The Witch: Yes, It is a “True” Horror Film
This article contains major spoilers for The Witch.
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is an indie horror film that takes place in a bleak, winter-gray 1600s New England landscape. Due to one father’s “prideful conceit,” his wife and children also face excommunication from their Puritan town.
When the family settles into their solitary, sparse new home at the forest’s edge, they face potential starvation and the woods’ dark forces as they begin to splinter apart. This hapless family initially consists of a patriarch, his wife, two daughters, three sons, and a dog. The protagonist is not the father, whose sins mark and doom his family as Adam’s corruption tainted humanity, but the eldest daughter, Thomasin. She endures the brunt of her parents’ and siblings’ suspicions as a witch and other devilish threats assault the characters with eerie proficiency.
Whenever a horror film such as Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut The Babadook or The Witch 1 (also a directorial debut) comes along, a sentiment tends to arise, one summarized as this: The film is not scary, only creepy, and therefore it is not a true horror film because the point of a horror film is to elicit fear. The Witch may be considered “boring” and hard to watch because “not enough happens” 2 (barring the gruesome deaths of two adults, three children, a newborn, a dog, and some white goats) and due to the movie’s adherence to authentic Early Modern English dialogue.
The Witch has been compared to the likes of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows in terms of technique, specifically on how stylistic elements (the music and superb camera work) and tension-building establish the mood rather than a dependence on jumpscares and gore to startle the audience. While gore does not immediately diminish a horror film, The Witch’s lack of reliance on gimmicks such as excessive violence or abrupt jumpcuts while emphasizing character-focused fears makes it not only a good horror film, but a highly effective one.
Ultimately, The Witch succeeds as a horror film because of its tension-building atmosphere and narrative, as well as its commentary on relatable, enduring human fears such as isolation, grief, and mass hysteria.
What is a “True” Horror Film?
The use of the word “true” here means genuine and does not necessarily refer to real life accuracy. This deals with the matter of certain horror films being deemed untrue to the genre because of their lack of reliance on certain popular horror conventions, such as jumpscares and loud violin stinger chords to inform the audience when they should be scared.
The Witch has gathered critical acclaim and has been deemed scary by the likes of the horror novelists Stephen King and Brian Keene. However, that is not to appeal to authority and assert that because certain people believe a movie is frightening, it automatically is. In fact, the hard truth is that a single declaration of fear cannot make a horror movie resound with everyone. No matter what complex themes The Witch carries, its lack of impact for some audience members neither implies something inherently wrong with the audience’s taste nor means the film is ineffective or “bad” at horror.
Arguably, the potential issues with discerning whether a movie constitutes as “true” horror are these: A) Horror is extremely broad with its myriad subgenres, in which an individual may prefer or despise one over the others, and B) fear is subjective and deals with personal beliefs and biases. If one has a phobia of ghosts or personal experiences related to alleged paranormal encounters, then a ghost-centered film may affect them on a deep level, while for others the premise simply seems too far-fetched or has less of an emotional resonance. If one isn’t scared by ghosts or demons, such a narrative may not frighten them on those subjects alone.
However, some may also argue that the audience’s subjectivity is less of a factor in effective horror. That is, horror can be potent despite the viewer’s perspective. In The Philosophy of Horror 3, American philosopher Noël Carroll argues, “[R]ather than characterizing art-horror on the basis of our own subjective responses, we can ground our conjectures on observations of the way in which characters respond to the monsters in works of horror” (18). Essentially, if the conflict with the monster or threat is effective, it causes the viewer to reflect on the emotions present onscreen regardless of the audience member’s preferences. Perhaps if the individual watching does not feel empathy, they may have sympathy powerful enough to make an impact.
Because of the varying opinions on an expansive genre, gauging horror proves to be difficult. Even so, if one were to need to decide on what constitutes as a True™ Horror Film, one method could be to examine how well a horror film takes to task and unpacks existential fears (survival; lack of human companionship) and situational horror (the characters’ personal traumas). As such, the article will look at how The Witch succeeds at portraying and interacting with its conflicts and fears. But before that—
Jumpscares and Gore: Hallmarks of Good Horror?
Jumpscares and gore are common attributes of contemporary horror to the point that they may be deemed by some as necessary to develop a consummate horror film. A jumpscare is when a sudden noise or image pops into the movie in an attempt to catch the audience off-guard, and gore involves the explicit depiction of severe injuries and usually lingers on imagery involving bones, blood, skin, and organs.
