“The Witch”: A Theological Horror Story

Anna Taylor-Joy, the Puritan daughter Thomasin in The Witch.
Anna Taylor-Joy, the Puritan daughter Thomasin in The Witch. (A27)

You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men, that the Cause of your leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers houses, and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness, was your Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel… “A Brief Recognition of New England’s Errand into the Wilderness” – Samuel Danforth

The problem for Pilgrim William’s family, facing expulsion from their small New England village at the beginning of The Witch, starts at a church tribunal in which the father paraphrases this passage from Samuel Danforth’s 17th century sermon. William has apparently been stubborn and obstinate to the leaders of the local church—and thus to the leaders of the community—who have to remind him he is the one on trial, not they.

Unable to admit fault, his family soon finds themselves—his wife, an infant boy, two young twins, a preteen son and a teenage daughter—with all their possessions packed on a cart leaving what passes for civilization behind them as they embark on their own “errand into the wilderness.”

The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers, is a horror story grounded in Calvinism. As much as the Puritan family at the center of the story is hounded by witches and spirits in the dark woods of their new home, it is their extreme and unswerving fundamentalism that ultimately leads to their breakdown.

Jump-scare and fangoria buffs will find themselves disappointed in the slow, psychological dismantling of this family, punctuated only by brief supernatural nightmarish images. But fans of The Shining will see engaging parallels in the story, and viewers of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon will recognize the sense of foreboding and suffocating moral judgment.

As William and his family try to survive on their own, they succeed in setting up a homestead, but their first crop of corn has failed, and will not get them through the winter. Rather than facing the reality that they must return to the colony and beg forgiveness, William lets his own stubborn pride interfere with his family’s needs, insisting they all pray and ask forgiveness for their sins that God will give them the grace to survive.

The first terror to strike the family is when the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy, the beating heart of the film) is playing peek-a-boo outside with the infant Samuel, and she opens her eyes to find he has been snatched away into the woods. The family is bereft, but does not seem to blame Thomasin, at least not at first, rationalizing that it must have been a wolf that took the baby, rather than a more sinister presence. But from that point onward, a sense of menace settles over the family.

Strange things begin happening with animals. A hare (a classic harbinger of evil) makes an appearance out of the woods, and despite their desperation for meat, William and oldest son Caleb (Ralph Ineson and Harvey Scrimshaw, respectively) cannot find a way to kill it. The family dog runs off into the woods and is found disemboweled. The twins, a boy and a girl seemingly of the Satanic pre-K set, report having conversations with the family’s dusky he-goat, Black Phillip.

Lies begin to creep into the family’s dynamic, as William has sold his wife Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) silver chalice, a family heirloom, for hunting traps, but refuses to tell her he knows where it is.

As the catastrophes pile up, the family’s mistrust begins to fall on Thomasin. Something about her sheer, wide-eyed femaleness seems a threat—whether it’s her developing breasts that tempt her pubescent brother, or the blood that spills from the udder of one of the goats, symbolizing her biological womanhood. The parents begin to make plans to take her back to the colony and place her in servitude to another family there.

The mystery of the Puritan witch hunts is how Medieval fear of the supernatural could exist alongside what was at the time, the most literate society in the world. This was a community in which both boys and girls were educated for the purpose of being able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Within twenty-four years of landing in an implacable wilderness, Puritans had started a seminary for the training of ministers in the advanced study of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Think about the logic here: “First we’ll figure out how not to starve, then we’ll start Harvard.”

The key is in the theology. The same Calvinism that insisted on education for the sake of reading scripture also saw God as the absolute cause of all events, for good or for ill. If one experienced illness or misfortune, the Puritan instinct was to drop to your knees and ask God’s forgiveness for whatever sins you had committed—sometimes even thanking God for the grace of testing your faith. If things began going wrong for the community on a mass scale, there must be greater forces afoot, like the presence of bewitched minions of the devil. Most often these were thought to be the spiritually weak and intellectually stunted, which according to Puritan society meant teenage girls.

Errant, into the wilderness. (A27)
Errant, into the wilderness. (A27)

Things begin to go horribly awry for William’s family when the son Caleb disappears in the woods and comes back possessed by evil spirits. He writhes on the floor of the house, muttering anathemas against God. Finally, he coughs up a bloody apple, evidently placed in his mouth by the witch we now know is living in the woods. All eyes fall on Thomasin, who continues to profess her innocence and—curse that girl with a brain—reminds her parents that the family’s problems have been caused by them, not the children.

As the final act of the film spirals out of control, you find yourself wishing Thomasin had a feminist collective to join. That she could just hitchhike her way to the Womyns Fest and leave all this parochial patriarchy behind. In some ways, that’s what she ends up doing before it’s all over.

Eggers researched this film to the teeth, and the period details are absolutely correct, right down to the language the characters use, which suggests Elizabethan English. The cinematography, shot in striking chiaroscuro with natural and candle light, shades the emotional darkness with hues of gray and brown.

But the film is also absolutely current. To this day, there is no more contested space— politically, morally, theologically—than a woman’s body.

Don’t think people believe in witches today? Ask why conservatives are shutting down women’s healthcare centers across the country. Ask why Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for having the audacity to seek an education. Ask why the thought of a woman in the White House still terrifies a significant portion of the electorate.

Women’s bodies present an existential threat to patriarchy, because they control the forces of life. There is something in our still male-dominated world that fears giving these bodies too much power over their own lives or the lives of others. As if Eve had usurped the authority of Adam over life and death, rather than just tempting him with knowledge. The threat of female agency is as alive today as it was to the Puritans.