[Note: This post contains major spoilers. It expands upon my original review of The Witch which appeared at St. Louis Magazine on February 17, 2016.]
If American horror cinema can be provisionally assumed to have an evolutionary path, the ingenious, massively entertaining 2011 feature The Cabin in the Woods represents a cul-de-sac of sorts in the genre’s phylogeny. By recasting all the myriad monsters, mutants, and maniacs of the genre as mere cogs in a Lovecraftian ritual, the film punctured the mythic potency of those terrors. Following two decades or more of arch, self-aware horror films—arguably commencing not with Scream in 1996, but with director Wes Craven’s more gratifying and frightening New Nightmare two years earlier—Cabin seemed to present the definitive, gleefully bleak last word in “meta-horror”. (Last year’s Final Girls mashed up a similar premise with The Last Action Hero, but proved to be an inferior work compared to Cabin.) Once horror fans have witnessed seemingly every ghost and goblin of legend reduced to mere props in a choreographed playlet of bloodletting, where does the genre go from there?
The response implicitly advanced by director Robert Eggers’ colonial tale of terror The Witch is that American horror must discard its drollness and engage with primal fears in a wholly sincere manner. There is a cyclical logic to this approach: Having pitied, romanticized, and deconstructed every bogeymen the night has to offer, the genre has little alternative but to return to first principals. It is obliged to unearth now-familiar monsters and explore what made them so frightening once upon a time. Crucially, The Witch undertakes this rehabilitation within a historical context, asking the viewer to align themselves with the demon-haunted worldview of a Puritan family in 17th-century New England. In contrast to the abundant winks that many contemporary horror pictures direct at the viewer, there is nothing even vaguely sardonic about Eggers’ film. (The auteur that he most resembles in this respect might be Darren Aronofsky.) The Witch is essentially a wordy, unhurried, mud-spattered period drama, albeit one about black magic. This may create confusion for viewers who are expecting a more conventional horror feature in Colonial Williamsburg drag. Make no mistake, however: The Witch is a terrifying and deeply unsettling vision, the kind that squirms restlessly in the mind long after it has ended.
The film opens at the conclusion of a trial, in which William (Ralph Ineson) is found guilty of “prideful conceit” and banished along with his entire family from the New England plantation where they have resided since crossing the Atlantic. Exactly what doctrinal line William crossed is never elaborated upon, but it’s evident that his self-righteous conviction is equal to that of his judges. However, the film isn’t concerned with the particulars of William’s “more-orthodox-than-thou” pissing match with the plantation’s elders. His exile is a means to separate the family from the perspective and support of a larger community, and to establish the depths of William’s stubbornness. (He would rather risk his family’s lives in the wilderness than admit error and grovel before his accusers.) This is but one of many correspondences that The Witch shares with The Shining, a feature which also requires that the family unit first be isolated before it is riven along its natural fissures by a supernatural malevolence.
The clan featured in the film includes William’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their adolescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), preteen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and young fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). At various times, the perspective of each family member (save the twins) is afforded a substantial chunk of screen time. However, if the film can be said to have a protagonist, it is Thomasin. Not incidentally, the film’s first shot is of her face as she listens to the verdict in her father’s trial, her brown doe eyes round with apprehension beneath a wide-brimmed hat. Thomasin is present for most—though, crucially, not all—of the film’s significant events, and that proximity eventually serves as a burning mark that lures her family's suspicions when misfortunes begin to mount.
For a time, however, William and his clan thrive reasonably well on their own, their segregation from the plantation notwithstanding. In a meadow alongside a tangled wood, the family constructs a tiny wooden cottage and barn, plants a modest plot of corn, and raises up a little herd of goats for milk. Their hopes for the future are given a tangible form when Katherine bears a fifth child, Samuel. Yet despite the passages of rustic simplicity that characterize this stretch of the film—father tending the fields, mother nursing the baby—the viewer is never completely at ease, due in large part to The Witch’s remorseless and fantastically discomfiting soundscape.
From the moment that the family departs the plantation, Mark Koven’s score begins droning, tapping, and whining out a hellish din of ambient noise that scrapes the nerves raw. Meanwhile, Adam Stein’s fiendishly uncanny sound design pushes all the wrong elements to the film’s aural foreground. Case in point: When the family kneels at the site of their new homestead, holding aloft their arms in ecstatic worship, the sound mix emphasizes the buzzing of insects. It is a moment of Christian thankfulness, and yet one is put in mind of plague and putrescence, and of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, the demonic prince named in Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress. As the camera slowly pushes in on the rustling, green-gray trees of the nearby woods, the score rises to a keening crescendo. The message in unmistakable: Something evil is lurking nearby, watching and waiting for the right moment to strike.
