Released on February 19, 2016, the modestly budgeted film of only four million dollars, The Witch went on to gross 10 times that amount, as well as critical acclaim, and has since became a modern cult classic on home video. Stephen King, the master of horror himself, said about The Witch: “[It] scared the hell out of me. And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.”
The Witch belongs to a subgenre of horror called “folk horror” that originated in the British Hammer films in the 1960s beginning with Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General (with Vincent Price), and probably the most popular, The Wicker Man (with Christopher Lee). Folk horror primarily features small communities—often augmented by staunch faith and stony dogma, as well as unflinching tradition and irrational superstition—challenged by outside, chaotic forces that are either real or imagined, with devastating results. The folk horror subgenre has all but dried up; however, films like The Witch have shown at the box office that audiences are enchanted enough for filmmakers to conjure more darkly rural tales of woe.
Though The Witch was labeled as a horror film, it’s less about shocking horror and more a film of eerie mood and unsettling terror. It’s a simple, slow-burn story with emotionally complex characters much in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby. Down to its simplest premise, The Witch, a title which later proves to have more than one meaning, is a coming-of-age tale of a teen girl budding into a woman and her awakening in a strange, new world where the ideologies of faith and dark magic clash.
Written and directed by: Robert Eggers
MITH Type: Supra-Natural Monster
MITH Cousins: Rosemary’s Baby, Pet Sematary, The Blair Witch Project, The Babadook, The Dunwich Horror, Kill List, The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Plague of the Zombies, The Virgin Spring, Cry of the Banshee, Onibaba, Wake Wood, Eyes of Fire, Kuroneko, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Shrine, Kwaidan, The Crimson Cult, Jug Face, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, The Guardian, Masque of the Red Death, The Demon, Viy, Litan, Antichrist, Night of the Demon, Nothing But the Night, A Field in England, Burn Witch Burn, The Lair of the White Worm
Opening Image: Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), along with her family, are having a sentence passed from their fellow puritans. Thomasin’s father, William (Ralph Ineson), disputes with the steadfast council that their Christian ways are not pure, that they’re false Christians. This heresy isn’t taken kindly by the staunch members of the community.
Theme Stated: Tied to the sin of pride and non-conformity, William’s sin, ironically of wanting to be more hardline and fundamental with his religious practices, gets him outed from the plantation. He accuses his community of not being fully Christian. In the end, his sin will lead his family to the monster in the wilderness waiting for them as they establish their house in the New World. The irony is (and irony in a premise is key for a great, dramatic hook) that in living a more “pure” life outside the safety of the plantation gates, William has made his family susceptible to dark forces that will prey upon them.
Set-Up: Thomasin and her family—her pregnant mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and Mercy (Elle Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), the twins, along with her father—set off on a rickety wagon into the untamed and foreboding wilderness.
The family finds a bucolic spot to set up their homestead in a clearing. They will reinvent themselves in this New World and live as God intended without sin and the hypocrisy of the plantation.
Thomasin prays for forgiveness of her sins, which includes being idle in work, disobedient of her parents, neglectful of prayer, and broken every one of the commandments in thought, as well as following the desires of her own will and not the Holy Spirit. Though she is a teen, she is already approaching womanhood in this era. A woman coming of age in a world ruled by men and judgement is threatening. Thomasin’s family, like her community, work to keep her repressed.
Catalyst: At seven minutes in, Thomasin plays a game of peek-a-boo with the newborn, Samuel. As she covers her eyes for a moment, the infant is whisked away by an unseen entity in the forest.
B Story: Half of the theme is carried by William and his pride and non-conformity. The other half is carried by the eponymous Witch (Bathsheba Garrett). In an odd way, the old Witch of the Wood becomes a kind of mentor character and helper to Thomasin for her to reach her womanly maturity. Wearing a red riding cloak, the witch steals away infant Samuel to her hovel in the forest. Then in dark ritual, the old, nude woman slays the innocent and creates a flying ointment that she uses to attain flight.
Debate: The missing Samuel tears the family apart. Katherine, the mother, is beside herself with grief. William and Caleb search for the baby, which they believe was taken by a wolf. The family’s corn harvest has gone bad. Father and son venture into the wood to hunt and set traps for game.
