Welcome back, dear reader. You might be thinking, “That last The Witch post was so long; this guy has more to say?!” I do, in fact. While I tried to walk the reader through the muddled plot of the film in that post, this one will be a more personal, philosophical response to the film. I fear most people will leave the film simply saying to themselves, “That wasn’t scary enough!” and then shrug and forget about it; however, I also think there will be a sizeable portion who will lose sleep trying to ask themselves, “What does it all mean?!” I certainly fall into the second camp, and it is with particular urgency I ask myself that question. As one of the people in the world seeking to claim a connection on some level with the word “witch”, it is important to me to try to decipher as much as I possibly can, to pick the film to the bone for every last scrap of meaning, since the word “witch” is being flashed before the public imagination. It’s important to me to ask what it means that the film goes with the late medieval and early modern conception that witchcraft and Satanism are one and the same. Heck, the film was even endorsed by the Satanic Temple. Is the devil truly inextricably linked to witchcraft? Are witches damned, and if so what does that mean? Let’s take a look.
Wiccan/Pagan witches are almost an after-thought these days, despite Wicca being such a buzzword in the 1990s. Back then, it seemed every unsatisfied teen girl and unhappy gay boy like myself had a copy of To Ride a Silver Broomstick or some other trade paperback spellbook from their local Barnes & Noble hidden in their backpack. Maybe a societal growing lack of interest or even apathy towards anything religious or spiritual as the years went on stopped this veritable army of potential teen witches from fully realizing a commitment to the Craft, for now it seems Wiccans and their Pagan cousins are few and far between. Maybe they just got tired of trying to convince Mom and Dad that they weren’t in fact Satan-worshippers. One of the key things you learn early on in studying Wicca is to distance yourself from Satanism. “Oh, we don’t worship the devil! We don’t even believe in him!” Yet to some Christians, anything non-Christian is “of the Devil”, from Hindus to Muslims; surely witches will be in that category to them as well.
On some level, it is hard to blame them completely. Despite a period of time in which the church chose to view witchcraft as a superstition and not a threat, for centuries witchcraft and devil-worship were synonymous. The good ol’ Malleus Maleficarum from the tail end of the 15st century truly solidified (in Europe, that is) much of the narrowed conception of what a witch was: a woman who has made a pact with Satan who met in the middle of the night to copulate with the Prince of Darkness and kill babies. As part of this pact, she had the ability to wield supernatural power, causing mayhem such as the failure of farming and hunting and procreation. A careful glance shows that this interpretation of the witch is hinged on the perversion of an idealized feminine: she is carnal instead of chaste, has power through the devil rather than powerless subservience to God and the church, damages family by causing failure of procreation or even worse, killing babies—the antithesis of what was perceived by culture and religion to be woman’s only truly approved role: wife and mother.
This fits exactly with Thomasin’s struggles in the film The Witch. She is feared to be a symbol of carnality that inspires lust in her own brother, and the inciting incident is the kidnapping of her baby brother by a witch while under Thomasin’s watch. This is more than just irresponsibility; symbolically, it is her failure to fulfill her future potentiality as a mother. We also see her behave harshly with her little sister, Mercy, in a scene in which Thomasin claims she is the “witch of the wood” and practically attacks Mercy. My first reaction to the scene was wondering if it was a fake-out to make the viewers think “Nah, that’s too easy, she can’t really be the witch!” only to have that be the case after all. My second take is that the scene is a just a teenage girl tired of all the negativity directed towards her and snapping for a second. Teens are moody people, folks, and she’s been under a huge amount of stress. Curiously though, this aggression towards a younger sibling is another failure of Thomasin to fulfill her pseudo-mother role. Near the end of the film, Thomasin even accuses her two younger siblings of being the real witches; an understandable effort to redirect blame in the face of increasing hostility as her parents become convinced she’s the witch. However, it could also be seen as a direct inversion of maternal compassion: is she sacrificing her “children” at the altar of fear and self-preservation? Is it not a bookend to how the action began with inadvertently “letting” her littlest brother be sacrificed (even if we know that’s not actually her fault)? Is this all proof that she’s doomed to never live up to the role of mother?
The Calvinist psychospiritual milieu of the film is undeniable, and a core tenet of classic Calvinist theology was predestination: interpreted to mean God has already chosen that only His Elect will be saved, the rest of humanity doomed to damnation. Since only God knows who’s on which list, the individual could live in fear never knowing that even if he follows the rules, he might still end up in Hell. The curious corollary is that the “saints” of this world will be known by their godly behavior: here good behavior is perceived as a reflection of a pre-existing, preordained salvation rather than part of the means of working towards a future, potentially unsure salvation based on one’s own merit. A possible extrapolation is that the absence of good works or presence of bad works could be a reflection of preordained damnation—as more and more bad things seem to happen around Thomasin, the family, in particular the mother, become convinced Thomasin is evil. Does her failure, real or perceived, to be a good mother figure mean she is destined to be a witch? Throughout the whole film, is it her lack of appropriate (i.e. maternal/filial/womanly) action that has largely gotten her blamed for witchcraft; does her signing Satan’s book mark for the first time her being defined by her actions rather than lack of action? Instead of just living out a preordained destiny of damnation, is she now making a conscious choice to create her own destiny of self-empowerment and liberation from all that has and will oppress her, floating naked towards the heavens awash with the pleasures and pains of true freedom?
But does her story and pact with Satan stand for the story of all witches? In its purest form, my question is: what does it mean that Satan and witchcraft are so connected in history and popular imagination? To me, being a witch means finding a direct connection to supernal power outside the established ritual religious hierarchy (typically, but not necessarily, a priesthood) of a people, whether it’s the Roman Catholic church or ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern priesthoods. I liken it to the broadest conception of shamanism in its direct, visceral connection to the world of spiritual forces. (Remember, shamanism is found all over the world, from the mudang of Korea to the noaidi of the Saami people in Nordic lands—I just want to clarify this to correct those Westerners who conflate shamanism with Native American/First Nations religious practices and appropriate gross simplifications of these cultures, and think using words like “medicine wheel” and “power animals” makes them legitimate spiritual practitioners.) However, in some cultures shamanism is the religious establishment, and witches are always outsiders. That witchcraft is power outside of the establishment is enough to make it satanic for some people.
If we look at modern Satanic theory and rhetoric, “satanic” really means adversarial or oppositional, in particular related to theocratic ideologies. If austerity is godly, indulgence is satanic. If heteronormative, patriarchal motherhood is godly, a woman not fulfilling that role is satanic. If feared and tightly controlled sexuality is godly, a person who relishes their sexuality and its pleasures is satanic. If religious establishments are godly, seeking the numinous outside of these establishments is satanic. If kyriarchal power structures are godly, than liberation of the oppressed is satanic. So yes, by seeking power outside of authorized power structures of (patriarchal) religion and society, maybe all witches are satanic, even if not Satanists. Can we reclaim this word “satanic” without embracing a Satan character in our mythos? That guy certainly has a lot of baggage. But I’m starting to think that if not necessarily the exact word, we can reclaim its sentiment and how it reflects our modus operandi as witches, to empower ourselves as individuals outside of, and therefore inevitably in some ways opposed and adversarial to, those establishments and systems that seek to disempower and oppress people, the same way Thomasin reclaims her naked, liberating power at the end of the film. I’m not signing my name in any book of Satan’s, literally or virtually, but I just might stand by his side as long as we’re fighting for the same things.