So I Would Move Among These Things: Maya Deren and The Witch’s Cradle by Fox Henry Frazier

So I Would Move Among These Things: Maya Deren and The Witch’s Cradle by Fox Henry Frazier
July 31, 2022 Frazier Fox Henry

In her essay taken from her dissertation for her doctorate at The University of Southern California,
“So I Would Move Among These Things: Maya Deren and “The Witch’s Cradle,” Fox Henry Frazier revives
the important legacy and cultural importance of Ukrainian-born, avant-garde poet and filmmaker Maya Deren,
who died too young of a brain hemorrhage in 1961. Frazier’s analysis of Deren’s filmic semiotics reminds
present day readers not only of Deren’s groundbreaking work as a filmmaker in the nineteen forties and fifties,
but her poetic genius as well for creating memorable surrealistic imagery in both her poetry and films. By
documenting Deren’s particular brilliance for converting a torturous, misogynistic ritual called “The Witch’s
Cradle” at the hand of the writer and “adventurer” William Seabrook, Frazier explains just how Deren
ingeniously converted her torturous experience with Seabrook into her own visionary feminist film starring
Marcel Duchamp under the same title, thus not only exposing Seabrook’s ritual for his thinly disguised enactment
of one of his perverse sexual fantasies in the guise of witch-training for broom-riding, but co-opting it
as her own with a far superior philosophical conceit for betraying the complexity of the feminine psyche via
the symbolic use of string. “Deren’s interest in the power of objects may feed into bigger questions triggered
by the Rhinebeck episode,” Frazier writes, “questions, for example, about bodily/embodied autonomy for
female and femme people, and subject-versus-object power within that context…We might ask,” she goes on
to suggest, “whether there is an implication here that, if these objects have subjectivity and agency, then perhaps even a woman who has been reduced to an object, in a violent way, might then more easily be able to envision herself possessing subjectivity and agency—even if that, too, must be achieved by supernatural or occult means, i.e., witchiness.”

–Chard DeNiord




So I Would Move Among These Things:

Maya Deren and The Witch’s Cradle

By Fox Henry Frazier





“I am hailed by all the girls as a sure poet,” Maya Deren wrote to her mother as a young
undergraduate student. Although she would later be hailed as the “mother of trance film” and
an aesthetic pioneer of the American cinematic avant-garde, Deren first pursued the study of
literature and creative writing, earning her Master’s degree from Smith College in June of 1939.
Deren’s journals from this time reflect an independent study of the writing and poems of H.D.[1],
whose occult leanings and Modernist aesthetics Deren found fascinating—and whose vision
Deren credited with setting off a “poetic renaissance.”[2] Ultimately, Deren’s thesis explored
French Symbolist influence on Modernist English and American poetry while she continued to
write her own poems. Both Deren’s critical and creative work focused on the moving away from
“outer realities,” or the idea of an objectively knowable universe, to the “inner reality,” or
subjective interior landscape, of the artist.[3] Deren had been exposed to Kabbalistic writing in
her youth and already had a pronounced interest in the occult and supernatural. The concept of
“inner realities,” in which objects took on symbolism, power, and agency of their own—apart
from however they might be defined in the “outer realities” of the world—was a thread that
would carry through Deren’s work for the rest of her life.


Most people who know Deren’s writing know it through the avant-garde films she wrote and
directed, especially Meshes of Afternoon. But her inner social circle, comprised of artists in New York, included writers such as Anaïs Nin. And even as Deren began to build her cinematic
career, she continued to write poetry. For one rather notable example, Deren penned “Anaïs
Before the Glass” after she and Nin had a bitter falling-out.[4]


A moment at the cusp of Deren’s film career captures her pivot from writing verbal poetry to
visual poetry: her second film, The Witch’s Cradle, a collaboration with Surrealist Marcel
Duchamp that was never finished. Deren wrote the script and directed; the film was shot in the
Guggenheim Gallery amidst the Surrealist exhibition “Art of Our Century.” The Witch’s Cradle
marks a pivotal moment in Deren’s development as a writer—the experience by which she
began writing poetry for the screen instead of poetry for the page.


Decades after the genesis of Deren’s work, the fusion of poetry and film has become a staple of
the artistic mainstream, via the creation of poetry videos for social media (including but not
limited to ‘trailers’ for forthcoming poetry books). Arguably, artists such as Beyoncé have
further popularized this fusion (in Queen Bey’s case, by using the poetry of Warsan Shire as
interstitial matter, connecting songs on the visual album Lemonade. And, of course, there are
poetry videos made by deaf poets using ASL. In Deren’s time, none of this was being done—
although Surrealists such as Germaine du Lac and Man Ray had begun experimenting with how
to present spatial distortions and temporal disruptions onscreen.[5] As for Deren, the language in
her (silent) films that made them poetry was a subversive use of semiotics.


One widely accepted definition for filmic poetry, articulated by William Wees, stipulates that
the synthesis of these two elements (film and poetry) must produce “associations,
connotations, and metaphors” that neither the poetic use of
language nor the filmic images would produce on their own—that is, neither is
privileged above the other. In addition to the types of physical expression we idiomatically term
“body language,” scholars of semiotic theory have firmly established that there are many
different types of systems-of-signifiers and that all systems of signification might be considered
forms of language.


The visual system of signifiers that Deren employs here is at least in part predicated upon the
gestures of the human body. What separates a film like The Witch’s Cradle from other silent
films, particularly as poetry, is that each physical gesture and object is charged with meaning
beyond its everyday, accepted significance in the “exterior realities” of the world. Rather, they
are layered with meaning particular to the “interior reality” of the world of the film/poem. This
use of symbol and motif—and fragmentation—create the heightened sense of reality we find in
poetry. Whereas a Buster Keaton silent film, on the other hand, reads like a novel.


Deren openly considered her work poetry written in a visual language and expressed onscreen;
many of her literary contemporaries backed her up.[6] The poet James Merrill, and his partner,
Kimon Friar, became very close with Deren in 1946, a few years after she shot (and abandoned)
The Witch’s Cradle. She and Merrill frequently supported each other’s work and published in
the same literary journals and magazines. Their bond was lifelong, and Merrill frequently
attempted to contact Deren after her death using a Ouija board.[7]


But even before this friendship had reached fruition, Kimon Friar, who ran the Poetry Center at
the historic 92nd Street Y, invited Deren to show her films and deliver a lecture there—
specifically because he understood her films as poems. She delivered her first lecture there in
March of 1945. As Friar recalled nearly forty years later:


“I do remember Maya’s presentation very well, and how excited I
was about the poetic quality of her imagery and her symbolism,
the mysterious nuance of it all, the condensation, the lyrical yet
brooding atmosphere. It was truly visual poetry, with all the
suggestivity and indirection of the best modern poems.”[8]

A 1946 interview with Deren in the New York Post describes Meshes of Afternoon and Deren’s creative vision:

Maya made her first picture in their Hollywood house in 1943
with her husband’s expert help. It concerns a man, a girl, a knife,
and a strange dark figure with a mirror for a face . . . [Maya
Deren] hopes that her work, which she carries on at
comparatively small expense, will encourage other people to try
“poetry in film.”
[. . .]
I know from experience,” she stated, “that there’s an audience
[for my films]—just as there is an audience that keeps art galleries
open . . . and poetry books being published.”[9]


All of which is to say—perhaps rather than reading Witch’s Cradle simply as an incomplete
failure of a film, we might learn something by approaching it as a fragmented visual poem
whose fragmentation heightens and enhances some of its visual vocabularies.




Deren’s own critical analyses of her films have always been heavily incorporated into program
notes and other critical discussions of her work.[10] In the 1940s, as Deren’s films began to garner
recognition, audiences felt—perhaps unsurprisingly—they needed guidance in understanding
her work. Most cinematic curators had never seen anything quite like Deren’s work before;
many openly feared “getting it wrong” more than they feared the intentional fallacy, so they
allowed her to speak for herself and her art. The decision reflects solid common sense from the
perspective of a curator or a member of the early audiences. Resultantly, however,  Deren
largely wrote her own legend. The way Deren branded herself as an artist heavily emphasized
the role of intuition in her creative process and in the finished product of each film—even
arguing with those who described her as cerebral or calculated.[11] But decades later, to ignore
many of the more intentional, calculated, or cerebral aspects of Deren’s work is to sell her and
her films unforgivably short.