William reveals that he sold Katherine’s silver cup, which had belonged to her father, for the traps. Caleb asks his father is Samuel without sin. William says that Samuel was born with sin. Caleb is confused by his father’s words.
William and Caleb come upon a huge, strange, amber-eyed rabbit. The odd animal stares at them as if daring them to do something. William tries to shoot the rabbit but his musket backfires, injuring him. The strange rabbit hops off.
Back at the farmstead, Thomasin retrieves an egg from the hen house and accidentally drops it. It’s a bloody, embryonic chicken (which could be interpreted as symbolic of her own undeveloped state). The corn has gone bad, the eggs are bad, and the goats leak blood instead of milk. It’s as if there’s a hex on the farm.
The twins, Mercy and Jonas, taunt an ornery, horned goat named Black Philip, who seems to have the devil in him with his bucking, kicking, and snorting. The twins sing songs about the goat and Mercy claims that Black Philip speaks to her.
Unsuccessful from the hunt, William and Caleb return. William must wrestle the rowdy Black Philip into his pen. William falls in a pile of goat dung and Thomasin is told to scrub her father’s soiled clothes in the river.
Break into Two: As Thomasin washes her father’s clothes in the stream, she’s joined by Caleb. Her brother gathers water at the river, making sideways glances at his sister. Caleb too notices her coming-of-age as he himself is becoming a young man. This troubles Caleb as he’s mentally fighting with carnal desires and scriptures of sin of the flesh. Thomasin comforts her brother. Then one of the twins, Mercy, plays a game that she’s the Witch of the Wood and that Black Philip has told her she could do as she pleased.
However, Thomasin “admits” that she’s the Witch of the Wood and that she “stole infant Sam away to serve her devil master.” And she can make anyone else vanish too, including her bratty sister, Mercy. This scares Mercy and Jonas off, who have each been a thorn in her side all day. Caleb knows that Thomasin was joking and is her ally, but the twins, young and gullible, do not.
Fun and Games: At dinner, Katherine asks Thomasin about the missing silver cup. Thomasin tells her mother she hasn’t seen it. William doesn’t admit his guilt of stealing and selling it, instead letting Thomasin take the brunt of the blame. Thomasin’s mother mocks her, suggesting that a wolf stole the cup as it did her son.
Outside in the night, the goats are bleating and Thomasin is scolded for not bedding them down. The girl goes outside to do so. It’s then that Thomasin first sees the strange, huge, amber-eyed rabbit staring at her like it’s trying to enchant her—an encounter which will have further meaning later.
That night, Katherine and William, who believe that their children are all asleep upstairs, talk about what to do with Thomasin. They’re worried about her becoming a woman. They whisper of sending her away to live with another family, it’s almost her time. Thomasin is horrified, as is Caleb. Since the family arrived and Samuel disappeared, the family has been coming apart like a cheap garment.
At pre-dawn, Thomasin find Caleb, who awoke before anyone else in the farmhouse, saddling the workhorse, Burt, to ride back to the plantation to seek help. Thomasin tells Caleb to take her along or she’ll tell on him. Caleb refuses.
Midpoint: Thomasin and Caleb venture through the woods, Thomasin riding Burt. She laments about their time in England, how they had windows with glass and other fine furnishings, all lost when they crossed the Atlantic and set up life in this new world in North America. Caleb cannot recall any of England. Thomasin and Caleb confront the rabbit. A and B Stories cross as Thomasin and the witch (in animal familiar form) meet again. Burt the workhorse is frightened by the strange rabbit with amber eyes staring at him. Fowler the dog takes off after the rabbit and Caleb follows. Burt rears and dumps Thomasin, knocking her cold on the forest floor.
The stakes raise as something kills Fowler violently. The creepy rabbit he was chasing? Caleb follows the amber-eyed rabbit to a lonely hut in the middle of the forest. There, the boy finds an attractive woman wearing a familiar riding hood. Caleb, who has worked on suppressing his carnal desires, is drawn to the lusty woman—but it’s all a ruse to lure him in as her gnarled, old hand seizes him. The clock starts ticking as it’s only a matter of time that each member of the family will fall prey to the mysterious old woman in the wood.
