‘Coven’ – The Jury’s Still Out.

Incase you haven’t heard, a new movie set and filmed in Queens Wood and other parts of Highgate, has just been completed. Directed by John Mackie and starring Dexter Fletcher, ‘Coven’ promises to be a rather formulaic fright flick, replete with screaming teenage girls legend-tripping at night in a location known locally as at best mysterious, and at worst as the keeper of dark and sinister secrets. You can watch the trailer here:


The film, which adopts as its main theme the concept of pagan rites being carried out in the woods,  takes its title from a group of thirteen oak trees situated in Queens Wood, officially referred to as ‘The Witches’ Coven’, and colloquially simply as ‘The Coven’ by some pagan practitioners. The circle of trees really does exist, by the way; you can see a picture of it below. And pagan groups and solitary practitioners of magic certainly DO use the woods to this day.  But not (as a rule of thumb) with the negative intentions implied by this film’s publicity … OH my, I am not a happy bunny about this film!

The Witches Coven in Queens Wood, (c) hampsteadheath.net
The Witches Coven in Queens Wood, (c) hampsteadheath.net

Naturally the film is of interest to me however, as it was shot on location just a few minutes walk from my abode, with some scenes also filmed at Highgate School in the heart of the village. It also promises to contain factual historical insights into Queens Wood. Personally I am not all that interested in teen horror flicks, but I was interested to learn that the production team seem to have done some research into the plague pits which were dug in the woods during the 1600s. They are correct in stating that some of these are presently situated underneath what is now a children’s play area, but this is not the only place where they are located. Indeed, the name ‘Churchyard Bottom’ as Queens Wood was previously known until it was renamed in Queen Victoria’s honour, signifies its role as a burial site in previous centuries, and the volume of carts which ascended Highgate Hill laden with corpses during the seventeenth century indicates pits of a much greater acreage than just the playground. Much more on that in a later blog! However, doubts already began to creep in for me when I stumbled across ‘Coven’’s publicity team’s assertion that ‘there is no signage to inform the unsuspecting parent of the horror that lies beneath.’ Rather bizarre. Its not as if Haringey Council are presently guarding against an outbreak of bubonic plague. The skeletons are over 350 years old.

Possibly the most accurate scene in 'The Coven' - a representation of the plague pits beneath Queens Wood.
Possibly the most accurate scene in ‘The Coven’ – a representation of the plague pits beneath Queens Wood.

But while the film certainly earns points for at least picking up on this often forgotten episode from Highgate’s history, for me it falls down (at least with regard to its marketing strategy) with its insidiously negative depiction of modern paganism. The following publicity from the film’s official website, http://www.coventhemovie.com/, is suspicious to say the least.

Today there are several Pagan groups who convene in The Coven.
During filming, our schedule unfortunately fell on Halloween and while attempting to film we were warned off by a group of Witches who didn’t want us to witness their rituals. Arguments ensued but despite our permission to film, we eventually gave in and wrapped for the day, concerned that they may upset our project.
Since that date the project was blighted as we sadly experienced three very sudden and completely unexpected deaths relating to our crew.

Are we really expected to believe that the crew just happened to be filming on Hallowe’en? Is it not much more likely that they went there on the 31st October hoping to catch on film some real-life witchy action, and showed very little respect for the people they inevitably encountered in the woods? They claim to have had permission to film – but that permission clearly did not come from the people they were ambushing with cameras and boom sticks who they KNEW would be there.

In other pieces of pre-release publicity, the implication that the pagan group the crew claim to have disturbed deliberately hexed the production in some way is made much more overtly. Personally I find this extremely offensive. Obviously I do not know if the crew genuinely believe this to be the case, but it rather smacks of an attempt at modern myth building intended to promote the film, and possibly to give it some kind of cult status. One naturally thinks of the media circus which surrounded the tragic death of child actress Heather O’Rourke of ‘Poltergeist’ fame.  If the crew do not really believe that they were cursed, then how they countenance their claims is a mystery. Exploiting your own relatives’ deaths to promote a film? Really?

Allegedly, ‘the film recounts past true events and Pagan gatherings that occurred in Queens Wood’. Reference is made in the publicity to the death of Robert Cochrane of the Clan of Tubal Cain, and of his development of the craft leading to the formation of the Regency coven, or clan. The Regency most certainly DID meet in Queens Wood, and carried out ‘mystery religion’ rituals which were open to all, marking the seasons of the year with tableaux and shamanistic ceremonies.  It will be interesting to see how the film treats Cochrane and his associates, and exactly what ‘past true events and Pagan gatherings’ it exploits and misrepresents or otherwise. I have seen nothing so far to suggest that the Regency will be depicted in a balanced and accurate fashion.  Maybe ‘The Coven’ should have decided whether it wanted to present itself as a serious study of neo-paganism, or a low-budget rip-off of ‘The Craft’ before it got to production stage.

Bottom line: the film’s marketing team capitalise the words ‘Witch’ and ‘Pagan’ as some token mark of respect – but effectively accuse the people whose rituals they attempted to spy on of murder. ACTUAL murder, albeit by the use of magic. Those people were quite possibly friends of mine, and would certainly not hex a film crew. What little progress we have made as a society when such a vile thing can be said about people who the accusers clearly know nothing about, in order to get a film off the ground. If they got chased out of a mosque at Eid, or a synagogue at Yom Kippur for filming without permission would they blame every subsequent misfortune they experienced on a curse and inform the public that these religious celebrants were the cause? Disgraceful. I think the film makers should apologise forthwith.

Perhaps the film itself is less ill-educated about paganism than its publicity to date. If so, the crew of this low budget horror really need to have a word with their marketing team if they want to hear the jingling of the ‘Pagan’ pound.

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