Deren’s lifelong fascination with magick, the occult, and the supernatural was not just
experiential or perceptual—they were also conceptual. They were things that she considered
from the perspective of sensory experience and then developed from an intellectual standpoint
for application to her art. Many such details in her films are not subconscious accidents but
erudite literary and cultural allusions. For example, Margaret Mead revealed in an interview
that several physical gestures in Deren’s film At Land are based upon Mead’s anthropological conversations with Deren. The gestures are various signifiers of witchcraft, occult influences,
and potential threats against various characters in the film.[12]


During autumn of 1938, Deren elected to take a class with Kurt Koffka in Gestalt psychology.
This experience would prove influential in terms of how Deren came to view her art—an
experience in which each moving part took on a significance and volition of its own:


an ‘emergent whole’ (I borrow the term from Gestalt psychology)
in which the parts are so dynamically related as to produce
something new which is unpredictable from a knowledge of the
parts. It is this process which makes possible the idea of economy
in art, for the whole which here emerges transcends, in meaning,
the sum total of the parts. The effort of the artist is towards the
creation of a logic in which two and two may make five, or
preferably, fifteen: when this is achieved, two can no longer be
understood as simply two.[13]


This notion that an entity, once in Deren’s grasp, no longer equaled its standard definition or
value in the “outer reality” of the world—but was rather freed to take on additional meaning
based on the “inner reality” of the poet’s consciousness—lies at the core of The Witch’s Cradle
and its genesis.




Deren’s propensity for occult subject matter and supernatural metaphor are evident in her
early adult work; in 1940, she wrote “The Vampire Mirror” for a romantic partner named Paul.
The first stanza echoes the familiar mythology of the vampire whose countenance may be
observed in all its mortal resemblance yet cannot find reflection in a mirror; the second stanza
escalates the mythos, playing with the idea of mirrors and vision in a way that foreshadows
both The Witch’s Cradle and Meshes of Afternoon[14]—in particular, the nebulous distinction
between the viewer who, as subject, asserts the agency to observe and interpret the
significance of an object—to define it—and the person or thing that is viewed and relegated to
object status by the gaze of another, whose definition is created by its passive status as that
which is viewed


This idea of the body as both subject and object—the seer and the seen, the
beholder and that which is viewed or beheld—or held—would continue to be a central theme
in much of Deren’s later work, both poetry and film (and the moment of most overt overlap
between her poetry and film The Witch’s Cradle).


Less than a year later, while living in Los Angeles, Deren wrote the poem, “To Those With the
Stain of the Dark Star on Their Faces,” dedicated to the Biblical figure Lilith, and to several of
her own friends and “unnamed others, wherever they are.” This poem, too, deals with the role
of the body in forming lived experience—although, as the dedication suggests, on a much more
personal level: Deren and her artist/outsider friends, marked by a “dark star” on their faces,
recognizable in this way to one another as kindred spirits, might best be understood by
considering the writings of Foucault and Freud that describe the body as a text inscribed by the
self and society to create the narrative(s) of experience. Deren writes: “Look how hungry we
are for the people./ Look how we reach for them in the street,/ how we weep for a multitude of
alien faces,/ knowing them alien.” By the visual language of signifying marks written upon the
physical body, the speaker recognizes those who are her kindreds.


Later that year, in October of 1941, Deren wrote the poem “Genesis,” which is focused entirely
on a desired occurrence of magic—of transformation for the speaker, arguably. It reads like an


Let us reserve this hour for magic.
Beginning with nothing, let it be swiftly perfect with impossibility.
Let there be singing of unutterable words
and wearing smiles intolerably bright
let us fill a quite incredibly white night
with unimaginable movement.
Let the impossible be real.
Let the incredible be true.
Let us accomplish now this cosmos
now, swiftly, now
before the world shall come to pass.


Notably, even the metaphysical aspirations of the speaker in this poem—to bring
about the impossible and incredible into actuality, into reality—are rendered in physical, bodied
terms rather than more esoteric or spiritually-oriented language:
“unimaginable movement,” “singing,” “wearing smiles.” Even this small selection of Deren’s
literary work shows that her aesthetic trajectory as a poet remained concerned with the body
as both subject and object and an interest in how an infusion of occult energy can alter identity.


Deren’s literary work up until this point was also notably concerned with
possession—lovers who possess one another, artists who want to be possessed by one another
in order to escape their own intensities and limitations, a child who wishes to be immersed in
the sensory stimuli of autumn to the point where they might arguably possess her
consciousness. This aesthetic trajectory foreshadows Deren’s later preoccupations and
concerns in her art: it is highly sensitive to the role of the body in both interpreting and creating
lived experience. It is also subsumed in its own questions about the mystical and encounters
with the unknown—as evidenced through the depictions of Nature as an intoxicating force. The
familiar established vampiric mythos subverted into a metaphor of the understanding of the
self and of the fragile ecstasy of romantic and/or sexual love, through the body being treated as
a necessary vehicle for encountering the unknown.






By autumn of 1939, Deren had serious literary pursuits of her own that occupied most of her
spare time, including her continued writing of poetry and a translation of Ville Conquise by Belgian/Russian socialist author Victor Serge.[15] In order to support her fledgling literary career,
Deren freelanced as a secretary and editorial assistant for a number of well-known American
writers, including Eda Lou Walton, Max Eastman, and—perhaps most significantly—William
Seabrook, a commercially successful writer and self-styled “adventurer.” Seabrook had lived in Africa and in Haiti, eventually settling on a rural estate in Rhinebeck, NY, with his second wife. Seabrook actively cultivated a mystique and a vaguely scandalous reputation for “dabbl[ing] in
the occult.”[16] Deren worked as an editorial and research assistant for him while writing
Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today.


For months after Deren’s initial employment, Seabrook attempted to procure Deren’s
participation in ‘experiments’ that was, in an unspecified capacity, related to the acquisition of
occult knowledge and the cultivation and subsequent testing of extrasensory perception
abilities. Deren politely refused his invitation several times, but at some point during the winter
of 1939-1940, with her financial situation becoming increasingly unstable, Deren made
arrangements to travel to Seabrook’s rural estate home on the outskirts of the small town of
Rhinebeck, in upstate NY.[17]
Narratives vary regarding Deren’s time at the Seabrook estate—all of them imparted, with
some amount of privacy or secrecy, by Deren herself to close friends. The details are somewhat
difficult to parse because it appears that Deren, on multiple occasions, began to tell the story
by sharing a few grim or traumatic details and would then say something to the effect of, “I’ll
tell you the whole story sometime,” and never mention it again.
Deren authored a written account of the ordeal in a letter to her close friend Herb Passin,
suggesting that her visit to the Seabrook estate occurred over a day or two in early February of
1940; however, the research of the three scholars who authored The Legend of Maya Deren
Project has, through an arduous amount of painstaking, meticulously detailed work, placed the
event in winter of 1939 (the same season, but a few months earlier). Based upon the variation
of different accounts Deren offered to her confidants at different points in her life—and the
accounts offered by Seabrook himself and the townspeople of Rhinebeck—it seems as though
the episode may have been more extenuated than Deren’s letter to Herb Passin intimates.
What we know for certain is that the timing of Deren’s letter places the end of the event in
early February of 1940, while research conducted by Clark, Neiman, and Hodgson puts its
inception at some point during the winter of 1939.[18]


Upon her arrival, Seabrook showed Deren many of his ‘exotic’ artifacts and souvenirs, among
them an object he called a witch’s cradle. In his autobiography, No Hiding Place, Seabrook
boasts that he had actually commissioned the creation of many of these “artifacts” himself:


I now bought such paraphernalia as was purchasable . . . had in[to
the house] bewildered local carpenters and a blacksmith to help
build what I couldn’t buy. We made a cage similar to the one the
Manchu princess who turned Taoist saint had been imprisoned in
for twenty years. We even built a witch’s cradle. And never, when
things got going, was there any dearth of young apprentice
witches. I called them “research workers” . . . since they all
reappeared sooner or later alive, the State Police never came to
dig up the sub-cellar or garden


