On "The Witch," Great Cinematic Writing and The Tenets of Horror

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

The Witch, A24's new release about a teenage girl in Puritan-era New England whose family begins to suspect she's an evil witch, has proven to be one of the most controversial horror films in recent memory, not so much because it is shocking or taboo (though at times it is both), but because a debate has sparked around whether or not the film is "scary." Slate writer Katy Waldman provides a slew of evidence to this in her article "Critics Love the Horror Film The Witch. Why Don't Viewers Think It's Scary?", but all you really have to do is spend some time on Facebook and Twitter, scrolling through all the hate currently getting thrown at this movie. Or, take a look at this review from Moviepilot by "Stan the Movie Man":

Despite all that's right with the movie, 'The Witch' still fails to do what any good horror film should and that's scare the audience. While I enjoyed the history lesson, the efforts of the actors, the production design, the soundtrack and the film as a whole, it has no scares. It effectively builds tension with discordant music and sudden blackouts but never delivers the kind of scare today's modern horror audience craves. While there are moments when seeing a shadowy figure standing in the woods as a character walks by oblivious seemed appropriate or even necessary, none of these moments or any other Horror Movie 101 events occur.

Mr. The Movie Man goes on to lament that "much of the more gory violence occurs in shadow and is suggested rather than shown" and that much of the horror in The Witch is psychological. That a horror film fails because it isn't violent enough is a faulty notion all its own, as some of the most heralded titles of the genre aren't all that gory (The Exorcist, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, Psycho, and so on). Moreover, The Movie Man's claim that no "Horror Movie 101 events occur" is one hundred percent false, as there are numerous tenets of horror writing blatantly on display. But beyond this, The Witch, from a cinematic storytelling standpoint, is nuanced and quite brilliant—an achievement that should be cause for celebration, regardless of whether or not the film is "scary." And moreover, "scary" is a subjective term, and it is much different than "terrifying," "unnerving," or even "horrifying." 

Let's dig into this matter a little deeper by first looking at some of the most recognizable aspects of horror fiction and matching those aspects to moments from The Witch.

Explorations of Fear

What separates horror from other genres? The answer, of course, is the element of fear, especially when a given narrative attempts to tap into not only the fears of its characters, but of its audience as well. Take Stephen King's definition of horror from his book Danse Macabre:

...the work of horror really is a dance—a moving, rhythmic search. And what it's looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level...

The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of...

He goes on to identify three distinctions of the genre: terror, horror (not to be confused with the name of the genre itself), and revulsion, with the first being the "finest emotion" because in stories that terrorize, "we are never allowed to see what is behind the door." This should immediately remind readers of another horror author's musings on the subject, H.P. Lovecraft's "Supernatural Horror in Literature," in which he states,

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

So, if we're aiming to prove that The Witch is indeed a horror film (as opposed to any other genre), and if we're defining horror as a genre primarily concerned with fear, then how does this film conform to the mold? Let's turn again to Katy Waldman's excellent Slate article, as she perhaps best sums up the terrors underlining The Witch's action:

Vague terrors—sexuality, adulthood, the psychological trauma of original sin, the quiet malice of the American wilderness—only sometimes coalesce into creatures. At times they stay as insidious as mist.

But this devil is in the details. The Witch makes the mundane sinister, from the tormented shapes of the corn husks in the field to the weird glow of pewter by candlelight. Intense realism, almost closer to VR than cinema, envelops viewers in a desolate colonial winter...What's more, actors' thick accents and archaic diction—along with the reliance on lamps and torches as light sources—keep the audience perpetually uncertain about what's going on...

The Witch's commitment to unrelenting, ambient dread helps it evoke the mindspace of its Puritan characters.

This historically accurate lighting and set design also generates a tremendous amount of claustrophobia in the viewer, which further inspires a desire to run away from this cramped and monotone, almost colorless landscape. The film's writer and director Robert Eggers indeed wanted to accentuate this desire to flee in the face of discomfort. Speaking about the sound design of the film, he told Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com

Nature needed to be another character. It was a lot of work. [Sound designer] Adam Stein did an incredible job and he brought more to the table than you could imagine...Trying to make the trees alive. There's a lot of texture. Wind through the branches...It was a challenge. How do we keep nature always present and a little bit grating without it being so grating you want to leave? There's a challenge to that always—experiencing discomfort but not so much that you just don't want to be there. Although I did want psychological discomfort.

