Dread Takes Many Forms: Reading the Entrails of The Witch.

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What follows is a discussion of the film The Witch, the award-winning 2015 feature from writer-director Robert Eggers. I will be swooping through the story, and then rooting in its unbaptized innards, with consequent spoilage. If you want to watch the movie first, and it’s a good ‘un, you should do so before continuing to the next paragraph.

The Witch is often a film of deceptive appearances. It begins as a period drama, with a Puritan family being cast out of their community. Oldest daughter Thomasin’s brave face falters through a tense public judgment, but her father William only repudiates the revered leaders that would judge him – for what exactly, we’re not told — and you have to think, what kind of fanatic considers other Puritans lightweights? (It doesn’t hurt he has a thundering voice as portentous as Alan Rickman’s.) We barely glimpse the plantation as the family is shut out forever, seven people piled uncomfortably on a single, overburdened wagon like a terrible Tetris result. In addition to William and Thomasin, there’s mother Katherine, adolescent Caleb, toddling twins Mercy and Jacob, and baby Samuel.

Once they arrive at their new homestead, the whole family kneels in thanksgiving to the sky at dawn behind a stand of dense, grey forest. That moment, even alongside the many more overtly creepy moments in the film, is the one that visits me with goosebumps in the small hours. As the excellent choral score keens, the wood hunkers between them and the rising sun like a fortress, and in their odd sun salutation, we’re reminded of faiths that are older and stranger than their own, which is itself evidently heresy. Against this horizon, William and Katherine’s confident, loving looks seem less faithful and more foolish.

The first bad thing happens when Thomasin is tasked with watching baby brother Samuel. During a game of peek-a-boo, the baby simply vanishes. (There’s a brilliant, chilling moment of alarm that steals over the baby that we see and Thomasin doesn’t in the instant before it happens.) It seems impossible that anyone or anything snatched the baby in the brief seconds Thomasin closed her eyes, much less retreated unseen through an empty expanse in every direction. We then see Samuel through the next sequence, into the wood, where he has been abducted by a woman in a red cloak. The woman slaughters Samuel and salves her body with a mixture made from his blood and fat. No ambiguity here; this film is not going to be The Crucible or even The Village. There’s a witch, and she’s real enough to steal and kill a baby.

Samuel

 

But said fact is surprisingly put aside as Samuel’s disappearance shatters the family, and that becomes the film’s consuming occupation. Katherine prays inconsolably through the night, fearing her unbaptized child taken by wolves, and worse, in hell. William and Caleb search for Samuel while secretly hunting for food in the wood, and we learn how close to starvation the family is, with winter closing in. Barely an adolescent, Caleb tries desperately to be a good, responsible young man, even as his baby brother’s eternal fate and glimpses of Thomasin’s décolletage both torment him. Thomasin also seems to be trying her very best to fit into the rough shape of an orthodox ideal in the midst of a nightmare, diffidently absorbing her mother’s now-insatiable hostility. And lest everybody seem too noble, the twins, Jacob and Mercy, are raucous little chanting sociopaths, careless of decorum or feelings while romping with the family’s goat Black Phillip. Even without a special goat friend, they are a nerve-splitting pair, and they reserve their worst behavior for Thomasin.

Then tension between Thomasin and her mother sets more misfortune moving, and it’s worth noting that historical witchcraft persecutions in colonial New England often rose out of domestic conflicts between women. Katherine wants to send Thomasin away to serve in another household, a common enough practice for the time, but one that inspires Caleb to go hunting alone to obviate the need. Thomasin catches him sneaking away and insists on going along, but it doesn’t go well. Their dog and horse are spooked, separating Caleb and Thomasin; Caleb finds their dog slaughtered and then comes trembling into the seductive clutches of the witch in the wood. When William eventually finds Thomasin, knocked unconscious when she was thrown from the horse, there’s no trace of Caleb, and the family has to confront another child lost to an unspeakable fate.

Later that night though, Thomasin finds Caleb, naked and incoherent in the driving rain by their animal pen. Katherine deems him bewitched, and it doesn’t take long before her suspicions and the twins’ incessant hectoring focus on who the witch must be. Thomasin turns the accusations back on the twins, denouncing their unwholesome obsession with the family goat. And when Caleb finally coughs up a bloody apple and expires in a pale, ecstatic delirium, William, unable to satisfy himself as to the identity of the witch among his children, boards Thomasin and the twins up in the barn with the animals, including possibly-satanic Black Phillip. Hell will break loose in short order, with the witch making a nocturnal visit that relieves the family of the twins. When Thomasin wakes in the wreckage of the barn, Black Phillip gores William before he can lay a hand on her, though she will have to fight her hysterical mother to the death.

And then the movie gets a little weirder. Covered in her mother’s blood, Thomasin walks numbly into the house, her entire family dead, exiled into a world she knows to be populated with all the literal denizens of hell. She lays her head on the family table and goes to sleep. At night, she rises again, goes into the barn, and exhorts Black Phillip to enter into a contract with her. And Black Phillip answers. The film ends with Thomasin joining a coven of naked witches at a sabbat, rising in the air with laughter, but the kind of laughter that can be genuinely difficult to tell from sobbing.

