Mass Hysteria and Flying Sluts

Do you ever wish that The Shining took place in the woods, and everyone had wicked olde English accents? Do you get really turned on by arthouse horror? Are your political affiliations vaguely feminist, and not very impassioned or critical? Are your political affiliations more radical, but you’re open to compromise because if you actually had to limit yourself to consuming only radical culture you’d actually never go outside or turn on a screen or read or open your eyes and ears? Do you suffer from angina, nausea, shortness of breath when you are surrounded by large groups of people? Have you ever hallucinated an entire relationship?

*ahem*

Nevermind, advertising voice. Now is not the time.

Hi. I’m Alison. I’m a real life witch. I’m also a film nerd.

I saw the Witch. It made me feel a lot of thoughts, and I thought I felt some things. During the film I made a bunch of notes in the dark–definitely a worthwhile process, despite not even having the pen hitting the paper for half the movie. My scribbles have come in handy in developing a deeper reading of the film, invoking important questions that this essay may come to answer.

Spoiler warning: I’m gonna break down as much of the film as I can remember.

The first question, and the one that intrigues me the most, is the most obvious: Is The Witch anti-witch?

I will argue there that this film isn’t exactly anti-anything. It’s very hard to suggest that a specific reading of the film holds more validity than another. At its core, The Witch is a meticulously rendered account of 17th century Puritan anxiety. The film is steeped in the folklore of 17th century England. Bearing in mind that most surviving historical references from that time were clearly not written by witches, the source material for this film is most definitely anti-witch, and is a product of the witch hunts themselves. This does not mean that the film can only be read as being anti-witch.

There are many ways to get to the sabbat, many ways to approach the heart of this film. Vice has published a couple of articles and interviews about The Witch, hailing it as inherently feminist. I’d say that such a reading definitely holds its own, but that the film itself is not inherently feminist. Said articles are quite vague in their analysis, focusing on the relationships between the members of the family and William’s blatantly patriarchal bullshit. The man of the film is tyrannical, oppressive, and not one to invoke the sympathy of the audience. On a very surface level, this suggests an overarching feminist ideal, but not one that is necessarily radical or inherently anti-oppressive.

“I wanted this to be presented without judgment, to just tell this particular story. But it’s so blatant how feminism rises to the top. It just does. From a contemporary perspective, looking back, it’s clear that in the early modern period, the evil witch [represents] men’s fears and ambivalence and fantasies about female power. And in this super male-dominated society, the evil witch is also women’s fears and ambivalence and fantasies and desire about their own power. It’s a tragedy to read about a young girl upsetting someone, and since she didn’t think she could have the kind of power to create that reaction, it has to be the devil. And thus, she thinks she’s an evil witch. It’s chilling.”

Frankly speaking, mainstream culture has become so saturated with feminist tropes that it’s pretty easy to read a work as feminist. Audiences around the world have, at least somewhat, seemed to raise their basic standards for how female characters should be treated in films. Don’t get me wrong, culture at large is still extremely toxic, but feminism is now a part of common discourse where it was once shunned to the extreme. The Witch does have some basic feminist leanings, but that does not make it inherently feminist, nor does it make the film a space for empowering reflection or societal change.

Interviews with the director on a number of film websites touch on his “witch nightmares”, a sense of being perpetually haunted crones with evil hats. Many of these interviews ultimately speak to a sense of catharsis the director has experienced through the creation of this body of work, a kind of letting go of his witchy demons. He no longer has a sense of being troubled by these ideas of witches, though none of the interviews exactly unpack why this is the case.

One might surmise that his demons could have been transformed through a deliberate reworking of the tropes of witches: he could’ve taken the image of a blood-sucking, infant-smearing, malevolent witherwort, and have the family, or at least Thomasen (more on her later), realize that the witch is not in fact the enemy. The characters could be led to realize that witches often like plants, that flying ointment has never and will never contain infant’s blood, that Satan is more representative of the demonization of non-Christian religions through violent colonialist modalities, etc.

