Show Notes: Episode 86
“Prideful Conceit: Spider and Shelle Review The Witch”
Happy halloween (or Samhain or Sunday or whatever you want to call today)! I'm Spider...
And tonight we have a spooky story that we want to tell you wherein we travel back to the 1600s again for a New England folk tale that may as well have come out of Salem (parts of which might just have). Decades before the Salem witch hysteria we have: Robert Eggers' The Witch. Settle in, maybe pop some corn, turn out the lights and get comfy. Have we got a story for you!
Trigger warning for infant and child death by unnatural means and possible child rape (although it isn't expressly stated)
Dark and gloomy music like a funeral dirge begins the opening scene. The first thing we see is Thomasin listening to her father speak his case in a very tense public trial/hearing. She has a real blank slate kind of innocence about her. What we're seeing here is basically her whole life up to now. These people, this way of thinking, and the conflict between her father and the townspeople are all she knows of life in New England.
We learn that the family came to America from England and had at least a modest degree of lifestyle before making the trip across the pond. There is some nebulous disagreement over some kind of difference of opinion between William and the church members in his village. William has a real John Procter vibe in this scene but John Procter wasn't anywhere near this batshit. He was also right. This guy is just a buffoon and it's obvious from the start.
He was “publicly speaking out against the beliefs of the church” and “[dishonoring] the laws of the commowealth and the church with [his] prideful conceit.” I like that phrase. It has a nice one-two punch about it that describes this kind of religious arrogance well. He was asked if he intended to keep it up and he gives the most arrogant, smarmy answer possible: “If my conscience sees fit.”
“I cannot be judged by false christians for I have done nothing but preach Christ's true Gospel.”
In 17th century terms, this guy was an ultra-conservative living among moderates and liberals. He was also the kind of Christian that everybody hates: hopelessly closed-minded, unteachable, judgmental to the hilt, and hiding behind a veil of false piety and self-deprecation. But he was quite committed, I'll give him that...
Oh, and the discount Jesus look? Totally on purpose. The look was meant to go with his white savior complex. “I have to convince these people that my ideas are correct!”
It seems like the dispute began over William's position on the subject of salvation and the way he pushed it on the residents of the plantation.The plantation people were fed up with his shit but they were also afraid of him. That kind of crazy can unravel an entire community. A few decades after this story takes place, it did.
William's dogma lies more on the side of things like original sin and the need for redemption whereas the people he locked horns with were likely more Calvinist in the way they thought and just didn't like this deluded zealot going around accusing people of being dirty sinners in need of grace. Calvinism was big among the puritans and, as we find out later, even W has tendencies toward predestination, at least when it comes to people he cares about and, very unlike the average Christian, W has uncertainties about the afterlife and the ability to know if one has obtained salvation. Through all of this we learn one thing about W: he was an extremist in the midst of people who might have been influenced by religion but hadn't been driven crazy by it the way he had. He was as toxic as the day is long and banishing him was a good call.
Anne Hutchinson trial and banishment (1637) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Hutchinson A case from history that resulted in banishment was the case of Anne Hutchinson, a key figure in the Antinomianist Controversy, which was a theological debate concerning the "covenant of grace" and "covenant of works". Anne was a midwife who was also very open with others about her religious understanding, and eventually came to have a group of women and men meet in her home to study scripture. She was a strong advocate for 'free grace', that is that no 'works' could earn one's place in heaven. This went against established Puritan teachings, and caused a rift in the church. She was eventually tried for slandering and criticizing other ministers, as well as sedition and contempt of court. Eventually she was convicted and banished, but unlike William and Katherine, she had a supportive husband who went to Connecticut to find a new home for them.
“You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.
— Anne Hutchinson at trial”
So the family is kicked out. “Take your leave and trouble us no further.” Oof! This guy was NOT liked. I wonder if they had a party that night...
Foreboding music as we watch them leave the plantation. The gates are closed behind them. This is it. They are on their own. No home, no community, nothing but themselves and daddy's delusions. We will learn just how inept this guy is, too. That might also have been part of it. He probably contributed little to the community and spent most of his time annoying people with the “true gospel.” He can't farm, he can't hunt. All he can do well is chop cordwood so he does. A lot. He had wood stacked up higher than his house. Great. They're gonna starve eventually but they'll die warm...
