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History and horror- Do you dare to meet the Witchfinder General

15 October 2018

Date and time: Friday 26 October, 6.30pm-9.00pm

Location: Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

Film length: 86m

Rating: The film is rated 18 as it contains strong violence and execution scenes. If you are lucky enough to look under 18 we will ask to see proof of your age on the door

Tickets: £10

Booking: Please book online here.

This Hallowe'en, experience history and horror with a screening of 1968 cult horror classic Witchfinder General at the Essex Record Office. The screening will be accompanied by a talk about the real history of witchcraft in Essex by bestselling novelist Syd Moore.

The film is set in East Anglia in 1645, and stars Vincent Price as the notorious self-appointed 'Witchfinder General' Matthew Hopkins, who claimed to have been given the right by parliament to interrogate and execute witches. The plot is a fictionalised account of Hopkins's bloody exploits, and follows him and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) as they visit village after village, torturing and executing suspected witches.

Interior scenes were filmed in converted aircraft hangars near Bury St Edmunds, and exterior scenes were filmed on locations including the Dunwich coast, Lavenham, Kentwell Hall, and Orford Castle.

The film is best-known for its violence, despite being extensively cut by the British Board of Film Censors. It has divided audiences and critics alike, with some deploring its violent scenes, while others have championed it as an important part of British film history.

While Hopkins did exist and did indeed hunt suspected witches, the film departs from real history in several ways. Hopkins was the son of a Suffolk minister. Almost nothing is known of his early life, but by the winter of 1644-5 he was living in Manningtree in Essex.

During this time he came to believe that there were seven or eight witches living in the town; these and others were arrested and questioned, with Hopkins giving evidence against them. This sparked a trail of accusations, and eventualy 36 Essex women were tried for witchcraft at the Essex assizes in July 1645. Nineteen of them were executed, nine died in prison, and six were still locked up in 1648. What Hopkins started in Essex spread to Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, with at least 250 people tried as witches, and at least 100 executed.

Hopkins did not meet the violent end that he does in the film, but died slowly of consumption (tuberculosis) at his home in Essex in 1647. Price was 56 at the time that he played Hopkins, but in reality Hopkins was only in his 20s when he instigated the East Anglian witch hunts. The film's biggest departure from reality, however, is its omission of court cases; in the film, Hopkins and Stearne subject their victims to summary executions, but in reality suspected witches were arrested and tried.

Syd Moore said: "Controversy surrounds Matthew Hopkins and his dastardly reign of terror and this is reflected on screen too. The Witchfinder General is a great film. It's quite shocking really, in a way that you don't necessarily expect from Tigon films (who were similar in output to Hammer). Vincent Price is sinister, rather than hammy, in his role as Matthew Hopkins. Of course the film isn't  absolutely accurate regarding the witchfinder's two-year witch hunt but it does convey the horror and panic that the people of Essex felt as they were swept up by the hysteria that was directed by this man."

Hopkins wasn't the only witchfinder to emerge from Essex. Join Syd Moore a she takes on a brief tour of some Essex witch hotspots.