Published: Tammy 29 October 1983 to 17 December 1983
Artist: Tony Coleman (credited as George Anthony)
Writer: Jake Adams (may be a pseudonym for Malcolm Shaw)
Translations/reprints: none known
A film crew arrives in the village of Wolfen to make a film about Alice Compton, a victim of witch persecution by none other than Mathew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. Her so-called crimes included bewitching cattle and an artistic style that was ahead of its time and dubbed “the Devil’s likeness”. Nobody spoke up for her because they were too scared of Hopkins. Hopkins applied the usual junk witch tests of the day, which were sometimes augmented by fraud, to ‘prove’ Alice was a witch. After Alice’s burning at the stake her ashes were scattered on the marsh. Predictably, her ghost is said to haunt the spot.
Sally Groves, who feels very strongly about Alice’s fate, is shocked to hear the film director is going to depict Alice as the “devil’s handmaiden” with a “dark, malignant force beneath her almost angelic appearance” who brought evil to the village instead of “the innocent victim of ignorance and superstition” she really was. When Sally protests against this portrayal, the film director has her thrown out. Several people, including the film director, are saying Sally is stupid to get worked up over something that happened centuries ago. Nobody else speaks out against the way the film portrays Alice.
Alice’s self-portrait in the vicarage shows that Sally bears a striking resemblance to her – oh dear! That never bodes well for the protagonist in a serial that features witch-hunting. It is never established as to whether the resemblance is due to Sally being a descendant of some sort, which is the usual assumption in other witch-hunting stories. The self-portrait is the only one of Alice’s pictures to survive; the rest were burned with her. It shows her looking really sad, but that’s all there is. No sign of any malice or evil is present in the portrait.
A mist arises on the marsh where Alice’s remains lie. Sally and her friend Jenny immediately notice it is coming towards them when the wind should be blowing it away. Believing this is Alice’s angry reaction to how the film depicts her, Sally tries to spread the warning, but the director does not listen and continues with his version of Alice Compton. However, the mist comes into the village, stops the filming cold, and has a lot of people running scared.
The mist soon has the film crew trapped in the inn run by the Groves family – and then breaks a window and makes its way in. And they’re not the only ones – the mist has everyone trapped in their homes and nothing keeps it out; it is even breaking down doors to get in.
That’s only the beginning, of course. Next, the mist cuts Wolfen off from the outside world and forces it to revert to a 17th century pattern. All modern technology, including running water, stops working. All modern clothes rot while the 17th century costumes from the film remain intact so people have no choice but to wear them, and they have to cook, clean, fetch water etc the way they did in the 17th century.
But the fog is making one conspicuous exception – Sally Groves. Her modern clothes are the only ones to stay intact. This not only makes her stick out like a sore thumb but also makes her a target of the hysteria, panic, confusion and terror the fog has aroused. These are bringing out the primeval instincts that can turn even civilised people into hysterical idiots and witch-hunting mobs. Gradually, people mutter and then scream that Sally has something to do with the fog, she summoned it, that she’s a witch, she’s Alice Compton returned for revenge etc. Sally becomes the target of persecution, with kids throwing things at her and such. Jenny defends Sally at first, but then goes as nutty as the rest of the villagers when the fog shows up at the attack on Sally. Sally herself has an awful nightmare of the villagers taking her for Alice Compton because of the resemblance they share and burning her at the stake, and is terrified it will become reality.
Sally believes Alice must be behind the fog and what’s happening but can’t understand why Alice is doing this to her when she was speaking up for her. Was she wrong and Alice was a real witch after all who is out for revenge? The portrait betrays no clues and just continues to show Alice looking sad.
There is no doubt in Sally’s mind that the film production is what started it all. When she tells villagers this they try to remove the film crew and equipment in a most violent manner, much to Sally’s horror; she did not mean that. In any case, when the villagers try to throw the film crew out of the village, actual figures appear in the fog and block them, saying there is no escape. The figures look like Puritans from Alice’s time, but Alice herself is not present at all. However, nobody grasps the significance of this clue (that maybe it is not Alice who is behind the fog?).
Then the fog touches everyone in the village, causing intense pain as it does so. Again, Sally is the exception. After this, the villagers think they are the actual 17th century villagers from Alice’s time. They talk, think and act like 17th century people. They can’t even see the now-useless 20th century technology whereas Sally can. These Puritan-thinking people react with horror and outrage at her 20th century clothes. They also believe she is Alice Compton the witch, and Sally’s efforts to convince them that this is the 20th century are misconstrued as further proof of witchcraft. Sally’s parents, which are likewise affected, change her “godless apparel” for 17th century dress, and again try to help her escape, but are blocked again. This time, it is by the possessed villagers and the film director, who now thinks he is Mathew Hopkins the Witchfinder General (it sure is perfect casting!).
The stage is set for the re-enactment of the persecution of Alice Compton and so it ensues (above): sham trial; crazed, ignorant hysterical people on all sides providing testimony; Witchfinder General twisting everything Sally says about this being the 20th century to prove she’s a witch and taking advantage of the villagers’ hysteria; the junk tests/fraud to prove witchcraft; and only sporadic, token protests (from Jenny). The Witchfinder General declares Sally a witch and she is tied to the stake to be burnt.
