“Nor uglier follow the night-hag, when, called
In secret, riding through the air she comes,
Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring moon
Eclipses at their charms.”
John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)
While witches have been a staple of myth and folklore with numerous historical examples dating as far back as characters like Circe in Homer’s Odyssey and the Witch of Endor in the First Book of Samuel, these wild, often monstrous creatures have a more complicated relationship to cinema. Witches have had a steady presence in fantasy and children’s movies, but they are somewhat underrepresented in horror films when compared to their masculine counterparts, such as serial killers, masked slashers, or faceless demonic forces.
Genre cinema has also tended to depict witches and witchcraft in one of two ways: first, in fantastical, uniquely stylized films about supernatural evil like Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) or Argento’s Suspiria (1977) or Inferno (1980); secondly, in stark films about moral hysteria and the dangers of female sexuality, such as Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) or Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968). Robert Eggers debut feature, The Witch (2015), is a rare example of a film that bridges this divide, showing a small seventeenth century community — in the form of an isolated family unit — in the throes of religious panic and moral collapse, complicated by the presence of a very real witch.
Eggers’ witches are sparsely but effectively used. Perhaps in a surprising move from a fledgling director, his female antagonists don’t really reference popular contemporary cinematic or television referents, but find their origins in medieval interpretations, particularly from texts and woodcuts. Elements like de-eroticized nudity and flying ointment made from babies’ blood date back to medieval Europe.
In 1486, German priest and self-styled inquisitor Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum, Maleficas, & earum hæresim, ut phramea potentissima conterens, which translates to The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword. With this volume, Kramer sought to prove the existence of witches and educate other inquisitors on the best ways to locate, identify, and convict them. Based on earlier works, such as Johannes Nider’s Formicarius from 1435, the ultimate goal of the Malleus Maleficarum is to assert the existence of witchcraft and describe the variety of black arts available to servants of Satan — typically understood to be women, due to their supposed predisposition to sin and vanity.
Kramer wrote, “No one who reads the histories can doubt that there have always been witches, and that by their evil works much harm has been done to men, animals, and the fruits of the earth, and that Incubus and Succubus devils have always existed.” Witch hunting — and the belief in witchcraft at all — was initially considered to be unlawful superstition by the early Church leaders, but it persisted regardless of official sanction. And from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, largely due to political motivation, the idea caught on with increasing fervor.
Both medieval (roughly the fifth to fifteenth centuries) and early modern Europe (the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries) was a place of ignorance and persecution. Antisemitism was rampant — and anti-Jewish propaganda informs several modern stereotypes attributed to witches — but Jews were far from the only targets. In their seminal study, Medieval Europe, C. Warren Hollister and Judith M. Bennett described that, “not only Jews and heretics, but also prostitutes, lepers, and men who participated in homosexual acts caused much more anxiety among their neighbors than ever before. These minorities were supposedly a source of pollution to good Christians; they were portrayed as sexually unregulated; they were thought to worship the devil” (239). This increasing sense of instability and paranoia resulted in the Inquisition, which spanned the mass slaughter of a religious sect known as the Cathars in the thirteenth century, widespread persecution of the Knights Templar in the fourteenth century, and the witch hunts of the sixteenth century.
Hollister and Bennett even argued that the persecution of witches is a defining characteristic of the development of the modern western world. “Many would agree that 1500 was the threshold of a modern Europe, a Europe distinguished from its medieval predecessor by its ‘renaissance’ culture, its greater reliance on science, its protestant Christianities, its capitalist economy, its larger and more important cities, its geographical expansionism, its nation-states, and indeed, its witch-hunting” (325).
While witch hunts were a distant memory by the emergence of cinema in the 1890s, some of its early pioneers were quick to explore the subject. In The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed wrote, “early silent films, such as those of Georges Méliès (The Witch’s Revenge, The Witch), were primarily interested in using this topic in order to exploit the trick properties of the camera” (73). It wasn’t until Benjamin Christensen’s silent pseudo-documentary film, Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), that witches had a significant starring role in cinema.
