Before Robert Eggers’ The Witch became the toast of the Sundance Film Festival (and earned him a Best Directing Award), he was a first-time filmmaker trying to get an indie horror movie out into the world. During that post-production process, he did test screenings to seek other filmmakers’ feedback. And time and again, he received the same note: Why butter? Why a pretty dress? Why are these simple things so attractive to a young Puritan girl about to sell her soul to the Devil?
“When I did test screenings of the film, a lot of filmmakers were saying, ‘I don’t know, this stuff seems kind of random,’” Eggers recently explained. “‘Maybe he can offer her things that make more sense thematically with the rest of the film.’ That was a pretty consistent note, so I kept trying to find something better.” There was just one aspect the director couldn’t get past though: “Those were things the devil actually promised.” Or at least they were things those pressured into confessing to witchcraft claimed were their greatest wishes.
This is one of many fascinating anecdotes in A24’s new The Witch Screenplay Book. Released in limited edition by the boutique indie studio, the book includes Eggers’ original script, production sketches, still imagery from the film, a new short story about Thomasin by Carmen Maria Machado, and an in-depth interview between Robert Eggers and historian David D. Hall, Professor of New England Church History Emeritus at Harvard Divinity School.
It was the latter in-depth conversation that revealed fascinating insights into Eggers’ internalized approach to Puritans’ hopes and sufferings, and the influence Hall’s own research had on it. Indeed, the reason why someone would sell their soul for a handful of butter can be found in essays like Hall’s “Witchcraft and the Sadness of Everyday Life.” The historian and filmmaker discussed as much.
“Puritanism is such a barrier,” Hall told Egger. “What struck me as I read through the reams of Salem depositions was how a young boy is asked, ‘Well, what did the devil promise you? Why did you make covenant with the devil?’ And he says in complete innocence, ‘I wanted a pair of shoes.’” Hall also points to the story of Elizabeth Knapp, a Puritan teenager in Groton, Massachusetts, who in 1672 (20 years before the beginning of the Salem Witch Trials) was believed to be possessed by the Devil.
Said Eggers, “The Knapp case was one of the big influences for sure.”
The case involved a 15-year-old girl who was a domestic servant for the family of Samuel Willard, a prominent Puritan preacher with a penchant for fire and brimstone. Beginning with complaints of physical pain, Knapp eventually displayed convulsions, laughing fits and “hysterics,” and hallucinations. After seeking a medical solution, Willard eventually concluded Knapp was possessed by the Devil, and pushed her to confess that she had been assaulted by the Dark One before making a pact with him and letting him into her bed.
“It is such a multilayered text,” Hall said said of the preacher’s recorded journal on the matter. “Willard, the minister, asks Knapp, ‘What does the devil mean to you?’ ‘Well, he’s going to take our ashes from the fireplace.’ You fall over laughing when you see this, but you realize this is a fifteen-year-old-girl who’s sick to death being the slave, the domestic slave.”
Eggers eventually compared Knapp’s likely sorrowful plight to that of Thomasin, as played by Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. While Thomasin lives with her family, she is treated with suspicion and loathing by her mother after the disappearance of her baby brother Samuel. In essence, she becomes the household’s domestic slave. Further her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) wishes to rid the farm of Thomasin and sell her into servitude to another family.
“As you say, taking the ashes out seems silly or mundane and, as you say with the title of your piece, it’s so… sad,” Eggers reflected on the Knapp case in comparison to The Witch.
It’s a fascinating detail and one that underscores the haunting quality of Eggers’ movie. While the fear of witchcraft is clearly rooted in a form of sexism to modern eyes (although not all witches who were hanged were women), it was considered a fact of daily life in the minds of the educated and uneducated alike during the 17th century. In 1597, the highly intellectual man who would be crowned King James I wrote the Daemonologie, which he brought with him to the English throne. It spread across England and her colonies the fear of evil spirits and demons, and most especially witches. It also provided a handy guide on how to hunt them… which had bloody effects even a century later in Salem.
But to the women often accused of witchcraft, like Thomasin, a deal with the devil could mean rewards as great as their imaginations, which could be profoundly hampered in a Puritan or Calvinist upbringing. And as The Witch is a “New England Folktale,” wherein the events occur just how a Puritan would assume witchcraft works, so too are the Devil’s greatest temptations. Butter and a dress.
This is one of the many fascinating tangents Eggers and Hall’s conversation goes on as they consider predestination, Puritan separatists, and the evolving view on the Puritan lifestyle among historians. Eggers himself mused, “Their lives were like a work of art.” You can find the whole conversation when A24 prints the second edition of The Witch screenplay book.