If horror relies on dread and fear-making, violence and startling the audience are not necessarily poor devices; this relies heavily on frequency and execution. A gimmick can wear out its welcome when handled poorly and repeated tediously throughout a roughly two-hour film. The origins of these trends likely do not stem from single sources, but jumpscares have been helped along by the Paranormal Activity sequels and movies aiming at the same market.
Excessive gore and body-focused horror, though not a new concept (the meta-exploitative Cannibal Holocaust and its many person- and animal-abusing imitators) potentially became prominent in recent-ish times due to James Wan’s Saw and Eli Roth’s Hostel—as well as their sequels, which often attempted to “outdo” their predecessors. As more horror films came into production, it became a contest of what films could construct the most elaborate traps and means of mutilating and violating human bodies—and physical harm certainly falls under human fears.
It seems as if jumpscares and gore assaulting the camera have been equated to evoking fear, and therefore being effective because, after all, they cause an immediate physical reaction: the heart races, the body grows taut, and a person or two may even scream. However, for the most part, excessive jumpscares encumber tension-building since they cause fright in quick, normally frequent bursts that dissipate as swiftly as they arrive. These instances tend to not have an impact because they are isolated rather than ingrained in the narrative’s progress as it builds toward a climax. Rather than revealing pertinent character moments, jumpscares rely on unstable, extremely brief shock.
That is not to deride the aforementioned films and dismiss them altogether, nor to imply that jumpscares are 100% ineffective at all times and therefore need to be discarded as a technique altogether. Rather, a heavy-handed reliance on jumpscares as the focal point, the essential crux, of the horror tends to water down the film’s rhythm and effectiveness. Similarly, gore on its own does not inherently augment the film’s narrative or scare value. After three Human Centipedes loaded to the brim with excrement, the shock novelty wears off when dealing with unlikable characters who display a nihilistic lack of sympathetic motives and only engage in tension-less, mean-spirited gross out horror For Reasons. (Now, this may be derision.)
For an excellent, succinct perspective on why dependence on jumpscares in horror movies does not necessarily create a frightening atmosphere, check out Chris Stuckmann’s analysis below:
Horror, Terror, and Fear: the Bigger Picture
Terror, or dread, creates the most fear and emotional resonance, more so than jumpscares or buckets of fake blood. In Stephen King’s Danse Macabre 4, a book about the horror genre, King asserts that terror “often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking” (22). He goes on to say that terror, or the emotion from implicit scares or anticipation, is the “finest emotion” (37).
King is not alone in his assessment. Gothic author Ann Radcliffe, in the unfinished On the Supernatural in Poetry, states,
“Terror and Horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them …. And where lies the difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity that accompany the first, respecting the dreading evil?” 5
According to Radcliffe, terror not only instills fear, but it elevates the soul. Essentially, terror invokes the sublime, an extreme emotional reaction of both awe and dread, far more than explicit, physical horror because it relies on a building sense of unease and anticipation. The unease fractures the psyches of both the characters and the audience. The encroaching dread of meeting a threat and the victim’s imagination are more fearsome than the threat itself.
As an example of effective terror, The Babadook focuses on the main character’s calcified post-partum depression and post-trauma grief and how it affects her son rather than showing long takes of the titular monster. In It Follows, as the title suggests, the fright and creeping dread originate from knowing the monster stalks the characters, but not necessarily knowing where the eponymous It is. As Radcliffe asserts, the “obscurity” of knowledge, or subconscious fears slowly manifesting into the conscious, effectively creates fear.
Fear in stories like The Witch is less about isolated, extemporaneous moments of shock and more about lingering, continuous threats. A non-film example of a narrative sustaining this fear is Frictional Game’s sci-fi horror SOMA, a thought-provoking and emotional game from the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. SOMA has been accused of being less scary than Amnesia because of less focus on the monster encounters.
However, SOMA, with its well-crafted setting, essentially deals with the potential of human extinction and how far people will go to attempt to preserve humanity when the population is gone and replaced by robots, which calls into question the meaning of humanity and survival itself. It brings to the forefront the pervading fears of insignificance and being forgotten once humanity faces impending annihilation and can no longer sustain itself.
The Witch delves into the fear of nature, as well as spiritual guilt and its fluidity–which ultimately begins with the biblical sins of the father. As the family’s patriarch and the eldest son Caleb go out to hunt in the dreary woods, a murky but austerely-lined collage of browns and grays marks the screen. As the trees tower over them, the camera looks on at a distance so that it seems the tangle of branches cages the boy and his father. Through the blood and legacy of Adam and Eve, Adam’s corruption taints the whole of humanity and Eve’s sins reflect poorly on the nature of women, who are then seen as threats to male sovereignty.
