The Witch: Period Horror with a Modern Edge

As horror drama The Witch arrives on disc, we look at the modern themes beneath its period setting...

NB: The following contains spoilers for The Witch.

When Robert Eggers’ debut movie, The Witch, screened at Sundance last year, the critical response was rapturous. When wider audiences saw it on its wider cinematic release, the reaction was far more ambivalent. It isn’t difficult to see why. The Witch is a period drama delicately laced with a crimson thread of terror.

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In pacing and atmosphere, The Witch is closer to an arthouse film than a mainstream horror, where the jolts and scares are precision-milled to leave viewers throwing boxes of popcorn around their local multiplexes. Eggers’ film is generously steeped in history and years of research. Its characters speak a molasses-thick northern British dialect, since they’re a 17th century family who only recently sailed from the Old World to America.The sets and costumes are all authentic down to the last clapboard barn.

With its natural lighting, The Witch is folk horror in the tradition of Blood on Satan’s Claw, lit by candlelight like Barry Lyndon and elegantly framed like Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. And yet, in among the superstition and archaic language, there lies a story with a truly modern edge.

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Set in New England, The Witch concerns a devout Puritan father, William (Ralph Ineson) who’s banished from a relatively stable life on a commune and takes his family to start a new life on the edge of a jagged and distinctly forbidding patch of woodland. Almost right away, the family are beset by a series of occurrences that could have come from the Book of Job: William’s baby son, Samuel, suddenly disappears in broad daylight. William insists that the child was dragged off by a wolf, but eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) suspects he was taken away by a witch. Then the crops fail. A goat lactates pure blood. Evil seems to surround the little farm, and gradually, the family turns on each other. 

Although only briefly glimpsed, the character of The Witch’s title looms large over the movie—partly because Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke make sure that, every time her wraith-like form appears on the screen, often shrouded in finger-like shadows, she cuts a striking image. Her first scene, which comes surprisingly early in the film, is grisly and gut-level grim—even though, like Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the horror is implied rather than explicitly shown. But what’s worth noting about the witch is that she isn’t portrayed as a villain as such—more a force of nature, emerging from the woods to take what she desires.

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The witch really serves as a catalyst. It’s not long after the disappearance of the baby boy that the family begins to snap at each other, their faith challenged by the supernatural. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) fears that his infant brother may have gone to hell because he wasn’t baptized; anxious that his family will starve because of their failed crops, William has traded the family silver for traps to help him hunt, which earns the ire of his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie). The family’s mischievous middle children, Mercy and Jonas, appear to have struck up a very strange friendship with a goat on the farm, nicknamed Black Philip. When Caleb returns from the woods one day apparently possessed by a demon, the finger’s pointed at the teenage Thomasin, she in turn accuses Mercy and Jonas of communing with the Devil via that evil-looking black goat they’re always hanging around with.

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The Witch is more about a family torn apart by paranoia and superstition than witchcraft, and the scenes where the parents turn violently on their own children are almost as disturbing as the moments of bloodletting in the woods. It’s here that The Witch might just reveal one possible reading: that it’s through our fears and prejudices that we create our own demons.

From the middle ages to the early modern period, witches weren’t mythical beings from folklore, but perceived as a very real, present threat—as real as terrorism or any threat you could care to name today. Disease, war, miscarriages, and famine were often blamed on witches, and the Malleus Maleficarum (or Hammer of the Witches in English), first published in the late 15th century, was a popular book which encouraged the prosecution of witches. From the medieval period until well into the 1700s, an unknown number of women were accused and executed for witchcraft.

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As this article—superbly written by Heather Marsh—points out, the persecution of witches was in reality a persecution of ordinary women. Viewed from a modern perspective, where by and large witches of the supernatural variety are dismissed as a myth, it’s easy to see the misogyny in a book like the Malleus Maleficarum is as clear as day. “Why is it that women are chiefly addicted to evil superstitions?” one passage reads. Another suggests that witches are capable of making men’s genitals disappear, or worse, “Deprive man of his virile member.” 

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The fear of women is a major plot point in The Witch, and it’s one of the film’s dramatic ironies that, although Thomasin isn’t a witch, and doesn’t appear to have any interest in necromancy for much of the story, it’s her parents’ terror of hell, damnation, and witches that leads to her becoming one. With women having so little autonomy in the early modern era—Thomasin has little to look forward to other than becoming a mother or working in the fields—it’s hardly surprising that the dark, ambiguous conclusion in the woods could be read as an escape from conformity.

At the same time, the ending is also tragic, in that it shows how dogmatism can wind up driving people apart, and how violence can become self-perpetuating. Attacked by her own parents and ultimately left with nowhere else to go, Thomasin becomes the very thing she’s supposed to abhor. It’s an aspect of human nature that still lingers in the 21st century—our tendency to focus our fears and anxieties on a mysterious Other, whether they’re from a different country, gender, class, religion, or political persuasion. And it’s that very dehumanizing intolerance that can lead to even greater division and, in the gravest cases, acts of terrorism and violence.

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The Witch may be a period piece, but its story of a family divided by their own ideology is still chillingly relevant.