Guest Post: Discovering Witches

Alexandra Montgomery is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies Indigenous and European boundary-setting and colonization schemes in the far northeast during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The following review contains some very mild thematic spoilers.

imagesAs both a horror nerd and an Early American historian, I have been excited about writer/direct Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch for quite some time. Excited might be a bit of an understatement: the first time I saw a poster in a theatre I shrieked, and I have been faithfully following the strangely endearing and decidedly bizarre Twitter of the film’s sometimes-antagonist goat, Black Philip, for several months. So, naturally, I was thrilled when my friend and fellow Early Americanist Lori Daggar offered to take me and Kelsey Salvesen to a press screening of the film (the film will be released officially on February 19).

Subtitled “a New-England Folktale,” the film tells the story of circa-1630 puritan family located, vaguely, in “New England.” The family is Anne Hutchinson’d to the wilderness for some indefinite theological crime committed by the patriarch, William.[1] Removed from networks of friends and kin and surrounded by the ominous late fall New England woods, things—as they generally do in horror movies—quickly unravel. The family’s crops fail, William has no success at hunting, and, worst of all, Sam—the baby of the family—mysteriously disappears into the woods while under the care of the eldest child, teenage Thomasin. In the fallout, the family turns on one another. Like the typical early modern witchcraft accusation, the plot of the movie moves from maleficium—supernaturally-effected attacks on the family such as Sam’s disappearance, blighted crops, and problems with animals—to diabolic pacts, culminating in a sequence straight out of a Hans Baldung Grien woodcut. From a horror perspective, the movie reminded me of nothing so much as a seventeenth century Shining with its themes of isolation, family breakdown, and satanic temptation (not to mention creepy twins and paternal affinity with axes). There are even some similarities in the score, with its tense violins and chaotic layered choral voices that channel 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What truly peaked my interest in the film, however—and why I’m reviewing it for The Junto and not, say, Bloody Disgusting—is Eggers’ appeals in the press materials to the historical accuracy of its setting, language, and content. In an interview with Grantland from last year, Eggers detailed the five years he spent researching the film, cribbing together the dialogue from primary sources, pouring over witch-hunting manuals, and constructing a working seventeenth-century farm. In the interview he even apologized for showing the family harvesting corn in an arguably inaccurate manner and used material culture evidence to justify his choice to have the family hail from Yorkshire rather than Essex. How could I say no to a movie like that? This insistence on the film’s accuracy also bleeds into the framing of the film itself: before the end credits a note informs the viewer of the research involved, functioning almost like a scholarly take on the found footage tradition of horror—if the Blair Witch students had gone back in time (or transferred to a history major), this might have been what they would have come up with, with “I found this tract in the archive” standing in for “I found these tapes in the woods.”

Because of Eggers’ avowed interest in the history surrounding his film and his commitment to some form of “accuracy,” going into the movie, one of the things I was most interested in was how Eggers would explain the phenomenon of witch belief and witch hunting. As anyone whose work brushes up against seventeenth-century northeast knows, the literature is vast and the explanations many, ranging from the psychological—à la John Demos’ Entertaining Satan—and gendered—explored best by Carol Karlsen’s Devil in the Shape of a Woman— to the stresses of intercultural war explored by Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare. As it happens, The Witch samples (in varying amounts) from each of these, although the latter is confined to an off-handed mention of “Indian magic.” In general, however, the movie puts the blame squarely on puritan theology itself: the film spends a great deal of time on the stress of living up to an impossible moral ideal while not knowing if one is saved, a dilemma familiar to anyone who has been within three feet of a New England diary. Witchcraft and witches emerge as a kind of reaction to this stress, both as a horrifying opposite and potential release centered on women’s bodies. Eggers, however, has recourse to a trick that historians don’t: in the movie, the witches of the puritan and early modern imaginary are horrifyingly real, a kind of very literal take on the historians’ admonishment to “take seriously” the beliefs and worldviews of past societies.

