© 2020, by M. Keith Booker and Elisabete Lopes
The subject of witchcraft has a long and troubled history in the United States, so perhaps it is not surprising that films about witchcraft can serve as important commentaries on the historical process itself. Taken together, Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016) bookend the long, slow process of capitalist modernization that transformed the U.S. from the dark and mysterious wilderness encountered by its early European colonists to the hyper-civilized postmodern superpower of today. In particular, Eggers’ film—filled with meticulously accurate period detail—presents us with a grim, pre-modern world in which the supernatural is a real and palpable presence, while Biller’s film presents us with a bright-and-shiny postmodern world bereft of any real magic, except for the magic of images. The very different figurations of witchcraft in the two films then serve as a focal point that highlights the dramatic historical movement from 1630s New England to modern-day California, while at the same time suggesting that certain fundamental patriarchal attitudes have managed to survive this historical storm virtually intact.
The Witch, Eggers’ impressive feature-film debut, shows an intense awareness of the historical legacy of witchcraft in America—and especially of the Puritanical notion of witches as minions of Satan, the notion that drove the Salem Witch Trials. Those trials and the ideology behind them are, of course, well-known elements of American cultural history, and the baleful legacy of the notorious Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693 hangs over the film like a dense fog. In his review of the film, for example, David Fear describes The Witch (meaning it as a compliment) as having seemingly been constructed of spare parts stripped from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s well-known 1835 story “Young Goodman Brown,” set in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. And, of course, events surrounding the witch trials have served as the basis of a number of horror films. The film is also a very authentic-feeling period piece, both visually and verbally—the actors’ antique north-of-England accents (speaking dialogue that was carefully researched to sound authentic for the period) seem not quaint and mannered but absolutely appropriate.
As A. A. Dowd puts it,
“The Witch, like The Exorcist before it, invites serious engagement; to question its implications—historical and religious—is to acknowledge that this is not just some run-of-the-mill exploitation of superstitious fears. As straight horror, The Witch is something special, transporting audiences to a bygone era that would look plenty frightening even without the paranormal activity that engulfs it.”
Indeed, the historicism of this film is what sets it apart from most other films about witchcraft and the occult. And by this we mean, not just the lavish period detail, but the sense (conveyed quite vividly) that we are entering a world that is fundamentally different from our own, one in which human beings have radically different expectations of the world and thus perceive it in dramatically different ways.
The film, which describes itself in its opening sequence as “a New England folktale,” is apparently set early in the 1630s. And, though the story of The Witch is an original one that is not based on any specific “new England folktale,” its world is clearly based on a careful study of period sources by Eggers, himself a native New Englander. Moreover, we believe that this “folktale” designation is crucial to any proper understanding of the film. The Witch contains a great deal of supernatural material, something that is not unusual in horror films. In this case, though, it is important that this supernatural material—which involves the appearance of witches and other minions of Satan—is precisely of a kind that would be expected to appear in a folktale conceived in seventeenth-century Puritan New England, a world in which Satan and his evil works were palpable presences, a world far different from our own. As Adam Scovell notes, “Folk horror often mimics this idea of looking back where the past and the present mix and create horror through both anachronisms and uncomfortable tautologies between eras” (Scovell 9).
The Witch begins as a man named William (Ralph Ineson) stands before a Puritan tribunal, accused of some unspecified violation of the community’s standards. All we know is that the violation is religious in nature—it will soon become clear that everything is religious in nature in this community. There are implications, though, that William is even more extreme in his piety than is typical of this community, and that he has fallen afoul of the authorities because of his criticisms of the laxity of the community’s standards. In any case, William and his family are clearly banished from the community because their interpretation of Christianity differs from that which prevails there. The dispute, in short, is not one between belief and disbelief; it is more of a contest between two different styles of belief, each claiming to be more authentic than the other, each claiming to have the correct interpretation of the “pure and faithful dispensation of the gospels.” But this is a harsh, intolerant community, completely convinced of the righteousness of its prevailing views, so no such disagreements can be allowed: they might give an opening to the Satanic forces by which the community feels itself to be surrounded.
William packs up his meager belongings and heads into the wilderness, which he is determined to conquer, God willing, in good pioneer fashion, accompanied by his worn wife, Katherine (Kate Dickey), his pubescent daughter Thomasin (the radiant Anya Taylor-Joy), his pre-pubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and the younger fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). They soon locate a large clearing on the edge of a dark forest and decide to settle there. After all, the clearing seems ideal for farming, though the building sense of menace incorporated into the soundtrack as the camera slowly zooms in on that forest suggests that sinister things might lurk within. As Chloe Buckley suggests, in this film, “evil…emerges from the landscape, from deep within the ancient woods that Puritan settlers cannot tame” (Buckley 25).
The prologue then ends and the film cuts to a point a year or so in the future. William has now built a farmhouse and some other farm buildings and is struggling (without much success) to make the harsh land productive. Katherine has now given birth to a new baby boy, Samuel. The family might not be thriving, but they are thus far surviving. Then, only six minutes into the film, the sense of doom that we already feel lurks over this family strikes in the first of what will be a series of tragedies. Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with the infant on the edge of the forest; after she covers her eyes for the merest of moments as part of the game, she finds that Samuel has inexplicably disappeared. Frantic, she runs toward the edge of the forest to search for the child, but seems afraid to go within. We, meanwhile, see a shadowy figure (presumably a witch) running through the woods carrying the infant back to her lair, where she apparently dismembers it, ritually bathing her naked body in a magical unguent made from the baby’s ground-up entrails, apparently intended to increase her own magical powers, including the power of flight.
