For one of the top 5 films I’ve seen in the last few years, Robert Eggers’ The Witch admittedly made a serious mistake in promoting itself as a traditional horror movie. When you read movie-goers’ reactions on IMDb, for instance, you see predominantly negative reviews stemming from frustrated expectations. People bashed it because they went in anticipating gore, jumpy scares, and screams. There are none in The Witch.
If it’s a horror movie, it’s a purely psychological one. The characters generate the psychodrama themselves. The tradition it follows is what Camille Paglia called “psychological gothic,” found in films like The Innocents, Don’t Look Now, and, more recently, The Babadook. These eschewed typical horror tropes to achieve anxiety and terror via setting, music, and direction. The Witch, for its part, is a syncretistic blend of history, fairy-tale, and Dark Romantic fiction in the vein of Hawthorne.
Eggers’ first and basic building block is the family, the nucleus of man’s social being. Husband and wife, with four children and one on its way, in a patriarchal paradigm where the family’s fate and fortune are in thrall to the will of the father. Eggers’ next step is to place the family in the context of 17th-century Puritan New England, among the first waves of settlers escaping religious persecution in Britain. The theological views expressed by the family show them as Calvinist. Due to an unspecified “sin of pride” for which the pater familias refuses to repent, the family is dislocated from a colonial settlement onto a wild, untamed piece of land bordering a forest.
Ever since Dante wandered into one, a forest has been a metaphor for sin and the darker side of human nature in the canon of Western culture. And long before that, in the tradition of fairy-tales and folklore, a wood has been a dangerous and frightening place, an abode of spirits and dark things. (If you’ve ever visited the Black Forest in Germany, you’ll understand.)
The forest in this movie encroaches, physically as well as metaphorically.The family members expressly warn each other against straying into the woods, and even if there is good reason to go into it, such as gathering wood for kindling, the activity is viewed as a transgression. And in this wood there apparently lives a witch, who steals the family’s newborn baby while the eldest daughter, Thomasin, is playing with it. The witch is then shown using the baby’s blood and fat to make a flying ointment.
Eggers was thorough with his homework on documents related to witchcraft practices. He taps straight into the spiritual turmoil of the 17th century, when the nascent scientific revolution and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment battled with widespread belief in witchcraft. In times and places where religious excitement is whipped up into a frenzy, ideas about agents of evil easily take root in the mind, melding the supernatural with the psychological. Eggers first meticulously collected and then mixed his arsenal of folk-lore and historical documentation on witch trials , and wove it piece by piece into the film.
During an unsanctioned trip through the woods, brother and sister Caleb and Thomasin get separated, and Caleb subsequently gets lost. As twilight gradually descends on the wood, he stumbles onto a small cottage, where a beautiful young woman welcomes him with a warm smile. While Caleb is paralyzed in a psycho-sexual trance, a close-up reveals that her smile is lascivious, and as she lays a hand on Caleb’s shoulder to draw him in, the hand is shown to be a shriveled claw.
There in a gloomy hollow Glen she found
A little Cottage built of Sticks and Reeds
In homely wise and walled with Sods around
In which a Witch did dwell, in loathly Weedes,
And willful Want, all careless of her Needes
So choosing Solitarie to abide,
Far from all Neighbours, that der devilish Deedes
And hellish Artes from People she might hide
And hurt far off unknown, whom ever she enviede.
– Spenser, Faerie Queen
In a hat-trick unparalleled in horror movies since The Exorcist, Eggers in this scene touches, syncretistically, on Hansel and Gretel, on a Gothic narrative thread of vampirism, and on a historically well-documented obsession with witchcraft. The hairs on my arms were prickling in the movie theater from how perfectly the scene is set and executed.
Eggers is here directly tapping into the narrative of the witch as the psychic vampire, pioneered by Coleridge in his poem Christabel and later adopted by J. Sheridan Le Fanu for Carmilla. A vampire, as we know, exudes glamour that is at once sexual and psychological in nature, thereby seducing its victims. A witch, however, is usually an old, physically decaying woman who needs to assume the form of a beautiful young woman in order to trick her victims. In Eggers’ movie, the witch doubles as a psychic vampire preying on the weaknesses of anxious, frightened minds.
As Eggers explained in an interview with Vanity Fair, the paranoia surrounding witchcraft is a manifestation of fear feeding off of anxiety and despair in order to grow stronger. In the movie, once the idea of the witch is planted into the family’s minds as an explanation for their misfortunes, it slowly cannibalizes the psyche already gorged on fear. The psychodrama culminates in a physical manifestation of the witch to the children.
The story thus latches onto the Romantic tradition in literature, specifically its darker strain, cultivated by Coleridge and continued down the line in America by Poe and Hawthorne. As Camille Paglia explains, in this more Gothic strain, nature is not experienced as benevolent in a Wordsworthian way, but rather as daemonic.
