Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen (who also appears as both the Devil and as the Christ), Häxan shocked the world upon its 1922 release. Was it a documentary? Was it real life? Audiences freaked whilst film censors attacked and banned the movie based on what they viewed as an attack on religious authority via graphic depictions of torture, nudity, witchcraft, Satanism, sexual perversion, and the glorifying of the supernatural. It was envisioned that Häxan would be the first of a trilogy but due to the reaction and a few other issues the subsequent films were not made. At the time of its release, Häxan was the most expensive film produced in any Scandinavian country.
The movie is somewhat based on Christensen’s own study of the Malleus Maleficarum (translated as the Hammer of Witches) a dictionary/encyclopaedia of witchcraft and demonology written by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer. It was initially published in Speyer, Germany in 1486 and was reprinted through the years and centuries that followed. Christensen had originally planned to write the script with the help of historical experts, but that plan fell through after he discovered that most of the experts he had in mind were against the making of the film.
Häxan was originally a silent movie, but it was later re-edited and re-released by the Metro Pictures Corporation in 1968 under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages. This new version included William S. Burroughs as the narrator.
The film itself is split up into seven parts. The first focuses on appearances of demons and witches in primitive and medieval culture. The second part of Häxan consists of many vignettes that theatrically demonstrate medieval superstition and beliefs concerning witchcraft. Attention then moves into the treatment of suspected witches by the religious authorities in the Middle Ages, and finally Häxan details and demonstrates how old superstitions are better understood in his present day.