It’s a scene as shocking as any ever put on film—so shocking, in fact, that the scene is shot in such a way that we can barely see what is going on. But the point has been made: we are dealing with extreme forces here, capable of great horrors, no matter how mysterious they remain. The film then slacks off a bit from the breakneck pace of its first ten minutes in order to take time to build a bit more atmosphere. We see, for example, young Caleb sneaking a peak at Thomasin’s chest while she sleeps, hoping for a look at her breasts, something that, within the sex-averse world depicted in the film, suggests more dangers. Later, she catches him sneaking another peek, though she seems amused, rather than offended. Through the rest of the film, Thomasin’s budding sexuality (through no fault of her own) will be a disruptive force in this highly patriarchal family, not only leading Caleb into impure thoughts but also destabilizing the patriarchal power structure through the presence of a sexually attractive female who must not be possessed by the patriarchal father. Though mentioned directly only once late in the film (this Puritan family would not deign to speak of such things under normal circumstances), the threat posed by Thomasin’s sexuality is ever-present—as in one scene in which Thomasin slowly undresses her father so that she can wash his clothes after he has fallen in a puddle of mud and dung. There’s a clear reason, beyond the loss of Samuel, why Katherine seems to resent Thomasin so greatly—and why the family, in one of its few concessions to dealing with the community they left behind, eventually plans (at Katherine’s suggestion) to send Thomasin back to that community to live with another family as a servant, thus removing her (and her disruptive sexual energies) from their own family circle altogether. As Elisabeth Bronfen notes, there is a long tradition in the West in which the female body “comes to allegorize the danger of sexual lust” (66). At the same time, Bronfen argues that claims the female body is often linked to the untamable forces that lie within nature, contributing to the construction of woman as Other, as opposed to the masculine realm of culture and civilization.
In the meantime, one ominous sign after another alerts us that the family is in trouble. Almost every move they make goes wrong in ways that suggest impending doom. When Thomasin goes to collect an egg from the henhouse, she drops and breaks it—and finds that it has a dead chick inside. Later, when she milks a goat, she draws blood instead of milk. As for the rest of the family, Katherine spends most of her time praying and crying, mourning the loss of her baby—and possibly its soul. The twins, meanwhile, spend their time happily playing, oblivious to the tragedy of their lost brother. But they are portrayed weirdly, dressed in layers of clothing that make them not only look like miniature adults but move stiffly, like puppets; they seem almost inhuman, possibly possessed. Indeed, there are numerous hints of something sinister in their relationship with the family’s black goat, Black Phillip, with whom they hold conversations and who, it is eventually revealed, is no ordinary animal but a minion of supernatural forces, possibly Satanic in nature. When Mercy at one point pretends to be “the witch of the wood,” the sense of something evil inhabiting the twins is clearly enhanced.
In a key moment, William admits that, with their corn crop failing, he is going to be forced to hunt animals in the woods, which have hitherto been regarded as too dangerous and thus off limits. Surprised at this relaxation of rules (something he has seldom experienced in his young life), Caleb accompanies William into the forbidden forest, which we already know contains sinister forces. On the way, William rehearses William on the religious doctrine of original sin that has obviously been drummed into him his entire life:
William: Art thou then born a sinner?
Caleb: “Aye, I was conceived in sin and born in iniquity.”
William: “And what is thy birth sin?”
Caleb: “Adam’s sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling within me.”
William: “And canst thou tell me what they corrupt nature is?”
William: “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually.”
Though able to recite his lines faithfully, Caleb is clearly bothered by the implications of this lesson, both for himself and (especially) for his infant brother, who is now assumed to be dead. Caleb asks his father if Samuel had been born a sinner and William answers in the affirmative. When Caleb obviously sees the unfairness in this unwavering doctrine that would potentially damn an innocent infant to eternal suffering in hell, William cuts him off and warns him to “place faith in God,” telling him that God alone can know whether Samuel is now in hell.
This look at Caleb’s religious training gives us an insight into the kind of harsh world in which these people live, but it also contributes to the growing sense of doom—to the sense that something else very bad is about to happen. William, by taking Caleb into the forest, is already violating his own rule that the forest must not be entered because it isn’t safe. But William himself, as it turns out, has already been secretly entering the forest to set animal traps, which he has acquired by stealing Katherine’s treasured silver cup (one of her few meager possessions and a reminder of her earlier life back in England) and trading it for the traps. He tells Caleb about the cup but insists that the boy not tell his mother. As William and Caleb reset one of the traps, one almost expects the dangerous-looking device to snap shut on one of them, but it doesn’t. However, a mishap does occur when they spot a hare and William attempts to shoot it. Even the hare seems sinister (and it again looks sinister when it reappears in later scenes) as it looks at William; one wonders if it is some sort of witchery on the part of the animal that causes the musket to misfire, injuring William (though not as badly as one might expect, given the atmosphere of the film). Later, when Katherine wonders at the recent absence of William and Caleb, Caleb covers for his father by telling his mother that they had been away searching for apples. And William is perfectly happy to have his son lie in this way, while seemingly remaining oblivious to the way in which this apple links back to the original sin of Adam that he and his son had been discussing in the forest.
“What is amiss on this farm?” Katherine asks at one point. “It’s not natural.” Indeed, with all the signs and portents that occur in the film (reinforced by the soundtrack, which constantly adds tension), it comes as little surprise that things eventually unravel altogether. But the structure of the film, which constantly provides hints of supernatural forces at work, also enhances its ability to make us feel that we are experiencing the world of 1630s Puritan New England as its own inhabitants would have experienced it. This is a world of people who believe in omens, people whose world is infused with magic, and the film is quite effective at giving viewers at least some sense of what it might feel like to live in a world where everything you see is possibly endowed by supernatural forces with special meaning.
