Movie Review – The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2016)
I’ve lived my whole life in New England. The stony soil – the result of glaciers which sliced their way through the landscape and deposited their craggy remnants – and the fiery reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn, are a source of solace to me. The rock walls that stripe the earth like grey, moss-draped spines, built by colonists and slaves, serpentine their way through dense forests that were once farmland. These things provide the comfort of familiarity and remind me that I’m home. We New Englanders like our village greens, Colonial and Federal architecture, covered bridges, lighthouses, maple offerings… and of course our witches.
As a child, the little utility shack constructed to look like a house at the local park was, at least to me, a witch’s house, its roof access padlocked not to keep kids from reaching electrical wires, but to keep that ancient wickedness in. The ring of pines trees in our three-century-old town cemetery hadn’t been planted there as part of a landscaper’s whimsy, but of course had grown in its unnatural symmetry as the result of the secret midnight covens held within. Unsurprisingly, this last feature was known to us kids as The Witches’ Circle. Witches permeate New England culture in ways most residents don’t realize, but they’re there. Arthur Miller, playwright of The Crucible, which dramatized the Salem Witch Trials so as to criticize McCarthyism, lived and is buried just a few miles from where I sit typing this piece.
Of course Salem, Massachusetts, is most famous for its witches, but my own home state of Connecticut was colonized by men and women of equal zealotry and superstition. The first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies was Alse Young of Windsor, Connecticut. She was hanged from the gallows in Hartford’s Meeting House Square, now the site of Connecticut’s Old State House, on May 26, 1647. Five others were also killed. Mary Johnson of Wethersfield became the first woman in New England to confess, under duress, to “familiarity with the Devil” in 1648, and wallowed in a Hartford jail until she gave birth to her son and was subsequently executed in 1650. In Hartford 1662 seven trials resulted in four executions. While Salem was killing its twenty victims another witch hysteria broke out in Fairfield in 1692 when a servant girl accused five women. Fortunately, thanks to more stringent criteria set forth by Governor John Winthrop, Jr., cooler heads prevailed in that incident. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697.
Just as I grew up with witches in my woods, so too did filmmaker Robert Eggers in his home state of New Hampshire. He dedicated years of research to create what he hoped would be an “archetypal New England horror story”. What we consider fairytales today colonists in the seventeenth-century would have seen as legitimate daily hazards, and Eggers wanted to take at face value Puritans’ beliefs about witches and present them in their authentic, terrifying nakedness. The result is his impressive directorial debut, 2016’s The Witch, appropriately subtitled, A New-England Folktale.
Set in 1630, William (Ralph Ineson), a father, moves his family from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which he believes has strayed from God’s path, to deeper into the frontier, carving out a farm in the wilderness. Soon their infant son is stolen, their crops fail, and they begin to suspect a witch is at the root of their sorrows. Furthermore, they suspect the witch is among them, and begin to dissolve the familial bonds upon which their survival has depended. Truly, none of the family members are villains, but their flaws become exploited through the supernatural situation in which they find themselves.
Eggers’s attention to historical detail, in set design, in costumes, in story, and in spirit, is nothing short of phenomenal. During a panel discussion in Salem with Emerson “Tad” Baker, a historical archaeologist and professor of history at Salem State College who is known for his extensive work on witchcraft in Colonial America and who was the moderator, he said that he watched the film with a historically critical audience and they couldn’t find any glaring inaccuracies. The stellar cast handles the challenges of period language, dialect, and accent with impressive ease.
Furthermore, Eggers uses insight into the Puritan mindset to give, not a cartoonish version akin to Victorian attitudes about the quaintness of hats with buckles, but authentic drama stemming from a sophisticated understanding of Calvinist theology. As a prime example, Christian theology has had to reconcile the dilemma of predestination, which occurs when one believes that God is omniscient and therefore already knowing of who is destined for salvation and damnation. The quandary then becomes determining whether or not humans have free will, and whether their actions and destiny are pre-fated or the result of individual agency. Calvinists believed that God alone, before the creation of the world, decided upon who was to have salvation, using His unique knowledge and will, which is ultimately unknowable to humanity. No amount of faith or good deeds could earn one a place into heaven. This is known in theological terms as unconditional election. However, Puritans believed they could garner clues to their fates by how godly and pious they were. Through their reasoning, God predestining salvation opened minds to the gospel. While piety was not a guarantee of salvation, it was an optimistic indicator. Logic dictated, though, that for the Puritans, sinfulness, which was natural to the corrupt body of mankind, suggested damnation. So it is with Eggers’s fictional family, who obsesses and stresses over whether or not God has chosen them. Their every flaw is cause for doubt, and the flames of Hell feel ever hotter. Whether it is William’s pride, his son Caleb’s (Harvey Scrimshaw) lust, or his wife’s (Kate Dickie) doubt, there is never a dearth of causes for self-loathing and worry. They wrestle with spiritual uncertainties, such as whether or not a baby goes to heaven, or if it does, if they are destined to be reunited with them. The more William begins to doubt his own salvation, the more he cries out desperately to God that his children be spared. Eggers is able to show how naturally history can be compellingly, and accurately, weaved into a tale of terror.
