This article contains spoilers…
What does the word ‘witch’ mean to you? I think of cauldrons, Terry Pratchett’s novels, Sabrina and her cat Salem. Of course, there’s also the real-life Salem, the Massachusetts village where nearly 200 people were accused of witchcraft and related crimes in the 1690s. The witch trials were an example of mass hysteria and the persecution of (mostly) women leading from patriarchal religious zealotry, themes that lay the foundation for Robert Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch.
The film follows a Puritan family in 1630s New England, who after disagreements over faith are exiled from their village and must attempt life alone, with none but God to watch over them. They are a family of seven: Thomasin, the eldest daughter; her brother Caleb; twins Jonas and Mercy; baby Samuel, and parents William and Katherine. Once on their new land, events take a witchy turn when Samuel disappears while in Thomasin’s care.
Eggers’ choice to work with historically accurate dialect and accents makes the film deeply immersive, and the performances are all the more impressive for it. Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin effortlessly conveys the adolescent duality of responsibility and childish boredom, her playfulness slowly crushed as the film’s climax draws closer. It’s perfectly pitched: her decision at the nail-biting denouement seems utterly logical, despite how terrifying the events are leading up to it. We are on Thomasin’s side throughout the film, and it’s just as well, because without her we would have few friends in the story. The family’s existence is oppressively lonely on their gloomy farm. This is best conveyed when they first arrive, clasping hands and kneeling to pray and bless the land. Eggers’ camera takes us on a slow zoom into the family’s new surroundings, showing us just how isolated they are and how impenetrable the nearby forest looks. The shot, like the film, is a slow creep into a nightmare. The family’s decisions seem baffling, their poverty inescapable, but their religious faith holds them to a determined path of god-fearing puritanical life, a platform upon which all The Witch’s tension is built.
While the supernatural horrors of the story eventually become deliciously real, the conflict that develops after Samuel’s disappearance firmly associate the film with the historical Salem witch hunts. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie – whose niche seems to be bizarre breastfeeding scenes after this and Game of Thrones) are devastated by their son’s loss. Their sorrow slowly transforms into suspicion at the presumably irresponsible Thomasin, and the family’s gradual development of paranoia is horrifying to watch. Beyond good filmmaking, this story is troublingly apt in an age of public shaming, political scapegoats, and fearmongering. Our empathy for Thomasin ought to spark important questions about the veracity of our news sources, and the responsibility we must all take on to find truthful information before we commit to our ideologies.
I reserve special mention for Black Phillip, the film’s poster boy and (for me, anyway) star character. Black Phillip, a black-haired billy goat, epitomises the horror trope of the evil that resides close to home. Like so many horror villains, Phillip is one of the family, just hanging out in the backyard. The twins, as delightfully unpleasant as their Kubrickian predecessors, directly tell the family about Phillip’s habit of chatting to them, but of course, their supposed fantasies have no place in the rigid familial structure the adults seek to create. In this sense the film recalls Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a similar fairytale-like story in which the creativity of childhood imagination is set up as a counterpoint to adults’ tyrannical authority. Here we come to two sides of The Witch: it can be read as a literal story of evil, or as the failure of an adult world (analogous to society at large) to accept alternative ways of thinking. However you choose to view the story, the intentions of the ‘fantasy’ creatures are sinister, but the children’s need to escape is too strong to worry about that – it’s a choice between real-life hardship and a mysterious, anarchic alternative. And who can resist the taste of butter?
Goats have long been associated with devilish activity – more on that can be read here – and the marketing for The Witch capitalised on this symbolism, showing off Phillip’s Baphomet-like horns and eerie horizontal pupils to create an immediately dark and Satanic atmosphere. For this and other reasons (namely the terrifying trailer) The Witch belongs to the dimly-lit corridor of the horror genre, but it is also a folk story – in fact, its very tagline is ‘A New-England Folktale’. Like all good horror films, it has strong characters and a soundtrack that feels like fingers crawling up your spine. Like all good folk stories, it’s packed full of symbolism, moral dilemmas, and tragedy. While it can be listed among the great recent examples of ‘elevated’ horror (e.g. Get Out, It Follows, Hereditary) it has the added merits of its folktale and historical elements. It grants it a richness that should secure its position as a much-loved, and much-feared, piece of cinema for years to come.
Now let’s think again: what does the word ‘witch’ mean to you? Take note of how the Donald Trumps of our world use it, and to whom the accusation of witch-hunting is applied. If being a witch means escaping a world of suffering, oppression, tyrannical authority, subservience, and isolation… I’ll sign that book right now.