A Puritan family is banished from their plantation community for an unstated disobedience, rooted in some religious dispute. The father and mother of the family, William and Karen, attempt to set up a homestead at the edge of a forest, appearing to fall under supernatural assault. They must struggle to protect not only their lives, but their souls.
Robert Eggers’ 2015 directorial debut is so much more than a mere genre film. The Witch is arguably the Ur-text for modern Folk Horror. It holds on to much of the standard elements of the genre while adding doses of modern sensibility. It questions not only the role of religious zealotry, but the social controls of isolated communities. It confronts the material conditions that create social tensions. More than fear of the supernatural, it delves into the ways even the tightest and oldest of social organizations can snap under incompetence.
In order to understand The Witch as a genre picture, it helps to understand the mindset of Puritan colonists in the 1630s. In a February 2016 interview for The Verge, Eggers commented that “When I discovered what the idea of the evil witch was — that the fairy tale world and the real world were the same thing in the early modern period; people really thought these women were fairy tale ogresses, and they needed to be exterminated.” For modern people, this idea seems absurd, if not completely obscene. But in a world where people were limited in their source of information it’s not difficult to see how this might come about. Our modern sensibilities are formed in large part by our access to information. As such, it isn’t difficult to see how people might believe in something without being able to verify these details in a physical sense.
As a horror film The Witch is not typical. Lesser directors might rely on intense, overt gore to drive home the terror. They might leave out necessary character development or ham-fistedly drive exposition in an attempt to cut back on acting talent and directorial prowess. Compared to many of the horror films of the 2010s, The Witch is a subtle, cerebral film. Minus it’s slight use of jump scares and bloody violence, it is more comparable to a costume drama than a slasher. Eggers’ trick is immersion, not jarring alienation.By using obsessive attention to historical minutiae he draws us into the world of a small family all alone, stranded at the edge of a hostile frontier.
This attention to detail is more than literal set dressing. It’s baked into the details of the plot itself. There has been a shocking amount of preserved historical record related to the belief of Witchcraft amongst early American colonists. The family’s crops are failing. Their livestock do not produce adequate milk or eggs. Historical records suggest that these were all signs of witchcraft, of being cursed by some malignant entity. These “signs” of being under some devilish influence, for the record, are not unique to the Puritan experience. These sorts of accusations appear all throughout the time period. Rather like Witchfinder General, the use of historical detail serves to deepen our immersion and provides more than adequate fodder for madness and violence in the film.
Another key to the success of The Witch is it’s cast. By maintaining a small set of characters we can watch as they, one by one, succumb to the pressures of these horrific circumstances. Eggers’ reliance on a cast of lesser-known (but incredibly gifted) actors only deepens the story. Our lynchpin in this story is Thomasin, the eldest daughter of William and Katherine. She is portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy. Difficult as it is to believe, this is her debut film. As a young woman who has recently come-of-age, she portrays her role of a young woman coming of age in a repressive environment with intense passion and profound nuance. Playing counterpoint is Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, her younger brother and the eldest son of the family. Caleb is less passionate than his elder sister, but no less serves as a moral compass of sorts in our drama. Much of the film centers on their experiences observing their parents (played by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both most popularly seen in HBO’s Game of Thrones) attempting to maintain order in their extremely troubled home. As well, a pair of twins, Jonas and Mercy, and an infant, Samuel. Surrounded by so few characters to maintain, all the action unfolds in a tight arena.
Perhaps part of the power of this film is it’s relatability; in uncertain times, families struggle to make the proverbial ends meet. We modern folk may not face the terrors of agrarian starvation (or the more metaphysical worries of being cursed by a witch,) but we understand what it is like to worry about having mouths to feed and bills to pay. This is more than some improbable serial murder in a mask with a grudge, this is an existential threat that many modern people face. Filmgoers who have struggled with the backtalk of a rebellious teenager no doubt understand the exasperation of dealing with a teenager calling out a parent on their hypocritical behavior. And every person recalls receiving an unsatisfying answer about the bigger questions of life from a supposed authority figure. And this says nothing of the crises of Faith that so many people undergo at various points throughout their lives. This exchange between William and Katherine is a beautiful example:
William: I fear thou lookst too much upon this affliction. We must bend our thoughts towards God, not ourselves. He hath never taken a child from us. Never a one, Kate. Who might earn such grace? We have been ungrateful of God’s love.
Katherine: He hath cursed this family.
These social tensions underpin much of the film. A secondary theme explored using the Folk Horror framework is the disintegration of the family unit. It’s possible to read their supernatural strife as merely emblematic of the traumas that all families undergo during unforeseen circumstances. A death in a family, or an economic downturn, can cause typically stable units to tremble to their core. Previously mentioned films in this column essentially ignore or downplay the fears unique to domestic life. It’s difficult to imagine Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, being overly concerned with whether or not his children love him or are being honest about their behavior when outside his observation.
And what of our titular witch? Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that they do not make as much of an appearance as one might expect. The Witch has substantially less to do with the perceived horrors of witchcraft (though there is plenty of that, rest assured horror fans!) and more to do with the realities of an alienated life. But like the very best of horror, the less that is shown, the tighter the tension becomes.
We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.
Perhaps the single greatest villain in this film is the environment itself. Our Puritan protagonists are not lifelong residents. They are colonists, still outsiders to an entire continent with it’s own people and landscape. The forests and countryside at this time period would still be largely unexplored, and not inhabited by entirely friendly faces. Here is where a unique trick in the Folk Horror genre is played; our protagonists are not outsiders dealing with an insular community. They are an insular community of outsiders. The forces invading their remote outpost are the very forces of the world around them..Whether Katherine and William realize it or not, they are under siege from their insecurities and failings as people and as parents, as well as being forced to deal with supernatural violence. Compare this to The Wicker Man: Sgt. Howie is attempting to bring law and order to Summerisle, a seemingly happy community who is living with the realities of modern agriculture and social conditions. Katherine & William are trying to bring a Puritan Christian vision of the world into a seemingly faceless world. It isn’t ultimately concerned with their particular philosophy. They are fighting for their lives when we first meet them. And by the end, they are fighting both forces from within and from without.
But What Is The Witch Trying To Tell Us?
Some films are only satisfying when read in terms of meta-textual narrative or symbolic interpretation. Other films are best taken straight without much concern for symbolism, more a fast food than a home-cooked meal. And yet, The Witch is satisfying as both. It has enough atmosphere to satisfy the historian, enough genuinely disturbing acts to satisfy more casual viewers, and has layers of social depth to lend itself to exegesis. At all levels, The Witch calls out to the viewer. The Witch is rare in horror cinema in that it does not offer us a simple choice of how to read the narrative.
Ultimately, this film examines the function of tension on groups, large and small. Instead of focusing on the wild and wacky world of isolated religious extremes, it calls upon the very real fears of all societies. It does not shy away from realities of rural life during the 1600s. Instead it relates them to us without abandoning much of their actual historical couching. The language is old, the clothes look uncomfortable, the food scarce, and the work appears to be backbreaking. The Witch is somehow both otherworldly and utterly without fantasy.
Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis. For more of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show