That dreadful moment arrives one day while Thomasin is minding Samuel at Katherine’s behest. In the space of only a second or two, the child vanishes. A rustling at the edge of the wood is the only trace left in the immediate aftermath of his disappearance. The family searches the forest in vain first for days, and then weeks. Eventually, William settles on a hungry wolf as the likely culprit in the baby’s abduction, but no one in the family seems to a wholly accept this explanation, even William himself. The viewer, however, is allowed to witness Samuel’s ghastly fate: By firelight, a naked crone slays the babe with a blade, then smears her body and her staff with a concoction derived from his blood. She is briefly glimpsed rubbing the staff between her thighs in a quaking trance, and later, under a swollen moon, she seems to float into the night air.
Narratively speaking, Samuel’s murder is The Witch’s decisive turning point, the event from which all ensuing conflict and agony subsequently flows. (Or, at least appears to flow. Some woes, such as a blighted corn crop, may simply be unlucky coincidences.) Katherine’s grief keeps her abed day and night, where she whispers sobbing prayers that solicit God for the wisdom to understand the reasons for His evident cruelty. She unfairly but perhaps understandably turns a frigid eye on Thomasin, who, as Samuel’s caretaker at the moment of his disappearance, is naturally faulted when no other explanation for the crime is forthcoming. Thomasin in turn unwisely exacerbates her situation by spinning a sadistic lie in order to terrorize Mercy, a fantasy in which she is the “witch of the wood” who slew and ate her little brother.
Meanwhile, Katherine’s teeth-gnashing mourning makes it problematic for William to come clean about his own deceit, involving the illicit sale of his wife’s cherished silver cup for needed animal traps. William brings Caleb along on a secret dawn expedition to check said traps, and the lad’s pressing questions necessitate that the father fold the son into his conspiracy. This collusion in turn prods at Caleb’s nascent sense of responsibility towards his family, prompting him to later mount his own trap-clearing search with Thomasin, which leads to his capture by the witch, now cloaked in a comely illusion. And so it goes, as a cascade of ill-fated events and dubious choices drag the household downward into increasingly dire and hysterical circumstances.
Eggers’ choice to provide a third-person peek at the witch is a crucial decision, as it signals to the viewer that the film is not just a psychological thriller about panicky, mistrustful people colliding off one another. An eldritch and menacing presence is indeed lurking in the woods, and it thinks nothing of using infanticide as a mere token in its unholy rites. However, it is also crucial that such glimpses of black magic remain relatively uncommon for most of The Witch’s running time. Until the film’s final act, Samuel’s ritual murder and the later attack on Caleb are the only events with obvious supernatural aspects. The presence of flying ointments, enchanted trickery, and demonic possession mark the film as a work of magical realism. Yet it is also a psychological thriller about panicky, mistrustful people colliding off one another.
Indeed, the witch is generally incidental to the plot, in the sense that the family’s damnation is to a significant extent self-inflicted. The crone is truthfully more catalyst than predator. Much as the Overlook Hotel’s spectral tentacles worm into Jack Torrance’s weak points in The Shining—his rage, resentment, violence, alcoholism, and smarmy sense of white male entitlement—the witch’s bloody art is just a pebble that starts a landslide. It’s perhaps overly glib to describe Eggers’ film as “The Crucible, if the witchcraft were real,” but aside from their commonalities of milieu, The Witch and Arthur Miller’s play share broad thematic similarities. They are both works about people responding in all the worst possible ways when fear clenches them in its talons
As much as any feat of dread-inducing atmospherics, one of The Witch’s most conspicuous achievements is how potently it functions as both a deliberately estranging work of historical realism and as a salient contemporary critique of the American mind. On the one hand, the cast and crew go out of their way to render 17th-century New England as a place that is wholly uncanny to the modern viewer, no matter how cursorily familiar the setting might be from half-remembered textbooks. Some of this is attributable to visual design. The eastern Ontario exterior locations (subbing for New England) establish a skeletal wilderness of brown grasses and thin, scabby tree trunks. The film’s daylight shots are washed in a ghostly gray that lends even nominally handsome landscapes a chilly, unwelcoming severity. Meanwhile the high-contrast night scenes of black and gold evoke the chiaroscuro paintings of contemporary Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst, as well as the enveloping candlelit interiors of Barry Lyndon, but without that film’s splashes of lush romanticism. The Witch’s New England is not quaint or pastoral. It looks dry, cold, and half in its grave.
