The Witch (2015) explained: the horrors of true history

A ram's skull, complete with impressively gnarly horns against a deep black background.

Religious extremism, misogyny and madness stoke fears of the supernatural in The Witch, a folk tale rooted in horror and history.

In 17th-century New England a pilgrim family clash with the church and are banished to the wilderness – where they soon fall prey to supernatural forces.

So far, so spooky.

The Witch relies on horror genre staples to weave a story full of dread. These cues hint at what we can expect, ramping up tension as a result:

  • A jarring soundtrack of unearthly, whispered chants (see also The Omen)
  • Gloomy location, subdued lighting, muted colours
  • Isolated and forbidden places (wilderness, woods, social boundaries)
  • Religious extremism and arcane knowledge that morphs into supernatural events.

These cues are so familiar that we don’t need to be aware of them to fall under their spell.

But if The Witch appears to be a conventional horror film, like Get Out its unease lies in the unexotic everyday.

Its characters tell tales of witches, goats and devils to scare each other (as do we when we tell horror stories). Yet the true source of the terror may not be supernatural at all.

The title appears as ‘The VVitch’ because the letter W wasn’t yet common in the 17th century. The digraph VV or uu often substituted – hence we call W ‘double-u’ in English.

The horror baked into human history

The Witch ends with a statement that the film’s dialogue comes from journals, diaries and court records. Either way, the film tells a social history of witch hunting through the lens of the horror genre.

The craze for denouncing witches consumed Europe for centuries, killing thousands – mostly women – accused of cavorting with the Devil. In America it peaked with the Salem witch trials in New England at the end of the 17th century.

The Witch foreshadows these events. But it also reflects the very real social dangers women faced at the time. Medical knowledge, living alone, a short temper: all could prompt suspicions of witchcraft.

Misogyny, mischief, greed and jealousy played a role in trials, too. What better way to remove a rival than to accuse them of witchcraft? It was impossible to prove innocence, and you were liable to die trying. As hysteria and religious paranoia raged, it became strategic to denounce your enemies before they accused you.

These underlying tensions are all present in the film. So too are traditional symbols of witchcraft, including curdled eggs and spoiled crops. Animals associated with sorcery – hares and goats – appear too.

These ‘symptoms’ ricochet around the family, putting each of them under suspicion of or at threat from witchcraft. But is sorcery to blame at all?

Evil or ergot?

“The corn is trash”

The family’s ruined crops are very significant. At the time, this alone could start rumours of witchcraft – if only to explain the misfortune of godly people (see also vampires).

We see the blackened corn when William (Ralph Ineson) tells Caleb:

“We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us.”

Over the course of the film we see the crops turn increasingly rotten in the background – yet the family continue using them.

Many of the signs of sorcery that follow are consistent with ergot poisoning from the spoiled corn. Hallucination, convulsions and death, for instance. And ergot has been linked with some witch trials of the era, suggesting it sometimes fuelled hysteria.

How likely is it that poison, rather than witchcraft, infects the family? Well, there are signs in their excessive and extreme behaviours:

  • William’s mania for splitting wood (the mountain of timber finally buries him)
  • The younger children’s incessant singing – about devils, no less
  • Katherine (Kate Dickie) dreams of nursing her dead children
  • Caleb’s hallucinations, followed by convulsions
  • The way the family members attack each other with words and, later, weapons.

If you believe in malevolent witches, as the family do, these point to witchcraft. If you don’t, ergot is as plausible a reason.

The biggest indication – and ambiguity – is the final reveal of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) as a witch. Does she really talk to Satan and fly into the air? Or do grief and ergot send her mad?

Similarly, does a witch snatch baby Sam – or could Thomasin have lost him while delirious?

Keep in mind there are minimal shots of them together. We see their game of peek-a-boo through alternating viewpoints, but there’s no certainty these take place exactly as presented.

Motifs of wilderness in The Witch

being cast out is a device – one which enables and explains their isolation

William disagrees with church elders about preaching the gospels. Presumably it’s a repeat offence, and it sees the family sent away from the settlement.

Ultimately being cast out is a story device – one that enables and explains their isolation. At the same time, it establishes the family as like us and worth caring about (because they don’t choose their isolation).

Being cut off from polite society is a terrible punishment of itself. It’s also the beginning of the family’s terrors. William says it’s God’s plan to teach them humility but Katherine remembers:

“Was Christ not led into the wilderness to be ill-met by the Devil?”

Even the thought of the wilderness – an untamed, inhuman place – is laced with devilish fears. The film repeats this motif several times.

The family is among the first to leave England for the new world. William calls this new land a wilderness – though of course that exorcises the native peoples who already live there.

But then the family are expelled into literal wilderness, far from human company and God’s mercy. In horror terms this is a fertile location for psychological terror.

Still, the family cling to subtle games of social ritual. Despite being alone, they give the farm a boundary, beyond which lies yet another wilderness.

As an unknown, untamed space, the woods take on the role of unholy land full of strange creatures and witches. It’s a psychological trick that helps the family feel such terrors are outside, at a distance.

Of course, they then find ways to breach this arbitrary boundary, thus inviting evil – or guilty consciences – onto the farm.

Incidentally, while isolation is a staple of horror, it underlines why Rosemary’s Baby is noteworthy. That story also relies on religion and hallucination, yet its isolation takes place in a crowded city.

Is there really a witch?

Calling the film The Witch certainly plants the suggestion of sorcery. And yet maybe it doesn’t show us witchcraft at all, but the reasons for such fears.

The family connect the dots to blame sorcery for their misfortunes. Meanwhile, instead of religious guidance, delirium and paranoia combine to explain their world. Hence:

  • An evil hag snatches their baby
  • Caleb’s sexual desire is caused by a witch rather than, say, puberty
  • Finally Thomasin is revealed to be the witch, exactly as the family suspected.

Yet this is rather convenient.

Most telling is the trope of the old hag. As with 1960s horror The Nanny, we’re primed to see evil in anything that doesn’t conform to narrow beauty ideals. Grotesque witches, for instance, are often just old.

Shyamalan’s The Visit similarly explores how old age and mental illness are a source of terror. And consider how commonly old women convey dread in horror movies, from Poltergeist to The Others.

A precarious position

Even with its abundance of stock genre elements, the film’s dread comes from the true-life horrors of Thomasin’s precarious position as a woman.

Her mother fears her as a romantic or sexual rival. And her age makes her a financial trading piece: her parents plan to put her into service so they don’t have to keep feeding her.

It doesn’t help that the family preaches piety, while its members bend the rules to suit themselves. For instance, William lets Thomasin take the blame for losing a silver goblet rather than admit his own lies and transgressions.

There’s also an undercurrent of sexual tension, with the teenage children constrained both by social isolation and the terrors of sin.

With the odds and accusations stacked against Thomasin, the film’s ending smacks of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Why not be a witch if you’ve nothing left to lose?

In this sense the title is a prediction because Thomasin finally signs (or imagines signing) the Devil’s book. That is, she accepts his covenant, thus becoming a witch.

But if being a witch is synonymous with old age, it’s an unavoidable fate. If that’s the case, all women become witches … which perhaps isn’t too far off some contemporary messages around ageing.

Ultimately, societal fears – of women, witches and God – bind the family to a tragic end.

They cling to a religion as grim and hopeless as the environment, in which even babies are born into sin. Religious knowledge of, and fixation with, devils and witches comes to create the family’s reality.

Without social bonds they lose humanity and strength. They fear the wilderness but in the end they become it – and it consumes them.

The Witch (2015), directed by Robert Eggers

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Picture credit: Blake Weyland