This episode is all about witchcraft in New England. We speak to folklorist Peter Muise and review the new folk horror film, The Witch, which is set in Colonial New England. Lots of spooky, witchy goings-on this time around! We hope you enjoy!
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Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).
The incidental musical selections are hymns from the Congregational/Puritan tradition, called “He Leadeth Me,” and “On the Lamb Our Souls are Resting.” Songs are via Archive.org, used under Creative Commons license. Audio selections from The Witch are used according to Fair Use conditions of copyright.
I am sure I am not the only person in the witchcraft blogosphere who will be venturing an opinion on Robert Eggers’ New England folk horror film, The Witch. The movie’s stylistic and narrative gravity has been pulling critics from many backgrounds into its orbit to venture commentary. It is a fine film, to be sure, and if you are looking for a recommendation, I am among dozens of others who will give one—the film currently seems to be holding a mid-to-upper-80s percentage and “Certified Fresh” rating on movie review amalgamator RottenTomatoes.com. If you’re a fan of horror movies (or at least can stomach horror genre frights), the movie is beautiful to look at and riveting from its first moment until its surprising finish. For visual impact alone, it is worth seeing in the theater. Other critics with a deeper background in film studies can and have said much more about Eggers’ diretorial debut as an artistic work, and so I will leave my simple recommendation here in the first paragraph.
Instead, I would like to comment on the elements of the film upon which I may be more uniquely qualified to offer an opinion. As a student of folklore and history, as well as someone with a more-than-passing interest in witchcraft as a particular subject, I will take a couple of paragraphs to talk about how the film uses those elements to tell a story that lingers long after a viewer departs the theater. Fair warning: while I do not wish to spoil anything, I won’t be able to discuss how history and folklore shape the narrative without referencing very specific moments in the movie. So, that is to say, many potential spoilers ahead.
One of the most widely acclaimed elements of the film is its historical accuracy. Director Eggers spent four years doing intensive research, drawing upon primary source documents from the 17th century to build up the authenticity of his world. The film’s coda notes that the themes, some narrative elements, and much of the dialogue is taken directly from diaries, pamphlets, and other period materials, and that attention to detail shows. The film’s language has an immersive quality. Its costumes and physical spaces do as well, from the community plantation abandoned by the Separatist family at the beginning of the film (filmed at Plimoth Plantation) to the wild wood which hems in the clearing where they attempt to build a farm and a life. The family, led by father William (Ralph Ineson), manage to eke out a first season’s crop of corn only to have it struck by blight. Soon after, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) loses the youngest child to something which mysteriously—and with uncanny swiftness—appears from and disappears into the woods. William attempts to comfort his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), by reminding her how lucky they are to have so many children survive in the capricious Early Modern period, and that the loss of one is tragic, but understandable in a world where God must continually test his children’s faith. Katherine is broken, however, fearing her infant has been taken to Hell since William refused to have it baptized in the plantation church due to his disagreements with its less rigid brand of Puritanism. The pre-adolescent boy of the family, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), receives religious lessons from his father in the woods as they attempt to set traps to catch wild game for the winter, lessons about his corrupt and sinful nature. Caleb finds himself caught in a moral compromise after his father reveals that he sold a family heirloom without telling Katherine, a crime for which Thomasin receives the blame until the boy steps in with a protective lie, and imprecating all of them in violations of Calvinist theology.
All of this is not to spoil the film’s plot elements—these fragments do not reveal anything terribly important, and most happen within the first third of the film. I bring these details up to make the point that the film has an air of authenticity about it, both historically and psychologically. That is not to say that the historicity of The Witch is somehow above reproach. It is not. As Peter Muise of the blog New England Folklore has pointed out, “many of the film’s later images are drawn not from New England witch narratives but instead from continental European myths and narratives, which had more sexual content. Continental witch stories were quite lurid, full of orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. The New England witches, malevolent though they were, were demure Puritans at heart.” So Puritan were 17th-century witches, in fact, that their notorious leader—the Devil—frequently wore the guise of a Puritan minister. Historian Richard Godbeer notes that the inversion of specifically religious images had nothing to do with Puritanical obsessions with chastity, but with the intentional choices of the accused in connecting their religious leaders with satanic influences:
“The subversive equation of godly and diabolical communities in descriptions of witchcraft at Salem explains the almost complete absence of sex from those accounts. That absence was not due to Puritan success in ridding New England of sexual license, or any reluctance on the part of townsfolk to mention such transgression as did occur. The court records of early New England contain thousands of cases relating to sex crimes…Had deponents in 1692 wanted to fill their descriptions of witch gatherings with illicit sex, they could have drawn on the local reports and gossip…That deponents did not include sex in their descrptions of the diabolical community at Salem was, therefore, a matter of choice…[and] give the impression that layfolk in New England were imprisoned by the covenantal discourse of Puritan theology” (Godbeer 69).
