An Inherited Nightmare


First-time filmmaker Robert Eggers’ extraordinary horror film The Witch begins with an earnest, gravel-voiced dissident named William (Ralph Ineson) boldly defying a grim-faced panel of Puritan judges. When one of them reminds him that they are his judges, not he theirs, he says scornfully, “I cannot be judged by false Christians.” Would he be banished from the plantation, then? “I would be glad of it,” he answers proudly.


Hollywood conventions and cultural assumptions incline us to assume the rigidity and intolerance of the community elders and to take this contrarian as the voice of moral reason. It’s a bit of a shock to consider later that the reverse might be closer to the truth.


One of last year’s best-made but most unsettling films, The Witch is a deeply unconventional horror film on many levels, from the authentically archaic speech patterns, formal yet plainspoken, of the Puritan era, to the equally archaic theological worldview persuasively evoked with that language, including the unreconstructed vision of witches.


The Witch takes all of this with a seriousness befitting its subtitle, A New-England Folktale. (According to a closing title card, the film was inspired by period sources, including journals and court records, from which much of the dialogue was adapted.)


This isn’t the New England of Elizabeth Gaskell, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Arthur Miller. Here, witches aren’t chimerical projections of fanatical moral panic or demonized outsiders indicting the hypocrisies of the patriarchy. They are, simply and truly, horrifically evil creatures in league with a very real Devil.


From the first shock, which claims one of the family members in a brilliantly simple yet nasty effect with a sickening payoff, it’s clear to the viewer (though not immediately to the family) that a remorseless servant of pure evil really is preying on them. One misfortune after another befalls them, each plausible yet uncanny in their consistency.


When the suggestion of witchcraft arises, the eldest of William’s five children, teenaged Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), has no trouble imagining what this would mean. In a bantering soliloquy of startling glibness, she describes how a witch’s spirit slips from her body while she sleeps, dances naked with the Devil, and signs his book. Whatever the Devil wants for his unholy service — an unbaptized baby, for instance — the witch obtains for him; no one is safe from her malice.


What is most unsettling about The Witch is not the manifest presence of the Devil and the malevolence of his minions, but the seeming absence of God and the impotence of the family’s faith and prayers. Although I believe The Witch depicts a profoundly Christian worldview, it is far from the spiritual combat of horror films like The Exorcist and The Conjuring, where religious devotion and prayers offer at least some protection against demonic evil.


It’s fair to say that the powers of hell often seem more immanent in the movies than the powers of heaven; demons are typically far more active forces than angels. Sometimes this reflects the filmmakers’ imaginative lopsidedness; other times the characters are skeptical moderns who simply don’t know how to call on God.


Yet William’s family are fervent Christians who consecrate their new home to God and call upon him daily, not least in the throes of torment from their unholy attacker. “Let us pray; then we need fear nothing,” William insists in a dark moment. “We shall never lie open to the wicked one.” Yet their prayers seem to go unheard.


William’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) fears the family is not only cursed by Satan, but damned by God. Within the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) theological worldview of Puritanism, this is a possible interpretation of God’s inaction that cannot be excluded: Perhaps, apart from anything they have done or could do, they simply are not among those elected to eternal life. In his inscrutable sovereignty, God predestines some to eternal life and others to eternal perdition, and he does not hear the prayers of those who are not his children.


William resists his wife’s fears, uneasily proposing a more hopeful interpretation: God has “taken us into a very low condition,” he suggests, “to humble us and to show us more of his grace.” Yet the hoped-for grace never arrives.


Eggers has called The Witch “an inherited nightmare” — a story of the sort with which Puritans might once have frightened one another — and the film’s considerable power relies on its robust evocation of its cultural milieu. Watching the film in the right spirit is an act of empathy for people of a past era nearly as demonized today as witches were by the people of that era.


What The Witch shows us is that that while they viewed the world through a different interpretive framework, they were more like us than we might have thought. We must make an effort, then, to witness the film’s events through Puritan eyes, even if at times we don’t like what we see.


When William drills young Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) on the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, most viewers will be disturbed by the grimness of Caleb’s answer (dutifully recited from a children’s catechism by the Puritan clergyman John Cotton, Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes): “I was conceived in sin and born in iniquity … Adam’s sin imputed to me and a corrupt nature dwelling within me … My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually.”


