By Erin Isaac and Kapri Macdonald
Every October we can expect a lineup of new thrillers and horror films designed to frighten and intrigue audiences. Often these films (consciously or not) present a veiled but hyper-realised version of a modern “threat.” Vampire movies, for instance, have represented a myriad of fears through the ages—like how Count Orlok’s character in the 1922 German film Nosferatu, had anti-Semitic features.(1) Usually these films present fear of an “other,” an out-group that causes havoc for the members of the in-group. In horror films about witches, the witch is usually a bloodthirsty old crone with a vendetta against average people. Unlike most horror films, 2016’s The Witch seeks to be historically accurate and does not present an “other” as the driving evil. Rather, the film’s characters turn on one another and ultimately create their own demise.
The Witch: A New-England Folktale, set in 1620 New England, is unique among horror movies about witchcraft in that it makes an effort to portray witches as they would have been understood in the 17th century. Robert Eggers’ film represents, in several respects, a better direction for historically-based thrillers. The film is well-researched and (though some non-academic viewers may find its attention to detail tedious,) is more responsible in how it builds suspense and conflict between its characters. Indeed, the film’s credits state directly that “This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.”
Eggers’ attention to the historical record shows, as his film’s witch complies with 17th-century beliefs. Historically, witchcraft was perceived as a very real and tangible representation of evil and the devil. Contemporaries believed that witches inherited their magical or supernatural powers (like flying or shape-shifting) by making a pact with the devil and signing his book. “Witches” were usually outsiders or individuals who lived on the fringes of society. They were usually lower class, didn’t fit into normative society, and often had physical or mental disabilities, or disfigurements. Because it was thought that women were intellectually weaker than men, it was also believed that they were more susceptible to the temptations and persuasions of the devil. These Western views on witchcraft originated in Europe and migrated across the Atlantic with North America’s first European settlers, and this is evident in The Witch.
*Warning: Plot Spoiling Ahead*
In the beginning of the film, we see the characters exiled to New England’s frontier—a new and harsh environment, lacking in community support, that ultimately sets up the story’s main conflict. After the loss of the baby Samuel, environmental stressors including a crop failure and the family’s inability to sustain themselves on limited game provoke familial strain. William acknowledged the impact of these environmental factors when he declared that, “We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us!” Little did he know that the drama incited by “this wilderness” would ultimately be the family’s downfall.
Soon after the family begins their new life on a frontier farm, the baby Samuel mysteriously vanishes under the care of the eldest daughter, Thomasin. The family attributes this disappearance to a wolf, but the audience knows that a witch who has taken him. Samuel’s kidnapping increases the family’s sense of vulnerability on the frontier. This unease, in addition to a sense of distrust among the characters after a silver cup goes missing, creates tension and conflict within the family that is exacerbated further by growing concern over their crop failure and difficulty trapping game. One by one, each family member is targeted by the witch and the family goat called Black Philip (who is actually Satan), who intensify existing pressures in order to drive them apart. As the film goes on, the family becomes more convinced that something evil is at play and causing their problems even as they continue to plunge deeper into a pattern of self-destructive behaviour.
By our summary, it is clear that (for a film called The Witch) the witch makes very few visual appearances throughout. Rather, much of the focus is placed on the tensions and “infighting” within the family. In the film’s canon, witchcraft is real and dangerous. However, even before the characters have reason to believe a witch is responsible for their recent troubles, their attention is placed on “the witch” rather than on the problems that they know exist. For instance, Katherine, the mother, describes the farm as “unnatural” and describes her son’s illness as looking like “witchcraft.” Blame is placed on a witch before the characters have evidence that supernatural forces are at play.
Eggers’ storytelling falls strongly in line with the kinds of climatic stressors historians know to have been attributed to witches in the past. In the 1990’s, Wolfgang Behringer found that German witch hunts escalated during periods of climactic change, especially those causing food shortages.(2) More recently, Edward Miguel, similarly, concluded that witch trials in rural Tanzania intensified in times of drought or flooding.(3)
In The Witch…environmentally-driven anxieties manifest themselves as fears about witchcraft.
In The Witch, as in the historical examples Behringer and Miguel describe, environmentally-driven anxieties manifest themselves as fears about witchcraft. As stress builds in the film, the characters become more convinced that there is a witch in the area, if not among them. This stress is caused by several factors, including their isolation and failing crops, exacerbated by Samuel’s disappearance and the character’s attempts to place guilt or to understand God’s punishment. In Simon Abrams’s review of the film, he suggested that “Eventually, Thomasin’s family personify their fears of nature… [and their] day-to-day troubles—almost all of which stem from the fact that their land seems cursed—[in] the form of a fairy tale witch.”(4)
Because The Witch is not based on one particular event or family, it’s successful in giving audiences a sense of how contemporaries experienced witchcraft during the 17th century. While films or documentaries about specific trials often focus on the particular phenomena that experts speculate caused fear of witchcraft at that time and in that place, The Witch tells a more standard story. “Witches” were blamed for ordinary things going wrong that contemporaries simply could not explain at the time.
The Witch brings this history, or the trend to blame environmental change (like crop shortages) on individual people, to life. The title character is a tangible threat in the film, however, in history witchcraft was a scapegoat. But—if the witch isn’t the threat–how can the danger be mitigated or controlled? As we enjoy the thrill and adrenaline rush of scary movies this Halloween, let’s also remain conscious of what these films are telling us to fear…
Erin Isaac is a Master’s student in history at the University of New Brunswick. Her thesis Conflicting Christianities: Anglo-North American Anti-Catholicism and Its Exceptions, 1763-1780 considers the legacy of imperial anti-Catholic traditions as expressed during the Seven Years’ War (1754-63) among British North Americans and its effects on politics and culture between the Quebec Act (1774) and the Franco-American alliance (1778).
Kapri Macdonald is a first year Master’s student in history at the University of New Brunswick. Her research interests include witchcraft and women’s experiences with the supernatural and preternatural.
(1) For more, refer to Rolf Giesen, The Nosferatu Story: The Seminal Horror Film, Its Predecessors and Its Enduring Legacy (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2019), esp. 103-110.
(2) Wolfgang Behringer, “Climactic Change and Witch-Hunting,” Climate Change 43 (1999): 335-351.
(3) Edward Miguel, “Poverty and Witch Killing,” Review of Economic Studies 72 (2005): 1153–1172.
(4) Simon Abrams, Roger Ebert Reviews, February 18, 2016, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-witch-2016.
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