During the first half of the 1990s, which I remember as a generally underwhelming time for Kindertrauma TV, late night HBO blissfully bludgeoned my unsuspecting young mind with everything from Suspiria to Scissors to Sorority House Massacre 2. All of those movies made a lasting impression. But none of them traumatized me like Fabrizio Laurenti’s Witchery, starring David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair.
In 1991, I was eight years old. At this point, I was already obsessed with horror movies. I often tracked them down by watching The Prevue Guide Channel, an oddly hypnotic station on which T.V. listings would rise in an endless scroll across the bottom half of the screen, while previews of coming attractions for movies like Rent A Cop played on top.
One night, I became fascinated by the Prevue Guide trailer for Witchery. So far as I recall, the trailer included four scenes: a girl in a wheelchair saying “Your dad shouldn’t buy that house! My mom told me, a witch lives there!,” a woman standing in a black cloak on a beach, Linda Blair decked out in a nightgown and huge hair laughing maniacally in a voice that was not her own, and the word Witchery, the letter “T” replaced by an inverted crucifix.
At that age I was already enthusiastic about ominous children, excessive women, spooky houses, and the defilement of religious imagery. I did not know the meaning of this word “witchery,” which sounded like witchcraft only somehow more sinister. In my head I imagined that the movie was about a brothel or women’s boarding house full of witches. I had to see it. Unfortunately, Witchery was airing on Showtime, and my family didn’t get the channel. So I waited…waited…waited… Finally, months later, it appeared on HBO in the middle of the night, and I taped it.
I watched in awe as a group of sinners ended up at a mysterious, deserted hotel on an island in “Massachusetts.” One by one, they were transported to some kind of alternate dimension where they were brutally raped, tortured, and/or murdered by the deformed minions of a glamorous old woman in a black cloak. The woman might have been the vengeful ghost of a pregnant witch who (in flashback) jumped from a window to her death to escape murderous pilgrims, or she might have been a has-been Hollywood actress. Or both. The movie leaves it artfully ambiguous.
To me, this was one of those movies that, pre-Internet, seemed so weird that they could only have been documentaries transmitted directly from other worlds. There was so much I didn’t know when I watched Witchery: I didn’t know that it was (or would one day be) considered to be notoriously awful by many horror geeks. I didn’t know that Hildegard Knef, the evil old woman, was a totally chic and fabulous German movie star and chanteuse. Sometime later, when I first saw Baywatch (which had mysteriously escaped my un-monitored eyes up to that point), I thought “Oh! That’s the guy from Witchery!” when The Hoff appeared on screen.
I also didn’t realize, while I was watching Witchery, that it was traumatizing me. While watching the movie, I didn’t notice feeling scared. But something about Witchery got to me and, like most traumas, the effects didn’t occur until later. In the coming days and weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about Witchery’s weird atmosphere. When I looked in the mirror, I’d be petrified of seeing Hildgard Knef’s scary diva face looking back at me (a recurring warning in the film). I was haunted by a horror movie convention that always gets to me: a film projector that mysteriously ran on its own without being plugged in, showing the visitors avant-garde witchy cinema. For the first time, I found myself having an existential crisis, pondering questions like “Can one really feel good that some of the characters escaped the island at the end of the movie, when they first had to watch their loved ones be brutally murdered?”
Witchery haunted me so much that I launched a personal boycott against anything that had to do with the horror genre for what seems, in my memory, like years (in reality, it might have been months). I taped over Witchery with “Paul Simon at Central Park.” When that wasn’t enough to destroy its evil powers, I hid the tape in the back of my closet in my old bedroom (where it probably still resides!). Not since the Flowers in the Attic crisis of 1989 had my world been so up-ended by media, and nothing has had such an effect on me since.
Like so many kinder-traumatized, I watched the object of terror again over a decade later and thought that much about it was kind of inept and funny. And yet sometimes, when I go to bed anxious, I still dream that Hildegard Knef is coming to get me. And sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night and half-consciously wander to the bathroom, I start to worry that maybe, just maybe, I’ll see her staring back at me from the mirror…
— Ben S.