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25 March 2016

By turning fantasy into reality, The Witch exposes society’s fear of female sexuality

This film, in which witches actually exist and aren’t just torture-addled fantasies, has surprisingly feminist themes.

By Eleanor Margolis

After years of vampire and zombie supremacy, witches have clawed their way out of those beguiling Blair Witch woods and back into the horror mainstream. Which is a huge relief for anyone who, like me, can no longer look at a zombie for more than three minutes without becoming, well, zombified. And Twilight has done such a number on vampires that the poor bastards may never be scary again.

Witches, however, make fascinating and versatile horror adversaries.

Director Robert Eggers’s debut feature, The Witch, is a deeply unsettling collage of New England folklore with – horror of horrors – some surprisingly feminist themes.

Set in mid-17th-century colonial America, a time and place where women were forced to dress up as sofas and were generally loathed and mistrusted, the film follows a fresh-off-the-boat English family who have been banished from their puritan community for being, it seems, overly puritanical.

Finchy from The Office (Ralph Ineson) makes an unexpectedly compelling scripture-spouting puritan dad. Ineson is, of course, a professional gruff Yorkshireman slash some sort of stretched-out Sean Bean. He was made to play characters built on the very worst facets of masculinity.

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In The Witch, he does the “Bible thumping, musket-wielding, man of the woods” thing very convincingly and is mostly seen chopping wood and droning on about salvation in a voice like a washing machine sinking in gravel.

His eldest daughter Thomasin, played by the extremely spooky Anya Taylor-Joy, is at that mega-sinful “sexually mature but yet unmarried” stage of womanhood.

Societal fear of female sexuality permeates The Witch like a gnarled and spindly tree branch. The entire witch trope, of course, was built on confessions extracted via torture. Under duress, thousands of women in 16th- and 17th-century Europe and America admitted to all sorts of now stereotypically witchy things, like child sacrifice and sex with the Devil.

This period of mass hysteria-fuelled public burnings is something explored in fascinating depth in historian Lyndal Roper’s 2004 book Witch Craze. This investigation into the persecution of “witches” in Baroque Germany was once recommended to me by a Holocaust historian, who said that if one book could explain why the Holocaust happened, it’s Witch Craze.

It may seem bizarre and flippant that, in a review of a horror film with Finchy from The Office in it, I’m sidestepping to the Holocaust. Hear me out though. “Witchcraft accusations were a hall of mirrors where neighbours saw their own fear and greed in the shape of the witch,” writes Roper in Witch Craze.

The scapegoating that goes on in panic-led persecutions is founded on taking that which is other – say, elderly widows who keep themselves to themselves – and turning it into a single manifestation of a culture’s darkest fears.

In the 16th and 17th centuries in particular, young women represented temptation, while post-menopausal women raised deep-rooted fears of infertility.

The Witch, in a sense, is an exploration of what archaic societies saw when they looked into the “hall of mirrors” alluded to by Roper. This is a film, of course, in which witches aren’t just torture-addled fantasies: they actually exist.

In one scene, Caleb, William (Ineson)’s prepubescent son, is lost in the forest. To the suitably foreboding sound of discordant strings, he is lured towards a menacing cottage. Without getting sidetracked about how the occult horror genre manages to make a cottage menacing, a beautiful (but clearly evil because she’s wearing a cloak) woman emerges from the house and kisses Caleb on the lips.

We then see her perfectly normal (if not slightly sexy, I guess) hand, placed on the boy’s back, turn into a witchy claw.

This transition, one of the film’s surprisingly few jumpy moments, perfectly illustrates the duality of the witch: she is both a seductress and a hag – ie. she embodies both of society’s most feared forms of womanhood. It’s interesting, perhaps, that a similarly contradictory duality was applied to Jews in Nazi Germany: they were simultaneously plotting communists and money-grabbing capitalists.

Thomasin is blamed, largely by her mother, for the disappearance of her two brothers (Caleb’s disappearance into the forest is preceded by the vanishing of baby Sam at the beginning of the film). The atmosphere of paranoia cultivated by the grieving mother is something very particular to the whole witch genre (yes, think The Crucible).

Thomasin’s yet non-vanished younger siblings (a pair of utterly terrifying twins) denounce her as a witch. She denounces them in return, based on their bizarre relationship with the family goat, Black Philip. These Salem-esque denouncements may be a cliché, but they’re an important reminder that, in the stories The Witch is based on, the true evil-doers were those who tortured and killed so called witches.

Thomasin is the archetypical outsider. The eldest daughter of a banished family, her anger and frustration are read by her zealot parents as indicators of a sinful disposition. Naturally, she’s blamed for blighted crops and general eerie goings-on.

With almost no reliance on shock value or gore (apart from one scene involving a raven and a breast…), The Witch takes an unnerving look at some extremely human qualities, like fear and blame.

A lot of the film’s aesthetic, especially in a scene involving a satanic Sabbath, is clearly taken directly from lurid 17th-century engravings of women dancing nakedly and quite badass-ly, to tell you the truth, around fires. Which is fun and possibly quite celebratory.

So, if zombies and vampires would kindly step aside, the witches are here and they’re way scarier.

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