However, it is the screenplay and the performances in particular that scratch thick boundaries between the experiences of the The Witch’s characters and those of the modern day viewer. This is in part due to the sheer Otherness of their austere, Calvinist worldview—at least as expressed in the script—in which sins such as pride and idleness are among the worst offenses imaginable against God and His creation. Apart from the archaic details of matchlock rifles and the like, the film’s characters respond to the events around them in ways that are doubtlessly peculiar to a secular, 21st-century American. The most obvious example is the way that their Puritan minds leap straightaway to witchcraft upon encountering anything inexplicable. Yet the distancing aspects of the film extend even to the particulars of the characters’ vocabularies, accents, and cadences. (Ralph Ineson’s deep, grumbling tones alone give him the seeming of a visitor from another era.) Through such elements, The Witch continually reinforces the notion that the people, culture, and time period depicted are just plain different than anything with which the viewer is familiar.
And yet… all of these alienating aspects notwithstanding, The Witch is also very much an acidic depiction of the timeless and reliably feverish American response to external threats. Less gauchely allegorical than M. Night Shyamalan’s flawed but fascinating post-9/11 fable The Village, Eggers’ feature shares with that 2004 film a sharp sense of the sociological dimension of fear. The Witch’s 17th-century New England setting is not merely for picturesque ambiance: It provides a glimpse of American angst in its embryonic form. In this time and place, what critic Mark Breitenberg calls the “anxious masculinity” of the English Renaissance collides with stern religiosity and frontier hardship. This nexus can be observed in William’s insecurity about his relative fecklessness as a Puritan patriarch. He seems to fear Katherine’s disapproval as much as he does any Satanic minion, and the most cutting jibes that Thomasin flicks at him relate to his failure to provide for and protect his family. His sole on-screen attempt to fire a rifle literally backfires in his face. As Susan Faludi described in her essential study of American anxiety, The Terror Dream, a cowardly, ineffectual man was the most wretched creature in the colonial New England imagination:
Puritan men might be “brides” of Christ, but they were expected to be paternal protectors in their own households: as Christ guarded them, so they were expected to shield their wives and dependents. In a society that regarded the home as the “little commonwealth,” the foundational model for the state, the effective performance of husbands was a matter of profound public import. Yet the story of the Indian raids was plagued by episodes of botched male protection—of sentinels who failed to sit sentry, of husbands who were absent when their wives and children were seized or slaughtered, of townsmen who hid in the woods, of militia who refused to give chase.
As Faludi later elaborates, such anxiety is closely linked to conceptions of manhood and virility in the Puritan mind. She quotes minister Increase Mather hand-wringing about the “strange degeneracy” afflicting the allegedly craven second generation of Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers, as well as a military chaplain, who in 1678 lamented that “[a] tender, softly, effeminate People is a curse and a misery.” The Witch illustrates such sexual subtext in subtle but insistent ways. When William is haunted by his inadequacies, he goes to the woodpile and begins splitting logs, a distinctly phallic activity that nonetheless seems to lack direction. (Said woodpile accumulates to a ludicrous scale, providing a looming visual metric of William’s anguish.) Such compulsive hewing echoes not only the aforementioned Jack Torrance’s bloody axe-play in The Shining, but also the campy but under-appreciated 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror, in which creepy, ghost-addled stepfather George Lutz labors menacingly at the chopping stump. Late in The Witch, William is fatally gored by the demonic he-goat Black Phillip—a humiliating and feminizing penetration—and is then half-buried by his own collapsing woodpile, as though finally done in by his own neurotic idleness.
In a stridently patriarchal culture such as Puritan New England, of course, there is no more vicious an insult than to equate a man with a woman, that weakest of creatures. Indeed, given that a meek, obedient woman who quakes before God and husband alike is the feminine ideal in the Puritan society of The Witch, it’s unsurprising that the titular villain is such a terrifying figure. Few things could embody a perverse reflection of the film’s severe, male-centered Protestant worldview like a woman living independently in the forest, her formidable power flowing not from her relationship with an earthly husband but from a voluntary compact with the Prince of Darkness himself.
As historian Carol S. Karlsen advanced in her groundbreaking work The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, one of the distinguishing features of the New England witch hysteria was that its victims were drawn from a more prosperous middle class background than the marginalized peasant women typically targeted in medieval witch hunts. A woman who could accumulate wealth, own property, and bring lawsuits—as some Puritan women did, particularly widows—represented a subdued but insidious threat to the inseparable religious and sociopolitical foundations of colonial New England. In light of this historical context, William’s theft of Katherine’s silver cup—her sole possession of significant value—represents far more than a noble lie. Desperate to provide for his family and thereby affirm his masculinity before God, William’s larcenous gambit targets the single household treasure that is definitively his wife’s property, thereby robbing her of her remaining sliver of economic independence.
While this betrayal and its narrative ripples are critical to the film’s story, the tensions between Katherine and William involve issues more unsettling than matrimonial power struggles. The most destabilizing variable in the household is Thomasin herself, whose emergent womanhood threatens to throw the entire clan into a crypto-incestuous tailspin. It is implied with the utmost delicacy, but a sexually transgressive electricity surrounds the interactions between William and his eldest daughter. It can be observed in the furtive glances between the pair, in the way that Thomasin dutifully but deftly removes her father’s filthy clothes as Katherine looks on, and in the way that William holds his daughter in an agonized, crushing embrace when he comes to suspect that she is the source of the family’s woes.
