Unlike most films of its genre, ‘The Witch’ gets its scares from being quietly unsettling rather than relying on jump scares and surprises for its audience. The movie is marketed as a horror film, and rightly so; many of the images and situations are deeply disturbing. Surprisingly though, the film is also one of the most realistic period pieces I’ve seen in years. I’ll be diving into later plot details of ‘The Witch,’ so [spoilers] ahead.
Horror movies are often morality tales, some more subtle than others. They have a tendency to exhibit very conservative values, and punish characters harshly for their sins. A teenage girl sneaks off to have sex with her boyfriend? The couple will likely be punished for their transgressions by an axe murderer lurking in the woods. A wealthy man taunts a homeless bum? Well that same bum might just be a zombie minutes later, waiting to get his poetic justice.
Part of what makes ‘The Witch’ so frightening is that its characters are tormented without warning and seemingly without reason. The family depicted in the film are extremely pious (they are Puritans, after all), they seem kind enough, and are just looking to survive the winter alone in the woods. Yet within minutes of the film’s opening, the family’s baby son, Samuel, has been stolen and murdered without any warning. The terrors are only just beginning, and the titular witch systematically tears the family apart piece by piece. One by one, the family members meet horrible ends. These are good, God-fearing Puritans. True, they have their minor hypocrisies, but surely they don’t deserve such a horrible fate.
Or perhaps, they do. The full title of this film is ‘The VVitch: A New England Folktale,’ and while the film is certainly not a documentary, it is based on fictions from centuries ago. Like any historic text, it’s important to consider the context. Puritans were God-fearing in the extreme. All sins were considered equal in God’s eyes, and no transgression too small to be punished. If a family suffered hardships, it was seen as God voicing his displeasure, and the only recourse was to beg for His forgiveness. While the family in ‘The Witch’ seems overly pious by modern standards, there are plenty of puritanical sins to go around.
Take, for instance, Caleb, the preteen older son. Caleb is training to be the man of the family, and does his best to be devout and strong-willed. He is, however, human, and a young boy going through puberty at that. We see him give the briefest of lustful glances at his sister before regaining his senses, and is later lured into the witch’s den by the form of a beautiful young woman. The audience sympathizes with the poor sexually-repressed boy, but sympathy will not save him. In the end, even his faith is perverted, as he dies after an alarmingly sexual profession of his love for Christ.
From a Puritan perspective, the other characters are also far from blameless. Despite being rebuked repeatedly for it, the twin siblings confer with their goat, Black Phillip, an animal often associated with the devil. Katherine (the mother) loves her children and her silver cup so much that she is willing to sign Satan’s book to have them back. Even Samuel, the baby, isn’t without blame. As an unbaptized child, Samuel is born with original sin, and thus (in Puritan eyes) also deserves his fate.
Worst of all, however, are the sins of William, the patriarch of the family. It is William’s pride in his own piousness that gets the family excommunicated in the first place. By putting his arrogance ahead of his family, he puts them all in danger. Not only this, but he is also complicit in the sins of the other family members, and allows their transgressions to continue. Late in the film, William realizes the errors of his ways and begs God for forgiveness. But it is too late. William is eventually murdered by Black Phillip and smothered by chopped wood, crushed to death by the weight of his own work. A Puritan father has a duty to protect his family, and thus ultimately his sins are the most damning.
So what is to be made of Thomasin’s eventual pact with Satan, becoming a witch herself? Some see her fate as female empowerment, but personally, that wasn’t my takeaway. While Thomasin has shaken off the patriarchy, she is still beholden to another master, and this time, it’s Satan. To me, this is simply the morality tale taken to its logical conclusion. Thomasin is arguably the most innocent of the family members throughout the film, but still cannot be considered without blame. Not only has the father’s sins doomed his family, but his daughter suffers perhaps the worst fate of all, becoming a vessel of the damned.
‘The Witch’ is deeply upsetting within the modern context, but the actions of the characters would have been nothing short of horrifying in the 1600s. Robert Eggers has created a unique, personal, and historically accurate look into the tales of Puritanical New England. The film serves as a fascinating look at the morals, values and hardships of the day, and is an intellectual picture even for the faint of heart.