Gentle reader, if you follow the blog closely enough to be somewhat familiar with the various authors, you might know that I consider myself something of a witch. Though I have at times tried to elucidate my spiritual leanings with descriptors such as “eclectic post-Wiccan shamanic neo-Pagan, with influences from Hinduism to Hellenism”, I find “witch” rolls off the tongue a little easier. Something about the richness of the word “witch”, the dark, damp, fertile history of the word, is one of various things that first brought me to Wicca so many years ago. Though at times I waver closer to or further from the word, I find it difficult to imagine a time when I no longer have any connections whatsoever to this potent word and its associated practices. So when I first saw word of The Witch spreading around the interwebs, my interest was piqued. The Wiccan Boom the 1990s promised me never came to pass, so there’s been a dearth of witchy media since Charmed went off the air, except for the recent fiasco that was Witches of East End. This was the first time I’d seen a movie with such an explicitly witch-themed title getting press and interest since The Craft. On top of that, even Stephen King voiced his approval on Twitter! Of course I had to check it out.
And check it out I did. I was hesitant to write a post about it after my first viewing; it conjured up (pun intended) so many thoughts and feelings, I worried I wouldn’t be able to make anything resembling coherence out of the juices of my mind grapes. But after a couple of days of processing, a second viewing, and hours of bouncing ideas around with my fellow author MikelyWhiplash (including the possibility of whether or not Taylor Swift is a witch), I think I just might be ready to tackle this haunting work of cinema. Did I like it? Hard to say: it is visually a macabre pleasure to watch, and I think it’s important for bringing witches back to the popular imagination. Enter with me the world of The Witch. Verily yon wood be filled with witches, and also spoilers.
To start off, The Witch is not an easily accessible film. Between the 1600s vocabulary and grammar and the amazingly beautiful (and thick) Northern English accents, there were more than a few moments I found myself wishing for subtitles. The plot of the film is in essence, deceptively simple: an English Puritan family on an isolated farmstead in New England dissolves into chaos due to the interference of an elusive witch. I feel that for the most part, this film will be remembered and appreciated by the majority of horror fans more for its chilling cinematography than for its plot. But we here are no ordinary genre fans, so let’s look a little deeper.
The plot isn’t totally boring or absent, it’s just… messy? A title screen at the end tells us something to the effect that the film was compiled from various accounts of New England witch trials. From this, I took to mean many of the particular scenes were taken from various different accounts: a musket misfiring at an eerie hare, blood instead of milk coming forth when milking a goat, a young man vomiting up a bewitched apple lodged in his throat, and so forth. Because of this, it at times feels like a patchwork quilt, one not necessarily sown together with the greatest of skill. Transitions are often just silent black screens, making the film’s progression feel choppy. Of course, there’s also the nature of the film as a dual-level story: on one end there is the kind of story in the vein of The Crucible, which serves as commentary to show witch trials as horror not because of supernatural events, but rather from the all too natural horror that is seen when religious fervor causes people to turn against each other in horrible ways. But this fear isn’t the only fear in the movie—there actually is a witch causing mayhem. Personally, I love when horror films have both levels. The Babadook is the masterpiece epitome of this for me in recent times—it’s simultaneously a tale about a particularly disturbing boogeyman and also an allegorical story of the all-too-real struggle with depression. However, while The Babadook wove these two aspects together seamlessly, at times The Witch’s two aspects felt like two conflicting currents: which was the real horror, the demonic or the human? Combine this with a drama element of a family falling apart in the face of tragedy and you get a third stream of narrative competing for attention.
Let’s take a closer look at what links the various, interconnected aspects of the film: the characters. The inciting incident of entering the wilderness is due to family patriarch William thinking the Puritan community they are part of isn’t godly enough, causing them to be banished. Yet despite that, he is in a lot of ways “the cool dad”; he is the laid back and more affectionate parent in contrast to his shrewish wife. He routinely bends the rules by doing things like taking son Caleb into the “forbidden” woods to hunt for food and selling his wife’s silver heirloom goblet for money. This laxity of rules fits in with the laid back dad dynamic, yet it also causes him to be labeled a hypocrite by his daughter and wife. On the other hand, his wife Katherine is high strung, hysteric (that old womb-word), and prone to be cold and harsh. Yet we get more complexity that I thought we would from her: rather than just the idea that moms are sticklers for rules, or prone to emotional outbursts, Katherine is a parent grieving the loss of a baby—no one would fault a parent for having an intense reaction to that, and it causes her to weep and pray constantly. Also, rather than playing into the idea that a religious wife is shrewish because of her piety, we see Katherine is deeply unhappy for another reason: she wants to go back to England. She didn’t want to leave the community in New England her husband found not pious enough, and she didn’t even want to leave England: she’s been pulled around from place to place, even around the world, just to follow a partner and she’s sick of it and she hates it and just wants to go home. Who can’t relate to that? Thus, despite the religious/moral hysteria that gets the best of her by the end, I found her to be a surprisingly sympathetic character.
