The Witch’s success arises from the fact that it doesn’t make anything up. Devils walk the earth. Sin invites real harm. Suspicion is the substance of fact. It lives fully in the bygone world of its story, from dialogue lifted from Puritan journals and a thorough, tonal sense of its subjects’ religion-fueled nightmares. The Witch’s horror is many things: it’s historical, primordial, realistic, hysterical, and profoundly effective.
Horror as a genre often feeds off the conventional imagination of “What if.” What if my child really is the antichrist? What if I’ve been marked for revenge by this or that boogeyman? What if a ragged-haired girl is about to crawl through the screen of my TV? What makes The Witch so exceptional is its conscious manipulation of that central, electrical What if. Robert Eggers’s directorial debut hosts its story in a historical landscape where such self-questioning wariness was not only widespread but deeply rooted at a societal level. The movie rekindles that popular imagination, and it feels less childish than primal—what was that, that went bump in the night? The difference is, the colonists in this movie are convinced that they have the answer, and that answer is the devil himself.
The Witch’s story takes place in the New England colonies of the 1630s, where the small family of Puritan Calvinists—William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children—is cast out by the main body of the colony for religious deviance. Deviance is a relative term here, considering the level of devotion pervasive throughout this body of so-called Pilgrims, whose faith led them across the ocean and could, one imagines, feel the heat of hell under the soles of their feet. William is still very much in the mindset of his colonial compatriots: he and his family see through a theological lens onto the every day, with a clear view of the real and present danger of sin. His son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), recites with conviction the definition of “his sinful nature.” And the couple’s teenaged daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) prays fervently for forgiveness for laziness and selfishness, although, she tells God, she knows she deserves eternal torment.
Semantics—particularly the recently-conceived semantics of witchcraft in the 1600s, powered by the dangerous reality of the divine and the devilish—could get you hanged, as Salem Village would discover before the turn of the next century. There is very little defense against such an accusation. When dark, mysterious occurrences begin to haunt the family they look for a cause, through the logic of their faith and isolation. Witchcraft accusations fly among the family, teasingly, then seriously, until the small outcast colony is rent apart.
The dark colonial-American imagination, full of things echoing invisibly out in the woods, of women soaring to Satanic sabbaths over the treetops, has lost some of its bite on its way through portrayals like The Blair Witch Trials and uncountable other on-screen transformations. Author Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her Cleopatra: A Life, reconstructed at length the tedious and devoted life of Salem villagers, in a gray and disconnected community where lines between the supernatural and the everyday were often not drawn at all.
In her most recent book, Salem 1692, Schiff examines the psychology in the colonial world surrounding the panic, the settlers “perched on the edge of wilderness.” “In isolated settlements,” she writes, “in dim, smoky firelit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, imagines most vividly, and where the sacred and occult thrive.” Throughout the trials, Schiff details how a “devout, literate New Englander could…at times sound as if he were on a low-grade acid trip.”
These devilish fears have held sway through the imagination of Hollywood horror for decades, witches and demons and antichrists and possessions dotting the screen. Our fascination with darkness hasn’t faded, only transmuted by repetition and reinterpretation. As Schiff describes, the early New Englanders’ “fears and fancies differed very little from ours,” but “their dark…was a very different dark…Shapes emerged from the darkness to resolve into different entities altogether.” The Witch does this explicitly, with one of the hallmark visuals of the movie, as one dark form—the goat, Black Philip—becomes another.
The film’s horror isn’t produced: it resurrects the perceived reality of a world just beyond the boundaries of what we can see, a world constructed through the high narrative of religion and the lack of counterargument. Stranded out in the shadows, the viewer and the family both experience that cold sense of what goes bump in the night. The logical question to ask when your son convulses in a mess of blood, screaming Sin at the top of his shrill voice, is Who has done this to thee? The bewitched girls in the Salem trials were called the afflicted. They were afflicted, as if by a disease, suffering at the hands of a supernatural force as real and as beyond the scope of human understanding—at that moment—as lighting or thunder or germ theory.
