Author’s Note: This post was previously published by B*tchFlicks on October 28, 2016.
Judging it against other modern horror films, a lot is surprising about Robert Eggers’ outstanding debut, The Witch. It’s not a slow build like so many others in the genre, as one of the very first scenes shows us a witch and is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen in the first 10 minutes of a movie. It manages to be deeply unsettling and creepy without resorting to jump scares, a staple in the genre sometimes leaned too heavily upon. And it fully commits to its ending without going the ambiguous route that many have come to expect from this type of story.
The ending that the film ultimately commits to also illuminates another surprise: the eponymous witch alluded by the title may not be the hooded figure from the first 10 minutes or the bewitching woman in the woods who curses Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) in the second act. It could just as easily refer to the protagonist, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Sure, Thomasin’s climactic decision indicates this may be the case, but so does Katherine’s suspicion and treatment of her daughter. And that’s the biggest surprise: the film presents a family-vs-witch situation as the main dramatic conflict, but the fates of the characters show that – from a narrative standpoint – Thomasin is the definitive protagonist, and the antagonist is actually her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie). Considering some of the heinous things done by the witches in the movie – and the fact that Satan himself is a literal character – revealing Katherine to be the ultimate antagonist is quite the statement.
Recognizing the witch hunts dotted throughout the U.S.’s early history as a feminist issue, Eggers smartly constructs his film to be a power struggle between the two main female characters, each representing a different conception of femininity. Katherine, a middle-aged woman and mother, believes her power comes from her ability to give life, from her ability to have children. This fits nicely into the patriarchal Puritan society of the time, as women were relegated to be mothers and caregivers. The disappearance of her infant and the untimely death of her son compromise her caregiving abilities, leaving her powerless without her children (visualized by the nightmare image of her breastfeeding a crow, laughing maniacally as it gores her breast).
Unlike Katherine, the witches – who live outside the patriarchal Puritan society – at least partially draw their power from their sexuality, giving them (potentially) even more power than men. It’s no accident that Caleb’s demise stems from his male (hetero)sexual curiosity, as a witch takes the form of a young, attractive woman to lure him in and curse him. It’s also no accident that Caleb takes particular note of Thomasin’s developing chest (unbeknownst to her), around the same time Katherine announces to her husband, William (Ralph Ineson), that Thomasin needs to be sent away to work for another family now that she “begot the sign of her womanhood.” Now that Thomasin is a woman – with youth, beauty, vitality, sexuality, and fertility – she’s a threat to Katherine’s power.
In her final scene, Katherine, who is quick to blame all of the family’s hardships on Thomasin and her blossoming womanhood, attempts to strangle her scared and crying daughter to death. After Thomasin cuts her, Katherine bleeds all over Thomasin’s face, as if trying to insist that she (Katherine) still has the womanly power too (blood being “the sign of her womanhood”). But she doesn’t.
Directly contrasting Katherine, the witches in this world reject motherhood in the most drastic way imaginable, as evidenced by young Samuel’s fate. Eggers has mentioned in interviews that the macabre scene involving the infant was inspired by legends of witches using the entrails of an unbaptized babe as a “flying ointment,” hinted at by a blurry image of the witch floating in front of the moon directly after rubbing the… “ointment”… all over herself. Following the above metaphor, the witches are literally stealing Katherine’s source of power (her children) to further their own.
By rejecting motherhood, the witches reject their feminine role in the patriarchal Puritan society (although they still seem to follow a male leader). And that is what makes the witches so scary to the family in the film (and to the Puritans in general); they refuse to use their feminine power in the service of the patriarchal family, which threatens the patriarchal family. Add this to William’s inability to either protect or provide for his family – i.e., the man’s traditional source of power – and Thomasin’s feminine power becomes even scarier to them.
In a symbolic final act of desperation, William locks Thomasin away with her young siblings, as if attempting to force her to be with children (perhaps as indirect punishment for her failed moment of motherhood, where her infant brother was stolen from under her nose). Instead, the witches – and Satan – rescue her from this prison of mandated maternity. Ultimately, Thomasin decides that she has no use for the societal structure (or pious religion) that her family tried to confine her in, and she leaves it behind in order to embrace – and fully realize – her feminine power. As a witch.