In this article, Eggers also mentions the importance of Kubrick's The Shining (which is of course a separate entity entirely from the Stephen King novel) as an influence on his film, specifically for the performances of its stars, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers:

They're awkward, stilted, over-the-top. They're strange. They're bizarre. Obviously David Lynch took that cue and ran with it. But [The Shining] is so unsettling.

These awkward, stilted performances were reportedly intentionally deployed under Kubrick's direction, and this combined with the purposefully mismatched hotel interiors and the creeping, slow-burn dread that mounts throughout the narrative generate enough dissonance in the viewer to create the kind of psychological discomfort Eggers wanted to achieve with his film. And while the actors in The Witch turn in more naturalistic performances, those "thick accents and archaic diction" that Waldman noted generate as much dissonance as the wholly odd performances of Nicholson, Duvall and Crothers.

But the terrors in this film run even deeper than this, tapping into what King calls "phobic pressure points," universal fears that "are so deeply buried and yet so vital that we may tap them like artesian wells." Indeed, while the The Witch's setting might be New England in the 1600s, many of its themes resonate with modern times, specifically "sexuality, adulthood," and "the psychological trauma of original sin" that Waldman touched upon earlier. We can add femininity to the mix, and encompass all these issues into the umbrella theme of overzealous religiousness. More to the point, the film aims to show how organized religion on both ends of the spectrum (Christianity and Satanism) are dangerous. Again, from Waldman:

Rarely have I seen rendered so powerfully the paranoia and terror of Calvinism, which holds that a small number of 'saints' are marked out for Heaven, everyone else is condemned to burn, and mortals have no way to distinguish the first group from the second. In this vision, humans are born sinners; even the elect find salvation only by the unbidden grace of God's forgiveness. The woods, the animals, and especially the women, their flowering flesh and the earthy promise of their sex, are fallen—Satanic, even...

Waldman further elucidates this point by examining the film's climax in detail. One more time, I'll warn you about the major SPOILERS that are about to occur. You have been warned.

Elder daughter Thomasin, having butchered her mother in self-defense, is the family's lone survivor. Naked and covered in blood, she seeks out the goat Black Phillip, who invites her to live—the word is stunning after 90 minutes of deprivation and atrocity—'deliciously.' And so our pure-but-luscious heroine, bereft of everything, walks into the woods until she reaches a bonfire around which monstrous female figures are writhing and shouting. They look bloody, disgusting—and yet Thomasin smiles. She begins to levitate, losing herself to orgiastic rapture...

...The Witch presents Thomasin's conversion as a victory for her: Embracing Satan allows her to escape from the physical hardship, moral hypocrisy, and gendered violence that's tortured her thus far. (Given how few people in the Calvinist universe actually belong to the divine elect, hedging your bets by becoming a cursed, uberpowerful immortal is just good sense.)

I'm not so convinced The Witch's ending is meant to be vindicating from an audience standpoint, but rather as, at best, a bittersweet closing for our protagonist Thomasin (whose name means "twin" and is the female variant of Thomas, perhaps referencing "doubting Thomas"). Because here's the thing: the supernatural elements of The Witch are presented in such a way that, upon further reflection, one wonders whether or not they were even real, or merely hallucinations spurred on by Thomasin's starving and repressed mind.

Eggers seems to affirm as much in an interview with Tasha Robinson for The Verge, and in doing so, further reveals his modern designs woven into this period narrative:

From a contemporary perspective, looking back, it's clear that in the early modern period, the evil witch [represents] men's fears and ambivalence and fantasies about female power. And in this super male-dominated society, the evil witch is also women's fears and ambivalence and fantasies and desire about their own power. It's a tragedy to read about a young girl upsetting someone, and since she didn't think she could have the kind of power to create that reaction, it has to be the devil. And thus, she thinks she's an evil witch. It's chilling.

So feminism rises to the top in the story. And while we're not living in a Puritan society—or are we?—the shadows of the past live on today.

The Witch, in this way, becomes a parable or an allegory for modern audiences, a means of, as Eggers puts it, looking "into the past to understand us today."

