In my senior year of college, one of my history classes embarked on an in-depth study of the Salem Witch trials where we read over many of the case’s original historical documents: settlement maps, population dispersal charts, census reports, church membership roles. After months of work, we came to the conclusion that the people accused of witchcraft were usually—though not exclusively—poorer, geographically distant from the town center, infrequent if not absent churchgoers, and invariably “expendable” women: young and/or unmarried. These “witches” were perfect scapegoats for communal anxieties: extreme isolation; constant uncertainty over the prospects of survival; an omnipresent religious tradition fueled by fire-and-brimstone sermons, visions of hell, and a Calvinist dogma which refused to guarantee salvation based on faith and good works. From a sociological standpoint, the Salem Witch Trials are fascinating glimpses into the causes and inevitable outcomes of a uniquely New World brand of mass hysteria. But from a fictional standpoint they are the wellspring of a uniquely American tradition of horror and fantasy that inspired countless works of fiction by countless literary luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King.
But perhaps the greatest fictional achievement to come from this tragedy is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a magnificent play later turned into a film by Nicholas Hytner which suggests that the victims of the enchantments and hauntings may have orchestrated them for attention and to direct focus away from their own societal transgressions. It succeeds so well because a) it was a brilliant allegory for McCarthyism, and b) nothing supernatural actually happened.
But imagine if during performances of The Crucible a wizened old woman dressed as a witch appeared in the rafters and wiggled her fingers during the scenes where the victims were possessed. It would ruin the point of the film, right?
This brings me to Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2016), the most disappointing part of which is the fact that there actually is a witch. That’s not exactly a spoiler: we see her going about her evil business only 10-15 minutes into the film. Appearing only two or three more times, her presence can be deemed largely superfluous. At its core, The Witch is a story of paranoia and superstition. It follows a 17th century Puritan family banished to the wilderness for heresy being tormented by seemingly supernatural phenomena. First their meager crops become infected with a strange rot. Then the youngest baby literally disappears from under the nose of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter. Then the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) vanishes while searching game traps in the woods. And all the time the young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) sing merry songs about how Black Phillip, their black goat, whispers to them in the night.
An atmosphere of dread and panic infects the family. The mother starts glancing at Thomasin with fear. The sane and stolid father, emasculated by failure, becomes increasingly frantic and crazed. In a fit of rage brought on by Mercy’s merciless teasing and laziness, Thomasin shrieks that she is a witch and will devour her if she doesn’t behave. And beyond their fields, the dark forest, pregnant with antediluvian dreads and secrets, silently beckons.
Of course, we know the cause of these bizarre goings-on: a literal witch in the woods. For instance, the baby disappears because it is kidnapped and ritualistically sacrificed (again, this all happens in the first 10-15 minutes). By pulling back the curtain and revealing the presence of the supernatural, The Witch ruins what could have been a stunning examination of the roots of why young women like Thomasin were accused of sorcery. The glacial pacing doesn’t help, either: the best horror films are slow burn affairs, but The Witch almost fails to catch fire at all.
This isn’t to say that The Witch is a complete failure. Above all, the film is gorgeously shot and wonderfully acted. Jarin Blaschke’s chiaroscuro cinematography reminds one of the candlelit scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) shot with only natural light. His frame compositions are positively luscious with their alternating emphasis on symmetry and asymmetry, claustrophobic interiors and even more claustrophobic exteriors. There isn’t a bad performance in the cast, but Scrimshaw steals the show as a young boy tortured by religious guilt and burgeoning incestuous feelings towards his older sister. The climax of the film isn’t the thunderous finale which admittedly features one of the best money shots in recent horror history—it’s a scene where a bedridden Scrimshaw experiences visions equal parts religious and sexual ecstasy.