Accordingly, Katherine’s mounting antipathy for Thomasin extends beyond the girl’s role in Samuel’s disappearance. With her first menstruation, Thomasin is transmuted from a beauteous child into a potential temptress in Katherine’s eyes. The fact that the only adult male in the vicinity is the girl’s father renders her sexuality all the more menacing, as it threatens to upend the household’s God-given order in the most abominable way imaginable. For Caleb, who is utterly isolated from any other examples of virginal femininity, his older sister is evolving into a source of shameful, erotic curiosity. He seems uneasy around Thomasin, nervously stealing glances at her cleavage, his once-benign sibling having become something at one mesmerizing and repellent. Little wonder, then, that the witch exploits the boy's agony by taking the form of a crimson-cloaked siren in order to ensnare him. The film’s discomfiting undertones of juvenile sexuality also emerge once Caleb is returned, finding expression in the boy’s pseudo-orgasmic grunts and cries as a possessing spirit first torments him, then releases him into Christ’s waiting arms.
And what of that barely-glimpsed witch? Her attributes seem plucked from the feverish anecdotes of an inquisitor’s handbook rather than any real-world depiction of pagan or folk magical practices. Eggers’ film is certainly not the first horror feature to exploit this “demonological” conception of the witch in an earnest manner. Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy—Suspiria, Inferno, and The Mother of Tears—is perhaps the most renowned example, although those films arguably owe more to the director’s earlier giallo features, to Disney’s Technicolor fairy tales, and to the eschatological conspiracy theory of late 20th-century Christianity. An icily modern restatement of the witch is found in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. In that film, a feminist scholar’s grief pushes her to internalize the misogynist, Manichean worldview critiqued in her studies, ultimately sending her into a frenzy of self-loathing violence. Although indebted to Argento’s trilogy, Rob Zombie’s woefully under-valued The Lords of Salem closely resembles The Witch, in that it assumes that the worst fears of the Puritans were well-founded. (Both films also conclude calamitously, with copious innocent blood shed and evil reigning victorious.) Zombie, however, places his Satanic brides in a contemporary setting, where widespread unbelief in their existence gives them the upper hand.
Eggers’ film, in contrast, situates the demonological witch in her natural habit, as it were, surrounded by fearful Christian men and women who see the Devil’s hoof print everywhere. Not that the vigilance of Thomasin and her family matters in the end, as Satan ultimately uses their divisive suspicions to his advantage. The overtly malicious acts that the witch commits tend to be of a corporeal rather than magical natural—the snatching and slaying of Samuel, for example. It is Satan himself who seems to use supernatural means to propagate the most vicious mischief. It is his demons that wriggle into Caleb’s soul once the witch’s charms render the boy vulnerable. It is he who whispers falsehoods in Jonas and Mercy’s ears as Black Phillip, sowing further discord and confusion within the family. It is he who sends blissful visions of lost children (and the precious silver cup) to Katherine, permitting his raven to tear away her nipple as she laughs euphorically. And, of course, after Thomasin is the only one left standing amid the slaughter and ruin, it is Lucifer who comes to her, dressed as a hissing, dandyish highwayman and proffering a book that begs for the girl’s signature.
Ultimately, perhaps the most cunning and captivating aspect of The Witch is the superbly balanced character of its tone, which captures with darkling precision the sensations of both tragic folly and inexorable doom that swirl about Thomasin’s family. Eggers’ film posits a world in which a genuine mystic evil exists, but where frantic overreaction to that menace is arguably a more substantial threat to the family’s safety and stability. (To paraphrase Joseph Heller, just because witches are out to get you, doesn’t mean you aren’t paranoid.) At risk of straining a War on Terror analogy, if Samuel’s murder is 9/11, then most of what follows in The Witch is the self-inflicted clusterfuck of worthless security theater, trodden civil liberties, and endless military quagmires.
The crushing guilt and existential horror of the Puritan worldview are appalling enough, as illustrated by Caleb’s runaway panic at the thought of poor, unbaptized Samuel roasting for eternity in hellfire. Arguably just as grueling and destructive, however, is the perpetual state of spiritual siege produced when people obsesses ceaselessly over the prospect of outside attack. When Thomasin finally joins the witches of the wood in their nocturnal flight, her rapturous laughter is as much about the burdens she is leaving behind as the delicious delights promised by the purring Devil. What the crones and their Prince offer is not just power, but freedom from the sort of enervating, uncontrolled terror that can split families, communities, and entire nations asunder.