The Witch’s triumph lies in its lack of imagination, rather than its departures into jumpy trope darkness and trope horror. The film doesn’t depart from the mindset of its small Puritan cast. Immersion is the lynchpin of the movie: a world of abandonment, broad wilderness, dusty light, and deep suspicions.
There are films that circle the same concept, immersion, more metaphorically. Some adopt modern parallels into their period sets to bring the setting to life for a modern audience, like Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette drawing in raucous rock music to its Enlightenment-era parties. They seek not to portray accurately, but to bring alive the experience of a place and time. The most recent incarnation of Pride and Prejudice saw the cast living together as a family, so that by the time the cameras rolled they would be comfortable in the skin of another century. Mad Men and now Vinyl reenact not only the cinematic aesthetic of their respective eras but also include overt racial and misogynistic prejudices to create a sense of unflinching immersion.
The Witch stretches the fabric of its world not at all—except in the gravity-reversing conviction that the shadowy world of sin and devils is as literally dangerous as the Calvinists lead themselves to believe.
Robert Eggers is fantastically devoted to his chosen historical moment. During a Q&A screening, he noted how within the opening seconds of The Crucible, you could see lumber that had obviously been cut with an anachronistic circular saw. Not so on his set. He spent four years researching the Calvinist settlements.
“If someone called you a witch,” he said at the screening, reported by Collider, “they really thought you were a supernatural being capable of doing the things the witch does in this film. If I’m going to get audiences to go along and accept that, we have to be transported to the 17th century. We have to be in the mindset of these English Calvinists or it’s not going to work.”
What makes the film’s disorientation seem so personal is due in part to its calm, tricky, and meticulous cinematography, to its quick and viscerally shocking images, and adept sound engineering designed to shock, but also to its devoted recreation of another age’s imagination. The darkness is darker, the loneliness lonelier, and the colonial fringes at the edge of the European world teaming with European specters and legends. Sweden, soon after the events of The Witch, in the 1670s suffered its own sensational witchcraft crisis that claimed the lives of seventy-one accused witches in one bloody day. Salem’s 1692 panic was still almost half a century in the future. The boundaries of the living, tangible world were truly permeable to a dark and vicious host of supernatural—divine or demonic—forces.
The film has predictably been lauded for the technicality of its historical accuracy, that accuracy has its intended effect, to displace the audience’s imagination into a time when the boundaries of reality less certain. It’s a ghostly recreation, a production of hysteria, but the tone here isn’t speculative as with other viciously dystopic dramas like The Purge. The Witch recreates: the panic shown in the movie did claim lives, and there were centuries upon centuries when the ill-defined boundaries of the natural versus the supernatural did lead people to see their candle-lit world in this way. The Witch’s terror is historical. It’s the terror that led to the deaths of nineteen people as girls, like the daughters in the film, convulsed and shrieked on a courtroom floor and accused lists of neighbors, from troublesome outcasts to prominent citizens.
If anything the only departure from the researched reality of witch hysteria is the story’s scope, condensed for drama. Rather than the scope of a village—or indeed a region—of colonial New England, the hysteria is pressurized within a single household. Such confined dramas were not unheard-of—family members did accuse one another, and you might be living under the same roof as your accuser in 1690s Salem Village. However these dynamics were part of larger, communal hysteria.
That kind of deep dedication to subject matter doesn’t usually preoccupy blockbusters—but The Witch was not initially a major movie. It was a movie that was initially going to rush to VOD, only to be saved in post-production and plugged into the mainstream by executive director Chris Columbus and his wife/producing partner Eleanor Columbus.
The Witch’s horror that uses scholarship and astounding dedication to detail to reinvigorate a kind of basic, profoundly disturbing reality of American history, lurking beneath our classic Hollywood tropes. Eggers places the story in a landscape whose cultural imagination has to be summoned up from dark centuries past, and he does it elegantly, and absolutely.