New England, 1630. A family of simple English settlers make their home near the misty woods to begin a life of worship and subsistence farming, but soon they are beset by a series of escalating horrors of seemingly diabolical origin, culminating in destruction and despair. First-time director Robert Eggers’ vision of supernatural malevolence, The Witch, serves double-duty as both a mannered period drama and a truly gruesome horror film, and the damned souls’ extreme religiosity serves as the maypole about which the darkness spins its ribbons. But did they invite it upon themselves?
The rest of this article contains major spoilers for The Witch, so seek ye not further lest thou be wary.
Early into the film we have any question of the reality of this film’s central villain(s) dispelled when, after the settlers’ youngest member is stolen from them in broad daylight and plain sight, we soon also witness the infant’s grisly demise at the hand of the titular witch. This motivating event kicks off an emotional and spiritual breakdown of the family’s bonds, and it’s also the point when many other horror films would have begun to frame the narrative as “us vs. them,” with the settlers defending themselves from an unholy onslaught depicted with traditional Hollywood Grand Guignol. What I found exceedingly compelling in the framing we’re given instead is that the question of an unreliable narrator is immediately forsaken (which is great, because it’s a technique that I find very few storytellers pull off well), and that the onslaught we see is not fought in the tangible spaces in and around the eerie forest by the farm, but within the minds and relationships of our ecclesiastically-predisposed band of survivors. From the very beginning of the tale, with the family being cast from the safety of its local township for an excess of religious pride (a pretty damning charge in the era of the Salem witch trials), we see that these folk have a consuming interest in life in the Lord’s service, and it’s here that the infernal assault directs its strength. The Devil doesn’t torment these people nearly as much as he simply digs out the nails holding this fragile group together, letting the dictates of piety, festering with hysteria and resentment, do the work for him and his coven.
It would not be difficult to see the kidnapping and murder of the young babe Samuel as the catalyst of the film’s action, but I would argue that the catalyst largely happened off-screen, prior to the opening credits. This is a family headed by parents with utmost conviction in their beliefs, and from the moment we meet them they are met with tragedy after tragedy. They are first cast into the wilderness, and then their baby is taken, and then their eldest son goes missing and returns gravely ill, and further and further into madness and despair until there is nothing left. I had to wonder while watching this, at what point would someone who lived back then decide that they were being beset by evil? Because hardliners like these colonials tended to be just as apt to assign the misfortune to God’s retribution for their sins, an instinct that survives today, 400 years later, when televangelists ascribe all manners of atrocity to punishment for the carnal and venal sins of man.
Here, the atrocities are driven by an omnipresent cloud of existential anxiety that pushes every character headlong toward their own destruction. Both young Caleb and his mother are driven to grief based largely on the belief that little Samuel’s soul will go to Hell on account of his being unbaptized before his untimely end, and eventually this drives Caleb to a similar end as he, too, falls prey to the Witch. Although I don’t think Eggers has any intention of using the paranormal here as a metaphor for the hysteria that overzealousness can cause, there’s a decent argument that he is pointing out how hysteria and overzealousness aren’t effective tools for combating the infernal. If you take the film at its most literal interpretation, this ultra-pious family’s faith is no match for even a fairly aloof Satan, and while it can be argued that each member commits sin, are we to take that as a trespass so Hellworthy? Thomasin doesn’t properly honor her mother, but her mother is consumed by grief and madness; Caleb’s burgeoning manhood leads him to lust inappropriately, but he’s just a boy all alone in the woods without guidance; the twins are gossips and liars, but they’re but children and possibly possessed; father William stole and sold his wife’s heirloom, but only to ensure the family didn’t starve; mother Katherine bears wrath for her daughter and husband, but she’s in the throes of depression over the loss of her baby; and wee little murdered Samuel, what sin did he commit that was not born upon him?
