The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers) got a lot of buzz when it came out last year, but I only got around to watching it tonight. It tells the story of a Puritan family living in rural New England struggling against a machinations of a malicious witch.
The film is set in 1630 in an unspecified plantation in New England. It is probably Massachusetts, but could possibly be New Hampshire or Maine. William (Ralph Ineson) is a devout Calvinist who is forced out of the colony because of a never-explained theological dispute within the church of the colony. He takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and his children, who include teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harry Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and sets up a small farm on the edge of a remote woods about a day away from the plantation.
Katherine gives birth to a baby boy, Samuel, and that’s when things start to go wrong. Thomasin is watching the baby one day by the woods when he simply disappears. The film makes it clear that he has been stolen by a witch and sacrificed to make a flying ointment. So the film immediately establishes that this isn’t simply in the minds of the family. There really is an evil force hell-bent (quite literally) on destroying them, although we only rarely see it.
Although the troubles in the film are clearly caused by the witch, the film is really a study of a deeply devout and conservative Christian family trying to cope with the trauma of (literally) losing a child. Katherine grieves inconsolably and cannot stop praying, and William struggles to hold the family together and make this marginal farm thrive. But the crops do poorly, he proves an ineffective hunter, and the family’s nanny goat starts giving blood instead of milk. Mercy and Jonas’ misbehavior start to wear down Thomasin’s patience, and young Caleb, who is only about 9, tries to be the hunter his father cannot be. The family inevitably spirals down to their destruction; this is a horror film, after all.
The film really impressed me from a historical standpoint. It has a lot to recommend it. The film-makers worked hard to capture the material culture of the period, consulting with museums and historians of the period, and Eggers only filmed with natural light outdoors and candle-light indoors. Much of the dialog was lifted from 17th century documents, and the cast does a great job making the archaic language sound real. Even the children turn in excellent performances and make the dialog work.
The film tries to capture genuine 17th century Puritan beliefs of witches. Nearly everything supernatural that happens has a solid foundation in the writings and trial records of the period. The disasters that befall the family are not wild Hollywood spectacle but simple rural crises–the corn grows badly, they keep seeing a rabbit they can’t catch, something kills their dog– that prey on the family’s economic vulnerability. Witchcraft was always primarily about economic and personal disasters, and Eggers does a great job getting us to understand that.The witch’s malevolence is simply a given; she destroys the family purely because she is evil, and that’s where the family’s religious anxieties come in.
The film also does justice to the Calvinist beliefs of the Puritans. As William teaches Caleb, they are deeply sinful people, and only Christ’s redeeming sacrifice can save them. Caleb, understandably unnerved by the implication that his baby brother was a horrible sinner, begs his father to tell him what sin the infant committed. William replies that he does not know and that he cannot know that the baby was saved, because they must simply pray that they are among God’s Elect. As a result, what mattered for Puritans was having a spiritual experience that shows them that they truly are one of the Elect. While most movies and tv shows (cough Salem cough) treat such beliefs with contempt and assume that Puritans simply didn’t love each other, The Witch accepts Puritanism as a genuine belief system and shows how deeply William and Katherine love their children and desperately desire their salvation. But prayer isn’t enough to stop the evil assailing them because if it was, this wouldn’t be a horror film.
A big part of the reason that New England saw so may witchcraft charges is that in the 17th century, the American colonies were small and precarious. Life was genuinely hard for these people, and witchcraft provided an explanation for the various things that could go wrong. Additionally, the Puritans saw themselves as God’s tiny minority of the Elect under siege from the forces of Satan. Native Americans were understood to literally worship the Devil, so Satan’s agents lurked just beyond the tree line, unseen but waiting to strike. And witches were the embodiment of many of the moral failings that Puritans struggled against–lust, envy, disobedience to authorities, resentment. So as Thomasin tries to be a good Christian girl and cope with the tragedies befalling her family, her struggles slowly push her into the suspect category of witch.
All in all, I’d have to call The Witch one of the best historical films I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Eggers is willing to take his time building the tension for both the family and the audience. The film avoids the usual cheap tricks of horror films, like sound spikes, false scares, and gore, in favor of drawing the viewer into the growing fear and madness of the family, and making you squirm over the way the family inevitably turns against itself. It is certainly the best depiction of early modern witchcraft beliefs I’ve seen on screen.
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Want to Know More?
The Witch is available on Amazon.
If you’re looking for an introduction to New England witchcraft trials and beliefs, you can’t do better than Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman. It’s hands down the best thing I’ve read on the subject.