The VVitch, directed and conceived by Robert Eggers, tells the story of a Puritan family banished from the main plantation. It concentrates on their struggles to live solely on their own resources and faith far outside the rest of civilization. However, dark forces that originate plague them with doubt and fear. First Samuel, the baby, is stolen while the eldest daughter Thomasin plays peekaboo with him. Then it is the eldest son, Caleb, who disappears after a trip to check the traps in the woods with Thomasin goes wrong. Caleb is given back, but it is then that the accusations of Thomasin being a witch begin. As the family falls into hysteria and accusation, it and becomes clear that Thomasin is the only one not affected. At the very end of the film, with her entire family dead, Thomasin walks into the woods to join the other witches there.
As a horror film, there are several criticisms. The pacing is very methodical, bordering on slow, and many of the stressful moments in the film do not actually involve the witch, but a strained family dynamic. There are several scenes that contain gore, but on the whole they’re more disturbing that outright frightening. In fact, that is the vibe I get for the whole movie, disturbing and stressing rather than frightening. Even the score for the film is more annoying at times than truly nerve-straining.
Yet if we look at this film in the language of Egger’s, as a “Puritan nightmare”, then the entire dynamic changes. The film as a showcase of the historical Puritan views concerning witches and witchcraft is amazing. As a modern telling (modern in that it is on the screen rather than text) of that traditional story, one does not have to waste energy worrying about the plot line, but instead reveling in the extremely detailed mechanics of the story. Eggers put an incredible amount of work into making this film as historically accurate as possible. The set is all hand build according to historic record, the language has been meticulously researched, and the costumes look as if they have been stolen out of a museum. Perhaps the thing that is most real of all is the fear this family has for the dark forces besetting them. In the commentary after the film, Eggers states how that the Puritan’s lived in a world where fantasy and reality were one. Their accounts of witchcraft and possession were very real to them, even as we dismiss them as forms of illness and panic not then known to science. For the Puritans, witches were not simply a nightmare, they were a true evil that plagued god-fearing families and tried to conscript their daughters into consorting with the devil. That fear and the story of one being driven into the coven is what Eggers brought to life. This is not just a story about a witch, this is a story about how one creates a witch.
It is the historical context and drive to put a witch straight out of the journals and letters we have on hand that saves these witches from being dismissed as bad stereotypes. There is dancing naked around a fire, there is bathing in blood, there is using one’s sexuality to lure men. We see an old crone, a young woman, and everything in between. And while there is something almost cartoonish about all of that, I cannot shake the feeling that having been born in the 20th century and having grown up immersed in fantasy, I am just immune. Quentin Tarantino movies assure that you’re forever desensitized to blood in a film, and sex is extremely prevalent in our culture. On the other hand, the Puritan’s viewed sex and the female body as things to be kept under wraps at all times. They were primitive and enjoying any part of them meant you had to be under the devil’s influence. In that regard, these witches are a Puritan’s worst nightmare. They are the Devil’s seduction wrapped in a dreadful body.
This fear of women’s bodies and the fear of sinning comes into play heavily. At sixteen, Thomasin is just beginning to blossom into a woman, and it does not go unnoticed by the family. Caleb, her younger brother, who is already worried about going to hell since his little brother has been stolen is now also somewhat frightened of Thomasin because of how she now draws his gaze. Her mother recognizes that this is the age at which Thomasin becomes more questioning and more independent; she is beginning to grow up and her mother talks her husband into trying to find a family for Thomasin to serve so that she will not trouble the family.
Not to mention, it is instinctive to all of them that sexuality of any sort should be feared. When one of the younger twins pretends to be the witch who stole Samuel, Thomasin decides to do the same in order to try and get the twins to mind her better. In what is one of my favorite pieces of acting in the film, Thomasin saunters along the riverside, telling Mercy how she is the witch of the wood and what horrible things she will do to Mercy if she doesn’t mind her. The complete change in Thomasin’s body language and voice is astounding. “I am the witch of the wood” she declares to Mercy, her voice a lilting and slightly playful, but not in the fun way. As she walks, she gathers her skirt in her hands and sways both her hips and her shoulders. In trying to scare Mercy into behaving better around her, Thomasin instinctively plays upon her burgeoning sexuality.
