The Dark, Wild, Feminist Liberation of ‘The Witch’

This essay is by our guest writer Cassidy Olsen. 

© A24

The phrase “Satanic feminist art film” will get you laughed out most rooms that aren’t a liberal arts classroom or the Hot Topic in your hometown mall, so it should come as no surprise that A24 struggled to brand The Witch for audiences upon its wide release in 2016. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Robert Eggers, The Witch is a horror movie by almost any standard, riddled with the genre’s usual tropes of supernatural possession, exorcism and things that go bump in the night, but it has little regard for audience expectations. By relying on period-appropriate language (“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”) and opting for meditation in place of jump scares, The Witch left hardcore horror fans wanting and others asking, “What did I just watch?”

The answer? Well, a Satanic feminist art film.

In the wake of breakout indie horror hits like The Babadook and It Follows, the alternative methods and message of The Witch fall in step with the reclamation of “scary movies” from the slasher flicks and torture porn that have dominated the scene for the past two decades. It most closely shares horror DNA with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, an atmospheric science fiction exploration of women’s power and human agency lead by Scarlett Johansson.

While there’s a valid argument to be had about how “successful” a movie truly is if it can’t gain the sympathy of it’s supposed demographic, there is also undeniable value in the weird and wondrous world of one that takes a genre and flips it upside down to reveal what’s beneath. What The Witch lacks in universal accessibility, it makes up for in a spellbinding exploration of women’s potential for liberation amidst the darkness of religious fanaticism.

The film, which originally premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and gained Eggers a Best Director win, follows the “New England folktale” of a Puritan family that is exiled from their plantation when their father William, played by Ralph Ineson, is charged with heresy. Even as they try to live piously, the family faces tragedy at the hands of the darkness that lurks in the woods when their infant son Caleb is stolen out from under them. While his disappearance is initially a mystery to the family, the audience is immediately clued in to the horror at hand; in a chilling scene just minutes into the movie, we see a witch crush the child into a pulp and apply it as a flying ointment on her naked, gnarled body. This immediate violence and “unmasking” of the villain signals that The Witch has scarier things in mind than just the witch of the wood.

Addled by grief, zealotry and near starvation, mother Katherine, played by Game of Thrones’ Kate Dickie, begins to suspect eldest daughter Thomasin as the root of the family’s hardships. Played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin becomes a suspect in a variety of domestic crimes, from the theft of her mother’s silver cup to the disappearance of her brother. Much like the titular character of Stephen King’s Carrie, Thomasin is coming of age just as the religious fanaticism of her parents is reaching a tipping point, making her burgeoning womanhood and power into weapons they must dismantle through oppression and guilt. Throughout the film, William is seen furiously chopping wood with his ax, an unsubtle but apt visual metaphor for his masturbatory and fruitless attempts to assert his masculinity and power over his daughter.

© A24

Thomasin and her siblings, including next-eldest brother Caleb, are as clueless in the ways of life as the students in Spring Awakening and must rely on scripture and the words of their parents to survive. Living in isolation with just his family as company, Caleb begins to stare at Thomasin’s heaving breast, and is told by his father that he and his siblings are naturally sinful. When Thomasin and Caleb venture into the woods to check their father’s hunting traps, the “sinful thoughts” end up bringing Caleb to the doorstep of the witch herself, who appears to him as a beautiful and buxom woman. When Caleb is delivered back to the family farm, naked, unconscious and possessed, Thomasin’s status as guilty is sealed.

With her white blonde hair and wide saucer eyes, Thomasin appears to be the perfect martyr in the making, someone who can be branded with a big red W and tossed on the fire for challenging patriarchal power with her mere existence. But The Witch is more interested in finding the ways Thomasin can exist outside martyrdom. When accused directly of being a witch and “making a pact with the Devil,” Thomasin shoots back at her father, “You’re a hypocrite! You cannot bring the crops to yield! You cannot hunt! Thou canst do nothing save cut wood!” With her speech, Thomasin cuts directly to the heart of her father’s anxiety, pointing to her role as scapegoat for all of his failings.

In a last show of strength, William locks his daughter in a shed with her mischievous, potentially-possessed twin siblings and the family’s farm animals, including the ram the twins have named Black Phillip, who they claim is an incarnation of the Devil himself. The horror and gory madness that follows is the work of both natural and supernatural forces. After Black Phillip kills her father and Thomasin kills her mother in self-defense, she finds herself completely alone, and for the first time, free.

Although The Witch could easily end here, it doesn’t. Rather than make Thomasin the all-suffering bearer of meaning for a statement on patriarchal power and religious oppression, it grants her individual agency and liberation in the form of Satanism, the antithesis of her parent’s oppressive Puritan way of life. Thomasin speaks with the Devil in the form of Black Phillip, unlaces her dress and walks directly into the unconquerable wilderness, where she joins a congregation of naked, dancing witches. The look on Thomasin’s face as she rises into the air with the others in the film’s final shot is one of triumph, not horror.

As unpalatable as this ending might be for some, it comes as the natural conclusion to a narrative that is fascinated by the dark, wondrous possibilities that lie outside the bounds of a patriarchal society. By entering the dangerous, intermediary space of the wilderness, which her father once claimed he would conquer, Thomasin finally sheds the male-dominated, Puritanical family in favor of the unruly, indulgent and Satanically “female” way of the woods. The Witch may not be a perfect horror film, but it is so fascinating and unique in its feminist exploration that it justifies a viewing from genre fans and casual moviegoers alike, if only for Thomasin’s inevitable and immensely satisfying revelation.

This essay forms part of Women in Horror Month 2018. For more information on events, blog posts, and other projects, click here.

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