We then turn to the children. Our protagonist is Thomasin (Thomas + sin = doubt, as in Doubting Thomas… that was my take on her name anyway) the eldest child, a daughter on the cusp of womanhood. For being a protagonist, we see precious little of her interior life; she is more often than not simply fulfilling tasks and roles projected on her, literally and figuratively by her family—and maybe that’s the point. She becomes a projection of stand-in mother for her own mother too grief-stricken to fulfill her role; she becomes a projection of all womanhood for her brother Caleb, who’s dealing with the first stirrings of his own puberty. Lastly, she becomes a projection of the religious/cultural fear of the witch when misfortune in the form of crop and hunt failure, and child illness and death, strike the family. For a solely gender studies/feminist critique, read this article; while I don’t necessarily disagree with the author, I take some different stances. Rather than making a statement about Thomasin and womanhood, I feel like the filmmaker focuses more on Caleb. In the scenes where Caleb sneaks a peek (only two brief times) at his sister’s chest, the camera focuses on his face, his shame, his reaction, not how it makes her feel or how it affects her. We have no clue if she’s proud of her nascent breasts or fearful or ashamed or what, because these scenes aren’t really about her at all, really missing a chance to help us understand her and how she feels she fits into this family and world. By making her an object and not a subject, it missed an opportunity to take a feminist lens to the issue of teen sexuality.
But did the witch of The Witch inject a healthy dose of female agency into the film? Wait, which witch? Though the family comes to believe Thomasin is the witch causing mayhem, she is not in fact “the witch of the wood” actually bewitching the family. That witch is… barely a character, to be honest. We see much more of her spectral animal spirit-forms like the hare and the consequences of her actions on the family. The few glimpses we see of her are a naked old stereotypical hag, with a notable exception of her glamouring into a dark-haired hottie to bewitch Caleb. But… who is she really? What is her story? Why is she doing all this? What on earth (or in hell) is her motivation for destroying this poor family? Because they encroached upon her territory by setting up shop by the wood? Because she loves chaos? Your guess is as good as mine! Part of many horror movies is that the horror is accentuated by the uncertainty behind the Big Bad, but this ended up just making the witch of the wood an extremely one-dimensional whisper of a character, and perhaps even another blow against female agency by not exploring her any further.
Was the witch of the title perhaps Thomasin, though? Because in a confusing twist, despite having spent the whole movie being falsely accused of being a witch and dealing with the horrible fallout of that label, the film ends with Thomasin making a pact with the devil and in fact becoming a witch. It was a strange case of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and her agency is glossed over by a very unclear sense of why she is doing this. At this point she has lost her whole family due to the machinations of the witch; why would she want to have anything to do with witchcraft now? She goes to the devil only after her whole family has been destroyed violently and horribly. It ruins any kind of moral lesson or warning of the folk tale: she’s not turning to witchcraft because she is rebelling against a patriarchal and theocratic status quo—if that were the case, she would have made a deal with Satan like halfway through, to empower herself to remove herself from the situation. Even more to an old-fashioned story moral, she would have turned to him out of simple greed or lust. What was she getting out of it at this point? The devil’s lines at the end tempt her with simple pleasures, like the taste of butter or a pretty dress, but how is that even remotely a priority to her with the blood of her family literally staining her hands? Shouldn’t he have offered her freedom from any future pain? The power to ensure she never suffers again? My only possible read on the situation is that perhaps after spending the whole movie being told she’s evil, she’s internalized that idea, but in that case she wouldn’t have needed the “luring” lines of the devil. I can’t find a way to make it fully add up.
Whatever her reasons, she signs her name in the devil’s book, and then, naked, meets up with a whole coven of nude witches cavorting and chanting around a fire in the heart of the woods. (Where did the rest of these women come from? I thought there was only one witch living in the wood.) Here they begin to levitate, and Thomasin, overcome with an unclear emotion that is shown by a mix of crying and laughing, rises higher and higher, higher than all the rest, until the final frame focuses on her at the very top of a tall tree, her posture strikingly like that of a corpus (the image of Christ’s body) on a crucifix.
And that is perhaps the epitome of The Witch: visually breathtaking in a spine- and soul-tingling way, but full of so many unanswered questions. Did that final Christlike pose mean anything—was it a resurrection into a new life as a witch, or was it just a good image to end on? What was really behind Thomasin’s decision to join the devil? Was that incredibly creepy black goat really Satan all along? Why was the witch tormenting them? What the hell was up with the two young twin siblings? I feel like I’m trying to find meaning from an imperfect, at times inconsistent text—in other words, not unlike a Bible scholar! Yet, like the Bible to so many, the film’s questions and complexities and yes, even inconsistencies, keep drawing me back. I want to understand, I want answers to my questions, but perhaps I would get more out of it by just enjoying it as an experiential excursion in a nightmarish folk tale.
Did any of you see The Witch? I’d love to hear your thoughts and theories in the comments down below, perhaps you pieced things together that I did not. Stayed tuned in the upcoming days for a post about some of the more personal philosophical questions the film made me think about. Till then!