Robert Eggers’ film, The Witch, contains horrific images, deals with unsettling subject matter and is designed to create moments fraught with tension. All this conforms to create what can be considered a “scary movie”. Right under this surface lies something as insidious as a New Idea. The Witch plays in scares and suspense in order to let the witness dig in and create belief in the bravest of all human endeavors: self-realization and individuality.
[Warning: Major spoilers ahead!]
Set in 1630s New Hampshire, The Witch throws us into a world where the demons at the door are literal and God is as close as the faintest wind. This was the reality of Puritanical society. Those who left England did so in order to practice religion as wildly as they so desired, which is entirely within their right as humans. It’s difficult for a modern audience to directly empathize with the situation but it isn’t unlike many current worries. Instead of witches in the woods testing our temptation, we have Big Brother and his all-seeing eye threatening our right to self. Both of those fears work in very similar ways and construct their own specific set of monsters. In The Witch, the overriding theological society acts as today’s Big Government or so-called “securities” agencies. Both of these groups aren’t uniformly evil but are powerful enough to establish fear in dissenters despite attempting to promote safety. To the film’s William, these particular Puritans are stifling his personal beliefs in safety and freedom. So they kick William, his wife Katherine and his five children, Thomasin, Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas and newborn Sam out into the wild to fend for themselves.
In reality, William sends his family into the mouth of madness where clinging too tightly to to an unfair standard designed only for himself conjures destruction. William is warned early on their budding farmland when his newborn is stolen right out from under the eyes of his eldest daughter, Thomasin. The child is lost as punishment for putting this person, completely incapable of making a decision for themselves, in such a dangerous situation. For Thomasin, this is the first moment of awakening that the teachings of the father might not hold water so holy. Her mother then blames her for the disappearance, projecting the fear that Thomasin is mature enough to unravel this precarious family.
Then we see that baby Sam is muddled into an infant mojito paste and slathered across a wilting broomstick to send a wretched old crone flying into the night.
This is where the thematic endeavors of a piece of art intertwine with genre. If Puritan society and extremist religion are supposed to be the antagonists here, why is a baby killed by a witch whose beliefs I purport to represent the self-actualized? This is designed to cement the goals of the film as trying to portray the experience of becoming an individual as something that can be truly terrifying. Yes, having a baby brutally sacrificed is horrible imagery but it also establishes the stakes of the film as something tangible and not just spiritual. As a movie, creating this tension is the ultimate goal for a good cinematic experience. When we only have physical stakes of life and death or only the emotional journey of our characters at hand, it doesn’t feel like a fulfilling experience. This is why movies where “it was all just a dream” are such dramatic vacuums. There was a change in our character(s), a moment of self-realization if you will, but there were no stakes. The ultimate “it was all a dream” film, Inception, proves that stakes can be created even if we are only dealing with (maybe) one subconscious by defining the madness that can suffocate its characters for eternity. And movies that are based entirely on the physicality of survival like The Revenant (Leo sure does span the spectrum of cinema) with its two main characters already emotionally realized aren’t also a complete journey.
The killing of Sam at the beginning of the film is simply masterful storytelling.
The downfall of William is, as he admits in the film, his pride. Only, it isn’t God who is punishing him. God has forsaken William, leaving him to the judgment of The Adversary and individualistic life incarnate, Black Phillip the goat*. William is unwilling to part ways with his need to include his family in his tempestuous beliefs. He goes so far as to desecrate the trust of his wife, stealing her silver cup heirloom in order to sell it for goods. The difference when it comes to William is prideful selfishness as opposed to individualism which ultimately leads to his undoing with a good push from Black Philip into his immensely crumbling pile of chopped wood.
Coming at the opposite end of the spectrum is Thomasin, a young woman coming of age sexually and psychologically. Thomasin constantly lays her needs down in order to suit those of her family’s. She is at the distinct point in life where she questions whether all this torture for the benefit of her father’s beliefs is worth it.
As the family continues to succumb to the nature of William’s selfishness, Thomasin’s awakening becomes fully-formed. When her brother, Caleb, gives in to his sexual temptation in the form of The Witch, he is punished not for that but for the upholding of his father’s selfish upbringing in lying to his mom about going picking for apples (hence the apple lodged in his throat). In the end, he chooses the realization of God and forfeits his chance at an individual, earthly life.
After having been outed for talking with Black Phillip about nefarious spirituality it is decided the twins are harboring evil and are cast out of the house along with Thomasin to sleep with the goats. Our residential hag makes another appearance in her truly disgusting form (also the form the twins most believe exists which might not actually represent the truth) as Thomasin sleeps and the twins scream in fear as she feasts on a goat in front of them. In the morning, Thomasin awakes to see the twins gone, but two white goats laying dead near her, their throats ripped out. This, I believe, represents the twins being killed for speaking against Black Phillip, spiting the relationship he created with them earlier in the film. Although I also think the movie leaves their actual fates muddled for a reason, suggesting that they could have been given a chance at choosing a life for themselves elsewhere (though, I’m pretty sure the hag split their throats wide because… Good.)
All Thomasin has left to do is embrace the spirit of her individuality, which also comes in the form of destroying her persecutors. In this case, it’s her mother who believes Thomasin to be evil and forces Thomasin’s hand to grab a knife when a fight escalates into a life-threatening situation. The blood of her mother dribbling onto Thomasin’s face is the final sacrifice necessary in coming face to face with Lucifer** who gives Thomasin an enticing choice.
In Christianity, it is the temptation of choice that most believe makes Lucifer evil. The choosing of self over humility to God is a sin and to the Puritans, it is the utmost evil. Regardless of personal religious views, this choice of a humble life in the eyes of God is also one against self-realization and becoming an individual. To choose one or the other isn’t cause for judgment in our world (well, thousands and thousands of years of Holy Wars would tell us different. It’s just more objective in our world, with an obvious choice yet to be decided) but in the world of The Witch, the plight of the individual is paramount.
When Thomasin inevitably signs the Devil’s Book, her soul is given over to Lucifer but her life is now her own. She follows Black Phillip (back in goat form) naked into the woods and onto a witches’ convent; a newborn into a world where anything is possible. The chanting witches at the fire begin to ascend the treetops of the imposing New England forest and Thomasin cackles with joy for her life is now anything she wants it to be. That, I think, is beautiful.
The Witch presents the hardest choices in life at face value. They’re scary! Life is scary! Choosing to overcome those who persecute you and the selfishness of others who try to impose their will upon you is indescribably difficult. Robert Eggers has staged a film that, in the face of deep period with dialogue practically Shakespearean and about a witch in the woods, is a profoundly human and engrossing experience. Here’s to individuality, a free life and signing the Devil’s Book.
*The goat has long been used to symbolize the Satanic and the Sigil of Baphomet has been adopted by groups such as The Satanic Temple and The Church of Satan (groups with wildly different ideology while interpreting mostly the same material).
**The movie clues us into believing it’s Lucifer who is Black Phillip, but it is the pagan entity Baphomet who introduced the symbolic goat figure into Satanism. Baphomet is also not a deity bound to Christianity, which could further complicate the religious nature of the film. It’s all fairly confusing to me and I don’t believe the movie gives us any good insight, so I’ll just go with Lucifer. Just know that I’m not entirely happy with that generalization.