I first heard about the film The Witch last summer while I was writing a thesis on the depiction of witches in modern film and television. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this film since critics clearly adored it, yet the trailer showed an all too familiar notion of the witch as the frightening old hag of fairy tales and witch-hunting propaganda. Despite the many ‘cool’ young witches in television shows such as Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the short-lived series The Witches of East End and The Secret Circle, film incarnations of witches still tended to favour the wizened crone with a habit of hunting children and serving the devil.
The Witch is set in New England, a few decades prior to the infamous Salem witch trials. Indeed, the film is subtitled as A New-England Folktale. The story begins with a puritan couple, William and Katherine, and their five children, being banished from their settlement after William argues with the church elders. Beyond the safety of the fortress-like plantation, they are thrust out into an ominous hinterland at the edge of a deep looming forest. Tensions rise within the family when their crop fails and the baby, Sam, disappears while under the watch of eldest child Thomasin.
While William and the eldest boy, Caleb, must resort to hunting for food, Katherine descends into utter despair over the loss of her infant, and Thomasin is left to discipline her young siblings, the twins, Mercy and Jonas. It is Mercy who first mentions the word witch, as she is playing by the river and pretending to ride a broomstick. To frighten her, Thomasin jokes that she is the witch. When Caleb goes missing and returns in a frightening condition, Thomasin is accused of witchcraft. It is frightening to think that such accusations happened so readily throughout the time when witch-hunting was prevalent, both in ‘the New World’ and especially in Europe. Those accused were rarely found innocent, as they were usually forced to confess to bargaining with the devil through various methods of torture.
A woman had no rights in those times, and as any form of birth control was deemed sinful, no rights over her body either. At one point in the film, Katherine and William discuss sending Thomasin to work for another family, as a way for them to make some money. Thomasin is trapped between serving in a secondary mother role and farm worker within her own family or serving another family, who would probably have less respect for her than her own kin. Women were also the most frequently blamed for witchcraft because they were deemed weaker, both physically and morally, and were, therefore, more likely to be susceptible to temptations.
Women are to be controlled and tamed, their wild nature suppressed by a patriarchal society who fears them. It is the female who, with her abject, unclean body, is more closely situated to the animal. As explained by Barbara Creed in her work, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis;
“In patriarchal cultures woman is aligned with the animal. Like the animal, woman also has a blood cycle, becomes pregnant, gives birth, sheds afterbirth, lactates, and suckles her young […] Unlike the idealised male body, the female body is not taut, discrete and classical; the female body is unstable.”
The shadowy scenes of the witch in this film shows her as a hunched woman with drooping breasts and wrinkled skin. The barren body of the elderly woman was frightening to men in the age of witch-hunting because it had no function – it could no longer procreate, and was no longer desirable. This certainly echoes modern society’s prejudices against the aging female form and the lack of representation of the older woman in popular media. In this age of photoshopping and plastic surgery, youthful physical perfection is the holy grail.
The sylvan setting for the film is a metaphor for the feminine. As the family travel toward their new home, William states that they must “tame the wilderness”, just as the women are tamed – confined in their corsets and cumbersome clothes, confined in their roles of mother and wife, and confined in the domestic sphere.
This could also be a metaphor for the ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans. Though Europeans only populated a small area of North America at that time, only two Native Americans are shown in the film; glimpsed through the closing gates of the colony. The first settlers to those shores were disgusted by the ‘savage’ ways of the natives. Their lack of understanding of the native ways made them intolerant of their traditions and beliefs. Their lack of clothing and seemingly primitive religions rendered them sinful in the eyes of Christians. Yet the Europeans filled in their gaps of understanding with superstitions and medicine which appears savage in modern terms. We see Katherine trying to cure the feverish Caleb by cutting his face with a knife, yet bloodletting was common practice in that time. This certainly highlights the intolerances we still hold in society today in regards to other cultures.
The forest is a common setting for nefarious witches seen in fairy tales, as well as a place of temptation for young maidens on the cusp of womanhood. In his seminal book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes; “Since ancient times the near impenetrable forest in which we get lost has symbolized the dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious.”
This film is rich with the mythology and beliefs of witchcraft held in the past, beliefs encouraged by such propaganda as in the books Malleus Maleficarum and Daemonologie, the latter written by King James I of England who believed witches conjured ferocious storms to kill him as he sailed back from Denmark with his new bride.
The witch of this film looks like the monstrous women in Francesco Goya and Albrecht Dürer’s artwork – crudely naked and sinewy with hanging breasts – and she was believed to have the power to shape-shift into such animals as hares and ravens to outsmart her captors. In many of these paintings, she is seen with a black horned goat – the devil – and some of the most memorable scenes from The Witch involve the family’s capricious goat, Black Philip.
It is refreshing to see a horror movie with a historical setting. And it is refreshing to see such an unsettling and beautiful horror film. Although I tend to dislike the typical portrayal of witches, I believe here, that the witch can be seen as a transcendent figure who has moved beyond the boundaries set by patriarchy. The scene in which we think we see the witch about to sacrifice the infant (it’s all about suggestion – we never find out what happens to Sam) could be symbolic for women having autonomy over her right to choose childbirth or not. The witch lives beyond a typical societal structure, she makes up her own rules and is not ashamed of her body, nor her sexuality.
The acting is very believable, unnervingly so at times. The script uses genuine old phrasing taken from diaries and other documentation from that era. Probably my favourite aspect of this film is the ambiguity of it. Is there indeed a witch toying with the family? Is it all down to over-active imaginations or fantasies, or, as the subtitle suggests, is it all merely a folktale?
For further reading on the subjects raised here, I suggest the following books:
The Witches: Salem, 1962 by Stacy Schiff
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Frederici
Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed
What did you think of The Witch?