Blog Directory CineVerse: That witch does not kill us makes us stronger

That witch does not kill us makes us stronger

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Robert Eggers’ The Witch has been hailed as among the finest horror outings of the past decade, and fittingly so: It accomplishes maximum dread and discomfort without succumbing to predictable horror film approaches. Our CineVerse group took a walk through the dark New England woods of the 17th Century to hunt for hidden truths concealed inside this film; here’s a recap of our analysis (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find different, unexpected, surprising, or satisfying about The Witch?

  • It avoids cheap frights, jump scares, fast pacing, and typical horror clichĂ©s that often plague modern scary films.
  • There is painstaking attention to detail and period authenticity, as ordered by first-time director Eggers, who conducted copious research in the writing and planning of this film. He enlisted the aid of craftsmen and artisans who were experienced in building and creating structures, costumes, and objects from the 17th century period or trade; he opted for nonconventional instruments in the score, including the waterphone and nyckelharpa; and he tried to light the film as naturalistically as possible often using merely sunlight and candlelight.
  • The story can be interpreted in two ways: literally or figuratively.
    • It’s possible that everything we see and hear is realistic, that there is an actual witch in the woods nearby and a goat embodying Satan who have caused all this violence and tragedy and cleverly entrapped Thomasin after eliminating her family. The proof is that the infant Samuel disappears quite suddenly under Thomasin’s nose, we see naked flying witches, there is blood on Katherine’s clothes suggesting that the vision of a crow pecking at her breast was not a dream, and we see and hear a finely dressed gentleman in black—presumably Satan himself—making a tempting offer to Thomasin.
    • Or, it’s plausible that this is a fable, campfire yarn, or something like a Grimm’s fairy tale. Consider that the subtitle of the movie is “A New England Folk Tale”; also, ask yourself who would have come into contact with this family living remotely in the woods to be able to pass this tale down to subsequent generations? If there was such a person, he or she likely embellished on the probable outcomes: that the family met with horrible misfortune and death, which the tale-teller blamed on Thomasin. Additionally, ponder that the crops failed and possibly the family succumbed to a non-supernatural threat, like starvation or in-family violence. There’s also a theory that the corn they have been growing is rotten, and certain species of bad corn can be hallucinogenic, which would suggest that the unholy imagery we see is a subjective account of the family under the influence of a hallucinogenic agent.
  • This movie reinvents common tropes associated with witchcraft stories. Instead of witches in black riding broomsticks, we see naked levitating and flying witches; instead of a devil with horns and a pitchfork, we get a handsome, well-dressed man of mystery. Instead of a Hansel-like boy character who eats candy and baked goods, we get a boy who eats an apple. And instead of virtue and goodness triumphing over evil in some kind of morality tale, the opposite is true here.

Themes woven into The Witch

  • The dangers of mistrust, especially among family members who suspect one of their own is capable of evil.
  • The sins of the father are visited upon the son – and the rest of his family, too. William and his family are cast out of their New England village because of the patriarch’s “prideful conceit.” The film continually shows us William’s ineptitude and inadvertently disastrous influence; he can’t seem to do anything right except neatly split firewood, which ironically ends up semi-burying his gored body.
  • Female agency and empowerment. This is somewhat of a feminist film in that, for most of the movie we see how Thomasin is taken for granted by her family (who consider renting her off as an indentured servant to another clan), objectified as a sex object by her young brother entering puberty, and blamed and scapegoated for disastrous events that happen. But by the conclusion, she is the only one who survives and is left to make a choice: likely die of cold or starvation or “live deliciously” as a supernatural female.
  • Temptation, guilt, and sin. The father has secretly traded away his wife’s precious silver cup, for which he brands himself a thief; Caleb is seduced by a beguiling witch; and Thomasin is given an enticing offer by Satan himself. And the parents and oldest siblings each feel guilt in their own way about the disappearance of baby Samuel.
  • Insidious sexuality, suggested by the nude witches, the way Caleb secretly lusts after his sister, the witch in the guise of a beautiful woman who seduces Caleb, the way Caleb returns home naked and sick, and Thomasin’s choice to strip enjoying the other unclothed witches.

Similar films and works that come to mind

  • Paintings by Goya including Witches’ Sabbath and Satan Devouring His Son
  • Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible
  • Certain films by Ingmar Bergman, including The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal
  • Witchfinder General
  • The Shining
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • Season of the Witch (2011)

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