Tag Archives: Ann Muffly

‘Season of the Witch’ Is an Early Entry in Second-Wave Feminism

There is a particular subgenre of horror that follows disaffected and bored housewives, most recently noticed in 2022’s Watcher. This subgenre has a long lineage of discontent. We can go back to the popular 1975 film version of the Stepford Wives, but there’s an earlier, lesser-known relative: George A. Romero’s 1973 Season of the Witch (aka Jack’s Wife or Hungry Wives). The movie follows Joan — played with an intensity and iciness by Jan White — a housewife who is, literally, leashed to her bourgeois existence. Set in Pittsburgh, Season of the Witch is a nightmare of white suburban monoculture that flirts with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and ‘70s erotica.

The opening scene shows Joan and her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) walking through the woods. She follows him, several paces behind, oblivious to her. They pass through branches, and Joan is scratched across the face when Jack doesn’t hold them back. The scene ends with Joan being leashed by Jack and left inside a kennel. It’s a dream sequence that unsettles the audience before Joan wakes up in her upper-middle-class home. We see the monotony of Joan’s existence, in which she is barely a participant. 

Through the first ten minutes, she has almost no dialogue. Her husband is absent throughout but cruel when present, and her daughter is a sexually liberated free spirit. Joan’s friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) plays a stereotypical alcoholic friend. Joan’s life is as dull as her placating expression. But dream sequences interrupt Joan’s reality — where bondage and desire cross paths — because she longs for autonomy.

Through a tarot reading, Joan meets a practicing Wiccan (Virgina Greenwald), and witchcraft appeals to Joan as a viable path to self-determination. She visits a shop in downtown Pittsburgh to buy supplies for a spell (Romero effectively uses Donovan’s song of the same name). It’s not important whether the witchcraft works or not. What seems to matter is that now Joan feels more liberated. Her middle-class morality disappears. She has sex with her daughter’s obnoxious TA Gregg (Ray Laine), and eventually shoots her abusive husband Jack. The film ends with Joan at a cocktail party, telling everyone she is a witch. The themes and message of Romero’s critique are not subtle, and neither is Joan. We never feel the presence of the occult. Witchcraft only serves as an excuse for Joan to embrace her desires.

Since most of the film takes place in Joan’s home, the audience also feels a similar sense of isolation and hysteria. The twisting doorways, shadows, and fish-eye camera angles inform what becomes Romero’s signature style in later films. The narrative wants to demonstrate the blending of Joan’s waking life with her dream one. Joan isn’t a likable character. There aren’t any likable or sympathetic characters in Season of the Witch. But like witchcraft, that isn’t the point. Similar to Romero, Joan is constrained by her surroundings. It seems as if Romero’s options as a filmmaker were also restricted. 

Romero didn’t necessarily want to only be known for horror. Season of the Witch is an attempt to escape the zombies that would chase him for the rest of his career. It takes itself too seriously to be camp, and aesthetically fits conversations with Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Romero has admitted that they ran out of money and time to finish Season of the Witch. In a 2012 interview, Romero mentions how the lack of budget affected the film, and it’s the only one he wishes he could remake. The same interview features a poster for the film under the alternative name Hungry Wives, and the tagline reads: “Caviar in the kitchen. Nothing in the bedroom. With an appetite for diversion.” Joan was very much the manifestation of Betty Friedan’s limitations of liberation.

She was also a reflection of the questioning of religion during that era. TIME magazine posed the question “Is God Dead?” in 1966. But Joan isn’t really concerned with God. She just wants to be free. Of religion. Of marriage. Of gender roles. Of unhappiness. The studio marketing of Season of the Witch as soft porn kept the film from recognition as an experimentation of Italian art house sensibilities meeting social movements, which would become Romero’s calling card as a director. 

Most modern horror films credit their success to the archetype of the final girl. From Laurie Strode in Halloween to Sidney Prescott in Scream to Emerald “Em” Haywood in Nope, the horror genre loves a final character that thrives in the worst situations. But Romero subverts those tropes completely. Joan shares few of those characteristics; there are no external supernatural forces transpiring against her. Instead, we witness a woman that breaks free of her role as a housewife and mother by any means necessary. The element of horror is malaise, compulsory heterosexuality, whiteness, misogyny, and gender roles. It is more of a psychological study of a woman’s self-possession than traditional horror. 

After Joan kills her husband, she returns to her life of makeup, parties, and performance. Far from a radical film, Season of the Witch might fit in with the Second-Wave feminist movement, but both remain very flawed and dated. By focusing the story on a 39-year-old white middle-class conservative woman who uses witchcraft as a catalyst to propel her out of a monotonous existence, Romero makes a commentary on women’s liberation, but the question remains: whose liberation is it really? Season of the Witch just shows us that the most terrifying object is class, privilege, and whiteness — not witches.