Night of the eagle 1962


I do not believe:

Night of the Eagle

K B Morris explores Night of the Eagle where a college professor vies with his wife who has turned to witchcraft to further his career. The article examines rationality versus the irrationality of superstition and the supernatural in a battle between the sexes.

Night of the Eagle (UK,Sidney Hayers, 1962) is one of three films based on the book Conjure Wife by American author Fritz Leiber. First published in 1943, a film adaption, Weird Woman (US,Reginald LeBorg, 1944) soon followed. The third adaption, Witches Brew (US,Richard Shorr, 1980), is a tongue in cheek take on the novel.

Night of the eagle 1962Leiber’s novel is about a sociology lecturer Norman and his wife Tansy Saylor who are new comers at a small American college. Norman is doing very well and may have the opportunity for advancement much to the chagrin of his colleagues who see his star rise too swiftly. Norman discovers that Tansy is dabbling in witchcraft when he finds packets of hair and fingernails and other paraphernalia in her dressing table drawer. He confronts Tansy and tells her that her belief that the rest of the women are witches is neurotic and superstitious. He wants her to burn the items but she tells him that they have been protecting him and helping his career and if she gets rid off them, he will be in real danger. The items are burnt and almost immediately, Norman’s luck begins to change.

burn witch burn - night of the eagleThe script of Night of the Eagle was written by Charles Beumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt. Matheson and Beumont were looking for something to work on together and both liked the novel. Producer Albert Fennel brought in George Baxt to work on the script. All three were prolific writers in horror, mystery and science fiction. Both Matheson and Beumont wrote several Twilight Zone episodes as well as adapting Poe and H P Lovecraft for the screen. Albert Fennell and Sidney Hayers are best known for working on the series The Avengers (ITV,1961-1969), and Hayers also directed Circus of Horrors (1960).

Night of the Eagle was financed by Anglo-Amalgamated, produced by Independent Artists and filmed at Elstree Studio. Filming took six weeks and Peter Cushing was meant to star but was tied up in another production, Peter Wyngarde was brought in at the last minute. For the American release, the film was renamed Burn Witch Burn! The film had a prologue narrated by Paul Frees which was meant to be a protection spell guarding the audience against harm. Packets of salt with words to an ancient incantation were dispersed to the audience.

Previous to this film there were few films that dealt with obeah or voodoo. White Zombie (US, Victor Halperin, 1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (US, Jacques Tourneur,1943) involved characters going to Haiti or the Caribbean whereas Night of the Eagle brings magic to an everyday environment such as a university campus.

Night of the Eagle makes a few changes to the novel’s premise. Norman (Peter `Wyngarde) is a psychology professor at Hempnell Medical college, in rural Britain, instead of the novel’s New England setting. He discovers that Tansy (Janet Blair) is dabbling in obeah or conjure magic that she learnt when they were in Jamaica.

At the beginning of the film, Norman is giving a lecture to his students about superstition and writes in big letters across the blackboard: I do not believe. He is a rationalist, in fact he’s written books on rationality and doesn’t believe in magic or superstition, indeed he thinks they are ‘a morbid desire to escape from reality.’ From the beginning of the film we have a dichotomy of rationality versus superstition. Tansy is ‘hysterical’, irrational and intuitive whereas her husband is rational, intellectual and empirical.Night of the eagle 1962

In the book, Conjure Wife, all the women in the faculty are practising black magic. All woman have access to this dark power which isn’t the same as the film. In the film Tansy is practising magic as she wants to protect her husband and help elevate his career. At the beginning of the film, after a game of cards with people from the faculty she searches frantically for something around the house. She eventually finds a poppet tied into the lamp shade. Someone at the card game is working against them.

Norman and Tansy are new comers to the college and Tansy is criticised for not wanting to join in with the other wives. There is also jealousy that Norman is said to be the next in line for chair of psychology. Witches in film tend to be othered, outside the norm, outsiders or in this case new comers. When they do marry, they tend to use their power in order to help their husbands, if they retain their power at all. In Bell, Book and Candle (US,Richard Quine, 1958) for example, the witch Gillian, loses her power when she falls in love. Her cat or familiar runs away as a metaphor for her lost independence. In Bewitched (ABC, 1964 – 1972) , Samantha only uses her magic to help her husband, she rarely uses it for her own benefit.

In Weird Woman, Norman meets his wife in the South Seas during a magic ritual. He brings her back to the UK as his wife and she is greeted with suspicion by the other women there. She is told to go back to the jungle by one of the wives. In The Question of Lay Analysis (1926), Freud wrote,’We know less about the sexual life of little girls than of boys. But we need not feel ashamed of this distinction; after all, the sexual life of adult women is a ‘dark continent’ for psychology.’ Africa has been described as the ‘Dark Continent’ in fact Freud borrowed the phrase from the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley. By comparing women’s sexual life to something dark and impenetrable Freud emphasizes the obscure and incomplete clinical material on the sexual life of women.