Likewise, the forest was a powerful symbol for early English colonists, and the film properly depicts it as a foreboding, hostile world. For Puritans in New England, the wicked woods were the realm of The Devil, where law and order, and most importantly, the church, had yet to be established. It was home to pagan natives who, to their eyes, were under Satan’s sway. In 1630 the large-scale violent confrontations between English and natives had yet to occur – seven years later the Pequots would be wiped out in a genocidal massacre at Fort Mystic, Connecticut, and King Philip’s War was still forty-five years away – yet those on the frontier lived ever in fear of attack. William has carved out an island of farmland for himself, surrounded by dark, dense forestry, and he and his family look, ironically, unnatural within the setting. They look like intruders, whereas the witch, in her brief moments on screen, looks as if she is a part of the natural world which she embraces, and against which they struggle. Contrast, too, can be found in the portrayal of Calvinist culture with that of the witch’s, and the viewer can decide for themselves which side the narrative appears to favor.
As stated above, the characters and cast are terrific, but special attention should be paid to William’s teen daughter, Tomasin, played by a captivating Anya Taylor-Joy. She physically looks apart from the family, and from Puritanism for that matter, and her blossoming sexuality becomes cause for the family’s discomfort. Eggers based Tomasin, at least in part, on a real girl named Elizabeth Knapp. Knapp was a sixteen-year-old servant girl in Groton, Massachusetts, who was believed to have been possessed by a demon from October 30, 1671 until January 12, 1672. Her possession was documented in the journal of Samuel Willard, a prominent preacher in whose house Knapp lived. Willard’s approach to her possession was unique because he at first tried to find natural causes, and even when it was all over, though he believed her possession to be genuine, her claims to having made a pact with the Devil he concluded to be false due to the inconsistencies of her stories. Historian Elizabeth Reis, in her cultural analysis of the New England witch accusations and confessions, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, saw an intersection of gender and theology in Puritans’ perceptions and approaches to witchcraft. (For those interested in Reis’s thesis, I offer a bonus book review below.) For Reis, Knapp claimed the Devil tempted her in ways which revealed dissatisfaction with her life and station, that indeed,
“the devil appeared to Elizabeth Knapp precisely because she was dissatisfied with her life. According to Willard, Knapp confessed that Satan appeared to her and ‘that the occasion of it was her discontent, that she her condition displeased her, her labor was burdensome to her, shee was neither content to bee at home nor abroad.’ Earlier Knapp had admitted that the devil offered her things that ‘suted her youthfull fancey, money, silkes, fine cloaths, ease from labor to show her the whole world.’ Quite frequently Satan tried to lure people into his service by tempting them with riches, an easy life, and ultimately, salvation” (Reis 59).
The Devil, therefore, often played on their dissatisfactions within Puritan society. Tomasin, too, embodied by Taylor-Joy, looks ill-suited and alien within her Calvinist surroundings, causing her own ever more palpable discontent.
Eggers maintains historical fidelity to Puritans’ beliefs about witchcraft as well, providing for a bevy of haunting, unsettling images, though those are best experienced first-hand by the viewer and will therefore not be recounted here. Though the film takes these beliefs at face value, Eggers offers ergot fungus on the family’s corn as an alternative, non-supernatural explanation, should viewers wish to take it. The fungi effects neural functions and a few historians had once linked it to the Salem Witch Trials (arguing that the girls were affected), but this has since been disproved.
This effective historical drama is filmed with beautiful cinematography by Jarin Blaschke for mise en scène which wonderfully utilizes natural lighting. Composer Mark Korven’s evocative score, employing period instruments and voices to create haunting, almost organic music, completes the effect. Whatever shortcomings that are to be found in the movie are subjective. For instance, as I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder who, just ten years after the settlement at Plymouth, these European witches deep within the wood were. Yet issues such as these are minor quibbles and are ultimately the equivalent of criticizing a single brushstroke on an otherwise masterfully painted canvas. Eggers has succeeded wonderfully in conjuring an archetypal New England nightmare. The Witch is captivating, disturbing, and absolutely spellbinding.
Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Cornell University, 1997.
The Witch is available on streaming and Blu-ray.
Book Review – Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England
In Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, a gender study of the Salem witch trials, Elizabeth Reis seeks to answer some important questions. Why were women accused of witchcraft more often than men? Why did more women confess to witchcraft than men? And finally, why were women so ready to accuse one another of witchcraft? To answer these questions Reis forms a multifaceted thesis that follows the intersection of three lines of evidence: Puritan theology, women’s gender roles in New England culture, and the belief in a corporeal Satan. Within this trifecta Reis finds the fertile ground from which the Salem gallows sprung and a people who were caught in the violent trap of their own theology.