We get an establishing shot of the woods with outright panicky and threatening music that builds to a crescendo and then... silence.
Next scene we see Thomasin praying.
The prayer Thomasin prays is soooo self-depricating...
“I here confess I’ve lived in sin. I’ve been idle of my work, disobedient of my parents, neglectful of my prayer. I have, in secret, played upon thy Sabbath, and broken every one of thy commandments in thoughts. Followed the desires of mine own will, and not the Holy Spirit. I know I deserve all shame and misery in this life, and everlasting hellfire. But I beg thee, for the sake of thy Son, forgive me, show me mercy, show me thy light.”
[How does this differ from what we were taught as evangelicals?]
[How on earth does anyone stay sane when they're taught to think this way?]
Samuel is born and Katherine gives Thomasin charge of him so she takes him outside to basically keep him occupied for a bit. During a game of peek-a-boo the baby just.... vanishes.
Thomasin panics and runs to the edge of the woods but doesn't dare enter. Next we see a shadowy figure and we hear the baby cooing.
Next scene, the baby is with the witch of the woods. She approaches the child naked. We see her gnarly, decrepit hand caressing the baby, admiring his soft, new flesh, then the blade comes into frame. Fortunately, we aren't shown what happens next but we see the aftermath...
The flying ointment – eeew!
Flying Ointment chief ingredient is fat (either of unbaptized baby or children exhumed from graves) and a variety of psychoactive herbs such as henbane, belladonna, hemlock and wolfsbane. These would also be called “deleriants” causing strange visions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_ointment
After the ritual is complete we see the witch silhouetted in the full moon and it looks as though she is transforming. The silhouette takes on a distinct birdlike form, probably the raven we will see later.
Katherine is devastated and cannot stop grieving. The kids are basically taking care of themselves and Caleb... notices his sister in a very Flowers in the Attic sort of way. This isn't really explored very much further, thank goodness, but it will come up again in just a few...
William is out in the corn rows trying to get clear of some of the chaos at the homestead. He and Caleb have a conversation wherein William decides to call off the search for Samuel. He assumes a wolf took him while Thomasin wasn't looking.
He also decides to go into the woods for the purpose of finding food to hunt. Caleb has his superstitions about the woods but his father is insistent and he complies.
At home Katherine is still delirious with grief and praying furiously. Thomasin spies on her through a hole in the makeshift curtain around Katherine and William's bed.
These people never stop talking about their religion and William is insistent on imparting all kinds of puritan dogma to Caleb by asking him questions and having him respond with answers he has memorized.
New England Primer: used from the 1600’s to the 1900’s -this is where a good amount of the religious poetry/teachings in the movie are adapted from. This is where the familiar prayer “now I lay me down to sleep” comes from as well. This primer was made to teach reading primarily but it also included a catechism as well as many prayers. The catechism questions are what William asks Caleb and since the primer was used for rote learning, the answers Caleb gives are all in the book. “Spiritual Milk for American Babes.”
David Barton the revisionist historian had reprinted the book in the 1990's for homeschooling use. Wonderful.
Caleb asks if his brother was born with sin. William says yes. He also tells Caleb that Samuel was taken from them because “he offended God's kingdom.”
If you don't think there are people out there who believe this today – Evangelicals in particular but also Catholics and other denominations – think again. I heard shit like this all the time.
Caleb questions why Samuel disappeared and of course dad blames his family's lack of faith. Caleb starts contemplating his own mortality.
It's interesting how William changes gears when it comes to his live son, his firstborn son who is afraid of dying and going to hell. “You are youngly yet...” so an infant offended God, but this boy on the cusp of adolescence who likes to check out his sister's... assets gets a hall pass. He's too young to be damned. Not of the age of accountability, at least not by W's standards. OK...
Then W says something very Calvinist... tis god alone not man who knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not; who is good and who is evil.” Heh... he seems to forget this concept a little later. So, yeah, the predestination stuff did get in there....
It is at this point that William discloses to Caleb that he traded Katherine's prized silver cup for hunting traps.
Thomasin is gathering eggs and only finds one. Behind the coop she finds a broken shell with the dead embryo of a growing chick inside.
Later, W spots a hare and tries to shoot it but the gun malfunctions. Was this because W was an inept idiot who didn't know how to shoot, or was there something about that hare? Hrmmm....