We are meant, I think, to be disturbed by this wholly negative assessment of human nature. Even Caleb is disturbed, and William tries to reassure him: “Look you. I love thee marvelous well — but ’tis God alone, not man, what knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not. Who is good and who is evil. Fain would I tell thee [a slain family member] sleeps in Jesus, that thou wilt, that I will, but I cannot tell thee that. None can.”


This is a grotesque speech, but it’s precisely William’s humanity, and his genuine love of his son, that makes it grotesque rather than merely monstrous.


It is possible to wonder whether the deity confessed here is sufficiently differentiated from the witch’s own infernal master. Can we perhaps suppose that the futility of the family’s faith and prayers is linked to their twisted, deficient theology?


Catholic viewers might comfort themselves with the thought that these poor souls lack all sacramental protection but baptism (and the younger children aren’t even baptized). Holy water, crucifixes and all such things William’s family would reject as Romish idolatry, the vestiges of which Puritanism was founded to purge from the Church of England. Neither confession nor exorcism is available to them. A priest in a Roman collar they would shun no less assiduously than the Witch of the Wood.


This puts William’s family on very different ground from the characters in movies like The Exorcist and The Conjuring, where Catholicism is taken for granted as the natural enemy of the Devil. “When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms,” Roger Ebert once quipped, “the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery. Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case.”


Yet I don’t find this complacent theological triumphalism a satisfying way of watching The Witch. For one thing, if The Witch is “a New-England folktale,” we must try to understand it first of all in a way that is at least consistent with its own New England Puritan perspective. Whatever other perspectives viewers bring to The Witch — religious, secular, feminist, pagan, etc. — the film must be received first of all on its own terms.


And the fact is that The Witch offers not a hint of a contrasting, non-Calvinist religious perspective by which the characters’ milieu might be measured and found wanting. To import this perspective without warrant in the film is sheer projection.


For another, when William and his family turn to God, their desperation is real. Whatever their theological deficiencies, I’m not sure a sectarian Catholic deity who withholds graces from heretics is much better than a Calvinist deity who withholds graces from those he has sovereignly chosen for perdition. Neither of these narrow readings offers me a way into the film.


Does there have to be a way in? Not necessarily. It could be that the film simply depicts a nightmare universe in which, for reasons unknown or intolerable, the devil preys on God’s people and God does nothing about it.


That would, of course, almost certainly make The Witch a perverse film by my lights, not a film I would recommend to anyone or would care to revisit. And I don’t want to write off The Witch. Too much care and passion and integrity has obviously gone into its crafting. If there is another way of reading the futility of the family’s faith without either accepting or blaming Calvinism — a reading that works from the story’s Puritan perspective and also from a Catholic one — that’s the reading I want.


And, in fact, there is such a way: one that might seem obvious enough that some readers may wonder why I made such a mystery of it, though it became clear to me only in retrospect.


There is one point of contrast to the faith of the beleaguered family: the plantation community they leave behind at the outset over some theological dispute.


While the nature of the dispute remains unclear, William tells the panel in the opening scene he has done nothing “save preach Christ’s true gospel” — he and he alone, apparently, since he alone faces judgment.


Esteeming himself the sole voice of orthodoxy, William voluntarily takes his family from the community — the stockade gates closing ominously behind them — and they set out into the trackless wilderness, establishing a lone homestead under the eaves of a wild wood.


Here is a way of fathoming the family’s plight that would make sense to the Puritans from whom this nightmare is inherited, and that also makes sense to me: In a wasteland of unknown dangers, there is some measure of safety and protection in the community of believers. To condemn the whole community as false and vindicate oneself alone as true, to voluntarily turn one’s back on the company of one’s fellow believers and choose to pit oneself, alone, against the dangers of the world — this is a perilous and foolhardy thing.


There is more. Early on, though after the first inexplicable catastrophe, the children begin speaking of “the Witch of the Wood.” Is this a notion that they conjured up themselves to explain their misfortune? The way the premise appears full-formed suggests another possibility: Were reports of a “Witch of the Wood” rumored and whispered about among the folk of the plantation? Could this be partly why William and Katherine forbade their children from the outset to venture into the wood? If they had reason from the outset even to contemplate the possibility of the wood being witch-haunted, they were playing with fire in an appallingly reckless way.