And what, exactly, is a witch’s cradle? Many sources agree that the witch’s cradle was a
medieval torture device used by the Catholic Church during the European witch-hunts. It goes
without saying (or should) that the European and American witch hunts comprise a grotesquely
misogynistic chapter of Western history. This history had been thoroughly sensationalized—and
eroticized—for entertainment value in American culture, by the time Maya Deren stood alone
with William Seabrook in his barn.
This may be why Seabrook’s apparatus appears to have been different from what most
historical sources define or describe as a “witch’s cradle.” During the witch hunt(s) associated
with the Spanish Inquisition, a “witch’s cradle” was described as a large sack made out of
opaque cloth. An accused woman would then be placed inside the bag, then hung from a tree
using a rope. She would then be swung, spun, and otherwise violently struck and/or moved
about at the will of her torturers. The sensory deprivation often led to hallucinations. This form
of torture, frequently enough, successfully elicited a confession of witchcraft.
Seabrook’s device, on the other hand, appears from all descriptions to have been a variation of
what is commonly described as a Judas Cradle—an entirely different medieval torture device. A
Judas Cradle consists of a “seat” shaped like a pyramid, over which a prisoner is harnessed and
then lowered. The further the victim is lowered, and the more pressure is applied, the more
damage the pyramid causes to the genital organs and the more pain it inflicts. Seabrook told
Deren that this object, which he had paid carpenters and a blacksmith to construct for him, was
a medieval device that apprentice witches were expected to straddle for hours so that they
could better learn to straddle a broomstick, on which they would presumably fly, and must be
able to control in order to properly navigate. Specifically, one of the arrangements that
Seabrook entreated Deren to agree to—with the understanding that she could not retract her
agreement once given—was as follows:


Remaining in the witch’s cradle for six hours. (The witch’s cradle is
a medieval narrow sort of seat which apprentice witches were
supposed to straddle for hours to eventually be able to ride a


Seabrook informed Deren that stringent rules governed the “procedure” and that, should she
give consent, he would not allow her to take it back:


The statement at the top of the page, being the condition for all . .
. was that once a procedure had been agreed upon, it would have
to be adhered to for the duration of the time agreed upon. If
agreement was upon a procedure lasting 6 hours, even if one
shouted bloody murder at the end of two hours, she would not be
permitted to cease.[21]


In addition to this demand that Deren abdicate her right to change her mind while being
tortured, Seabrook’s other conditions were as follows:

  1. the condition of nudity;
  2. the condition of punishment if the [participant, in this case, Deren] somehow violated the agreement, and the punishment was whipping . . .
  3. the [participant] was not to be allowed to say an intelligible word but was only to make animal sounds to express itself. Infraction of this condition punishable by whipping also.[22]




The object Seabrook told her was “the witch’s cradle” obviously made an impression on Deren.
It seems to serve as a physical emblem of the entire ordeal, as it implies an equivocation
between spiritual and sexual possession: the concept of sexual possession (man takes charge of
woman and ‘trains’ her in how to mold the shape of her sexual organs) with supernatural
‘possession’ and witchcraft (the idea of a witch being, as Anne Sexton wrote in the late 1950s, a
woman “possessed,”[23] flying her broom over houses in the dark of night). And, too, its name
suggests the emergence or genesis of nascent supernatural abilities—”cradle” being an
idiomatic symbol of origin (as in, “cradle to grave”).
After showing Deren his collection of relics, both authentic and invented, Seabrook then
entreated her once again to participate in what he referred to as his extrasensory perception
experiments. Upon receiving a graphic, pages-long description of said experiments from
Seabrook, Deren was repulsed by the sexual degradation they involved. She responded by
interrogating Seabrook, inquiring about the relationship these “experiments” bore to
extrasensory perception. After an extenuated exchange during which his responses were
mostly evasive, Seabrook ultimately admitted the experiments for which he had procured
Deren were for his own sexual gratification and offered little to no intention of revealing
anything about extrasensory perception. Horrified, Deren refused to participate.
At this point, Seabrook expressed surprise at Deren’s refusal, and rather than honoring it, he
applied pressure in a different way: by suggesting that perhaps Deren was not intuitive enough
to be valuable to experiments. He told her that although she didn’t look or appear very
intelligent, she was behaving in too cerebral a way, at this moment, to perhaps even be allowed
to participate in the experiences for which he had spent months recruiting her:


He looked at me a long time, and then he said . . . “Well, I was
mistaken. When I saw you sitting on the floor at Martha’s
Vineyard, with the wide bracelet and your hair down, you didn’t
seem to me to be a girl whose primary function was thinking. But
your mind is too involved here. It would be hard to break that
down into a state of passivity which extra-sensory perception


In all of the varying narratives surrounding the Rhinebeck episode, Deren had to spend at least
one night at Seabrook’s estate against her will.
In the most benign form of the story, Deren
was simply detained due to practical measures regarding an “eastern blizzard,”—but even in
this version of the story, she described having feelings of “terror” at being compelled to remain
at Seabrook’s place[25], as well as afterward having a “terrific nervous reaction, like after an
emergency dealt with,”[26] which today would likely be considered diagnosable.[27] [28]


It appears that Deren expressed, over the years, a few different versions of this narrative to her
closest friends and confidants; these later variations of the story suggest that she was shackled
or physically restrained at Seabrook’s estate for an indeterminate period—that a blizzard was
not the only thing that caused her to remain there against her will. Other versions of the story
(again, provided by Deren herself at different times) suggest at least some participation in
Seabrook’s experiments and include a narrative of “escape” that implies her release was not as
consensual on Seabrook’s part as her letter to Herb Passin describes. Even Herb Passin himself
later recalled in an interview:


“She said it was evil, she started with great enthusiasm and
willingness to accept a great deal but, then she began to feel that
it was evil. She felt trapped and she wanted to escape from there.
In fact . . . her getting away from there
was a kind of escape. She was shackled or something and had to get
away from there—something like that.


It sounded very dramatic. But I don’t remember the details,
because she said, ‘We’ll talk about it sometime,’ and she never


All known narratives of the Rhinebeck episode share the thread of trauma resulting from
unwanted sexual advances and a sense of captivity. Likewise, all versions of the narrative
include Deren’s increased awareness and interest regarding the use of objects as signifiers that
could create an atmosphere, communicate power, eliciting specific psychological and
behavioral (and perhaps spiritual or metaphysical) responses from those who viewed them. She
states as much, pretty unequivocally, in her letter to Passin. She also mentions the influence of
temporal and spatial distortions in the process:


Stepping into [Seabrook’s] studio was like stepping into a different
world. It was a large beamed room filled with the fantastic objects
which you [might] find in [a] museum. There were wooden masks
and strange grass tapestries, bows and arrow, curious boxes and
chairs, much […] jewelry, strange leather things hanging from the
ceiling, many strange and curious—the trophies of an adventurer
[…] But it was somehow different. In a museum, these things are
behind glass; in the trophy room of an adventurer they decorate
the walls. In a museum our sense of history is distended, we are
reminded of how old the world is. In the trophy room of an
adventurer our sense of time is distended, we are reminded of
how large the world is that holds both ourselves and these things
But in Seabrook’s studio it was all somehow different. I mean I
sensed it then and name it now for the first time. Here time,
instead of being distended, was telescoped; and geography
became a provincial thing. I mean that one felt that one was at
home among these things, that as I flick my ash into the familiar,
dirty ash-tray beside this typewriter, so I would move among
these things.


After I had wandered among the objects for a while, Seabrook
gave me the manuscript of three chapters of his forthcoming book
to read. “These,” he said, “will give you an idea of the sort of
experiments I’d like you to help me with.” I read them quickly.
They dealt with extra-sensory perception. They proceeded upon
the logic that when, for example, someone is very very exhausted
and thus physically unable to exercise their regular senses
normally, they get a type of lucidity and hallucination which has a
profound subconscious basis etc. etc. . . . It was reasonable and
interesting. Working and living as hard as I do, I had often reached
the hallucinatory or imagistic stage of fatigue. I had even
experienced those strange moments of lucidity. I thought I would
be a good subject. I said so and we went downstairs to lunch.[30]




It was only the next day on the train, when we began to pull into
the Bronx, that the completely fantastic quality of the thing came
to me, and the extreme cunning of the man became clear.


He created, in décor, a situation which immediately took you out
of the normal to the fantastic and removed you from the
presence of any normal values. He spoke to you about the entire
procedure in so casual and usual a tone that it seemed normal. . . .
I had a terrific nervous reaction, like after an emergency dealt
with. The images[31] kept coming to me and all day long yesterday
every muscle in my body would contract in spasms of horror, and
revulsion. Even today they float about in the room. . . .