(Quick question: you ever notice how it seems only religious people (usually Catholics, at that) get possessed? Funny, that. It’s a pretty bad pitch for getting up and putting on your Sunday best, I’ll tell you that much.)
Under a literalist view this story is a cautionary tale warning against dangers that may befall us all, and if you were a New England colonial, this story would not seem far-fetched, and perhaps not even a parable. The lesson to be taught through the lens of Calvinism here is that the world is full of literal demons, and if they decide to fuck with you then you’re gonna be totally fucked, because holy shit the Devil is super, super evil. And that’s not much of a lesson, honestly, but it’s definitely true to the streak of fatalism rampant in western cautionary fables at the time, as well as the common propensity toward disproportionate rebuke for minor offenses. Think of the original Hansel and Gretel story, for instance, which saw the children disowned and left in the forest to die by their father because he was worried he couldn’t feed them, and while the story ends with the family reunited and made wealthy, the children have to survive and murder a cannibal witch in order to make that happen.
But you can also interpret the film’s semiotics from a more modern viewpoint to discern other motifs and themes. The specter of perdition is ever-looming specter, and we can see how the people of this time may have reacted to both the ghostly and the mundane. Religion is the tool they had to instruct them in a time and scientific tradition that had no clear understanding of medicine or advanced cultivation or machinery, and religion is what answered their most impossible philosophical questions. Under that worldview, everything falls into place. After a long series of derogatory remarks and accusations, the primary conflict in this film eventually sets in between eldest daughter Thomasin and her mother Katherine, who ultimately serves as the film’s antagonist. Grieving, Katherine blames Thomasin unfairly for the death of the girl’s infant brother, and this spawns a spiraling cascade of madness fueled by the mother’s destructive blend of anger, lament, and selfishness, to the point where mom loses her hold on what’s real (her family) and what is uncertain (the nature of evil). The Devil, here, doesn’t bewitch or cheat or seduce; he merely encourages what’s already bubbling under the lid, pushing it closer to the edge. Had a wolf or bear taken Katherine’s baby, Thomasin would have been no more at fault, and the invective directed at her would have been just as fierce. Samuel may have been killed by a witch, but his mother destroyed their family through her own means.
Katherine in this film is such an interesting character. On one hand, she’s infinitely sympathetic–she’s virtually alone in a strange place, her baby was just taken from her, the threat of starvation looms heavy–and the actions and feelings she has in response to those stressors are universal. Her grief, though, finds an outlet that offers absolution, and by casting the cause of the family’s misfortune on her eldest daughter she uses this freedom, paired with her religious fervor, to reclaim her agency and pull herself from crippling depression. This is the kind of thing that real people do to others all the time in real life, and they don’t require the ill-will of Satan to help them unjustly foist responsibility or blame onto those who deserve neither. It’s simply human nature, if you’re predisposed to the influence of externalities, but given Katherine’s place as a Calvinist mother on the frontier under physically, emotional, and spiritual assault, responses that we see as insane are entirely within what we would expect of someone of that culture under those stressors.
Along with the meticulous eye for period detail and speech patterns, what makes The Witch a horror film unlike any other I’ve witnessed is how quickly it established the truth of this world’s supernatural villainy, only to let it take a backseat to the horrors the survivors wreak upon each other. It can be difficult to tell where the hysterical projection ends and the fantastic starts, which, in addition to being an excellent living document of early colonial America, I think is the whole point of the endeavor–that believing so strongly in unknowable external forces removes whatever personal agency you might have for yourself. When you tell yourself you’re a nail, everything starts to look like a hammer. Thomasin’s reaction to finally meeting Black Phillip initially took me by surprise, but in her shoes, presented with the strictures of piety and its brutal, bloody failure to save her family, I’m not sure that embracing whatever freedom Satan’s black hand may offer isn’t the better choice. In the end, does it matter if she chose to dance with the Devil out of choice, corruption, or merely to fulfill her role in a cautionary metaphor? It’s just a folktale, after all.