In the case of this film, of course, the suspicion that supernatural forces lurk behind every rock turns out to be well-founded. Or possibly not: most of the supernatural events in the film can easily be recuperated as fantasies/hallucinations on the part of the suggestive characters—or even as representations of the fantasies of the collective society from which they have been expelled but whose worldview they still largely share. One might argue that Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019) supports this explanation because it features a point-of-view character who very clearly suffers from hallucinations. We would argue just the opposite, however: the events of The Lighthouse (set in the late nineteenth-century) occur in a world that is largely stripped of magic, leaving no other explanations for the sightings of extraordinary creatures such as mermaids than that they are hallucinations. A seventeenth-century folktale, however, requires no such naturalization of its supernatural elements, because such elements would simply be expected by the seventeenth-century mind to appear in such a tale. As McGill puts it, “Eggers’ designation of his work as a folktale to some extent calls into question the value of positing naturalistic explanations for the dark events” (413).
Whether or not God or Satan or witches “really” exist—they all definitely exist for the characters within the film, as they would have existed for the Calvinist Pilgrims of New England. When Caleb goes back into the woods hoping to find food for the family, he comes upon the witch’s hut—and the witch herself, now looking young, voluptuous and seductive (and played, as it turns out, by former Victoria’s Secret model Sarah Stephens). As Caleb slowly walks toward the witch, as if hypnotized, it seems certain that he is walking to his doom. He reappears soon afterward back on the farm, staggering and naked, then collapses into unconsciousness. Later, he experiences visions and fits, at one point vomiting up an apple—again with connotations of the sin of Adam. Then he dies. Beside him, Jonas and Mercy collapse as well, while the other members of the family argue and scream in hysterics.
One might interpret Caleb’s seduction by the witch as a verification of the conviction in this world that feminine sexuality is evil and leads men to their doom. Again, though, this is a folktale and the contents of a folktale would, in fact, be expected to verify the prejudices of the society that produced them. Meanwhile, given the resonances of Thomasin’s sexuality that have run throughout the film, it comes as no surprise that Caleb’s death-by-sex is blamed on the dark energies generated by Thomasin, who is now accused of being a witch by her own father. At this point, Thomasin has had enough. She berates her father for his hypocrisy and declares him a failure who is good for nothing but cutting wood (which is, in fact, about the only thing he accomplishes in the film—and then to what might be seen as sinful excess). Then Thomasin declares (as we have long suspected) that Jonas and Mercy are the source of the farm’s bewitchment, that “they make covenant with the Devil in the shape of Black Phillip.”
A shocked William locks Thomasin away in the goat shed, vowing to take her back to the Puritan community the next day so that she can stand trial as a witch. Just to be safe, though, he locks the twins and Black Phillip up with her. That night, Caleb and Samuel reappear in a vision to Katherine, as does her lost silver cup. A strange raven (maybe the hare in another form?) pecks at her bloody breast. Satanic manifestations, possibly, or maybe she’s just as mad as a hatter from grief by this point, but again, all of these manifestations would be perfectly at home in a seventeenth-century New England folktale, so they again need no naturalistic explanation. In any case, everything now spirals out of control. Black Phillip gores William to death, while something kills all the other goats—and apparently the twins as well. Katherine, accusing Thomasin of attempting to seduce Caleb and William and of being the source of all the family’s troubles, attacks her daughter but is killed by her as Thomasin defends herself. Patriarchy, the film implies, turns women against each other if they buy into its ideology.
Katherine is clearly a victim of patriarchal ideology (and, of course, of the traumas that are occurring to her children), no matter how unsympathetic she might sometimes seem. Similarly, William is not a bad man, or even a particularly weak man. He is just a man. But the patriarchal society in which he lives demands that he be more than a man, that he show superhuman virtue and strength, essentially occupying a godlike role in relation to his family. William’s failures (and almost everything he attempts in the film results in failure) are largely failures of imagination caused by his inability to see the flaws in the patriarchal system that has given him so much authority over his family. But these failures can also be seen in a broader sense as a commentary not only on the fact that patriarchy puts too much pressure on men but that it also puts women and children at risk because men are given more power than they can effectively wield.
With nowhere else left to turn, Thomasin goes to Black Phillip. A seductive voice, apparently that of Black Phillip (though the goat is not seen on screen), replies, offering Thomasin the following consolations in return for giving up her religion:
“Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?”
“A pretty dress?”
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
“Wouldst thou like to see the world?”
She can have all these things, it is implied, if she will only sign the book she finds before her (a conventional way of making a pact with Satan).
She seems about to sign the book, but the film then cuts to a scene of her walking, naked, into the woods, so we never actually see the signing. A shadowy figure (presumably Black Phillip) is seen running past her in the darkness. We begin to hear voices in a whispery chant that then becomes louder as she approaches a group of women (presumably witches) bowing and writhing ecstatically around a fire in a clearing. Thomasin and Black Phillip look on as the witches suddenly ascend into the air. Overcome by emotion, Thomasin also ascends—except that a sudden cut shows her now to be the only figure in the scene as she hovers high above the ground. Cut to black.
Given the ambiguity implied in this ending, the impending question is whether The Witch embraces a genuinely feminist perspective. Many believe so. By becoming a witch, Thomasin can break the constraints of a domineering patriarchy, and build an identity of her own. Nevertheless, we cannot forget that, if forging a pact with Satan is her only alternative, then she might have escaped one sort of patriarchy, only to be ensnared within another. We must bear in mind that she was a girl, whose family had been all decimated. If she returned to the community her father left, she would certainly be considered a witch. Against this dismal background, being a witch does not come as a free choice but as the only option available. As Laurel Zwissler states
“The Witch … can also be read … as a narrative about a young woman and her stalker. Satan tears down Thomasin’s world to get her alone. He is successful: he kills her family, coerces her into a sexual relationship, and abducts her. Thomasin’s final pact is not a fantasy of women’s empowerment, but instead an exposé of devouring male power” (Zwissler 7).
