“The Dark Side of the Early Modern Witch”: Thoughts on Robert Eggers’ Film, “The Witch”

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

–William Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned” (1798), lines 21-24

I judge the effectiveness and emotional relevance of a film, as I would any other artistic medium, by how much I keep engaging in dialogue with it long after my initial experience of it has ended. Is my overall curiosity not sated, but piqued, as a result of the cinematic experience? What elements–in subject matter, theme, mood, portrayal, technical composition–prompt me to seek discussion with others? Do I find that thoughts of the film, or my visceral responses to my emotional experience of it, intrude in my waking consciousness the following day? Do I want to see/reexperience the film anytime soon?

Robert Eggers’ 2015 directorial debut of The Witch, a 92-minute genre-bending historical/horror/dark fantasy film set in seventeenth-century New England (the subtitle of the film is A New England Folk-Tale), is going to be incorporated into my Top 10 list of all-time favorite movies–right up there with Kubrick’s The Shining (which Eggers acknowledged as a conscious influence on his filmmaking process for The Witch) and The Last Unicorn. It won critical acclaim at last year’s Sundance Festival. It’s even gotten an official endorsement from the Satanic Temple! 

My Bodacious Beau™ and I saw it last night, and when (mostly fellow Pagan) Facebook friends of mine saw my movie theater check-in post, they naturally wanted a succinct review from me afterwards. “Delightfully unnerving” was my two-word answer. And yes, it felt so good to come home to so many familiars afterwards! (Too bad I don’t have a black goat…not yet, at any rate!)

 

Before I proceed with my review of The Witch, I should point out that my comments will include spoilers, so ye be duly warned!

 

An American Tragedy

The narrative of the film may or may not be straightforward, depending upon your interpretation of who “the witch” really is. But what we have is a family tragedy–an American Tragedy, to be sure, with its allegories of the loss of innocence and the dangers of unchecked religious fanaticism (the time period of the film precedes, by a few decades, and ideologically sets the stage for the kind of English Calvinist Christian-fueled mass hysteria and social scapegoating that made the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s possible). And for those of you who may have forgotten the elements of tragedy as a dramatic art form, first delineated by Sophocles in roughly the sixth century B.C.E., here they are:

  • the tragic protagonist (usually a figure of noble birth) suffers from an inherent, egregious character flaw (such as hubris, or overweening pride), resulting in social isolation and his/her eventual downfall
  • because the horrible events that plague the protagonist are due as much to external forces/divine punishment as they are to an inherent character flaw, the audience views the protagonist with a combination of both pity (from empathy) and terror (the fear that the same tragic events could happen to oneself)
  • in the midst of the tragic circumstances, the protagonist gains insight into his/her moral weakness
  • lots of bodies litter the stage by the time the narrative reaches its climax!
  • the audience, having undergone an emotional roller-coaster, leaves the theater with a sense of catharsis, having purged all those negative emotions

With the exception of the characters of The Witch being of the newly formed middle class of the Early Modern era, they definitely meet Sophocles’ criteria of tragic characters. The film opens in medias res with an event that plunges the viewers, along with the characters, into the immediacy of action–in this case a courtroom trial that seems to take everyone by surprise: a patriarch named William (played by Game of Thrones’ Ralph Ineson), for reasons that are not made entirely clear, has incurred the religious wrath of his fellow Puritans in what is presumably the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the year 1630. The council of judges pronounces its sentence: William and his family of a wife, two daughters, three sons (one of which is an infant), a dog, a gorgeous Clydesdale horse, and their meager livestock (with the notable exception of their lively billy goat, Black Philip) are exiled from the Commonwealth and forced to eke out a living in the wilderness, perilously close to a dark and foreboding forest that oozes an aura of supernatural menace from the very outset.

The judges’ council wants to hear William’s assessment of the sentence of exile from human community.

“I would be glad on it,” he snarkily replies in his booming bass baritone, Caroline-era English dialect.

We know that William’s tragic shortcoming is his egregious pride, and boy does it ever goeth before his family’s downfall in true Sophoclean tragic fashion, as the rest of the narrative bears out.

Now exiled, the family finds a plot of wilderness in which to build its doomed homestead. The parents Katherine (Kate Dickie) and William (Ralph Ineson) give thanks to their god for this dubious gift.

Now exiled, the family finds a plot of wilderness in which to build its doomed homestead. The parents Katherine (Kate Dickie) and William (Ralph Ineson) give thanks to their God for this dubious gift.

