The eagerly awaited, terrifying movie about Puritans and the occult is also a story about empowerment.
Arty horror darling The Witch is terrifying as fuck, but that's just one of many reasons it's caught on among film freaks. Robert Eggers's feature-length debut is a phantasmagoria that draws from historical records of New England's Puritan era, including the writings of clergymen Samuel Willard and Cotton Mather, as well as longstanding folklore about the supernatural. It's also an incredibly subversive movie that features a final girl who does whatever it takes to save herself, even if that means damnation.
The film follows the story of an intensely religious Puritan family with a couple of rather large crosses to bear, from dying crops to the mysterious disappearance of their newborn baby. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the family's oldest daughter, a workhorse just this side of puberty that makes her a threat to her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie from Game of Thrones) and a temptation for her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). The claustrophobic farmhouse is bursting with secrets, but the mounting tension inside is nothing compared to what actually is lurking in the woods.
When everything goes to hell, Thomasin is the only one left standing. As many teenage girls do, she embraces everything she's been accused of, and you can hardly blame her. It's the sort of perverse ending that would have delighted Angela Carter, who famously reworked Charles Perrault's fairy tales into feminist parables where Little Red gets in bed with the Wolf and Bluebeard is thwarted by his new bride's wily, gun-toting mother.
The Witch's distributor, A24, has leaned into the overtly Satanic overtones of the movie by linking up with The Satanic Temple for performance events and screenings in NYC, Los Angeles, Austin, and Detroit. The Temple's national spokesperson herself, Jex Blackmore, referred to the film as "a transformative Satanic experience."
"I think part of what makes the film so horrific is that the things that the witch character is engaged with are so taboo and demonic. But those things come from our own folklore about women," Blackmore said over the phone. "We don't typically use the word witch any more, but we do use the word bitch!" Blackmore added with a laugh. "It's interesting because it's applied in the same way. It's applied to women who are freethinking and speak their minds. It's applied to women who fight for their own reproductive health rights, and it's often applied even to women who kind of excel in the work world."
The feminist appeal of The Witch is in step with the current New Age-y zeitgeist, at least symbolically. Although it stands to reason that most modern supernaturally inclined ladies, myself included, are more interested in futzing with tarot cards and crystals than kicking back with Old Scratch, our urges come from a very similar place—an exhaustion with the stifling status quo.
Alex Mar, author of Witches in America and director of American Mystic, concurred. "Modern-day American witches—or Pagan priestesses—have been reclaiming that word," she said, "changing its meaning, using the label of witch as a way to say, 'I'm not afraid of living on the fringe of society, I'm not afraid of being misunderstood, I don't need to be a part of the mainstream, I don't need to be the kind of woman who fits neatly into a feminine role.' A woman can be a priest. A woman can train in a 'mystery' tradition. A woman can see her sexuality as a source of power, not a political bargaining chip."
Ultimately, the movie's subversion is as sly as Satan himself; it's so visually and aurally overwhelming that, by the time the credits roll, you're left dazed and blinking. It's a fantasy of liberation, and one that has more in common with what's happening in Hollywood than you might think. Kier-La Janisse, a film writer and founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, described the ending as "a huge feminist kick in the balls, for sure."
"I think horror movies often reflect our political landscape, so it doesn't surprise me that we're seeing more witches while debates about feminism are overwhelming online discussions and the CDC is recommending that women abstain from alcohol unless they are on birth control." —Alison Nastasi
Janisse explained, "Over the last year we've seen a number of articles exposing the gender bias in Hollywood, programs instated in several countries to help address the gender imbalance when it comes to filmmaking resources, and a lot of films that take place in female space. On the mainstream side, you have a film like Suffragette, and on the odd side, you have things like The Witch. But both are coming from the same place and demanding conversation." Suffragette has been criticized for "whitewashing" the British suffragette movement, and for an ill-conceived photo shoot with the leads wearing shirts reading, "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave." Frankly, it's not a very good movie, but there's no denying that the strong female presence in front of and behind the camera is hopefully a taste of things to come. It's just that that conversation needs to be much more inclusive—something that the various strains of paganism and occult belief around the world have going for them.
Flavorwire writer Alison Nastasi, who contributed to Janisse's book Satanic Panic, sees modern witches "as any subculture or social movement—a way of empowering the outcast, including women, LGBT, and non-white people. Practitioners of witchcraft and the occult have the ability to take a sense of disillusionment and use it to create an intimate bond or community of empowered individuals. This results in a counterculture of self-reliance," she explained.
"I think horror movies often reflect our political landscape," she added, "so it doesn't surprise me that we're seeing more witches while debates about feminism are overwhelming online discussions and the CDC is recommending that women abstain from alcohol unless they are on birth control." After all, few things are scarier than a cabal of government cronies deciding the fate of our reproductive health and individual liberty.
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The Witch is in theaters Friday, February 19.