There’s an early scene in 2015’s The Witch that is so upsetting, so uncanny and so nonchalant in its depiction of total evil that I briefly switched the movie off. I got up off my bed, snapped the laptop shut, and went for a little walk around the apartment. I had to get some air.
Horror’s fun, isn’t it?
I was watching by the light of midday, in summer, on a laptop with tinny little speakers, and I still had to turn it off. Fight-or-flight kicked in and made the choice for me. That’s the wonder of watching a movie at home: you can pause, rewind, and turn on subtitles if the loud audio gets you too jumpy. It lets you kind of cheat at horror films, and in doing so makes them exponentially more frightening. Having control doesn’t mean you aren’t scared, and the knowledge remains that the only way out of the horror experience is through it. It’s the paradox of liking scary media: we enjoy Horror because it plays mind-games. It can engage your fight-or-flight reflex or, if you aren’t allowed to pause the film, blast you right past it and into the unknown.
Just because you are in control does not mean that you have control.
The VVitch – as the Jacobean-inspired poster spells it – is a wonderful example.
If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know the scene, so I won’t ruin it here. But it’s the first time we see a real Witch at work, a scene director Robert Eggers approaches with agonizing, literal detail. The only artificial light in the entire film comes from candles at night – so her den is lit by tiny, flickering beams. The VVitch isn’t afraid to play with framing, so the Witch herself is off-screen. We see her in silhouette: the motion of her hands, the clatter of her tools, the glisten of blood in her hands. It’s only later in the scene that we realize what she’s up to, and by the time you get it, it’s too late to go back. Or, it’s time to pause.
Horror is a one-way door, especially in a film as slow and deliberate as The VVitch. Pause button or not: being in control does not always mean having control. And that’s just the first act.
It’s the 1630’s, and a family English settlers from a Puritan Plymouth Colony are banished from their community over a religious dispute. Forced to forage a life elsewhere, they wander deep into the woods, happening on a clearing. They fashion a farm and small homestead in which to raise their family of five, but something in the woods is clearly off. A child disappears. It’s left to the eldest and most precocious daughter, Thomasin, to test the boundaries of her faith and explore the encroaching woods in search of answers.
She finds them.
Much of the power (and fun) of The VVitch comes from the detail of these sets. Robert Eggers hired a thatcher and carpenter to build the homestead from scratch, and nearly all of the action takes place nearby. Shots in both daylight and night are devoid are artificial lighting of any kind – so indoor sets are dim and dripping with menace. Dialogue was scraped from primary sources in the 1600’s, with phrasings drawn directly from pamphlets and books of the time. Costumes were made from period-appropriate materials, as was everything else. It’s totally possible to view clips from The VVitch and not realize it’s a horror movie: the level of obsessive detail is such that we believe these sets, in every moment, even when things turn incredibly dark and strange. As they quickly do.
The most common criticism of The VVitch is that it’s boring. That it’s an hour and a half of nature shots and daily farm-stead life, punctuated by occasional violence and a Jacobean exorcism or two, like a live-action and gorier version of The Crucible. These people aren’t wrong, exactly. The VVitch takes itself incredibly literally, down to the doldrums of these peoples’ lives. What action scenes there are, are the sort that would occur on a farm in the 1600’s. Theirs are not exciting lives, and that banality exaggerates the extremity of the threat. That historical accuracy doesn’t mean the characters are relatable, though. Because the film is actual folklore adapted from primary texts, everything is encoded in the extreme Puritan religious beliefs of the time. You likely won’t find anyone sympathetic except Thomasin herself, whose proto-Feminism and curiosity immediately run afoul of her family’s strict faith. You aren’t meant to.
In a sense, The VVitch alienates the audience in the same way: up until the moment everything comes crashing down, it is very strictly a movie about several people in the New England woods slowly going mad, surrounded by the forest and demonic forces that may or may not be real. It is not exciting by design, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. It follows one family’s lives, moment by moment, as their God’s protection comes crashing down around them, and as the folklore around Witches reveals itself as terrifyingly literal. They soon find themselves utterly, spiritually alone.
If that sounds boring to you, I don’t know what else to say. But it sure doesn’t to me.
So if you are in the mood for a horror film that will shock and excite you at every turn, maybe pick something else. But if you are fascinated by the real-life folklore of the New England witches and a lovingly shot and realized recreation of that imaginary threat made real, I have just the movie for you.
Just remember what I said about control.
And I hope you like goats.