One generation’s bogeyman is the next generation’s punchline. What we find frightening in movies, books, and stories has to do with the concerns of the day. This is why periods of anti-communist hysteria produced films about sinister aliens replacing normal people with perfect duplicates, sexualized serial killers and outbreak zombies preyed on us during the AIDS pandemic, and with the proliferation of new religions in the Nixon years, a spate of Satanic-themed horror flicks invaded the theaters. A generation creates the bogeymen that will frighten it, to paraphrase Hannibal Lecter: we don’t seek things out to be scared of; we’re frightened of what we see every day.
By the time the next generation takes over, the previous generation’s monster has been mined to oblivion. The context for the initial fear has been replaced by a new concern, so all that’s left are the shadows on the screen. What traumatized the parents amuses the children. This is what makes delving into the past to create a horror film out of the portrayal of a bygone generation’s monster so tricky. You’re not playing on the fears of the audience now, you’re playing on the fears of the audience then, and attempting to make that relevant. It’s nearly impossible.
So when it’s done well, it’s an achievement to be lauded. The Witch was a sensation at Sundance — and deserves all of its accolades — so it’s a little more high-profile than I generally cover here. But when something is crafted with this much care, beautifully shot and realistically portrayed, I can’t ignore it. That, and it’s total history porn.
That is what endeared me most to The Witch. It’s a great movie on any level you can judge a film, but if you take the time to get the history right, that will be what elevates it for me. The film takes place in the 1630s, and the script was written using primary sources from that time. The dialogue has a pleasing rhythm where individual words might be lost on a modern speaker, but the meaning is indelibly conveyed. A lesser filmmaker might have succumbed to the temptation of asking for stagey, Shakespearean performances from the cast (utterly missing the fact that Shakespeare was the low entertainment of his day). Not so here; the actors all give naturalistic readings, making all the thees and thous sound utterly at home in their mouths.
A family of puritan settlers get thrown out of their community when the father, William, gets a little too churchy for his fellow puritans. Apparently, his interpretation of the Bible is a tad different than theirs. While this would seem like a nothing detail, set up only to get to the rest of the action, it’s in fact a brilliant look into the mindset of the people of the time. In that small difference could determine the path to heaven or hell. It could come from the Devil himself. To a 17th Century puritan, the Devil wasn’t an allegorical figure that stands in for the evil of the world. He’s a real, live creature that tempts people away from the righteous path for his own ends, while God is an aloof master only too eager to condemn His children to the pit.
The family settles down on a patch of land just outside a deep and dark wood. While today, nature is something to be appreciated or even revered, to the people of the time, this was where the Devil held sway. Nature meant chaos and death. In essence, the film is creating a symbolism designed to be appreciated by the puritans who will never watch it. William has guided his family out onto the precipice of grace and damnation, and it will only take a little nudge to push them over.
This nudge takes the form of baby Samuel mysteriously vanishing during a game of peek-a-boo with eldest daughter Thomasin. The way this is shot, there is no way that the baby could have crawled away, and the idea that the culprit was a wolf is equally unlikely. The mother, Katherine, spends her days crying over the missing child and blaming Thomasin for the loss, while William desperately tries to eke a living out of a land that doesn’t want him.
Meanwhile, the farm is haunted by a pervasive dread. There is a witch in the woods, but whether she is responsible for the uncanny events around the farm is open to interpretation. In fact, much of the film is to its credit, which we’ll return to. Milk turns to blood, Caleb goes missing, Thomasin’s creepy twin siblings claim to speak to their evil-tempered goat, Black Phillip, and so forth and so on. Katherine is only too eager to see Thomasin as the source of the ill fortune. She was there when both Caleb and Samuel disappeared, and at one point loses her temper with one of the twins and claims to be a witch.
There are two major ways to interpret the film. The first is at face value. In this case, the irony is that Thomasin was a good and virtuous young woman driven to evil by the suspicions and weakness of those around her. None of her family is entirely righteous in the traditional sense. Her father is plainly outmatched by the harsh conditions, spending most of his time in the futile pursuit of cutting wood until an entire side of the cabin is covered in a huge, useless stack of it. There is no better way to illustrate one man’s helplessness against growing evil than that. He is also willing to let Thomasin take the blame for the loss of a silver cup, an item he sold to buy a rabbit snare.
In addition, Caleb is just coming into puberty, and with the utter lack of any other girls to look at, stares at his sister’s chest more than once. He’s brought low by this desire, the witch using her powers to beguile him in the image of a young, attractive woman. Caleb recites an uncomfortably sexual prayer about Jesus later, and though this seems like an invention, it’s an actual prayer of the time. Jonas and Mercy, the twins, claim to speak to a goat, and generally act like creepy kids every chance they get. Katherine is a miserable woman who heaps scorn on her daughter. Thomasin tells her mother she loves her only once, and when she says it says everything about their relationship.
The religion itself is a component in this bizarre abuse. Caleb worries constantly that he’ll be damned to hell. After all, Samuel wasn’t saved, so he’s burning for the crime of dying young. Falling to the Devil was so easy, it’s no wonder that some might take the path of least resistance. Thomasin’s first words in the film are a prayer for forgiveness. She’s broken every commandment — in her mind — and played on the Sabbath. They might as well throw their arms up and say, “Well, if the Devil wants me so bad and God is just looking for an excuse, I might as well!” Especially when the life of virtue is nothing but hard work and deprivation, when the promise of a pretty dress and a little butter to eat is enough. Katherine and the twins want to believe Thomasin is a witch, while William and Caleb are too weak to defend her from the accusations. Thomasin was as righteous as she could be, and her family, the ones who were supposed to love her and take care of her, turned on her as soon as they could. In this way, the movie once again preys on the fears of its characters rather that of its audience, making the former accessible to the latter.
There’s also the chance that Thomasin is merely suffering from mental illness. The mold growing on the family’s corn produces hallucinations, and could easily explain nearly anything that happens. While Thomasin’s increasingly wild hair (in the beginning, perfectly done under a white bonnet; in the end, a shaggy mane) can be used to track her fall from grace, it can also be seen as her surrender to the demons inside her own mind. Her family is still weak, but in this version of events, she was the one who killed baby Samuel and seduced Caleb in the woods.
Pregnant with this much symbolism and meaning, The Witch would already be a must-see. It also manages to excel visually. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film. Using natural light, the scenes at night have the all-encompassing stygian dark, common in the cinema of the 1970s, punctuated by the golden flicker of a candle. Supernatural events are depicted in frank shots, encouraging the audience to take the as the characters do: as part of the world they don’t quite understand.
The Witch is the kind of movie that lingers with you for days, even weeks later. Single images or moments periodically resurface, begging for more analysis or another viewing. It’s a truly great film, a gift from not just the horror gods, but the cinema gods. And when someone asks if thou wouldst like to live deliciously, you say yes.