Only this morning I remembered that I had slept alone, in the
midst of a howling blizzard, surrounded by his instruments of pain
and hideousness.[32]






On some level, the creation of The Witch’s Cradle feels inevitable. By 1943, Deren had been
writing poetry for sixteen years and seriously for approximately a decade; the Rhinebeck
episode was three years behind her—enough for her to get a bit of distance from whatever
she’d endured. She had just gotten married—fusing love and sexuality with a newfound sense
of security— and had just successfully made her first film. The Witch’s Cradle, when considered
from this perspective, was bound to happen: a visual poem about the lived experience of
gendered trauma and sexualized violence, as much as about Deren’s lifelong preoccupations
with trance, altered psychic states, and the supernatural or occult.


Anne Clark—a sculptor and Surrealist artist in her own right—characterized The Witch’s Cradle
as “a metaphysical film” intended to explore “Maya’s own ideas about magic.” Deren used
specific aesthetic techniques to achieve this end, to invite the viewer into the experience with
her: distorting the spaces through which her camera moved by altering dimension and
perspective; disrupting the linear flow of time in the universe within her film; and creating a
sense of object immanence, the phenomenon by which inanimate objects achieve agency and
subjectivity—in this case, over even human beings (Anne Clark’s character, and also the
viewer). The result is a film, or filmic poem, that builds a sense of disorientation, creating a
rhythmic, atmospherically induced sense of trance that encourages a state of mild


Via interruption of normal sensory experience, Deren’s poetics elicit a state of uncanniness. As
the familiar is rendered unfamiliar and the viewer becomes more disoriented, an encounter
with “the unknown” is facilitated[34], during which the viewer must employ a sense of negative
capability.[35] This process creates an effect strikingly similar to that of semantic satiation in the
written poetry of Gertrude Stein[36]—allows new ideas to form in the viewer’s mind via this
instilled sense of alienation or dissociation and ultimately results in the production of new
knowledge or insight, created by a sense of lived experience.


This sense of the uncanny is augmented by Deren’s ability to distort the viewer’s understanding
of space within the film. Deren distorts standard spatial sensibilities using a few different
techniques. Early in the film, a sense of normalcy is established—and then quickly undermined,
to the point of complete annihilation. The opening scene at a sidewalk café is rendered as an
approachable, non-threatening narrative; that sense is quickly eliminated in the first scene
change, when a different kind of experience begins for both the protagonist and the viewer. We
enter a dimly-lit, cavernous interior space—an apt metaphor for the subconscious mind—and,
as our perspective closely follows the character played by Anne Clark, we are quickly given the
sense of being in unfamiliar territory—and then, just as quickly, utterly lost.


Deren’s visual cues here suggest that the woman’s subconscious mind has now assumed
command of this (non-)narrative filmic poem. Her techniques here can be traced to the
influence Germaine Dulac’s opening scene in The Seashell and the Clergyman—in which the
camera pans down a darkened corridor, towards the uncanny image of a mysteriously backlit
door that will lead us inside. In Dulac’s film, the door has often been read as a portal to
elements of the unknown, obscured by artificial construct (just as the chaos of experience is
obscured by the artificial narratives and social constructs of the ego and the conscious mind).
Deren’s visual cues regarding the uncanny and the subconscious aren’t far off. In The Witch’s
, a similar shift into subconscious territory is signified by Anne Clark’s character
wandering alone in darkness through an interior corridor space. It is revealed within a few
seconds to be a deserted museum filled with strange objects—another apt metaphor for the
weird chaos of the subconscious mind, where snippets and artifacts of our taboo,
incomprehensible, and unshared experiences reside.


In explaining his concept of the uncanny, Freud wrote:

. . . an involuntary return to the same situation . . . result[s]
in the . . . feeling of helplessness and of something uncanny.
As, for instance, when one is lost in a forest in high altitudes,
caught . . . by the mountain mist, and when every endeavor
to find the marked or familiar path ends again and again in
a return to one and the same spot, recognizable by some
particular landmark. Or when one wanders about in a dark,
strange room, looking for the door or the electric switch, and
collides for the hundredth time with the same piece of
furniture . . . it is only this factor of involuntary repetition
which surrounds with an uncanny atmosphere what would
otherwise be innocent enough, and forces upon us the idea
of something fateful and unescapable where otherwise we
should have spoken of “chance” only.[37]


Notably, most of Freud’s introductory examples include some element of visual obfuscation—
darkness, mountain mist, unfamiliar or difficult-to-navigate surroundings. (The resonance with
this in both Deren’s work and Dulac’s is easily discerned.) These might be termed elements that
distort the viewer’s (or querent’s) perceptions of the space. In The Witch’s Cradle, these scenes
of the museum interior include multiple elements that function as disruptors of the viewer’s
normal ability to apprehend and interpret a space.


This isn’t coincidental: Deren notes pointed efforts in the shooting script regarding the
disruption of our spatial awareness. In The Witch’s Cradle shooting script, the notes
regarding shots 45, 46, and 47 are far less specific than most of the earlier shots that
deal with the achievement of very particular images, such as blood spilling onto a floor,
an eye floating in blood, or lines/threads becoming animated against the backdrop of a
specific body part. Shot 46 mentions a specific object (the “magic square”), but only
insofar as necessary to detail the spatial distortion that accompanies it—the fact that it
inexplicably splits into several pieces when the protagonist touches it. Our experience of
the space being deliberately slowed down by Deren’s camera is also  noted. The
descriptions of shots 45 and 47, in particular, are highly conceptual in nature, as
opposed to most of Deren’s very concrete images in other shots of the film—they are
clearly designed to further an overall aesthetic concept that is heavily invested in
creating distortions in our sensory perceptions of space and the narratives that we as
viewers are able to construct from our spatial awareness—the better to create a sense
of the uncanny, a sense of possession or altered psychic state:


  1. Cuts with various displacements, coming into frame from various angles, sometimes with paintings in background.


  1. CU magic square as she puts her hand out to touch it, and it breaks up into all its blocks. Slow motion.


  1. More displacements, boxes, games as magic objects, moving lights, camera [38]


Perhaps the clearest example of visual incantation in The Witch’s Cradle and the
rendering of a familiar object unfamiliar—and foreboding in its new strangeness—is
the use of string. In the shooting script, its first appearance is innocuous enough:
Marcel Duchamp plays a man ostensibly on a boring date with a woman who is a love interest,
friend, or professional colleague. They sit idly at an outdoor café as Duchamp plays a solitary
game of something like Cat’s Cradle, using a thick, white piece of string. His female companion


The shooting script then re-locates us, via the woman’s imagination, into an
interior space. Duchamp’s character sits in a chair, still appearing at first glance to play with the
string, but the string has volition and direction all its own now: it slithers up his pant leg,
serpentine and a little frayed at the end. We see it move across his shoulders and upper back;
we see it around his neck, noose-like, the far end rising above his body. Already, a familiar and
innocuous object has been rendered unfamiliar and foreboding.


This happens in a more visually articulate way later in the script when in shots
61-67, the immanent string—which has been visually equated with veins and arteries
earlier in the film—appears to make an aesthetic, psychological, and physical leap into the
protagonist’s very body. As she picks it up in her hands off the floor, it appears to cast some
sort of spell over her, and she realizes in horror that the string has begun to manifest (again) on
her body as the dark lines of artery. While the shots continue to escalate, the dark lines spread
like visible veins over her hands and up her arms. There are no explanations offered other than
the “spell” evidenced by the pentagram revealed upon her forehead by the moving mirror
moments thereafter. The string’s magical ability to turn from an object cast onto the floor to
that which moves through the protagonist’s body of its own volition cannot help but recall the
character of the silenced woman who mounts a symbol of domesticity and is transported,
against the laws of society and gravity, anywhere she wills.


Later in the film, the string webs the room, preventing identification of or access to the exit
point. The volition and direction the string seems to have possessed have turned even more
ominous as it imprisons the desperate protagonist. The return of the string, like a visual refrain,
creates a sense of the incantatory; it also further enmeshes Deren’s filmic poem with a
Freudian sense of the uncanny:


For instance, we . . . attach no importance to the event when
we give up a coat and get a cloakroom ticket with the number,
say, 62; or when we find that our cabin on board ship is numbered
62. But the impression is altered if two such events, each in itself
indifferent, happen close together, if we come across the number
62 several times in a single day, or if we begin to notice that
everything which has a number—addresses, hotel-rooms,
compartments in railway-trains—always has the same one, or one
which at least contains the same figures. We do feel this to be
“uncanny,” and unless a man is utterly hardened and proof
against the lure of superstition he will be tempted to ascribe a
secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number . . .