Bad Guys Close In: Thomasin comes to, her father finding her. Burt the horse, Fowler the dog, and Caleb are nowhere to be found. Her father prepares to go out and look for his son. The goats are bleating again and Thomasin goes out to bed them down. There, she finds Caleb, in the rain, naked. She takes him inside.
All Is Lost: Katherine and William work to save Caleb, who seems to have a fever and is babbling incoherently. Mercy accuses Thomasin of being a witch and putting a spell on Caleb. Thomasin denies this but the seed has been planted. Katherine, already believing something is “off” with her daughter, tells Thomasin to stay away from Caleb. Mercy and Jonas also fall into a comatose state, as if some external force was controlling them.
Caleb spits out a tiny apple (perhaps symbolic of temptation) and dies. William is convinced that Thomasin, Mercy, and Jonas are all consorting with the devil. Thomasin says it’s only Mercy and Jonas, who “made covenant with The Devil in the shape of Black Phillip.”
However, William believes that all of his children are trying to fool him with devilish tricks and so he builds a jail out of the goat pen, sealing up the entrance with boards. The twins wail inside to be let out but their cries are ignored by their distraught parents. William and Katherine bury Caleb.
Dark Night of the Soul: William finally has a moment of clarity when he realizes that he’s been prideful and that his sin of pride has caused several members of the family to die, and perhaps doom them all. Thomasin watches all this from between the wooden slats of her goat pen prison.
In the night, Thomasin and the twins hear rustling outside the goat pen, then a thump on the roof as if something heavy has landed on it. Mercy then sees a naked woman suckling milk from one of the nanny goats—the witch! She screams.
At the same time, Katherine awakens to find Caleb holding Samuel and the missing silver cup. Katherine is overjoyed that her loved ones have returned to her. Samuel is hungry so she brings her infant son to her breast so he can feed. In reality, Katherine is only holding a baby blanket and a large black raven is pecking at her breast.
Break into Three: The next morning, William exits the farmhouse. He finds the goat pen partially destroyed, the nanny goats all slaughtered, the twins gone, and Thomasin lying on the ground, apparently unconscious. Convinced Black Philip is responsible, William grabs the axe to kill the large, black goat. However, the infernal goat isn’t having it and rams William with his horns, goring him.
Five-Point Finale: (escaping the castle)
1. Gathering the Team: Thomasin goes to her wounded father, but it is too late. He’s dead. She tries to comfort him, sobbing.
2. Executing The Plan: Thomasin’s mother, Katherine, attacks her and blames her daughter for everything. She accuses Thomasin of being a witch all along and taking everything that she’s cared about away (not accepting the blame as William did). “The Devil is in thee and hath had thee,” Katherine screams. “You are smeared of his sin. You reek of Evil. You have made a covenant with death!” Katherine tries to strangle Thomasin. “You bewitched thy brother, proud slut!” In a desperate struggle of self-defense, Thomasin grabs a rusty billhook and slashes her mother to death.
3. High Tower Surprise: Alone, Thomasin shuffles into the farmhouse, disrobing herself of her bloody bodice and skirt, leaving on only her bloody shift. Grabbing a blanket, she falls asleep. It’s night and she awakens, walking out to the goat pen. She commands Black Philip to speak to her has he did to Mercy and Jonas. For a long moment, there is only silence. Then—
gasp—Philip speaks in a deep, cold, calm, resonate voice, as the devil would. He asks her if she wants a pretty dress, if she wants to “live deliciously,” if she wants to see the world. Thomasin asks what Black Philip wants of her.
4. Dig, Deep Down: Black Philip asks Thomasin to remove her bloody shift and sign an ancient, massive book that now sit in front of her. Not being educated, Thomasin cannot sign her name. Black Philip, in the shadows and now in elegant human form, says he will guide her hand. Thomasin, with the Devil’s help, signs The Book, promising her soul to the lord of the underworld.
5. Execution of the New Plan: Naked, Thomasin follows Black Phillip into the night wood. There, a coven of witches, a dozen or so, also nude, celebrate and worship around a roaring fire. Thomasin joins them. One by one, the nude, cackling women rise into the air.
Final Image: Thomasin rises too, shedding away the last of her earthly burdens. She has found ecstasy in a strange new world, and despite the dark and supernatural nature of it, she embraces it, smiling, as she ascends into the night.
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