That Puritan theology is something the film gets very right. At one point, William leads his son out into the woods to check some game traps, and leads him through a Calvinist catechism of sorts, which has the child confessing his debased and sinful nature and the failure of anything but God’s grace to save him. William also has to explain that Caleb’s younger brother may very well be in Hell, because only God can know the ultimate disposition of someone’s soul. William’s disagreement with his local church’s theology is very much based on this world-view, and like many Puritans, he believes the wilderness and all its trials are a godly sign of righteousness. The wilderness, and the things dwelling within it, sorely test the goodness of the family, and find it wanting.
Yet it is not just in the wild places where dangers pursue Thomasin and her kin. Even on the little farm, corrupting influences creep in. The twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), display remarkably little regard for their parents or older siblings. They play strange games with the family’s dark-hued goat, Black Phillip, and are visited by spectral fits during an attempt to exorcise the influence of witchcraft on one of the family members. Thomasin’s budding sexuality threatens the family’s stability, too, very much putting her in the line of fire for witchcraft accusations. Women were seen as particularly susceptible to witchcraft and the Devil—one part of the famous witch-hunting manual known as Malleus Maleficarum contains a section entitled “Why It is That Women Are Chiefly Addicted to Evil Superstitions.” Thankfully, the film does not oversimplify the accusations into pure psychosexual drama, but instead shows how the family begins to devour itself from the inside, with the twins just as suspect for diabolical malfeasance as their older siblings.
All of that is to say that the historical aspects of the film generally ring true, even if they muddle a bit of the Old World into the New. The language particularly crackles, immersing the audience without dumbing it down for them (and it is taken directly from trial records and journals, as mentioned above, which Eggers had to sift and stitch together into something cohesive). If the film were called Accursed Little House on the Damnéd Prairie, however, I likely would not be examining it here (although I’d still absolutely watch it). The history in the film is heavily served by its reliance on folklore, which is what makes it truly terrifying.
Almost from the very beginning, the folk world of The Witch absorbs its audience. The titular witch seems like a potential allegory or psychological symbol for only the briefest of moments, and then suddenly becomes very real within the story. To be clear, this witch is NOT an herbal healer or midwife living at the edge of a village who gets accused of crimes in some land-grab or out of fear over her quirky and peculiar ways. When Eggers gives his audience a witch, he gives them exactly what that word meant to a 17th-century audience: a wicked, dangerous, wild woman (yes, okay, sometimes witches were men, too), bent on doing harm and destruction to those that threatened her. Or, you know, just for fun, since the film is not completely clear on why the witch singles out this family for her torments beyond the possible encroachment upon her space.
So just what folkloric signs of witchcraft pepper the film? As a wise man once asked, “How do you know she’s a witch?” Well, as the answer goes, she looks like one—wild and disheveled, crone-like (except when she isn’t), and often working naked under the cover of darkness. She uses a wild-caught animal—of sorts—and turns its fat into a flying ointment, with which she anoints a staff and rides before a full moon. While much of this lore betrays the more European-style lore which Eggers admits influenced him significantly, there are a number of pieces here that absolutely get echoed in American magical and witchcraft practices. The animal-fat ointment, for example, has several parallels, including a story of “Greasy Witches,” from Roan Mountain on the Tennessee/Carolina border, and the Appalachian folkways series, Foxfire, has references to rendering all kinds of animal fat into useful cures, ointments, and greases.
As the film is a horror movie of sorts, blood is also in the mix. Animals give bloody milk as a sign of bewitchment, a theme paralleled in a number of stories from New England and the mid-Atlantic. Sadly, the family does not seem to know any of the traditional curesagainst witchcraft, such as scalding the milk in the fire or beating it with brambles to reverse the harm upon the witch. But then, as they are devout in their Puritan faith, they likely would agree with Cotton Mather that “[W]e ought not to practice Witchcraft to discover Witches, nor may we make use of a White healing Witch (as they call them) to find out a Black and Bloody one” (Mather 265). Black and bloody this witch can be, almost vampirically draining blood and life from the livestock and even people on the little farmstead, and leaving sickness and madness in her wake. While a more modern interpretation of this sort of story might be tempted to associate illness with a natural cause and leave witchcraft as a psychological function, Eggers resists that urge, and clearly implies the uncanny in the family’s woes. During a particularly eerie moment, a family member suffering from the witch’s influence coughs up a bloody, partially gnawed crabapple as a sign of his malefic infection, not unlike cases in which pins or stones are vomited in folk tales.