How exactly we can trace back the uncanny effect of such
recurrent similarities . . . is a question I can only lightly
touch upon in these pages . . . It must be explained that we
are able to postulate the principle of a repetition-compulsion
in the unconscious mind, based upon instinctual activity
and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts—
a principle powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle,
lending to certain aspects of the mind their
daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the
tendencies of small children; a principle, too, which is responsible
for a part of the course taken by the analyses of
neurotic patients. Taken in all, the foregoing prepares us
for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner
repetition-compulsion is perceived as uncanny.[39]


We are wired, Freud  argues, to ascribe greater significance to that which is repeated. When
the repetitions we observe are not of our own devising and are not under our immediate
control, we not only ascribe greater significance to them, but a greater potential for harm,
because we assume that someone else (or, in the case of Deren’s film, something(s) else) is
wielding control and creating a pattern of significance that we don’t yet understand. Our lack of
understanding, combined with our lack of agency in the situation, often yields not only fear, but
a burgeoning sense that something once familiar to us is being rendered mysteriously


In addition to its function as a visually incantatory element and a harbinger of the uncanny,
there may be an additional component to Deren’s use of string in this film.
Inasmuch as The Witch’s Cradle is clearly based upon some threads of her lived
experience with William Seabrook at Rhinebeck, there are other threads of experience that
seemed, a few years later, to follow. In early 1943, VVV magazine ran an article by Seabrook
that detailed some of the “experiments” he had performed with a young Quaker woman.[40]


Perhaps due to her sheltered, pious nature, Seabrook was much gentler with
her (or so he writes) than with his other “Lizzies,” including Maya Deren. His writing does,
however, “describe the quasi-spiritual, quasi-sexual ‘door’ that was opened to both of them as
he supervised the experiment.”[41] Deren’s reading of this story was the likely catalyst for her
confiding, however vaguely, in Anne Clark and others during 1943.[42] It may well have inspired
some of the use of string in the third “movement” of the film as well—the portion of the film in
which the string webs the room and prevents the girl’s escape:


. . . Against the north wall of my studio, beneath the high
window, stands an old museum piece, a throne, brought
out of Egypt by the late Maunsell Crosby. It was there she
proposed to sit, and go into the silence, if she could. Around four-
thirty in the afternoon, we arranged it. She sat, like a statue or
idol, while I spun round her and round the throne a fragile web of
fine silk thread, not cocoon or mummy-like, but fragile, so that if
she found she did not wish, or was not strong enough to keep the
vigil, she could break the web.[43]


It seems a reasonable possibility that Deren may have experienced reading this article as
something that caused her to relive her own trauma at Seabrook’s estate. And Deren’s
awareness that Marcel Duchamp’s “16 Miles of String” filled the rooms of an art museum in
much the same way that Seabrook describes above—enmeshing both paintings and spectators
at the exhibit. This installation of Duchamp’s was largely what fueled Deren’s belief that
Duchamp was able to bring mundane objects to a kind of life and sentience. “16 Miles of String”
installation, also referred to sometimes as “his twine,” was a major part of the First Papers of
Surrealism exhibit organized by André Breton to benefit the Coordinating Council of French
Relief Societies. First Papers of Surrealism opened in New York City in 1942, during the very
same week as Peggy Guggenheim’s Surrealism exhibit. The First Papers of Surrealism exhibit
opened at the Whitelaw Reid mansion at Madison Avenue and 50th Street; Peggy
Guggeinheim’s Guggenheim’s Surrealism exhibit—the same exhibit whose art-objects are
featured in The Witch’s Cradle— opened in her gallery, This Century, on 57th Street. Both
openings were considered major cultural moments, and there is little to no doubt that Deren
attended both.


It may have been this odd resonance between Seabrook’s story and Duchamp’s art piece that
prompted Deren—either consciously or subconsciously—to reach out to Duchamp and invite
him to collaborate with her, despite the fact that several times Deren had publicly dismissed
the work of Surrealists, going so far as to instruct cinema owners that her works were not to be
associated with Surrealism at screenings or in advertising.[44]


Duchamp, with his string installation, had clearly latched onto the way objects could be used in
art to stimulate the psyche of an audience. Seabrook, on the other hand, provided a real-life
example of how objects could be used to affect the psyche in real-world settings. Deren herself,
of course—in creating The Witch’s Cradle—provides a point of interchange for the ideas
displayed in Duchamp’s work and those displayed in Seabrook’s (dis)semblance of fumbling
towards occult knowledge through a systematic derangement of (someone else’s) senses.
Surely in Deren’s mind, the use of string and binding threads in her own life, from these two
influences, must have seemed uncanny in its variations and unexpected repetitions.


On March 3, 1945, Maya Deren sent a letter to Sawyer Falk that contained a
note on The Witch’s Cradle; as has been documented, Deren wrote the majority of her own
press releases and program notes, and this was no exception. (The note was published in the
Winter 1965 issue of Film Culture.) This note seems to draw out some of the nebulous
connections she sensed between Duchamp’s work in her life and Seabrook’s influence:


A final note on the use of string in the film: The term “witch’s
cradle” could refer to two things: it is one of the stages in the
string game, Cat’s Cradle; it is also a torture device used in
ceremonial magic. The latter is a kind of web, constricted of string
wound around pegs driven into the ground. In this is placed a
waxen image of the victim to be
tortured. The actual victim, the person, is held captive in a café
made of wire and leather which is suspended from the ceiling.
The human victim is supposed to undergo the torture inflicted
upon the waxen image below.[45]


In the aforementioned program note, Deren also addressed questions of spatiality in the film,
writing that she had intended to reflect “defiance of . . . normal space,” which she also
considered a common interest between those interested in occult workings and those
interested in surrealistic aesthetics. Examples Deren provided as evidence of this proclivity
included “disappearance one place and appearance another, or the familiar broomstick.”[46] It
might just as well be magic—or it might well be a combination of subconscious thoughts and an
experience of moving through an actual museum. Deren chooses not to make surface events
definitively clear in terms of the film’s plot—because, to her, the surface events are not what


I was concerned with . . . a desire to deal with the real forces
underlying events (the feudal evil spirits are similar to the
modern subconscious drives) and to discard the validity of
surface and apparent causation.[47]


It would be difficult to discuss the uncanny and visual effects in Deren’s film without
acknowledging her use of the mirror. In The Witch’s Cradle, Anne Clark views her reflection in a mirror; the image of herself that she sees is uncanny in that her reflection does not appear how
it normally does—a pentagram has inscribed itself upon her forehead, evidence of the spell the
objects around her have cast over her being, both psychically and physically. The pentagram,
which we will return to when we discuss Deren’s implementation of temporal distortions to
render uncanny effect, is inscribed with Kabalistic symbols and, in English, the phrase THE END
IS THE BEGINNING IS THE written in circular formation—so that the sentence never ends,
creating a temporal loop linguistically as well as visually in the viewer’s mind.


When Anne Clark looks into the mirror, we recognize instinctively that she did
not draw this symbol on her own forehead; we understand, from her confused and then
horrified facial expression, that it is there against her will. The camera plays a funny
psychological trick here, too: the camera itself stands in for Anne Clark’s viewpoint. It is the
camera as Anne Clark’s gaze that looks into the mirror and apprehends her image.


The camera, of course, is also the viewer’s gaze. In this way, Deren conflates our
consciousness and our experience directly with the consciousness and experience of Anne
Clark’s protagonist character. When she looks into the mirror, we look into the mirror. We
recognize that we are seeing her as we gaze into the mirror. Her reflection, physically, becomes
our own, psychologically. This doubles the uncanny effect—we understand the ways in which
Anne Clark’s reflection appears uncanny to her, and we also experience a sense of the uncanny
very similar to what Lacan described in his talk of mirrors: we see a physical object in reflection,
and, after a moment, we realize that we on some level identify that object—and that yet that
object (in this case, the body of Anne Clark’s protagonist) is somehow unaware of its
connection to us. It has no subjectivity in the context with which we are presented.


