Witches in Scandinavian Film

Day of Wrath

It’s hard to imagine that Scandinavian horror exits: Denmark, Norway and Sweden top every human development list and the beautiful landscape creates a fresh and scenic place to live. Also, lets not forget it was Sweden who gave the world ABBA. However, in the eyes of the Scandinavian filmmaker, crime and horror is embedded within the lush green fjords and small towns. The weather helps create this dim mood, of course, as parts of the countries are bathed in 24-hour darkness. On top of that, Scandinavia was home to the brutal Vikings and Norse gods like Odin and Thor, which make it possible to have within Scandinavia a very unique kind of horror cinema.

It was until recently that the image of the witch constituted the horror genre in the region. Roald Dahl said “The Norwegians know all about witches […] for Norway, with its black forests and icy mountains, is where the first witches came from.”[1] While Scandinavian horror cinema has never been placed within an artistic movement, such as German Expressionism, its filmmakers and artists have influenced all genres, for example Edvard Munch’s paintings were a great influence to the Expressionists. Furthermore, Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodore Dreyer are two of the biggest Scandinavian directors to make their presence internationally. The crucial light and shadow in their films and the piercing sense of guilt that tortures the souls of their characters clearly reveal such tensions. Dilys Powell, when critiquing Bergman’s Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), said “whenever Scandinavian cinema has five minutes to fill, it burns a witch.”[2] The only other film to depict witch burning is Dreyer’s Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath, 1943), which makes the act of burning a witch a small yet powerful image in the cinema. The imagery of witchcraft presented in early Scandinavian horror helps further understand the distinctive and culturally influenced genre, as in the themes of religion and violence.


Scandinavia was the last of the European regions to convert to Christianity, and well into the late mediaeval period. Therefore, tension between the ethical codes of pagan revenge and Christian forgiveness remained. Early Scandinavian film used this fear (and to an extent, desire) of the repressed pagan code returning and challenging Christianity by using the image of a witch. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, set in the home of the local pastor and part-time witch-hunter, focuses on the character of Herlofs Marte for the first half of the film. The elderly, wild-eyed and eccentric woman is tortured into confessing she is a witch, and this concludes with her being burned at the stake. Dreyer places this woman in contrast to the conservatively dressed and dead-eyed pastors, displaying on the screen paganism vs. Christianity.  Similarly, in The Seventh Seal, a fragile looking girl believed to have brought the plague to the village is chastised in the stocks, mocked, and then burned at the stake. William Mishler suggests in his analysis of the film that the girls’ martyrdom evokes simultaneously the pagan ritual of scapegoating and Christ’s crucifixion as sharing the same sacrifical mechanism, thus collapsing heathen and Christian symbolism. [3]

One of Bergman’s later films, Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring, 1960), reflects a similar tension. Set in fourteenth century Sweden where the worship of Odin competes with Christianity, the film follows the naïve virgin Karin who, while riding alone to deliver candles to the church, is brutally raped and murdered by two brothers. The film turns a peaceful Christian story to a story of revenge, as the girl’s father Töre strays away from his new Christian faith to the pagan codes, and slaughters his daughters’ killers and their younger brother without mercy. As Michael Brashinsky says, “he is torn between the pagan god he has renounced and the Christian god he does not understand… a hero of classic tragedy… he kills because the god he has chosen has not only left him but left him with no choice.”[4]The Virgin Spring dramatises the repeated fear of the return of repressed paganism, and this is what has distinguished Scandinavian horror film from other nations. The opposition between the Nordic heroic code of life and the Christian values that drove this ancient belief system underground, culturally and psychologically, has presented itself as a form of witchcraft, and continues to break through the veneer of Christianity, sometimes doing just that.

The Virgin Spring lacks monsters and the supernatural elements are minimal because of the amount of realism Bergman places in the film. With great attention to the accuracy of the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, The Virgin Spring results in a realistic effect not often associated with horror, contrasting itself to the naturalistic landscape and symbolic drama in The Seventh Seal. The Virgin Spring insists on de-emphasising the sensationalism often associated with horror in favour of a more realistic mode of expression: a preference for narrative rather than spectacle, and complexity of the character rather than special effects.

Violence and Brutality

As seen in Töre’s brutal murder of his daughter’s killers, Scandinavian cinema has never been shy of displaying violence on the screen. As Herlofs Marte is about to be burned in Day of Wrath, the camera watches her be tied down and then dropped into the fire, focusing on the horrified expression on her face. Witchcraft throughout history is brutal and violent, and was explored in the cinema from the silent period, notably in Benjamin ChristensensHäxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922) and Dreyer’s Blade af Satans bog (Leaves From Satan’s Book. 1921). The latter consists of four episodes depicting the role of evil during periods in human history. The second episode shows the persecution of a young woman who is to be burned at the stake. In this episode, Dreyer introduced into film imagery instruments of torture, which are used by inquisitors to get confessions from those accused of witchcraft. One of the sets of the inquisition scene is a torture chamber, a common image that reappears in The Passion of Joan of Arc andDay of Wrath, as well as The Seventh Seal.

While Dreyer’s imagery does not consist of the murderous tools you’d find in American horror cinema, his torture chambers are elaborately schemed and painstakingly executed in a similar manner to that of burning a witch. For example, Herlofs Marte’s burning is elaborately detailed and prepared, and there is a grotesque punishment that is inflicted on the doctor in the conclusion of Dreyer’s vampire film,Vampyr. It may be that these elaborate and gruesome acts of violence originated in Scandinavian cinema. In recent years, Lars von Trier has captured this Scandinavian brutality on the screen withAntichrist, where the character “She” cuts apart her vagina as she believes she is a witch and must therefore be punished. The driving of a large metal rod through the chest of the female vampire inVampyr (1932) is the first such instance of driving a stake in vampire cinema; with Dracula(1931) portraying it off-screen and the vampire in Nosferatu (1922) being destroyed by sunlight. Therefore, the elaborate acts of violence that originated in the burning of the witch present themselves in the cinema, and have create a tradition of detailed acts of vengeance.

What makes horror such an intriguing genre of cinema is that it has the ability to take on many forms, some more subtle yet certainly not less frightening.  In contrast to American and Japanese horror, Scandinavian horror films do not readily invoke stereotypical images of monsters or supernatural creatures. The Scandinavian horror genre is displayed perfectly in the image of a witch: firstly, it bases itself off the Scandinavian heritage of paganism and the Norse gods, and secondly it displays the elaborate acts of violence found in the burning of a witch. Scandinavian cinema creates horror by placing its narrative in a realistic environment, and with a history and culture as detailed as Scandinavia’s, there’s no need to place a monster in the films. For the subtly of the land creates its own beautiful and haunting creature, and this cannot be found in any other national cinema.


[1] Anne Bilson, “Whenever Scandinavian Cinema Has Five Minutes To Fill, It Burns a Witch”, The Telegraph, 05 June 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10076349/Whenever-Scandinavian-cinema-has-five-minutes-to-fill-it-burns-a-witch.html


[3] William Misher, “The Seventh Seal and the Virgin Spring: A Girardian Reading”, Comparative Drama, 30:1, Spring, pp. 126-32

[4]Michael Brashinsky “The Spring, Defiled” in Play it Again, Sam, University of California Press, 1998

CategoriesFeatures Sweden
Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.