What makes The Witch a very good, even a great film is the way director and screenwriter Robert Eggers not only dramatizes the destruction of a Puritan family in early New England, but that he takes their world view seriously. The people who founded the Salem, Plymouth, and the Massachusetts Bay Colonies in the early Seventeenth Century were – and who would briefly overthrow the Stuart Monarchy during the English Civil War – were in some ways just like modern Americans. They considered money to be a sign of God’s grace. They respected, even fetishized education. They wanted to establish their dominion over, not live in harmony with nature. In other ways we would have found them very strange. They did not believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible – that would come later in the Jim Crow South – but they believed in a literal hell. In 1636, the majority of the faculty at Harvard believed the devil was perfectly real. He was not only a metaphor for our moral failings. He lived in the woods outside of Boston.
The Witch opens with a man named William, his wife Katherine, and their five children – a teenage girl named Thomasin, a teenage boy named Caleb, two smaller children named Mercy and Jonas, and a baby named Samuel – being expelled from a settlement in New England that strongly resembles the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We’re not told exactly what William did, but for students of history, he will immediately bring to minds early religious dissidents like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, rebels who refused to live under the discipline of the Puritan government. When he refers to his judges as “false Christians,” we also begin to realize that the family is headed for a bad end, that William has fallen into the sin of pride. The Puritans believed that we have to fight the devil’s never ending attacks through constant prayer and Bible reading. Whether or not we are eventually saved, however, is entirely up to God. To declare someone else a “false Christian” is dangerously close to declaring yourself part of the elect and him part of the damned.
After William and his family establish their own settlement miles outside of the town, the devil strikes the fatal blow almost immediately. While Thomasin is playing with the Samuel, a witch snatches the baby away in the literal blink of an eye. How the ugly old woman was able to move so fast and so stealthily is never explained. Eggers simply assumes that the Puritan belief in the supernatural is true. As a catalyst for the family’s dissolution, however, it’s psychologically accurate, with or without the devil. Thomasin is a intelligent and rebellious girl and she’s beginning to come into her own sexually – during the movie she has her first period – with no contact with any boy her own age except for her brother Caleb, who it’s hinted, is occasionally tempted by incestuous feelings for his sister. There’s nothing particularly obvious in Thomasin’s spiritual banishment from her family’s love, but it’s the subtly of her growing estrangement that contributes to the film’s sense of dread. William, who sold his wife’s prized silver cup in order to trade for traps and ammunition, not only takes Caleb into the woods – where the devil quite literally lives – to hunt against his wife’s wishes. He allows Thomasin to take the blame when Catherine notices that the cup is missing.
William has accused the elders of his former colony of being “false Christians,” but he has not lived up to his sense of moral superiority. He has lied to his wife, allowed his eldest daughter to become the family scapegoat, and put his eldest son at risk. Thomasin resents how her family seems to consider her potentially evil. She’s also intrigued by it. When Mercy and Jonas accuse her of being a witch, she plays along with the joke so enthusiastically that she terrifies the two younger children into submission. When she overhears William and Katherine planning to hire her out as a servant to another family back in town, she agrees to go out into the woods with Caleb, who, anxious to prove himself a man, hopes to bring home food, to successfully kill a rabbit or a deer, something William had failed to do earlier in the movie. The expedition ends in disaster when the same witch who took Samuel, now in the form of a beautiful, buxom young woman, takes Caleb.
It is here where we can most discern the effectiveness of the Witch’s screenplay, the skill with which Eggers bridges the world view of a modern American with that of a Seventeenth Century Puritan. For a modern American, the beautiful young witch is simply the reflection of Caleb’s incestuous lust for his older sister. A Puritan in Seventh Century New England would agree. The witch appears because Caleb’s journey into the woods with Thomasin is also a journey into their incestuous feelings for each other. The major difference is that the he would not see the witch as a metaphor but as a flesh and blood woman who’s sold herself into the service of the devil, whom he would see as perfectly real. The witch isn’t a reflection of Caleb’s lust for Thomasin. Caleb’s lust for Thomasin has made him vulnerable to being taken by the witch. It’s not easy to describe the sense of dread this scene can instill in the viewer. I’m not a Christian and I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I jumped out of my seat when the beautiful young witch revealed her true physical appearance as she embraced Caleb. Thomasin’s eventually journey towards the devil is creepier still. Like the best sermons by Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards, The Witch makes our skin crawl in order to awaken us to the possibility, even the inevitability of our own damnation.
The Puritans may have banned the theater in Oliver Cromwell’s England, but in The Witch they have also inspired a work of cinematic genius.