Oftentimes, when the subject of horror is brought up, it is frequently seen through the lens of the modern day. This is a natural thing, for the fears and terrors of today can be ripe inspiration for a good horror story. However, the past should not be neglected when it comes to material for a horror story. After all, an earlier age can offer plenty to fear. The changes and eras of history can bring much to explore through the lens of horror, such as in examining their beliefs or cultures. Besides, though the past may be different in the culture or technology, humanity still suffered from many of the same cruelties that plague us in the present. Thus, the past can be a rich vein to be mined for horror. Filmmaker Robert Eggers saw that potential and has pursued it for his debut feature film. Working within the setting of 17th-century America, Robert Eggers has crafted a horror film in the form of The Witch, bringing together a chilling vision rooted in old-fashioned beliefs regarding witches and all-too-human flaws.
Exiled from their Puritan plantation for the crime of “prideful conceit”, William sets out to start a new life with his family. Setting up outside the edge of a forest, they begin their life of farming and staying close to the grace of God. Along with William are his wife Katherine, their son Caleb, a pair of twins named Mercy and Jones, their baby named Samuel, and their oldest daughter named Thomasin. Though William insists their new life will allow them to be free from the corrupting influences of the society they were in, strange things have begun to occur which challenge that. When Thomasin plays with the baby Samuel and turns away for a moment, she finds that Samuel has suddenly disappeared. The crops of the family farm have begun to fail, while attempts at hunting prove to be fruitless. The twins have even begun talking to one of the goats on the farm, claiming his name is Black Phillip and that he talks back to them. These strange happenings begin to eat away at the family, dissolving their trust with each other as accusations of witchcraft begin to form. Is it only paranoia and frustration that is tearing the family apart, or is there a truly sinister presence that is bringing their downfall?
Eggers’s debut feature film is one that proves to be not only chilling, but also impressive in terms of capturing its setting. Relying on natural light for his shots, Eggers captures both the bleakness of the Colonial days but also the pitch black darkness of the night. It creates an oppressive ambiance, one heightened by the masterful use of the surrounding forests to further entrap this family. Of course, the exceptional details extend beyond just how the film was shot. It looks and feels well-researched, like the best work was done to capture the world of 17th-century America. The design and cut of the costumes feels appropriate to Puritan garb, with the presented rituals of prayer and farming fitting the era. Even the dialogue is period accurate, opting for a more antiquated sound and cadence befitting the time. As for the portrayals of witchcraft and Satanic worship, the approach here is also rooted in its time period. The film draws inspiration from historical records of the time, showcasing such things as Satanic deals and the grisly process of making flying ointment as per beliefs of the time. It is a haunting choice, one that takes the familiar and adds new life to it.
As for the horror component itself, the film works well. Some may not feel that it is not as scary as others say, but I believe that calling it scary does not properly capture the feel. I would better describe it as unsettling. The film serves as a slow burn, showcasing the gradual destruction of this family in exile. Small moments lead to distrust and bitter sentiments, which grow to fear and panic. Their beliefs and biases lead to accusations and cruel treatment, an all-too-familiar situation that can still persist in our present day world. Such a familiar situation is given new power when presented within this lens of the past, showing how much may have changed yet has remained the same. Even as the supernatural forces creep around the edges and lurk in the darkness, it is this Puritan family that presents the real danger. In their desperation for protection and meaning, they instead place their faith in prejudice and anger. Sure, they may be people from another time, when such beliefs were more prevalent or powerful. The fact of the matter is that there are still plenty of cases today where people allow themselves to get swept up by anger and prejudice when it seems their way of life is in tatters. That is, of, course, the real scare: that the problems of the past end up being repeated in the present.
The Witch is an inspired horror film, one that lives up to its moniker as a “New England Folktale” by crafting a chilling tale that draws its roots from 17th-century records of Puritan life and witchcraft accounts. However, that lens of the past allows it to capture an all-too-modern path of paranoia and self-destruction.