Before I quit my job at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to play at being a writer, I was a regular contributor to the Eleventh Stack blog. I was free to write about pretty much any material in the Library’s catalog. It was great! On Thursdays, I’ll revisit some of my old faves. A version of this post first appeared on June 20, 2016. This post contains affiliates.
Set in New England in 1630, writer/director Robert Eggers’ The Witch tells the creepy story of what happens to a Puritan family after they’re banished from a plantation. Children disappear, crops die and things go from weird to disturbing to downright evil.
I was on board with the film right up until the last five minutes or so, really digging the idea of horror inspired by ignorance. These characters don’t have modern science to explain things so all the aspects of their lives are based around religion — if bad things happen, it’s definitely Satan’s doing, and if good things happen, it’s only by God’s divine providence. The film spends the bulk of its ninety-two-minute run time putting us in this mindset and expertly building up the suspense and tension to palpable levels. I loved this part of The Witch, as I was left to wonder just what was causing all this terror. Was it something truly supernatural hiding in the woods or was it just another internet-less day in 1630?
If you make it to the end, past a breast-feeding raven and the scariest rabbit on film since Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a title card appears after Eggers’ writer/director credit that claims The Witch “was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records.” I think we’re all familiar with these kinds of stories, the kinds you share around a bonfire. There were miles of woods behind my childhood home, and on warm summer nights so dark that you could count the stars, the neighborhood kids would assemble in my backyard and crowd around a bonfire. The dark wood behind us, with the wind whistling through its branches and my cats creeping around the brambles in our periphery, it became the backdrop of all our spooky stories.
I get how unnerving folktales and parables can be, and I get what this film was trying to do by framing itself around one. Thomasin, the eldest daughter, has been having a hard time in the New World. Two siblings disappeared under her watch, her father locks her in a shed and her mother is grief-stricken. It’s been a really rough week, or as most Puritans would call it, a week. Even wrapped in the trappings of a parable about what happens when you stray from the path of righteousness, I actually find it understandable that Thomasin gives in to darkness. I would have preferred that ending because the actual ending — literally the last two minutes — is just so incongruous with everything we’ve seen before it that it ruins the film for me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a complete tonal shift, like the last third of 2014’s Goodnight Mommy.
The Witch does have a lot going for it. It’s a gorgeous film, allegedly shot with only available, natural lighting. Every line of dialogue is poetry; the aforementioned title card claims that a lot of the dialogue comes from those Puritanical records. The visual representation of isolation is done with lingering camerawork and music that might as well be infrasound. If that’s enough to make a film enjoyable for you, you’ll probably love this. Still, as I was watching it I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seeing something similar. In a lot of ways, The Witch is a remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Both are extremely unsettling without resorting to cheap jump scares (I actually don’t think The Witch has any). Both feature people losing their minds in isolation. Both deal with fathers who are only good at one thing (for Jack Torrance, it’s writing; for William, it’s chopping wood). Both have creepy twins (the twins here grated on me quickly, endlessly signing what I can only assume is the 1630 equivalent of “Baby Shark” to a ram that may or may not have been Satan).
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not really a horror fan, so maybe it’s just me. After all, Stephen King loved it, and The Satanic Temple has officially endorsed it. I looked into Satanists a bit for this post and although I couldn’t find any information on what kind of pitchfork I’d have to buy if I wanted to join, they seem like a pretty open-minded group. They’re pro-choice, support marriage equality, offered to take in Muslim refugees and want to save black cats.
Maybe if I were alive in 1630, I’d have been a witch, terrorizing people who snuck off to shuck corn.
Coming back to this four years later, it’s interesting that my own spiritual journey has intersected with some witchy behavior. I do think it’s time to revisit this hauntingly beautiful film, though, because all I want to do lately is escape 2020 and go live deliciously in the woods.