If Robert Eggers’ The Witch doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will. The film took home a Best Directing award for Eggers at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, which led to a wide theatrical release this February and an ecstatic audience reception. Modern-day Satanists have hailed The Witch more than any other film as a shining example of Satanic belief and values. I’m inclined to agree, and that’s what makes it so goddamn haunting and provocative. In a culture divided by moral indignation, a straight up Satanic horror film has hit thousands of multiplexes around the country, like it’s no big deal. It’s just sitting there in theaters next to Zootopia, oozing evil!
The film concerns a Puritan family who has settled along the forest edge in New England circa 1630. We know—because Eggers has repeatedly said—that the film is heavy with historical accuracy. Their speech comes from historical texts, and everything from the clothing to the architecture of their handmade farm was created to feel real to the audience.The family’s religious rituals include days of fasting, blood letting and frantic prayer. It looks like an alchemy not too far off from witchcraft.
Modern day Christianity mostly sees Satan as a metaphor for moral weakness (or “sin,” if you insist). But 400 years ago, evil was a tangible thing and it could possess your children or farm animals if you let it. Imagine if everyone you knew believed in this kind of sorcery. Your family has been banished from the plantation, and now, alone in the wilderness, your crops are dying, winter is coming and some invisible thing has run away with your youngest child. This is the terrifying reality that Eggers’ film invites you to enter.
Where Other Satanic Films Have Failed
The historical accuracy in The Witch matters, because without it, you’re left with the more common cinematic trope, wherein Satanism and the Devil are let loose in modern society, and then we get a hokey “fish out of water” scenario, even when it’s trying to be serious. We see the devil as a charismatic man in films like Constantine (with Bush’s front man Gavin Rossdale as Satan), and in two shows debuting this winter: Fox’s “Lucifer” and A&E’s “Damien.” The devil as a man will always be a little dumb (the same way it’s dumb to try to depict Christ or God in film), because he is by definition more than a man.
In 1999’s The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino plays a somewhat charismatic but mostly hoo-haa-ing blood-sucking lawyer who’s easily defeated by the will of one (Keanu Reeves)—except he’s not actually defeated. Keanu can’t wait to start sinning again, and we see in the last shot that Pacino has survived among the crowd of reporters. The devil never dies in these films, because he can’t. It wouldn’t make sense, because we haven’t killed him in real life.
Either the devil seems down for now but isn’t really, or else he straight up wins the day. Such is the case in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). When Mia Farrow realizes that she’s powerless to save her baby from the dark side, she chooses love for the kid over allegiance to a vague and unseen God and joins in with the throng of Satanists in her apartment building.
Rosemary’s Baby is good by most measures, but it’s not a great cinematic depiction of Satanism. In the film, Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes find themselves surrounded by strange characters, who it turns out are monsters in disguise. In this way, the terror comes from a more conspiratorial, witch-hunt idea that anyone among us could be masquerading as something they’re not. The plot of Rosemary’s Baby has little to do with how a person becomes a Satanist or what that power really means. Rosemary’s neighbors could just as easily have been lizard men or wolves and the story would be the same.
Another Polanski film, 1999’s The Ninth Gate, gets a lot closer to revealing the inner dimensions of Satanic belief. Johnny Depp plays an amoral book dealer who’s sent on a treasure hunt to find an ancient text for a rich, eccentric collector. The book, it becomes clear, has demonic powers, and soon Depp becomes infected with the poison. Our not very good hero has gone all the way bad, and now he wants the book for himself. In The Ninth Gate, the devil is personified by a mysterious blonde woman who seduces Depp, both literally and metaphorically. This is a mostly effective film, and yet repeated close up shots of the devil woman’s tennis shoes have a way of taking you out of the picture.
The Witch sidesteps all of these pitfalls, firstly by setting the picture in a time and place where a belief in the Devil is a literal, every day reality. Secondly, it doesn’t make Satan a human character, at least not one we’re expected to believe for any considerable period of time. In The Witch, the devil appears as a rabbit, an invisible ghost, and a terrifying black goat.
If Satan were to visit earth, would he do it in the form of a bombastic lawyer in New York City, or would he flit in and out of different unassuming vessels?
Please be advised: Spoilers for The Witch abound from here on out.