Clearly, The Witch offers an ending that can be read in a variety of ways. Even the image of Thomasin ascending with an ecstatic expression on her face can be read in at least two different ways: on the one hand, from a feminist point of view, this ascension can be interpreted as personal empowerment; on the other hand, Thomasin’s expression, alongside her body pose, with her arms wide stretched, strongly recalls a crucified Christ, an aspect that entails the presence of a sacrifice. Therefore, the figure of the witch in Egger’s film, appears to be enveloped by the mist of ambiguity.
Apparent witchcraft actually appears at three different moments in this film—the ritual killing of baby Samuel, the fatal seduction of Caleb, and the final ascension of Thomasin—all of which contribute to this folktale’s characterization of witches as diabolically evil and sexually dangerous. Magic is, indeed, ever present in this world, but is all a magic of a kind that the New England Puritans would associate with Satanic evil. Where, then, given the piety of the Puritans, is God? God, as it turns out, is in his heaven doing his own thing. Indeed, one of the things that makes the lives of the New England Puritans seem so harsh is that, while Satan is an ever-present force constantly seeking to undermine them, they are pretty much on their own in the battle against him. For the Calvinist Puritans, God does not intervene in worldly affairs, and it is the responsibility of the Puritans to fight Satan off in God’s stead.
As the pioneering German sociologist Max Weber pointed out long ago in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in German in 1904 and 1905 and first translated into English in 1930), while medieval Catholicism encouraged a rejection of the lures of the secular world, certain characteristics of early Protestantism (especially Calvinism) encouraged its adherents to go forth into that secular world seeking wealth and success. The emergence of Protestantism thus formed an important part of an ideological climate that enabled the early growth of capitalism, and Protestantism and capitalism then moved forward hand-in-hand, each reinforcing the other, despite their seeming (but superficial) incompatibilities.
The individualist emphasis of Protestantism as a whole (which emphasizes a direct, personal relationship with God, unmediated by the apparatus of the Church) provides one of the most important ideological underpinnings for the capitalist system, which so strongly relies on a spirit of competition among individuals. There are two key characteristics of Calvinist doctrine that directly support capitalism. First is the so-called “Protestant work ethic,” the notion that work is a noble end in itself, not merely an unpleasant means to secure survival. Second is the notion that the acquisition of wealth is also a noble undertaking, accompanied by the ascetic insistence that this wealth should not be used simply to secure material pleasures. Rather, it should be reinvested with the end of accumulating still more wealth, and stimulating still more action in the world, and so on.
Meanwhile, for Weber, the crucial aspect of Calvinism that lends itself especially well to the kind of action in the world that facilitates capitalism is the doctrine of “predestination,” which holds that, from birth, certain individuals are destined to be among the elite, who will be saved, while others are destined to be among the preterite, who will be damned. There is absolutely nothing one can do—through faith, good deeds, or appeals to the Church or to God—to change (or to discover) one’s categorical destiny. The faithful, however, are obligated to act as if they are members of the elite and to go forth seeking material success in the world, which can then potentially serve as evidence that they are among God’s favored elite.
A key result of all of this emphasis on secular action is the gradual enlistment of all of the resources of the world in the interest of the generation of wealth, thus converting all aspects of life in the world into economic assets. The elimination of God from this project, for Weber, contributes to a long historical process of “elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the Hebrew prophets, and in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin” (Weber 105). Thus, for Weber, the parallel evolution of capitalism and Protestantism (especially the Calvinist form of Puritanism) brought about a fundamental change in the texture of Western reality. Whereas medieval and early modern Europeans lived in a world suffused with magic, the modern world has been stripped of the magical. Indeed, probably the best-known aspect of Weber’s analysis involves this elimination of magic from everyday experience, leading to the rationalization, routinization, and regimentation of every aspect of life and experience in the service of capitalist expansion.
From this point of view, the world depicted in The Witch differs so fundamentally from our own because it occurs very early in the process of capitalist rationalization described by Weber, while we ourselves live in a world in which that process is essentially complete. Further, The Witch presents seventeenth-century New England as a crucial turning point, when it was still possible for this historical process to go in directions other than the one it eventually took. Indeed, the most important thing about the film, in our view, is the way it delineates these options, with special focus on the road not taken.
The last moments of The Witch are richly packed with meaning—so much so, in fact, that it is probably impossible to come up with a final definitive interpretation. One could certainly see Thomasin’s final trip into the woods as a feminist declaration of independence as she leaves behind the legacy of her patriarchal family and joins instead her new sisterhood of witches. One could also see this trip as her descent into fantasy. What is really important, though, is that this final scene in the woods suggests a female-oriented celebration of the sensuous that represents a clear turning away from the values of Thomasin’s Puritan community. Of course, from the Puritan point of view from which this folktale is related, such a turn toward the sensuous and the feminine would surely be a bad thing. However, we know, from our position in the twenty-first century, that American history, while it did move beyond the stern ascetism of the Puritans, did not proceed in this direction but instead proceeded in the direction of capitalist productivity—and eventually, beginning in the early twentieth century, toward modern consumer capitalism, another form of pursuit of sensuous pleasure that is less feminine and less celebratory.
