An Atheist, A Catholic, And A Satanist Walk Into A Screening Of 'The Witch'

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.

the witch review

The Horror, the Horror

A peculiar controversy began brewing over the weekend as a segment of horror movie fandom decided that The Witch is not a horror film and shouldn't be treated as such. This kind of malarky is a reminder that all fandoms have their gatekeepers and that some horror buffs can be so easily scorned when their often niche genre receives critical acclaim. Ironically, many fell back on the argument that those who turn their noses up at the horror genre use when they decide they like a horror movie, like when The Silence of the Lambs swept the Oscars back in 1991 – it's a "psychological thriller." Psychological thriller is code for horror movie, only utilized by someone who doesn't want a horror movie to be called a horror movie for whatever harebrained reason. The Witch introduces a clear supernatural threat five minutes into its running time. It is a horror movie whether you want to admit it or not.

The other topic of conversation came from normal people, i.e., casual moviegoers who were lured to The Witch by its killer marketing campaign and left disappointed. Some said the film wasn't scary. Others said it was "overhyped." The general public has had a more mixed reaction to the film than others and while this is disappointing, it's easy to see why.

It's simple enough: The Witch isn't "scary." It's not an expertly assembled roller coaster or a finely tuned haunted house attraction, like the films coming out of Blumhouse on a regular basis. They do their thing and they do it well. There isn't a single jump scare in The Witch and their are few traditionally thrilling moments. It isn't a "good time at the movies" experience, but rather a film that wants you to engage with it, meet it halfway, and consider its horrors on a deeper level. "Scary" is a poor metric with which to measure the effectiveness of a film, especially a film that is more interested in crawling under your skin than jumping our from a dark corner and shouting "Boo!"

The Witch is disturbing in the moment and it ends on a high note that sends you out of the theater buzzing, but its true impact is felt in the hours after the credits roll. Not everyone can say they encountered the Devil in the woods, but most of us can relate to having a family or having your faith tested. And what happens when those tests go too far, and cut too deep? Just how strong are the bonds that hold your family together and what would you do if something found the power to fray them just enough? This is why The Witch will linger on for years to come – it's the kind of movie that upsets a thoughtful viewer. It rewards appropriate expectations.

The Catholic Perspective

My wife eagerly attended the screening of The Witch but flat-out refused to join me for the post-screening ritual. She kindly asked me to not return filled with the power of Satan and to not impregnate her with a demon. I promised to do my best and left her at a bar with friends while I went off to get my Lucifer on. She is a smart woman, level-headed and free of bullshit and as critical of her faith as anyone, but she couldn't bring herself to join me. And I get it – her beliefs run straight to her core being, even if she gave up on going to church every week a long time ago.

As a former Catholic watching The Witch during the height of Oscar season, I couldn't help but be reminded of a very different film: Spotlight. Director Tom McCarthy's Best Picture contender follows the team of journalists who uncovered countless acts of sexual assault being conducted by clergyman and the Catholic Church's attempts to cover everything up by shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish. On the surface, McCarthy has created a gripping and disturbing procedural, but Spotlight is really a film about how institutions can fail communities and how those who dedicate their lives to their faith can be ruined by misplacing their faith.

Those who suffered abuse in Spotlight trusted their priests like The Witch's Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) trusts her father – both of them are closest to God, so both of them must know what is best. But both of these patriarchal symbols are corruptible. Both crumble in the face of sin but but refuse to admit to wrongdoing or take responsibility. They betray their faith and their flock and leave the survivors desperate, hopeless, and susceptible to anything that can rescue them from their predicament. For the characters in Spotlight, this often involves abandoning their Church altogether. For Thomasin, this means leaning to live deliciously. 

Many parties, including the Satanic Temple, have applauded Thomasin's decisions in the film, her revolt against the entrenched forces that dominate her life. My reaction is more complicated and it's the result of those Catholic shards once again piping up in the back of my brain. I can't help but feel there's tragedy in Thomasin's final moments in the film – she's free and she serves no master, but it only cost her everything. Whether that everything is worth a damn at all is going to amount to the baggage you brought into the film.

the witch poster

The Ritual

Phones are forbidden at the ritual. No photography is allowed. The crowd waits in the sweltering bar for the back doors to open and for this mysterious ceremony to begin. I'm surrounded by strange combination Austin's film scene and guys who look like extras from Blade.

Eventually, we are ushered to the backyard. The stage, which is usually home to a band, plays host to the ritual. I hear it before I see it – the sound of chains beating against the ground. Rhythmic, disturbing, and after awhile, a little annoying. The chain-bearer looks like he stepped out of a bad metal band: studded leather jacket, no shirt, long straggly hair. He's flanked by two individuals in red robes, one holding a dagger and the other holding a mirror up to the crowd. Another person sits center stage under a black cloth. Oh, and there's a completely nude man and and a completely nude woman onstage. Hail Satan?

It turns out that a Satanic ritual has about as many smoke machines as you'd expect. Eventually, the nude couple are writhing on stage as their drink massive jugs of wine and the speakers are blasting distorted noise that only grows louder and louder as the ceremony reaches its climax. Through it all, the red-robed figures stand still and silent.

But these are all theatrics for the main event. Satanic Temple spokeswoman Jex Blackmore emerges from under that black cloth, stands behind a podium and preaches...about how gays shouldn't be murdered, religious extremists shouldn't be allowed to run the country, and women should be allowed to do what they choose with their bodies. Austin is a blue speck in the sea of red that is Texas, so this goes over about as well as you'd expect. Remove the chants of "Hail Satan!" and the full-frontal nudity and they'd just be a bunch of social liberals saying what a significant portion of the United States also believes. The whole "Satan" thing is really just the attention-grabbing exterior to an admirable-in-my-eyes political cause. They're never not going to have an image issue with most of America, but I find it hard to argue with their whole "don't be an a**hole to other people" thing, which sounds, well, downright Christian.

I'm given a black and white American flag as I exit, which is apparently the symbol of the new Satanic revolution. My wife and I are currently in negotiations about what to do with it.

The Satanist Perspective

It's easy to see why the Satanic Temple would endorse The Witch, especially in light of the ritual. The film's message of tearing down patriarchal and religious authority to enter a bold new world aligns with their beliefs. Thomasin's journey, her awakening, is feminine empowerment. It's her casting off her shackles and blazing a new path. Eggers gives his lead character what so many, too many, innocent women throughout history were denied: a chance to escape from a society that built to crush them. Plus, it doesn't hurt to slip into the press surrounding a much-buzzed-about movie.

And yet, The Witch is also a movie where a supernatural old hag literally crushes an infant into goo so she can enchant her flying broomstick. That's the dark heart of the film at work and why any endorsement from any group or organization is more than a little weird. Our heroine breaks free from a broken and evil system to join another system. That literally has her in thrall to another oppressive male figure. Who will apparently ask her to murder babies so she can have fun in the woods.

The Witch bites every hand that feeds it. To follow anything, anyone, is a dangerous proposition. Those final scenes are a litmus test: is she free or damned? Independent or just a slave to a new master? Those questions are as chilling as anything else.