by Danny Stout
Although considered a horror film, The Witch is more accurately a portraiture of a Puritan family and their obsessions with sin and punishment. The witch character, while important, mainly serves to underscore the perils of religious fanaticism in early New England. Director Robert Eggers captures with precision, Puritan life down to the minutest detail. Period dialect, mannerisms, folkways, agricultural methods, and clothing combine to transport the viewer to seventeenth century Massachusetts like few films before it. Authenticity, then, creates a context for a scary chilling ride that satisfies both fans of the genre as well as anyone after a good story. In the vein of the novel The Scarlet Letter and play, The Crucible, The Witch pursues psychological questions at a level exceeding typical horror films. This is further enhanced by the dark-forest aesthetic with bare branches and eternal overcast skies. It was an award-winner at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
William (Ralph Ineson) announces in a Puritan meeting house, that his family, displeased with the sins of the congregation, plan a more righteous life away from the village. “Then begone with all of you!” the minister shouts. Soon William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), older teen daughter Thomison (Anya Taylor-Joy), younger teen Caleb, and younger twins Mercy and Jonas establish a small farm with a house and stables. Katherine gives birth to a new member of the tightly knit clan. For a short time spirits are high, and things go well.
The good times never roll too far, however, when every event in life is seen as either reward or punishment. The solution to all difficulty is to repent of sin, and any accomplishment must be attributed to God. These are untenable standards even for the devout, and tension is inevitable. When some of the crops fail, Katherine blames William and his many sins. Conceding he’s the cause, he confesses to selling Katherine’s silver chalice for tools and farm supplies. A gift from her parents, Katherine is so irate she’s convinced the Devil occupies their household. When William speaks of forgiveness as taught by the Good Book, Katherine will have none of it. They’re headed, she believes, for a long period of castigation. Such talk unnerves the children.
Giving away more dilutes the unease that’s a necessary condition for effect. Suffice it to say there is death, illness, accusation, and a witch. Or is the witch a product of the imagination of someone so ridden with guilt that it becomes psychoses? For all that was said earlier about history and aesthetics, this is a “scary” film if such is defined by progressive fright toward a climactic moment. Moody scenes deliver optimal tension. The Witch employs understated horror much like The Innocents, based on the novel, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, or The Village directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Such an approach can be more effective than overt imagery.
While The Witch can be experienced at the horror film level alone, there is commentary about Puritan life and the deleterious impacts of fanaticism. The topic is universally relevant; the dangers of hyper-zealotry exist in all faith communities. Given the number of Mormon descendants of Puritan heritage, the movie is particularly poignant. In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Jaroldeen Edwards argues that early Mormon settlements reflected “…the independence and vigor of western frontiersmanship, and New England Puritanism.”
One example is the Puritan Old Ship Meeting House, now simply the Old Ship Church. It’s a plain structure: no stained glass, statuary, or paintings; such things would replace God, they believed. The building closely resembles the simplicity of LDS chapels, surely a vestige of New England theology.
Thankfully, Church leaders renounce Puritanical practice in its various forms. Unfortunately, it occasionally emerges requiring good Latter-day Saints to speak out against such behaviors. A professor colleague at BYU related a story about his grandmother’s friend in the 1950’s. that had a child out of wedlock. When asked, along with the father, to confess before the entire congregation, she refused, moving elsewhere. It only happened for a time, she said, before the public practice ended. Today, we all hear comments such as, “He will never be a Bishop, he was disfellowshipped,” or “She made bad decisions that will follow her the rest of her life.”
Viewing the film, I wondered how Christians could lose sight of the principle of forgiveness to the point of overlooking Christian love. Compassion is a necessary condition for the Plan of Salvation. This film, in an almost ethnographic sense, depicts family members letting compassion slip away. Film can teach by demonstrating the opposite of a principle. As the credits came up at the end, I realized how much I value true Christianity and the need for daily forgiveness of family, friends, and all people.