As Robert Egger’s The Witch draws to a close and fades to black, the following text appears on screen: “this film was inspired by many folktales, fairy tales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records.” Without question, this is a horror film: a baby is devoured; a mother’s breast is mutilated by a raven; danger lurks in the woods. That’s why it’s surprising to learn that inspiration was partially drawn from fairy tales. For centuries, such stories have been a popular way to teach children moral codes; in other ways, these tales behave as transformative devices where daily life is reimagined as magical, not mundane. Too often are their dark origins forgotten. Although terrifying in nature, The Witch presents the age-old narrative of an innocent maiden freed from her shackles, so turning the film into an unnatural and yet liberating fairy tale.
The Witch exists in a liminal space between truth and fantasy; it deals with the harsh reality of life in exile for William (Ralph Ineson) and his Puritan family, positioned against the folktale threat of witchcraft. The Witch in question is a constant source of fear for the family, her presence is faintly weaved throughout the film; from the eerie, wooded setting to the guttural, feminine wails used in the soundtrack. The writer-director wanted an experience akin to an onscreen ‘nightmare from the past, like a Puritan’s nightmare,’ achieved via the film’s haunting and occult imagery. However, whilst the titular Witch causes palpable misery for Eggers’ focal family, we are reminded that she is, at her core, a nightmare. A fairy tale. The real horror in Puritan New England was not witches but, instead, its treatment of women. As Marylin Westerkamp concludes in Women and Religion in Early America, women were seen as naturally inferior to men due to their ‘intellectual weakness, making them unable to distinguish between good and evil, and their spiritual weakness, rendering them unable to assert their wills to follow the good.’ Perhaps more dangerous than a weak-willed woman, however, was one who actually desired to follow her own will. According to Stacy Schiff’s research on witch trials, the public’s general belief was: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” It is at this precarious point at which Thomasin, the family’s eldest daughter, finds herself.
When we meet Thomasin, it’s clear that her sense of identity has been warped by misogynistic views like those described by Westerkamp. Fittingly, her first onscreen dialogue is a prayer of penance: “O most merciful father: I here confess I have lived in sin.” As she confesses, a medium shot, angled from above, captures her in saintly devotion. Her eyes are sorrowful; her hair modestly tied away; her hands clasped in prayer. In short, Thomasin begins her story as the chaste ideal of Puritan times. It isn’t difficult to reimagine Thomasin as the classic ‘fair maiden’ archetype found between the pages of Robin Hood or Snow White. When we first meet Snow White in the classic Disney film, she sweetly wishes for a better life: ‘One day, my prince will come.’ Thomasin’s own wish for an autonomous life is buried within her prayer. “I have, in secret, played upon thy sabbath and broken every one of thy commandments in thought… followed the desires of my own will, and not the Holy Spirit.” That these are her first spoken lines is poignant as a dichotomy is immediately shaped between the purity of Thomasin’s outward appearance and the darkness of an inner woman who dares to dream for freedom.
Be it by wicked stepmother or high tower, classic fairy tale narratives centre trapped heroines. Continuing the unusual connection between The Witch and fairy tales, Eggers comments that ‘good fairy tales and folktales are always family dramas.’ It’s appropriate, then, that Thomasin’s personal entrapment is attributed to her family. Early in the film, Katherine (Kate Dickie) notices that her “daughter hath begat the signs of womanhood;” it’s Thomasin’s budding maturity which serves as the metaphorical ropes that bind her. Dickie offers a staggering performance as a grieving mother whose mental state has suffered extreme blows at the loss of her home and new-born. Whilst Katherine’s loss continues to weigh upon her sanity, we witness her place Thomasin under the increasing strains of neglect and witchcraft accusations. As Chloe Carroll comments, Katherine distrusts her daughter’s ‘burgeoning sexuality’ and subsequently condemns her as her ‘rival.’ By positioning mother and daughter at odds with each other, Eggers crafts Thomasin’s sexuality and womanhood as a familial and societal threat. Although Thomasin maintains her innocence throughout The Witch, it’s clear that, in Eggers’ nightmarish vision of New England, being a young woman is as ostracising as a denouncement of witchcraft.
Kathleen Verduin observes that sexual desire was an ‘inward struggle’ for members of Puritan society. This historic truth is echoed in Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Thomasin’s younger brother, who also endures the timeless struggles of puberty. Caleb symbolises sexual suppression, apparent when he’s spied gawking at his sister’s cleavage with what Eggers describes as ‘innocent curiosity.’ Innocent or not, the scene problematically transforms Thomasin into a sexual object by a family member, without her consent. Once again, her developing womanhood is a cage. Thomasin’s costume is utilised as an important narrative device in this respect. The Witch’s costume designer, Linda Muir, chose a pale-pinkish hue to symbolise ‘carefree youth.’ Today, pink is a colour associated with the hyper-feminine imagery of girls’ toys and Disney princesses – so the choice feels intentional. Yet, as Thomasin is unwittingly placed under the male gaze, the shade is difficult to interpret as ‘carefree’ or innocent. According to Muir, the feminine shade was also chosen because, ‘under the right circumstances, it can mature into red.’ Interesting. Whilst it’s inviting to interpret Thomasin’s rosy gown as a symbol of womanhood, one need only turn to Katherine to realise this isn’t the case as she is clothed in a deep, woody green. In fact, the majority of The Witch’s palette consists of earthy tones. The only other character who stands out against this colour arrangement is the mysterious and nameless Witch (Sarah Sanders / Bathsheba Garnett), who wears a bright red cloak. The subtle marriage of pink and red creates an intentional connection between Thomasin and the Witch, foreshadowing Thomasin’s development not into a Puritan woman, but into a liberated witch herself.