Does God even exist in The Witch?
When I first wrote about The Witch shortly after its release, I suggested that God and the Devil were both unavoidable realities in the story, but now I think I was only half right. There’s no getting around that black magic exists, but does the existence of a Heavenly God necessarily follow? The Satanic Temple were eager to endorse the film because they see it as a rebuke of traditional Christian values in favor of human character traits that are more honest and primal, so that’s a big vote for No God.
Before the horror begins, we have a family drama, led by a patriarchal, deeply religious man. He makes all the decisions and he has the final say when it comes to how they’ll interpret God’s messages. When their troubles start, the father suggests that God has handed down misfortune as a punishment for original sins and a test of their enduring faith. Repeatedly we see him chopping wood in a tangible expression of the Protestant work ethic. And so, when their possessed goat eventually guts the father, it’s not an accident that the stack of wood he’s created finishes the job by collapsing on top of him. “This is what we think of your work ethic and allegiances to God,” the film seems to say.
The father interprets his impending death as a natural consequence of his pride, but that’s just a theory. We can’t say for sure that God doesn’t exist, but in a film that hasn’t shied away from supernatural events, He sure as hell doesn’t get any screen time.
Thomasin: feminist hero or just another doomed woman in horror?
The Witch belongs to the teenage daughter Thomasin, and we know because it begins and ends with shots of her face. She’s the one everyone thinks is a witch, and it’s her conversion to the dark side that matters: Everyone else seems powerless against the slings and arrows of circumstance. Many have interpreted her story as a feminist triumph, but I think that depends on whether you think becoming a witch who lives in the woods is a good fate.
The consequences of banishment from their Puritan community are dire for everyone, but particularly for Thomasin. She must understand that there’s no happy ending for her out in the wilderness, and not even because they’re filled with hell’s demons. Thomasin is on the verge of womanhood, and in horror films and elsewhere, becoming a woman brings consequences. The family is doomed to live together like Noah’s offspring, with only each other for company, and the looming threat of incest isn’t subtle. We see her pre-teen brother distracted by Thomasin’s body, and her mother seems visibly jealous of the affection between father and daughter.
For Thomasin, their banishment offers a few dismal fates: If she’s not sent off to be married, she’s subject to molestation from her family, and either is a lonely life without choices.
If becoming a witch is a good thing, then this is certainly a feminist film, but I’m inclined toward a more apolitical interpretation. Her journey follows a classic horror directory. We’ve seen it in classics like Halloween, where the virgin triumphs, or in Hitchcock’s The Birds, when the arrival of a virile blonde sends the birds into a frenzied bloodlust. Always in these kinds of pictures, the women live or die by the expression of their sexuality.
Does The Witch have a happy ending?
The real horror of The Witch dwells in the ambiguities between where magic ends and paranoia begins. When their son vomits up a whole, blood-covered apple and then promptly dies, the family knows he’s been witched, but not where the source of the evil comes from, and that’s when they really turn on each other.
In the end, everyone else in the family has been killed, and only Thomasin is left alive. The existence of God is still anybody’s guess, and even if He exists, He’s clearly abandoned this family. If you’ve seen the film, you know what happens: After a long, contemplative nap, Thomasin seeks out the goat Black Phillip; she signs his book and then marches naked into the forest to join her coven.
But what would have happened if she had held onto her Christian purity and resisted the evils of temptation? She’s a day’s ride from the plantation and they’ve lost their horse. If she stays home and does nothing, she’ll be killed by the encroaching winter. If she survives the trip back to the plantation, what conclusions would the Puritans there come to about her murdered family? Going back to civilization would likely lead to a swift execution for witchcraft, and then maybe, if the stories of her religion are true, she has a scant chance of winning God’s mercy in the afterlife.
Thomasin’s laughing, ecstatic face as she ascends into the air with other members of her coven would suggest that she made the right choice. For modern day Satanists, this giving over to the dark side is the inevitable expression of our true nature, and so she did the only sensible thing.
As an agnostic, I can’t help but worry about her immortal soul. Our culture teaches us that hell is an empirically terrible place, but she signs Satan’s book and still she’s not writhing in eternal hellfire—does the hellfire come later, or is life without Christianity a never-ending party? God bless The Witch for sneaking in these big questions.