ROALD Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ was one of my favourite books as a child, but it terrified the hell out of me.
The narrator of the book, an orphaned boy, is told by his grandmother how to recognise witches, whose aim is to destroy children. She warns him to look out for women wearing gloves (which all witches wear to hide their talons), or scratching their heads (as all witches wear wigs to conceal their bald scalps), or walking awkwardly (because witches have no toes, but wear pointy, lady-like shoes to avoid arousing suspicion).
I don’t know what age I was when I first read that book. But for some time afterwards, particularly on visits to Galway city for some reason, I recoiled whenever I saw any women displaying any of the above characteristics. A combination of two or more of the tell-tale signs I took as proof that I was looking at a witch!
The idea of dying a straightforward death at the hands of a ‘demon in human form’ somehow wasn’t that scary. A more frightening prospect for a seven-year-old (or whatever age I was) was that I might end up like Solveg, a girl who was given an apple by a witch and was trapped inside a painting for the rest of her life.
Alternatively, I might meet my end in the same manner as the American children who were turned into hot-dogs so that they would be eaten by their own parents, or the kids who were turned into slugs to be squished by their mum or dad. Hey, what can I say? I was an impressionable child.
By the time I was ten, the notion of believing in these child-hating monsters struck me as preposterous, but my love of the book as a genuine frightener remains to this day. In 1990, a film starring Anjelica Houston came out, and I went to see it in while on the ferry to Holyhead. I didn’t find it especially scary – unlike the contributor to the i09.com website who describes dashing behind the couch as a five-year-old after watching the witches remove their wings, and promptly breaking his arm.
The film had been such a let-down that I was somewhat relieved to recently learn – admittedly on that imperfect fountain of all knowledge, Wikipedia – that Roald Dahl hated its happy ending. Just months before his death, Dahl apparently stood outside cinemas with a megaphone, telling people not to watch the movie. Unlike the protest lodged by Fathers Ted and Dougal outside ‘The Passion of St Tibulus’ on Craggy Island, it doesn’t seem to have turned ‘The Witches’ into an exceptionally popular motion picture.
Now Guillermo Del Toro, the man behind the ‘Hellboy’ films and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, is planning to direct the stop-motion feature adaptation of ‘The Witches’. The Mexican knows all about scaring a cinema audience, and plans to remain more faithful to the book than the original live-action feature.
The bad news is that stop-motion is so slow to create, and Del Toro is committed to so many other projects, that it could be ten years in the making. Maybe at the age of 38, I’ll be able to watch it without feeling terrified. But I wouldn’t bet on it.