By: Ana Lucena
The 2015 film “The Witch” received a vocal backlash when it was released by netizens who claimed that it is not scary, echoing similar complaints aimed at movies like “The Babadook” and “It Follows”. These three films refuse to treat its monstrous antagonists as just sources for jump scares, a trend that is being criticized by horror fans when it is innovating the genre. This raises a question: what exactly is needed for a story to be considered horror? “The Witch” is an interesting case, as its titular witch is not a conventional antagonist by the end of the movie. The running time of the film is not dominated by the witch, taking a deeper interest in the family dynamics at play instead. And yet the last time we see the witch is horrifying and original on an intellectual level.
The plot of the witch is simple: a witch is preying on a pious 17th century family that is banished from their reservation and forced to fend for themselves. We are shown the true power of the witch at the very beginning, when the family baby is stolen under his teenage sister Thomasin. The witch is disgusting, an old naked woman who grounds the baby and uses his blood for her broom. Her appearance and evil is vital to the suspension of belief for “The Witch”, as she does not appear again until near the end.
When Thomasin’s twin siblings, who blaspheme by saying they speak with family goat Black Phillip, incessantly insist a witch stole their baby brother she loses her temper and threatens them by saying that she is said witch. This leads to her parents listening to the twins and suspecting her of selling her soul to the devil after her brother becomes bewitched and dies. Knowing that Thomasin’s family did not see the witch lead the two boys to their death fills the viewer with dread as they see the family turn to religion in a futile effort to protect themselves. The horror of seeing the witch successfully kill one of Thomasin’s siblings twice makes her pain and fear at the accusations she is the cause all the more palpable. And yet, the escalation of the family’s panic is slow. If the witch had not appeared performing witchcraft at the beginning of the film, her threat would not feel palpable and the audience may be skeptical of the evil living in the woods by considering the family’s guess that it was a wolf and not a supernatural creature that got their baby. But the pacing of the film, though it has its detractors, allows for enough character development for the ending to be horrifyingly plausible while also avoiding predictable outcomes.
Seeing Thomasin join the coven of witches in the woods after all her family members are presumably killed by the end of the film widens the scope of the film’s source of horror immensely. The religious Thomasin break away from her religion by giving into a life of sin, making her late father’s sacrifice to defend the family’s religious beliefs meaningless. But it also shows that there are many souls lost to the devil that lived near her family and could have killed her own brothers. The short time it takes for Thomasin to become one of these witches illustrates the ease with which one can give into temptation and, worse, commit such inhuman acts like the murder of children. It argues to the viewer that the worst monster you can think of can come from those closest to you, regardless of the beliefs they express.
I understand the interest of film critics in debating whether to paint Thomasin as a feminist heroine, as she is freed from her oppressive family by her own means. This is fitting as witches have long been argued to be feminist icons, with several articles published recently continuing the discussion. But I see her more as a horrifying anti-villain than heroine. Though she manages to find a way to support herself after most of her already struggling family is killed by the witches, she sacrifices her soul and goes against her beliefs to do so. The time and effort taken explain Thomasin’s circumstances may have bored some viewers, but it was well-worth it to appreciate the implications of her horrifying decision.