 

The film visually is book-ended by a focus on the face of the character who is arguably the protagonist of the film–and whom some interpret as “The Witch” of the title–William’s tragic eldest daughter, a teenage girl named Thomasin (excellently played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy). As the sentence gets passed down upon her father by the judges’ council, we see her wide-eyed stare of pure horror. She knows that exile equals death for them all. We watch from her eyes as her family’s horse-drawn wagon of meager possessions leaves the safety and the company of the Commonwealth for the unknown. It is a journey reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for that is exactly the territory where their doomed family sojourn is irrevocably headed.

And at the end of the film, we are similarly left with a close-up of Thomasin’s face, now blood-stained along with her body, but instead of terror her eyes exude wonder and confidence. We witness her baptism into a sacred sisterhood of witches, presided over by Black Philip the billy goat, who really was, it turns out, the Devil/Horned God after all.

 

The Terror of the Utgardr: The Wilderness Beyond Civilization

In Old Norse literature, whether Anglo-Saxon epic poetry like Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas of a later medieval period (especially Grettir the Strong, my hands-down favorite), the world of human interaction and civility was clearly distinct from the realm known as the Utgardr, literally the land that lies outside the demarcated bounds of one’s garth or enclosure, i.e., the wild lands beyond the pale of cultivation. The worst fate to befall a person was outlawry, for it relegated one to not only have a bounty on his head, but his exile would entail constant movement in the Utgardr, where the threats weren’t just human but supernatural. It’s a lawless, chaotic, hopelessly dark realm of predation, a vast place where monsters like Grendel hold sway.

Fast forward a few hundred years and switch from the Old to the New World, and you’ve got similar beliefs about the wilderness that the Puritan English settlers of colonial America espoused. Virgin forests and the resources they contain would of course eventually fall to the saws and steel traps of capitalism and industry, but in the New England of The Witch’s setting, vast, dark forests were not just the dreaded abode of displaced, threatening First Nations peoples, they were literally considered to be portals to Hell, and venturing in them (nevermind literally losing your way in them) was a metaphor for spiritual ruin. The nineteenth-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose own great-great-grandfather served as a judge during the Salem Witch Trials, wrote an allegorical short story in 1835 entitled Young Goodman Brown, where the title character sojourns deep into the forest outside Salem Village at nightfall…to discover his Satanic self and the ultimate source of religious hypocrisy.

In several interviews, director Robert Eggers stated that he wanted audiences to be completely immersed in the Puritan mindset–to see, no matter how alien or far removed that mindset is from our postmodern, secular perspective with its legacy of the eradication/colonial subjugation of the wilderness, how terrifying the concepts of exile, of eking out a living in the wilderness, and the inherent correlation of “the wild” with diabolism must have been for Calvinist transplants in New England. Jarin Blaschke’s exquisite cinematography of The Witch deftly presents this omnipresent sense of menace and dread all but oozing out from the hemlock tree-lined border of the forest butting onto the characters’ pathetic, accursed farm. And Mark Korven’s consistently disturbing score with its goosebump-raising choral numbers and the emphasis on dissonant strings, makes you the viewer positively recoil in horror from the sight of those towering trees–let alone what and who those trees shelter.

 

The Witch of the Woods

When asked, in a recent interview on Horrortalk.com, whether he toyed with the idea of not showing the witch at all, Eggers replied that he had to show her as “the real world and the fairytale world were really the same thing in the early modern period so having the witch be seen was important. You can still argue whether she’s only in their imagination or not, but the audience needs to see her. That’s crucial. The reason I show her right away is because the audiences today don’t know what a 17th century witch is, and they needed to know what she is capable of and what the stakes are right away.”

Elsewhere, he makes it clear that his notion of a “witch” is far removed from contemporary notions of the White Light variety:

When we think of historical witches, we think of persecuted herbalists, kind white witches, earth mothers–what the Wiccan, New Age-y stuff has grown out of. But what’s not talked about is the dark side of the early modern witch, and what she meant to not just men, but women. The witch embodied men’s fears and fantasies about women, good and bad, and also women’s fears and ambivalences about motherhood in a male-dominated society. And that baggage still exists in the unconscious of today.

Eggers makes use of several tropes associated with “the dark side of the early modern witch,” ones that entered the lexicon of popular folklore centuries ago (as a legacy of the alleged behaviors of witches as documented by their torturers from the Early Modern period all the way through the so-called Enlightenment) even though their origins, such as the one of killing unbaptized babies to make magical salves (chiefly flying ointment to travel to the Sabbat), go all the way back to ancient Thessaly, northern Greece’s bastion of witchcraft in the Classical world.

