The driving force behind any culture is what makes, then breaks, its artists. After they are plucked off the map and digested back onto it, a fable or prophecy will do to comport a kinder kill count for the public that disdains them. Folk horror films like The Wicker Man and Goksung show better than warn, or accomplish both by dark example. Instead of placing caution signs around the bodies of young women, The Witch celebrates the delicious powers therein. Paganism has become left-wing spellcasting—witches have always waxed in direct proportion to feminist movements—losing its best dementia at the end of a ballot. The red scare has been changing colors for centuries.
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the film’s protagonist, is a pioneer, of sorts, in her practice of abandoning one faux selflessness for another. English settlers, professing themselves “God’s children” with a puritanical lilt, split from their troupe, expatriates of the original covenant. Adam and Eve’s instinct to flee, guided by otherworldly voices, is an analog for each character: The twins, Thomasin’s parents, puberty-stricken Caleb, and Samuel, the fledgling. This newborn, speeding through the woods in the cradle of an unseen witch, is the film’s first full-bodied shudder. No cover’s required to play peekaboo with God, but Thomasin uses either hand: one to milk the devil’s temptations, the other to cross her fingers behind the good book. Her face is a bible study all its own. Thomasin acts as an allegory of piousness and work ethic repaid on the opposite spectrum of reward. Satan appreciates how little a well-meant intention can help. Dueling cornucopias of propaganda compete for youthful beauty. All trends, causes, and beliefs benefit from the good advertising of a set of curves. Crackling outlines of natural light contour the witch’s sag. She crushes baby skull into flying unguent, mounting and anointing a broomstick. The rot of an extended life doesn’t make for quality recruitment. Thomasin’s parents, William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), seem to sense this and plan to pawn her off to slave for other blood.
Many landowners and medical practitioners charged with witchcraft at Salem—perhaps for practicing magic, but more likely for being considered bossy—represent a freedom that pulls one through to another materialist hell. The fallout of the Salem witch trials fortifies the logic of The Witch, instilling women as homestayers and babymakers, hunted by men for not insulating their comfort. William mocks this promise of stability. “We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us,” he says. But his crops are as blighted as his nature. He’s only worth the wood he chops.
Secular lifestyles have always been portrayed as sinister. Thomasin flourishes by admitting her faults from the beginning. “I have […] followed the desires of mine own will, and not the Holy Spirit,” she says, doe eyes locked just above the camera, in prayer. Superstition was the first dichotomy to cause this much mischief. Myths explained the retreating sun quite well. It doesn’t matter who’s carrying us along, as long as there’s only one pair of hoof prints in the sand. The false virtues of today are overly complex. “It just takes one strong will and a couple of feeble ones,” is what Aleister Crowley had to say about miracles.
“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” William’s voice crunches gravel underneath his prideful tongue. Like a true ascetic, he pits himself, and his family, by proxy, against the comforts of “false Christians.” This bickering devotion leads them beyond the protected confines of the town square, into the untamable—feminine—wild. We are afraid of women being naked without us. We make fun of the puritans for obsessing over misery and shame, or Plato for believing in the transmigration of the soul, but we can’t microwave our plastic-wrapped breakfast without mining a couple silicon chips.
The women of The Witch know (and are right), while the men question and suffer for it. Caleb, the son, asks: “Is Samuel in Hell?” and “If I die this day, I hold evil in my heart, is that where I’d go as well?” Even in jest, Thomasin claims kinship with the wild wood to keep her little siblings in line, and it’s only the mother who recognizes witchcraft when she sees it. Her lifeblood is bewitched, squirming through her dying and delirious son. From Caleb’s mouth, pried open with a knife, a bitten apple is coughed. The power of Thomasin’s tongue might make an orphan of her, but her life will be all the more delicious.
Crowley also said, “I was not content to believe in a personal Devil and serve him, in the ordinary sense of the word. I wanted to get hold of him personally and become his chief of staff.” The calm whisper of a goat turned man bows to Francisco Goya in his grave. The Witch strokes the painting of Goya’s Witches’ Flight through our sockets for ninety minutes. Canvas stretched into a potent extended-release. The satanic goat, Black Phillip—stitched on tee shirts and Amazon witch boxes—has become our two dimensional, Instagram-able centerpiece harkening back to Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath. As such, the half-life of this film hasn’t waned a day since its debut. The twins—not too old to make a pungent unguent—leave a mysteriously large hole in their wake, cracked in the wood of their confines. A shadow of Black Phillip, from his horns to his withers, stuck in the silence between bleats.
One aspect of The Witch celebrated by witches everywhere (everyone calls themselves a witch these days) is that there’s no looming masculinity within the bonfire around which the wicked women dance. Whether levitating cruciform around the sparkly canopy, organizing pagan kitsch for the feed, or attending an autumnal equinox ritual sponsored by Airbnb, some of us should double check the dimension in which our shackles are cast and make sure we’ve got our devils right.
David Kuhnlein‘s writing is published or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Bright Lights Film Journal, Expat, Juked, Silent Auctions, SELFFUCK, and others. He edited Olas Grandes, his grandma’s murder-mystery novel set in Trinidad, her home country. He teaches clinical skills to medical students in Detroit and lives just outside the city.