The 2010s marked a notable resurgence of religious themes and imagery in horror film. Perhaps most faithful to theological folklore was 2015’s The Witch, which follows a 1630s New England puritan family who are torn apart after their newborn is stolen by a witch from their single-family settlement as paranoia and grief erodes the family’s trust in each other. The supernatural horror film marked the directorial debut of Robert Eggers and starred Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, the elder daughter of the family.
The Witch opens on English settlers– a father (William), wife (Katherine), older daughter (Thomasin), son (Caleb), and younger twins– who are banished from their Plymouth Colony over a dispute involving an unspecified religious dispute. The family makes the trek miles away from the colony to a nearby river that they find suitable to build a farm and have their fifth child, a baby boy named Samuel.
One day, Thomasin takes Samuel to a field where they play peekaboo. When Thomasin closes her eyes for a few seconds during playtime, Samuel mysteriously vanishes. Unbeknownst to Thomasin, Samuel was taken by a witch into the nearby forest where he was grounded up into a concoction that the witch used to gain the ability to fly on a broom into the night sky.
This triggers a series of dread-fueled chaos in the family. Katherine is paralyzed by grief over the death of her unbaptized son and spends her days praying for his soul and crying manically. William and Katherine grow suspicious of Thomasin and discuss sending her to serve another family, a common practice at the time. Meanwhile, the twins begin behaving strangely as they pretend to have conversations with the family goat, whom they call Black Phillip.
After premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, The Witch received a wide release in 2016 by A24, the studio behind the releases of some of the decade’s most prolific horror films featured on this year’s 31-day horror movie marathon including: Midsommar, It Comes At Night, Hereditary, Green Room, and The Lighthouse (which Eggers also directed). Hype around the film grew shortly after its theatrical debut as audiences and critics responded favorably to the film’s horrifying atmosphere, stellar performances across the board, and immersive narrative.
Eggers, who grew up in rural New England, wanted his first feature film to bring to life one of his childhood fascinations: accusations of witchcraft and subsequent executions of alleged witches. Eggers did most of the research for the film on his own and enlisted Jim Baker, an expert in early colonial America and witchcraft, to read over the draft of the script for accuracy. “I’m from New England and these kinds of stories were part of the imaginary playground and consciousness of my childhood,” Eggers told the British Film Institute. “Without sounding like a New Age crystal worshipper, you can feel something there, in these old dilapidated colonial farms and hidden graveyards in the middle of a pine forest. I certainly did as a kid. So going through all this hoopla to create or seemingly recreate the past, it’s like being with your ancestors – however complicated and occasionally despicable and genocidal they may have been.”
It was important to Eggers that the dialog be accurate to 17th century English and that the set resemble what life would have been like for a small agrarian family of the time. Even the source of lighting was meticulously planned for the purpose of accuracy. According to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, The Witch was filmed using only natural light from the sun as well as candles in the darker hours.
Also accurate to the time and pivotal to the narrative structure of The Witch: the patriarchal family structure of the film’s six-member collective, which is highlighted throughout. From the very start, every important decision that the family makes is decided by the patriarch of the family: William. He decides that the moral fabric of his family is irreconcilable with that of the colony and decides to set up a new settlement elsewhere.
Patriarchy: a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.
The gender roles extend to how the household is managed (the males hunt and farm while the females maintain the home). More importantly gendered roles affect how family members perceive themselves. After Samuel vanishes, William and Katherine suspect that Thomisan is keeping secrets and had more to do with Samuel’s disappearance than she lets on. As the paranoia begins to consume the family, the accusations ensue. Eventually, William wonders out loud if they would even be in this situation if he hadn’t led his family’s exodus from the New England colony– which he hints may have more to do with pride than genuine spiritual conviction.
Eggers contrasts the puritan family with the mostly-shrouded coven by highlighting the colonialism vs nature lifestyles they embrace respectively. When faced with the challenges of conquering the new land by building a settlement by the woods, William proclaims: We will conquer this wilderness; it will not consume us. The witches are housed in the dark forest where they appear nude, ungroomed, and untamed. The family, on the other hand, remain clothed, repressed (sexually, in the case of a pubescent Caleb), and dedicated to a set of beliefs that drive them to turn the wild land into a new colony.
Religious extremism is at the root of every conflict that the family experiences– from leaving the Plymouth colony to fend for themselves in the wilderness to the abolishment of the mutual trust that kept the family together. When Samuel is presumed dead, Katherine is paralyzed with depression because she’s unsure if her unbaptized baby would be permitted into heaven. If the family hadn’t subscribed to the puratan Christian faith, they would have remained unified through the tragic loss of Samuel. Instead, their suspicion that Thomasian has embraced the temptations of the Devil becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ultimately, the patriarchal beliefs of the family fuse with the family’s puritan religious beliefs to form a violent witch hunt within the family, reflecting the mass moral hysteria that helped define colonial New England during this period. During the Salem witch trials (1692-1693), more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft, 30 were found guilty, and 19 were executed by hanging.
The intersection of religious paranoia and sexism prevalent at the time (the vast majority of those accused of being witches were women) is reflected in The Witch, wherein Thomasin is the only one accused of being a witch, despite a lack of evidence. Not only does she face accusations, she also internalizes them– and wrestles with the possibility that the accusations may be true. This struggle is further escalated by
The episodes of mass hysteria are still frequently referenced in modern times– particularly by those accused of crimes that they deny being guilty of. Since U.S. President Donald Tr*mp’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, the president tweeted the words “Witch Hunt” about 337 times as of January 2020, according to The Conversation. Much of these references were related to his impeachment trial, which he likened to being hanged.
Perhaps not surprisingly, The Witch wasn’t broadly well-received by Christian film reviewers, with many criticising the climax, wherein Satan reveals himself to Thomasin in the form of Black Phillip, the family’s goat, and coaxes Thomasin into disrobing and signing over her soul to him in exchange for the taste of butter, a pretty dress, and the chance to “live deliciously.” She signs his book and follows Black Phillip naked into the woods where she joins a coven holding a Witches’ Sabbat around a roaring fire.
Adam Holz, associate editor at Plugged In (a conservative Christian media review site run by Focus on the Family) called The Witch “a horror movie that’s profoundly disquieting in its depiction of a family’s descent into soul-sapping terror,” before concluding that “the devil truly is in the details in this dreary, demented rumination on wickedness … that has no godly counter and certainly no happy ending.” Likewise, Christian audiences were generally dissatisfied that, after the film’s 90+ minute runtime through hell, there was no salvation or redemption within grasp for the characters in the end.
It’s only been five years since the release of The Witch, but the legacy of the film’s minimalist narrative, crowning detail and accuracy to the time period, and chilling mammalian villain is self-evident in the conversations still being had about this nightmare-inducing arthouse horror gem. The Witch is a rewardingly complex and supremely delicious horror film that should serve as a blueprint for terrifying period pieces that explore big ideas while treating audiences like adults.
The Witch is available on blu ray, DVD, and digitally here. And be sure to check out the other entries in the The 31-Day 2010s Fear & Now Horror-Thon right here on Horror Theory.