The Witch (2016)
*originally published on The News Hub
Whatever you do, don’t go into the woods – there are witches there. That’s the basic moral of The Witch, one of the odder and more provocative works of cinematic horror to appear in the past few years. Directed by first timer Robert Eggers and without a single star to its name, it has received a wide theater release on the strength of critical praise from Sundance and beyond. It won the Directing Award at Sundance and has been critically touted as the “scariest film of the year,” a slow-burning folktale that reaches back to the roots of Puritanism and our ancestors’ terror of Satanic possession. Critics have dubbed it a milestone in horror, a game changer, a new world order.
There is no doubt that The Witch is a remarkable film. At a basic cinematic level, it’s a brilliant use of atmosphere: the central family occupy a cabin on the fringes of a haunted wood (Canada, standing in for New England), replete with fog and winding, uncertain paths that lead farther from civilization. The film’s well-placed moments of violence and slow-building tension found themselves within the hysterical underpinnings of Puritan religion, making the entire film as much a rumination on sin and salvation as it is a fairly straightforward haunting narrative, the fear of the witch in the woods. It is an effective, intelligent, and somewhat inaccessible art-house film – a film that deals more with the vagaries of belief and superstition than it does with actual scares. There are long sections of silence punctuated by dialogue that has characters speaking in a dialect steeped in religious tradition – a tradition that is never fully elucidated, with Biblically founded terrors that are never fully explained. The Witch is practically a slice of life, with little explanation for much of its horror. It is many things, and all of them interesting, but it is not the horror film we have come to expect.
The Witch both is and is not a horror film. It hits on specific tropes, but does not spend much time in examining their cause within the world of the film. The family is ejected from their colony, forced to eke out their existence in isolation, yet we never learn why they were removed in the first place. Nor is it terribly clear how isolated they really are – we know that they still trade to a degree, and that the colony is still accessible, if a day’s ride away. The film introduces concepts of the demonic possession of women and children, communion with Satan, blood sacrifice, and witches’ Sabbaths, yet the religious underpinnings of these beliefs are developed only through cryptic dialogue and never outright exposition. These are not modern people haunted by an age-old evil at odds with contemporary belief structures, as in films like Paranormal Activity, but a family steeped in a cultural tradition where these things are very real. The Witch advertises itself as a “New England folktale,” and it is something like listening to a folktale from an antecedent culture we no longer live in. The Witch does indeed hit generic horror markers, but from the perspective of foundational horror myths themselves. It looks back in time to treat of terror from the source.
The horror genre has gone through numerous permutations in its long, complex history. Even if one passes by horror’s literary and folktale antecedents, the changes in genre from the advent of film to the contemporary period mean that some traditional horror is almost unrecognizable as scary to us now. Horror is steeped in the bending of tradition – it possesses its own rules, which it subsequently breaks, and then enforces new rules based on the breaking of the old ones. In the most simplistic terms, horror brings up the fears of the culture from which it stems, often altered or manipulated so that our monsters are but amalgams of our collective terrors. Horror is the collective cultural nightmare and even if we don’t always find it particularly scary, we always see something of ourselves within both the victims and the monsters. In this context, what are we to make of The Witch?
One of the through-lines of The Witch is fear not just of the Other, but of the female Other. Female monstrosity is as old as the horror genre, and The Witch seeks for some of the historical antecedents of the fear of the feminine. Early in the film, the audience learns that witches are real and that they do all of the things that old Puritan stories say they do: stealing unbaptized children, dancing naked at midnight, having sex with Satan, transforming their shapes, leading men (or boys) astray. From our cultural perspective, The Witch reinforces the continued contemporary fear of the feminine – the witch (one of them at least) is an ugly monstrosity, the very symbol of the monstrous feminine. The film does not treat of the viciousness of witch trials or accusations, nor does it account for the foundational fears of powerful (and sexual) women that made the Puritans so very hysterical. Witch lore is rich in manipulative misogyny and power dynamics, yet The Witch avoids this dialogue in favor of a family drama driven by externalized fear and internal strife. At the same time, the film provides a catharsis of a sort, as the teenage girl at the edge of womanhood chooses to reject her father’s repressive religion and ally herself to the (feminine) darkness. The film does not fall into the error of proclaiming itself as feminist or anti-feminist, but rather presents a complex, multi-layered narrative that presents itself as an examination into the foundations of contemporary horror.
The horror genre has been going through yet another shift in focus. A genre often – though not exclusively – dominated by patriarchal prerogative, it now has begun to focalize through the female experience. Women in horror have often been monsters and have often been victims, but rarely have they been the driving narrative force. Rarely have they possessed the camera, either behind it or in front of it, and so films like The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, It Follows, Teeth, and, now, The Witch are unique in their focus on the feminine experience, both from within the characters themselves and from their external participation patriarchal structure. Even the original version of Paranormal Activity, a film that arguably began the most recent low-budget, low maintenance horror craze, was directed through the experience of a woman faced with male disbelief and then fear. The Witch, though far from a feminist work, adds another piece to the puzzle.
In returning to the origins of American horror, the film places itself in a unique and problematic position vis-a-vis its audience. The audience with which I saw The Witch was not particularly receptive to what the film was trying to achieve. While they were relatively respectful during the first half of the film, the building of tension and atmosphere began to give way to boredom. The people beside, behind, and in front began to talk, and then to giggle during silences or periods with long stretches of dialogue. The lack of jump scares, of any real recognizable “horror” tropes, evidently got to them. By the time the film had ended, both my friend and myself were seething with anger because we had been robbed of our cinematic experience.
I think this experience was indicative of a failing not of The Witch, but of it’s marketing, and of the way that critics have treated it. The Witch is not a horror film in the contemporary sense – it is an introspective drama, a folktale with horror elements that nonetheless cannot and should not occupy the same space as Paranormal Activity. It is about a culture that you must have some background with going in, as well as a willingness to pay attention to the film’s structuring of religious superstition. To offer this film to audiences with the promise of “the scariest film ever made” is to set yourself up for exactly the problem I had: an audience that grows increasingly frustrated with the film failing to fulfill new genre conventions. And so the film suffers, along with those who wish to experience The Witch as it actually stands, and not as critics imply that it’s supposed to stand.
Even as critics tout the film, audience response has been overwhelmingly negative. The complaint, I think, is not so much that The Witch is a bad film, but that rather it does not appeal to the things that many audiences want it to appeal to. It is an art-house film, applicable to those who want to investigate terror in the silences, the power of Calvinist religion, the fear of sin, the origins of horror. This is a world in which witches are real, in which children can accuse their elders of communing with the devil, in which Lucifer can appear in the form of a black goat, in which freedom comes at the price of your soul. This is the world of the Puritans, a world of darkness and real terror, but a world that is full of silence, of struggle, of random death and rampant dedication to a very strict system of belief. It is not a world of things that go bump in the night.
I believe that The Witch will ultimately receive its due and will be understood for the thing that it is and not the thing that it is not. At the very least its critically enforced popularity asks greater questions about what scares us as a culture, both where those fears came from and where they might be going. The future of the horror genre is bright, it seems, even as we wander in the darkness.