(Also: The Witch – Joe’s Review)
by Kim Niccolini
If you plan on heading to the movies to check out Robert Eggers’ The Witch, you better hurry. It most likely will vanish before even having a chance to get stoned to death by the general public. Most people have flocked to the film expecting a standard Hollywood shocker horror film. Sure, it could be a crap movie, but at least it would provide screams and squirms and squirts of blood and guts.
Audiences have been gravely disappointed and confused by what they have found in The Witch. Sure, it’s a horror film, but it’s about the horror that is American Christian culture and the disease it has inflicted on social and sexual culture since the moment the first Puritan bible hit the New World. The film is a moody, minimalist parable for the sickness of American conservative Christianity and the horror of its vile intolerance. Rather than finding cheesy creepy shlock shock, most audiences have left the theater surprised, disappointed, and more than a little disturbed. Set in the 1630s and chronicling a Puritan family living in exile, the film is a dismal, dark, stark and disturbing reminder of the original Christian sin that gave way to the rape of the American land, Christian-sanctified genocide, the oppression of women, and the repression of sexuality that has never left the dark core of American socio-politics.
“Forgive me Lord for I have trespassed” is certainly a biblical phrase that most people are familiar with. And trespass is exactly what those Puritan bible thumpers did. They trespassed in the name of God. They trespassed on land that was not theirs. They trespassed on human rights. They trespassed on women and children. They trespassed on the natives that occupied the land they stole. And they trespassed on themselves, promoting a culture of self-loathing, sexual repression, and a dogma under which it is impossible to be right and thereby gives license to wrong so many.
That is the religious landscape that is portrayed in this colorless, bleak and dismal film. It is a tale stripped to bare bones insanity. Those Puritans were run by a bunch of insane patriarchs like Jonathan Edwards and who scared people into submission with such tirades as his infamous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards and his crew of patriarchs thumped their Bibles and ruled with fear. They set the stage that would infect American culture with a dominant ideology which propagates feverish paranoia, xenophobia, sexual repression, misogyny, and intolerance all bred from a culture of Self Hatred, and this dogma rings as true today as it did back in the 1600s during which this film was set. To quote John Trudell on Christianity’s dogma of self-hatred: “If you don’t love yourself, what the fuck good are you going to do for the rest of the world?” The answer is simple. None. Instead Americans have turned their self-hatred into an Imperialist regime of murder, racism, and sexism. Spreading Democracy in the name of God one bomb and bullet at a time. Or back in the days of the witch trials, one stone at a time.
Tales of witches are not unfamiliar terrain in mass media. Whether in horror films, comedies, dramas or action films, witch trials and those whacky Puritans have been ripe fodder for entertainment. However, they usually come with a commercial veneer that allows Americans to escape reality and distance themselves from what they are seeing on the screen. Franchises from Stephen King to Scooby Doo have delivered colorful, animated, scary and easily digestible tales of witchery. But these tales keep the audience safely at a distance through the veneer of artifice, and the audience is unable to make the connection between witches being stoned in a movie and the real-life Christian whackos thumping their Bibles and preaching intolerance in their 21st century Super Churches. Few of today’s ignorant Scripture Swingers have any connection to where the cult of hate they subscribe to came from. It came from those damn Puritans, and that shit still haunts the American landscape. America is a horror story, and The Witch reminds us of the mind-fucking origins that gave so many men license to stone women, abuse children, kill “savages” and rape the landscape.
The movie is visually austere just like the insane religion that brought the Puritans to the New World and denounced materiality (especially of the flesh) as the spawn of Satan. The film is dark, composed mostly in browns and grays. A gray haze hangs over the entire film making it hard to see and mirroring the blindness of the religion portrayed in the film. It completely lacks color (except for blood which appears as a reminder of the dirty sin and evil temptation of female sexuality). The film’s monotone palette refuses to partake in the glitz and glimmer of a digestible Hollywood consumer product. The film is as oppressive and claustrophobic as the religion that corrupted its characters. Most white Christian Americans have a five-minute attention span. They have no sense of history or their connection to their country’s hateful and intolerant origins. So this movie makes a lot of audiences uncomfortable and confused. It makes them squeamish, but not in the traditional sense of horror films. Rather, it digs deep into their genealogical history and reminds them that somewhere deep inside their ignorant Christian asses, they are connected to the horror quietly shown in this movie. They are the ancestors of hate and intolerance.