We are shown a montage of her repeating this action; either she has attempted to do it many
times or the same moment is suspended so that it appears and feels infinite. At first, each time,
due to the way the light falls across her pale skin, the image written upon her body is obscured;
as she tilts her head forward, shadows appear—as does the pentagram with its ominous
message of infinity. She appears horrified every time, and every time she looks away from her
own reflection in distress (only to look again). As this image is repeated several times, the
emotional intensity increases, and our identification with her increases (because we’re
modeling our reactions to these stimuli after hers—her reactions tell us how to feel about
what’s happening in the film—if she were laughing and joyously celebrating and dancing, we
would feel quite differently about it all)—and so while looking into the mirror is a familiar act,
and while her face has become quite familiar to us, in combination they produce an unfamiliar,
unsettling sensation—we should not look into the mirror and see her distressed face.


And in these moments of the film, the poetic fascination Deren had expressed for
the function of the mirror in previous poems finds a new manifestation, a new energy, a new
level of expression. The mirror is the authority on visual reality in this context, much as in
Deren’s poem about the two lovers (and much as the mirror-faced woman will be in Meshes).
Clark, peering into the mirror, is at once both subject who holds the mirror and looks into it—
she is the viewer, the subject, the agent—and that which is defined by the mirror; her image is
held by the mirror, and a reality she finds unpleasant is defined and forced upon her by the
authority of the mirror—she is that which is viewed, the object, that which must receive the
action of a higher authority. The way she is positioned, we are both viewer and mirror (her face
looks into the camera, into us). Again, the human gaze is turned back upon itself in a moment
of unsettling uncanniness.


In her note to Sawyer Falk, Deren discusses what was at stake for her in the film aesthetically;
she describes surrealist art as “cabalistic symbols of the twentieth century” and draws parallels
between surrealist artists and “feudal magicians,” as well as between “feudal evil spirits” and
the human subconscious. She evidently had very specific goals in mind, in terms of what she
wanted to interrogate and investigate, and how, aesthetically, she intended to achieve that:


The magicians were also concerned with the defiance of
normal time (mainly projection into the past and divination
of the future) . . . so also the surrealist painters and poets. And it
seemed to me that the camera was peculiarly suited to delineate
this form of magic.”[48]


This aesthetic motivation that Deren expresses for the project may also suggest another
reason—an openness to influence, perhaps—that led her to seek out a collaboration with
Marcel Duchamp in making The Witch’s Cradle: his Anemic Cinema seemed to Deren to express
an understanding of the relationship between temporal abstraction and film.[49]


A thorough analysis of temporality and its implementation in The Witch’s Cradle
can be tricky, however. Because the film was never finished, it was also never fully
edited, and many of the sequences written out in specific, minute detail in the shooting script
do not appear onscreen as they were clearly intended to appear in the finished version of the
film; rather, takes and outtakes form a disorganized, twelve-minute montage. Due to the way
the shots are grouped, several pieces of story and meaning are still carried through—but in
order to get a sense of the way Deren wanted to portray this non-linear narrative, one
absolutely must consult the shooting script as much as the film that remains (if not more so).


In some ways, our sense of time is undermined simply by the lack of narrative;
while it seems evident that the woman in the first scene initially imagines the string
coming to life, the film lacks a clear timeline in part due to the obfuscation of narrative: is this
all a simple anxiety-driven reverie held in the mind of a woman who sits with her friend at an
outdoor café? Does all of this madness occur within a few seconds of abstracted thought she
may privately be having? How the string reminds her of her own veins and then anxiety about
what would become of her and her body if the string she views ever found a pulse of its own?
Or are we to understand that somehow these events actually transpire—which would require a
very different timeline? Deren never makes it clear what our understanding of time should be
within the world of the film.


Deren further undermines any temporal anchors we might be able to find by the
incorporation of repeated shots and reverse shots. In shots 24-31, (sub)titled IDOL
SEQUENCE in the shooting script, Deren intersperses repeated shots of a heart beating and
Anne Clark’s face contorted in an “agonized” or anguished expression. The repetition of these
shots creates a protracted sense of time; this particular experience of bodied anxiety and its
reflection (via visage) may only last a moment in the protagonist’s story—or may occur over
many moments, in a more diffuse way—but here the images are concentrated in such a way
that our sense of time is suspended. The heart beats in real-time, a metronome for the body, a
way that we understand the passing seconds even without an external clock. As the heart beats
faster, then faster, then is stilled—how much time has passed? Without regular beats or a
linear narrative, we cannot be certain. Use the heartbeat here because a heartbeat is a bodied
unit of time. We know when the heartbeat speeds up it’s probably due to anxiety, but this also
distorts our sense of time because the natural metronome is no longer ticking regularly.


Similarly, when the heart stops, this is also confusing because, again, it’s not helping us keep
time anymore. Also, it’s a startling rendering of something that (when beating) is very familiar
to us. But when not beating, it seems startling, unfamiliar. The return of these images, as they
undo our understanding of standard notions of temporality, become uncanny not only in their
repetition but in the way they make time strange to us—as Deren says, her camera is peculiarly
suited to executing this idea of medieval magic.


Deren also employs other approaches to challenge the viewer’s sense of linear
time—methods that are perhaps on some level more obvious because they are
presented in literary terms rather than sensory. There is the aspect of repetition here, too: the
pentagram and its words are constructed, both visually (in a circle shape) and syntactically so
that the reader will be compelled to interpret them in a continuous fashion, bearing out a
meaning of immutable continuity—the end is the beginning is the end is the beginning . . . in
perpetuity. If read this way, the pentagram’s message would result in semantic satiation,
causing the viewer to question what is an “end” and what really is a “beginning”—basic units of
time by which we understand narrative. As our synapses become tired and these words
temporarily lose the meanings to which we generally ascribe them, the equals sign that Deren
has drawn in between them is suggestive of a new meaning—one that cancels our normal
understandings of time. If the end and the beginning are the same, then everything is 
happening at once, and we are  walking around in a constant state of déja vu. And, of course,
experiences of déja vu are emblematic of uncanny experience. The experience of uncanniness
might also be rendered in this way: an image that is unsettling and alienating whose message
makes no logical sense—through repetition and semantic satiation, respectively—becomes
familiar to us and begins to make sense after all.
This tension—of which Deren had her own conceptual interests, and her own lived, bodily
experiences at the hands of William Seabrook—is at the crux of the object immanence depicted
in The Witch’s Cradle.
We know from Deren’s contemporaries and those involved with the making of The Witch’s
—and from Deren’s own accounts of herself—she was interested in the power of ritual
objects, both natural and supernatural, to set or heighten atmosphere in a way that would alter
human perceptions, thought, and behavior. And moreover, she sought out Duchamp for this
project particularly because she admired his ability to depict object immanence through his
art—the power with which his work was able to imbue objects through the viewer’s eyes. As
Deren’s colleague and friend Stan Brakhage writes, Deren’s project in The Witch’s Cradle “was
to show the charge and the power for perfectly ordinary household objects in relationship to
the history of magic. She singled out—and especially respected—[Duchamp] because she felt
that [he] had created objects of magic from daily household things.”[50]


This question of the power of objects and artifacts and the agency they may exercise over
humans—as symbols or as objects of secular or religious ritual—is perhaps the most obvious
aesthetic focus of The Witch’s Cradle, which features enchanted artifacts and art objects in a
museum, and examines their ability to exert psychological and behavioral reactions in the
woman who observes them. The questions Deren poses about this, through the film, troubles
the fine line between human subjectivity and objectivity. Her own writing about the film bears
it out:


There are times when an artist who may ordinarily work by
different principles will use some aspect of surrealism— like the
simultaneous presentation of exteriors and interiors—for a
specific problem. Look how, in this film by Maya Deren, the
portrait becomes an X ray also. And how else could one have said,
without speaking, that the string of the mesh in which the girl
holds the universe are no more and no less than the projection of
her blood—that there is danger in the traffic of veins and arteries.
And that in the moment when the heart breaks, we learn for
certain that it is with the heart that we see the world, and through
the blood that we know it.[51]


Deren’s mention of veins and arteries as preceptors and creators of reality further substantiates
the importance of the body and its vacillations between subject and object in her work.
Additionally, it asks us to consider the uses of string in The Witch’s Cradle. Conceptually, the
string exists first in the film as a means of playing a game that looks like Cat’s Cradle, a game
predicated entirely upon using one’s hands to manipulate string to create illusions resulting
from reversible transformation(s). Notably, one of the stages of Cat’s Cradle is a star, which,
framed by the hands, looks exactly like a pentagram. Using the string and its game as concept,
Deren has already infused her filmic poem with atmospheric connotations of illusions and the


As noted by many other scholars, string is used as a visual metaphor, too—in multiple ways—in
this video-poem; however, in certain particular shots, the animated string, which seems to have
developed volition of its own, moves darkly up a pale arm. The thin line of the string and its
fluid movement are indeed highly suggestive of a vein; the visual resonance is such that the
shot reads like a dark artery being revealed to the viewer. To hear Deren describe it as a bodied
vein whose traffic contains elements of danger is surely easily readable to many viewers of this
filmic poem.


