Loved by critics, hated by audiences. But today’s audiences are so hollow they think The Conjuring is the scariest thing since The Exorcist. And that’s the best gauge I can offer you. If you use a film like The Conjuring as a barometer for terror — loud bangs and cheap thrills — then don’t see The Witch. If you’re vulnerable to slow-burning organic terrors filtered through isolated and oppressive environments, and if you especially like films that are stingy in showing the titular baddie for greater effect (like Alien, Jaws, and The Babadook), then chances are you’ll be impressed and frightened by The Witch.
Aside from even the question of its horror style, Robert Eggers’ film is excellent in every way. Kubrick could have scored it. Bergman could have shaped the characters. Either could have landed the cinematography that captures stunning wide shots. But Eggers owns his narrative, and his itch for the witch is plain. He’s been obsessed with the Salem Witch trials (1692-93) for some time, and his story of a Puritan family in 1630 presages those trials. This is a family whose fundamentalist beliefs are so severe that they leave their plantation, denouncing its Christian leaders as heretics, and settle miles away in complete isolation from the rest of Colonial America. Unfortunately, they plant themselves on the border of a forest which happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at her new “neighbors” — first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo, and stabbing it to death in an obscene rite.
Eggers, like me, grew up in New Hampshire, and that’s where he wanted to shoot the film. “Honestly,” he says, “in southern New Hampshire, to find woods like that is the easiest thing ever.” Pure truth. But in order to get the film financed he had to shoot in Canada (northern Ontario). It may as well have been New Hampshire. The isolated farm of this Puritan family reminded me of the communal farm I grew up on in the rural town of Lyndeboro. We raised crops and animals, and split wood, against the backdrop of woods exactly like that seen in The Witch. I had acres of forest right in my back yard, and if you went deep enough, things got spooky. And while my parents certainly weren’t fundies, our Christian community (Still Waters) took its convictions seriously. Eggers’ film worked for me on many levels.
The story is a sort of spiritual Whodunit. Strange occurrences mount after the baby’s disappearance, and Thomasin (the eldest child, daughter of about age 16) becomes scapegoated by her family members as a witch. The baby had disappeared on her watch, and now her younger twin siblings begin cavorting with a creepy black goat. Other livestock get sick. The crops fail. The father, a paragon of righteousness, tells lies to his wife. Some of these things are normal enough, some are weird, but Thomasin becomes the lead suspect in a repressed atmosphere, and it doesn’t help that she once teased her young siblings about casting curses on them.
The pivotal scene is young Caleb’s possession/seizure, which ends in his bizarre orgasmic death. After getting lost in the woods and seduced by the witch (he’s only on the verge of puberty), he shows up home late at night, naked and raving mad. Thomasin is now formally accused by the rest of the family, for all the absurdly harmless reasons women would be later accused at Salem, and for the obscenity now inflicting her brother. Caleb’s condition escalates from a confused seizure to some kind of deliriously religious ecstasy. He sits up in bed and shouts out a prayer by John Winthrop, one of the Puritan founders of New England:
“O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable thou art! Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is sweeter than wine: How lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embraces! My heart leaps for joy when I hear the voice of thee my Lord, my love, when thou sayest to my soul, thou art her salvation. O my God, my king, what am I but dust! A worm, a rebel, and thine enemy was I, wallowing in the blood and filth of my sins, when thou didst cast the light of Countenance upon me, when thou spread over me the lap of thy love, and saidest that I should live!”
Not being familiar with the writings of Winthrop, I thought this was some kind of pagan perversion of a Christian prayer, given the erotic overtones (which I should have known better as derived from the Song of Songs). Caleb is, to be sure, still in thrall to the witch’s possession at this point, but it’s not clear how much. He dies after shouting this litany, and as Eggers says in an interview, the fate of his Christian soul is meant to be unclear: “His joyous prayer that ends in a near orgasmic state could be a bewitched mockery of religion, febrile nonsense, or actual salvation.” To me, it sure seemed like the first of those three options.
In the end, everyone gets their deserts. The young twins vanish like the baby. The black goat gores the father to death. Thomasin kills her fanatical mother in self-defense. Thomasin is the only one left standing, and in unexpected irony succumbs to that which she had been accused, but was innocent all along: In the woods she runs across on a coven of nude witches chanting around a bonfire. The black goat beckons her into the circle, she joins their raving madness, and the credits roll. Maybe she’s better off this way. The film doesn’t “choose” between Puritanical zeal and pagan blood rites, only between Thomasin’s misery and liberation — even if that liberation comes at a hideous price. Frankly, I wish I had witch-powers myself, so I could curse those who curse this film.