Now we get to meet Black Phillip who the twins are obviously singing to in a very pagany sort of way. This is somehow OK in this puritanical hell? Mercy and Jonas (the twins) are singing their praises to him with these colorful and not at all creepy words of adoration:
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
A crown grows out his head,
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
To nanny queen is wed.
Jump to the fence post,
Running in the stall.
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
King of all.
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
King of sky and land,
Black Phillip, Black Phillip
King of sea and sand.
We are ye servants,
We are ye men.
Black Phillip eats the lions
From the lions’ den.
This seems to be rousing Phillip so William wrangles him into his pen. The twins think this is all a hoot.
Oddly enough many American folklorists don’t associate goats with New England witchcraft but it was much more prevalent in European folklore: https://slate.com/culture/2016/02/goats-and-the-devil-origins-black-phillip-in-the-witch-isnt-alone.html
Emerson Baker, a history professor at Salem State University, co-hosted a packed screening of The Witch in Salem, and considers himself among the film’s biggest fans—“It’s just about the best depiction of early New England that I’ve seen in a movie,” he told me. But he too said he didn’t recall goats in North American lore or historical records. Still, he praised the movie’s depiction of “animal familiars,” or creatures believed to be in the thrall of witches. “There aren’t a lot of direct goat antecedents, but pretty much any animal could be a witch’s familiar—that’s certainly an accurate notion,” he said. “One of the definitions of a witch is of a shapeshifter, and the ability to put themselves into animal form. We see that repeatedly, in the concept of the black cats, or rats, mice, dogs, you name it.”
Katherine is upset that Caleb went into the woods with William and that Thomasin wasn't watching the twins.
Caleb comes up with a very ham-handed story about why they were in the woods. He says he thought he'd seen an apple tree and was going there to get apples. They brought the gun in case they encountered the wolf who took Samuel. They're sticking that that wolf theory like glue but the real way the baby disappeared is likely revealed later.
William is doing literally everything he can to hold it together. Read that as “he starts chopping cordwood.” He's in his happy place. Katherine is slowly going crazy and it shows.
Down by the brook, Thomasin is doing the laundry. Caleb sneaks another look at his sister and is still clearly distressed. Thomasin consoles him in a very motherly sort of way, holding him to her bosom.
Mercy keeps on about being the witch of the wood. She claims that she talks to Black Phillip and also that she has seen a witch in the wood. It's as if the twins have this emotional barrier that not only keeps them from grieving, but allows them to make light of the situation, especially Mercy who spends this entire scene joking about how her brother disappeared and chiding her sister, going so far as to say “mother hates you.” Thomasin chides her back criticizing her for not helping with the laundry after leaving home by herself. She retorts with “Black Phillip says I can do what I like.” She then says she's seen the witch in her riding cloak and that she knows that's who took Samuel but doesn't seem afraid.
To shut her up Thomasin tells her it was her. “I am that very witch...” and starts recounting details that reflect things that happen later. How did she get it all so right?
She keeps up the bit just a little too long.... and finishes things off by making Mercy swear not to tell their parents about this little exchange or she will be cursed.
More oh so happy prayer that we figure out is... Grace. Just listen to this shit...
And forgive us the sins we have this day committed against thee, free us from the shame and torment which are due unto us, Father.
We beseech thee, increase our faith in the promise of the Gospel, our fear of thy name and the hatred of all our sins, that we may be assured that the Holy Spirit dwells in us.
That we might be thy children in thy love and mercy, but as we hunger for this food of our bodies so our souls hunger for the food of eternal life.
Finish soon our days of sin, and bring us to eternal peace through the purifying blood of Thy Son, our Lord and only Savior Jesus Christ.
Nothing like praying to die just before you eat. There was no FDA back then. Just sayin'.
So they're saying grace and it's loaded with self-loathing, self-depricating BS. I'm sitting there thinking, “JFC, all this to say “rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub???” I also thought, “You know, if Yahweh were real he'd be masturbating to these prayers.”
Katherine is becoming more and more distant and less rational....
“That night, Katherine questions Thomasin about the disappearance of the cup and suspects her to be responsible for Samuel's disappearance. Katherine says that something is amiss; “not natural.” William decides to placate her by calling for a family fast the following day to “atone for their sins” because that is what everything comes back to. If we all stop sinning we'll be happy.