Similarly, in The Witch, an entire family faces exile because of their father’s actions, which comes after they have already displaced themselves from their homeland by traveling across the Atlantic to America so they can practice their Puritanism freely.
Though professing to be a folktale, stories that are often didactic and grotesque, The Witch, in its closing, states that its story comes from real witch trial court documents. Even when most of those killed in the colonial Massachusetts witch trials were likely not witches who signed a book and mated with Satan—well, that’s actually the terrifying part, isn’t it? All spectacles and lurid fabrications aside, mass hysteria, solitude, and prejudice led to the deaths of innocent people. In the late seventeenth century, twenty Salem residents, fourteen of them women, lost their lives after being prosecuted and executed. Most of them were hanged while others died in prison and one man was crushed by heavy stones.
The impact of the Salem witch trials resonates in modern American culture. It appears in retellings and fictionalizations as a way of confronting the hunt for scapegoats. In the case of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the witch trials ultimately serve as an allegory (witch trials=the Red Scare) for when the group’s paranoid fervor overrides the rights of the individual to the point that the individual’s life and personal liberties are forfeit. The individual becomes dehumanized.
The religious persecution, torture, and execution of alleged witches based on coerced testimony comes from a long history of European witch hunts. While the Inquisition, an order meant to enact prolonged investigations and interrogations to suppress heresy, attempted to keep witch hunts at a minimum, such religious prejudice and moral panic, mostly aimed at women, did transpire. The Church allowed the Inquisition to investigate witchcraft allegations, and the death counts are all speculative.
Puritans, professing to be reformed or purified Protestants, believed Catholicism to be a source of corruption within the Christian faith with its worship of the Virgin Mary and the saints; they loathed the influence and traces of the Roman Catholic Church within the Church of England, despite England being largely Protestant, and moved to America to form their own culture. Both the Inquisition and the American Puritans performed trials and executions on suspected witches, which is why individuals may conflate the Inquisition’s burnings at the stake with the Salem “witches'” deaths. The Inquisition’s actions, while normally dramatized, spanned over the course of several hundred years from 1232 CE’s order from Pope Gregory IX to when Pius X abolished (or rather, renamed) the Congregation of the Inquisition.
In The Witch, despite being responsible for his family’s exile to poor land and being the one who sold precious belongings, Thomasin’s father refers to his eldest daughter as a “creature” before he can admit his own guilt and fault because he has been “infected with the filth of pride.” Thomasin spends a hefty portion of the film’s narrative as an object, a recipient of her family’s spiritual doubt, grief, and resentment after the disappearance of the newborn Samuel.
She endures her parents’ blame concerning her siblings’ fatal encounters with the witch and her father’s actions, such as stealing a silver cup, her eldest brother’s lust, and her young twin siblings’ suspicions and animated accusations. Puritanism consists of spiritual suffering as a means of leading one away from sin, but the desperate expression of this belief does the exact opposite for Thomasin’s faith and allegiance.
Concerning the family’s excommunication, exile from other human beings itself has been a prevalent human fear for ages. The Anglo-Saxons, the fifth century Great Britain inhabitants, wrote several elegiac poems about the wistful, sad nostalgia they experienced while either exiled or commanded to venture to the perilous seas alone when they experienced true happiness with their companions at the mead-hall. In the face of feudalism and the bubonic plague, medieval literature has the warriors turn into knights, such as Gawain and Lanval, who venture alone into the mystical wilderness—typically a forest—when once singing and joy surrounded them at Arthur’s court.
The wilderness is an enduring foe in storytelling, and seventeenth century American themes are no different. The woods represent the unknown, the antithesis of religious colonial civilization. The forest is a dark and foreboding threat rife with perceived savagery—the indigenous people, the animals, the potential devils, and the forest itself take on a hellish bent. As an example, Washington Irving’s short story “The Devil and Tom Walker” paints the swampy woods as haunted by an ash-smeared, wood-chopping Satan, who makes Faustian deals with greedy, solitary people.
According to early American providence, Christian civilization should tame and conquer nature and its unpredictable forces, and this is a notion mirrored in The Witch. Once the family has settled into the solemn space at the edge of the woods, the father proclaims to Caleb, “We must conquer this world. It shall not consume us.” This ties into a hunting motif where the family, in their hunt, becomes the hunted. Despite original sin’s effects and humanity’s innate penchant to stray from God, natal European-American towns conceived themselves as bastions of good, such as Jamestown, Virginia—which didn’t stop the people from resorting to cannibalism and effectively turning against each other.
