Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Witch Conjures Up Ancient Scares and Human Evil [Contributor: Melanie]


If I was to boil The Witch right down to one sentence, it would go like this: The Crucible meets Macbeth. Okay, that was technically a sentence fragment, but you get my point. It’s one of the few horror films in recent memory that actually cares about the story it’s telling and the audience it’s for. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not breaking molds — it’s going back to basics. And I don’t mean in the way The Conjuring did when it literally was just The Exorcist all over again. The Witch very intelligently uses age-old belief systems and folkloric sensibilities about nature to conjure up its organic scares.

First things first: as a first-time director and writer, Robert Eggers knocked it out of the park. Eggers failed before in getting backing for projects deemed too experimental or obscure before finally settling on genre film work. Though, by his own admission, he told himself: “It has to personal and it has to be good.” So he got to work on a script about witches, a childhood fascination of his, based on several journals and accounts of early American settlers in the New England area. And the dialogue is insanely good. Written entirely in Puritan vernacular — which is occasionally hard to decipher through their heavy accents — the conversations are sharp and intelligent.

But let’s talk about what the film is getting at here. In a sea of found-footage garbage and remakes, this film manages to capture something rather ancient about things we’re afraid of — the woods. At lot can be attributed to why we are naturally afraid of the woods. The darkness, the unknown, predators. And all of that may be true and valid. But the point isn’t why we’re afraid, it’s that we’re afraid in the first place. The phenomenon has been the “rule of proximity” by folklore scholars. Though it’s a formula that is pervasive in western mythology, it’s specifically studied best in the Slavic vein.

Essentially, the rule of proximity states the farther you are from the house, the more dangerous the world becomes. The domovoi, the Slavic spirit of the home, is a protective entity, though it can be known to engage in poltergeist activities if unhappy. Next is the dvorovoi, the spirit of the yard who gets a little nastier with his tricks. And then there is the ovinnik, the most malevolent of the homestead spirits. We venture out farther and we encounter a leshii in the forest who works to make travelers lost or sick and has been known to kill them (... via tickling). The rusalka and vodianoi are even worse — spirits of the water who will drown you.

Do you see the pattern here?

The farther out you venture, the more danger you’re in. It’s nuanced throughout stories from multiple cultures. So we’ve got our Puritan family excommunicated and exiled from the settlement within the first seconds of the film. They’re out on their own in the wilderness, backed up to a forest. They’re already in danger, and the score cues from composer Mark Korven let us know it. Some time later, the eldest daughter Thomasin is playing with her youngest brother at the edge of the woods and bam — the baby is snatched right out from under her, taken into the forest, and killed.

And the use of a witch embraces this, after all. The western idea of the hag hiding in the forest is a cultural successor to the fears of the malevolent supernatural creatures lurking far from home. But it also serves as a nice crossover point with the Puritan dogma present in the society the film portrays. Witches sit at the crossroads of pagan and Christian beliefs and fears. It’s something easily transferred from the antiquated beliefs of our baser, savage ancestors, into the formulaic world of Christian hierarchy. This makes witches not only a double threat, but a lasting one. A perfect monster for our horror film.

But this film is a lot more than horror. I walked out describing it to my friends as a family drama under the shadow of the supernatural. Thomasin is a teenage girl living in colonial times in a Christian household, which makes her incredibly repressed. Her first scene is a confession where she admits to deserving eternal damnation for the sins she was born with and asking for mercy. It’s an outdated belief system designed to make one feel worthless. It’s exacerbated when her baby brother is stolen and her hysterical mother blames her. Later, she’s blamed again for a missing silver chalice that her father, in actuality, sold for hunting supplies.

There’s a real element here of scapegoating (pun unintended as there is an actual goat in this movie that’s to blame for all of this). She’s blamed for a number of troubles in the house, later accused of witchcraft by her younger siblings playing a game in a scene straight out of The Crucible as they pretend to have fits and cry for their sister to leave them alone. Her eldest brother is also tormented by some Lannister-esque gazes at Thomasin, which her mother later accuses her of perpetuating (a.k.a.: it’s your fault he’s looking at you). And this build up of incredibly irritating lack of communication, refusal to accept reason, and need to blame someone makes for a very satisfying ending.

After Caleb, the eldest boy, returns from an encounter with the witch in the woods — sick and raving and dies in his mother’s arms — William locks his remaining children in the barn for the night, unsure of which one is the cause of the evil. In the morning, the barn is destroyed, the animals slaughtered, the two youngest gone, and Thomasin is unconscious. William’s gored by Black Phillip, the ominous family goat, and Thomasin is forced to kill her mother in self-defense when she attacks her and blames her. Later that night, alone on the farm, Thomasin approaches Black Phillip and signs her name in “his book” before walking naked into the forest and joining a coven of witches in euphoric dance.

An ending like that could have easily crashed and burned. It could have gone into the same pitfall as It Follows by “showing” us our monster and taking away the tension. But, with everything leading up to that point, it comes across less as concrete evidence of supernatural involvement (up until that point it wasn’t entirely clear if it was truly fantastical or just paranoia) and more as a moment of freedom for Thomasin. She laughs as she’s carried into the air, finally free. It’s morbid and cynical. The only way she could be free of persecution, betrayal, and yoked femininity is to leave her objectively “good” family for the objective “evil” of witchcraft. And while killing babies and teenage boys is not great by any means, the point being made about ambiguous morals and hypocritical religious practices is clear.

Ultimately, what makes The Witch great is its lack of clich├ęs by digging for more organic scares. It’s the more primal elements of fear and blame inside us that creates the monsters on screen

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