Hans Holzer’s The Truth about Witchcraft was published in New York by Doubleday in 1969 (Amazon claims January 1969, Modern Wiccan claims December 1969). The exact date matters only because it would help confirm that Holzer, Bob Wiemer, Stephen Leek and an unnamed airline hostess from Houston, Texas, filmed for television the initiation of Nikki into Alex Sanders’ coven one chilly Saturday night in October of 1968. According to Holzer ‘no one had ever recorded’ such an initiation ‘on film before’ (13); that it ‘was the first time a camera’ was ‘present to record the proceedings’ (12). Alex allowed Holzer ‘to witness an actual initiation ceremony’ (1), granting him a ‘special dispensation’ to set up ‘artificial lights covered by red jells’ (13) in his basement apartment in Notting Hill Gate.
Although it often seems as if a photographer was present at almost all of the Sanders’ coven meetings it may well be true that ‘moving pictures’ had not been taken before. If so, Holzer certainly wasn’t the last to film an Alexandrian initiation, or to record sound of the same. Nevertheless, it would be very interesting to see Holzer’s documentary, to know that it had been shown, or even to know that this footage survived somewhere. As it happens, the name of the documentary is never mentioned, nor can it be easily traced. Perhaps Holzer, who is now 87, will stumble across this review and set the record straight.
Hans Holzer in 1969
Holzer has an engaging, chatty style and the mundane details he provides are intriguing to a 21st-century reader. We are told that Alex acts as the superintendent of the large apartment house in which his basement flat was located; the neighbourhood is middle-class and quiet (the building is in a cul-de-sac street) being neither very good nor dangerous (3); evergreen plants covering the stairway into the ‘modest three-room’ basement flat (2). Circles were held in the living room, people changed in a room that branched off from the corridor connecting the living room and the bedroom (8). For each circle the furniture is moved into the rear bedroom (7); the red carpet is cleaned; an altar, chalk circle, a black circle made of cloth, four red candles etc are all set up (8); the reliquary, even the candlesticks, are described in great detail.
The Sanders Coven in 1968*
The nine participants are also described. Though no last names are given for witches in Holzer’s book (80), we hear that Charles is 21 and works in a nearby antique shop; Carolyn is 18, looks like Elizabeth Taylor and has a voice like Hedy Lamarr; Francis is tall and works in an office; Linda is 21, pretty and a receptionist; Jacques is 23, a pop singer and composer with a French accent (5); Patrick, a dress designer, and his unnamed wife are in comfortable circumstances and live two hours north of London; two unnamed folk singers who are ‘pretty high up in the charts’ (7); Nikki, the neophyte, a shoe salesgirl in a local shop (14) and folk singer, is a rather large girl (20) who, though she only knew what she had read in a few books Alex had loaned her, and having never participated in a circle before, finds herself given a first, second and third degree initiation (22) on the evening described.
Holzer makes a point of stating that the ‘reason for nudity is not erotic or to provide vicarious thrills’ (152) and dismisses the notion that ‘witchcraft rites are a sexy as all get-out’ (185); there are ‘no orgies or wholesale sexual relations’ (36). He also quotes Gardner’s dismissal of underwear or bikinis as being far more suggestive and unnatural than the naked body (11). However, the subject does come up pretty frequently. At the outset we are told that ‘witches meet in the nude’ (2), when they enter the room we are reminded that they are ‘stark naked’ (11) and ‘parading’ around and ‘in no way hiding their sex organs’. This provides an opportunity for a little sermon of the American puritanical aversion to nakedness and the ‘decadence of the flesh Playboy magazine state of mind’ (11). Later, when a school teacher overcomes her hang-ups and throws off her robe this provides an opportunity to mention that Alex and Maxine ‘do not tolerate and lewdness’: in fact, we are told
Maxine has a stick which she uses when a new member of the male sex becomes excited at the sight of unclad females and cannot control his natural inclination: a tap with a stick does the trick and brings him back into line! (36)
While it is no-doubt true that witches ‘come in all sizes and shapes’, that some are overweight ‘or just sadly shaped’, and ‘this does not stimulate the average person’, if anything it ‘stifles the sexual appetite’ (37). However, the reader is told that, with the exception of Alex and three of the witches described above (Patrick and the folk singers?) ‘all participants were in their early twenties, and certainly good-looking’ (12). Caroline and Linda are particularly beautiful when naked (12) and looked great ‘even with robes on’ (28). When the witches enter the room Holzer could ‘almost hear Bob Wiemer swallow’ (12); the ‘broad-minded’ airline hostess is ‘glued to the scene, swallowing hard now and then’ (4) and even Holzer himself is temporarily distracted by the beauty of Caroline and Linda (though ‘such thoughts did not intrude very long’, 12).
The reader is told about three scenes from the unnamed documentary. The initiation, a scene at Stone Henge, and a vox-pop scene on Primrose Hill, London. Men, women and children were quizzed thus: ‘Pardon me, we’re close on Halloween now and I’m wondering what in your view does a witch look like?’ Two answers are given: ‘Oh, I suppose, some old crone on a broomstick, with a big wart on her nose. A black hat on her head. And, oh yes, ugly, quite ugly’. The scene ends with Holzer turning to ‘a young blonde, dressed in the latest mod fashion’. It is Maxine, and she coos ‘Well, as a matter of fact, sir, your looking at one. I am a witch’ (31).
[*illustration from J. J. Howard, 'Witchcraft 1968', Beau (June, 1968), p.9]