Guest poster Mark Mulligan is a graduate student in history at the College of William and Mary. His research interests include American religious history, the history of the British Atlantic, and colonial New England history. This post also contains some mild plot spoilers.
It appears that as an early Americanist and a horror fan, I am in good company. News of the push back of a sequel to The Ring franchise from April to October recently devastated me. Admittedly, a Halloween release will fare better at the box office, but Paramount Pictures turned my comps carrot into a prospectus carrot. But the genre offered compensation in the form of a horror film that takes place in seventeenth-century New England, where I intend to locate my dissertation. As such, I am delighted that the Junto invited a conversation on the film The Witch.
As Alexandra Montgomery already provided us with a thorough synopsis and review of the film, what I wish to do in this response is engage with the lines of thinking introduced by Montgomery and add a few of my own as someone whose scholarly interests include, in addition to the history of the British Atlantic and New England, the history of religion in America. Montgomery identifies how The Witch “samples” from classic works in the canon of the historiography of witchcraft and the nuances of its discourse. Additionally, The Witch also resonates with tensions at the heart of American religious history that translate to the historical profession writ large.
The chronology of The Witch is conveniently selected. It takes place in the 1630s, roughly twenty years before the first legal prosecution of witchcraft in New England in 1647 and decades before the approaches toward witchcraft that would come to distinctly shape the 1692 crisis. To a casual viewer, it’s a prequel, a foreshadowing, of Salem. Would I be a young graduate student just shy of ABD status if I didn’t squawk “teleology!” accusingly at Eggers? The audience is presented with a static picture of witchcraft in colonial New England.
However, like Montgomery, I was impressed with the rigor of the accuracy of puritan beliefs about witchcraft, from the unsettling witch’s familiar that is causing me second-guess my plans of adopting a rabbit, to the insistence on Thomasin’s signing of the Devil’s book, to her younger siblings’ inability to recall their prayers. Additionally, the approach to lived religion in puritan New England was a faithful one (no pun intended), especially in the Calvinist questioning of the status of one’s eternal soul.
As Montgomery was, I was critical that the dynamic of community in New England witchcraft accusations was lost and replaced by an internal family dynamic that did not quite do justice to the place of fears of witchcraft within a village context in colonial New England. The family’s isolation for most of the film leads to other issues identified by Montgomery. As she points out, the audience is transported to a generic “New England,” though careful observers, I agree, will see the hints at Plymouth. Because of this, the film doesn’t significantly depart from prevailing popular stereotypes of New England history. The audience and the main characters leave the “plantation” quickly. All we see of a colonial New England community in this film is one of outrageous religious hysteria and exclusion. Uncritically, we see the New England “wilderness” as Puritans themselves would have seen it: howling and unpeopled, except for the diabolical. As I lamented to someone in my cohort who specializes in Native American history, the glimpse of two anonymous Wampanoag men from the trailer is the extent of Native representation in the film. In sum, most casual viewers’ assumptions about colonial New England history will go unchallenged. Eggers intended to drop audiences in the middle of a “Puritan nightmare,” and he did, successfully, but we did not always get a clear-eyed picture of Puritan waking life to give the nightmare meaning. But, as Montgomery points out, Eggers did not intend to produce a monograph, but a movie. To state the obvious, Eggers’ priorities as an artist are not the same as ours as scholars.
In analyzing The Witch against the major contours of the historiography of witchcraft, Montgomery points out that rather than explain New Englander’s persecution of witches, and especially the Salem crisis, through the lens of gender, psychology, or conflict with neighboring Native peoples, “the movie puts the blame squarely on puritan theology itself.” Popular commentary on the film also points to the specter of religious hysteria as the story’s true villain. And yet, curiously, the audience is also asked to accept that the fears at the root of the religious hysteria being admonished are real. We are simultaneously invited to see Thomasin as a sympathetic victim of religious zealots even as we find out that the zealots were right all along.
As stated at the beginning, I love horror, but I don’t love all horror. I prefer films that deal in the supernatural to what I label in my head as “secular” horror films. Instead of films in which the terror lies in what human beings can inflict on another, physically or psychologically, I prefer the kind that ask you to suspend some fundamental beliefs about the universe, like whether or not ghosts—or witches—exist.
I am neither a film scholar nor a theologian, but what I find intellectually stimulating about American supernatural horror films is that they lay bare the conflicting impulses of American society’s simultaneous secularity and religiosity. Evident in a trailer for The Conjuring 2 that played moments before The Witch began, an unseen force twisting crucifixes upside down still strikes fear in the hearts of American moviegoers, even as the number of Americans who describe themselves as religious continues to freefall.
As Montgomery astutely observes in her review, “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.”
I almost always call upon Salem as an example when explaining the inherent secularity of the historical profession. Explanations for Salem abound, but not a single serious historian argues that actual witchcraft (not just its practice) took place. I’m in the majority of scholars who see this as a positive thing; I’m a believer in methodological atheism, if you will. But it is equally significant to acknowledge that outside the profession, popular attitudes toward New England history, especially its history of the persecution of accused witches, are much more ambivalent.
Perhaps most Americans don’t believe the victims of the Salem crisis were truly witches, but we’re curiously drawn to entertaining the idea that they were. This ambivalence characterizes the popular portrayal of seventeenth-century puritan New England. The public dismisses its superstitions and its religious intolerance, and yet finds its worst fears compelling. We are both fascinated with and repulsed by puritan New Englanders and by America’s religious past, and it is this ambivalence that The Witch satisfies and in which it squarely fits.
 One of my favorite things about The Ring is how much time is dedicated to portraying Rachel Keller as a researcher, a pile of books in front of her at the library, pouring over microfilm, and hauling down heavy bound volumes of newspapers in apparently open stacks (the horror!).
 James Sullivan, “’The Witch’: Inside a Puritan Nightmare,” The Boston Globe, February 12, 2016, https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2016/02/11/the-witch-inside-purtian-nightmare/C6lE1DUSAaOgxGTU7vISWP/story.html. Accessed 21 February 2016.
Popping in very late to say that I agree with you 100% on research and The Ring—I’ve often said that my favorite horror trope is when people dramatically break into archives to do research, and one of my favorites is in that movie!
Thanks for continuing the conversation!
I also agree with you on Research. I am not really into the “American’ movie version of witches, unless we are talking about The Crucible. That book/movie I think embodies the paranoia and jealousy of that time. The Puritans always surprise me when I read book from that time, again such as The Scarlet Letter. The times might have been seriously different from today but our thoughts and jealousy are all the same, that is why these books are timeless. The witch factor just makes them cult classics. Great Post!!
As a lover of horror films myself, when I read the reviews on The Witch, I was anticipating a real scare fest. When it wasn’t, I tried to figure out why. What was it that didn’t connect for me on the scare level? It’s a very good film, but you touched on how little we learn about who these people are before they’re plunged into a nightmare. I think it would have helped me if I’d gotten to know them a little better within the context of their day to day life in the town. When I can’t bond with a character–identify with them, it’s difficult to put myself in their shoes. I loved reading about how this film looks from the historian’s point of view. Thanks!