‘The Witch’: An Inspiring Journey from Amateur to Professional
According to Jerry Seinfeld, great comedians learn from their audiences. They abandon what they assume is funny, to discover what actually makes people laugh. “Audiences will teach you what’s funny about you.” (A quote found in the book Make Art Make Money by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens.)
The family at the center of Robert Eggers’ 2015 historical horror movie The Witch takes the exact opposite approach to life. And their fate is worse than getting booed offstage.
(Spoilers for The Witch ahead.)
A Modern Parable
The father, William, played by Ralph Ineson, thinks he knows how the world works. He’s absolutely sure his beliefs are right. But, as hell on earth unfolds around him for ninety minutes, we see him learn the hard way that he’s wrong. The world isn’t like it is in his mind; it doesn’t conform to his beliefs. And he’s unable to cope.
The Witch is a thoughtful and haunting parable, worth thinking about in depth. It shows us in metaphor what its patriarch William could never understand: things that seem to be true at one time might not be true at another. The consequences of inflexibility are the destructive, supernatural forces at work in The Witch.
“What went we out in this wilderness to find?”
With these words we’re introduced to William, father of five and notorious stick in the mud, as he stands before a tribunal. William and family face exile from a Puritan community in 17th century New England. He asks, didn’t they come to the New World (America) “for the pure and faithful dispensation of the gospels and the Kingdom of God?” He’s a self-appointed missionary, delivering his God to an unknown land.
William doesn’t make friends easily — probably because he’s dripping self-righteousness. Before the tribunal he declares, “I cannot be judged by false Christians.” To him, everyone is weak, corrupt, and lost. Only he knows the truth, as he constantly sermonizes to his family.
Understandably, the town is sick of it. William and family are kicked out, banished to the unknown woods for their religious pride.
The court scene — the first scene in the movie — sets up the primary conflict. The family, embodied by William, is too puritanical even for Puritans. Their dogmatic interpretation of religion guides their every move and isolates them from other people. Perhaps this lifestyle worked perfectly well in England (we later see William’s wife Katherine wishing to return there), but they can’t seem to adapt to their new environment.
Alone in the Woods
Out on their own, the family struggles for survival. Everything goes horribly wrong — crops refuse to grow, hunting rifles backfire, a baby disappears into the forest, and they quickly start blaming each other.
They think the witch must be among them, but really it’s out there in the woods. A classic witch, complete with broomstick, cauldron, and apple — just beyond the treeline, stalking and torturing William’s family, consuming them slowly, even as they bicker among themselves.
The brilliance of Eggers’ terrifying vision is that it shows that the family is already in hell, metaphorically speaking. Their beliefs turn everything natural into sin and temptation. Religion, for Will and family, isn’t a connection to the world, a unifying force. Rather, it’s a bargaining tool with a mysterious and silent God, as they look forward to the afterlife. But why won’t God play by their rules?
A Secret Comedy?
God never shows up. But the witch in the woods does. While the family lives out their tragedy, the witch seems to be having a great time. When we finally see her face, she lets out an evil but genuine cackle. Perhaps from her perspective the whole thing is a comedy.
Like a classic malevolent trickster, the witch delights in her mischief and mayhem. She represents everything our protagonists seek to destroy within themselves. Through their denial and repression, harmless emotions like joy, love, and sexual attraction become vile and destructive — they manifest in the witch because our protagonists cannot accept them.
But human nature can’t be suppressed forever. William meets an early demise. But his daughter, Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, emerges as the only character capable of change. She confronts the mischief, signs her name on the dotted line, and admits her desire to “live deliciously.”
Thomasin wants to reconnect to her shadow side — all those ugly desires that won’t go away, no matter how hard we try. With the words, “Black Philip, I conjure thee to speak to me,” she leaves behind her restrictive worldview and ventures out into the unknown.
In a weird way, The Witch is a story of triumph and growth. Thomasin makes the jump from tragedy to comedy. The final shot focuses on her face, laughing in glorious relief and supernatural power.
The Witch rewards rewatches. Every line betrays the characters’ inner thoughts, suspicions, and beliefs. The family (especially William) arrogantly attempts to conquer the outside world, guilty of making God in their image, rather than the other way around. They’re like amateur comedians, insisting they know what is funny, and ignoring the silent audience for as long as they can.
In another way, however, they’re victims. It’s not their fault that they are possessed by repressive beliefs. They fumble blindly, trying their best to see through the tinted lenses of self-righteousness.
Sometimes we have to go through periods of intense belief before something snaps us out of it. I remember a relationship from years ago that obviously wasn’t working, but at the time I couldn’t see it. I was determined to make it work, even though all evidence indicated otherwise. I was miserable, inflicting a hell of emotions on myself by ignoring the truth.
Eventually, however, the web of lies caved in on itself. My illusions exploded painfully. But afterwards, like Thomasin, I found myself laughing. I was finally free from the restrictions of my own ideas. I saw that in retrospect I was in a mental prison and didn’t know it. How good it feels to be lost in the woods, surrounded by fellow witches.
The Witch shows us this journey from denial to acceptance. Amateurs deny the world, thinking they know what they’re doing. Professionals learn to give up obsessive control and see what actually exists. They see for themselves what works, riding waves of laughter like a surfer, going with the current, rather than against it.
Thomasin rises up into the sky — the consummate professional. After our own self-imposed tragedies, perhaps we will too.
Click the ♥ if you liked, and follow me for more stories like this. Thanks for reading.