The Devil You Think You Know: Why “The Witch” Is Good

According to most critics, The Witch is the first good horror movie of 2016. It’s spooky, it’s artsy, it’s got a creepy goat and feminism! What’s not to like?

For some audiences, a lot. It’s slow and pretentious. The script has too many ‘thee’s and ‘thither’s. Worse, it’s not scary enough. In my experience, these naysayers aren’t people who think they’re film critics. They’re regular folks like my students at my day job, online horror movie nerds, and Mallory Ortberg:

“In conclusion, don’t let anyone make you feel dumb because you didn’t enjoy a lot of people from East Yorkshire moaning about Calvinism for thirty hours before a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bloodbath.”

Trying to make Mallory Ortberg feel dumb would be pretty lame, and I don’t think it’s dumb to come out of The Witch unsatisfied. There are some horror junkies who will watch this movie and say, “why isn’t there more sex and blood and loud noises,” but lots of audiences have been asking better questions. Like: why should we care about any of these people? How are we supposed to feel about the witch? Why can’t director Robert Eggers stop talking about how much he knows about 17th century carpentry in interviews?

We Witch fans haven’t reacted to these questions very maturely. We’re like, “it’s so saaad that people don’t get it, modern audiences are too impatient, all they want is Paranormal Activity sequels. The encroaching dread was right there! Didn’t you see the dread?” In light of all that, I thought I’d write something about what I think The Witch is up to, why it might frustrate some people, and why it’s still a good movie.

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****spoilers ahead****

Non-fans: if The Witch didn’t scare you at all and that’s why you didn’t like it, I can’t help you. It’s got jump scares, at least two babies’ worth of fake blood, and people walking slowly towards quiet sounds in the shadows, so I don’t know what to say to that. You’ve got nerves of steel, capitan. However, if it scared you a little but left you thinking “what was the point of all that other boring shit?” I have some ideas.

Although I do think The Witch has a “moral” (it being a folktale and all), I don’t like the straightforward feminist reading. I’m not saying that gender, sex, and patriarchy aren’t themes, but I don’t think the witch represents “female liberty” or something. It’s no surprise that this reading has caught on with some viewers: there’s a long tradition of seeing horror monsters as representative of sublimated desires and fears. Robin Wood, an English critic and professor of film, was one of the biggest proponents of that tradition. Common political readings of horror films—Dracula is about sexual freedom, Dawn Of The Dead is about capitalist consumption—are friendly with Wood’s theories. The Robin Wood-inspired interpretation of The Witch goes something like, “The witch represents the inverse of the Puritan household because she’s naked all day and she doesn’t answer to any man. When she kills everybody and converts Thomasin, that’s like, patriarchy is stupid and being a free woman is awesome! Patriarchy is the real monster, did I just blow your mind?

If you liked the movie and were overjoyed that Thomasin joined the witches’ coven, you might like that reading, but it won’t convince the haters. My biggest issue with a Woodian reading is that it ignores the creative choice that makes The Witch so distinctive: total fidelity to the era it portrays.

The Witch is set in a recreation of early New England that aims to be (or at least makes a show of presenting) as historically accurate as possible. Props and sets weren’t just made to look authentic, but manufactured using period-accurate methods. Many events and lines of dialogue are lifted straight from primary-source journals and transcripts—the witch’s abilities are based on what Puritans actually thought was happening.

This level of demonstrated historical commitment is not how people usually do period pieces. Horror movies always do the “based on true events” thing, but they never take it seriously. The Screenwriting 101 wisdom is, you keep what’s effective for your story and chuck/change the things that don’t work. For example, probably not many people said “cocksucker” in the Old West, but Deadwood wouldn’t be as good if everyone said “goldarn rogue.” Too much historical accuracy can limit identification with characters, restrict creative choices, and make your movie predictable. Based on its C- CinemaScore rating, The Witch has some of these issues, so if Eggers has no storytelling reason for the authenticity besides “I thought it would be cool,” then the movie sucks. I’ll argue that The Witch’s sense of historical accuracy is important to the story being told and makes it different from most horror movies in non-superficial ways.

We’ll get to that, but first I want to bring up another bit of scholarship to talk about this movie: Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy Of Horror, Or Paradoxes Of The Heart, a dense examination of the fundamental questions of the horror genre. What makes horror movies scary? If they’re scary, why do we watch them?

For Carroll, horror movies have “threatening and impure” monsters that “breach the norms of ontological propriety presumed by the positive human characters in the story” (16). In plain English, horror monsters don’t just threaten the main characters, they break some kind of natural law in a nasty way. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and zombies are all back from the dead. The xenomorph from Alien has acid blood. Freddy Krueger lives in your dreams. Even in movies like The Exorcist or The Conjuring, where some characters’ ontology accepts the uncanny, there are characters who don’t believe and must be convinced.

