New England, 1630. A man we know only as William is exiled from his palisaded colony for challenging its religious orthodoxy, and heads off into the wilderness in a rickety cart, accompanied by his wife and four children. After a long trek, they arrive at a clearing on the edge of a forest and kneel to praise God for their deliverance – a God, and an environment, we suspect will soon abandon them. They work hard to build a simple farm, and soon William’s wife Katherine gives birth to their fifth child. All is well, for now. And so the scene is set for Robert Eggers’ brooding, shocking horror film from 2015, The Witch, which has recently arrived on Netflix UK.
The drama of the terrible things about to occur is sustained by Eggers’ meticulous research. Everything feels right. The film was shot in a remote part of Canada using only sunlight by day and candles by night. Costumes were made from linen and hemp, using a palette of muted greys and greens and browns – what seventeenth-century people called ‘sad colours’ (an effect accentuated by the sepulchral cinematography). The language – by turns stilted and sententious, homespun and humble – is that of the King James Bible and the Mayflower Pilgrim William Bradford’s memoir, Of Plimoth Plantation. The actors are British and do a fair job of imitating Ralph Ineson’s genuine West Yorkshire accent (Bradford also came from here). The film’s subtitle, ‘A New-England Folktale’, artfully blends fact and fantasy within a specific era in history, when witchcraft was a lived reality for most. Eggers makes good use of the modern historian’s fondness for taking past experiences of the supernatural seriously rather than dismissing them as delusions or ‘superstitions’ or otherwise explaining them away.
For there is soon trouble in paradise. One day William and Katherine’s eldest daughter, Thomasin, is playing peek-a-boo with the baby. She covers her face, but when she looks again he has gone, never to be seen again. In the days ahead, the parents speculate that a wolf must have taken the boy, but Thomasin suspects otherwise and we the audience know for sure it was no wolf. It’s a great strength of the movie that the reality of witchcraft is established early on, the signal that we must begin to suspend our disbelief. We see a hooded figure scuttling through the trees, and spectate as she makes foul magic from the blood and entrails of the pounded baby. The woodland forces ranged against the family escalate their supernatural campaign. After himself going missing, Caleb, the eldest son, reappears from the forest ‘naked as sin, pale as death, and witched’; he vomits an apple and complains that ‘she desires of my blood’. A malevolent goat called Black Phillip whispers devilish injunctions to the infant twins.
In his 2017 book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Adam Scovell points to the film’s ‘initial ambiguity surrounding its supernatural elements: is this a film about the cruelty and susceptibility of humans and their cloaking of it around a belief system, or something more ineffable that is beyond reason?’ (p. 166). This ambiguity does not last long: we know we are immersed in a literal world of diabolic danger, which is exactly the world seventeenth-century colonists inhabited. Much of the action relies on psychology and suspicion and paranoia, but this is in addition to the fact that there are actual devil worshippers in the woods, not as a rational alternative to this fact. The characters are terrified not because they are silly or mad but because here witches exist. As Scovell observes, this is classic horror without horror clichés, and instead relies on ‘a slow, inescapable dread’. It is, then, as much like a nightmare as a folk-tale.
The Witch was received enthusiastically by critics and cinema audiences alike, grossing $40m at the box office (from a budget of just $4m). It stands out from other recent horror films because of the authenticity of its historical setting and dialogue and the vivid force with which real early modern beliefs in a magical cosmology are deployed. Indeed, there are stories in the archives with unsettlingly similar resonances. I’m writing a book about a family on the Massachusetts frontier, set between 1645 and 1652. Like William and Katherine in The Witch, my protagonists Hugh and Mary Parsons are struggling emigrants; they miss home, fall foul of their neighbours, and the deaths of their children impose an unbearable strain on their marriage and the integrity of their household. Extreme anxiety, distraction, suspicion and recrimination advance both stories, and in each case the consequences are death and shame. The two families have the same basic puritan mentality, although Hugh Parsons is less satisfied with his lot and more grasping than the doomed William (he was, as his neighbours were given to complain, ‘eager after the world’).
Unlike the film, my history does not ask readers to accept the literal reality of witches, and yet they are invited to take at face value a contemporary appreciation of witches as such. I’d like to say more about the role of Satan in The Witch, but I don’t want to spoil the end. All I’ll say is that devil really is present, as he is in the story of Hugh and Mary Parsons. Hugh has torrid dreams about the devil, who describes to Mary how he entered his body like a gust of wind. By the time that he and his wife are tried for witchcraft, several women and men along the Connecticut Valley have already been executed for having ‘familiar and wicked converse with the devil’.
Something else that ties the two seventeenth-century stories to each other, and to the lives and mentalities of viewers and readers in the present, are the expectations on ordinary householders to find the skill, courage and authority to make their households work. In Hugh Parsons’s case, he fails spectacularly to be a good husband, father, and neighbour, not least in his sullen, threatening demeanour, his abuse of his wife, and his callous indifference to his son’s death. Everyone turns against him, and he and his wife are borne down in a vortex of sin, blame, guilt, secrecy and lies. But Parsons is more than just an irksome presence: the erosion of trust makes his wife and neighbours suspect this unmanly man of using the womanly art of witchcraft for profit and revenge. The scene in The Witch that most reminds me of Hugh Parsons’s predicament is when William is bitterly accused by his daughter Thomasin of failing his wife and children: he is unable to protect or feed his family (he cannot hunt and his corn rots in the fields), and cravenly allows Thomasin to take the blame when his wife’s silver wine cup goes missing (he had in fact exchanged it for food with local Indians himself). Eggers cleverly uses Thomasin’s disappointment in her father – ‘Thou canst do nothing save cut wood!’ – to prepare us for her search for a more potently masculine master.
The true story of Hugh and Mary Parsons, and the plot of The Witch, both end in trauma and tragedy. The busy homesteads where these families built futures from faith and labour are deserted and bloodstained by the time the credits roll. These are tales of the devil wreaking havoc on new lives in the wilderness, but are more than spectacles of alien belief and experience remote in space and time. The Witch is a searing, resonant film because with beguiling simplicity it lays bare the things that most frighten us about ourselves: that we’ll fail to measure up; that we won’t win the respect of our peers; that we’ll become ill in body and mind; or that harm will come to our children. By fitting devils and hags into the story, all Robert Eggers does is shift the agency of those anxieties from the personal inscape to the cosmic outscape. The peril, and its consequences, are often the same.