Religious extremism, misogyny and madness stoke fears of the supernatural in The Witch, a folk tale rooted in horror and history.
What is The Witch about?
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.
What makes The Witch a horror film?
The Witch relies on horror genre staples to weave a story full of dread. These cues hint at what to expect and, as a result, drive tension:
- A jarring soundtrack of unearthly, whispered chants
- Gloomy location plus subdued lighting and colours
- Isolated and forbidden places (wilderness, woods, social boundaries)
- Religious extremism and arcane knowledge that morphs into supernatural events.
These cues are so familiar to us 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 fantastical 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. As such (and even in spite of it), 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 pre-empts these events, but also reflects the very real social dangers women faced at the time. Old age, medical knowledge, living alone, a short temper: all could prompt suspicions of witchcraft.
In fact, the trials were driven by misogyny, personal gain and romantic jealousy. 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 aspects are all present in the film. So too are common ‘symptoms’ of witchcraft, such as curdled eggs, spoiled crops, and motifs of hares and goats – creatures associated with witchcraft in folk tales. (See also Get Out’s deer imagery.)
These symptoms ricochet around the family, putting each under suspicion of causing or falling victim to witchery. But is sorcery to blame at all?
Evil or ergot?
It’s soon obvious the family’s crops are spoiled. At the time, this alone would have been enough to start rumours of witchcraft, if only as a way to explain the misfortune of godly people.
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 continues using them.
Many of the signs of sorcery that follow are consistent with ergot poisoning: hallucination, convulsions, death. And ergot has been linked with some witch trials of the era, suggesting it could have fuelled hysteria at the time.
How likely is it the family is poisoned rather than bewitched? Well, there are signs in their excessive and extreme behaviours:
- William’s mania for splitting wood. When he dies, this mountain of timber buries him (compare the fate of Leonard Bast in Howards End)
- The younger children’s incessant singing – about devils, no less
- Katherine (Kate Dickie) dreams of nursing her dead children
- Caleb’s delusions in the forest followed by symptoms including convulsions
- The way the family members attack each other with words and, later, weapons.
If you believe in malevolent witches, as the family did, these point to witchcraft. If you don’t, ergot is as plausible a reason. Compare also the environmental causes of horror in The Lighthouse.
Perhaps 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?
Likewise, does something snatch baby Sam in a heartbeat, or could Thomasin have lost him while delirious and not realised until later?
Keep in mind there are minimal shots of Thomasin and Sam together. We witness their game of peek-a-boo through alternating viewpoints; there’s no certainty these take place in the time scale presented.
Why are the family cast out?
Beyond William’s disagreement about preaching the gospels, we don’t know why the family are sent away from the settlement.
Ultimately being cast out is a device – one which enables and explains their isolation (another staple of the horror genre).
At the same time, it establishes the family as social animals like us; hence we’re able to invest in their fate. Otherwise we don’t know what to make of loners … historically, we’d have called them witches.
Being cast out of polite society is 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 the motif of wilderness 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 conveniently 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 because there’s no one else around.
Still, the family cling to subtle games of social ritual. Even though they’re utterly isolated they give the farm a boundary, beyond which lies yet another wilderness (the woods).
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, out there and at a distance.
Of course, the family still find ways to transgress this fictional 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. It also features hallucination and religion, yet its isolation takes place in a crowded city.
Is there really a witch?
Calling the film The Witch creates the reality for audiences that there really is a witch of the woods.
And yet perhaps the film doesn’t show us witchcraft at all, but the reasons for such fears. The family connect the dots to blame sorcery for their misfortunes. Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi does something similar when it recasts grief as fantasy.
In The Witch, delirium and paranoia combine to explain things that don’t make sense – much as religious rules and knowledge might in a larger community.
- The family suspect an evil hag has snatched their baby
- When Caleb meets the witch she’s a beautiful young woman all but made of breasts
- 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 still 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 including Poltergeist and Rosemary’s Baby.
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. 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 her, 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 moreover if being a witch is synonymous with old age, it’s her unavoidable fate. If that’s the case, all women become witches … which perhaps isn’t too far off some 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
What to read or watch next
- The Lighthouse (same director)
- The Crucible (witch hunt hysteria)
- Rosemary’s Baby (witches, isolation)
- Macbeth (fear of witches)
- Get Out (the horror of the everyday)
- The Others (isolation)
- The Mosquito Coast, Alien: Covenant (colonialism)
Picture credit: Felipe Giacometti