What about slasher movies? Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Purge all have regular human villains who happen to be murderous psychopaths. Carroll concedes these counterexamples, but argues that the story world still treats the villains as out-of-the-ordinary, in need of ontological investigation. That’s why every Saw needs a twist: there has to be some “drama of knowledge” that takes place over the course of the movie.

Carroll provides the complex discovery plot framework to account for this drama of knowledge. The CDP has four stages:

Onset—The monster does something bad.

Discovery—The main characters discover the monster. They can either find it directly or see one of its victims/aftereffects.

Confirmation—The main characters have to convince people with resources that the monster is a problem. The police don’t believe in ghosts or vampires.

Confrontation—Once someone who can help is finally convinced (or not), the main characters fight the monster.

Unless a horror movie has a mad scientist, it probably follows aspects of this pattern. Carroll gives The Exorcist and Jaws as examples of CDPs. You can get variations on the CDP by subtracting one or more stages. For example, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is an onset/discovery/confirmation plot: once the authorities know about the aliens, the movie is over. Alien is an onset/confrontation plot: the main characters find the alien, and then they have to fight it. What all of these variations have in common is that they involve the characters progressively learning more about impossible beings, engaging the audience’s burning curiosity not despite, but because of how scary the monsters are. Here’s a big quote where Carroll explains his main point:

“All narratives might be thought to involve the desire to know—the desire to know at least the outcome of the interaction of the forces made salient in the plot. However, the horror fiction is a special variation on this general narrative motivation, because it has at the center of it something which is given as in principle unknowable—something which, ex hypothesi, cannot, given the structure of our conceptual scheme, exist and that cannot have the properties it has. This is why, so often, the real drama in a horror story resides in establishing the existence of the monster and in disclosing its horrific properties.” (182)

According to Carroll, we come to horror movies not to be scared per se, but to get answers to scary questions. We are intensely aligned with the characters’ fear and need to know. That’s why, by most standards, story and characterization are so weak in lots of horror movies. Besides the fact that we know most people onscreen are going to die anyway, if a dramatic beat doesn’t move the characters’ relationship to/understanding of the monster forward, why are we even in the theater?

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Onset

The Witch begins not with a witch attack, but with the banishment of a family from a Puritan settlement. We open on a closeup of daughter Thomasin’s face, but we hear the father, William, chastising the village authorities for their lack of piety. By the end of the first scene, the staging and editing make the dramatic relationships clear: William is in charge of his subservient family members. They’re not even asked a question or looked at. William doesn’t get along with the village leaders over some interpretation of scripture, so his whole family is leaving.

What we don’t find out is what makes William’s theology different from the village’s. We never do. We can infer the basics of his doctrine—born in sin, grace, mercy, Bible!—but we never get the whole litany of social codes these characters are enforcing (the parents) and trying to understand (the kids). Eggers immediately puts a knowledge barrier between the characters and the viewer that doesn’t let up, a risky move in a genre that especially relies on the audience’s alignment with the protagonists. Movies like Michael Clayton and Spotlight can drop viewers into complicated situations and say “figure it out,” but horror movies don’t tend to do that—if we don’t even know why they’re by this forest in the first place, why would we care about them getting attacked by a witch? Eggers has already lost the people who don’t like to take a more cerebral role in their horror experience (which doesn’t make people dumb! A lot of smart viewers aren’t used to a lot of ambiguity/hard-to-understand characters when they’re trying to get their scare on, and that’s okay).

Eggers throws us a bone shortly after, though. We’re about to one-up this family on the knowledge ladder (or so we think). There are some spooky wide shots of the woods, a quick montage of the family setting up their new home, a scene of Thomasin praying for eternal salvation, and then the baby gets kidnapped. We leave the family and follow a woman carrying the baby through the woods. She gets naked. She cuts the baby up and rubs its guts all over herself. She flies towards the moon. All of this is presented in super-unsettling elliptical editing, but we now know that there’s a witch in the woods, and she doesn’t seem nice. It’s clear that we’re watching a Horror Movie, even though our protagonists aren’t what we’re used to.

Your reaction to this scene probably determines how much you’ll like the rest of the movie. If you’re terrified, you’re good. If you’re like, “lol baby dick, lol look at her butt,” turn it off.

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Discovery

Another tough part of The Witch for some people: the family doesn’t find out that there’s a witch until pretty late in the game. William writes off the baby-napping as a wolf attack and gets back to his meager harvest. We spend a lot of time on rabbit hunting, homesickness, and white lies in the family. It’s like a whole nother hour before Caleb gets witched and that crazy exorcism scene segways us into the good stuff.

