After The Witch hits theaters nationwide this weekend, horror fans everywhere will be talking about the genre's best entry since It Follows and The Babadook. A thoroughly disturbing take on classic New England folktales, The Witch benefits from director Robert Eggers' painstaking research into the area's history with the supernatural. The result is a 17th century fable unlike any you've experienced before.
Not content to simply create another occult film, Eggers utilizes familiar black arts iconography in a new and unsettling way, creating an impressively unnerving and must-see film in the form of The Witch.
Animals figure prominently in the story of The Witch, and not just because the family lives alone on a nascent farm. Throughout European and Colonial American folklore, witches were known to keep familiar spirits; supernatural entities in the form of animals that would assist in magic. In most beliefs, they would serve as protectors to novice witches, helping them come into their newfound power.
As you may have heard, The Witch is not your straightforward tale of an evil, predatory hag preying on innocents in the woods, so the familiars aren't exactly straightforward either. Instead, the family at the center of the story encounters a few woodland creatures after being banished from their community's plantation.
At first, these creatures (a crow, a rabbit and maybe even the family's goats) seem benevolent and might even signal a sign of hope. As the new farm's crops begin to fail, hunting is the only way to survive, so the family believes they can rely on these creatures as they strike out on their own.
There's something sinister about these animals, however, and they always seem to be present during moments of misfortune. As the family and their eldest daughter Thomasin face one hardship after another, these animals start to seem much more ambiguous (and powerful) than a simple witch's helper.
In most movies about witches, the casting and resulting effects of spells tend to be major set pieces. The manifestation of their magic is the clearest way to visualize a witch's power, but this film is much more concerned with the terrifying realities that exist in uncertainty.
After the devastating disappearance of an infant child, the family must face the question of what took him. At first, the god-fearing folk determine that a big, bad wolf must have made off with the innocent baby, but more troubling setbacks force them to consider other, more arcane possibilities.
For Thomasin, the movie's central figure, mystic visions (or something of the sort) intrude immediately following the baby's disappearance. Are they real, or just the overactive brain of a frightened adolescent? Without giving too much away, this is how "spells" function in The Witch. The entire movie functions in a hazy realm that forces the viewer to constantly question what is true on screen, making the final, explanatory act particularly spellbinding.
It's certainly no coincidence that throughout history women are the ones most commonly accused of witchcraft. Since Medieval witch hunts in Europe, "an aspect of the female has ... been associated with the witch" according to many historians and scholars. Part of this association stems from earlier Christian beliefs that women are more susceptible to sin than men (as a result of Eve taking the forbidden fruit first in the Garden Of Eden).
This widely held belief could lead to full-blown suspicion in times of societal trouble, with old widows and unmarried beauties often taking the blame. The scapegoating and stereotyping has endured in modern times, giving us the tropes of the menacing crone and the dangerous temptress.
The Witch makes use of all these connotations and filters them through Thomasin's own journey toward self-discovery. As she nears womanhood, her family attempts to figure out what to do with her, until an unexplainable event caused every family member to cast aspersions on each other. As the unmarried woman, Thomasin takes the brunt of the blame, but don't think it ends that easily. The Witch flips these long-held associations, subverting these recognizable symbols for a new and horrifying tale.