There are other signs that this family is in trouble, with or without the witch. Particularly disturbing are the way little Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Thomasin alternately seek to upset one another by claiming to be the Witch of the Wood, along with the detailed and graphic nature of Thomasin’s dark fantasies — especially in light of the tragic recent events hanging over them. Mercy and her twin brother Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are troublingly unpleasant and ill-mannered; when an accusation arises that they converse with the Devil in the form of the goat Black Philip, it’s not entirely implausible.


As the story progresses, William reveals a troubling penchant for deceit and divisiveness, implicating Caleb in his lies and allowing unjust conflict to fester between Katherine and Thomasin to protect his own secrets.


Only Caleb has a guilty secret that seems well within the normal range: sexual curiosity hovering around the blossoming body of his older sister Thomasin. Thomasin’s arrival at the cusp of womanhood is fraught with special challenges, both because of her repressive cultural milieu and because of the specter of the witch. Yet even normal sexual curiosity, especially though not solely in a repressive context, can lead to disastrous actions and ruinous consequences.


As a Catholic, I find myself returning again and again to The Witch’s first lines, from William’s apologia to the elders: “What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers houses? … Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels and the Kingdom of God?”


These opening lines highlight a crucial point: William merely recapitulates what the community itself did in coming to New England. His rationale for defying the elders and departing from it mirrors the community’s own rationale for leaving the shores of England. Going further back, it mirrors the rationale of the Puritans breaking from mainstream Anglicanism — and, going further still, the Anglican rationale for breaking with Rome.


The pursuit of “purity” and the flight from institutional corruption leads to a cascading series of schisms: the Anglican schism from Rome; the Puritan movement within Anglicanism; the Separatist schism within Puritanism; the Pilgrim flight from England. In the end it drives William with his family from the plantation: a separatist orthodoxy of one family under one paterfamilias.


In the wilderness, on the border of the wild wood, the cascading schisms continues: husband against wife, brother against sister, parent against child. It’s a pattern of breakdowns going back beyond even the Protestant Reformation to Cain and Abel, to Adam and Eve, and ultimately to mankind’s rebellion against God (“Adam’s sin dwelling in me,” in the words quoted by Caleb).


Throughout their woes Katherine expresses to William a frightened wish to return to the plantation — a suggestion William angrily rejects until it is too late. “What dost thou want, Katherine?” he finally asks in desperation. “Tell me and I will give it thee!” When she says she wants to be “home,” he relents: “Thou shalt be home by candle-time tomorrow.”


But no: Now Katherine clarifies that her longing for “home” reaches further back … to England. The schism cannot be mended simply by returning to the plantation, for the crisis didn’t begin with William’s break with the community; it goes further back, to Pilgrim Separatism.


For Catholic viewers — at least for this Catholic viewer, whose earliest years were spent in the Calvinist tradition and who was no stranger to the cultural legacy of Puritanism, but wound up in the Anglican Communion and finally made his way to the Catholic Church — it is not hard to see in Katherine’s longing for “home” a wish that implicitly points back further still.


Followed far enough, this longing for “home” is a wish for the mending of every schism and the healing of every wound, from the marital strife between Katherine and William all the way back to the rupture between mankind and God: a longing to return, not to the plantation or even to England, but to Paradise.


Somewhere in that cascade of schisms is the Protestant Reformation, the break with Rome. This, too, is part of the series of breakdowns leaving this family lost and lorn in the wilderness on the edge of a witch-haunted wood, without even the protection of a blessed crucifix or some holy water, let alone a priestly blessing or prayer of exorcism.


Implicit in the longing for “home” — though Katherine herself would surely have denied it — is a wish for the healing of this schism as well.


Yet The Witch does not end with healing, but with damnation in a particularly terrifying form. The stakes are real. The Devil is real. All roads do not lead up the mountain. Some lead to the heart of darkness, to the depths of a witch-haunted wood. The choices we make in this life matter infinitely. We really can turn our back on God and the good, and for a time, if we despair of joy and peace, we can at least have delectation. All of this is the countercultural worldview at work in The Witch.


Note on age appropriateness: The Witch is for adults with strong constitutions.

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