Interestingly, the pleasures that Black Phillip seemingly offers to Thomasin—from butter, to dresses, to travel, to just generally living “deliciously”—are at least as easily achieved via consumerism as through feminine sensuousness (which the New England Puritans would see as Satanic licentiousness), a fact that suggests a masculinist capitalism and a feminist sensuousness as two possible historical directions that American history might have taken to get beyond the impasse of Puritan asceticism. America chose the former, of course, and (as Weber’s narrative of the complicity between Puritanism and capitalism would suggest) it was the easier choice to make, one that initially required only an adjustment to Puritan values rather than a wholesale reversal of them. The later turn to consumerism (which began just as Weber was completing his history of Protestantism and capitalism and so is not encompassed by his analysis) was a major watershed in American (and world) history that represented a turn away from Puritan ascetism once and for all, though vestiges of Puritan thought still remain.
All of these weighty historical implications are ultimately what makes The Witch such an important film. However, it should also be noted that, in addition to its intelligent treatment of historical themes, The Witch is an extremely interesting work of visual art. In his review of the film, Simon Abrams notes how “Eggers’ hyper-mannered camerawork draws you in by evoking Johannes Vermeer’s portraits and the landscape paintings of Andrew Wyeth.” Indeed, not only does The Witch present a visually convincing picture of life in 1630s New England (despite a rather modest budget), but many scenes are brilliantly composed—almost like paintings. Abrams also mentions the film’s overt allusion to a painting by the important Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746–1828), though the film in fact evokes two different Goya paintings. For example, the presentation of Black Phillip evokes a long tradition of representing Satan’s minions as goatlike figures, as in the case of the pagan god Baphomet, who would play a minor role in the 2017 horror film Get Out. But the most direct inspiration for Black Phillip would seem to be Goya’s 1798 painting The Witches’ Sabbath. This painting shows a black goat as a commanding, Satanic figure, surrounded by servile worshippers, including an old witch who is apparently offering an infant to the goat, presumably as a sacrifice. Indeed, Goya featured similar images of witchcraft and the occult in several of his paintings.
The Witches’ Sabbath, in fact, was part of a series of paintings featuring witches and witchcraft that Goya painted around the same time, including Witches’ Flight, which anticipates the closing scene of The Witch by showing a group of three semi-nude witches ascending magically and ecstatically into the air, carrying the nude body of a man who is apparently some sort of sacrifice. Two peasants on the ground below attempt to shield themselves from the sight. A donkey (traditionally a symbol of ignorance or stupidity) hovers on the edge of the painting, seemingly uninvolved in the action. This painting, of course, links to the film’s last scene, in which Thomasin joins a group of witches who similarly levitate.
Goya’s enigmatic painting serves as a particularly important gloss on The Witch when we realize that conventional interpretations of the painting have seen it not as an expression of a belief in witchcraft, but just the opposite—as an Enlightenment critique of the superstitious folly of the Spanish Inquisition, which was instituted in 1478 and not finally abolished until 1834. The painting, in short, shows the fantasies of those involved in the Inquisition, who are perhaps themselves represented by the donkey. Nominally a campaign to protect the Catholic faith from the potential of heresy (especially among new converts from Islam and Judaism), the Inquisition in fact became notorious as a bloody reign of terror used for all sorts of political purposes. Witches were among the targets of the Inquisition, for example, though charges of witchcraft throughout Europe were largely pursued by secular authorities. In any case, the Inquisition has come to stand in Western culture as an image of religious intolerance and persecution, both of which have often been aimed at witches. Indeed, while only 20 witches were executed in the notorious Salem Witch Trials, historians estimate that a total of tens of thousands of people (mostly women) were executed for the practice of witchcraft in Europe and the Americas between roughly 1300 and 1700.
Fredric Jameson’s well-known characterization of postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” or as the form of culture that appears when capitalist modernization is essentially complete. Among other things, this analysis would place postmodernism at the endpoint of the process of capitalist modernization (and extinction of magic) described by Weber. Meanwhile, one key aspect of postmodernist culture, for Jameson, is that it has such a weak sense of history that postmodernist artists are unable to imagine either a past or a future that is fundamentally different from the present, unless those differences are imposed by some sort of sudden, cataclysmic event, rather than the normal flow of history. The Witch, however, would differ dramatically from Jameson’s vision of postmodernism, partly because it jettisons postmodern aesthetics in favor of visual realism, but mostly because of its strong historical sense, which allows it to describe a genuinely different past world, and one that was swept away by the long, slow historical process of capitalist modernization. The Love Witch, on the other hand, is a paradigmatic postmodernist work, per Jameson’s account of postmodernism. However, a turn to The Love Witch, which also focuses on witchcraft—but in a very different historical context on the other end of capitalist modernization—helps to highlight the historicity of The Witch.
Because of the crucial and intrusive importance of style in The Love Witch, no quick summary of the film’s material can truly capture its impact, but a quick summary might be useful. The title character is Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young woman who has encountered a textbook case of patriarchal oppression all her life, beginning with her domineering father (who apparently sexually abused her) and then extending to her abusive and unappreciative husband, who eventually left her when she did not live up to his ideal of the perfect, obedient wife. In response, Elaine turned to witchcraft, wherein she discovered her feminine power, though that power is a bit too much for the men in her life. She constructs a candy-colored, Stepford-wife, Barbie-house world, then invites them in, but there’s really no place for them. In fact, one after another of them wind up dead, apparently unable to handle the pent-up emotions that are released due to her love magic. Then, when her final lover in the film manages to resist her magic, she stabs him in the heart with a ceremonial dagger. This odd form of wedded bliss, marked by blood, conveys the image of Elaine as a phallic woman. In the end, we can see the dreamy look on her face, while she dearly holds the dagger—a phallic symbol par excellence—against her chest.