In Reis’s view, the Salem witch trials were inextricably linked to Puritan theology, and the prominence of female victims to the social mores which it accompanied. This is not to discount other more secular explanations put forth by other historians, but to ignore these essential elements is to only partly understand the episode. Indeed, Reis’s work is meant to be read within, and as a compliment to, other scholarship about the era. Puritan theology was Calvinist in its essentials, yet though only a pre-chosen elect could enter heaven, they nevertheless believed that one’s sins could guarantee a place in hell. The souls of both men and women were viewed by New Englanders as feminine. This carried with it the social understandings and expectations of that culture of what it meant to be feminine, which included presumptions of weakness and insatiability. The Puritans believed that the strength of one’s physical body could act as a shield for the soul, and so women, who were naturally physically weaker than men, were seen as more susceptible to the sin’s (and therefore the devil’s) temptations. Their very nature’s made them more prone to corruption. As Reis contends, “New England culture as whole regarded women as more likely to be damned than men” (1). Women internalized this view and here Reis recognizes a distinction drawn along gender lines, for whereas men saw sin as corrupting their souls, women saw their very souls as corrupt, or as Reis says: “Lay women and men feared hell equally, but lay women… tended to believe it was their vile natures that would take them there rather than the particular sins they may have committed” (37). For men, sin was rust on the iron soul that could be cleansed with vigorous attention; for women, the soul was but tin. Add to this an idea of the devil, largely drawn from folk traditions, of a physical tempter and one to whose service a person may commit themselves – which was the Puritan definition of a witch – and a potent potion for witchcraft accusations, trials and condemnations for which women were the focus results. It also created a situation in which a woman’s “unwomanly behavior,” at least in the minds of Puritans, was evidence of their sinfulness and guilt, thus emphasizing social norms within the society.
Reis’s line of reasoning is certainly sound, though it is difficult for one unfamiliar with the resources of the era to ascertain whether or not the evidence she gives is sufficient to prove her contention, or whether or not contrary evidence exists. Indeed, her work assumes a prior knowledge of the details of the witch trials, including the outcomes and its victims, with which most lay readers may not be equipped. Her audience is not a general one, but rather one of scholarly peers. All this becomes especially evident in the first chapter when she seeks to make her case for women’s “sinful natures,” yet most of the conversion narratives and all of the sermons from which she quotes are from men. That these male accounts are given to what feels the point of redundancy does not help, and at times when one thinks Reis has moved on to a different part of her argument she then returns to an earlier part for reasons which are difficult to fathom. Women, which are the thesis’ focus, are drowned out.
Fortunately, however, she strengthens her case in the court testimonies later in the book, though the book as a whole would be improved by a more carefully plotted opening chapter. Other elements of the book are curious, such as when Reis oddly inserts herself into the analysis of the fourth chapter, feeling the need to declare: “Let me state frankly I do not believe the devil actually visited the people of Salem and urged them to sign his book in blood” (131). Was this a necessary confession? This late in the book, her position should be obvious. I would assume her academic peers, for whom she is clearly writing, would not expect otherwise. Are such clarifications necessary when discussing theology in the scholarly manner? Could this point to a sign of caution an author may face in being misunderstood when writing in an interdisciplinary format for multiple audiences, in this case secular historians and religious theologians, whose preconceived notions may interfere with their understanding of her thesis? Though it is a single line, it offers many intriguing questions about the state of the field of study.
Yet there are many highlights to this work. Her chapter on the changing perceptions of the devil in New England that preceded and followed the trials, from that of a physical aggressor who captured souls to a symbolic tempter of sins (which are punished by God alone), is clearly presented and fascinating. Overall, the book improves as it goes on, the structure tightening and the evidence becoming more directly relevant, culminating in a pleasurable analysis of Hawthorn’s “Young Goodman Brown”, which she employs to demonstrate her arguments about the New England Puritan mindset. Reis also presents an eye-opening insight into the heterogeneous nature of Puritan society, including the many skeptics that commented on the trials both during and after their commencements, such the forward-looking Thomas Brattle, who wrote that our own modern world “will laugh at the demonstration, and conclude that the… [Salem gentlemen, being the courts] are actually possessed, at least, with ignorance and folly” (86). He cannot be proved more correct.
Reis’s work includes many helpful illustrations, though further additions to the text would enhance the lay reader’s understanding and pleasure. As mentioned earlier, Reis assumes a foreknowledge of events in her audience, and therefore a quick summary of the Salem witch trials at the beginning of the book would shed more light upon the court testimonies, as would a timeline of events or, at the very least, an appendix which lists the victims of the 1692 hysteria that a reader might turn to for reference. In the end, Damned Women offers an interesting thesis that takes into account the Puritan’s own declared convictions, a theological lens which was inextricable from how they operated and interacted with each other and the world around them. Other motivations may have been at work in the witchcraft trials, but Reis convincingly shows that the trials would never have been possible were it not for Puritan ideas about women, the devil, and the soul. Like later popular images of the witch, warts and all, the thesis is difficult to disregard.