Robert Eggers’ folk tale is an allegory for our times.
There is much to celebrate in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees: independent film is well-represented, minorities are getting equal play, and some of my favorites from the past year are getting their due. Still, maddeningly, the most relevant film of 2016 was snubbed across the board. I’m referring, of course, to The Witch. No matter that it takes place in the 1640s ‐ Robert Eggers’s chilling directorial debut has proven itself as prescient about the times we live in as any of the year’s more topical fare. To be sure, the film’s archetypal storytelling makes its relevance perennial, but Eggers’s exposure of human nature’s shadow side feels uncannily present tense.
The Witch was criticized by some fans upon its release for not being the “true horror film” it was marketed to be; and indeed, the film shares more in common with a family drama than a slasher picture. But Eggers took his lead from Bergman, whom he considers “a better horror director than actual horror directors.” Why? “Because he is actually probing what’s dark in humanity, and that’s what I think horror is.” The Witch tells the story a New England Puritan family who, after being threatened with banishment from their plantation over a religious disagreement, sets out to build a farm on a secluded patch of land in the forest. After their child goes missing, taken by a witch from the forest, they slowly begin to turn against one another. Here already we see the roots of American exceptionalism, American hubris, and American fear.
William (Ralph Ineson), the family’s patriarch, has such conviction in the purity of his own values that he is willing to drag his family into the wilderness to assert them. This certitude mirrors the very attitude that lead to the “discovery” of the New World, as well as the subsequent atrocities committed to take control of it. The oppressive force of nature in the story symbolizes, in the Puritan imagination, the indigenous peoples from whom the land had to be wrested, but it also symbolizes the encroachment of evil into the psyche of the Puritans themselves. Eggers puts it thusly:
“I mean these English Settlers had a really complicated relationship with nature, on the one hand they were coming over here saying this is a new world, a new eden, a new Jerusalem, but at the same time it was nature with devil’s church. So there was a lot of conflicting stuff here ‐ and then of course the hubris involved, and then trying to conquer nature the way they wanted, and the fact that they felt they had the right to was despicable…And obviously they really were susceptible to nature.”
These attitudes persist today. Our indiscretion in the pursuit of mastery over nature has led to the crisis of climate change, which in turn we have met with denial and further destruction. Likewise, our efforts to assert our values abroad have been met with stark reminders of our own fallibility. Well-meaning though these efforts may be, human nature has a way corrupting even the most noble of endeavors. American claims to exceptionalism are not immutable; they are vulnerable to the attitudes of our populace and the actions of our government. And it’s by no means certain that American moral authority will survive the next four years.
Despite its fantastical subject matter, The Witch uses meticulous period detail to ground the viewer in reality. This makes the film more terrifying, but it also makes it more relatable. Because the story’s supernatural elements feel so continuous with the general atmosphere, it becomes harder to distance ourselves from the emotions of the characters. As Eggers notes, “I think if you live in a time when you believe something is true, that makes it true.” So embedded were beliefs in the supernatural that events like “possession” and even “witchcraft” actually occurred, albeit without the imagined causes. Accounts of the time like Charles MacKay’s “The Witch-Mania” relate tales of scores of women put to death for witchcraft. More alarming still, many of these women imagined themselves to be witches. This is an astonishing and humbling fact about our nature: mere belief can transform our experience of reality.
While we may have outgrown the particular belief in witches, the fear and false certitude that animated the people of the Early Modern period have by no means left us. Religious fundamentalism still leads to the prosecution of imaginary crimes, and fear continues to drive much of our rhetoric and policy. Some of these fears may be justified, but the effect on our psyches is no less corrosive. As Eggers puts it, “the witch, whether she is manifesting herself in your imagination or physically manifesting herself, she feeds off of your fear, she feeds off of your despair, she feeds off of all that darkness. And it just makes her stronger. So the supernatural and the psychological are like completely enmeshed at all times.” Fear has a way of exacerbating its object. One example from the contemporary sphere: just as the left’s moral panic about conservatism helped fuel the rise of right-wing populists, so has the fear-mongering of right-wing populists created more of the extremists they fear.
Some of the fears on display in The Witch bleed into the social sphere. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter in The Witch, becomes the center of the family’s anxiety because of her burgeoning sexuality. Her inability to conform to puritan ideals, coupled with the disproportionate power she wields, gets her labeled a witch. Eggers describes finding the inspiration for Thomasin in his research: “You’re reading about a young woman who is freaking everyone out. She’s just a little nothing in this world. It can’t be her. It must be the devil. That’s tragic. In the end, the shadows of the past still creep into today.” Nearly 400 years hence, the “problem” of women’s bodies remains sufficiently vexing as to generate the largest one-day protest in U.S. history.
Given the faults in our nature, much of the work of improving society falls to culture ‐ to the laws and institutions we put in place, but also to the stories we tell ourselves. The maintenance and advance of civilization has always been one of the prime functions of mythology, but few modern filmmakers take this task seriously. George Lucas is one, as I noted in my piece on Rogue One. As a filmmaker with a similarly mythological bent, Eggers has celebrated the direction of the series: “I think it’s fucking great that Daisy Ridley [in Star Wars: The Force Awakens] is the new Christ of our most popular contemporary religion. I think that’s really important.” The myths that shape culture can take the form of celebratory odes to our potential, like Star Wars, or chilling reminders of our frailty, like The Witch.
It has now become clichéd to invoke our nation’s contemporary division, but it’s easy to forget that this partisanship originates in our psychology. These qualities have been with us for as long as we’ve been around. “What’s so interesting to me about history is ‐ what’s interesting to anyone ‐ is how humans are the same,” Eggers explains. “Their belief systems were so different. They had different metaphysical truths than we do. And yet we’re the same.” However far our culture may have advanced, human nature has not evolved since the time of the Puritans. But for contingencies of historical circumstance, we are as subject as they to the tides superstition, fear, and violence. The question is not how a nation as advanced as we could succumb to the forces of division, but rather how apes such as we have made it this far. Films like The Witch serve as warnings that the capacity for barbarism lies dormant in each of us.