The satirical point of The Love Witch is fairly clear: patriarchal traditions have long prevented women from exploring their full potential and have rendered men incapable of dealing with women who do. The result is a battle of the sexes in which everybody ultimately loses. It’s a powerful message and an important one, but what is striking about The Love Witch is the style with which this message is delivered. In his review of the film, Kim Newman aptly captures the surprising success of this film when he calls it “a genre-stretching horror melodrama crafted with extraordinary detail and style. A touch languid, it’s also mesmerising, provocative, unsettling and sensual.” He then goes on to suggest that the film is
“eerily minimalistic and so suggestive of a bygone time that it’s a shock half-way through when Elaine’s possible nemesis/would-be doppelgänger Trish (Laura Waddell) pulls out a mobile phone to take a call, revealing that this isn’t a period-set movie after all—as if Elaine has by force of will made a whole community live in her own design-fetish world the way Biller has stocked her filmic doll-house with beautiful puppets. And somehow it works—one of the most gorgeous films of recent years” (“The Love Witch Review”).
Though released only one year after The Witch, The Love Witch is set nearly four hundred years later, in a world that is essentially contemporaneous with the release of the film. Employing aesthetics that are in keeping with their very different historical settings, The Witch and The Love Witch could not be more different, except that both involve witchcraft, and both mediate their representation of their contemporary settings via participation in specific nonrealist genres. Thus, as opposed to the “folktale” format of The Witch, Biller has described The Love Witch in an interview as “a sincere and magical fairy tale” (Sorrento 130).
Biller’s invocation of the fairy tale, however, must be qualified a bit, because The Love Witch is a declaredly postmodern work, one whose aesthetics might almost have been developed using Jameson’s characterization of postmodern art as a handbook. For one thing, Biller has described the magic of The Love Witch as a case of postmodern self-referentiality, noting in the same interview noted above that the use of magic in The Love Witch serves as an analogue to the magical power of cinema: “Much of the movie is driven by witchcraft and spells, and I wanted the film to show how cinema casts spells, and to have Elaine cast spells on men in the film and people in the audience” (Sorrento 128).
The magic of The Love Witch is postmodern in other ways as well. Indeed, while the witches’ coven depicted within the film does occasionally appeal to supernatural authority, its members are clearly not followers of Satan, but instead pledge their rather New Agey loyalty to the “Goddess,” or to “The Great Mother,” which is suggested to be a general feminine principle, though the coven includes both men and women among its members. In fact, one could argue that there is no truly supernatural magic in The Love Witch at all. In one interior monologue, Elaine muses on the fact that she became a witch because she wanted “to have magical powers.” But then she quickly explains that all magic consists of is “using your will to get what you want.” And what she wants is for a man to love her, an end she seeks with the assistance of a variety of chemicals (herbs and drugs), rather than any appeal to the supernatural. Moreover, she uses her skill with chemicals (note that she essentially has an entire chemistry lab set up in her apartment) as a means of generating income, marketing a variety of her potions and devices through a local magic shop. In short, magic here joins the commodification of everything that is typical of the postmodern era and is perfectly congruent with the capitalist world described by Weber as bereft of magic and totally dominated by the economic. Meanwhile, Elaine’s principle method of seeking love from men is even more mundane: she simply uses her considerable physical charms (which include a great deal of enhanced physical packaging, such as a voluminous black wiglet, fake eyelashes, and sixties-style eye shadow in shades of blue, green, and purple) to win love the old-fashioned way—through pure sexual attraction.
Elaine’s highly packaged look is nicely glossed by a scene in the film in which Gahan (Jared Sanford) and Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), two leaders of Elaine’s coven, advise two innocent-looking neophyte witches (played by Elle Evans and Fair Micaela Griffin, who look like twins) that their true power lies in their sexuality. So, Barbara suggests, they should make the most of this power by teaching men to “love us using ways they can understand.” Gahan then elaborates on what these ways might be: “So, goddesses, use perfume, wear high heels and makeup, learn to dress your hair in attractive ways, display flesh artfully, and know what to conceal. Be a mother and a lover. Stand your ground, but always let the man feel like a man.”
There is a clear element of manipulation here, suggesting that the worldview of Gahan and Barbara has not fully transcended the patriarchal vision of love as a power struggle between opposed partners. Indeed, Barbara concludes this advice session with a rather sinister twist: “Use sex magic to destroy his fear of you and to open his heart to the floodgates of love. Only then will he begin to see you as a human being with all of your inner beauty. Then, when his heart is open to love, you may do with him what you will.”
Elaine’s wig and makeup, while clearly designed to attract men, are also in keeping with the highly artificial (and anachronistic) look of the film as a whole, so clearly modeled on the look of films from the late 1960s and early 1970s. And this stylistic choice is also quintessentially postmodern. The main stylistic strategy of The Love Witch is pastiche, identified by Jameson as the “well nigh universal” stylistic strategy of postmodern art in general (24). Moreover, for Jameson one of the key elements of this pastiche is its tendency to gather materials from a variety of different time periods without regard for their historical specificity, which nicely describes the use of an aesthetic from nearly half a century earlier in The Love Witch. Shot on 35 mm film stock designed to mimic the look of garish 1960s/early 1970s technicolor, the film in fact visually resembles a cheap, exploitation horror film of that era, right down to the sets and costumes (designed by Biller) and the wooden acting styles (though in this case the “bad” acting is clearly a stylistic choice). The look of the film and the style of acting contrast strongly with the state-of-the-art feminist message, creating a sort of Brechtian estrangement effect intended to cause audiences to sit back and give serious thought to what they are seeing on the screen.
