Robert Eggers’ 2015 feature-length directorial debut is described as a “New-England folktale,” which, given the film’s horror genre classification, appears to suggest that it is part of the movie-making tradition that purports at being based on the legends and superstitions of so-called simple people. Among these are included The Legend of Hell House (1973), Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), The Wicker Man (1973), and more recently Sleepy Hollow (1999). The inherent appeal of such films is their simultaneous claim to fantasy and historical reality. We want to believe that somewhere, sometime such beings and events are possible.
In the case of The Witch, Eggers tells the tale of an unnamed family that has been banished from an unnamed Puritan settlement sometime during the 1630s, long before the American rebellion against England was even an idea, and at a time when the settler-colonial presence in Wampanoag land was small and vulnerable. In light of this, for anyone to venture into the “wilderness,” far from home was nothing short of perilous. As for the Native presence in the film, it is limited to a fleeting glimpse of a handful of men who are likely visiting “the plantation” in order to trade with the colonials. They appear through the settlement gates as they are closing behind the six exiles, consisting of “William” (Ralph Ineson), “Katherine” (Kate Dickie), “Thomasin” (Anya Taylor-Joy), “Caleb” (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the twins, “Mercy” (Ellie Grainger) and “Jonas” (Lucas Dawson).
After finding their new home in a broad field, which is overlooked by a dense wood, the family work at eking out their sustenance. However, their crop is poor and game is hard to find. In addition, the family is joined by a newborn boy named “Samuel” (Axtun Henry Dube), who is a rare source of joy in an otherwise bleak existence. It is while Thomasin is playing with her infant sibling that tragedy strikes—the child suddenly vanishes. At a loss to either find the child or explain its disappearance, William and his family struggle to persevere. Stability is short-lived, though, as the effort to “speak of this no more” is disrupted by further disharmony. Samuel’s mysterious and heartbreaking departure leads to questions about the infant’s eternal soul, replete with bouts of spiritual anxiety. A missing silver cup causes friction between mother and eldest daughter, turning the latter into a scapegoat for the family’s travails. Further calamity leads to madness—enter “Black Philip” (Wahab Chaudry). Exacerbating the situation is the family’s religious zealotry, which is the source of both their inner torment and their inability to keep their family from tearing apart.
As for the “Witch of the Woods,” her presence is more felt than seen. Yet, when she does appear her otherworldly powers fill up the screen, be she young (Sarah Stephens) or old (Bathsheba Garnett), not to mention other incarnations. According to another folklore tradition, the one that the Puritans unsettled with their invasion, the land in which this story takes place, along with the people who were here first, did not know of “the Devil” until he was brought over with the wooden ships, which were full of disease, alcohol, and violence. For me, then, The Witch is about the inherent evil of zealotry and religious pride and the way in which it turns people’s hearts to stone, cutting them off from the land—making them fear the woods and all that dwells therein. For those, then, whose taste in horror is seen in movies like Saw or Paranormal Activity, The Witch may not be all that satisfying. On the other hand, if you appreciate historically-based narratives that evoke a epoch (the 17th century) and a place (colonial New England), which, although distant in time, are nonetheless familiar enough to feel real—including the horrors that happen there—then you may want to see The Witch and judge for yourself, is she really the witch of the woods or of a traumatized collective psyche?