Horror and religion don’t often mix very well in the movies, but when they do work together, they work extremely well. And that is true in The Witch, a masterpiece of atmospheric horror written and directed by Robert Eggers. This movie explores the existential dread of 17th century Puritanism and places it against the horrors of the New World, both imagined and real. What we get is a pitch-perfect examination of the shield of faith against the evils within and without our own selves, what happens when our faith is not true, and what happens when the powers we call upon do not seem to listen.
The story takes place in 1600s New England, where a man named William faces banishment from a Puritan plantation after a prolonged religious disagreement with the town elders. William is too orthodox even for his fellow Puritans, so he and his family—pregnant wife Katherine, adolescent daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and fraternal twin toddlers William and Katherine—strike out for the wilderness, where they establish a lonely farmstead on the edge of a great and foreboding forest. Soon Katherine gives birth to another son, Samuel. But one day, while Thomasin is watching over him, he disappears before her very eyes and is never seen from again. Unable to explain the disappearance, Thomasin is suspected by her entire family, whose harsh life on their failing farm brings out personality flaws of every kind. Facing starvation, the family sees signs of the Devil’s work in their every hardship, but as pious Thomasin strives to maintain her faith and her family’s love, even she finds herself wondering if they are the recipients of rotten luck, or is something more ominous stalking them? She will get answers, but what they will teach her and what she expects are two very, very different things.
This is not a conventional horror movie, with carefully crafted yet traditional build-ups and jump scares, or lot of gory display to drive things along. This is a deliberate, quiet, slow-moving and slow-burning story of a pervading dread that rolls in gradually until all before it consumed. Never has a forest looked so gloomy or so sinister as the wall of foliage that bounds the farm. Country that might look lovely to modern eyes is to the superstitious a haven for all kinds of supernatural terror that, since one cannot see anywhere, one must presume lurks everywhere.
What is so scary about The Witch is how much of the family’s suffering is self-inflicted. When faced with true hardship, they turn on each other each in their own way, quickly losing sight of the religious precepts that drove them into the wilderness in the first place. All by themselves, they have only each other, but they all abandon that amid growing fear and confusion. Perhaps the greatest example of this is how the family could, at any time, simply leave its meager farm and return to the relative safety of the planation, if they would just apologize. But they are too proud for that, and too proud to admit that perhaps they are not so favored by higher powers as they seem to think. Those things together spell certain doom for this small clutch of harried victims-in-waiting.
But even scarier still are the mounting signs that something wicked and dark really is at work here. The forest isn’t just dark. It is ominous. The sight of a hare unnerves the senses and beckons those who see it to follow deep enough into the wood to get lost. The appearance of ravens is a harbinger of doom. The mocking presence of the family goat, Black Phillip, heralds even more dire things to come. And along the way, we get terrifying glimpses of what really became of little Samuel, how Caleb loses his way so badly during a hunting trip, who lives in that mysterious and mossy hovel deep in the forest, and why the twins insist that the family goat is talking to them even though nobody else can hear it.
In the heart of this all is Thomasin, a beautiful young girl on the verge of adulthood, and whose emerging sexuality clearly unnerves the repressed sensitivities of her mother, father, and even her younger brother, who cannot help but steal one glance too many at his sister. Unable to escape the shadow of losing Samuel, she takes the blame for everything that goes wrong on the farm. And even though she is the family member who remains the most steadfast to her faith, she never receives the help for which she so fervently prays. There comes a point when we see that the family’s many misfortunes are not all grim coincidence. There is indeed an enemy stalking them, the family is outmatched, and Thomasin’s repeated cries for help all go unanswered. That is perhaps the scariest thing of all in The Witch; that proof of the Devil’s work is also proof of the presence of God, and yet in this story, the efforts of the first don’t seem to merit the intervention of the second. When your only shield is a heavenly father who sits this one out, there is no hope for deliverance, indeed. At least, not the kind that Thomasin expects.
When the movie reaches its astounding finale, Thomasin has been pushed to her breaking point by a series of trials her young life and her family’s threadbare piety did not even remotely prepare her for. How she handles her situation involves an especially satisfying moment of truth as well as revelations beyond what even the audience might have expected. In the end, we are shown everything we might have wanted to see…and are made to regret immediately having been granted our wish. That’s how the Devil works: targeting not just the weak and the vulnerable, but the most virtuous and steadfast among us. The Lord of Lies enjoys a challenge.