In many ways The Witch is one of the most politically relevant movies playing in the multiplex today. It shows the origins of Right Wing Christian Conservative Dogma, and it shows that sexual repression lies at the heart of so many of America’s egregious crimes of hatred – against other humans and against nature itself. Puritan and subsequently Right Wing Dogma use reactionary readings of the Bible to portray a world populated by sinful heathens who deserve all kinds of cruel punishment. Say lynching, choke-holding or shooting in the back, along with stoning and drowning. It also uses the Bible in attempts to legislate sexuality. By attempting to control, outlaw and demonize sex, it has created a lot of sexually repressed monsters who turn their self-hatred into hatred of others. The majority of anti-gay legislation has been initiated by closeted gay congressman because they feel compelled to turn their self-loathing into legislation that criminalizes sexual freedom. Then there is the constant political battle over control over the female sexual body. These battles and sick ideology started the minute those insane Puritans turned all humankind into a sin-corrupted species lapping at the groin of the Devil. Front and center is the female body. The minute she starts bleeding, she becomes a witch chasing the Devil. So when the government tries to control her reproductive system, they are just descendants of those original American sinners – the Puritans.
And this movie tells that story by uncomfortably chronicling the origins of a sexually paranoid culture that turns its paranoia into violence, and that story confuses a lot of people. They don’t like to see that their history is monstrous and that witches were “created” by the Puritans as a means to label women as heathens for doing anything from giving birth to looking the wrong way to making herb tea, and for being sexual beings. What a crime! What a sin! The movie couples Witch History with a coming of age story, and in doing so shows how coming of age in the Land of Religious Conservatives is corrupted by sexual repression.
The central character is the girl Thomasin. Her name literally means “she knows”, and female knowledge is definitely a crime in dominant American Patriarchal Christianity. But females aren’t the only ones corrupted and penalized by this ideology. The movie is also about the coming of age of Thomasin’s brother Caleb. The fact that the movie is about both boys and girls, and men and women (then parents also are completely fucked up) makes the movie even more horrific by showing entire sick and monstrous construct of the Christian family.
The movie shows how healthy sexuality is pert near impossible in American culture – for males and females – because it is suppressed, controlled and demonized by that stupid ass notion of original sin that conservative Christians like to beat over everyone’s heads, especially when the message lends itself to maintaining patriarchal power. You know, Eve ate that damn apple, and it’s all her fault, and now we are all a bunch of sex crazed maniacs chasing the serpent of debauchery. The film subtly reminds us of that apple. Caleb is obsessed with his sister’s breasts and conjectures a phantom apple hunt in one scene to protect his sister (and her breasts). In another, the boy actually coughs up an apple after he has crossed the sexual threshold (literally and metaphorically). How can anyone possibly eat apple pie on Thanksgiving again after watching this movie? The whole apple thing underscores the portrayal of a diseased Christian culture where sexuality is relegated to demons (and black goats).
Though supposedly hidden and only referenced in procreation in Puritan religion, sex is uncomfortably everywhere in the film. The movie is fleshy even while being monotone, reminding us that the more sex is repressed, the more it surfaces in unhealthy ways. Subtle scenes are crafted to make the audience squeamish and trigger all those deeply ingrained feelings of shame and repression. In one cringe-worthy scene, Thomasin is required to undress her father. Her young fingers unbutton his sweat-soaked shirt and reveal his aging dirty flesh against her clean nubile fingers. In another, the mother laughs hysterically as a raven pecks at her breast. In an early scene when the mother is nursing baby Samuel, it is filmed to make the audience feel like uncomfortable voyeurs so that even the natural act of nursing a baby feels shameful. Anything that includes breasts should be banned! Young Caleb can’t stop gazing at the budding swell of Thomasin’s breasts, and his obsession with his sister’s sexualized body leads him to swallow that motherfucking apple and his own doom in the process. When we do get a glimpse at the actual “witch” and subsequently the coven to which she belongs, their breasts play front and center. Evil tits dangling and swaying in cahoots with the Devil!
The movie starts with the arrogant father speaking his mind to the town governance. This gets him and his whole family banished. They set up house in an isolated area surrounded by foreboding woods. We all know what woods mean to Puritans. They house the Devil and savages, and both the woods and the savages should be avoided and/or killed. The woods certainly reference the Puritanical haunts of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but the woods in this movie also precede Hawthorne. They are the woods from which Hawthorne sprouted. These woods lack the gothic density and mystery of Hawthorne’s tales. Instead, these woods are thick yet bare, choking yet naked, sort of like the characters. They are not Romantic woods. They are simply a stretch of trees that is neither bathed in moonlight nor sunlight but just exist in a gray suffocating dullness. These are the woods that clutter the insane mind of obsessive Christians and cause them to commit heinous crimes against humanity and nature. This is the nature that those Christians see as a threat because they need to externalize the horrors they feel inside themselves. Let’s clear-cut forests and do God a favor!
