I’m a pagan witch and I’m doing my doctoral dissertation on nostalgia, gender, and the occult in American literature. Even though I’m a big scaredy cat when it comes to horror films, it’s safe to say that I was curious about The Witch. When I read review after review lauding the film for the director’s attention to historical detail, lack of cheap jump scares, and even a feminist message, I moved from curious to downright hyped. The movie came out on my birthday, and I took this as another good omen that I had found a new favourite.
What a disappointment.
The movie that I was hoping I’d see would be about a patriarchal Puritan family’s psychological dissolution thanks to witch panic motivated by religious fervour, sexism, and desperation vs. the wilderness. I was hoping that the character of the witch was a figment of their imagination — just like it had been 60-odd years after the movie takes place, in Salem. I was hoping that the foreboding and tense rising feeling of dread that every review told me to look forward to would be thanks to the idea that we, as viewers, aren’t sure if the witch is a real threat, or if we should continue to be critical of the Puritan eagerness to blame women for all the ills of the world.
When the movie dashes all these hopes within the first 30 minutes by revealing the monster (isn’t there a rule about that in horror…?), I even held out hope that there would be a reveal later that we were supposed to distrust what we saw as being through the panicked eyes of the family.
The Witch had a chance to say something interesting about the very real fear that gripped the New England colonies and the innocent people (mostly women) who suffered and died because of it. I’ve read many articles that cite the director saying that he wanted us to understand that for the Puritans, a witch was a viable threat. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting from a place of historical accuracy, a place of questioning patriarchal violence (which would metaphorically help us question the same which remains today), and from, you know, just a scary point of view if the witch was revealed not to be a cheesy bride of Satan monster, but either a) a crone living in the woods and minding her own goddamn business but that the family condemns from fear (often the real victim of witch crazes) or b) not real at all? Why did the movie go to such lengths to show us that there is a real monster in the woods, then attempt feebly to make us worry that Thomasin would be condemned as a witch? Why did the movie decide to reveal the feminine as monstrous after all? And newsflash: Thomasin signing her life/soul over to a man/Satan so that she can become a fictional stereotype in the woods rather than starve to death is not a feminist ending. Sorry!
I was hoping for a movie that was about how horrifying witch hunts — literal and figurative — were, and continue to be. I was hoping for a movie that critiqued the idea of demonizing femininity as being monstrous and unnatural. I got a movie that toes those lines in all the predictable and most boring ways and worse yet, is being championed as some feminist horror masterpiece. Put it this way: when you make a movie that Cotton Mather would have been cheering about, screaming “I told you so!!” — you’ve probably failed.