No Hex Please, We’re British : Prophecies Of The Virgin Witch

1970s occultism meets sexploitation – but also looks forward to the female-led Wiccan world of today.

SHE’S THE GIRL WITH THE POWER… TO TURN YOU ON! …TO TURN YOU OFF!” screamed the posters for Virgin Witch. “She’ll blow your mind!” was added almost as a postscript below, just in case you were in any doubt that the sexy silhouette of Ann Michelle would send you into fits of delirium if you went to see her movie. Of course, this was a classic case of the ‘all sizzle, no steak’ approach to exploitation cinema. Promise big, deliver whatever you like. As long as the punters pay up front, it doesn’t matter if they leave satisfied. Virgin Witch was by no means a film that would obliterate anyone’s senses. It was a cheeky sexploitation romp that would’ve almost been at home in the Confessions series. It’s probably best known now for featuring the naked body of not just Ann Michelle but also her sister, future sitcom queen Vicki Michelle MBE. But, of course, this was 1971. Everyone was naked. All the time. Right?

However, if you look beneath the abundant soft flesh of Virgin Witch, there are sharp satirical edges. It’s a uniquely British picture, rooted in British suburban frustration, written and produced (albeit in disguise) by a bonafide British icon, and a product of its time for better or for worse. More surprisingly though, it predicts the direction that a fledging (and also uniquely British) religion would take in the coming decades. The barbed point it makes is one that’s been proven accurate in the years since it was made, and you can’t say that about a lot of cheeky sexploitation romps.

It’s easy to look at pop culture of the time and assume that the 1960s and 70s were a sexual free-for-all, a sudden explosion of liberated colour in a world that had been monochrome. Feminism, free love, pornography; all of these things were emerging in mainstream western pop culture for the first time. Suddenly, the topics that had been taboo were trendy to talk about. You could watch a play where the actors were all nude and retain the moral high ground; after all, this was intellectual activity! Artsy Swedish films like I Am Curious (Yellow), despite containing explicit sex, were seen as the height of cosmopolitan chic and essential conversation for your dinner party. In Britain, where frank discussion of sex had been anathema for some time, it was exciting to have things literally out in the open.

The Church of England promoted the idea that sex for pleasure was sinful so it’s understandable that, when the floodgates opened on sexual freedom, so did those of alternative religions. Having rejected the Church’s views on sex and found it rather enjoyable, why not go one further and reject the rest? Less prescriptive eastern religious practices were popular for the peace and love generation and, beyond this, the 60s gave rise to modern lunatic fringe groups like Scientology and the other UFO cults. Somewhere in this boom of alternative religions, the appeal of the occult broke into the mainstream. Black magic had made the gradual transition from being forbidden (literally – it was illegal to practice Witchcraft in England until 1951!) to being fashionable.

Jimmy Page at Boleskine House, the former home of Aleister Crowley

The allure of darkness was in part a backlash to the Summer of Love’s optimism, as the realisation struck that the promised Age of Aquarius wasn’t dawning any time soon. Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan took off in the US; Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page became so fascinated with the teachings of Aleister Crowley, he bought The Beast’s former home in Scotland; Charles Manson; The Process Church of the Final Judgement… things were getting dark. The Rolling Stones became an unlikely figurehead of this spiritual comedown with their song Sympathy For The Devil. It perhaps now just sounds like a quaint little ditty based on Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita but at the time, it was wildly controversial. Mick Jagger singing in the persona of the Devil made the infernal seem, well, sexy. This twin assault of sex and Satanism was to prove the recipe for success as the 70s kicked in.

But, of course, it wasn’t like this for everyone. These were all bright young things or celebrities. What about the rest of us? For your average suburbanite Brit looking to dip their toes in these exciting new waters, the Grand Guignol Satanism of LaVey was far too extreme and would never be acceptable. What would the neighbours say? Likewise, Crowley’s reputation as a fiend preceded him. This was someone you couldn’t bring up in polite company over vol-au-vents or fondue. Luckily, there were a couple of New Religion characters who fit the requirement perfectly: they allowed you to wear natty robes, get in touch with your pagan roots, celebrate the Horned One and have naked rites with nubile young things, but all in the best possible taste. The moment had arrived for Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders, the unlikely fathers of Wicca.

