Witchcraft is alive and thriving in the small town of Whitewood in which the atmospheric 1960 film Horror Hotel or City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey) is set. From prosecuting women as witches to exploiting traditional gender roles prescribed to women in the early 1960s (sister, girlfriend, caretaker), Horror Hotel begins in the 17th century with the rather gruesome burning of condemned head-witch Elizabeth Selwyn. This opening scenic depiction of a witch and her relationship with the devil is strikingly similar to Mario Bava’s Mask of Satan/Black Sunday (1960), however this story is deeply rooted within the Puritanical history of the United States and, in particular, the terrifying witch trials that targeted young women in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Like Black Sunday, but unlike the Salem witch trails, the witches in Horror Hotel are all too real and their devotion to Satan means trouble that spans the centuries.
Obsessed with researching the history of witchcraft in New England for her term paper, college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson) ventures off to Whitewood per the suggestion of her stoic professor Alan Driscoll (played by the scene-stealing Christopher Lee). Stubborn and strong willed, Nan dismiss the concerns of both her boyfriend and brother on the quest to discover something about Satanic worship that has never been known before. Combined with her somewhat condescending approach to the small town, this pretentious ambition to be a scholarly researcher is the core of her naiveté. Nan’s lack of common sense and the inability to gauge her surroundings ultimately leads her to a bloody sacrificial demise on the infamous Candlemas Eve.
Nan’s journey within Horror Hotel parallels, in some ways, that of Marion Crane (Janet Lee) in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller, Psycho, that was also released in the 1960. Both narratives exploit gender roles and feature a determined blonde who thinks she knows better than everyone else, striking out on her own, and who ultimately winds up paying for this bull-headedness with her life. Similarly, the audience main identification is with Nan for half of the film – her journey is our journey – as it is with Marion Crane. When each character is brutally killed (both young women are stabbed), the directors make it clear that anyone is fair game for the slaughter.
Central to this story, as with Psycho and numerous other horror films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Burnt Offerings, the Black Cat, The Burning, etc.) is the architectural zone of discovery: the house. This universally relatable and familiar domestic space is ripe for the symbolic explosion of our safe expectations. Carol Clover terms this type of filmic home the “Terrible Place” saying, “Into such houses unwitting victims wander in film after film, and it is the conventional task of the [horror] genre to register in close detail the victim’s dawning of understanding, as they survey the visible evidence, of the human crimes and perversions that have transpired there.” i For Nan, the Raven’s Inn is this place of discovery and for Elizabeth Selwyn turned innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel), it is the place that marks the site of her death continual re-birth.
Stylistically, the omniscient, looming, and invisible demonic force in Horror Hotel delivers an eerily shocking presence. One cyclical scene of the town square, experienced separately by Nan and her brother, features people stopping to stare at the new strangers. It is particularly unnerving. Shot at a distance, then closer, and then tightly shot on the undead community member’s face, the depiction of a town possessed by the devil becomes Bergman-esque. It’s like one has walked into the domain of death. Other scenes, such as the driving sequences with Nan, Patricia Russell, and Richard Barlow, are thick with delusional fog and an evil pervading force. There is also a stunning scene reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968), where the coven of witches, dressed in their hooded robes, claw their ways towards the intended victims.
Within its atmospheric haze, Horror Hotel taps into the societal fear of women who step outside of traditional gender roles. It tells its story by combining the 17th century demonization of women in New England with the 18th century Gothic literature tradition of domesticity and terror. In films like Horror Hotel (and the others mentioned above) the historical consideration of women as vulnerable and susceptible to the devil manifests into an allegorical tale where contemporary female characters face severe consequences in their quest for independence. In her book “In Damned women: sinners and witches in Puritan New England” Elizabeth Reis says that, “During the witchcraft trails the unfulfilled female soul, quick to succumb to the devil’s possession, became equated with dissatisfied women, subjects primed for the devil’s intrusion.” Thus, the image of Satan becomes a poetic and representational lure in cinema, explicitly showing the transition of a woman away from a “pure” life (faithful mother and wife) towards that of evil (freedom from others). One only has to think of Eve in the Garden of Eden to see how far back this narrative strain goes.
The tales of the two doomed women in Horror Hotel - Nan Barlow and Elizabeth Selwyn/Mrs. Newless – can be argued as a highly stylized depiction cultural anxiety of failed domesticity (i.e. woman and the house) in 1960s America. Albeit in differing contexts, each woman sought out the devil to bring her power and independence: Elizabth Selwyn as a magical power over Puritanical patriarchal oppression and Nan Barlow as an intellectual endeavor to provide her the means to live life out from under the constraints of men. Regardless of intention, that both met a rather gruesome fate means, at least in the mid 20th century, women who dared to be different were still considered a threat. And through cinematic suggestion, audiences would be properly reminded and warned of this transgression within the surreal glory of the horror film.
i Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 30-1.
Elizabeth Reis, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 107.