In Haunt

By Dr Chloé Germaine Buckley (Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies)

October was a busy month at the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies as we delivered our biggest ever Gothic Manchester Festival. Exploring the idea of Gothic Times, our events demonstrated the ongoing relevance of Gothic stories and culture today. Of course, the Gothic is defined by its concern with a past that will not lie—a past that returns to the present in the form of repressed trauma, secrets and ghosts. This makes the Gothic an untimely mode: the return of the past is usually a discomfiting experience, but one we need in order to make sense of our present.

The Witching Way

One Gothic Manchester Festival event that encapsulated this relationship between past and present was The Witching Way, a performance staged at the Printworks at the height of Halloween in the City on 26th October. The Witching Way is a fable and coming-of-age story staged as a concept album with dramatic storytelling and visuals—the creation of Ali Matthews, Leo Burtin and The Company. With genres spanning folk, blues, punk and drone rock, the Witching Way uses music to tell the story of W, a young woman navigating the pressures of a society from which she feels alienated. As she succumbs to peer pressure to engage in the exclusionary bullying she herself has faced, W finds herself transported to a cottage in a strange landscape. This space is partially out of time, a landscape that lies between worlds, and it connects W to her ancestral past and to the story of Rowan, another outsider. The show is partly inspired by Ali and Leo’s journey along the real-life witching way, a walking and tourist trail that maps the story of the Lancashire Witches—a group of eight women and two men who were tried and hanged at Lancaster castle in 1612.

I was excited to invite the creators of the Witching Way to be part of the Gothic Manchester Festival, not only because their work has a distinctly regional resonance, but because my research focuses on the relevance of the witch in our contemporary culture. Like Ali and Leo, I have been fascinated by the cultural afterlives of the Lancashire witches and my research shows how their deaths serve different narratives about the power (or not) of witchcraft. It seems that modern (re)interpretations of the story all-too easily fall into the trap of depicting the accused as either victims or villains. The Witching Way deftly negotiates this problem, revealing W as both bullied and bully, a young woman who must accept and assert her own power, but for whom there are no easy answers. I have also examined the resurgence of the witch in contemporary folk horror cinema, where she is likewise an ambiguous figure. While the Witching Way is not a horror story, its use of the gothic structure of haunting and return testify to the ongoing power of the witch figure in our darker cultural imaginaries. As I have cautioned, witches serve reactionary and anti-feminist narratives about the illegitimacy of female power as well as they serve feminism. This is partly because the use of the witch in modern narratives relies on misogynist tropes that have developed over centuries and have their origin in repressive ideologies and theologies.

The Witching Way

The Witching Way navigates these darker aspects of the figure of the witch with creativity and nuance, offering a fascinating and uplifting narrative that resonates for anyone struggling against patriarchal norms, societal pressures, and conformity. I was excited to attend a performance of the complete show at the Royal Exchange Theatre just after Halloween. A more intimate setting than the cavernous Printworks, Ali and the band invited us to share W’s story, drawing the audience into a complex tangle of past and present. With evocative visuals and lyrics, the Witching Way wove together familiar tropes from witchcraft tales to create an urgent and timely story about how an individual can assert their power whilst also treating others with kindness and respect. Creative staging choices, such as the striking use of black feathers, evoked the ancient tales from which the figure of the witch emerged, including the Roman strix (an owl-like creature that preyed on children). At the same time, Rowan’s attempts to carve out an independent life in her cottage at the edge of the village recalled feminist revisionist myths about witchcraft in the middle ages.

Ultimately, The Witching Way avoids a reductive binary where the witch is either a monster or an empowered rebel. Despite W’s feathers, her witchy powers cannot offer an easy flight to freedom. The road home will be long and difficult. And, as Rowan’s fate reminds us, this is a journey that might also end in disaster. Ali’s powerful performance onstage really emphasizes that the power of the witch lies not in its use as a static symbol, but in her journey. Framing the witching way as a journey in this way allows the creators to offer something more complex and rewarding than other recent witchy tales. Crucially, the show returns W to the society from which she has felt so alienated – renewed and reinvigorated by her stint in the wilderness. This contrasts with male-authored witchcraft texts that play with similar ideas of female oppression and power. In Robert Eggers’ horror movie, The Witch (2015) for example, the young woman seduced by the power of witchcraft finds freedom in the woods having completely abandoned society. Similarly, in Ari Aster’s recent folk horror smash, Midsommar (2019), a young women suffering from very modern forms of social isolation, exclusion, and gas-lighting finds power in an expression of rage and power – but this is only possible from a position of exile.

The Witching Way

The Witching Way is a rich and moving show. If you missed the Manchester performances, then you can catch it on the 15th November at the Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster where its invocation of the spectre of the Lancashire witches will have a particularly powerful resonance.

You can read more about the research behind the Gothic Manchester Festival here.

Photography with thanks to Alannis Barnes - all images from the performance at The Printworks, Manchester

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