Biller, we should note, has rejected the widespread critical identification of her style with that of exploitation directors such as Russ Meyer, whose campy 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (itself already a parody of the original 1967 Valley of the Dolls) has been widely cited in relation to The Love Witch and to Viva, Biller’s earlier film. Biller has protested that, despite the look of her films, she is much more heavily influenced by classical-era directors—more Dreyer than Meyer, she told Kim Morgan—in developing her own approach to filmmaking. Moreover, of the film’s acting style, Biller stated to Morgan that “nobody ever spoke about it being retro acting or wooden acting or Brechtian acting, anything. We just found the truth of the characters and this is what came out” (Morgan 43).
Regardless of whether the acting in The Love Witch is intentionally Brechtian, it is highly effective, combining with the striking cinematography and set design to produce a studied artificiality that invites audiences to think carefully about the reasons for such intrusive strategies. Robinson’s widely-praised performance as Elaine is highlighted by a precise diction that makes every word seem calculated, calling attention to the ways in which her behavior and personality have been shaped by forces outside herself and to the ways in which these forces have inflicted psychic damage on her. One of the film’s neatest tricks is its ability to make Elaine sympathetic, despite the fact that she is a homewrecker and a serial killer. Billers herself has noted that Elaine is an extremely flawed character, telling Matthew Sorrento in an interview that Elaine “is narcissistic and insecure, so she must have every man she meets fall in love with her” (129). Elaine also, with no hint of remorse, lures Richard (Robert Seeley) the husband of her friend Trish (Laura Waddell), into a torrid sexual liaison, which leads to his death by suicide. Biller glosses this aspect of Elaine’s character as well: “In my experience, serial seducers tend to like to specifically cause pain to other people with their conquests, so breaking up a marriage, especially the marriage of her best friend, is especially satisfying for her. It’s shocking, because we’ve grown to identify with her, but like everyone, she is complex—a mix of good and bad” (Sorrento 129).
Indeed, not only does Elaine cause Richard’s death, but, in the course of the movie, she poisons her ex-husband and causes the death of a local college teacher (also by a form of poison, though the film indicates that his heart-attack death might have been partly caused by an excess of passion generated in him by a combination of chemicals and Elaine’s erotic charms). Then, when her final lover in the film, tough cop Griff Meadows (Gian Keys), ultimately resists both her chemicals and her sexual allure, Elaine (apparently driven to all-out madness) murders him by repeatedly and savagely plunging a dagger into his chest. The film ends as she lies on the bed beside his body, enjoying a fantasy of wedded bliss with a truly devoted Griff.
The Love Witch, however, is not exactly sympathetic toward Elaine’s victims. For one thing, they are depicted essentially as testosterone-driven idiots. Once Elaine turns on her “love magic,” her targets melt into adolescent silliness in their boyish enthusiasm for the sexual opportunity that is being offered to them. Once they have experienced sex with Elaine (in a parody of typical patriarchal visions of women) they become completely feminized, descending into a weepy, clingy, and excessively sentimental emotionalism, completely focused on their desperate need for affection and attention from Elaine, placing her in a position of power that she clearly relishes, because it allows her to turn the tables on the patriarchal oppressors who have tormented her throughout her life prior to the moment when she became a witch and learned to exercise her own power.
Anna Biller, while constructing the character of Elaine, seems to have intentionally played with the concept of “womanliness as masquerade,” elaborated long ago by psychoanalyst of Joan Riviere. Elaine is someone who deliberately constructs herself (or a persona) in a certain way as to highlight all her female attributes. Both the languid way of talking and the insinuating look seem to form part of a calculated bodily performance that she uses with the sole purpose of getting male attention. In a clever way, Elaine effectively disguises any masculine trait that might betray her excessively feminine appearance.
In keeping with a feminist point of view, it can be said that Elaine has the power of subverting the supposedly controlling male gaze. By enacting Laura Mulvey’s concept of female passivity on screen, of woman as a mere object-to-look-at, the attractive witch uses the female gaze to bewitch men and lure them towards her intricate love web. Interestingly, she repudiates both the college professor and Trish’s husband because, after seducing them, she is not pleased by the emotional fragilities they evince which, within a patriarchal framework, signal emasculation.
Griff is the only one of Elaine’s lovers in the film who resists this sort of feminization, but then he is a stereotype of hyper-masculinity, just as Elaine is a stereotype of hyper-femininity. These roles are highlighted as the two of them participate in a mock wedding ceremony at a Medieval/Renaissance fair being conducted by Elaine’s coven. In separate interior monologues, they present their opposed visions of love. Griff’s tough-guy attitude is that love makes one soft (when a man is in love, “it’s like he’s not even a man any more”) and that a woman’s love is suffocating, making a man feel like he is “drowning in estrogen.” In contrast, Elaine believes that love is best when it is all-consuming, so that little details about the man you love “become your whole life.” For Elaine, “The more you know him, the more you love him.” For Griff, “The more you get to know a woman, the less you can feel about her. At first, she’s this incredible object of mystery who fulfills all your wildest fantasies. Then she starts to reveal little flaws, and after a while, just gets pretty hard to care. Feminine ideal only exists in a man’s mind.”
In this way, by engaging in a female masquerade (primarily to seduce male partners), Elaine is endowed with the qualities that Rachel Moseley identifies as forming part of the “glamourous sparkle,” a “sign of femininity” that also “signals power made manifest as audiovisual effect, or spectacle.” (408) This emphasis placed upon the woman as spectacle when depicting the witch in postmodern film can be dangerous because the feminist statement that it aims at conveying becomes hindered by a superficiality that lacks substance. Moseley observes that
“While the sparkle is powerfully spectacular and grabs the viewer’s attention, it is also highly ephemeral, drawing the eye to the surface of the text. The textual sparkle as a marker of glamour in all its senses emphasizes surface: through glamour, feminine power in these texts is located in and articulated through appearance” (408–9).