Macabre, blackly humorous, and unsettling, Häxan is an inspired landmark of early satanic horror and is the most obvious direct influence on The Witch. This Swedish-Danish coproduction is based partly on the Malleus Maleficarum and essentially aims to show how superstitious interpretations of psychiatric illness were perceived as occult phenomena, leading ultimately to the torture and genocide of the witch hunts. The most expensive Scandinavian silent film of its time, Christensen includes a mixed media approach, with stills of photographs, paintings, woodcuts, models, and mechanical art.
Christensen used a series of dramatic vignettes to explain medieval beliefs about witchcraft and his Satan (gleefully played by Christensen himself) is hairy and potbellied, a sort of diabolically sexualized prankster, while his witches are portrayed flying on brooms, making brews out of babies, kissing Satan directly on the ass as part of a greeting ritual known as the Osculum infame, and gracing the doors of their neighbors with fresh urine. Satan’s other minions, devils and demons, are shown as as perverted versions of farm animals, such as pigs and cats, or as writhing insects birthed by a witch.
The film had shocking subject matter for its time period and was banned in the US for nudity, perversion, sexual content, and torture, which is not surprising considering the many depictions of grave robbing, possessed nuns, satanic rites, and the torture of accused women. There is also an impressive amount of sexual content for the time period, expressed both in the witches’ relationship to Satan and the depictions of torture.
The Witch is a far more subdued affair, borrowing from the same medieval interpretations of witchcraft Christensen used in Häxan, but using them only at key intervals. The film follows conservative Puritan William (Games of Thrones’ Ralph Ineson) as he is defiantly exiled from his community in England and attempts to make his way in the new world alongside his wife Katherine (Game of Thrones’ Kate Dickie), and their five children: teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuel.
Surprisingly sensitive and sympathetic despite a gruff exterior, William is determined to follow his religious conviction, but realizes his pride may have condemned his family, as he perhaps does not have the knowhow to care for them in such isolated wilderness. They have trouble with their farm animals and the crops fail; starvation becomes a very real threat. When baby Samuel goes missing on Thomasin’s watch, the household begins to unravel at an alarming rate, with a hysterical Katherine placing the blame on Thomasin and demanding her removal.
While there have certainly been recent films that deal with the overlapping themes of witchcraft and satanic cults — particularly how they relate to troubled family dynamics, such as Wake Wood (2010) or Kill List (2011) — The Witch seems determined to deflect or subvert horror genre conventions. It actually bears more in common with a film like Michael Haneke’s Das weiße Band (2009) aka The White Ribbon, a dread-inducing period drama about violence in a small German town in the years before WWII. Like The White Ribbon, much of The Witch is a slow burn and focuses on troubled interpersonal relationships, lingering on instances of emotional cruelty, sexual repression, and personal bitterness.
The film’s determination not to become overwhelmed by genre conventions results in some of its strongest moments, as evil is a force that cannot be reduced merely to human corruption or supernatural meddling. In medieval historian Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, he wrote, “Whether one perceives the Devil as a supernatural being, or as an uncontrollable force arising in the unconscious, or as an absolute aspect of human nature is less important than the existence of the perception, which is that we are threatened by alien and hostile powers” (32).
The Witch succeeds at capturing this sense of the alien and hostile — which is what fundamentally makes it a horror film and not just a dark period drama — not only in the Puritans’ relationship to the spiritual realm, but in the family’s encounters with the physical world around them. There is the sense that the New World is more primitive and hostile than the one they left behind and that the remoteness of their home does not allow for a purer connection to their God, as William perhaps hoped, but instead leaves them isolated and defenseless.
They are prey to literal manifestations of Satan in the form of the family’s male goat, Black Philip, and in a few glimpses of the witches: an old woman who kills baby Samuel and and makes a salve out of his flesh, as well as a younger woman who lures Caleb into her isolated hut in the woods with the implication that she will seduce him. Evil is also manifested psychologically in the form of Katherine’s grief over the loss of her child, a hysteria that takes on an almost sexual malevolence similar to the events of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). In that film, a mother’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) pain leads to psychosis and, when combined with her obsessive research about medieval witches and witch hunting, results in monstrous violence against her husband (Willem Dafoe) in an isolated cabin in the woods.
