The Witch: A New England Folktale

PHnL9yfIgPlHqw_1_lThe Witch is a thinking person’s horror film. It has been well received by mass media, and endorsed by Stephen King as one of the scariest films he has ever seen. However, this reviewer’s own background worked against her in viewing this film. As a Wiccan/Pagan, I’ve studied comparative mythology and folklore as well as the history of witchcraft in both Europe and pre-Colonial America. I saw this film in the context of socio- anthropological history, as well as early Christian psychology. It made me appreciate the intense, exacting attention to historical detail, as well as the insight into the ingredients that fueled the witch hysteria of the past. Unfortunately, knowing the details took almost the entire scare out of this film. I knew what was coming at almost every turn.

It is a credit to writer/director Robert Eggers that he certainly did his research. He even documented his own historical inaccuracies at the Huffington Post, which you can read here although it does contain some spoilers. The trailer for the film itself – and it is a film, a film of horrific events, rather than a horror movie – gives away a good many turn of events.

From the trailer we see a lone family heading out into the New England wilderness, the disappearance of a newborn, the arrival of a black ram. If you are familiar with the history of witchcraft that is a major “tell.”

What is left out is how the family came to be isolated. Without giving too much away, the old adage of “pride goeth before a fall” certainly applies. The epicenter of future events, though, is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenage girl on the brink of womanhood. It is under her watch that the baby disappears. Her younger brother’s longing for her blossoming figure leads him literally and figuratively into the woods. Her mother’s resentment towards her grows at almost every turn, as she is blamed for things she did not do, and bullied mercilessly by her youngest siblings, who have a very strange relationship with the black ram. The isolation and failure of the crops add to the building crescendo, and when everything snaps, all hell breaks loose (literally).

Eggers used letters, diaries, and church records of the period to make his film believable and credible. The cast, mainly of unknowns, does a fantastic job of portraying a family on the edge of a major breakdown. As for actual horror, there is very little gore, well placed for maximum effect. This winner of the 2015 Sundance Award for Best Drama, is indeed worth seeing. Not being the target audience for this film certainly had its impact on the way I viewed it, which saddens me because I love nothing better than a good scare. What it did deliver in its respect for history is indeed exceptional.

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