Again, your mileage may vary depending on your interest in learning about the family outside of a normal Horror Movie context. Every scene has something that reminds us of how different their lifestyle is—Caleb checking out Thomasin, Thomasin taking off her dad’s shirt, the parents’ discussion of shipping off Thomasin to be a bride. Yet slowly but surely, we get relatable family stuff.

The basic dynamic is familiar: two mostly honest people struggling to raise their kids the “right” way, and the kids struggling to catch up. Nobody’s a one-dimensional, fundamentalist stereotype. William might be a dumb patriarch who moved into the wrong neighborhood, but he’s no tyrant. He works hard to care for his family and responds to their crises of faith with patience and love. Katherine mourns for her lost son and tries to accept her new life. Caleb covers for William when Katherine gets mad. The twins are fucking brats, like all little kids. Most of all, Thomasin’s anger comes through clear as day: she’s mad at things that aren’t relatable for most American audiences (the prospect of getting married off), but her adolescent angst rallies against familiar things too—not having a say in family matters, having to do chores. She has no frame of reference for her culture’s sexism, but we do, and we feel for her.

Thomasin’s resentment comes to a boil in a way that has a sneaky effect on the complex discovery plot’s progress. When Mercy comes up to Thomasin and Caleb and pretends to be a witch (“clackety clackety!”), Thomasin responds in typical older sibling fashion by running with the joke and torturing/terrifying her. We see this as Thomasin blowing off some steam, and the scene is bookended with humor beats that make us overlook it in the grand scheme of things, but it sets in motion the movie’s endgame. Mercy believes Thomasin, so while we know from 5 minutes in that there’s a witch living in the woods*, the family starts to get some other ideas.

As is the case in many horror movies, the “discovery” of the monster happens sort of piecemeal. Thomasin suspects from the beginning that a wolf didn’t take Samuel; creepy bunny is creepy; Black Phillip talks to the twins; Caleb knows something’s in the woods. But if there’s a true moment of discovery where everyone knows there’s a witch, it’s when William pries the apple from Caleb’s mouth. The nature of the monster is solidified. However, at this point, the twins are convincing the parents that it’s Thomasin because of her mean joke, and Thomasin thinks it’s the twins because of Black Phillip. Everyone knows there’s a witch…and is still super confused.

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Confirmation

You know how in horror comedies, a demon or ghost will be attacking some teenagers, and one of the teenagers remembers that they’ve seen The Exorcist, so they make a cross with some Popsicle sticks or whatever and it kills the demon? That’s basically what happens in The Witch when they find out that witchery is afoot, except their frame of reference isn’t horror movies, it’s the Bible. They’re like, “Shit, witchcraft! We’d better start praying!” And their praying works.

Regarding the “confirmation” stage, there’s no personified higher authority in The Witch, like a policeman or priest or village elder. The family’s left all that behind. But there is a higher authority, and it’s…you know…the big one.

The exorcism scene flips Carroll’s framework on its head. While supernatural witchcraft isn’t real for the audience, it’s completely within the “conceptual scheme” of every single character in The Witch. Carroll’s theory is about how horror connects the post-Age of Reason mindset to the unknowable, but we’re on a pre-Age of Reason farm. When the prayer starts to work against whatever possesses Caleb and the twins, unlike in every other exorcism movie ever, there are no bystanders with expressions that say, “OMG, God and Satan actually do exist! I am shocked!”**

Since their prayer proves to be an effective weapon against whatever is inside the kids, exorcizing Caleb and short-circuiting the twins’ more insidious curse, the most logical interpretation is that the ontology of The Witch’s world more or less conforms to the family’s Puritan beliefs, and that Caleb’s soul is indeed saved.*** Maybe they don’t know the exact extent of the witch’s abilities, but they have a fundamental understanding of what they’re dealing with. This is why the movie’s impression of historical accuracy, and the ensuing fidelity to the witch myth/relative knowledge gap between the characters and us, are so important. We’ve spent this whole time thinking this helpless family is gonna get destroyed, only to find out that they may have ways to defend themselves.

I think if Eggers had played fast and loose with his research, come up with his own “take” on the witch myth, and made Thomasin a Modern Young Woman, this would have stood out as cheap or totally nonsensical. But given the withheld knowledge from the very beginning, and the deep period-detail verisimilitude, we don’t even notice how weird this twist is for the genre. We’ve been immersed in an unfamiliar world of Puritan rules and customs this whole time, and now we’re primed to see an eleventh-hour exorcism as justified in the story world. We might not even notice (the movie’s ambiguities up to this point being what they are) that the family may have the tools to combat the witch, or at least negate her powers, if they would only trust each other and put their heads together.

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Confrontation

THEY STILL MANAGE TO FUCK IT UP!!!