Gerald Gardner

While Crowley revelled in hedonistic excess and shocking the moral majority, Gardner wrote in the foreword of his seminal 1954 book Witchcraft Today, “we are not perverts. We are decent people, we only want to be left alone.” Between this book and 1959’s The Meaning of Witchcraft, he laid the foundations for the distinctly British religion that would become known as Gardnerian Wicca (and later, as it branched off into sub-sects, simply Wicca). While he claimed to have been initiated into witchcraft in the 1930s through a Coven whose lineage dated back to pre-Christian times, Gardner’s teachings were far from ancient. They were a combination of beliefs lifted largely from Crowley (e.g. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” became “An it harm none, do as thou wilt”), Margaret Murray and Freemasonry.

While Gardner plundered merrily from existing tracts on magic, he was inarguably a knowledgeable occultist and part of Wicca’s appeal was its apparent authenticity (despite being a newly created religion). Another part of its appeal was that it was very pro-sex without being at all salacious. It presented sex as natural and beautiful and an essential part of many Wiccan ceremonies, rather than a tool with which to shock the Church. Gardner also borrowed Margert Murray’s repositioning of the Christian Devil as a benign Pagan Horned God. With Wicca, you got all the good aesthetics of the Church of Satan, but with the sinister edges taken off.

Alex Sanders

Over the decade between the publication of Witchcraft Today and Gardner’s death in 1964, Wicca’s popularity grew and attracted the attention of Alex Sanders, a middle-aged odd-job man from Birkenhead. Much like Gardner, Sanders’ initiation into the occult is shrouded in myth but his ‘official’ account is that his grandmother was a powerful hereditary witch who made him a witch via an incision in his scrotum as a child. It’s unlikely that this is true. What is clear is that he discovered Gardnerian Wicca in the early 1960s and was initiated into a Gardnerian coven soon afterwards. By 1965, he’d become High Priest of his own coven and boasted well over a thousand initiates. He dubbed himself King of the Witches, created Alexandrian Wicca (basically Gardnerian Wicca with a bit more theatre and a dash of Kabbalah thrown in) and courted the British media with shrewd publicity stunts. Contrary to Gardner’s wish that witches be left alone, Sanders wanted as much attention as possible, to grow his ever-increasing follower count.

In 1964, he entered a relationship with Maxine Morris, a beautiful blonde teenager whom he made his ‘Witch Queen’ and wife. She would soon become the face (and body) of Wicca, something that would be cemented in 1970 upon the release of the documentary film Legend of the Witches, when Wicca made its big screen debut. Legend of the Witches is a curious piece of work, combining matter-of-fact voiceover with mostly dramatized footage, as the audience is introduced to some Wiccan tenets. The film begins with the Wiccan creation story (accompanied by poetic visuals) and a staged initiation into a witches’ circle, before discussing the Christian plundering of Pagan symbols and rites. It’s all very dry and earnest. There’s a lengthy section shot at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle where the camera slowly pans over items recovered from the grave of an ancient witch while the narrator describes their significance.

To spice things up, these more sedate sections are interspersed with footage of naked witches dancing around fires and eventually it all pays off with a still quite astonishing Black Mass ritual performed by Alex and Maxine Sanders. If you’ve ever seen a movie with a Black Mass in it or been to a doom metal gig where anything’s been projected on the walls, odds are it’s either this scene or has been inspired by this scene in Legend of the Witches. All the now familiar iconic style of a Black Mass is present here – the robes, the naked bodies, the symbols on the floor, the ceremonial blades, the S&M overtones – and Maxine’s striking beauty makes it lecherously compelling, even to those uninterested in the magickal elements.

