Wrap Up of “The Witch”

Thank you for joining me on this adventure to discover current trends in horror movies. I really enjoyed hearing from all of you who are following along at home. You had really good, insightful answers to my discussion questions about “The Witch” (2015). I’m definitely looking forward to getting together a live Zoom chat sometime during this series as I’m sure that would make for an exciting exchange of ideas.

In pondering the title of this movie, most of you noted that where there are other witches performing devilish actions here and there in the film, we don’t see these witches enough for them to rise to the level of actual characters. Instead, most of you suggested that the eldest daughter Thomasin should be understood as the titular witch even if she doesn’t become one until the final scenes of the film. Of course, that films are so often named for their protagonists would seem to settle the case once and for all.

Our main character is of course the eldest daughter Thomasin. The inciting incident happens to her, the narrative focuses on her dramatically, and she is the character who undergoes a change at the end of the movie. These are signs that she is our protagonist.

The inciting incident is indeed the peek-a-boo scene. The camera work and editing here are stunning as we toggle back and forth from the baby on the blanket to Thomasin’s face with her hands over her eyes. Not only is the childish game of peek-a-boo very evocative but its disruption here is especially troubling. If we didn’t realize it before, we know we’re watching a horror movie now. Of course, one could write a whole critical essay about this scene alone. I won’t belabor it here, but your responses to my discussion questions demonstrated that you recognize how the film makers are playing with subjective versus objective points of view in this scene.

Overall, you seemed somewhat divided on the question of whether you choose to be a witch or whether being a witch chooses you. Certainly, Thomasin seems like very much an innocent throughout most of the movie. She prays with devotion and tries to be a good daughter and sister, but the circumstances seem stacked against her. Her adolescent playfulness combined with her maturing body and budding sexuality can only be seen as evidence of witchcraft in the claustrophobic environment of the family farm. Constantly outnumbered, she becomes a convenient scapegoat for the other characters’ moral failings.

Of course, being ostracized by a family that has already been exiled from the Puritan settlement leaves Thomasin with nowhere else to go but into the woods. At least there she can find a sisterhood willing to accept her.

Some of you said the movie reminded you a bit of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” (1953), a fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. That’s certainly a reasonable connection to make, but for me that play remains more strongly connected to its 20th-century historical moment than to the actual witch trials, especially given Miller’s persecution under McCarthyism.

So, in terms of literary allusions, I find “The Witch” the movie to have more interesting resonance with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” (1835). If they never made you read this one in high school, you should check it out. Hawthorne wrote a lot about Puritan times, partly to assuage his familial guilt. One of his ancestors was a judge in the Salem witch trials. “Young Goodman Brown” is about a devout man who ventures into the forest at night only to make a frightening discovery, but I won’t spoil it for you beyond that.

If you loved this movie as much as I did, you’ll definitely enjoy the Hawthorne story. “Young Goodman Brown” is easy to find online and takes only a half-hour to read. Here’s a little follow-up homework for you over-achievers out there, please send me your thoughts if you decide to read it.

In another week or so, I’ll plan to circle back and post my own ideas about how “The Witch” connects to Hawthorne’s story.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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