At the center of the highly anticipated horror film The Witch is not any specific mysticism or hook-nosed crone. Instead, what drives the film from humble beginning to jaw-dropping end is the all-consuming dread that an evil force could be lurking in the most innocuous of places. And no one is safe from suspicion.
The film's exquisite anxiety stems from a troubling societal behavior: the witch hunt. As the puritanical family in The Witch faces hardship upon hardship, none can resist the urge to find a scapegoat (a task made even easier by a troublesome goat shed nearby).
The New England folktale has a commitment to authenticity, but nothing makes it more believable than the terrifyingly true aspect of human nature. The proverbial witch hunt has been used for centuries with a variety of intentions, and many historical examples inform the real psychological horror of The Witch. Let's take a look at just a few.
Colonial America — Salem Witch Trials
In the purist definition of the term, the witch hunt refers to the societal moral panic or mass hysteria that results from the fear of actual witchcraft. The events in The Witch are set about 60 years before Massachusetts' Salem witch trials, an extremely fitting time to present the themes of paranoia and intense reaction.
Suspected witches — mostly women — were put on trial with slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence and urged to plead their allegiance to God. While there were specific precursors, the trials were indicative of major theories historians have conceptualized that point to a social function.
The Social Accusations Theory argues that witch accusers blame others for their personal problems, creating a cycle of incrimination all for the purpose of self-preservation. In the stark and tough landscape of Colonial America (and especially the New England presented in The Witch), survival must come even before God Himself (though you wouldn't want to proclaim that).
Cold War — McCarthyism
Starting around the 1930s, the term "witch hunt" was popularized beyond its literal definition to describe governmental and business activities that exposed perceived enemies. Typically, as with the Second Red Scare in 1950s America, this was a method utilized to stoke the flames of moral panic and force public opinion on the basis of fear.
As Senator Joseph McCarthy pushed a conservative agenda that linked "communist influence" to a slew of policies and individuals, suddenly everyone was on high alert. Historians and social psychologists have pointed to a social control theory that uses moral panic to help centralize authority and consolidate power.
Though The Witch is set in the 17th century, director Robert Eggers has pulled in this modern concept of the witch hunt, especially in relation to sexuality and orthodox values.
Present Day Xenophobia — Donald Trump
Finally, though most of the rhetoric surrounding witch hunts places them firmly in the past, the same kind of hysteria has informed society as recently as this year's presidential election cycle. Most notably, billionaire reality TV host and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested banning all Muslims from entering the United States following the deadly Paris terrorist attacks, for which ISIS claimed responsibility.
This demonization of an entire religious group played into America's latent fear of "the Other"; the tendency to look at oneself as the focus and unfamiliar groups or individuals (normally with different ethnic or religious beliefs) as problematic or even dangerous. Trump's rhetoric generalized a group of 1.6 billion people to allegedly enforce social order.
As with all witch hunts, all it takes is that one spark for fire to catch, and the devastation that follows leaves unlikely victims in its wake.
It may not seem like it at first glance, but this is an issue that The Witch directly confronts. Its larger and impactful message is just one of the reasons The Witch is one of the best modern horror movies in recent memory, revealing that this past is not as distant as it appears.