Indeed, there are two ways of reading Legend of the Witches. On one hand, it’s a sincere attempt to introduce Alexandrian Wicca to a neophyte audience, and Sanders could convincingly defend it as such. However, the fact it was directed by Malcolm Leigh (whose only other feature-length film was the sexploitation comedy Games That Lovers Play) and its X-Rating meant it largely played the sex cinemas of Soho suggests the audience was perhaps most engaged with the copious nudity on display. But, of course, sex sold and the film well and truly put Alex, Maxine and their occult aesthetic into popular consciousness.

Maxine Sanders

The film was quickly followed up (courtesy of another sexploitation director, Derek Ford) by a semi-sequel, Secret Rites (1971). Rather than making the audience wait again for the reward, this one opens with a graphic orgy scene and ritual defloration of a ‘virgin’ basically just to set the scene. The rest of the movie is the fictional story of a pretty young hairdresser named Penny (Penny Beeching) who wants to join Sanders’s coven. Like an eager young fan, she sends him a letter and gets a sexy initiation for her troubles (yes, this could all be considered very questionable if made today) before the whole thing wraps up with some bonus rituals, including a charming Wiccan marriage.

With both of these films proving a good way to make money on a small budget, Soho’s sexploitation industry began to ride the wave of nude witchcraft. It made perfect sense, after all. If Wicca was a gentler, more accessible type of ceremonial magic, softcore was the pornographic equivalent. You could speculate for some time over whether it was legality or repression that stopped hardcore ‘porno chic’ from ever really taking off in Britain but softcore sexploitation movies were big business. Just like Wicca, it was all the good stuff but with the nastier edges taken off.

The British softcore film is a unique proposition, different from the somewhat rougher US equivalent. They were mostly just cheeky comedies in the vein of the Carry On series, albeit with abundant nudity. It probably seems ludicrous to anyone watching the likes of Can You Keep It Up For A Week? anew in the 21st century but these films were very popular. Clearly, there was an audience who thought they were hilarious and/or very sexy, and a lot were made by trained professionals who should’ve known better. Many much-loved thesps and character actors popped up and popped out in these films, and most were directed by veterans of British television.

Hazel Adair

One unlikely veteran moonlighting in the murky world of softcore was Hazel Adair, the creator of the seemingly evergreen soap opera Crossroads. She and her wrestling commentator friend Kent Walton set up Pyramid Films, a production company dedicated to sexploitation. They wrote and produced a number of films pseudonymously including Virgin Witch, a film that probably wouldn’t have been made were it not for the success of Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites. The marketing made it look suitably infernal and sex-mad but underneath this salacious imagery, the point was almost a direct retaliation to the teachings of Gardner and Sanders.

Pre-fame real-life sisters Ann and Vicki Michelle star as sisters Christine and Betty, who run away from their nondescript suburbia to seek fame and fortune in London. Christine signs up to a modelling agency helmed by creepy lesbian Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines) who offers her a special job at a remote country mansion. Christine asks if she can take Betty along and, with a more-mammaries-the-merrier approach, Sybil drives them out to the estate of one Gerald Amberley (Nigel Hallett), a libertarian gent who soon reveals himself to be a white witch. He wants to ‘initiate’ the apparently virginal Christine into his coven with sex magick but finds he gets more than he bargains for. Christine has natural witch powers far stronger than his own and the deeper he tries to pull her into the coven, the stronger she becomes, eventually overpowering him and becoming the High Priestess herself.

Virgin Witch – the initiation

What’s particularly interesting about Virgin Witch is that it’s a film about witchcraft that falls way outside of the horror genre. The near-constant stream of female nudity places it firmly in the softcore category but, if you take that out, the plot itself is a purely dramatic one with little reliance on suspense or the supernatural. It’s a classic power struggle story but also a witty indictment of Wicca itself. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Gerald Amberley is a thinly veiled Gerald Gardner or that Hazel Adair clearly views the father of Wicca as little more than a dirty old man.