More specifically, William fucks it up. Instead of ignoring his dumbass kids’ finger-pointing and being like, “Hmm, maybe there’s a witch in the woods that we can all pray at and vanquish,” William locks his kids in a barn with a possessed goat, eats some dirt, and goes to sleep. He doesn’t do this out of hatred for his kids or self-righteousness. He does it because 1) he’s scared 2) his fidelity to his Puritanism, which says that his kids are as sinful as anyone else, leads him to misread the evidence.****

Even when their ontological understanding points them right at the villain and says, “Go get ‘em,” the parents’ ideology clouds their judgment and leads them to indulge sin when they most need to avoid it. As William apologizes for his pride in trying to “conquer this wilderness,” he has demonstrated pride by reacting to Thomasin’s “all you do is chop wood!” dig by putting her in the barn. I don’t know what Katherine’s sin is early on—envy of the villagers? greed for her dead kids?—but by the end, when she’s trying to kill her daughter, it’s definitely wrath. Whatever. The thing that ultimately does William and Katherine in isn’t sin, Calvinism, or patriarchy. It’s following their doctrine to the letter, failing to allow the possibility of another truth when they’re almost right. From the beginning, this family knows way more about the monster they’re dealing with than most horror protagonists, yet they don’t really get past the discovery stage of the CDP.

That’s what I think is the core thematic statement of The Witch: even if evil is an ontological category, correct ontology doesn’t equal correct ideology. Even when you’re 100% right about something “evil,” you can’t generalize based on previous understandings or close your mind to new knowledge. As Thomasin’s conversion at the end shows, this attitude might create more of the enemy you’re trying to defeat. This isn’t moral relativism. You can’t excuse evil for where it comes from: evil is evil. The witch is evil, and if Thomasin goes on to murder other families and melt their babies down for broomfuel, she’s evil. And yet, you have to face evil with humility. Just because something is recognizably evil doesn’t mean you have the correct framework.

Time for a paragraph of half-baked applications! As a “folktale” or parable, I guess the theme I’ve identified works for modern feminism(s), but it’s less resonant there than elsewhere. One feminist application would be, “Yes, there are psychotic, irrational women, but not all women are like that, and a woman being open with her emotions or dissatisfied with her station in life doesn’t make her evil.” Game-changing feminist message, if you haven’t been informed that women have the right to vote. Here are some better ones: Yes, there are dangerous and violent criminals in America’s inner cities that need to be separated from society, but that doesn’t mean we can trust the justice system put in place to stop them. Yes, Wall Street is ruining America, but that doesn’t mean every last person working in finance is a piece of shit. There are also parallels with the War on Terror. We can all agree that ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram are pure evil, but does that justify Trump’s Muslim registry idea, or any of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy? Who is responsible for the rise of radical Islam? Is it something innate in Islam’s teachings, or recent socioeconomic factors that you need a Ph.D to start to understand?

This moral isn’t a perfect idea, not that movies should express perfect ideas. Ironically enough given the feminist readings, #notallmen is a widespread manifestation of it. But it’s still something worth dramatizing, and the horror genre is perfect for it. Hasty generalizations about evil are based on fear, and we are afraid of the witch. It’s up to the viewer to unpack the narrative world’s ontology and the characters’ mistakes within it after being totally swept up in terror. I think the number of possible readings (shoutout to @MattAmylon) speaks to the difficulty of identifying the nature of evil when you’re confronted by fear, and if you wanted to get really meta-silly you could say that demonizing the Puritan family for their outdated morals is falling into Eggers’s trap. Did you think that William was the real villain, even though one of the last things we see him do is sob on his knees and plead for his family’s salvation? Congratulations, you FAILED THE TEST. You’re definitely going to hell.

 

 

*You could argue that they’re tripping balls on ergot root, but there’s no evidence within the movie to support this. Yes, there are shots of ergot on their grain, but there’s no exposition of what it is, and we don’t initially find out about the witch through any of the family members.

**I didn’t see Katherine’s doubt of God’s love/not feeling his presence as actually doubting his existence, but tell me if I’m wrong, people who know religion.

***The quasi-erotic creepiness of Caleb’s salvation and his immediate death might make viewers think the witch is just playing tricks on the family, but I don’t see evidence for this or what she would stand to gain from it.

****For a Woodian repressed-sexuality reading to work as the primary theme of The Witch, the main reason William believes that Thomasin’s a witch would have to be that she is flowering as a young woman. Even if that’s a contributing factor, you can’t say that it’s William’s deciding factor and the other stated evidence (Thomasin coming out of the woods after Caleb is taken, the twins’ accusations, etc.) isn’t as strong to him.

Reference:

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy Of Horror, or Paradoxes Of The Heart. Routledge, 1990. Print.


 

absolutely no relation to r. kelly.Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510

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