While one of Antichrist’s themes is historical, systemic misogyny, The Witch deals with it in a very specific time and place: during a period known as the Great Migration, when Puritans relocated from England to New England, roughly from the 1620s to the early 1640s. In Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, Elizabeth Reis discussed that this relocation was as much spiritual and political as it was geographical. She writes, “Leaving Behind the English church they considered corrupt, New England Puritans cultivated a more vital, primitive faith, abolished certain Anglican religious rituals, and rejected the hierarchical ecclesiastical structures of the establishment” (xiii).
Reis explained that in the new world, women were considered more prone to sin and damnation than men, so much so that feminine guilt was an ingrained function of the Puritan world. She wrote, “Women had to prove not only that they had not compacted with the devil, but that they were blameless in every respect. Demonstrating freedom from all sin was, of course, an exceedingly difficult task for any Puritan; for a Puritan woman, so thoroughly permeated by her religion’s ideology that she considered herself by nature a vile and evil creature hopelessly unworthy of Christ’s love, the task was virtually impossible” (2-3).
This explains why Thomasin is seen as an unruly, rebellious element by both her parents — though particularly by Katherine — but this is actually true of all the family’s children. Though the final push into hysteria largely originates from Katherine’s grief-stricken paranoia and madness, the genesis of this chaos lies is in the children. Caleb glances at Thomasin’s developing body with increasing desire and attempts to intervene so that she won’t have to leave their home. The twins blatantly misbehave all authority figures, even their father, and proudly claim to be in communion with Black Philip.
In The Witch, then, evil comes both from without and within: it creeps in from the hostile wilderness that surrounds their home, but it also grows in the breasts of William, through pride, Katherine, through grief, and in the children, through a seemingly innocent desire for freedom. Burton Russell wrote, “Evil is meaningless, senseless destruction. Evil destroys and does not build; it rips and it does not mend; it cuts and it does not bind. It strives always and everywhere to annihilate, to turn to nothing” (23). Through his witches, Eggers causes a havoc that is annihilating, destroying both a family unit and the small Puritan community William has painstakingly built in the New World, proving that evil can be at once supernatural and psychological and that its most effective representation on screen may live in the liminal space between the two.
Robert Eggers was kind enough to speak to us about The Witch, in particular, his historical influences and an insistence on veracity that gives the film such weight.
Diabolique: The Witch is one of the few witchcraft-themed films that deals with religious paranoia, sexual hysteria, and supernatural evil. Why did you decide to blend these traditionally separate themes?
Robert Eggers: To people in the early modern era, witches were real. Evil witches were understood by everyone to do the kinds of horrible things that the witch does in my film. It wasn’t something that people believed in, it was just something that people knew to be true in the context of their society and culture. In Salem, for example, they realized that maybe a couple of those women were witches, but they also realized that there was hysteria going on and that they condemned innocent people. It wasn’t that witches weren’t real, it was just that those women were not witches. They thought that the devil was in Salem, not witches, and he was teaching them a lesson; or God was teaching them a lesson through the Devil’s actions.
Diabolique: Why did you decide to move the central family out of a small town or settlement — a place likely to be a hotbed of paranoia and superstition — and into the middle of nowhere in the forest?
Eggers: Well, I couldn’t afford to have a settlement. I know that we have a glimpse of one, but I didn’t want to anyway. I wanted it to be about a family as a microcosm of society, which is very much a Puritan point of view. There’s a rhetorical phrase used often in the period, “A family is a little church, a little commonwealth,” so I could use that family as a microcosm. I’m interested in this period from the beginning of the Great Migration. Western culture was very primitive in New England at that time and there was a brief period where it was almost like the Middle Ages in North America, which is interesting. It makes the family extra vulnerable.