These collectively are those psychological horrors Stan the Movie Man and other naysayers of the film are complaining about, those aspects of the narrative that "aren't scary." And this is particularly baffling to me, because I feel there's evidence and then-some speaking to The Witch's horrifying elements. 

So what is it? Let's take a moment to explore, in more depth, why it is that so many people aren't terrified by this film by examining "the kind of scares today's modern horror audience craves," as Stan The Movie Man put it.

Fear Vs. Shock

Trace Thurman wrote a blog piece for BloodyDisgusting recently titled "What Qualifies as Scary Nowadays?", in which he muses on the topic of jump scares in modern horror cinema. Thurman writes,

Ah, the jump scare. It is probably the scare tactic most maligned by horror enthusiasts but loved by general audiences. When used in moderation, the jump scare can be a powerful way to scare the living crap [out] of viewers. Whether it be by the sudden appearance of a terrifying figure or a loud clash of musical instruments...a jump scare is a great way to get a good jolt of the audience...

...all too often movies rely on them too much, and they become cheap. 

Think about some of the most popular horror films going these days, in particular the endless Saw and Paranormal Activity movies, as well as The Conjuring and its upcoming sequel. Concerning the latter, the theater where I saw The Witch screened its trailer prior to the movie. Toward the end of the preview, a poor maligned little girl cowers in terror in her bedroom as, one by one, the multitudinous crosses adorning her wall turn upside down of their own accord. The camera pans around the room, showing this impossible phenomena in painfully slow detail; the pan ends with a deep shadow at the far right of the screen; there is stillness for several seconds, and then, BAM! creepy old ghost dude jumps out with a "I'm gonna gitcha!" growl.

 

I knew it was coming the moment the camera stopped moving. I maybe jumped a little despite this. But I also couldn't stop giggling. I'd been giggling throughout the whole sequence—and really, the whole trailer. I mean, am I really supposed to be scared of a haunted zoetrope? Of a supposedly true story from the case files of notorious charlatans Lorraine and Ed Warren? By a cheesy "eeeeeevil" crosses-turn-upside-down sequence that's basically a rip-off of the poisoned girl reveal in The Sixth Sense? No, I don't think so.

And yet...there were quite a few people in the audience murmuring excitedly once the trailer was over. A few even said, "I'm going to see that!" Notably, these people excited about The Conjuring 2 were decidedly...young. Like, WAY younger than me (and I'm only 34). And as Thurman notes, this age gap may indicate some of the negative responses The Witch has seen:

Many teenagers...do not enjoy these [atmospheric] films. Since teenagers are the primary target audience for horror films, not many atmospheric horror films get made. If they do, it is rare that they see a wide release, since studios don't want to take a risk on them. I don't mean to make generalizations about teenagers, mind you. I'm sure there are plenty of them out there who adore [atmospheric films], but they are few and far between.

The Witch's primary scare tactic is that of atmosphere. From the opening scenes (including one haunting long take of the family riding away from the plantation on their wagon, foreshadowing their eventual isolation and loneliness), atmosphere oozes out of the screen. Unfortunately, atmosphere is not exactly considered 'scary' by the majority of moviegoers. We have been conditioned to find jumps scary. This means that films that rely primarily on atmosphere are considered 'boring' and not scary.

A good point, one that echoes Stan The Movie Man's comments above. Indeed, during my screening, the youngsters in the audience were restless throughout The Witch, constantly checking their phones and murmuring to one another; one kid even fell asleep, snoring loudly for a good five minutes before his buddy deigned to wake him (and when the credits rolled, he yelled out "That sucked!"). Almost all of those under the age of thirty promptly left the theater, while those of us fogeys stayed behind and discussed the film. 

However, I believe these age differences and modern expectations only scratch the surface of the matter. Allow me to explain. As we established previously, The Witch attempts to seat the audience within the context of the characters' fear. Atmosphere, as Thurman noted—including sound and imagery, of which Eggers meticulously designed for maximum discomfort—is the primary "scare tactic" on display here (with a few jump scares thrown in for extra doses of unease). The film's period setting, furthermore, and the overbearing religiousness permeating the lives of the characters acts as a parable for the modern day, drawing parallels between the stifling belief systems of yesteryear (stifling especially to women) and those of today. I think is its perhaps these religion and feminism-fueled thematics that might be contributing to some of the ire surrounding the film.