In this way, civilization is not the ideal it aims for or even pretends to be. Instead of a bastion against the forces of nature, a happy place of ensured companionship and singing, people condemn and ostracize their own even without literal exile. Even in later centuries, all men were created equal, yet human beings were still enslaved and exterminated. The Puritan society contains sexual repression, judgment, and gendered shame and violence. In this context, Eve embodies the belief that women are more vulnerable to sin and tempt men to their hellish downfalls through promises and sexual predation.
In The Witch, this is played straight when the witch preys on and exploits Caleb, who sexualizes his sister but is so young that he still finds chaste comfort with her. As the film speeds toward its eviscerating final act, Thomasin is dragged around and immured for criticizing her unjust treatment, as well as her father’s impotence when it comes to being unable to harvest corn and protect his wife and children.
The Witch presents an inversion of the forest-as-terrible concept on a personal level in its conclusion. Eventually, Thomasin, acting as the Final Girl (a term coined from Carol Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), finds resolution and exhilaration in the forest; it acts as an unlikely refuge—for evil and death, yes, but a haven nonetheless. The interview below with Robert Eggers encapsulates how The Witch captures fear and “the Puritan nightmare” through traumatic family experiences rather than flashing a light at the designated monster and “running away giggling.”
Horror Storytelling as a Survival Lesson and a Coping Mechanism
In Noel Murray’s AV Club article “On The Babadook, It Follows, and the New Age of Unbeatable Horror” 6, Murray mentions that if a third movie similar to The Babadook and It Follows comes along, since trends often start off in threes, this could potentially signal a new trend in how horror films are styled, similar to the prevalence of slasher films in the late twentieth century or body horror in the 2000s, or the ongoing found footage phenomenon. This article will not presume to say that The Witch is definitely the film to complete the “thought-provoking, character-driven indie horror” trinity, though it is a worthy candidate.
Beyond that, Murray raises an intriguing point by stating that impactful horror films, while still exploring the effects of fear and dread, are less about conquering literal demons and more about learning how to cope with trauma. The Babadook is less of a monster movie (a common criticism of the movie is that it does not show the monster enough) and more of a narrative about the effects of suppressed grief on a stressed, lonely mother and her young, outcast son. It Follows deals with sexual anxiety (taking the horror movie plot device “having sex equals death” and making it the movie’s antagonist) set in an anachronistic world of suburban decay.
Concerning The Witch, there is a trope called Adult Fear where an adult may not be too frightened of levitating witch covens, but the notion of losing several children in the middle of nowhere as the family fractures under hunger and pressure? Absolutely. Anticipation of horror can be more frightening than witnessing the horror itself. When the witch steals the newborn son Sam, shadows obscure most of the violence as it is heavily implied the grounded bloody chunks the witch rubs over her body are the baby the viewer saw alive and happy just moments before.
Then, the audience experiences the mother’s grief for her missing son and the dismantling of the family unit far longer than witnessing bloodshed. Later in the film, after Caleb’s death as he and his twin siblings suffer prolonged paroxysms, there is an increased fearful moment as the film slowly pushes the dagger deeper into the characters’ psyches. As quiet and understated as the moment is, there are few images as harrowing as witnessing a grieving mother, Katherine, curled up next to the body of her recently deceased child in a fresh grave as the father looks powerlessly on. He cannot comfort her and cannot make up for his inability to act as a paternal protector, which is another fear in itself. Katherine’s moment with Caleb’s remains is not as scandalous or bizarre as when she breastfeeds a crow, but it is arguably closer to relatable, deep-seated fears and certainly more plausible.
Essentially, horror movies such as The Witch not only address fear, but teach the audience how to survive it—just as Thomasin survives. This endurance is not just about the result, the conquering or slaying of a demonic entity, but how people process painful experiences. This is essentially the point of storytelling. Stories not only delight, but teach from retold or imagined experiences.
If earlier humans waited on perilous firsthand experiences to let them know that the rustling bushes often meant a predator or an enemy would overcome them if they ventured toward the noise, the species would likely have not lasted that long. But once they heard stories of what lurked in the shadows, they could be wary. One does not need to have their uncle kill their father and marry their mother to experience Hamlet (though that wouldn’t hurt the immersion), but Hamlet’s plight, suicide ideation, and indecisiveness can teach them what to do or what not to do when faced with a harrowing predicament and the need to make a clear choice.
