Posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Last week, I attended a screening of The Witch hosted by the Satanic Temple and then went to a Satanic ritual. It was my second time seeing The Witch, but my first time participating in a ritual that concluded with chants of “Hail Satan.” The remaining shards of Catholic still embedded deep within me screamed the entire time.
My invitation to this screening explained how The Witch is “transformative Satanic experience” and how the Satanic Temple “supports the film’s declaration of feminine independence, which provokes puritanical America and inspires a tradition of spiritual transgression.” I saw The Witch at Fantastic Fest last year and was blown away by it (and have written about it on more than a few occasions since then) and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to revisit the film and collect an interesting anecdote or two.
And since The Witch is in theaters now (and just had the biggest opening in A24’s history), this certainly feels like the right time to have a larger conversation about this film, a deeply uncomfortable horror movie that plays differently depending on what baggage you bring into the screening. In this case, I had three perspective to consider: my entirely secular worldview, the beliefs of my Catholic wife/screening plus-one, and the ethos of the screening’s Satanist hosts.
Spoilers for the film follow.
The Second Viewing
A first viewing of The Witch finds you dropped into the deep end of a dark pool and writer/director Robert Eggers refuses to throw you a life preserver. The film begins in medias res, with a Puritan family being exiled from their community in 17th century New England and journeying into the wilderness to build a new home where they can worship as they see fit. And by “they,” the movie he really means “he,” the family’s patriarch William (Ralph Ineson, in a performance of astonishing power and rage). Characters speak in antiquated language, much of it drawn from actual witch trial transcripts, and many of the conversations demand that you understand the intention of the exchange rather than the actual words. Like the film’s heavily researched and immaculate sets and costumes, the characters themselves feel like they were drawn out of the past – their English is not our English, their turns of phrase belong to a bygone era.
If the first time through The Witch demands that you keep up with the film as it refuses to explain the world it has dropped you in, the second time is when the details click into place. A familiarity with the story allows the viewer to focus on the words coming out of the characters’ mouths, to recognize their layers and their frequent hypocrisy. If the film’s more shocking, violent moments lose a pinch of their punch on the second go-around, the characters and their dialogue only deepen as you take on a greater understanding of what, exactly, is being said in each and every scene. The Witch is a horror movie through and through, but the tragedy of its characters shine through the blood and terror. Here is the story of a family shackled by their own beliefs, prisoners to a fragile system that only needs an outside force to apply a little pressure in order to break it apart.
The film is obviously no fan of organized religion on the first viewing, but it was on the second viewing that the pain on the faces of William and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie) became so apparent and so crushing. Belief can be a shackle and a prisoner is always desperate.
The Secular Perspective
My initial reaction to The Witch, on both occasions that I watched it, was that it was really frightening. My second reaction, delayed by about 15 minutes as I mulled over that horrifying scene with the crow and quoted the film’s tremendous final scene to anyone who would listen, was one of quiet and disturbed thought. As I waited in line to get into the Satanic Ritual being held in a downtown Austin bar and music venue (Hail Satan?), I mulled over the film through my personal lens. The Witch practically demands that its images and ideas be filtered through your beliefs.
I’m a non-radical atheist (live and let live, worship or don’t worship, etc.) and The Witch serves as a greatest hits collection of every reason why I slowly stepped away from the church of my youth. The film may take place in a New England knee-deep in the 1600s, but so much of it (too much of it), could easily be translated to certain parts of America right now. I was never unfortunate enough to live in a domineering religious family, but I recognize the family from The Witch from my school days. I recognize their fanaticism in the faces of neighbors and friends. The greatest trick Eggers pulls is that he lulls you in with a supernatural horror story, only to hold a mirror up to modern society. Systems built to hold families together can tear them apart. Belief in a loving and peaceful God does not guarantee you being a loving and peaceful person.
The Witch places its characters in the literal wilderness, separated from civilization, alone susceptible to self-destruction. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t about 2016. A nice four-bedroom home in the middle of suburbia is just as isolated as a shack in a clearing and help is still so far away, especially when those who need it are too prideful, too ashamed, to ask for it.