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Puritan Gothic: Extremist Horror in Robert Egger’s The Witch (This blog post contains spoilers)(28 Jun 2016)
By Jeanette Laredo, University of North Texas
Before, I was not a witch.
But now I am one.
– “Half-Hanged Mary” by Margaret Atwood
A desolate farmstead on the edge of a dark wood. A barren field dotted with shriveled crops and the carcasses of dead livestock. A new born babe spirited away by a witch in the scariest game of peek-a-boo ever. A haggard crone pulverizes the remains of the stolen newborn and rubs the bloody mass into her own skin. These images are both haunting and disturbing so it’s puzzling that some critics don’t consider their source, Robert Egger’s The Witch (2015), a horror film. Despite the film’s contested genre status, The Witch is definitely a gothic tale of our repressed Puritan past that comments on how a society’s extremist beliefs can create more monsters than it destroys.
The plot of The Witch centers on a dysfunctional family in 1630s New England made up of parents Katherine and William, and their five children: the eldest boy Caleb, his sister Thomasin, the twins Mercy and Jonas, and the baby Samuel. They forsake the safety of their religious colony for a farm at the edge of a forest where they confront the horrors of black magic and demonic possession. William, the prideful and religious patriarch, is considered radical among an already radical sect of Puritans who fled the strictures of the Anglican Church to build their shining city on a hill an ocean way. Rather than bend to the religious dogma of the plantation elders, William leads his family into the wilderness in pursuit of religious purity. Despite William’s pure intentions, the scene of their departure fills the viewer with a sense of growing unease. We watch through the eyes of Thomasin as their wagon passes through the gates of the plantation, and the doors of civilization shut behind them forever. In the next shot, the wagon plods slowly into the distance before being swallowed up by the vast horizon, accompanied by a shrieking, discordant orchestra of string instruments. Just as we think the family has arrived safely at their promised land, a chorus of high-pitched female voices joins this infernal cacophony. The camera pans from the family, praying on their knees, to the dark and mysterious wood beyond.
Egger chronicles how the oppressive forces of Thomasin’s Puritan culture transform her into the titular witch of the film. Thomasin isn’t suited to her family’s Puritan lifestyle which demands her spiritual purity and feminine submission. As a result, she prays for forgiveness for just about everything: being idle of her work, disrespectful of her parents and neglectful of her prayer. In addition to these sins, Thomasin also falls short of the domestic duties expected of a young Puritan maid. She cannot bring the twins Mercy and Jonas to heel, instead they spend their days playing and whispering to the family’s he-goat Black Phillip, and a witch abducts baby Samuel while he is in Thomasin’s care. Because of these failures, Thomasin chooses to indulge in a bit of wickedness and the power it gives her, pretending to be the witch of the wood to scare little Mercy into obedience. Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is chilling as she tells her spoiled sister it was she who sacrificed Samuel, an unbaptized babe, to her master Satan and she will do the same to Mercy if the girl displeases her. Thomasin’s terrifying act buys her sister’s obedience and represents her very real desire for empowerment in a culture that severely limits her options as a woman.
The failing crops, dead animals and missing newborn all set the stage for allegations of witchcraft and Thomasin’s Puritan shortcomings make her a prime suspect. One of the most horrifying moments of the film is one that does not contain a witch at all: when Thomason’s father William accuses his daughter of witchery. William’s accusation is terrifying because viewers are well acquainted with tales like The Crucible (1996) in which innocent souls are accused of witchcraft in a world were witches don’t exist. The accused are often burned, hanged, dunked or pressed with stones in deaths that easily symbolize the overwhelming pressure of confirming to rigid societal standards. William threatens his daughter with this same fate while the viewer knows she hasn’t made a pact with the devil. This is where Eggers’ film takes a turn from traditional witchcraft narratives. Egger could have had the plantation elders put Thomasin on trial and burn an innocent girl for a witch, a tragic but realistic ending that would have reflected the human cost of the witch hysteria of 17th century Puritan America. Instead, Egger uses Thomasin’s transformation into an actual, supernatural witch as a metaphor for how Puritan patriarchal fears of female power created monsters that weren’t there.
Thomasin may not have started out as a witch, but the oppressive society she lives in has left her little choice in becoming one. With her family and home destroyed, Thomasin has no alternative but to seek out Black Phillip, the family he-goat and Satan in disguise, and sign away her soul. Afterwards, she walks naked into the woods to join a coven of witches dancing nude around a fire. They rise into the air, their movements jerky and ecstatic, as if in the throes of orgasm, and Thomasin ascends with them into the trees. The moment is uplifting and empowering until the viewer realizes that Thomasin has left one extremist sect for another. Her Puritan culture’s oppressive demands for feminine obedience have driven Thomasin to join an even more extremist anti-feminine cult, one that will require her to kill babies and recruit souls for Satan. It’s a choice made all the more tragic when we learn Thomasin cannot even write her own name, and Lucifer must guide her hand to sign his black book. Egger’s witchy folktale isn’t just a nightmare of our dark Puritan past, but a commentary on how our present society’s extremist mores continue to create monsters.