not in our stars, but in ourselves
It’s not hard to understand how readily witch-hunting mania took root in the New World, particularly here in the dark, cold, hostile Province of Massachusetts Bay. For all those religious purists (shall we say) to put an ocean between them and the world they’d always known; for them to arrive amid swamps, dense forests, endless hills; for them to experience the harsh and unforgiving winters that seemed to last forever; for them to attempt to make or trap enough food to keep body and soul together, when they understood nothing of their new home’s flora or fauna; for them to have done all this in the name of God, and for God to have apparently forsaken them; it was all enough to make a person slightly unhinged. My family has traced its roots back to one of the original passengers on the Mayflower, and so I’ve often thought about what a hard life it must have been. The Witch is, among other things, a brutally clear recreation of what those first Bay Staters had to endure – and it was bad enough even without the Devil interfering.
We never learn the precise year, but it’s probably sometime between 1620 (when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth) and 1630 (when Boston was officially founded). William (Ralph Ineson) has been called before the plantation’s council for his quarrels with their religious practices. They order him and his family – pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) – to leave the plantation and live alone. After a day of travel, they find what William determines to be a suitable spot, right at the edge of a thick forest. Some months later, they’ve established a flimsy little homestead, with corn and cows and plenty of prayer. Katherine has given birth to Samuel, and Thomasin watches him most of the time. During a game of peek-a-boo, Samuel disappears – stolen, killed, and rendered into a bloody ointment by a witch (Bathsheba Garnett) who lives in the woods. Katherine is despondent, and begins to suspect that Thomasin is responsible. She tries to convince William to send her back to the plantation where she can work for or marry into (or both) one of the other families. When William and Caleb are out in the woods, trying to hunt so that the family will have enough to eat for the winter, they see a dark brown hare. Around that time, a black goat – which the twins call Black Phillip – shows up at the farm. The witches’ familiars wreak their intended havoc, and the family is (mostly) torn to bloody shreds.
The titular witch is not a metaphor, or a fever dream, or a hallucination: she’s real, Satan is real, evil is real. Still, that doesn’t undercut or weaken the plausibility of how and why this family goes to hell (so to speak). They already isolated themselves from the life they’d known in England by traversing the Atlantic. They’re then further isolated by the small group of ideologues they’d counted themselves among. And they’re then confronted with the death of their baby, the failure of their crops, the knowledge that they can’t possibly survive the winter, and the fear of what’s out there in the woods. It could have been nothing more than a wolf that stole Samuel away, and they still would have fallen apart. All their prayers, all their devotion, gets them nothing and nowhere. God is conspicuously absent, while Satan is very much present (and active). The family is in a psychological pressure cooker, and it’s no wonder they all crack, if I may mix my metaphors.
No big surprise that, if we’re teasing out ideological underpinnings, The Witch presents a feminist message. I mean, the only way for a film about witches not to be feminist would be for it to support and agree with the hysterics who tried and executed all those women. I’m sure the MRA witch trial movie is in development even as I type. My point is that Robert Eggers is keenly aware of how Europeans and early American settlers “made” witches: the patriarchy, ever and always terrified of powerful women, brutally punishes women who aren’t meek and quiet and submissive. Sometimes the harshest enforcers of that patriarchal dictum are other women, as evidenced by Katherine here. Where William is basically a kindhearted father who loves his children and wants to believe that God will favor them all, Katherine is a zealot and a ruthless critic of her eldest daughter – who, after all, is at just the right age for sin to take hold. It’s not hard to understand why Thomasin would seek empowerment and autonomy elsewhere; keep pushing someone, and she’ll push back eventually.
Virtually none of the women accused of witchcraft were actual witches, but the collective fear and loathing was all too real. Eggers has clearly been studying his Malleus Maleficarum – among other treatises on the powers and practices of so-called witches – to get the details right. These aren’t the goofy caricatures of most cinematic witches: these are the embodiments of Medieval and Early Modern belief about the nature of evil. It was all, ultimately, a fear of female power. What could be more frightening to a weak-willed man than a coven of women who openly mock him and his authority; who can change form to beguile him into sin; who understand how to use plants and potions better than he understands how to use his gun or his knife; who, in short, show him up at his own game, all the time, while proving that none of them need him, however dependent he is on them? Unfortunately, most of Western Civilization has been predicated on the suppression of that particularly intolerable idea, and it’s only in the past few decades that we’ve begun to break free of those shackles. Eggers brings us back to a time when those shackles were far tighter, and reminds us that we’re not quite out of them yet.