Let’s examine a few of these tropes:

Grizzled old witches prey on the youngest, most vulnerable members of society. Not long after setting up their sad little homestead, the family in The Witch is subjected to a crisis of horrific proportions. Thomasin is tasked with babysitting her infant brother Samuel, and he is snatched away by invisible hands from Thomasin’s care in a nanosecond. Literally spirited away by the witch of the woods, who, Red Riding Hood-like, is covered in a red cloak as she speeds away with ease between the trees to her home, little Samuel, we realize with a sinking heart, is going to meet a bad end. But we’re not prepared for the shock of how he gets killed so suddenly, nor the terror wrought by the close-up of the witch, as a disfigured crone, doing her grisly work: She guts him with a knife and maniacally pounds his fat with a mortar and pestle, the bloody paste oozing out from her crude wooden implements. She is Baba Yaga incarnate, the stuff of Western patriarchal monotheism’s worst nightmare. Those of us well-versed in witch lore see that she’s working on making the flying ointment that witches in late medieval Europe were renowned for. The chief ingredient is the fat of an unbaptized baby. In a twist of irony, it is this very flying ointment that Thomasin will have smeared on herself when she gets initiated into her witches’ coven and attends her first Sabbat, where she’ll begin to levitate among the sinister backdrop of the trees at midnight.

Witches are shape-shifters: Intra-species, from old to young, and inter-species from human to animal. The witch of the woods also preys on Thomasin’s brother Caleb (arrestingly played by Harvey Scrimshaw) after he gets lost in the woods while trying to score wild game for food and fur pelts for trading (because it’s been pointed out that the father, William, is an inept farmer and an even worse hunter). At the close of day, irretrievably lost to his kin, Caleb stumbles, with mounting dread, upon the stone-door hovel of the witch of the woods. But it’s not the grizzled crone who greets him and lures him to his death. Rather, an attractive maiden with a beguilingly ample bosom, a woman dressed in a green cloak with red undergarments, steps out of the hovel to seduce Caleb with the kiss that becomes his undoing. We know, as with the Arthurian legend of Dame Ragnell and Sir Gawain, that the hag and the maiden are one and the same witch.

But she doesn’t just confine herself to transforming from old to young woman at will. This witch of the woods has taken a page straight out of seventeenth-century Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie’s playbook: she loves to transform into a hare.

I shall go into a hare,

With sorrow and sighing and mickle care,

And I shall go in the Divel’s name,

Aye, till I come home again.

–From Isobel Gowdie’s unsolicited confession of witchcraft in 1662, as quoted in Margaret Murray’s The God of the Witches (1932), page 142.

And the witch of the woods takes hare form a great deal of the time, with increasingly menacing overtones as to her intentions with each appearance. When the audience spies a brown hare unexpectedly sitting amidst the docile goats that Thomasin milks every day as part of her chores, we know that bad things will happen to that livestock and to the farm in general, which brings me to the next trope of…

Witches blight crops and steal dairy animals’ milk. This is straight out of late medieval lore, going back to the supposed behavior of witches as documented by Kramer and Sprenger’s 1486 manual for torturing witches, the Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches (Hexenhammer in their native German). When decent farm folk were asleep in their beds, witches were said to shapeshift into animal form to avoid detection and then travel to their enemies’ farms, where the destruction wrought invariably entailed blighting crops and either stealing the milk of dairy animals or prohibiting those animals from producing milk. In the film The Witch, both phenomena occur: the corn that William desperately tries to plant is instantly blighted, and the witch of the woods nefariously turns the goats’ milk into blood so the family is forced to starve to death. Interestingly, these old beliefs aren’t relegated to Puritan New England or medieval Europe, as my relatives in the former Yugoslavia can attest: various charms are erected in stables where animals are kept (a common one employed by my father’s family is to encircle animals’ pens with ashes from the Yule log from the previous Christmas) to ensure that enemy witches can’t cast spells on the livestock.

Witches cavort with Old Nick (i.e., the Devil) and sign their names into His Book of Life. In the Puritan mindset, as in the Old World view of witchcraft that served as its ideological predecessor, witches were baptized into the service of the Devil, who time and again in iconography is depicted as a great black goat. He is the chief figure presiding over the witches’ Sabbat, the One to Whom all allegiance is owed. Anyone who has ever studied Francisco Goya’s depiction of witches from his eighteenth-century Los Caprichos series will surely find this to be a familiar visual: witches flocking about their Horned Lord.

Goya, "The Witches' Sabbath," 1789.

Goya, “The Witches’ Sabbath,” 1789.

Eggers brings this powerful archetypal association to life in The Witch when the unruly billy goat, whom the cheeky, adorable family twins of Mercy (played by Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) affectionately name Black Philip, is wrangled back into his pen rather forcefully. Little Mercy and Jonas have an instant rapport with the beast, one that triggers Thomasin’s own suspicions of witchcraft. The twins are speaking to or about Black Philip incessantly, and are constantly being “idle” in the goat’s presence, squealing and playing instead of contributing to the household’s work load, and it’s clear to even the most untrained eye that this is no ordinary billy goat.