Consider this: in a social media thread, I witnessed a woman who stated flat out that she HATED (her all-caps, not mine) The Witch. When the original comment poster, who rather enjoyed the film, pressed her as to why, she first merely said that it wasn't scary. However, upon being further pressed, she admitted that the period-accurate dialogue was hard to follow and she found two of the kids in the movie really annoying, but primarily she felt truly uncomfortable during the scene in which the Puritan family collectively prays over the writhing body of the "witched" eldest son, praying for his soul, praying he isn't damned to Hell (a very real prospect in their minds, as Waldman pointed out). 

Why did this scene distress the woman? She grew up in a stifling Christian household, and thus it reminded her of her own upbringing. 

Now, am I saying that everyone who expressed a dislike of this film had the same upbringing as this person, and as such their negative reactions were similar? No, of course not. But I share this anecdote merely to show that the film indeed had an effect on this person, that it made her uncomfortable, that it—dare I say it?—scared her, just not in the way she expected it to. Is it possible this film is striking one of those "phobic pressure points" Stephen King referred to, that it's dealing with a subject we're collectively not ready or willing to address? Not so much feminism, but religion? I mean, overzealous religious beliefs are at a fever pitch right now, with fundamentalists all over the world resorting to violence in the name of their faith. Right here in America, millions of Christian people are rallying behind a man who promises to keep them safe from terrorists of another extreme religious faction. Their fear is palpable, as it is on the other side of the idealogical sphere—the left is afraid of the right and vice versa. We're currently living in a big, boiling pot of fear, and the temperatures promise only to rise as the months go one.

Perhaps I'm stretching here. I mean, by and large, The Witch isn't generating the same level of conversation that, say, Mad Max or even Star Wars generated. Now again, this may be because people don't want to talk about it, but it could also be because horror in general is a marginalized genre, one relegated to the world of schlocky violence and cheap scares, and thus not worthy of serious discussion. Which is a shame, because Eggers's film is so nuanced and subtle in its thematic delivery, even more so than Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, a wonderful movie to be sure, but one that doesn't necessarily shy away from its subtextual meanings. Beyond the parameters of genre, The Witch is an excellently-crafted film, one worthy of the praise its received, where it's received it.

So to this I ultimately say, if it didn't scare you, so what? Fear is, ultimately, subjective, despite "phobic pressure points" and universal terrors. Maybe for some viewers the film simply isn't frightening. That's fine. But not being scary isn't enough to make The Witch a bad movie, especially given how masterful it is executed otherwise.


What are your thoughts, fellow LitReactor folk? Did you enjoy The Witch? Did you hate it? Why? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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Christopher Shultz

Column by Christopher Shultz

Christopher Shultz writes weird, dark fiction. His stories have appeared both online and in print, including most recently in Apex Magazinefreeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel. In addition to LitReactor, he has also written for Ranker.comCultured Vultures and Tor.com. At times, he dabbles in digital art and photography. Christopher lives in Oklahoma City with his fiancée Lauren and their two mostly well-behaved cats. More info at christophershultz.com.

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Comments

Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows March 4, 2016 - 9:31am

Was not a movie I enjoyed and I thought it was right up my alley. I knew it was a thinking movie and heavy on atmosphere and that's what I wanted, but whereas the trailer I thought was tightly edited and made a compelling case for quality, the actual movie itself was a huge letdown.

It wasn't scary. My daughter grabbed my arm at one point and I was slightly annoyed because it wasn't scary and I couldn't figure why she was doing it.

The acting was good. Loved the dialogue. Some pretty cinematography. It really was the story and lack of scary that came up way short. I think it was everything from the brother meeting the witch on that killed the movie. And the ending was terrible too - one or two witches were all you could easily say were involved, but suddenly here are multiple ones that came out of nowhere.