For Freud, Africa is untamed, primal and unknowable and as such we can see Africa as a metaphor for women. Men are associated with consciousness and women with the unconscious, which is also untamed and unknowable and the jungle is the epitome of the unconscious. A place dense and full of strange animals and plants, rarely entered and easy to get lost in. Accordingly, women are more primal than men, more primitive and more susceptible to superstition and magic. Women’s more primal nature or their sexuality is seen as threatening, deviant and subversive and as such, strongly associated with witchcraft.

The Malleus Maleficarum argues that women are more susceptible to the devil because of the manifold weakness of their sex: ‘There are others who give different reasons for why women are found to be superstitious in larger numbers than men, and they say that there are three reasons. The first is that they are prone to believing and because the demon basically seeks to corrupt the Faith, he assails them in particular. Hence Ecclesiasticus 19: ‘He who quickly believes is fickle in heart and will be made small.’ The second reason in that on account of the tendency of their temperament towards flux they are by nature more easily impressed upon to receive revelations through the impression of the disembodied spirits, and when they use this temperament well, they are very good, but when they use it badly, they are worse. For this reason, is that they have loose tongues and can hardly conceal from their female companions the things that they know through evil art, and since they lack physical strength, they readily seek to avenge themselves through acts of sorcery… Since they are prone to flux, they can more quickly offer children to the demons, as in fact they do.’

Women are more susceptible to the devil therefore, because they are more gullible, they have unstable temperaments and have loose tongues. The witch trials were based on the misogyny of the time. If women didn’t conform to the stereotypes of their sex, then they were in danger of accusations of witchcraft. If a woman was independent, had money, had too few or too many children, she could be in a precarious position.Night of the eagle 1962

Tansy is a housewife, she has no children and seems to spend her time trying to protect her husband from malign forces as such, she still falls within the role of the good wife. She first started using witchcraft when her husband was dying in Jamaica. She had witnessed a ‘witch doctor’ exchange a life for that of a dying child and was convinced that conjure magic worked. When Norman discovers that she is a practising witch she says, ‘I’m sure you’re convinced I’m quite insane.’ He replies, ‘I’m not convinced about anything. And if you were to investigate all the strange rituals performed by women based on their so-called intuitions, half of the female population would be in an asylum.’ Tansy argues that everything her husband has done is because of his ability and her protection. Norman calls her an hysteric, a misogynist term traditionally applied to women. It is from the Greek word hystera meaning uterus. The ancient Egyptians believed that certain maladies in women were due to a wandering uterus and would give the woman medicine in order to get the uterus to go back to its original position.

Norman gave a lecture on neurosis and talks about how, with certain neurosis, there can be temporary release. He continues that neurosis caused by frustration, rejection, lack of love or loneliness can make the subject pursue occupations which are inexplicable to the ‘adjusted mind’. He then talks about superstition which can be described as ‘misguided unobjective science.’ and found in primitive cultures. Norman wants his wife to listen to the lecture, perhaps thinking that she’s bored or lonely and that has contributed towards her ‘neurosis’.

Flora (Margaret Johnson) is another faculty wife (but also a professor), who is practising witchcraft or ‘a woman’s eccentricity’ as she puts it. Flora is using her power against Norman and it is her poppet Tansy found on the lampshade. As soon as Norman gets rid off all Tansy’s accoutrements, things start to go wrong. A student accuses him of rape (another hysteric) and her boyfriend threatens Norman with a gun. Tansy disappears and takes a coach to their house on the coast and Norman tries to follow her but ends up in a collision. When he finally finds her in a catatonic state, he takes her back home where, in a trance, she tries to attack him with a knife. Due to her limp, Norman works out who is behind it and rushes to the campus.Night of the eagle 1962

He confronts Flora who says, ‘Why does it upset you so much to think in this world there is such a thing as witchcraft? It’s one of the oldest religions in the world…’ Flora sets light to Norman’s house using Tarot cards, goading him that he can’t possibly believe what she’s doing. Norman tries to go home but is attacked by a stone eagle that comes to life. He runs to his classroom and accidentally rubs off ‘not’ leaving the words on the board as ‘I do believe’.

It seems as though Norman has finally succumbed to the idea that witchcraft really works even though it goes against the grain of his philosophy. Night of the Eagle starts off with common tropes regarding men and women, man as rational and woman as irrational and hysterical but ends with Norman being faced with proof that witchcraft is responsible for the bad luck that befell him. His house is burning down at the end, luckily Tansy is saved but he can’t have any doubt that witchcraft was the cause of the blaze.


[1] Why I love … Night of the Eagle Josephine Botting, 21 November 2014


[2] Malleus Maleficarum 1486


[3] The Question of Lay Analysis, Sigmund Freud (1926)

Picture of KB Morris

KB Morris

I write plays, screenplays, novels, short stories and articles. Literary fiction / Gothic / Dark / Speculative / Crime

1 thought on “Night of the Eagle (1962)”

  1. Iseult Murphy

    Great article. I love the exploration of witchcraft and the feminine in this movie. I found Night of the Eagle superior to the book that inspired it. The sfx of the stone Eagle coming to life in the movie is done simply but works very well.

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