✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ½ of five
When I was still a Christian, I had a severe demon problem. They’d come to me at night, looming in the dark corners of my bedroom, waiting just behind my curtains if only I’d open them. They’d whisper things to me, and I couldn’t make it stop.
I could call to my parents when things got particularly upsetting, when I was younger—I once, at the age of seven, wailed for them because Satan’s voice was in my head. He was telling me to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, which Jesus decries as the only unforgivable sin: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). I don’t remember, looking back, which was worse; that I could hear his voice in my head, or that if I so much as slipped, so much as had the thought of blasphemy—which, thoughts being what they are, was sure to happen—I would in a stroke be condemned to eternal damnation. At any rate, my parents stayed up with me, and prayed, and all was temporarily well.
As I grew older, however, I no longer had that recourse. We had moved houses, and in our new home my parents’ bedroom was on the opposite end of the house from mine. Running from one end of a vast black expanse to the other, with the stairwell to the basement plunging downward on the left side, was not my idea of a relief from horror. And more importantly, I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, and so on. Parents could not be a source of nighttime comfort any longer.
And so, I endured. I lay there in the dark, and strove to block the voices out, and opened and closed my eyes over. And over. And over again. I prayed a mantra, a litany, in between telling the demons to go away in the name of Jesus, but they never did and I never fell asleep easily.
This was one of the most immediate reliefs of my leaving the faith at age sixteen. Almost immediately, the demons stopped talking. Nearly three years later, and I haven’t heard them since. There are other night fears, to be certain—I didn’t sleep well for months after seeing The Babadook, my toddler nightmares of monsters in the closet raging back to life—but once you’ve failed to believe in God, the demonic largely loses its teeth (as I wrote about in detail in my analysis of demon possession in the horror genre).
When I first saw a trailer for The VVitch, several months ago, I was intrigued. First, because it looked to be a genuinely good horror picture with an excellent premise and a good deal of critical praise. Second, because I was hoping it might be able to provide an exception to the rule of a Christian framework failing to work within an atheistic/maltheistic genre. Third, because I was, on some level, curious. I wanted to see if it would be able to reawaken that deeply ingrained childhood religious terror, my three years of secularism notwithstanding.
Having seen it a few hours prior to the writing of this review, I can say that points one and three were fulfilled admirably. I’m not convinced of point two, but I think The VVitch comes the closest of any piece of religious horror I’ve encountered to justifying itself. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a deeply admirable one and a deeply disturbing one, and I suspect it will grow even better upon rewatching.
The New England folk tale of the subtitle begins with isolation. William (Ralph Ineson), a devout Puritan who takes issue with the way his church chooses to express its faith, is banished from the congregation. Outcast, he makes for the outskirts of the massive nearby woods, taking with him his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), his prepubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), his maturing daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the young twins Mercy and Jonas, and the infant Samuel. Before long, there are unsettling signs that the family is not alone—Samuel vanishes into the forest, and Mercy begins telling tales of a child-devouring witch who lives there in covenant with Satan. Grief turns into paranoia, and as the nights drag on the family begins to unravel, unsure if even their faith in God will be enough to protect them from the evil in the wood.
There be spoilers from here on out!
The film upsets viewer expectations almost immediately by displaying the witch herself—rather than leaving it up to the viewers to wonder what has happened to Samuel, director Robert Eggers presents the woman’s naked back as she cradles the baby in her arms, before proceeding to do to him exactly what it is we’re told witches do to children. Giving us this glimpse of the titular horror is a massive risk, one that I almost certainly would not have taken, and it pays off immensely. The prominence of the witch’s nakedness reveals one of the film’s underlying themes—the gnawing transgression of sexuality—and its proximity to a deed that almost caused me to gasp aloud (nothing of the actual slaying of the baby is shown, but what remains onscreen is shocking enough) tells the viewer exactly what they’re in for: this movie is going to be about children, and it’s gong to hurt them badly.
From there, what we’re given is a slow-burn descent into madness highly reminiscent of The Thing, but even more disturbing in the context of a family turning on itself rather than a group of men falling apart. This is one area in which the film’s trailer is misleading—it depicts the family as a cold and unloving one, whereas in the film itself Ineson’s patriarch is a warm, devoted father who has a deep love for his eldest son and daughter, which makes his gradual disintegration even more affecting. His performance is matched by those of newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, who manage more nuance and feeling in their roles than many adults could. Combine the audience’s sympathy for their characters with the horrors that are inflicted upon them, and the result is some of the most deeply upsetting moments of horror art in recent memory. To be quite honest, I’m stunned the film got away with some of them at merely an R rating.
Caleb is on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film makes a point to let the camera linger on Thomasin’s chest a few different times when the two of them are together, emphasizing the perversity that the religion of the day assigned to lust; the hints of incestuous flutters are required to make us feel the revulsion that was part and parcel of sexual attraction in the film’s 1630 setting. When the witch is shown for the second time, it’s in the guise of a provocative young woman who lures Caleb to her as he wanders, lost, through the woods. What follows was shocking to me as an adolescent male—I can’t imagine a parent’s reaction to the image.
Subsequently, a naked Caleb returns home, seemingly possessed of an evil spirit. As he begins going through the requisite contortions and yowls, his family gathers around him and prays frantically, and he himself begins to shriek the name of Jesus until it appears that his faith has won the battle. However, in an astonishingly acted shot that goes on and on, his tearful confession of love for his savior morphs into a twisted parody that is barely subtext, his voice rising to a woman’s high moan as he begs for the Son of God to kiss him on the mouth and embrace him again and again. When he dies shortly thereafter, it’s a mercy.