At this moment the fog reappears, extinguishes the fire, and returns the villagers and film director to normal. The villagers are shocked and ashamed at what they almost did to Sally.
The figures in the fog reappear. They are the original persecutors of Alice Compton. In death they came to realise what they did to Alice and how Hopkins took advantage of them. They cannot rest because they are so ashamed of their crime. And when the film production started it was too much for them and brought them back. With apologies to Sally, they had the villagers re-enact the Alice Compton persecution, right down to the thinking behind it. This was so they too would emerge from it feeling the same way and understand that witch-hunting is not just something ignorant, superstitious people did in times past. All humans, in any age, are capable of it because they all carry the same primeval instincts that fuel it: unreason, prejudice and fear of what they do not understand. The ghosts also did it because they want to entrust with the villagers with two things: first, consecrate Alice’s remains on the marsh so both she and they will find rest; second, a warning not to let a modern witchfinder take advantage of them too.
When Alice’s remains are consecrated her own foggy figure finally appears in the story. Alice tells Sally she knows about her sharing the same pain of persecution and hopes they will now share the same joy. She says farewell and departs for the next world.
Within days Wolfen returns to normal and everything modern is back and functioning. The film director (who must have realised the ghosts also did it to teach some people a lesson) scraps the film and makes one about the recent events so as to spread the warning. Sally approves of this film and is sure Alice will too. The vicar finds Alice’s portrait has gone from looking sad to all smiles, but reckons Alice will be even happier if the portrait was gifted to Sally.
Tammy started this story in her last Halloween issue because it is a spooky one. It sure is; it’s got themes about ghosts, witches, the Devil, possession, a grip of terror and hysteria, persecution, a historical setting, and above all, that mist. No villager from Wolfen would look at mist the same way again after this experience.
As the mist takes hold, it gets creepier and creepier. It is clear that this is no ordinary mist. It is intensifying in thickness and intenseness, and it is taking over the whole village. It can even break down windows and doors. It is forcing people back into the 17th century, but its reasons for this are hard to discern. Is it Alice returning for revenge? If so, she seems to be taking a very odd approach, including making the girl defending her a target of persecution. When those figures in the fog appear, it suggests it may not be Alice after all. Or are these figures trying to protect the villagers from the mist? And where is Alice? Nothing has been seen or heard from her at all during all the time the mist is taking over the village. It’s all very confusing; we don’t know what to think (or have we guessed?). All we know is, it’s a time bomb that has been ticking ever since Alice was burned, and the film production has detonated it. The question is: where will the fallout from the blast end up?
This story has been mentioned before on this blog, in the Shadow on the Fen entry, as there are echoes of Fen (Witchfinder General references, girl threatened with burning for witchcraft, modern villagers turning into witch-hunting idiots, strong message against the evils of witch hunting and a fog that cuts a village off from the outside world) in this story that has me wondering if it was the same writer.
There have been plenty of stories of murdered witches, both innocent and guilty, returning from beyond the grave or leaving a curse behind them. Examples are “Secret of the Skulls” (Tammy), “Sharon’s Stone”, (Bunty) “The Painting” (Bunty), “Witch!” (Bunty), and “Bad Luck Barbara” (Mandy). There have also been stories that condemn superstitious people for persecuting people in this manner and ones portraying witch hunters as the true evil, including “Shadow on the Fen”. Misty took delight in complete stories about witch hunters and witch-hunting mobs meeting their downfall at the hands of a protagonist with genuine powers.
But this is the only serial I have seen where former witch persecutors return from the grave because they are remorseful and want to make amends and find peace. Their repentance is far more believable than the repentance of witch-persecuting villagers in stories like Jinty’s “Wenna the Witch” and “Mark of the Witch!”. The villagers in these stories just change their minds when they see the girl they persecute perform a heroic act, while the ghost villagers learned it in the afterlife where, we presume, were condemned until they had made amends for their act.
It certainly is a twist to have the former persecutors to be the ones behind it all. From the outset we expect Alice to be behind any creepy stuff that ensues in the story, especially when we hear how the film is going to depict her. To our mind it’s not who’s behind it but what she intends to do and where it’s all going to lead. But then, making it Alice is a bit too obvious and clichéd, isn’t it?
The way the ghost villagers go about their redemption certainly takes you aback. Forcing modern people to re-enact the witch persecution of long ago? Putting an innocent girl through a terrifying ordeal of being persecuted for witchcraft? Inflicting terror on an entire village and forcing it to revert to the 17th century? Wow! But anyone going through that would emerge never assuming witch hunting is just a thing of the past ever again. It can occur anywhere, anytime, because the mechanisms behind it (hysteria, fear, prejudice, hatred of the other) are part of human nature, regardless of the day and age. When the atmosphere is right (such as the terror the fog induces or fear of the growing threat of Communism) all that is needed is the spark to strip away all common sense and sanity and turn apparently reasonable, civilised people into hysterical, witch-hunting idiots and for someone to rise and take advantage of it. Just look at the examples of the Communist witch-hunts and the Satanic Ritual Abuse scares. Or look at the hysterical villagers. It didn’t take much for their common sense, sanity and belief that Alice was just a victim of superstition to be stripped away and for them to become witch-hunting idiots, even before the fog had turned them into complete persecutors.