Warning: This thinkpiece will discuss the plot of The Witch in full, including the ending.
When adding Martyrs to the New Cult Canon, Scott Tobias wrote it “is also a movie about torture, revenge, and the seemingly boundless capacity for human cruelty, and in that sense, it’s unquestionably relevant and a legitimate comment on the world as it is right now.” Tobias defended the tortureporn aspects of Martyrs as a relevant reaction to the realization that America, the moral defenders of the world, were engaging in endless acts of cruelty (as well as a reaction to the publicity of other acts of cruelty in the world). No movie exists in a vacuum. To shoehorn a movie as being a metaphor for a single story within a news cycle is simplistic and reductive, but ignoring contemporary societal influences is naive and foolish. Nothing is political and everything is political.
At the heart of The Witch is a family who, at the start of the film, has been rejected by their peers, is destitute, and is of below-average intelligence for their time. On the surface: they don’t know how to raise animals, the corn they grow is rotten, nobody knows how to hunt, and the milk could be toxic. They’re not going to survive the winter. And then, a malevolent force begins to terrorize them. First it steals their baby, then it rapes their eldest pubescent son, and then all hell breaks loose as crows feed from breasts and the side of a barn is torn off.
The bulk of the drama focuses on the religious faith of the family. Because they have nobody concrete to blame for their troubles – no member ever sees an actual witch until the final sequences – the family turns on itself, mostly focusing on eldest daughter Thomasin. Although they don’t know there’s an actual witch in the forest, they’re convinced that a supernatural entity is working on them. Midway through the movie, the family concludes that somebody’s a witch, even if they don’t know who. It’s only after everybody else dies that Black Philip, the Satanic Goat, finally speaks to Thomasin and asks her to join the coven.
On one level, the story resembles a modern story of the decimation of the American middle class. Hard workers are pushed out of their society (or economic strata) and forced to struggle on their own. Most people in these situations know that they’re being acted on by forces out of their control, but struggle to comprehend what forces and how. Without having anybody concrete to blame, the public turns on each other until there’s a last person standing. In the struggle to raise the minimum wage, how often have we seen the comment “burger flippers don’t deserve to make $15/hr because [insert laudable profession here] only makes $16/hr?” How often has the “everybody is going through budget cuts” argument been used to justify frozen wages even though we see record profits? In a sense, The Witch is a validation that not all of our hardships are actually caused by ineptitude or our own self-destiny. Without the presence of the witch, the corn may have grown well, and the father may have been a capable farmer. With the witch, suddenly the destitution has an external source, and an immorality. From the inside, it could be justified as somebody else’s failures. From the outside, there’s an obvious pressure being added to the family, bit by bit, just to see when and how they break.
But, what about that ending? The one where Black Philip asks “Wouldest Thou Like To Live Deliciously?” The one where Thomasin strips naked and joins a bunch of naked levitating women around a campfire. Let’s turn our eyes away from an economic metaphor to something a bit more insidious.
It took four years for Robert Eggers to develop The Witch. Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in 2011. The Boston Maraton Bombing happened in 2013. The Witch premiered in 2015. Everything has an influence.
According to one FBI report, there are four steps to radicalization: pre-radicalization, acceptance, indoctrination, and action. The first step is a shake-up of a person’s world view, frequently through trauma or traumatic experiences – rejection from a community, violent or disturbing imagery, or the loss of “innocence” or ignorance of the larger world. Acceptance is encouraged by an isolation from the former life, and a repeated mantra that becomes part of one’s being. Indoctrination stems from immersion into the new system, including an acceptance of the cause and its leadership. Action is active participation. Many groups actually participate in these types of behavior, from fraternities (who use hazing and ritualistic repetition) to Christian Churches to ISIL.
At first Thomasin, and her family, is terrorized by the witch. Time and again, the witch steals the family’s innocence. She kills their baby boy (youth), then sexually molests their eldest boy (who dies from sickness and malnutrition). Because they can’t quite see the source of the trauma, Thomasin’s family turns on her and even isolates her with Black Philip. The ending could be read multiple ways, but in one form it seems that Thomasin becomes so desperate that she kills her twin siblings and blows up the side of the barn to break free from the oppression. After her parents die, she is targeted by Black Philip and joins the religiously extreme forest coven, the very same group that have been terrorizing her and making her miserable yet also promise her a better life of eternal youth and flying. The uneasiness of the final scene marks our uneasiness with the whys of radical behavior. Why do people join ISIL? Why do people join fraternities? Or Churches? Or IHOP? The Witch asks two questions: whether Thomasin was the witch all along, and if she wasn’t, why did she convert?
Are these metaphors present in the final film? Was I just idly conjuring metaphors in a movie that may or may not be present? Or, is Eggers really playing with themes that are so universal they’ll always be au courant? I don’t have the conviction to say that Eggers really put as much into The Witch as I’m claiming, but it was fun thinking about these things.