Abelardo Valdez's picture
Abelardo Valdez from Bakersfield, California is reading Don Quixote March 4, 2016 - 1:23pm

This was a fantastic movie. With time, it'll be seen as a horror classic. It had a couple of jump scares, but they seemed appropriate and not forced. Jump scares usually bore the hell out of me. If a horror movie can only be as creative as a four-year sneaking up on his grandma when it tries to scare us, then I won't bother to watch it. The Witch, however, gave me an unsettling feeling. A feeling of cosmic horror. A feeling that I've been having recently. Life is the wood and the witches are people like Donald Trump. It's a great movie. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life March 4, 2016 - 5:35pm

Best horror film in yonks. I love when horror is treated like art, and made with the same level of care.

As for it not being scary, sure, scary is subjective, but I agree with the consensus that a lot of people don't know the difference between being startled and being scared (not saying that's your case, Jason).

SPOILERS

The part that stuck with me the most was the reveal of the gummy naked witch (which I would consider a jump scare) that cut right to the quiet shot of the crow pecking at the mother's nipple. I found the juxtaposition of those two images completely unnerving. That's the feeling I want horror to give me.

cshultz81's picture
cshultz81 from Oklahoma is reading Best Horror of the Year Volume 8 March 4, 2016 - 8:43pm

Josh—Totally agree. That was my favorite moment in the entire film, exactly because it was so unnerving and just odd. My jaw fell to the floor.

Joseph Daniel Girard's picture
Joseph Daniel Girard March 5, 2016 - 12:47am

If the film had been marketed honestly, as a slow-walking meditation on the inherent entropic effects of unchecked rejection, I think audiences by and large would have at least felt they got what they came for. I was reminded of the relationship between the trailer for Beyond the Black Rainbow and that film; the trailer makes it look fast-paced, visually inventive, and mind-bendingly unique; the film is slow, hypnotically atmospheric, and risqué in its ideology. You have to consider the relationship between pitch and product, and the effect on consumers when that relationship is misleading. I suspect the motivation was to put butts in seats, as they say. But at what cost? The young don't appreciate being mislead, which The Witch the movie seemed to understand.

If one had seen the trailer for The Shining, though, they might be positively dazzled by the variety of shots, and the swiftness of the epic pacing.

Now, I work at a theatre, and I've been able to chat up a number of exiting viewers, none of whom enjoyed the film, and I made polite inquiry into why that was (I wondered if religious adherence in a viewer would heighten the chill factor). But within my admittedly transient sample size (who knows if the horrors will set in down the road), the religious and non-religious reported an even apathy to the subject matter.

So I'm left to wonder if the magic realism, which the film commits to early on, is what deflated the balloon for so many. A lot of modern, "inspired by true(ish) events" horror all sort of crescendo at the moment of mystical commitment. That is to say, the doubters and believers in the audience have to wait to the end to see if the film agrees with their worldview (and I do think both sides go in for fantastical catharsis; it's fun to examine the line between possible and impossible). The Witch nearly starts out with the impossible presented as possible, the theological climax a bit forgone, if not forgotten or accepted by film's end (unless the assertion stuck in your craw, as it did mine, somewhat). And once we have our mystical viewpoint fixed for us, the drama is largely human and interpersonal, the effects of the magic largely peripheral. And our enjoyment of that drama actually depends somewhat on our marginalization of the magic, our ability to hold separate the real and the supernatural, so that's another horror trope subdued.

The argument over whether the film is scary feels more like a debate between the marketing and the film. The Witch is a wonderful drama about witches and Puritans, either way. The more interesting question for me is: why do we feel we need it to be scary?

Crystal Carpenter Parker's picture
Crystal Carpent... March 5, 2016 - 4:34am

I took my daughter to see this movie, it sucked wasn't interesting at one point found myself fallen asleep, scary movies isn't my thing anymore since I'm older, but looking forward to watch the messiah & risen

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 6, 2016 - 5:53am

The fact that "Horror" has subsumed other possible genre terms (such as "Gothic") escapes most people. (Del Toro attempted to market Crimson Peak as a Gothic Romance rather than a Horror flick. But, under what will it be filed at the stores and streaming sites?) If we can't use more subtle genre designators, then people should be aware that blanket terms are just that and keep their expectations in check.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life March 6, 2016 - 6:05am

Also, I know it's not for everyone, but I'm a big fan of Beyond the Black Rainbow.

SshImreading's picture
SshImreading from The Book World is reading Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders March 30, 2017 - 10:52am

Loved it, but Tarkovsky is my speed.