Contains plot points for The Witch, so don’t be a moron: go watch the film before you read this piece.
On Thursday a rare thing happened to me; I saw a story about a teenage girl, made by a man (Robert Eggers), which stunned me with its accuracy on the female, teenage experience. The Witch is a film about many (deeply troubling) topics, but like many horror narratives before it the film is uncompromising in it’s portrayal of a young woman caught between the ephemeral moments between girl and woman and innocence and experience. A time fraught with literal and metaphorical bloodshed where every natural bodily and existential change feels violent and cataclysmic.
Thinking back to that unhallowed terrain of our teenage years awakens a wasteland of memories all punctuated by a destructively emotional volition which unearthed hourly agonies of heartbreak, insecurity, self-loathing and humiliation. It’s a time when the body can be both a playground and a battlefield, a weapon and a shield and where your overall experience of life is heavily restricted by the fact that every aspect of your existence feels completely out of your control at a crucial turning point where you desperately crave power over it.
If for nothing else, The Witch struck an unsettling chord for reminding me of the many frantic years of that isolating teenage wilderness. There were numerous ways that teenage girls would attempt (and no doubt still attempt) to claw back some level of control over their life; self harm, eating disorders, sexual experimentation, alcohol abuse and even some amateur dabbling with “witchcraft”. But each of those expressions is hollow and futile, a failing shriek into a bottomless pit which simply absorbs the noise where you’d rather be heard.
In The Witch, our teenage protagonist Thomasin also has no control over her life and the character exists within the narrative almost as a conduit for change, surreptitiously attracting an unseen force which has singled her out for ungodly prosperity at the expense of her family. Her body, which has developed fully into that of a grown woman, is projected as a physical manifestation of sin, attracting the guilty eye of her younger brother and encouraging her parents to begin thinking of her as a vessel for trade, being of an age where she can be sold off to a villager as a fertile young bride.
Her body, though womanly, also betrays her lack of experience and her natural innocence. She fails her first ‘test’ of traditional womanly duties when she’s left to look after her baby brother and inexplicably loses him during a game of peek-a-boo, making herself instantly suspicious for doing so – an unnatural, an omen.
So starts the beginning of Thomasin’s gradual ostracizm from her family who are wracked with an understandable devastation and falling apart as a unit. She becomes the black sheep of a family whose suffering is also inexplicably linked to the black goat of their farm (oh Black Phillip, you smooth talking devil, you), and whether directly responsible for any of the tragedies which befall them, Thomasin becomes directly to blame regardless. When the oldest son of the family disappears under her care and reappears naked and feverish, babbling about the devil, Thomasin has once again failed what are considered to be naturally ‘female’ traits; the maternal instinct and the ability to care and to protect.
But these aren’t just ungodly traits by puritanical, medieval standards because even by modern day standards, a woman who rejects what many still consider to be a natural urge for procreation and an inclination for being maternal and caring is still deeply frowned down upon by mainstream society. We’re rejecting the natural order of things by doing so. We’re accepting the unnatural.
The Witch is packed with constant references to the butchery of menstruation, the bloodshed of a tainted birth and of milk curdling into gore. A still born bird foetus lies curled up and sanguine in the crescent of a smashed shell, milk runs to blood, a crow pecks at the lactating nipple of a grieving mother and the apple of Eden is bloodily birthed from the mouth of a boy whose body is being devoured by the Devil from the inside.
As the film progresses it becomes clear that Thomasin has to choose between tradition, godliness and her family or the unseen, ungodly force which keeps perpetuating bloodshed and tragedy against them. And it’s hardly much of a choice. If she chooses the path of her family, and of solidarity and commitment to God, then she faces a future of complete patriarchal control over her existence and ultimately the kind of tragedy which befalls on women who lose complete control over their lives.
But if she chooses the path of Satan? Well, it certainly sounds appealing. I mean, the guy is offering “a life of deliciousness” and basically, “the world”. It was a wedding vow so attractive that I almost whispered “I do” in the cinema (but didn’t, because d’uh, I’d rather not live with eternal nightmares of Black Phillip trying to serenade me with his dark voice and his devil dick on a nightly basis).
And in an ending which is easily one of the most disturbingly empowering and monstrously uplifting that I’ve ever seen, she brutally and happily picks Satan. Instead of resigning herself to a life of miserable servitude within a system which seeks to confine rather than liberate her, this a path of equal servitude but which offers freedom, power and ultimately, some sense of control over her life.
The ending proposes the bleakest of ideas; that a humanity in worship of God and following the dubious and often oppressive teachings of Christianity is doomed for failure, tragedy and misery – born as they are, sinners, and failed from birth. That to control a populace and to define their emotional and sexual life via a set of strict rules is to confine them to a state of emotional existence as infertile as the family farm of The Witch; where crops are rotten as soon as they’re planted and where the land is noxious and barren. There’s no hope for control over conditions like that because nothing can thrive, life can only grow into squalor and then we’re forced to simply make the best of a bad seed.
Amy Roberts (a.k.a Alabama Roxanne) is a writer, blogger and musician based in Liverpool, UK. She’s published internationally, in print and online, and has had work published with Bustle, Kinkly, The Independent Online, Hello Giggles and Queen Of The Track. She was featured on a panel of David Lynch experts at a Northern Film & Media event in early 2015, and is the bassist for crust-punk band Aüralskit. Her blog ‘I Never Knew You Were Such A Monster‘, fiction and non-fiction about the horrors of everyday life, was shortlisted in the Blog North Awards two years running. She’s interested in illustration, photography, go-go dancing and Timothy Olyphant. She is vehemently, batshit insanely, Team Catalano.