For a second time we see a hare, this time rousing the livestock in the barn. I'm pretty sure this is the same witch who took the baby and who Caleb would... encounter later.
Katherine has not been sleeping and William blames himself for Samuel's death
W tells K that “God has taken us into a very low condition to humble us”
K comes out and says it: “We shouldn't have left...”
The children overhear their parents discuss sending Thomasin away to serve another family.” - This was not so much punishment than tradition in most cases. It was usually as a means of ensuring a young girl grew up and made babies if her family was too poor or otherwise unable to raise her through puberty. In this case, they also think it might “fix” her. K protests pretty vehemently which then brings the conversation back around to Samuel.
“Our son is in hell!!!”
William says he will go into the village with Thomasin in the morning and promises Katherine that they will find food. He also intends to talk with a couple families he knows about sending T to “serve” them.
K knows how bad things are. She wants to go back to the plantation but W is so intent on not going back to that church that he is ostensibly choosing hardship and probable starvation in this wilderness to swallowing a little of that prideful conceit.
Later, Thomasin finds Caleb preparing to check a trap in the forest, and forces him to take her with him by threatening to awaken their parents if he doesn't.
T and C reminisce about England.
In the woods, they spot the hare again. It sends their horse into a panic. Their dog Fowler gives chase to the hare, and Caleb pursues them. Burt (the horse) throws Thomasin, knocking her unconscious, and runs away. Caleb becomes lost in the woods and consoles himself by reciting prayers. He hears Fowler yelping. T comes to and hears her father calling out to Caleb.
Caleb then stumbles upon Fowler's disemboweled body. He then discovers a hovel, from which a beautiful woman emerges to seduce him. Her arm grows withered and gnarled and reveals advanced age as she kisses and embraces Caleb.
William goes into the woods to find Caleb despite major protests from Katherine. She is rightly not in the mood to lose anyone else.
Before he goes he admits to taking the cup and selling it and asks Katherine and Thomasin to forgive him. Basically he thinks he's going to die and doesn't want to go with this on his conscience. He also wants to protect Thomasin from her mother's wrath. He then “admits” to taking Caleb into the woods which makes Kate angrier and she blames William for now losing TWO children...
“Later that night, as a storm rages, Thomasin discovers Caleb outside the home, naked, delirious, and mysteriously ill.
Since they have no idea what's wrong with him, they bleed him. Bloodletting was supposed to have both medical and spiritual benefits.
The next day, the twins converse with and sing songs with Black Phillip and accuse Thomasin of witchcraft.
Thomasin attempts to milk one of the other goats and gets blood instead of milk. Black Phillip looks on as if overseeing the whole thing.
Cow’s udders bleeding was a common accusation in witch hunts, as well as hens not laying, milk spoiling, and preventing the formation of butter.
Mercy tells T that BP said T was evil and that she had witched her brother.
Katherine is convinced that Caleb is bewitched. W dismisses the notion outright. He then concedes to go back the plantation and his plans have failure written all over them. These people are fucked and they know it. W's plan is frought with error.
W asks Kate what she wants and she says she wants to go back to England. Things have gone from bad to worse and she just wants normalcy again.
K compares herself to Job's wife, disobedient, lacking in faith, telling her husband to curse god and die over all the calamity they've been through, etc... She might not be telling him to curse god but she IS asking him to swallow his pride which really isn't something that is going to happen anytime soon.
Katherine recounts a dream where she is about T's age, she was with Jesus and was “so ravaged with His love towards me, I thought it far exceeding the affection of the kindest husband.”
She then says, “And since Samuel disappeared I have such a sad weakness of faith, I cannot shake it. I cannot see Christ's help as near. I pray and I pray, but I cannot. I fear I cannot ever feel that same measure of love again.”
W tells her she will feel it in Heaven. How convenient!
Katherine is having a crisis of faith – the most rational thing about this character, but it's that more than anything that really drives her crazy (resentment when you figure certain things out). She was unhappy before. Now, she's just pissed. And she's starting to understand just how absent God is in all of this.
More pagan goat worship from Mercy...