The Witch’s tagline is “Evil Takes Many Forms,” and on the official website, the display cycles through big splash pictures of the small cast frozen in moments of ambiguous tension, tacitly nominating each as a potential villain. But the question that begs didn’t occur to me as “Which of these Puritans is a witch?” but “Who is going to turn on whom first?” The paranoia we naturally associate with witch hunts depends on the notion that anyone could be a witch, but we know anyone can become a witch hunter, too, whether or not witches even exist to be hunted. Also natural and terrible, the forbidding isolation of the family’s homestead, engirdled by the bristling wood, the lonely susceptibility to misfortune in exile. There’s a bounty of natural evil, or at least hazard, for everybody before you even start thinking about witchery. So from the start, The Witch presents a perfect moving picture of dread, but it’s a far different dread at the beginning than we have at the end.

I really didn’t expect The Witch to have a supernatural element. Even with the infanticide in the first 10 minutes or so, executed by a woodcut-perfect witch in front of us, I kept watching that scene as a natural, if freaking horrifying, event that would be revealed as such in due time. As the movie unspooled, I wasn’t cringing at glimpses of specters in the background or evidences of the invisible world, but from the violence that comes from superstitious misapprehension of the natural world. It’s unusual for a supernatural horror film to spend all of its time on the human effects of terror and desperation rather than goosing the audience with jump scares. But even with explicit evidence of a witch onscreen in a way the Blair Witch never was, I didn’t fear her. I braced for what I imagined William or Katherine would do, thinking Thomasin was the witch. And then when Thomasin ultimately becomes a witch, the film reveals itself again as a perverse bildungsroman.

Thomasin’s fate does put that final, abrupt change of complexion on the film, replenishing the genre ambiguity of the first scenes. For some reason, Thomasin alone has been spared, and spared might as well mean chosen, although for Thomasin, there’s no choice. She is broken and she wants a deal. One could well divine that all the misfortune that befell her family was dedicated to the purpose of breaking her. What distinguishes her capacity for corruption in the devil’s eyes apart from her mother’s anger, her father’s pride, her brother’s lust, and the twins’ amoral childishness is curious. Her confessed sins are slight peccadilloes. We’ve seen her lose her temper, but for the most part, she’s told the truth, even in anger, been brave, and sought refuge in her family and confession. So maybe it’s her superior virtue that makes her the witch in the end. Of course, Puritans did believe in predestination. Her father’s pride or hypocrisy might have exposed their family to the cruel world outside the plantation, but it certainly seems like the devil had a plan for her life, too. In Thomasin’s universe though, that might be the most horrifying fate of all, to give up the hope of being one of God’s elect and skulk fatalistically into sensuous damnation.

Thomasin scream

 

I want to note the way the movie opposes Thomasin against her mother far more directly than against the titular witch. (Well, assuming Thomasin’s not the titular witch. The one what did all the murdering anyway.) Thomasin’s sexual maturity, important as it is here, and as much as it dovetails with our modern idea of what temptation looks like, would not make her a likely witch in the society of her time. As a member of the weaker sex, she would have been vulnerable to bewitching, sure. But while you’ll find plenty of anxiety about female reproductive power in the ultimate witchfinder’s handbook, the Malleus Maleficarum, and the many works and confessions it inspired, that fear centered on post-menopausal women, during an era when women were assumed to have far more rapacious sexual appetites than men. Women who could have sex without conceiving was the stuff of Puritan nightmares. And if you think about what a witch looks like, most of us will flash to an older woman, peaked black hat, wart on the nose, green skin optional. The key though is older woman. The witch that murders Samuel and ensnares Caleb is such an older woman, though she appears young and gorgeous to Caleb. Many accused witches in colonial New England happened to be widows with tenuous familial ties, which some historians find significant, as property and inheritance could present problems for the swelling populations of early New England communities. Of course, a girl like Thomasin would have represented valuable property, too, property that had to be controlled, but also property that could be controlled. The tension between Thomasin and her mother though, given her mother’s discomfort with Thomasin coming of age and the observed effect on her brother, speaks to authentic power dynamics that undergirded witchcraft persecutions in colonial New England in the real world, and it invests Thomasin’s vilification with a ring of truth, or at least lore.

Thomasin sabbat

 

So, Thomasin is the last one standing, but the antithesis of the final girl. I’m not sure what the archetypal Journey of the Heroine should look like, but the Journey of the Witch is well-trodden. Becoming a villainess is still one of the most reliable ways for a female character to achieve power and exert control over her own destiny, and while witches are not exclusively female, they are predominantly female, in fiction and history, across most cultures. Which is not to suggest that the movie is any less horror for the concluding sabbat. It is not a feel-good sabbat. You could probably idealize it, but if we find it empowering, we’re looking at it with modern eyes. In the context of Puritan beliefs, Thomasin’s fate, “living deliciously” for a time or not, is still terrifying and bleak and will involve slaughtering babies. And while she has forestalled becoming a victim to her family or a Puritan tribunal, the histories from which this film draws its texture and vocabulary have never ended well for witches.

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There are lots of great histories examining the social and economic underpinnings of witchcraft persecutions in colonial New England, but Angela loves and recommends Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman the most. Boyer and Nissenbaum’s Salem Possessed is pretty good, too.

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3 Comments

  1. Less Lee Moore on

    I love this review!! “One could well divine that all the misfortune that befell her family was dedicated to the purpose of breaking her.” I think about this all the time in relation to Vanessa Ives in Penny Dreadful.

  2. Very good! I finally got a chance to finish reading this after work distracted my first attempt. I find myself nodding along with a lot of this and though I found the ending more exhilarating, you’re right to caution that her ‘living deliciously’ has a lot more to it than freedom from her family.

  3. Pingback: Episode 13: And the Oscar Goes To… The Witch

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