The Witch, Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut film, tells the story of a Puritan family exiled from the Massachusetts Bay colonies for patriarch William’s (Ralph Ineson) unorthodox beliefs. While the haunted house story is the traditional model of American familial horror—The Shining’s domestic terror growing like a goldfish to fit its massive new tank, the alienating and all-consuming vastness of the titular building in The Orphanage—The Witch instead treats the house as a fragile membrane between love and ruin, the family’s rough homestead on the edge of a vast wilderness a visual metaphor for the precarity of their bond.
It’s that fragile family unit in which the film locates both its most disturbing imagery and its most poignant moments, a thoughtful admixture of warmth and corrosive anxiety familiar to anyone who’s ever been part of a struggling family. By taking time to establish the loving dynamics at play within the family, The Witch makes their eventual destruction and perversion that much more painful. It’s a school of horror filmmaking which banks as much on the delicate beauty of human connection as it does on images of crisis and transgression, using the former to heighten the intensity of the latter. Just as the sight of a baby in peril is more stressful to viewers than adult endangerment, a closely connected family’s disintegration is more painful to watch than a distant one’s.
In dwelling not just on the tensions but on the tenderness of sibling, spousal, and parent-child relationships, The Witch more fully vests its horror in a relatable context. Its characters cradle and stroke one another and offer comfort as best they can, and their ultimate failure to function as a family is a horror more profound than any cackling witch or demonic goat. There’s a scene late in the original run of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks when the villainous Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh) asks his captive, the stalwart and good-hearted Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), what he fears most. Briggs replies without hesitation: “The possibility that love is not enough.”
Faith and Failure
“I love thee marvelous well, but ‘tis God alone, not man, what knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not. Who is good, and who is evil,” says William to his son in the dreary depths of the forest. The frustration in his voice as he tries to simultaneously reassure Caleb that he’s loved and express the insignificance of mortal emotion in the face of God’s judgment is heartbreaking, a father’s deep affection for his child hopelessly impaired by a cold, rigid system of religious belief. This tension is everywhere in the film. Katherine’s (Katie Dickie) crushing certainty that her unbaptized baby—kidnapped near the film’s opening and correctly presumed dead—is in Hell conveys with harrowing realism what it’s like to find the beliefs that structure and enrich your life suddenly tight as a noose around your neck.
At every turn the family’s staunch Puritanism pulls its members in different directions, saddling the children with ideas and responsibilities they can’t possibly understand, much less enact, and driving their parents ever deeper into self-recrimination and moral paranoia. William’s lecture to Caleb on the uncertain state of his infant brother’s soul and the need to place faith not in human words or guesses but in Christ finds a bitter echo in the boy’s death. In his last moments Caleb appears unaware of his family, instead staring beatifically skyward as he prays to Jesus with ecstatic fervor. His father’s failure to comfort him has severed something vital, unmooring him from the world his family inhabits.
William’s failed attempt to love his son is something you don’t often see in horror. Gently, with the best intentions, he destroys Caleb’s ability to make sense of the world. From an outside perspective the harshness of Puritan doctrine could seem almost cartoonish, condemning infants to Hell and ripping families apart as soon as accusations start to fly, but The Witch treats its religious subject matter not just seriously, but tenderly. The human foibles of its characters—William’s shamefaced silence when Katherine blames Thomasin for the loss of a silver cup he himself pilfered and sold, Caleb’s uncomfortable sexual awareness of his sister’s body—are imbued with a kind of dignity. Knowing how hard they’ve worked to do good makes it sting even more bitterly when it comes to nothing.
One of the films linchpin sequences comes after Samuel’s disappearance when William holds a weeping Katherine in their bed. “Thou dost remember I love thee?” he asks her, his voice husky, practically begging her to let go of their dead child and rejoin him with what remains of their family. Ultimately, his words are as frail before the storm of her grief as the house he built is before the all-encompassing chaos of the wilderness. Love, deep and genuine, rooted in years of shared labor and affection, is not enough. Later, when Katherine attacks her own daughter in the midst of the family’s final collapse, Thomasin pleads with her not by asking for mercy but by repeating, to no avail, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
The Sacred and the Profane
From its inciting catastrophe to its harrowing conclusion, The Witch braids together its most vulnerable images and its most violent and shocking. The beginning of the family’s disintegration, for example, coincides with Thomasin’s menarche—her first menstrual cycle. At the moment she becomes a viable mother in the eyes of her society, her own mother’s baby vanishes under her care. The babe’s disappearance, too, is a perversion, an innocent game of peek-a-boo inverted and made real with stomach-churning immediacy.
Later, the malevolent forces tormenting the family delude Katherine into believing her baby has been returned to life. She cradles Samuel to her breast, but in truth a raven is tearing at her nipple with its beak as she laughs hysterically in the empty house. Even one of the most primal aspects of her bond with her children, her body’s ability to nourish them, is transmuted into unsettling filth. The fragility of families becomes clearer and clearer as things continue to break down. Shortly before Thomasin kills her in self-defense, Katherine accuses her daughter of seducing first Caleb and then William, betraying deep anxieties about the sexual and social roles of each member of the family.
Again and again the film reaches back into its own symbolic language and consciously defiles it. The breastfeeding raven, Thomasin’s orgasmic flight and cruciform pose at the film’s conclusion, Caleb’s guilty lust for his sister and subsequent sexual entrapment by the witch—the film doubles back repeatedly on innocence not to disprove it, but to complicate it, to heat the tensions inherent to family and religion until they boil over. In pricking at these intimate fears, The Witch tells a domestic horror story that reminds us not just of our own frailty but of what we hold dear, and why. Great horror knows that the things we fear most are the things we love.