Diabolique: Definitely. That sense of isolation was one of the most powerful things about the film. In terms of plot, it seems like this is brought about because they’re forced to go to America. Why are they viewed as heretical and asked to leave their community?
Eggers: These Puritans who came over from England were extreme Protestant Calvinists. This is during the reign of King Charles I [1600-1649], an unpopular king. They thought he had too many Catholic ties and many of these Puritans wanted to either separate entirely from the Church of England or at least “purify” the Church of England and turn it into something that was in line with their beliefs. They left to form new communities where they could practice their religion the way they wanted to, like William and his family.
I think William is a prideful man and he wanted to get out of this sinful England and go visit the new world, which people were calling a New Jerusalem, a New Eden, or a New Canaan [an ancient region of the Southern Levant, approximately modern day Israel and Palestine, that was the setting of the Hebrew bible]. However, there were different kinds of factions and philosophies within the English Calvinists themselves. There were disputes occasionally when people came over here. People like Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island, was kicked out of many settlements for having a religious rigor that was so intense that even these other super-religious people couldn’t stand it. This is also why William is leaving the settlement with his family.
Diabolique: In terms of the impressively realistic period setting, why so much attention to detail considering your budget restraints and the fact that this was your first feature film?
Eggers: If we can’t be transported to the 17th century and we can’t be transported into the mindsets of these people and their culture, then we can’t believe in the witch and the witch can’t be scary. And then the film can’t be entertaining, and we can’t believe any of it. If you keep ignoring details, they’ll accumulate and turn into something where you can’t believe in the world anymore. The more details you can articulate, the more transportive this film can become.
Diabolique: You’ve mentioned that a lot of those details come from historical sources, down to the dialogue itself, but did you have any specific influences for how you depicted the witches?
Eggers: There’s plenty of woodcuts and engravings from the early modern period and the late Middle Ages that I looked at. Google “witch woodcut” or “witch engraving” and you’ll find all kinds of good stuff. Goya is the one non-period guy who is from Early Romanticism, but his witches and his “Black Paintings” are some of the most evocative around. They’re so archetypal that I feel like they’re outside time. They don’t belong to the period in which they were painted.
Diabolique: Did you have any cinematic influences for the film itself or for the witches?
Eggers: Bergman, Dreyer, and Kubrick. The witches are close to some of the witches in Häxan, the silent film, but they were drawing from the same woodcuts and engravings that I was.
Diabolique: On a final note, I think my favorite thing about the film was the sound design, which is just incredible and is so effective without seemingly doing very much. What were your influences there and how did the witchcraft theme affect your decision making process?
Eggers: I do like silent cinema a lot and there are points in this film where there’s no diegetic sound, only music and image, and the music is really finishing the storytelling. It’s taking it to another place that I couldn’t have gone without music. A lot of the films I like don’t have music in them, which is a thing that I originally wanted to do, but I very quickly realized that there were emotional states that I was trying to articulate that would be impossible without music.
I listen to classical music very avidly and I wanted to start with 17th century psalms that would have been sung a cappella by these Puritans — who also played them on 17th century stringed instruments — and then use dissonant, crazy 20th century classical music for all the supernatural stuff and combine the two, playing them all on these period instruments, which is what we did. Mark Korven, the composer, also added the choir, which is crucial, and he’s a real expert with period instruments. He brought in a whole lot more that I didn’t know about to really produce a unique sound. Percussion was always something I wanted as well, and I worked closely with Mark to have the percussion be kind of sloppy and weird and off, with branches and twigs instead of traditional instruments.
In conclusion, it will be interesting to see what direction Eggers takes with his next project — he only mentioned that he would continue with the historical theme — as The Witch is a unique blend of influences, particularly for a genre film. Unlike most contemporary horror directors, Eggers references are obviously more historical than cinematic, and he refreshingly puts far more of an emphasis on the film’s meticulously detailed, carefully crafted world than on jump scares or genre tropes.