Danielle Paquette observes in The Washington Post that Disney princesses ‘influence the way’ children grow up; witches, however, are forever depicted as wicked and evil. Think of Hansel and Gretel or The Wizard of Oz: no child could aspire to become one. Yet, despite her deeply sinister nature, Eggers frames the antagonist in an unusual duality. Her true form pays homage to the trope of the ‘wicked witch’: a haggard and toothless woman. Contrastingly, in her first onscreen encounter, she is disguised as a beautiful woman, perhaps not much older than Thomasin. Caleb stumbles across the sorceress as he wanders, lost, in the woods and, at first, it’s clear that her transfiguration is intended to seduce the boy. With her sultry appearance and bare leg stretched towards him, the Witch appears to personify Caleb’s sexual urges, yet, her blatantly sexualised form is juxtaposed with a Red Riding Hood-esque cloak. This piece of costume, which Muir actually describes as ‘Fairy Tale Red’, is the film’s most poignant tie to folktale inspiration. Whilst the colour is characteristically tied to maturity and sexuality, Red Riding Hood carries connotations of youth and innocence. The simple use of this cloak reconfigures our understanding of the Witch. Like Thomasin before her, clothing is used to represent a dichotomy between two concepts that were diametrically opposed in Puritan times. Unlike Thomasin, the Witch actually possesses autonomy over her body and femininity. It cannot be disputed that the Witch commits unforgivable acts, which include infanticide. For the family, then, the Witch is indeed a nightmarish presence. Thomasin’s life, however, is already a nightmare. At times, she is treated as property, at others she is used as a scapegoat for her family’s crimes. When The Witch is understood as a microcosm of a society in which women were feared and oppressed, the Witch transforms from a terrifying villain into a symbol of salvation, a subversion of a fairy tale. Instead of dreaming of a tiara, Thomasin dreams of the freedom that the sorceress represents.
Though Thomasin’s arc concludes in freedom, we must remember that The Witch is primarily a horror film, where happily ever afters are not so clear cut. The slowly unfurling narrative reaches a fast-paced climax in act three as Thomasin and her family face their final destruction. In keeping with the film’s position between history and fantasy, the family as a whole suffers at the hands of the insidious witchcraft that has plagued them, as all its members, save Thomasin and Katherine, endure grisly ends. Unsurprisingly, this is heart-breaking for the still innocent Thomasin. Whilst she faces this unreal horror, she — like many real women of her time — must simultaneously ward off the threat of indictment. Thomasin’s tumultuous relationship with her mother culminates in a scene of bloody chaos as Katherine violently turns upon her, proclaiming her not a witch but a “proud slut” who bewitched her male kin. Thomasin’s only choice is to fight back, thus killing her mother. In this way, Eggers communicates that, for Thomasin, the real threat was navigating her newfound womanhood and sexuality in a world that idolised the chaste woman. Like those who stood accused of witchcraft in Salem, innocent or guilty, punishment was inevitable.
Chloe Carroll fittingly comments that the ‘social and religious persecution of Thomasin mirrors issues in contemporary society,’ indeed, horror aside, The Witch can be understood as a feminist metaphor against patriarchal and traditional values. In the end, Thomasin’s only hope for bodily and spiritual autonomy is by fighting a bloody fight against the society (in this case, her family) that wishes to destroy her; reclamation is violent, even distressing, but necessary. All that remains of the exiled family are Thomasin and the infamous billy-goat, Black Phillip, who stands accused of satanic origin throughout the film. As if in a final homage to the fairy tale model, the goat transfigures himself into a devilishly handsome Satan (Daniel Malik), offering Thomasin the choice to “live deliciously.” But Black Phillip is not a warped prince charming, coming to whisk his fair maiden to safety, for Thomasin chose this liberation herself. And so, the film’s final, fire bathed scene witnesses the girl join a matriarchal world of witches; ascending past the tree line and past patriarchal social order. In a twisted happy ending, Thomasin can’t help but laugh, experiencing true and liberated joy for the first time.
by Chloe Harvey
Chloe Harvey recently graduated her MA in Culture and Thought After 1945, which is a long-winded way of saying she watched lots of films and wrote a lengthy dissertation about the gender of Siri and Alexa. She’s currently residing in her hometown, a seaside in the North of England, where she’s mapping out her next steps. With her bountiful free time, she’s re-watching her film favourites which include Lost in Translation and Birdman. You can find her Instagram @chloehvy and Twitter @chlohrvy.
Categories: Feminist Criticism