“Black Phillip is a merry, merry king
He rules the land with mirth
Black Phillip has a mighty, mighty sting
He'll knock thee to the Earth
Sing bah, bah, King Phillip, the black
Sing bah, bah, bah, bah, bah
Sing bah, bah, King Phillip, the black
He'll knock thee on thy back!
Caleb awakens screaming, suddenly remembering what was done to him. It is implied that the witch did things to subdue him and possibly raped him.
“She's upon me! She kneels! My bowels! My stomach! She pinches! Sin! Sin! Sin!!”
He vomits up a whole apple with a single bite taken out of it.
Katherine says that Caleb is “witched.”
Mercy accuses Thomasin in front of her parents with vivid details
William makes T make a confession of faith and then declares that he raised up no witch in his house.
“Let us pray and we shall fear nothing...”
The kids forget the words to their prayers
They start writhing on the floor yelling “stop it Thomasin” - spectral evidence, anyone?
Caleb breaks in with more delirious rantings. “It's her! A cat, a crow, a raven, a great black dog, a wolf. She desires of my blood! She sends her devils!”
T, W, and K join hands and start quoting Psalm 23 as a means of exorcising Caleb. He seems to come to and joins in at “for thou art with me.” Thinking they've delivered him, they stop praying, but it's not over yet...
Then comes Caleb's death prayer...
“Kiss me with the kisses of thy mouth... my lord, my love, my soul's salvation” - interesting how Caleb starts quoting the Song of Solomon, one of the lustiest books in the Bible.
Delirious laughter that almost looks and sounds orgasmic. With a sated grin, then a dark emptiness across his face, Caleb, free of the clutches of his captor, abruptly dies.
K becomes convinced that T is a witch.
W tries to console T and reminisces with her about better days at the homestead.
W is now also convinced that T is a witch but he still loves her. He urges her to break her deal with the devil and tells her that there is safety in Christ. “As I love thee, speak truth...” Basically he's saying “I want to help you but I can't until you tell the truth and admit what you've done.”
Thomasin comes back with, “you want the truth? All right...”
You were going to send me away. I heard. You let my mother think I took her cup.
She calls her father a shitty farmer (in puritan english terms) and basically calls him useless. “Thou canst do nothing save cut wood.”
T calls her father a hypocrite over his lies, half-truths, and deceptions and slaps him with a “how's THAT for the truth?”
W then calls his daughter a bitch. Things are not looking good here at all...
T asks dad why he seems so unfazed by the way the twins seem to speak and consort with BP.
“The adversary comes in the shape of a he goat and whispers. He is Lucifer. Twas [the twins] and that goat what bewitched this whole farm!” She then implicates Mercy by recounting Mercy's rantings at the brook about being the witch. She accuses the twins of making compact with the devil through Black Phillip; an “unholy bond.” W buys it.
W brings T before K who wants her out of the house but W, now convinced that it's Mercy who was responsible for all of this begs K to listen. He swears that T isn't a witch and T again recounts her theory about the twins and BP to her mother. W is clearly losing it and is vacillating between wanting to believe that T is innocent and his growing fear that it's too late and that the devil has a foothold over the family.
W calls T a “creature” and threatens to kill the children as he is now convinced that all of them are witches. He says he'll sacrifice Jonas like Abraham did Isaac (but that didn't happen, remember??). He basically puts his kids in prison by boarding them up in a corner of the barn and telling them that in the morning he will set them loose and they will start back to the plantation to seek help. He then tells them to think on their sins. T begs to not be locked in with BP.
http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/?group.num=all (go down to “children” heading then click on 'full essay) It was easy to convince children of their inherent wickedness and to also coax confessions from them. An important point to bear in mind in examining the witchcraft cases of young children is that the notion of a child as a witch did not contradict Puritan belief. Particularly in the unusual case of Salem, witches and children alike were seen as easily influenced and potential or existing conduits for the devil. ...Puritan children were also often viewed as religiously precocious by the adults around them. Children were surrounded by deep and pervasive religious belief from the time of their births. For this reason, adults assumed a fairly high level of theological understanding in children at a very young age. ...In fact, Puritan practice may have made children more likely than adults in some ways to actually believe that they were witches. The historian Judith Graham notes that "Puritan girls and boys grew up in a culture that relentlessly required them to confront their sinfulness, and to contemplate the possibility of being separated from the regenerate and condemned to the palpable horrors of hell."
