In popular culture, the witch hunt is a popular trope. Rooted in actual witch hunts in early modern Europe and colonial North America (15th through 18th centuries), it’s a seemingly generic feature of human behavior easily extrapolated into nearly any moral threat. The U.S. roots in Salem were renewed in the 1950s Red Scare, and so on. We’ve all seen such stories in movies and television, but writer/director Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a fascinating take on the matter. Spoilers aho, fun ahoy.
Set in early 17th century New England, it tells the story of a puritan family struggling to survive on their own. Towards the beginning of the film, the youngest member of the family (an infant) is abducted and the family begins to suspect evil forces from the woods next to their farm as the explanation for their woes. It isn’t wrong before members of the family start casting suspicion upon one another. A witch walks among us.
Eggers took care with the historical realities, and his background doing the grunt work of production design, set carpenter, etc… served him well. He apparently spent five years researching the colonial setting, consulting primary source documents on everything from architecture to period language. Indeed, most of the dialog is directly culled from Puritan prayer manuals and period diaries, making the speech a little difficult to follow at first, but the mood of which suits the film perfectly. All of this lends a sense of verisimilitude, except for one key detail: the witches themselves!
It’s clear, even early on in the film, that the witches are real. These days, most witch hunt stories are completely one sided. For instance, I recently watched a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called The Drumhead, in which a retired admiral investigates and explosion aboard the enterprise, quickly jumping to accusations of conspiracy and treason. It’s a good episode, but it’s one in which there’s never any real doubt as to the outcome. Most examples of a witch hunt in pop culture focus on completely unfounded accusations, but in The Witch, such accusations actually are founded. There really are witches in the woods tormenting the family. One of the insidious things about witches is that they lurk among us, waiting for opportune times to do us harm and often throw suspicion on others. Because of their nature, we tend to abandon our principles and our morals in our desperate attempt to find our foe. The Witch understands this, and because of its staggering period authenticity, we must acknowledge the supernatural’s existence, even as our protagonists have no way of rooting them out and end up turning on one another. This sets the movie apart from the typical witch hunt tale, while not excusing the resultant behavior. Despite the setting of the film, it’s clearly aiming at more contemporary witch hunts than actual historical accounts.
If someone were to make a movie about, say, Joseph McCarthy, much would be made of the near total lack of concrete evidence for his anti-Communist crusade. As it should! But little would be made of the fact that, despite his deplorable methods of intimidation, his rants about “Communists in the State Department” were basically true. Of course, most of the people and organizations that McCarthy accused were unsupported by evidence, making the topic decidedly muddled. Again, a movie attempting to tell this story would probably bypass this complexity to focus more on the lack of evidence and the persecution than the actual communists that were deploying their Gramscian weapons on an unsuspecting public.
Even today, the concept applies to our national obsession with terrorists. At its core, fighting terrorism is a witch hunt. But since we know that terrorists actually exist, it’s not your typical witch hunt narrative. Sonny Bunch sees The Witch as a radicalization narrative:
…I think The Witch has done something far more interesting. Or, at least, more unique. It’s not peddling a traditional witch hunt narrative. It’s offering a radicalization narrative. Thomasin’s tale is the story of how a young person, marginalized by society and her family, comes to join a radical group. It’s a story you see in the news today relatively regularly, one that usually focuses on disaffected young Muslims who, alienated by their perceived mistreatment at the hands of Westerners and languishing in poverty, leave their homes to join ISIS and other terrorist groups. They seek belonging and fellowship. And if they happen to find it amongst killers and psychopaths, well, so be it.
The Witch is a horror film. One in which the witches actually exist, even. But the horror in the film is not derived from cheap jump scares. The environment is creepy on its own and the film does an admirable job of slowly building tension through visual techniques, but the real horror is not that the witches exist. Rather, it’s that we have no way to fight them and that traditionally, we’ve resorted to morally compromised methods that easily lead to our downfall (and potentially strengthening our enemy in the process). I’ll leave the application of this to current events as an exercise for the reader.
The film is deliberately paced and the dialog takes some getting used to, but it never descends into a slog, and once you start thinking through its implications, it becomes more chilling and fascinating. It’s beautiful, well composed, well acted, and more relevant than I ever expected. It’s not an easy sit, but it’s a worthwhile one that has only grown in my estimation as it continues to occupy my thoughts.