In The Witch, daemonic nature is primarily associated with the wilderness and the wood in whose shadow the family lives, but it is also symbolically represented by the black goat the family owns, and the raven and the hare that keep popping up here and there throughout the movie. These are all animals that, in traditional folklore, are endowed with supernatural attributes. As the tagline for the film warns us, evil takes many forms.
Eggers fused this daemonic aspect of nature with a Puritan worldview, dubbing his movie a “New England Folktale.” In doing so, he firmly anchored it in the legacy of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a native of New England who was obsessed with its colonial history as much as he was with the Puritans’ neurotic preoccupation with questions of moral law and evil. Although Eggers blames Hawthorne for misrepresenting Puritans, my claim is that his work is directly and consciously indebted to Hawthorne; specifically, to his eerie short story “Young Goodman Brown,” set in the same period as Eggers’ film .
In it, the titular Goodman Brown finds himself on a mysterious, no-good errand in the woods, at dusk, despite his wife Faith’s protestations that he should stay at home that night. His fearful journey through the forest eventually leads him to a Witches’ Sabbath – a midnight orgy in the woods, presided over by Satan himself. There he sees all the villagers he’d known his entire life, both those who pretended to be saintly and those who were known for their loose morals. And last, but not least, he sees his wife Faith, about to be inducted into Satan’s circle.
Satan welcomes them with the following words: “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”
The same idea, in not so many words, is also communicated near the end of The Witch. Hawthorne’s Satan is both presenting the gist of Eggers’ story as well as unraveling the basic tenets of Calvinist creed: mankind is naturally depraved and salvation can only be achieved through grace. But if your own nature sabotages you, how could you ever hope for grace?
In Calvinism, salvation is hitched on the person’s ability to believe that grace is possible, and on the striving to be included among those on whom it is eventually conferred. (Calvinism teaches that only some people are chosen by God for salvation.) Ironically, both Hawthorne’s and Eggers’ story is about a man’s loss of this capacity for belief.
As bearer of moral rectitude, the patriarch’s fall from grace precipitates the misfortune of the rest of his family, since they depend on him for moral guidance. In The Witch, the patriarch William is the mouthpiece for these beliefs, carefully instilling them in his young son Caleb as his heir, who faithfully reproduces the creed although he doesn’t understand it. But more importantly, he believes his father. As Paglia explains, the Puritan notion of rectitude is a “masculine straightmeasure.”
Sexuality is the stumbling stone of Puritan culture. Women, by virtue of their problematic sexual power over men, are excluded and dubbed the weaker sex, forever more open to Satan’s whispers than men. In this worldview, witchcraft is perceived as woman’s subversion of masculine authority, an attempt to escape the rigid laws of morality that point the way to salvation in exchange for an “easy” life here on earth.
In The Witch, it is the youth, beauty and budding sexuality of the eldest daughter, Thomasin, on whom these concepts are projected. When the witch initially steals the newborn baby and later causes Caleb to get lost in the woods, the blame for it is placed squarely on Thomasin’s shoulders by her mother, and it is the mother who first suspects her to be a witch. The father is then easily infected by doubt. (I don’t have space here to get into this Freudian family drama.) Grief, anger and sexual jealousy leave very little room for compassion.
The Witch can thus be viewed as a portrayal of a family’s gradual loss of capacity for faith and consequent fall from grace. Although the depicted events are tragic, it’s clear from Eggers’ insistence on a detailed rendering of the alleged practices of witchcraft, as well as on the fact that the tragic chain of events is triggered by a psychodrama entirely of the family’s own making, that he is also gently mocking his Puritan subjects.
The same tone can be detected in Hawthorne’s tale, not only in Satan’s gentle prodding of the poor Goodman Brown, but even in Brown’s own exhortation to his wife at the outset of his journey, when he seeks to calm her mind by telling her,”Say thy prayers, dear Faith, and go to bed at dusk, and no harm will come to thee.” The explicit condemnation of such a simplistic outlook on life, where – for a woman – adherence to a regimented course of daily prayer and early bed times is supposed to guarantee safety from any moral pitfalls, is of course to be found in her eventual presence at the gathering in the woods, and implicitly, in Brown’s failure to follow his own advice and uphold the moral standards he was supposed to represent.
Both The Witch and “Young Goodman Brown” subvert the traditional morality tale in order to expose the sexual and moral hypocrisy of their times. While I think Hawthorne’s tale functions more as a retrospective critique of what he perceived to be the failure of the Puritan colonial experiment, Eggers’ message seems to be that not much has changed since the 17th century, and America’s conceit of a society in progress is an illusion.
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1990.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” In: The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. Bradley et al. Grosset & Dunlap, Inc., 1974