The Witch, of course, is a horror movie, not a scholarly monograph or documentary. As such, it takes liberties with its source material—although not as many as I expected—and is not interested in making a scholarly intervention so much as using history to tell a compelling story. Eggers’ witches, while broadly true to early modern folk and learned understandings of how witches acted, are a hodgepodge of those beliefs that may not have all been familiar to seventeenth-century New Englanders. All the hallmarks of English and New England witch belief are present, most notably familiars (and, in one memorable scene, their feeding), the devil’s book, and the “black man” of the Salem witch trials. But there are also trappings more generally associated with continental learned understandings of witchcraft, such as the witches’ Sabbath, night flights, potions made from the bodies of children and even shades of Carlo Ginzburg’s benandanti. Eggers’ plot also removes the story of early modern witchcraft from the village, the setting that most historians have argued is fundamental to any understanding of how witchcraft accusations occurred, and positions witch denunciations within one family rather than between neighbors.

This final point opens up the question of what historical fiction can do for the historian and for public history (something that I would love to see elaborated on in the comments). The accuracy that The Witch is striving for is not the accuracy of the professional historian, and despite pulling quotes from Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes there is much here that specialists will pick up on and may find frustrating even if they are willing to allow for a fictionalized past in which witches are real. But even though it is a fictional and non-scholarly movie in a genre not known for its teaching abilities (to say the least), I think The Witch is tremendously exciting for its ability to communicate something important about the past to a population unlikely to pick up a scholarly monograph about Early American or Early Modern history. At its best, The Witch serves to humanize puritan New Englanders while remaining true to their theology, no mean feat indeed. Additionally, precisely because it is fictional and focused on story-telling, it is able to bring the supernaturally-tinged worldview of Early Modern Europeans to life in a way that no historian ever could.

It may in fact be that The Witch in fact goes too far in the balance of history v entertainment—some of my fellow movie-goers questioned if a movie like The Witch, spoken entirely in dialect and which, it bears repeating, practically has footnotes, could have broad commercial appeal. Indeed, there were some scenes where I questioned if a viewer not so familiar with familiars would understand what was happening. But in an entertainment universe where representations of Early America range from History’s Sons of Liberty to the TV series Salem, watching a movie that took its source material so seriously and presented it so compellingly was a deeply satisfying experience, as is seeing so many of my non-academic friends get so excited about it. I look forward to hearing their reactions—and also welcome the chance to somehow sneak a horror movie onto my syllabus.


[1] The Witch combines elements of both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay in its setting—some of the theology and timeline suggest the Bay Colony, but some Native American men are specifically identified in the credits as Wampanoag and the “plantation” they are banished from is clearly meant to represent Plymouth. While this drove your humble author to distraction, it is not likely to have a similar effect on *most* viewers.

8 responses

  1. I’m definitely getting my classmates from our Salem Witch trials seminar last fall back together for this! Hoping John Godfrey (may he herd in peace) makes an appearance!

  2. While I likely won’t see this film (horror movies scare me!) I really appreciate the analysis (plus saves me from having to see it) because it’s one more indication that it’s possible to use scholarly research to relate to today’s students and help them see that the past isn’t really all that “past” in some respects. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This has been on my “to-watch” list since I saw a poster for it a month or so ago and I might just go see it in the theater now. I’ve been pondering teaching a US history through Hollywood class for a while but was struggling to find a decent new film on early America…this might be it. The Patriot wasn’t going to cut it.

  4. Thanks for an illuminating review that left me very interested in seeing this movie.
    I hope you won’t mind my pointing out what I think are errors in homophone selection: I think you meant “piqued” rather than “peaked” (your interest), “poring” rather than “pouring,” and perhaps
    cobbling instead of cribbing together the dialogue (though if it was lifted verbatim, I suppose either works.)

  5. I would also point out, for anyone who might be interested in trying to use this movie in a classroom setting, there is (as befits both early modern witches and horror films) an awful lot of violence, nudity, and generalized terror—something I might have pointed out more strongly in the review!

  6. Alexandra,
    Excellent review!
    Picking up on your discussion of fiction’s value to the historian: Eggers has provided us an invaluable example of how sacrificing “smaller truths” – minutia that historians nevertheless commit an exorbitance of time and energy to uncover – might brilliantly convey larger realities. In this case, as you address, the larger reality is seventeenth-century New Englanders’ daily struggle, constantly living on the edge of salvation or damnation in a world of wonder and terror. We could all benefit by drawing from a page in Eggers’s book.


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