One of the trickiest things to capture, when writing fiction set in early America, is the fervent religiosity of that time. God was so much a part of people’s lives and everyday thoughts in ways that many of us (certainly me!) have difficulty even conceptualizing, let alone capturing in fiction. I’m not religious at all. Christianity has never been a part of my life in any overt way. Yet, back in the 17th century, Christianity created a system of beliefs that touched every aspect of life – your conduct, your marriage, your sense of right and wrong. It was something that people just believed in, the way that we now believe in scientific laws like gravity. (Of course, not everyone in early America was Christian, or the same type of Christian. Religions varied regionally and culturally etc. I’m thinking here mostly about the Puritan settlers in early New England).
So how do you capture, in modern books and film, the importance of Christianity and Christian belief back then? I think a lot of historical fiction writers just DON’T address it that much in their fiction, which is fine, but it is a major omission. And I like how sometimes novels and films, instead of avoiding or skirting around the religiousness of these historical people, dive headfirst into it, making faith, doubt and religious belief a major topic of the work itself. And no film does that better, in my opinion, than Robert Eggers’ The Witch: A New England Folktale!
Set in Puritan New England, this is a ‘horror’ film (more on that below) about a family that is banished from the village and has to make their way on their own in the wilderness. Now there are lots of things to appreciate about The Witch – from the 17th century language the characters speak (top tip: if you’re struggling at all to understand the dialogue, throw on the subtitles and that might help), to the creepy use of sound (notice how it cuts out at key moments and creates moments of eerie absence), to the cold color scheme of greys, blues and milky whites. All of these things are great.
But what struck me as I was re-watching this ‘New England Folktale’ recently – on a train travelling up the New England countryside from Philadelphia to Boston, no less – was that while ostensibly it is an evil witch in the woods who threatens this family throughout the film (a monster who, you could argue, does or does not exist literally), it’s really more about the very real physical and spiritual threats that faced settlers in early New England.
Isolation is a threat for the family – the first scene shows the village community literally shutting the village gates on them. Then, as the family leaves the village, their cart is slowly swallowed up by the dark trees. Communities provided joint resources, protection and safety, and also opportunities for companionship. Community kept you alive and to be cut off from it would have been horrifying.
But the woods themselves are also the threat in this film, they are the monster, which is made clear from the cinematography. It’s shot in a way which makes the woods look slightly taller and narrower. Looming. (Mark Kermode explains more about the filming here). But the threat of the woods is also clear from the dialogue. ‘We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us,’ the father, William (Ralph Ineson), tells the son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), when their crop of corn fails and they have to go out in search of animals in the woods, to eat or to trade the fur. Which brings me to yet another threat that the family is facing and that is the threat of starvation. Their crops have all died – the husks of the blackened corn are strung around the house to remind the viewer of this and to add a sense of withered, eeriness to the house – and the increasing tensions in the family are certainly due in part to their lack of food.
But there are other threats too that are less material. The son is hitting puberty and having sexual urges – finding himself gazing at his sister’s chest (the only young woman around for miles) – and the daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is fearful that she is wicked and sinful, that she has been ‘idle of (her) work’ and ‘disobedient of (her) parents’. She has played on the Sabbath and ‘broken every one of thy commandments in thought.’ ‘I know I deserve all misery and shame in this life and everlasting Hellfire,’ she confesses to God at the beginning of the film.
Thomasin’s confession felt so reflective to me of the real young girls who lived at this time and place, and who had a constant fear of being wicked, sinful and idle pumped into them. They had few outlets for their imagination other than to conjure up devils and spirits in their heads. There weren’t any entertaining fun or silly books to read, few avenues for personal expression. Thomasin is a threat to herself – her desire to play, her disobedience, and her friction with her parents condemns her to ‘Hellfire.’
All of these threats come together in a sort of witches brew of complexity which feels both very reminiscent of the time, but also familiar to a modern viewer in terms of the tensions and rivalries within the family: the father’s feeling of guilt at not being able to provide for his family, Caleb’s excitement and fear over his own budding sexuality, the strained relationship between husband and wife after the loss of a child. And throughout all of this they are trying to make sense of their sorrows and feelings through their relationship with God (Why is God punishing them? Has he deserted them? Is he testing them?).
The Witch is a ‘horror’ film in the sense that it is frightening and concerned with fears, but, as someone who doesn’t usually enjoy horror films, I would say to check it out even if you don’t like horror films generally. There are few jump scares, little to no body horror, and I did not find it particularly disturbing. It’s not about a big scary monster. It’s about all of those internal and external threats I described. So I’d recommend it even if you don’t love horror films but want to see something eerie and atmospheric about the pain and difficulty of early New England life. And also if you want to see the single creepiest goat that you will ever see. Black Phillip still haunts my dreams. If you’ve seen this film, you will know what I’m talking about!
And if you liked The Witch, or just want more seasonal/witchy Halloween reading, here are some recommendations.
– The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (novel set in late 17th century New England)
– A Break with Charity by Ann Rinaldi (novel of the Salem Witch Trials)
– ‘Young Goodman Brown’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne (short story set in Salem about faith and sin)
– The Crucible by Arthur Miller (the classic play about the Salem Witch Trials, kind of an obvious recommendation, but I had to include it!)
– A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill (non-fiction, a very engrossing historical account)
– The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to Present by Ronald Hutton
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.