Sunday, February 21, 2016

Women in Horror: The Witch: A New England Fairy Tale

* spoilers *

Patriarch William is banished from the recently settled plantation in 1630 for refusing to repent for his crimes and his difference in belief with the leaders. He takes his wife Katherine, his oldest daughter Thomasin, his son Caleb, his twins Mercy and Jonas, and infant Samuel across the wild countryside to settle somewhere on their own. The work is hard and the corn isn't growing well, but they get by on their own. One day, Thomasin is watching baby Samuel and he disappears almost as if by magic. Everything seems to come apart after that: the corn is dying, hunting isn't a viable option, and no help is in sight. The family starts to turn on each other as each instance of misfortune increases in intensity and magnitude.

The Witch is a deeply unsettling film to watch. It's not a gore fest or a simplistic, straightforward film. It moves slowly and gets under your skin by degrees. Right from the beginning, things feel off kilter, but it's hard to pinpoint why. Maybe it's the family's religious fervor or the father's absolute confidence in his very foolish decision to settle on their own, but something just isn't right. The dread and tension mount as the film goes on, aided by the dissonant music. The entire dialog is spoken in the authentic dialect and accent of the colonial people, so it takes a little while to get used to it. The different cadence to their voices and their antiquated word choices also add to the strange quality of the film. It also shows the level of detail the writer and director put into the script as well as the clothing, setting, and plot as it reflects folk tales of the time. Little things like seeing how dark it really is using only candles and lanterns and night heightens the mood and shows how their lives might have been.

The first thing that creeped me out was their level of religious fervor. Their flavor of Christianity has humans as destined for hell and full of sin unless their god deems them worthy for heaven. Despite this, they are all guilty of not following their strict, oppressive rules because they are flawed, as are we all. William is full of pride and lies to save his pride. Katherine is vain and full of irrational anger at times. Caleb is lustful like any teenage boy is. The twins misbehave constantly, don't really mind anyone, and are rarely seen doing any work. Thomasin seems to be the least sinful of them all, but she still lies, lazes, scares her siblings, and keeps secrets. The fact that they each assume they are evil and will go to hell for these relatively small offenses is pretty sad because they are just pretty normal people trying to survive. Prayers are a constant with them and it does little good.

My interpretation of the horrifying events is that the supernatural scenes never really happen. It represents what they expect is happening due to their view of the world. If baby Samuel was lost, it must have been a witch who used him in an unholy ritual. If the land refuses to yield crops and the animals don't bear usable food, it must be because they are cursed. These people have settled in a place they don't know much about that has never been used for agriculture before. It's supposed to be their lifegiving Eden, but they have no idea what they are doing. It's not a surprise that they can't even feed themselves. When Caleb is attacked by the witch in the forest, she uses his lust to lure him and delivers him to the homestead nude and delirious. The only person aware of Caleb's lust is Caleb. He sees it as so unnatural and evil when it's really just a part of growing up that he ends up self-destructing and going mad. The final confrontation between William and Black Philip, their goat, represents William's failed attempts to conquer nature. He can't do anything successfully except chop wood. The crops died. Hunting proved fruitless. Nothing else edible grows around them and their own animals either abandoned them, died, or no longer provided any sort of consumable good. The goat conquers the man as does all of nature that he is so uneducated about and unfamiliar with. There's nothing supernatural about it, but their religion colors their world so much that they automatically assume something evil is at fault.

The "something evil" that the family blames for their troubles is a witch. When the twins play that there is a witch in the forest, it's taken as a serious statement instead of just the flight of childish fancy it so clearly is. We do see a witch in the woods, but she represents their monolithic fears of the unknown in the wilderness, the brutal effects of nature, and their own sins that they hide from each other. Later in the film, this is all heaped onto Thomasin, the oldest child on the verge of womanhood. She doesn't exhibit any signs of womanhood beyond her physicality and making the mature decision to help her family and assume responsibilities. She has essentially no agency. Her parents get to decide when and who they marry her off to as well as what she does day to day. When she does decide for herself, results vary from tormenting her little sister to doing extra help on the farm.

As far as I can tell, Thomasin is the most virtuous and well meaning person on that farm despite her flaws, but she is demonized as a witch the moment it's convenient. Her father wants to bring her to trial and her mother tries to strangle her to death while the twins egg them on with their accusations. Thomasin kills her mother out of necessity, obviously suffering in the process, and then agrees to give herself to the devil when everything has been stripped away from her. I interpret this as again not actually happening. She was so ill treated by her family that in their eyes she turned into the thing they so feared and joined the rest of the witches out in the forest. Her journey to womanhood leads her directly to evil as her family expects. She becomes a part of the folk tales because that's how that society would remember her despite her actions to the contrary. I do like that she gets some sort of freedom in the end even though she is assuming a role she was pushed into and (if assuming it is real) working under another patriarchal figure. Why not become the witch they think you are when death is really they only alternative?

The Witch is a formidable film that many will label as boring or not horror at all. There is room for the horror genre for slashers and art films alike. It isn't for everyone and it's unlike any other film I've ever seen. It's weird, unnerving, and disturbing in a quiet way (up until the end). I don't feel the need to watch it again any time soon and it left a lasting impression on me. I highly recommend it and I predict it will be the best horror film of the year.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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