The Witch is a compelling allegory of modern fears of survival
It is easy to see how religious belief is a necessity to developing societies. Even in today’s world, where stability and long life are the norms rather than the exceptions, there is more than enough chaos and evil to strike fear in the hearts of men and send them fleeing into the loving embrace of one deity or another, hoping to find comfort, mercy, and eternal life.
Imagine then, the darkness of the wilderness and the desperation of the marginally civilized when confronted with forces they do not understand and have no hope of explaining.
A crop failure may be simply a mistake in rotations, a missing child may be the work of a lone predator, a sickness may be an unfortunate circumstance, but taken together, these turns of fate appear to take a dark shape.
Humans have evolved to recognize patterns; fear trumps logic when explanations are scarce. Were this the only theme of 2015’s The Witch, a Sundance horror film that has finally gained enough traction for a wide release, it would be a powerful discussion of the development of the dogmatic hysteria that plagued early American settlements.
But then, it wouldn’t quite be a horror film as much as a dark, Crucible-inspired drama. Lucky for us, there really is a witch in the woods. The questions the film poses are far more interesting, however.
The film begins with the excommunication of a family from the relative safety of an early Puritan plantation. It is clear that these religious refugees have not been long on the shores of the Atlantic. William (Ralph Ineson) considers himself above his brethren, seeking the simplicity of a barren landscape to worship his God without pretense and idolatry. He spits derision at the council that is casting him out, refusing to abide their heathen need for candlesticks and gold. He leaves with his wife and five children to the edge of the wilderness, and after some months, has carved out a farm before a vast dark wood.
As with many stories, the woods hold great evils and mystery. The children are forbidden to enter and the adults are wary of the growing shadows. But when their youngest child vanishes and the crops begin to fail, William is forced to lay traps for food, opening the family up further to unseen forces that run counter to their devout belief in God.
The Witch is exceptionally detailed and crafted. It is far more devoted to the setting than many films in the horror genre. The language is period accurate in ways that some viewers may find difficult to follow—the words flow in through an older, John Winthrop-inspired tongue. Those who see the film on DVD may be grateful for the captions. Like last year’s The Revenant, the film relies on natural light, with candles and lanterns lighting the faces at night, casting shadows to set the mood.
In many ways, the film transcends the genre, much like Psycho in 1960 or The Exorcist in 1973, because they were about more than just the horror itself—they were about the people that experienced it. The audience experiences terror alongside the characters, allowing bonds to be created through empathy and tearing those bonds asunder in order to maximize the effect of loss.
It is this dedication to character that causes the film to develop through a slow burn, rather than a collection of rollercoaster-like jump scares. Audiences more familiar with what has become the traditional horror film might take issue with the pacing of the film—it is in no way boring, however. The Witch just needs an audience willing to invest in the story.
The biggest question of the film, however, is whether the outcome would have been any different had there not have been a supernatural protagonist. The seeds of hysteria were already sown due to a fanatical interpretation of an angry and unmerciful God. Death was waiting for this family from the moment they left the plantation.
These characters are fictional interpretations of our ancestors, who struck out on their own to escape the persecution they felt in their native lands in order to bring the same persecution to a new one. They discovered that survival required cooperation.
The Witch might just be an indictment of the very American desire for autonomy. If we stray too far into the woods, we’re unlikely to return.