This doesn’t happen. At all. The witch is rendered as a shapeshifter with multiple familiars, taking on whatever form she can to invoke the deepest sense of fear in each scene: old bloody hag, seductress of young boys, whatever. At every turn the witch is rendered as dangerous and evil. There is no sense of transformation, no shift in how she is codified within a moral framework.

The witch is the Big Other here, the scapegoat for every minute of violence in the film. By the end, when Thomasen goes to join in ecstatic dance, I’m left with a sense that she will be subsumed into this magical order, one that is inherently dark and corrupt. If we are to consider the film feminist, we need to be able to consider it within the broader context of the history of the witch hunts.

From ~1450-1750, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of “witches” were burned. In many cases women were burned for being suspected of not witchcraft, but adultery, homosexuality, divergence from Christian faith (in any direction, especially so in early North America), or any number of deviant behaviors, that were instantly rendered as “witchcraft.” Point is, the images of witches upheld by European folklore are deeply rooted in misogyny, and this film does not actually challenge or transform those images. Instead, its primary focus seems to be to take the old myth of the wicked witch and modernize it, make it frightening in the context of contemporary horror culture.

So we come back to the notion of the director’s nightmares about witches, and his own personal catharsis that allegedly occurred as a result of the creation of this film. Getting to externalize his fears helped them settle and fade. This appears to be much more of a personal payoff, one that speaks to his own transformation more than the transformative potential of the film itself. Does this mean that the film is anti-witch, or more self-concerned than attuned to the liberation of women?

Well, no. There’s no evidence to suggest that the director created this film with the intent to release his demons, really. It just seemed to happen, which makes sense, as the creative process is nonsovereign, takes what one knows and projects about their life and casts it into the world, offering the work as an interaction between the artist’s intent and what the audiences read. Art changes things in the act of becoming.

I could also argue that the film is fairly radical. Thomasen’s parents are outright abusive, and as they push her farther and farther to the edge of survival with their violent bigotry, she fights back, saving herself, and is free to join the witches off in the woods and fly around partying with plant spirits. This is the reading that I was initially inclined toward, as the scene where Thomasen walks toward the fire got me really excited. Had flashbacks to witch camp and turning into a deer, being surrounded by tons of really interesting hot people. If I had to choose between being sold off in a city to a husband who was going to turn me into a baby factory, thus losing all control over my reproductive faculties and body, and living in the woods with a bunch of babes, I’d choose the woods.

But alas, that reading is a little weak, more along the lines of what I want to believe rather than what makes sense. This radical reading would be much more potent if the witch wasn’t established as a real character. I want to believe that the hag witch isn’t real, a hallucination, and that Thomasen is the only real witch in the film, or there are no real witches here, but then where the fuck did the infant actually go? Whatever.

Trying to discern the reality of the film’s events is a bit difficult, which creates a paranoid affect that the audience experiences vicariously through the characters. Again, just saying the film can easily be read as feminist does not make it feminist, especially when the director stated multiple times that he wanted to tell the tale for its own sake. For the director to say, oh, yeah, my film is actually so rad even though I didn’t try to make it rad, is more of a marketing tool than anything else, as the director tries to cover his ass and not come off like a misogynistic asshole because his film is full of tropes of hysterical women.

This leads me to want to consider the film for its historical merits, analyzing the piece for its depiction of a settler family and the anxieties therein. The Witch is meticulously rendered, based on years of historical research, so I’d like to explore what the context of this research actually suggests.

Over the course of the film, Christian settler anxiety–a paranoid reflex against nature and those who commune with it–eventually consumes the entire family. William’s woodpile grows as tension builds, and he tells his son Caleb that they will not be “conquered by the land”, positioning his will opposite Nature in some struggle for conquest. Throughout the film nature is antagonized and, with the use of the fantastically unsettling score, is ultimately personified alongside the witch as being the penultimate force of darkness. The narrowmindedness of perspective is literalized in the film’s various POV shots of characters looking through small slits in sheets, flashes of flesh contained in modest garb, or in the cracks in the walls of the barn.