The animals in the story also play a significant role in the witchcraft. A wild-eyed hare seems to taunt the family. William’s attempt to kill the thing results in a misfire of his rifle, which in turn causes him injury. Stories of bewitched guns are found in a number of tales in collections like Patrick Gainer’sWitches, Ghosts, & Signs or Hubert Davis’s The Silver Bullet. The animal form of the witch—a hare—seems more in line with British and Scottish lore, but the concept of shapeshifting is hardly unknown on American soil (we did a pair of shows and an article on the topic recently, in fact). The other eerie beast in the film is Black Phillip, the family billy goat, with whom the twins cavort and make up rather diabolical stories. The goat seems harangued by the children, and the father struggles to catch and pen him at one point, demonstrating his tremendous physical strength. Black Phillip nearly steals the show when he’s on screen, with his strange dancing and bucking when the members of the family get too close. Animal familiars also appear in the film, such as a raven which pecks at one person’s breast, drinking blood as recorded in some of the testimonies of 17th-century witches. The deposition of New Hampshire witch Eunice Cole, for example, accused of nursing her familiar with a witch’s teat: “[L]ookeing upon hir brests under one of hir brests (I thinke hir left brest) I saw a blew thing like unto a teate hanging downeward about three quarters of an inche longe not very thick” (Demos 485). Stories from Salem also spoke of witches suckling animals, such as hairless cats.
Perhaps the darkest and finest connection to folklore is the presence of both the Devil and the Devil’s book, in which a person might sign her or his name and gain diabolical power at the cost of her or his soul. The trope of this infernal deal appears in European records, too, but became a major feature of witchcraft legends, tales, and trials in the North American colonies and states. Folklore from Maine down into Virginia and the Carolinas made mention of these dealings (which is not to exclude points outside of that range—Canada had some similar legends, as did areas south and west of the New England/Mid-Atlantic corridor). These books would frequently be signed in blood, and in the case of an illiterate person, an “X” in her or his blood would suffice for a compact. We’ve written about the subject here before, but these “Devil’s Books” and their contractual bond with Satan (or at least with a “man in black,” who often looked a great deal like a Puritan minister) made concrete the fears of Puritans—the Devil was really out to get them, and was ready and waiting to enlist any human into his service who did not keep constant vigilance. What did people hope to gain from signing on with the Devil? One witch, Mary Marston, found release from pain and grief after her mother’s death by signing the book and becoming a witch, while accused witch Mary Lacey “confessed that the Devil told her ‘we should have happy days and then it would be bett’r times for me’” (Hall 145). One witch, Mary Barker, even believed that compacting with the Devil for a witch’s powers would earn her pardon from her sins (ibid.). Frequently, witches compacted for the sole and deeply personal purpose of vengeance upon enemies whom they could not defeat through legal or licit means. Accused Salem witch Rebecca Eames explained that the Devil agreed to give her “powr to avenge her selfe on them that offended her” (Hall 192).
All of these reasons come into play through the course of Eggers’ The Witch, as tragedy turns into motivation and the fallen family comes to grips with its graceless state. When piety has been exhausted, power becomes a deeply motivating incentive. Crucially, the film does not linger on any sexual compacts with the Devil, although the witches in the film are generally nude or sexualized in other ways. Instead, the embrace of witchcraft becomes a choice, indeed an almost entirely reasonable one, given the circumstances of the collapse of Puritan morality in the face of a wilderness clearly beyond the control of any Calvinist God.
Eggers has invested in this film, emotionally and intellectually, and he asks that his audience do so as well. While he is attracting a lot of attention for his detail-oriented and historical approach, the feelings conveyed by the filim have as much or more authenticity as the choice to use period costume or building materials. The folk elements of the film—which is subtitled “A New England Folk Tale”—connect it to the raw nerve of the cultures in which witches seemed to be under every dark bush or tree. As a specimen of American folk horror, the movie packs a punch, and does not attempt to explain away its terrifying elements through a single lens, like psychology or the supernatural. Instead, it lets all the pieces come together to support a story that can break your heart as easily as it makes you jump out of your seat.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the historical or folk elements which shaped The Witch, please check out the bibliography at the end of this article.
Godbeer, Richard. “Chaste & Unchaste Covenants: Witchcraft & Sex in Early Modern Culture,” in Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600-1900, Peter Benes, ed. (Boston: Boston University/Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 1992).