[This is the bondage that keeps people coming back to the altar over and over again – they're boarded up in their corners and need Jesus to set them free. Again.]
T asks the twins if they are witches. They ask her and they're all satisfied that none of them are. She then asks if Black Phillip really speaks to them. No answer.
W and K bury Caleb. K crawls into the grave for one last embrace with her dead son's body. William then chops more cordwood. You know, for the homestead they're leaving in the morning. Then he rays this:
“This is my fault... I confess it. I am infected with the filth of pride... Dispose of me all thou wilt. Lord redeem my children. They cannot tame their natural evil.” Even in beseeching God to save his children his mind is so addled by his baseless beliefs, the thought suddenly turns away from how he fucked up to... basically how god fucked up and gave them original sin.
More self-deprication - a coward, an enemy of god, etc... all trying to placate to this deity who is apparently watching all this but somehow doesn't want to get involved.
“I beg thee... save my children!”
T is watching all of this but W doesn't know.
K awakens to a delirious vision of Caleb holding Sam. She thinks they've both returned and wants to tell W. Caleb tells her to let him sleep. Caleb assures his mother that they will be with her often and references a book he wants her to look at. K is more concerned with nursing a hungry Samuel. It is actually a raven that pecks at her breast, leaving her bloody in the morning.
W leaves the house in the morning and looks at something in the yard. He seems afraid. The children are no longer boarded up. The twins are gone. The livestock are all dead and T is lying unconscious or deep asleep. When she wakes, Black Phillip attacks a distracted W impaling him in the ribs with his horn.
“Corruption now art my father...”
BP strikes a second time impaling W again and burying him under the woodpile. A nice dose of irony.
T is clutching the clothes once worn by her siblings. She is disoriented and in shock from what she is witnessing.
K accuses T again. T has literally been caught red-handed but maintains it wasn't her.
“She came from the sky”
K calls T a slut and a whore and accuses her of tempting Caleb. She then accuses her of wanting to fuck her own father which escalates to accusations that T killed everyone – Samuel, Caleb, the twins, her father...
K drags T to the ground and calls her a witch. T grabs a knife and slashes her mother to get her to yield, but K attempts to strangle T and T kills her with the knife.
With that T is... “alone.” She looks out into the woods with foreboding.
...but not really.
She lays there exhausted for a long minute with her mother's dead body on top of her. Eventually she gets up goes inside, undresses down to her shift and slumps over a table. When she wakes up, it's dark. She lights a lantern and heads to the barn and asks Black Phillip to speak to her. “I conjure thee to speak to me...”
And well... he answers. The twins weren't lying.
“What doest thou want?”
“What canst thou give?”
“Wouldst though like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
“Wouldst thou like to see the world?”
“What will you from me?”
“Doest thou see the book before thee? Remove thy shift.”
“I cannot write my name.”
“I will guide thy hand!”
So by all accounts, she signed the book and then it's into the woods. Naked and with BP guiding her onward, Thomasin then happens upon a particularly sinister and VERY puritan picture of a witch's circle. They're loud and aggressive and wild, almost feral and stark naked like her. T then feels the same kind of orgasmic elation that we saw in Caleb but this is different... she rises off the ground and flies high in the air, then... silence. That's where it ends.
Ironically, the scariest part of this move comes after the end credits start to roll. After Robert Eggers takes his writer/director bow, we see this:
“This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales, and written accounts of historical witchcraft including journals, diaries, and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.”
This wasn't a true story. It was an amalgam of A LOT OF TRUE STORIES. That, to me, is terrifying.
I have to wonder why Salem was the only mass witch hysteria that broke out given the fact that they had so much to draw from and that this whole story was an amalgamation of a lot of stories all meshed together.
So what happened? Did a witch terrorize the family or did the entire family go full Jack Torrence in isolation or succumb to ergot poisoning? I think the answer here is clear: In their world, the witch was real. Think of it like a puritan. They believed this shit with every fiber of their being. It wasnt an hallucination or metaphor for anything. An actual witch took the baby. An actual witch seduced Caleb, and so on. But that family was doomed long before that baby disappeared, with or without witches thrown into the mix.