Although Elaine wants to use patriarchal desires to fight back against patriarchy, she is not successful. By failing to combine her feminine assets with her real self, Elaine might never find the love she craves. Ironically, she seems to have fallen prey to her “training in patriarchy,” as her overloaded feminine masquerade denotes. Griff stands as her potential hero, but he dismisses her, which hints at the fact that he managed to look beyond Elaine’s masquerade, thus making her uncomfortable, and consequentially making him another victim of the witch’s psychopathic personality.
What is crucial is that these two diametrically opposed visions of love espoused by Griff and by Elaine are equally patriarchal, one reflecting the stereotypical patriarchal view of what men are supposed to feel (or not feel) and the other reflecting the stereotypical patriarchal view of what women are supposed to feel. Or, as Trish responds when hearing of Elaine’s devotion to the project of seeking love by fulfilling men’s sexual desires, it seems that Elaine has been “brainwashed by the patriarchy.” What Elaine’s predicamentsuggests, then, is that, despite the vast historical distance that separates the Puritan folktale of The Witch from the postmodern fairy tale of The Love Witch, despite the Weberian advance of capitalist modernization that has stripped the world of magic over that period, despite the rejection of Puritan asceticism in favor of consumerist pleasure-seeking, the fact of patriarchy often remains at the heart of relationships between men and women, however different the details might be. Whether this suggests the fundamental power of patriarchy or whether it simply indicates that capitalism has found a way to conscript patriarchy for its own purposes is open to question. In any case, the persistence of patriarchy indicated by these two films points back to the historical choice made by American society in its turn from Calvinism, highlighting the ultimate choice of consumerism (which has long embraced patriarchy as a structural tool) over the anti-patriarchal magic embraced by Thomason at the end of The Witch. The magic practiced by Thomasin is a feminine, supernatural form of witchcraft, while the magic practiced by Elaine in The Love Witch is a postmodern, consumerist form. The witchcraft portrayed in each film, then, is perfectly in keeping with the popular consciousness of the world in which that film’s events take place, and the depiction of witchcraft in these two films provides an ideal focal point for understanding the differences (and similarities) between these two worlds.
Abrams, Simon. “The Witch.” RogerEbert.com (January 9, 2020). https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-witch-2016. Accessed November 14, 2018.
Briefel, Aviva. “Devil in the Details: The Uncanny History of The Witch (2015).” Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 49, No. 1, Summer 2019, pp. 4–20.
Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.
Buckley, Chloé Germaine. “Witches, ‘bitches’ or feminist trailblazers? The Witch in Folk Horror Cinema”, pp. 22-42. http://www.revenantjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Article-1-Buckley.pdf. Accessed January 23, 2019.
Dowd, A. A. “The 17th-Century Horror of The Witch Is Troubling on Multiple Levels.” AV/Film (February 18, 2016). https://film.avclub.com/the-17th-century-horror-of-the-witch-is-troubling-on-mu-1798186614. January 9, 2020.
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 Perhaps the most extensive treatment of the witch trials on film occurs in the 2002 CBS television mini-series Salem Witch Trials. There are hints (never really clarified) that the haunting of the house in The Amityville Horror (1979) is related to Salem witchcraft. Among recent films that reflect the legacy of the trials are the 2013 film The Conjuring (which owes more than just a bit to The Amityville Horror), in which a family is haunted by witchcraft that descends from the Salem witches, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), in which the Puritan attempts to expurgate (nonexistent) witchcraft have themselves produced supernatural evil.
 The film identifies its setting as “the 1630s.” The Mayflower departed England in September 1620 and landed in November 1620, so the events of the film take place relatively early in the Pilgrims’ settlement of North America. Indeed, the film indicates that the children Thomasin and Caleb had been born in England, though he was too young when they left to remember the time before their departure. This information would appear to place the film in the very early 1630s, if the family if the film in fact came over on the Mayflower.
 Interestingly, in the beginning of the film, when the family arrives to the clearing and sees the forest, William seems to perceive the landscape as a place where they can find solace, capable of offering spiritual salvation. However, after they have established themselves, the forest becomes a forbidden place. In this way, a frontier emerges, separating the family, the house and the farm, symbols of civilization, from the woods that become a symbol of hostile wilderness.
 See Briefel for a discussion of the symbolic importance of this cup as a marker of happier past days in Katherine’s life (11–13).
 On the rise of American consumer capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, see Leach.
 The film does, however, note that there are “black witches” (who do worship Satan) and “white witches,” who correspond to the coven Elaine joins in the film. This pair also corresponds roughly to the contrast between the witch that murders Samuel and the more celebratory witches joined by Thomasin at the end of the film.
 Essentially the same visual style and acting style are employed in Biller’s first feature, Viva (2007), though that film is also set in 1972, making these styles, so reminiscent of the sexploitation films of that period, seem more clearly motivated, especially as the plot of Viva seems designed as a sort of subtle subversion of those films. Both styles are, however, more polished and fully developed in The Love Witch.
 The reference is to Dreyer’s Gertrud (1946), which Biller describes as resembling The Love Witch because it is also about a woman “whose ability to love exceeds that of her suitors, who are all spiritually bereft compared to her. And so she ends up being very isolated” (Morgan 43). Biller identifies John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven as the other film that most importantly informed The Love Witch.