These are also the woods where the newborn baby Samuel vanishes under Thomasin’s care, where Caleb swallows the apple, and where Thomasin eventually finds transcendence by giving herself over to them. Wood is what the father chops furiously as if he can control it. He can’t. In fact, the father has no control. Biblical sermonizing gives a false sense of control. The dad can recite prayers until the cows come home (because he does believe the cows will come home), but the man is a complete hypocrite and inept asshole (not unlike most American Christian patriarchs). He spouts his gospel while lying through his teeth and setting his own daughter up to save his own ass because, well, girls are disposable and meddling with the devil anyway. Let them take the fall.
In an early scene, the family’s youngest member, the newborn baby boy Samuel, vanishes while in the care of Thomasin. In a highly uncomfortable scene, the naked baby is stroked by the wrinkled hand of a crone (presumably the witch), and the camera cuts right before the witch grabs the boys genitals. Certainly a mainstream Hollywood movie would not show such a thing! In this scene, we see the corruption of sexuality from the moment of birth in a Puritan social order. If nothing else, the Puritans were great with symbols at showing the foul state of humankind. Check out Edward Taylor’s poem “The Wrong Way Home.” And regarding the indoctrination of paranoia and shame, read through the Puritan primer which was used to drill fear into children and promote corporal punishment for those (namely women and children) who did not abide by the terms of an Angry God.
If you want to take the movie literally, you may be bored to death with The Witch. Yawn, trees. Yawn, family in crisis. Yawn, black goat devil. Yawn, spooky witch with hanging breasts. But if you take the movie symbolically, the movie is kind of a primer on what fucked America up in the first place: delusional Christian assholes stealing the land and then using their obsessive and insane religion to create a dogma of hate and intolerance.
In an early scene, Thomasin actually begs God to let her feel more shame. She feels amiss because she needs to feel more shame. Certainly America’s entire fucked up political, economic and social system is based on shame. Shame makes people do things they otherwise would not do. Shame makes people work harder for less (great for Capitalism), turns them into haters so they can externalize their self-hatred on Others (the brown, the female, the poor), drives violence of all variety, and is poisonous to the mind and body. This film echoes and rumbles with the horror of shaming that is so deeply ingrained in American social order. The dark oppressive environment closes in on Thomasin as she is further and further shamed and blamed by her family. They guilt her for everything. Why? Well, she’s growing breasts of course! Breasts should be carved into Mount Rushmore as the founding faces of American Dogma!
This may sound glib, but the movie is not glib. This movie is a reality check about how America became such an ugly place. The entire Christian family is a horror story that turns its own children to monsters; propagates paranoia, shame and hatred; and is representative of the corrupt concept of the Christian nuclear family. What a load of horseshit. The entire family spews Christian garbage at every turn, yet everyone acts horribly and treats each other badly. But mostly they treat Thomasin badly, because she is the girl. The Witch. The sexualized woman who must be fucking the Devil and therefore must be treated worse than everyone else.
Boys are not immune to problematic sexuality. As mentioned earlier, Caleb is so torn between his Biblical indoctrination and his urge to mate that he ends up lusting after his own sister because he has nowhere to place his sexuality except in the claustrophobic confines of his family (a “symbol” of the claustrophobic closed circuit of Puritan ideology). Everyone in this movie is a sinner, and everyone pays for their sins. This can be read two ways: 1) No one is innocent and everyone is guilty in a religious system that breeds extreme intolerance; 2) This family in this film is representative of the Original Sinners who raped and pillaged the American landscape and committed human and ecologic atrocities in the name of God, all of whom are guilty.
Throughout its history, America has used religion and its insane puritanical dogma as an excuse to murder, desecrate, humiliate, abuse, and pillage. It breeds fear and paranoia, and those ingredients create a culture where people are easily controlled while also being easily incited to hate and act abominably on their hate. The Witch reminds us of the origin of the American culture of hate. It is an ugly and uncomfortable film, and that is why it is better than the other candy coated crap currently playing at the multiplex. Nothing like getting stoned by a good dose of ugly for a reality check.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Starswhich will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.