The Witch and the Seven Deadly Sins
So as I watched this movie through for what I believe was the fifth time, something jumped out at me about the seven deadly sins. I'll start by acknowledging that the SDS is a Catholic concept and 17th century puritans had no real love for the Catholic church... but I can't get away from just how eloquently this movie frames them in its characters. I'm also not the only one who notices it. A quick google search reveals a number of fan theories that revolve around this.
Multiple witches trying to clear the way for Thomasin? - Caleb names five animals as “her devils” but could they have been the witches T sees dancing and chanting at the end? I looked closely and I'm pretty sure I counted five. So if there are five witches plus T, why call it “The Witch” and not “The Witches?” I think it could be for a couple reasons. It could reference the witch who stole Samuel and seduced Caleb (and probably took the twins) or it could be referring to Thomasin. The difference between the first time we see her and the last time we see her is profound to say the least.
[Promo next week and next Unbound at the Movies]
I don't think that Robert Eggers was trying to convey a moral here. There is no religious message. In fact, I don't thing there's a platform of any kind being established here beyond showing just how much hysteria there really was over this stuff and that it started before and extended far further from Salem than people realize. The movie isn't even trying to tout the dangers of religious extremism, really. All it seems to be saying here is that if you act like an asshole people won't like you and bad things are likely to come your way. That's life 101 as far as I'm concerned.
Everything that happens to the family after they leave the plantation is happenstance with a possibly purposeful targeting of T as the next member of the coven. If they hadn't made their “farm” where they did I doubt T would have ever been a blip on BP's radar. The Witch is a story, designed to entertain so I won't even make any more detailed evangelical connections (even though there are a few parts here that would take to it – evangelicalism is rather puritanical).
The fact that it's all based on true events brings me right back to the same thoughts I had when we did our episode on Salem last year: we've had three hundred years to curb religious extremism and develop a much better, more sane secular society, but as humans we learn slowly. And our refusal to learn has consequences. In the modern world, we don't press people between rocks or hang dogs who give us the evil eye anymore, but we do let things like the satanic panic happen. We do let shyster exorcists fleece the weak-minded and perpetuate mental illness. And some of us have, in our pasts, rubbed people the wrong way and even alienated them by being legalistic assholes.
If I had to come up with a moral here it would be this: you have a lot to lose when you start loving your religion more than your own family, your own intellect, and yourself. That was William. He happily walked away from a thriving community to chop cordwood while his family starved in the name of the “true gospel.” Kind of like ditching the idea of law school for Bible college, but I digress...
As for Thomasin, she just wanted the same things we all do: to have the things she needed, a few creature comforts, and a little personal freedom. These are the things Black Phillip promised her and which Christianity has always framed as “bad.” Did she have to become a murderous harpy stealing babies to make flying ointment in order to have those things? I don't know – all I saw was her getting legit high and ascending to the treetops in the throes of ecstasy at the end. Who knows what she signed off on in that book...
That brings me to my last observation: No matter the context – religious, secular, whatever – being closed-minded and unteachable never yields good results. I have to wonder what would have happened to this family if William had simply taken a step back, considered other points of view, learned a thing or two, and either changed his thinking or just got comfortable with the notion of agreeing to disagree.
I was pretty big into what I believed, too. The difference, though, was that I was always willing to see other points of view. I knew there were things about what I was being taught to believe that were wrong, and I was, and am, always willing to listen to other points of view. That's not to say I wasn't a seething legalist but I was a legalist who would at least listen to somone else's viewpoint. William had no counter-apologetic beyond, “you're wrong, I'm right, and that's it.” It's time to learn better.
The things this family went through and succumbed to were clearly inflated and unrealistic but the concepts they represent – isolation, fear, loss, inner conflict, and more – are very real in terms of the consequences tied to narrow thinking and religious dogma. We don't need to live deliciously, just practically. And that means accepting that not everyone is going to think like us, but also being satisfied that we don't have to think like them.
Thomasin went from being controlled by one religion to being controlled by another. I would have liked to have seen her a year later and been able to gauge for myself whether or not she got what she bargained for because living in the woods and hunting babies doesn't sound all that delicious to me. Did BP deliver on his promises or did he simply collect and ensnare T for his own purposes? The way I see it, that's the point of every religion and it's why we need to strive to be a little less like everyone in this story and a little more committed to concepts like free thought, skepticism, and truth. Because those are the things that lead to getting and staying unbound.