This same string that alludes to capillaries and veins also appears in two other crucial aspects.
The first appearance of this string occurs outside, in daylight, at an al fresco café. A man and a
woman sit, sharing an afternoon drink. The man idly plays a string game, like Cat’s Cradle. The
woman watches. Through her reverie, we are transported to an interior landscape in which this
inanimate object—the string—takes on first the agency of a bodied artery and then, later in the
film, webs the room and becomes one of the objects that helps hold her hostage.


Other objects also suddenly disappear in scenes of the film and sometimes appear or re-appear
in a surprising or inexplicable fashion. This can be seen, for one example, in shots 51 and 53, in
which Anne Clark’s black scarf disappears and reappears, respectively. Given Deren’s notes on
the film, such choices seem particularly significant to a greater aesthetic end in terms of
dismissing traditional notions of space in order to cultivate a different state of awareness and a
different aesthetically-charged experience in the viewer. (And, of course, the visual resonance
between the string and the scarf is difficult to miss.)


And perhaps the greatest spatial distortion that Deren creates in the film is again
done through her notable use of string, particularly towards the end—the room that
the protagonist and viewer find themselves in, webbed with string is both
overwhelming and disorienting; there is no way we could interpret such a space
normally. The uncanny effect, if felt nowhere else palpably in the film, arrives by this late point
in the experience, when repetition of the image, temporal disruption, and spatial distortions
involving the use of string have all created a feeling in the viewer about this room.


Deren’s interest in the power of objects may feed into bigger questions triggered by the
Rhinebeck episode—questions, for example, about bodily/embodied autonomy for female and
femme people, and subject-versus-object power within that context. The Witch’s Cradle
interrogates the concept of objects with agency; we might ask whether there is an implication
here that, if these objects have subjectivity and agency, then perhaps even a woman who has
been reduced to an object, in a violent way, might then more easily be able to envision herself
possessing subjectivity and agency—even if that, too, must be achieved by supernatural or
occult means, i.e., witchiness.


As Deren uses visual poetry to probe the horror of objects taking on subjectivity, she is
effectively presaging the resistance—the terror, the horror—that men like Seabrook felt and
continue to feel. Women and femmes—particularly female and femme artists—who refuse to
embrace their traditional status as objects must be—evidently, are—absolutely terrifying to
men like Seabrook for the disruption of traditional “order” we represent. And the horror these
women and femmes express in their art, as they assert agency and become subjects in their
own live and narratives, makes for a far more compelling specimen of the genre.


When Anne Clark lies on her back, her hair entangled in the Giacometti sculpture Woman With
A Cut Throat
, with a phallic-shaped object swinging in her face and a look of distress, for
example[52]: we understand her distress from her facial expression; we understand a quality of
helplessness from her prostrate position and the tangle of her hair that renders her immobile
and tethered; and we understand the implications of violation that are suggested by the
swinging phallic shape that hits her repeatedly in the face and breast. Of course, we are also
aware of the visual resonance between Clark’s body in this vulnerable, frightened posture and
the image of the statue itself—the visual parallel suggesting that the state of the violated
woman represented by the statue is similar to Clark’s own. The fact that her character is
rendered immobile by her hair strengthens both the brutality and the sexual component of the
metaphor. The official copy provided by the Museum of Modern Art regarding standard
interpretation of the sculpture bolsters this reading:


Woman with Her Throat Cut is rigorously horizontal. Intended by
the artist to be placed on the floor without a base, it
suggests the violent image of a woman raped and murdered.[53]


“I am content,” Deren once said in an interview, “if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be
stated only by poetry, you will perhaps recall an image—perhaps only the aura—of my films.”
The Witch’s Cradle, measured in these terms, has turned out to be not a failed film, nor an
abandoned project that never reached fruition—but rather a beautiful and enduring, if
traumatic and hard-won, moment of pure success.[54]


[1] The Legend of Maya Deren, Vol I, Part I, p. 298.

[2] TLMD, Vol I, Part I, p. 191.

[3] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, pp. 302-306.

[4] Nin became angry with Deren over Nin’s feeling that Deren had deliberately filmed her to look ugly during her appearance in Ritual in Transfigured Time. The poem “Anaïs Before the Glass” was Deren’s rather cutting response, berating Nin for her vanity and perceived vapidity.


[5] Man Ray notably employed tropes of disappearance and reappearance in order to enact a sense of fragmented reality or consciousness. Unsettling moments during which magically-charged objects disappear and reappear in The Witch’s Cradle provide visual echoes of this trope as employed by Man Ray in films such as his Le Retour à la Raison (1923), in which abstract images created with salt and pepper, a drawing pin, and a collection of nails all disappear and reappear. See Kim Knowles’ detailed analysis of the film’ moment-by-moment experience in A Cinematic Artist: The Films of Man Ray (Peter Lang, 2012). Germaine Dulac also utilized fragmentation of narrative to emphasize the symbolic value of specific images, in a style that appears to have influenced Deren’s. For example, in L’invitation au Voyage, the 1927 film that Dulac crafted in response to Baudelaire’s poem of the same title, a fragmented narrative is enacted through the disappearance and reappearance of the ocean. Dulac deliberately moves away from a traditional narrative expression of events to depict a female protagonist stuck in an unhappy love affair; and in doing so she imbues these images with a more lyrical, symbolic significance. Deren’s treatment of several images within The Witch’s Cradle mirror this—particularly, all the different ways in which the string manages to disappear and reappear in new forms, continuously acting as an aggressive presence.

[6] Deren, as Friar would recall during a 1981 interview, “talked in terms of symbolism, and perhaps surrealism, enough for me to see that her work would fit into a concept of poetry. I then invited her to show her films at the Y.”

[7] These attempts, which Merrill believed to be successful, are documented in much of his poetry, as well as scholarship regarding his life and work. See, for example, Merrill’s Divine Comedies. See also: Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art (Knopf, 2015).

[8] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 260. Emphasis mine.

[9] Braggiotti, Mary. “Classicism on a Shoestring,” New York Post, October 28, 1946. Emphasis mine.

[10] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I has amassed a compelling amount of evidence to support this, including drafts of program notes for screenings that were written in Deren’s handwriting—sometimes dated, sometimes not dated—kept as part of her personal archive.

[11] TLMD, Vol. I, Part II, interview with Mimi Ashram that discusses these social and professional tensions and definitions, in-depth, pp. 440-442.

[12] This interview appears in a currently unpublished volume of The Legend of Maya Deren (forthcoming from McPherson Publishing Co., UK, publication date TBD). I was granted advance access by the kind permission of the scholars and publisher while writing my dissertation at the University of Southern California in 2016.

[13] Deren, Maya. Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film. Section 24.

[14] In Meshes, we see a faceless woman gaze at both protagonist and viewer with a mirror where her face should be. We are not observed—our identities and existence(s) are not reinforced by her gaze—but rather our gaze as viewers is turned back upon ourselves in a moment of uncanniness. Deren describes just such a sequence of events in the second stanza of this poem, using it as a metaphor for her fear that her romantic relationship may not be built to last.

[15] Deren’s family, who were Jewish, fled Ukraine when she was a child to escape vicious anti-Semitic pogroms, between the desperate poverty of World War I and the anti-Semitic genocide of World War II. The more idealistic aspects of communist ideology, however, remained appealing to Deren as a young adult—despite American taboos—which ultimately led to her deep affinity for Serge’s work (among others).

[16] Seabrook, William. No Hiding Place: An Autobiography (J.B. Lippincott Company), 1942. He also appears to have been rather proud of his forays into cannibalism.