Similarly, one can watch The Babadook and see how Amelia processes her husband’s sudden death and look inward at their own real or possible reactions to grief; one can process the fear of intimacy through It Follows. The battle over Thomasin’s body in The Witch echoes modern fears of confronting escalating, accusatory abuse or even the very real prospect governmental mandates on how people—specifically women—control their own bodies. Confronting these problems can make one feel trapped and isolated at a dark edge of the world, and private affairs take the public stage.
In The Witch, Thomasin faces loneliness, yet a question comes to the forefront: What does she want? What opportunities or potential does she possess? Or, as the Devil himself puts it: “Wouldst thou like to see the world?”
Often, folktales teach with allegories and bloody consequences. The consistent trait of a folktale is that it is passed along generations and encompasses the likes of fairytales and myths. Essentially, folktales are immortal and deal with constant human plights and themes (though “Heresy can be fun!” may be less prolific), even if the story transforms or takes on different attributes as time progresses. One does not need to be in Thomasin’s exact situation to understand isolation and the dangers of group hysteria, nor to recognize the pains of attempting to maintain autonomy in an environment where one is seen as an inconvenient object that should be cast away. Her story is not solitary in that, even in its most fantastic or surrealistic moments, it echoes past struggles that shift with time, similar to Thomasin’s own shift at the film’s conclusion.
As the film starts, it opens on Thomasin’s helpless, concerned, and fearful expression as an all-male council sends her family away for her patriarch’s actions. Thomasin’s father’s face is not immediately shown, only the back of his head. As the carriage departs, Thomasin holds her mother’s hand as her family leaves their home to go into the encroaching woods—the light-gray horizon juxtaposed by the stark-black hills. Later, Thomasin prays because of her original sin, her disobedience and ungratefulness toward her parents, and therefore the makings of agency. She helps with the chores and mothering her younger siblings, yet she is treated as a curse as her household descends into resentment and terror.
While Thomasin sleeps in her new home, her brother Caleb leers over her in a high-angle shot, a shot where the perspective (her brother) subordinates the subject (herself) as he focuses on her cleavage. The Witch creates tension without interruption. Thomasin dresses predominantly in white until her outfit is bloodied after she kills her mother in self-defense—the white now as scarlet as the witch’s cloak.
Then, at the end, before Thomasin signs the Devil’s book and decides to join him at the cost of her soul, she sheds clothing entirely—thus entirely removing past blood from herself, as if she is shedding the Puritan legacy and self-blame like a serpent shedding its skin. She finds a new home in the night-darkened forest as she finds other levitating, Devil-sworn women in a bizarre rapture—and Thomasin learns how to fly up as well. She chooses Black Phillip; she chooses darkness over light as her personal good. Perhaps the only questionable element, beyond the soul-selling, is whether it is truly freeing to go from one patriarch to another, but this transaction occurs under Thomasins’s wishes and desires, and The Witch trusts the audience enough not to force an ending that answers questions that should be left to interpretation and imagination.
As Thomasin, the sole survivor of tragedy, rises in the film’s last moment, her body with its raised arms perfectly mirrors Christ on the cross, and the film essentially corrects Caleb’s previous objectification of Thomasin by engaging the image with a low-angle shot. With this technique, the movie looks up to and elevates Thomasin, rather than bearing down upon her, thus concluding on an image that is paradoxically religious and blasphemous—damned and celebratory.
In essence, The Witch is a potent, thoughtful horror film because of its subtlety and deep-rooted connections to past and contemporary anxieties. With its acute attention to detail, this movie excels at reconciling overarching anxieties with the specific narrative constructed within the well-conceived atmosphere, complete with effective cinematography, spectacular acting, and unsettling music that assists the moments without relying on forced stingers. It respects its audience by adhering to the Nothing Is Scarier principle in some moments and does not spoon-feed or undermine its foreshadowing.
The only question remains is if future indie horror movies—or horror movies in general—will continue to interact with and challenge complex issues. Hopefully, films like The Witch will encourage horror creators to re-conceptualize ways to direct, write, and shoot satisfying, compelling, and chilling projects.
- The Witch. Dir. Robert Eggers. Perf. Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, and Kate Dickie. Film. ↩
- Waldman, Katy. “Critics Love the Horror Film The Witch. Why Don’t Viewers Think It’s Scary?” Slate. The Slate Group, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. ↩
- Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print. ↩
- King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Gallery, 2010. Print. ↩
- Melani, Lilia. “The First Wave of Gothic Novels: 1765-1820.” The Gothic Experience. Brooklyn College, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. ↩
- Murray, Noel. “On The Babadook, It Follows, and the New Age of Unbeatable Horror.” The A.V. Club. Onion, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2016. ↩
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