The frolicking twins and Black Philip.

The frolicking twins and Black Philip.

In the shocking climax of the film, we see who the alpha male of this rural homestead really is (and who has been all this time): Black Philip gores William to death the morning after the witch of the woods instigates another round of killing sprees. With authority figures as well as males dead (Thomasin stabs her mother to death; the twins mysteriously vanish), Thomasin is alone, bloodied and exhausted. As the scene cuts to black to indicate her lapse into unconsciousness, we begin to hear the mysterious tinkling of bells. What is the source? The jingling is gentle, clearly Otherworldly. Then Black Philip reappears, with Thomasin following him into the unbearably empty, dilapidated house.

She “conjures” him to speak, and at this point we’re more than ready to accept her complete and utter severance from the capacity to reason. She’s beyond traumatized, her entire family is dead. The violence she participated in has unquestionably propelled her into a complete and utter mental breakdown.

A pregnant pause. Just as she turns away, convinced of her folly perhaps, Black Philip answers in a chilling voice: “What is it that you want?” He inquires, slowly and seductively in a voice barely above a breathy whisper, whether she wants to have pretty dresses and see the world. A strange light animates her face as she is addressed. Thomasin affirms that yes, she wants those very things. The jingling of the bells gets louder. And then we see why: Black Philip has taken humanoid form. His spurs, silver chains, and other metallic accoutrements on his well-heeled period clothes are responsible for the bell-like jingling. We see the hint of a handsome, pointed face (with a goatee, of course) protruding from a black, broad-rimmed traveler’s hat. He instructs Thomasin to remove her bloodied undergown and to follow him.

And so she does, young and curious and about to either lose her innocence or step into her wild female power, depending on what your perspective is. By the light of the moon, Thomasin follows Black Philip, who has resumed goat form, deep into the woods. We discover the sight of the Sabbat in full swing: naked, blood-stained (flying ointment from baby Samuel’s ritual killing) women, all in a circle, are writhing about a roaring fire in a forest clearing. They’re chanting. The chorus of their merged voices swells. They are transported in ecstasy, and Thomasin right along with them. We see that Thomasin has received her Devil’s mark on her forehead, the sign of her new baptism. The flying ointment goes into effect, and everyone starts to levitate high into the tree tops. Laughter rings out on the crisp night air. Thomasin’s jubilant face and the glow of the witches ascending across the circle from her are the last images of the film before the fade to black and the closing credits.

 

A Pagan Perspective?

Previously, friends of mine on Facebook who hadn’t yet seen the film wanted me to report to them whether or not I think the film is worthwhile from a Pagan perspective, or whether it’s offensive to modern-day witches. Yes, I think it’s a worthwhile film for anyone to see, Pagan or not. Anyone who has an imaginative capacity will enjoy this film. Anyone who appreciates the historical period in which the film is set ought to see it. Horror film aficionados ought to see it. Pagans should see it. Christians should see it. Atheists from Sweden ought to see it, as should Mahayana Buddhists from Nepal. Why? The modern world can relate to a historically set tragedy of a family’s implosion, can see that perhaps it’s possible to rewrite the seemingly unalterable script of Man Against Nature, the Logos versus the Unconscious, the stern and unyielding, transcendent God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob pitted against an older, far more Crafty (see what I did there?), immanent and resilient Chthonic Force of the Divine (and Devilish) Feminine Reawakened.

Like all good works of art, this film should encourage discussion and debate in spades. Was Thomasin the witch all along? Was the witch in the woods a projection of everyone’s repressed fears, and thus not “real” in an objectively verifiable sense? Does Thomasin trade one form of subservience to patriarchy (her father) for another (the Devil)? What is the meaning of family? To what extent is this film a critique of Christianity applied to societal norms? Or the “American Dream” born of the mythos of rugged individualism? How do we define our current relationship to Nature? To “the Wild”? What Book of Life do we want to sign our names into?

As to whether or not Witches or Pagans will want to wage a PR campaign centered on distancing themselves from the allegations of Devil worship, time will tell. I don’t feel the need to take that upon myself. I have no qualms about dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight. Everything about this movie brought back my childhood delight of watching the commercial for Time-Life Books’ Enchanted World series. I wish I could shapeshift like that witch!

The main takeaway is to reclaim wildness as a sacred vocation. No witchcraft in this age of an imperiled planet can be without it. As Scarlet Imprint co-founder Peter Grey wrote in his impassioned cri de coeur, Rewilding Witchcraft, “Witchcraft cannot retreat to the wilderness, because there is no exterior wilderness left; instead we need to exteriorise our inner wild. We need to wake up the animal in our bodies. This is witchcraft as contagion, as living flame.”

So mote it be!

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