Additionally, when Thomasin’s mother outright accuses her of witchcraft after her husband’s (William) death, she calls Thomasin a slut and accuses her of seducing both her little brother and that her father was next. It is as if the crop failure and animal sickness are just symptoms of a witch being around while the true danger is the seduction they offer.
Which makes sense given that Puritans believed witches to be the Devil’s agents. The Devil lured them away with promises of good lives and decadent things, and when they signed his book he gave them terrible powers. Everything that the Devil stands for, so do the witches.
This of course then leads to the question of is the Devil present in the film. The answer is yes, but not after giving the watcher a very strong moment of doubt. At the very end of the movie, in what again is one of my favorite scenes, Thomasin goes to their male goat, black Phillip, and asks if he is the Devil. She asks him if he made all of the terrible things happen. There is a long enough silence after her questions that one begins to doubt the existence of everything seen in the film. Perhaps it is all just the hysteria of an isolated family living under harsh conditions both physically and religiously. Yet as Thomasin begins to turn away, the goat speaks, and honestly, that was probably the scariest moment in the film. The way the film had progressed, I bought into that moment of doubt very hard and so when Black Phillip speaks it was quite the shock.
We’re going to take a small moment here to talk about the problems of showing a figure of such proportions in a film and why I love how Eggers did this very thing. Figures such as God or the Devil are almost impossible to show in films or TV shows. (Unless of course that show is Supernatural in which case you do what you want.) They are quite literally of Biblical proportions and any image or description we have is a fiction. Black Phillip is a pretty safe representation of the Devil as he is very often described as taking the form of a he-goat. What remains is the question of the voice and if we ever see the Devil in human form.
The second question is easier. Eggers does indeed have the he-goat transform into a human figure, but all you ever see is a pair of legs striding around Thomasin and a gloved hand on her shoulder. It’s eerie and very much so done in the style of Hitchcock where viewers are given just enough to let their own imaginations spin wildly. Now, how Eggers decided the Devil needed to is honestly a make/break decision for the film. Something so big needs to be done extremely well, and Eggers delivers. Honestly, I’m not sure if this is what the Devil sounds like, but it is highly plausible. Black Phillip’s voice is slow and almost soft, but very commanding. There is gravel in it as well as a slight echo that adds to the inhumanness. But, it is not unpleasant; he speaks as if he is telling secrets.
Finally, this decision by Thomasin to sign the Devil’s book and become a witch is an interesting one. Despite the horror of it all, viewers cannot shake the feeling that Thomasin is being liberated from a repressive society. Yet, the question needs to bed asked whether this is truly her decision, or whether the Devil has orchestrated all of these events to coerce her into being one of his. Is she truly liberated or has she just traded one type of mastery for another? And if so, it is still possible that this is the best outcome for Thomasin. There is no way for her to ever re-enter the plantation with her entire family dead.
All in all, I think this movie is an excellent addition to the curriculum. The movie is a wonderful showcase of the Puritan witch, and makes a perfect opportunity to talk about Salem in context. There are so many different topics to talk about: the symbolism, the creation of a witch, stereotypes vs. historical beliefs, primality and empowerment, the intersection of reality and fantasy, and many others.
My plan is for the class to watch the movie at a planned screening with perhaps a bit of debrief immediately after the movie. I then want them to have the ability to dwell on just the movie for a day of discussion before giving them interviews with the cast and the director about the film. Part of the discussion will revolve around the film’s merit as a standalone piece versus it’s merit with the director’s input and vision.
Also, I understand that there are several scenes that could be considered too graphic or triggering for students. Students will be warned before hand of when these scenes are and will be allowed to leave if they do not wish to view them.