The scene where the children are locked in the barn–after being suspect of communicating with the goat and thus the devil himself–is a powerful site of enclosure, the disenchantment and subsequent domination of natural forces. Their magical ability to speak to the goat is rendered as a moral impurity, one that William attempts to rehabilitate through imprisonment, confining the wildness in the children, shaping them to the order of God.

William’s patriarchal ideals represent his role as a godly figurehead, established in the opening scene, as he is banished for believing himself to be capable of speaking God’s word–superseding the rule of the Pope and the church appointed rulers of the state. During the witch hunts the male figures in the family represented an extension of papal authority. Though the family was banished to the middle of nowhere, William clearly retained his personal sense of empowerment and rule.

Mid way through the film, the confrontation about Katherine’s fathers cup paints a broader picture of the family’s social position. In this scene Thomasen and Katherine are framed by a medium-long shot, each body at opposite ends of the frame, separated by a large shadow. When William diverts his wife away from Thomasen, confessing that he sold her father’s cup, he is at once establishing his connection to the capitalist economy, and establishing his daughter’s innocence. In effect, the ties that bind Katherine to her ancestors are broken by this transaction. This is a solid example of the ways that capitalism and colonial powers can destroy one’s ties to their ancestral lineage. The violence of this example, however, is extremely tame compared to the genocide of Indigenous peoples, or the destruction of plant-based knowledge and magic. Anyway, I do not wish to compare the effects of such violence here, only to draw a simple correlation.

One of the main tools of the capitalist class during its inception was to force peasants to internalize a sense of guilt and shame so that they could either join the violence and become capitalists themselves (“selling out”), or take their frustrations out on the ones they love, effectively keeping them from resisting structural oppression, despite whatever their best intentions may be. This is a fundamental mode of operating within colonial logic, and still manifests daily in the interactions of marginalized peoples across the world.

Contextually speaking, the witch hunts had women bear the brunt of this sense of oppression, and William ultimately acts as a tool of the state. The tragedy here is that his condition is not hopeless the entire film; we are instead forced to watch him lose his mind, chopping one log at a time, praying, eventually blaming himself for the horrors that befall the family.

The children get sick and “possessed” but the family is starving, there’s ergot all over the harvest, and they’re living in conditions that aren’t suitable for survival. The conditions of their suffering are not at the hands of the witch, but the state that sent them to live in isolation from all the resources and comforts of city life. Here, Katherine’s longing to return to the city acts as a moment of clarity. As the family cannot return to the comforts of civilization, their Puritan worldview, the view of the settler, is rendered void by the chaotic snarls of forest branches and vast quiet of night.

Because the state effectively cut off their means of subsistence, banishing them to a farm where it’s next to impossible to actually grow food, their witchy anxieties are all sorely misplaced, which is frankly the most terrifying aspect of the film. I could argue that the witch could merely have been trying to defend her homestead from her neighbors that hate her and everyone like her… And that she just acted out of self defense… Because they probably would have tried to shoot her if they found her…

Yeah, I’ll go with that.

I’d really like to pretend that the film’s focus on historical accuracy allows for a reading of it as being rather benign, but the fact that the witch is yet again the source of all evil in the movie is pretty unsettling. I’d be curious to see what a modern account of contemporary witchcraft would actually look like in a film. The way Robert Eggers stylistically revamps the trope of the evil witch is interesting, and handled with great attention to detail. He has stated that he has little interest in telling stories that take place in the present day, which would typically make it less relevant to discuss the ramifications of portraying witches as evil, noting that this story is intentionally contained within its historical setting. But the fact is that it’s a historical film being screened in present day, and once again, witches are not actually given any credit or voice here.

I suppose we’re only as real as the director’s nightmares.

Whatever. Solid 8/10, with a side of compromised integrity.

***

Some of my referenced material:

http://sarahannelawless.com/2011/09/10/on-flying-ointments/

http://filmmakermagazine.com/people/robert-eggers/

http://www.theverge.com/2016/2/19/11059130/the-witch-director-robert-eggers-interview

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