Empire. It was a time of monsters, but monsters still yet belong to the future.
It occurs to me watching this that as a trans woman and a witch, this is precisely the womanhood into which I “transition.” Beautiful and ugly, young and old, innocent and wicked. The great variety of the Goddess is not a clean or easy thing. But through Her lies the path to true sovereignty and liberation.
I always tell people, if you want to know about the Devil, go into the woods and draw a little blood. These movies are filled with blood, and sexual fluids, and viscera. It is our uncanny destiny, roiling and rioting to break free from even our very bodies. And by the pricking of our thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Alice Lilitu is a Satanic witch in the tradition of those who would wander into the forest at night to commune with demons. She performs multi-media spectacles with the occult art collective Devil’s Playground. Find her at the liminal edge of the city for conversation in the Mysteries.