This scene, along with an earlier moment in which Caleb, alone and desperate in the woods, repeats a prayer over and over again, is the one that struck the closest to the bone for me. It made me remember all too well the nights of lying in bed, alternately too scared to open my eyes and too scared to close them (if I may paraphrase another famous film of witchery) praying over and over again and failing to dispel the fear. For the religious person, this may be the worst fear of all: the fear that belief alone is not enough, that prayer will do nothing to ward away an enemy who seems far more potent and seductive in its terror than a far-away benevolent God ever could.
It’s only the midpoint of the film, however, and Thomasin comes to the fore as matters fall apart at an even faster rate. The amount of violence the film is willing to show rises as the tension does likewise, with a few particularly well-chosen images leaving impressions on the brain that are hard to scrub away. By the time things draw to a close, Thomasin is alone, stranded with the ebony goat Black Philip, whose ominous appearance has been a constant throughout the film. She enters the barn with him, chills run up the viewer’s spine. . .and then, for a moment, horror evaporates.
Alas, just as The Exorcist chose to spell out to its viewers that the same Pazuzu whose statue appeared in the opening scene is what holds possession of Regan, The VVitch chooses to bring the devil himself into the narrative. We never see him directly, but it’s clear who he is, and it just. Doesn’t. Work. The sense of mystery collapses, the horror of the unknown becomes the horror of an identifiable quantity, and the same question that always arises in such circumstances does so here: if God so clearly isn’t present here, why is his Adversary?
What follows this, however, is an ending that is perfectly shot and skin-crawling in the literal sense of the word. And while it’s unfortunate that His Infernal Majesty had to show up, rather than the titular witch being the one to fill the role, the movie’s 1630s setting makes even this almost work. Eggers makes a point to have a troubled Caleb question his father following the disappearance of Samuel: if we are all born in sin, and he was not yet baptized, isn’t he in hell? William has no answer for him. The God of the Puritans was a wildly capricious, terrifyingly distant deity, one whose salvation one could never be assured of and whose hellfire was a constant threat. If He is the God of The VVitch, the whole movie can be seen as a particularly perverse test of faith (and indeed William namechecks Abraham and Isaac later on in its running time). The family has been exiled from their congregation to test their loyalty to their heavenly father, and each and every one is found wanting.
There are two readings of the film’s final scene, each as valid as the other. A graphically naked Thomasin, her covenant with Satan made, stumbles into the wood and watches as a circle of equally naked women chants a praise to their father below, before ascending to the tops of the trees. Firelight dancing across her face, Thomasin slowly begins to rise as well, and we cannot tell if the laughter on her face is that of madness or that of freedom. The Satanic Temple certainly believes it to be the latter—they infamously partnered with A24 to promote the film before its release—and they have a fair amount of evidence to support their case, with the entire film’s nightmare treatment of pent-up sexuality serving as prelude to Thomasin’s glorious sexual release and rejection of Puritan paranoia. The various evils that lead to this moment might seem too heavy to justify this interpretation, but the film does ask the question: if the God of this world could allow such terrible things to happen to those who want nothing more than to serve him, is Satan truly more evil in comparison?
Ultimately, the other reading of the film’s ending—that the witches are indeed abhorrent and Thomasin’s embrace of her sexuality is the final step on her path to damnation—while it would seem to better fit the worldview of the film’s religious players, is the more disturbing of the two. It was rightly pointed out to me before I saw the film that witches are one of the only cultural groups that are still widely considered fair game to demonize, with most people drawing no distinction between Wiccans and neopagans and the Satanic monsters of old campfire stories—and not bothering to do the five minutes’ research it would take to reveal that the two are completely different (not to mention the fact that the latter never existed). Not only could The VVitch lead to a renewed Satanic panic in religious viewers and encourage them to dehumanize modern witches, it paints a revisionist view of history in which Satanic witches did indeed exist and thus justified the presence of witch hunts and burnings. It’s a troubling moral issue, and while the subtitle A New England Folk Tale encourages the viewer to remember that it’s really “just a story”, such things tend to get thrown by the wayside when religious paranoia comes along.
The ramblings above haven’t even begun to touch on the film’s cinematography, which is stark and haunting, its score, which takes cues from The Shining‘s use of Penderecki’s Utrenja and is incredibly effective, or its screenplay, which according to a mid-credits interlude takes much of its dialogue from period accounts and is archaic without sacrificing intelligibility. I’ve also hardly done justice to the issue of sexual repression vs. sexual liberation within the film, which could easily form its own essay. That said, at 2,300 words consisting largely of spoilers, this writeup has gone on longer than it deserves. And so, I end on this note:
The VVitch is not a perfect movie. It has not, as of this writing, affected me as viscerally as other recent horror films (The Babadook) or impressed me with its utter lack of problems (as does The Descent). However, I’ve the feeling I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. Partly because I’ll be dwelling on numerous of its images, unable to get them out of my head. And partly because, for ninety minutes, it put religious fear back into my brain in a way I haven’t experienced since I deconverted. It’s an enormously impressive effort, will launch its director and actors onto equally impressive careers, and has indeed earned its place as one of the finest, most deeply unsettling pieces of horror art in the last decade. If that means I’ll be regressing to my seven-year-old self under the covers tonight, the movie has damn well earned it.