[17] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 411.

[18] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 304.

[19] Seabrook, p. 372. Emphasis mine.

[20] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, pp. 412-413.

[21]  TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, pp. 412-413.

[22]  TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, pp. 412-413.

[23] Sexton, Anne. “Her Kind.” To Bedlam and Part Way Back.

[24] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 414.

[25] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 414.

[26] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 414.

[27] As Susan Rubin Suleiman describes it, “A . . . neurologically based definition [of trauma symptoms] would be that a traumatic event—or ‘traumatic stressor’— produces an excess of external stimuli and a corresponding excess of excitation in the brain. When attacked in this way, the brain is not able to fully assimilate or ‘process’ the event, and responds through various mechanisms such as psychological numbing, or shutting down of normal emotional responses,” only reacting later, when, as Judith Herman phrases it, safety has been established (in Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1997, p. 3). For Suleiman’s description of trauma as described in the beginning of this footnote, see “Judith Herman and Contemporary Trauma Theory,” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, Numbers 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 276-281.

[28] See the ADAA’s criteria for diagnosing PTSD, which includes, “Exposure to actual or threatened . . . sexual violation,” and “flashbacks or other dissociative reactions in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic events are recurring,” both of which Deren describes in detail as part of her extended reaction to the situation, once she had left Rhinebeck and was back in New York City.

[29] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 405: Herb Passin in an interview with TLMD Project. This general narrative is also corroborated by footage of an interview with Herb Passin in In the Mirror of Maya Deren.

[30] TLMD, Vol. I, Part 1, p. 412.

[31] Given the greater context of her full letter, Deren appears at this point to be referring to images that she has described a few sentences earlier, which are graphic images of young women being sexually abused by Seabrook. The detail Deren imparts, and the emotionally heightened tone she uses—as well as the fact that these images “keep coming” to her as she pens the letter—again raise questions as to how long Deren was actually at Seabrook’s estate, and whether these images are imagined or real. I have omitted this portion of the letter for the purpose of keeping the focus of my own argument regarding Deren’s interest in the ability of physical objects to influence

the human psyche and behaviors.

[32] TLMD, Vol. I, Part I, p. 414.

[33] Deren is considered the “Mother of the Trance Film,” a reputation upheld by art establishments such as the MOMA. See their official copy regarding her contributions to the trance film genre:

[34] See Adams P. Sitney’s Visionary Film: the American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2002).

[35] John Keats, in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas, in December 1817, wrote: “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason— Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

[36] The effects of her early forays into automatic writing also appear in Stein’s later aesthetic inclinations, which utilize the sort of word repetition so common to automatic writing exercises—only in a more calculated way, and to an arguably more deliberate effect. Her crafted work, such as Tender Buttons, relies in part upon the phenomenon of semantic satiation (also called semantic saturation) for the efficacy of its aesthetic results. Semantic satiation describes the phenomenon in which, due to repetition, one’s synapses tire out temporarily, and the repeated language effectively loses its meaning for a temporary period of time. Particularly, this later work of Stein’s utilizes the semantic satiation that results from repetition reminiscent of automatic writing in order to deliberately deprive words of their familiar meanings in the readers’ minds, allowing them to garner new meanings and associations, and thus for small, unknown truths hidden in our language to prevail. For more on the psychological phenomenon of semantic satiation, see Leon Jakobovits James (April 1962): “Effects of Repeated Stimulation on Cognitive Aspects of Behavior: Some Experiments on the Phenomenon of Semantic Satiation.”

[37] Freud, “The Uncanny,” p. 11.

[38] From Deren’s shooting script for The Witch’s Cradle.

[39] Freud, “The Uncanny,” pp 11-12.

[40] TLMD, Vol. I, Part II, p. 152

[41] TLMD, Vol. I, Part II, p. 153

[42] TLMD, Vol. I, Part II, p. 151

[43] Seabrook, William. “The Door Swung Inward,” VVV, March, 1943, pp. 28-32.

[44] In the 1950s, Deren penned warning letters to cinema curators, insisting emphatically, “under no conditions should [my] films be announced or publicized as Surrealist or Freudian.” TLMD, Vol I, Part 2, p. 402. Original emphasis retained.

[45] TLMD, Vol. I, Part II, p.152.

[46] TLMD, Vol. I, Part II, p. 149

[47] TLMD, Vol. I Part II, p. 149.

[48] TLMD, Vol. I, Part II, p. 149.

[49] As Annette Michelson suggests in “Poetics and Savage Thought: About Anagram,” in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, ed. Bill Nichols (University of California Press: 2001), p.32: “Filmic abstraction would require, as Deren has it, a temporal abstraction or composition. It is for this reason that she nominates Duchamp’s single cinematic work as an interesting and exceptional venture, astutely exempting it from her critical judgment of both abstract and surrealist-inspired film. For Anemic Cinema ‘occupies, like the rest of his work, a unique position.’ And her analysis of this work remained for another three decades the only serious attempt to account for what has long appeared an anomalous object, a spanner thrown into the works of film history.” Michelson goes on to cite Deren’s explication of her attraction to Duchamp’s cinematic tendencies: “Although it uses geometric forms, it is not an abstract film, but perhaps the only ‘optical pun’ in existence. The time which he causes one of his spirals to revolve in the screen effects an optical metamorphosis; the cone appears first concave, then convex, and in the more complicated spirals, both concave and convex and then inverted. It is time, therefore, which creates these optical puns which are the visual equivalents, in Anemic Cinema for instance, of the inserted phrases which also revolve and, in doing so, disclose the verbal ‘sense.’”

[50] Brakhage, Stan. Film At Wit’s End (McPherson & Co., 1989): p. 97.

[51] Undated draft of a program note, in Deren’s handwriting, regarding The Witch’s Cradle.


[52] Clark was positioned on her back in a semi-reclining pose, underneath the display ledge that held the sculpture. The phallic-shaped appendage that appears to function in the sculpture as a kind of forearm hangs down, touching her chest and face. Deren staged Clark to have her hair pulled up as in a high bun or ponytail, and rather than being bound with an elastic band or a pin, her hair is tangled in the statue above.


[54] Because I have been/have been held in certain rooms that look and feel a lot like the string-draped room that Deren created for her filmic poem. Rooms with no visible exit, draped in so many ominous and obfuscating threads that they feel inexorable. But after the experience of The Witch’s Cradle, I can feel Deren there, too—and the bodied presences of so many other women and femmes detained in similar rooms, struggling through the tangles and binding ties that makes it seem as though we may never leave. That make those rooms seems as though they may never leave us. And maybe they don’t: though many of us have found ways out, we navigate the world differently after having survived them. The Witch’s Cradle is, as I think I’ve managed to illustrate here, a poetic success. Personally, I would argue that it’s also a spiritual one. “So I would move among these things,” Deren wrote of the witch’s cradle in Rhinebeck, like flicking cigarette ash into the tray beside her as she scalpelled and reshaped a lived trauma into art. I have been her kind.







Fox Frazier-Foley is the author of two prize-winning collections of poetry: The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), which was the recipient of the Bright Hill Press Poetry Award, and Exodus in X Minor (Sundress Publications, 2014). Her most recent collection, Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017), was recently nominated for an Elgin Award. Her non-fiction work has appeared in journals and magazines such as Denver Quarterly, Tarpaulin Sky, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and elsewhere. Fox edited the anthologies Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity (Sundress Publications, 2016) and Among Margins: Critical and Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet Editions, 2016). She created and manages the micro-press Agape Editions ( Fox was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Binghamton University, was honored with merit-based fellowships at Columbia University, where she earned an MFA, and was a Provost’s Fellow at the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing.

Fox Henry Frazier is the author of two books of poetry, essay, and visual art: Weeping in the Tropical Moonlit Night Because Nobody’s Told Her (Yes Poetry, 2022) and Raven King (Yes Poetry, 2021), as well as the creator of several chapbooks and anthologies. Her first full-length book of poetry, The Hydromantic Histories (Bright Hill Press, 2015), was recipient of the Bright Hill Press Poetry Award. Fox holds an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from the University of Southern California, where she was also a Provost’s Fellow. Fox created and co-runs the indie press Agape Editions, the arts & literary magazine Alice Says Go Fuck Yourself, and the Favorite Poems reading series. She lives in upstate New York with her daughter, her dogs, her gardens, and her ghosts.