Although arguably an antagonist, Amberley never threatens Christine and Betty with any kind of violence. They’re not the typical screaming damsels in a fight for their lives against an evil Satanist who wants them dead. In this, Gerald is a charming, intelligent old gentleman who just happens to like dressing up in robes, chanting and deflowering virgins. In his mind, it’s all good-natured pleasure-seeking but the film posits that it’s a little pathetic. It depicts him, despite being the affluent High Priest of his own coven, as being ultimately powerless. He is playing with magick as a means of exploring his own desire. However, this ultimately unlocks real sexual power in the objects of said desire and renders him a quivering wreck before them.

Virgin Witch – more initiation

Looking at what became of Wicca, this is oddly prophetic. Although Gardner and Sanders are widely considered its forefathers, Wicca and Feminism entwined strongly in the 1970s with Dianic Wicca – a matriarchal form of lunar worship whose covens are exclusively female – coming to the fore, thanks to Zsuzsanna Budapest and the Susan B. Anthony Coven. Even outside of Dianic Wicca, the informal successor to Alex Sanders – who brought together the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions in the U.K. – was a woman: Vivianne Crowley. This is the bloodline of Wicca that became the most mainstream and visible, many years later in the 1990s.

Zsuzsanna Budapest

Accessible female witches like Silver Ravenwolf were the writers whose books adorned the shelves of young 90s women worldwide. They sold literally millions of copies. Original practitioners of feminist Wicca like Starhawk and Margot Adler became extremely fashionable and back in print again. This was the age of the Lilith Fair festival, the celebration of female music whose hippie-like image became synonymous with a paganistic nature worship much like Wicca’s (even though only a handful of its artists were actual Wiccans). Wicca even hit Hollywood blockbuster cinema, most famously in The Craft (1996), a film that was hugely influential and bolstered Wicca’s numbers even further. The appalling Blair Witch sequel in 1999 tried to cash in on the craze too by naming itself Book of Shadows (the name Wiccans use for spellbooks) and having a gothed-up witchy character.

The Craft

Wicca may have started out as the product of two older men with a high sex drive but, just like in Virgin Witch, the power transferred to women and by the time it hit peak popularity, it was this feminine – and in most cases feminist – strain of Wicca that reigned. While there are certainly still many male Wiccans, most outsiders when asked to think about Wicca, envision women. The images of the Goddess and the High Priestess reign supreme.

There’s no question that Virgin Witch was produced with the intention to titillate (indeed, the Michelle sisters disowned it, claiming the producers just wanted them naked all the time). It’s hardly a film that will be reappraised as a Feminist masterpiece, as it’s feverish in its carefree Soho sleaziness, filled to bursting with bouncing breasts, saucy upskirt shots and bottom slapping. However, Hazel Adair’s pleasingly subversive message can’t be dismissed entirely. Here was a woman who was smart, creative and very successful in the notoriously male-dominated field of television in the 1960s. There’s no doubt at all she knew what she was doing when she was delivering her sassy unveiled slap to the founding father of what she clearly saw as a seedy crackpot religion that exploited young women. The fact she used exploitation film as the medium for this message is further proof of her mischievous approach to subversion. The result, that she accurately predicted the future for the religion she was lampooning, is supremely impressive work. She’ll blow your mind indeed.

C.J. LINES

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2 comments

  1. Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites are available together on DVD/BluRay for £15 from http://www.renownfilms.co.uk, which I think is an offshoot of TPTV. Included is The Witch’s Fiddle (1924, 7 mins): a silent film version of the eerie folk tale. This is a hoot! Out of Step: Witchcraft (1957, 14 mins): investigative journalist Dan Farson interviews Gerald Gardner. Judgement of Albion (1968, 26 mins): bold, Blakeeian imagery populates this ode to resistance by the writer of Blood on Satan’s Claw. Getting It Straight in Notting Hill Gate (1970, 25 mins): spaced-out sitars, Blue Beat 45s and the prog-rock grooves of Quintessence soundtrack this up-close flashback to Notting Hill Gate in 1970.

    TPTV have screened both films and Virgin Witch too, which is where I first learned about them. They will probably come around again at some point, so keep an eye on the schedule.

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