The Horror, the Horror: The Witch
By Kim Hollis
May 29, 2020
I first viewed The Witch during the year of its theatrical release. After receiving rapturous critical reviews, the film then put off a large portion of its viewing audience, as it received a C- Cinemascore and sits at a middling 6.9/10 rating at IMDb. Since the film proved so divisive, I waited to watch it upon its release on home video.
The critics got it right.
With a slowly building, ever-present sense of dread, The Witch takes its time developing the story. A farmer (Ralph Ineson) manages to get his family banished from their Puritan colony, so he takes them away to an area near a secluded forest where they fend for themselves.
While oldest daughter Thomasin tends baby Samuel, he somehow disappears during an innocent game of peekaboo. This tragedy sets in motion a series of eerie and macabre events that crescendo to a fairly shocking climax.
I’ve argued a fair amount about the film, which I think raises a number of questions, with friends and other movie aficionados. Some friends find The Witch boring and slow. Others object to the ending, which perhaps they see as unsatisfying and lacking the ambiguity they think the film deserved.
Regardless, I have questions. I bet you have questions. Like most other graduates of English literature programs, I believe the fun lies in exploring those questions!
Note: Beware of spoilers. They are plentiful.
Why did the colony banish Thomasin and her family from their settlement?We have travailed a vast ocean!
For what? For what?
Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels and the Kingdom of God?
I cannot be judged by false contented Christians under an un-separated church. An English king’s church!
Thomasin’s father, William, utters these words as he stands before the elders and dignitaries of the Salem plantation. When I initially saw the film, I assumed that he or one of his family members had committed some heresy, probably because the movie bears the title “The Witch.”
Upon seeing the movie again, I realize that William’s words tell a different story.
If anything, William and his family display too much fundamentalism and evangelism even for the deeply religious Puritan elders of the settlement.Yes, they have all journeyed across the sea to practice as they please, but something about William’s beliefs unsettles the other villagers. We soon discover that such beliefs open William, his wife, and their children to outside influence.
Does that mean writer/director Robert Eggers intends The Witch as a anti-fundamentalism screed? I don’t believe so. Instead, I think he weaves real stories from the period into a folktale with explorations of religion, family, sexuality, and feminism.
Does God accept Caleb into heaven?After Caleb, brilliantly portrayed by Harvey Scrimshaw, gets lost in the woods and allows himself to be seduced by a beautiful young(?) woman living in a shack, Thomasin finds him outside in the rain, raving and delirious. When he coughs up a bloody apple, their mother decides witchcraft has caused Caleb’s condition.
Even worse, she holds Thomasin responsible.
Caleb spends some hours in critical condition, babbling and speaking in tongues. At last, he rises up, proclaiming his joy and love for Christ before collapsing into unconsciousness and finally, death.
As much as I’d like to believe that Caleb has in fact moved on to a better, more heavenly place, I don’t believe that Black Phillip would allow that to happen. Remember that Caleb has expressed concern about damnation in the aftermath of Samuel’s disappearance, worrying that God would condemn a baby to Hell.
Despite these fears, he nonetheless feels curious arousal at the sight of his sister’s bosom, and he willingly takes the hand of the woman who effectively swallows his soul.
Unfortunately, the family’s extreme beliefs make them vulnerable, and rather than see Caleb’s prepubescent development as natural, the family would call his desires sinful. The devil claims him, I fear.
What happened to the twins?You have to wonder whether the real malevolence in this folktale comes from Black Phillip or from those terrible, terrible twins.
Even so, I cannot feel that their creepy malice justifies their ending.
You may recall that after Samuel’s abduction, we see the witch who stole him using his blood to concoct a flying ointment. You may also recall that the film ends with Thomasin joining a bunch of other witches as they fly in the air with glee.
I’ll allow you to connect the dots… There you go.
Why does Thomasin accept Black Phillip’s offer?What else could she do?
If she returns to the plantation and explains what happened to her family, she will assuredly meet the same punishment as all accused witches.
On the other hand, she can’t very well live alone on the farm. She has few survival skills, as women played the role of caretaker in this society, while the men did the hunting, fishing, and farming. Also, one can only assume that if she did refuse, the woodland witches would end her.
Alternatively, by joining the group, she gained power.
Why not end the movie with Thomasin walking into the barn to confront Black Phillip?As I mentioned in the introduction, some people dislike The Witch because it reveals the truth about Black Phillip and the witches. While I tend to agree that I enjoy movies that leave their resolutions to the interpretation of the viewer, in this case, it needed to be spelled out.
When you take a look at the subtitle on Eggers’ screenplay, you’ll see that it reads “A New England Folktale.” Traditionally, folktales provide a morality story that families can pass down from generation to generation, or to provide an explanation for things we struggle to understand. What can we learn from this morality tale?
Despite all our best efforts, humans sin. Even the most fundamental followers of scripture find themselves tempted to sins of pride, theft, jealousy, and desire.
More important, though, society blames women for their sexuality and desirability. Thomasin’s own mother, Catherine, curses the girl for “tempting” her father and her brother. In The Witch, women only find freedom in escaping society and living their own truths. And while the world has indeed come a long way since the puritanical beliefs of the 1600s in some ways, we still have so much further to travel.