Midnight Reflections on “The Witch”

by Sam Buntz

I respected The Witch, but I didn’t love it. The movie has some genuinely disquieting images—they are, to cite a cliché, “guaranteed to give you nightmares”—and is technically well made, using natural lighting throughout. Some of the masterfully composed candle-lit scenes feel like Rembrandt paintings come to life.  Yet it lacks story: it doesn’t have the structural myth-building of a horror movie like The Omen or The Conjuring. To be fair, it isn’t supposed to. It’s meant to be more like The Shining in its slow-burn reliance on atmosphere and tone (props to A.A. Down of the AVClub for highlighting the Shining influence, which now seems obvious). I marveled at its cold mastery, but I didn’t really have fun.

(However, one important difference between Kubrick and the writer-director of The Witch, Robert Eggers, is that Eggers gets great performances from his actors, whereas Kubrick’s control freak mentality tended to generate frankly lousy, typically overwrought performances — as Pauline Kael once observed).

The plot chronicles a 17th Century Puritan family’s isolated life in the midst of the New England woods. The father of the family (Ralph Ineson) breaks with the elders of their Puritan colony (Plymouth Plantation, perhaps?), subjecting his brood to the vagaries of life in the wilderness—which ends up involving a witch with a predilection for gross nudity. (No body-shaming intended—if you have a thing for grotesque love-handles covered by semi-decayed-looking skin you will probably feel a twinge of desire for this malign babe).

The disappearance of the family’s baby devolves into an inferno of mutual suspicion, centering on the budding pre-teen daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose first menstrual period coincides with her potential seduction into witchery (isn’t that always the way?). Will she flee her dour Calvinist surroundings and embrace true evil, in order to “live deliciously”—or stick with the boringly moral route?

There is no “stairway of surprise” in The Witch, and you might be able to guess where it’s going—though some of the imagery attending that arc is surprising and authentically disturbing. Once you figure out the movie’s “vibe,” you know that vibe will remain consistent throughout—we’re going straight to the bottom of Satanic Darkness. Also, we’re not going to get any back-story about the titular witch or arrive at any overly neat conclusions; evil phantasmagoria will sweep us away. The pilgrim family’s anxieties—over damnation, sexuality, and child mortality—are all ripe for supernatural exploitation, ready to explode into full horror-show mode, as they eventually do.

Despite my failure to fully embrace it—and it is mostly my failure—The Witch is a great movie to contemplate, providing excellent fodder for idle academic chatter. Its major achievement is essentially one of empathy. It enters into the mindset of 17th Century Puritans ultra-convincingly, without flinching or qualifying, fusing meticulous historical detail with the fever-dream irrationality of a particularly nasty New England folktale. (The movie’s period-accurate Early Modern English is a much more successful experiment than, say, Mel Gibson’s largely pointless forays into Aramaic and Mayan cinema with English subtitles). You might draw a seemingly bizarre yet helpful comparison with Latin American magical realism: we inhabit the characters’ world as they inhabit it. Instead of remaining objective outside-observers, the audience is thrust into the center of the characters’ obsessions and fears—obsessions and fears that miraculously comport with reality. The story isn’t “all in their heads,” and what they believe to be possible is, in fact, possible.

For instance, the Puritans thought female sexuality was a destructive force, and in The Witch—it is a destructive force! (To be fair, masculine pride comes in for a drubbing, as well: the family patriarch gets his brood into this mess to begin with, thanks to his stubborn refusal to conform to the doctrines of their Puritan colony). The movie interprets the psychosexual world of its characters’ literally, which can be disorienting. I think some critics are bound to take the overly obvious route and say the film is sexist or anti-feminist, assuming that Eggers actually agrees with the extremist Calvinist worldview. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and reading an interview with Eggers completely annihilates this notion. To the contrary, by presenting the Puritan worldview as a magical realist nightmare, Eggers shows us both how different the past was and how similar. It makes us wonder—have we really liberated ourselves from these ancient prejudices and irrational anxieties? Or are they still lurking under the surface? Is the world of the past then, in some sense, the world of the present?

The psychosexual fear at the center of The Witch can be articulated thusly: the life-giving potential of women can transform into life-taking potential. Women can go rogue, rebel against God, and start killing babies instead of making them. (This is a sick fantasy, but we occasionally do find real life examples—every now and then, the police will unearth a bunch of dead babies from some crazy lady’s backyard). It’s a natural anxiety for a patriarchal society to have, anyway: “Hey, maybe instead of feeding nutritious and hearty stews to the children, the ladies will start thinking that the children might make tasty ingredients in those stews…” It’s the essence of so many witchy fairytales (see “Hansel and Gretel”).

I’m not saying I’m personally beset with these anxieties—I don’t routinely walk around, wondering, “Is the womb fundamentally identifiable with the tomb???”—but I accept that it’s apparently some sort of primordial terror, buried in the subconscious. (Lest we think witchcraft panics were restricted to Salem and environs three hundred years ago, recall the unfounded “Satanic Ritual Abuse” panic of the 1980s).

The movie’s other central fear involves non-conformity, and this likely has even more modern resonance than the “womb = tomb” thing. The father’s decision to sever his family’s connection with its natural group—the Puritan colony—leaves it open to an assault by the forces of evil. In our social media culture, there are plenty of people who feel cast into outer darkness, torn from the Community of the Saved, by their inability to meld with the cult of relentless likeability, awesomeness, and forced positivity that crowds us whenever we go online (unless we start reading comments sections). The contemporary “fear of missing out” is a much milder version of this Puritan family’s isolated terror, but it’s still a prominent piece of our collective psyche. Huddle together, or be damned.

In the end, despite my inability to love it, I have to recommend The Witch. It provides ample food for thought—seasoned with crushed baby bones fresh from the mortar.

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