Brian Keene’s History of Horror Fiction, Chapter Six: Elizabethan Evil

Last month, we explored how, after Rome’s Edict of Milan, Christianity spread throughout the world and began to influence supernatural fiction. But since our previous chapter focused primarily on twelfth century werewolf fiction, I want to begin this month by talking about another religious book that had a lasting impact on our genre.

That book is the legendary Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), and it was written by a sadistic, misogynistic, mentally-ill old clergyman, demonologist, and witch hunter named Heinrich Kramer.

(It should be noted that in 1519, twenty-four years after Kramer’s death in Moravia, reprints and translations of the book began to name Joseph Sprenger, another clergyman and witch hunter, as a co-author of the book. However, many historians disagree on his contributions and placement, so I will focus on Kramer for the purposes of this history).  

Born in Alsace in 1430, Kramer was drawn to the church at an early age and joined Catholicism’s Dominican Order while still a boy. Said to be possessed of tireless energy, a gift for eloquence in the pulpit, and a virulent hatred of women, Kramer worked his way up through the ranks and was appointed church Prior of his hometown while still a young man. By 1474, Kramer became the right-hand man of Bernard II of Rohr, the Archbishop of Salzburg—an individual who ran the country into economic depression and decreed that Jews (who’d been chased out during the Black Death after being accused of poisoning the wells) would be allowed to live among the populace again provided they identified themselves by wearing pointy hats.

This was the time of the Inquisition and, eventually, Kramer was appointed as Inquisitor for Bohemia, Moravia, Salzburg, and Tyrol. He had the papal bull of Pope Innocent VIII, which acknowledged witchcraft and encouraged clergy and witch hunters to find and prosecute them, to back him up. This soon led to one of Kramer’s first attempts at prosecuting an alleged witch, during a trial which took place in the city of Innsbruck in 1484. The accused woman was one Helena Scheuberin, and it was soon revealed that Kramer was sexually obsessed with her. This resulted in the other tribunal members calling for the trial being suspended. In the aftermath, the local bishop expelled Kramer from the city on charges of illegal behavior.  

Angered by this, Kramer sought revenge by penning the Malleus Maleficarum. An act of self-justification, he outlined his thoughts on witchcraft, and excoriated those who expressed skepticism about it. Indeed, in the book’s preamble, Kramer states, “Some curates of souls and preachers of the Word of God feel no shame at claiming and affirming in their sermons to the congregation that sorceresses do not exist…” and that his intention is “to exterminate the sorceresses by explaining the appropriate methods of sentencing and punishing them.” Take note of his usage of the word sorceresses. As I said before, Kramer hated women. If you doubt it, the book goes on to verify his misogyny again and again.

1892 lithograph depicting a witch trial.

The Malleus Maleficarum is broken into three parts. Part one recounts the history and theology of witchcraft. Part two discuses the practicality of witches—their rites, recruitment, patterns, behaviors, and more. Part three is a step-by-step guide describing how to prosecute a witch, with a heavy and graphic emphasis on the various means of torture in which to secure a confession. Throughout, Kramer insists that harmful magic belongs to women, and that witch hunters should target that gender. He argues that women are less clever, vainer, and more sexually insatiable, with a moral and intellectual inferiority that made them gullible to demonic possession and evil influences. He even went so far as to claim they could steal men’s penises through the power of witchcraft.

And then he offers page after page after page detailing how to torture and deceive them.

While Kramer failed to obtain an endorsement for his work from the top theologians of the Inquisition—who condemned the book as espousing unethical and illegal procedures, and being inconsistent with Catholic doctrines—the Malleus Maleficarum went on to become a sort of medieval bestseller. By the year 1520, it had been reprinted fourteen times throughout Europe in multiple languages, and was the main contributing factor in the witch hysteria that gripped the world for the next two centuries.

Which brings us to the Elizabethan era, considered to be the Golden Age of England’s history. It was also a golden era for horror fiction on the stage, beginning with the 1585 production of Thomas Kyd’s highly popular (at its time) The Spanish Tragedy—an influential play that includes several violent and gruesome murders, a ghost, and a entity that is the personification of Revenge itself. The Spanish Tragedy is said to have heavily influenced William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another theatrical production steeped in the trappings of the genre. Indeed, horror lived on the stage during the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Tempest, and Titus Andronicus all have supernatural trappings, as do the works of other Elizabethan playwrights such as Christopher Marlow and Ben Jonson. The usage of the horror genre on stage culminates in John Webster’s gruesome The Duchess of Malfi, which was staged at the end of the Elizabethan era and considered scandalous by critics of the period for its macabre elements.    

Another scandalously gruesome work of the time is Charles Perrault’s 1697 Bluebeard, a reworking of a French folktale combined with elements of the infamous crimes attributed to Baron Giles de Rais—a knight and nobleman who served as Joan of Arc’s bodyguard and then went on to be both burned at the stake and hanged by the neck for abducting, sexually abusing, killing, and performing occult rituals with possibly hundreds of children. The main character in Bluebeard doesn’t murder children. Instead, he murders his wives. The novel recounts the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of those who came before her.

The character of Bluebeard has left an impression on the genre that still endures, with variations from Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, DC Comics’ Fables, Japan’s popular manga Fate/Zero, and even the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop roleplaying game. It also features in Stephen King’s The Shining, when—in an act of grim foreshadowing—Jack reads the story aloud to his young son, Danny.

That brings us to the 1700s. Up ahead, we see a castle. The Castle of Otranto, to be exact. We’ll visit it and meet a loathsome monk and more next month.

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If you enjoy this column, you might enjoy my new book End of the Road, available from Cemetery Dance right now. It’s a memoir, travelogue, and post-Danse Macabre examination of modern horror fiction, the people who write it, and the world they live and die in. Critics call it exhilarating, emotional, heartfelt and hilarious. You might dig it, too.

Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

2 thoughts on “Brian Keene’s History of Horror Fiction, Chapter Six: Elizabethan Evil”

  1. Another outstanding installment! I would add A Midsummer Night’s Dream to your list of supernatural Shakespeare plays, although the most horrific thing in it is Bottom acquiring the head of an ass – although whatever gets a guy into Titania’s bed can’t be all bad, can it?. Gutenberg has most of the works you’ve cited, by the way. I’ve also got a pretty good biography of Gilles de Rais around here somewhere. Been meaning to take it out and peruse it. There are three excellent operas based on Bluebeard, by Dukas, Offenback and Bartok, plus numerous musical works based on Hamlet, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Titus hasn’t done so well – a couple of 21st Century musicals and a handful of films are all I can find. It does get a nice mention in the Vincent Price classic, Theatre of Blood. 🙂

    Carry on! I’m loving this.

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