Brow Beat

Critics Love the Horror Film The Witch. Why Don’t Viewers Think It’s Scary?

“Not scary”? 

A24 Films

This post contains spoilers for The Witch, but don’t worry, because it’s not scary anyway and nothing happens.

Since its Friday release, The Witch has left many movie critics spellbound, but among general audiences its impact is less clear. The film, a demonically spare and brutal “New England folktale” from art-house distributor A24, directed by Robert Eggers, earned an 86 percent Tomatometer rating from critics but only 53 percent from audiences. Its Cinemascore is an unimpressive C-minus and it came in fourth at the box office this weekend, netting $8.6 million. Its chief detractors are an outspoken corps of horror fans. Not scary, they’ve complained, on Twitter and in blog posts. Not enough happens.

Before unpacking these dismissals and what they suggest about our expectations for horror as a genre, I’d like to pause and regret, Nathan Hale–style, that I have but two eyebrows to raise for my publication. The Witch isn’t scary? Was there not enough death? (Spoiler: Basically everyone dies, including the animals.) Not enough blood? (There is an alarming amount of blood.) Perhaps you wanted something more gruesomely horrific than a crow jabbing its beak into an ecstatic woman’s breast as she fantasizes about nursing her dead baby.

But many horror fans are upset that such set pieces are sown more sparsely than they might be in a conventional, thrill-a-minute gorefest like Saw or Friday the 13th. A24 has played this game before. As David Ehrlich noted in his profile of the distributor, they cannily marketed Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers as a T&A blast, then delivered a dreamy head trip. Just as the company seemed “less concerned about the nine kids who found the film too weird than they were the one kid who went home and rented Gummo,” right now A24 is surely delighted with its $8.6 million take—the highest first-weekend gross in company history—and hopeful that 1 kid out of 10 will follow the Witch down the rabbit hole to weirder, spookier, off-kilter horror.

But for the other nine, The Witch may have seemed like a wasted evening out. The idea that the supernatural can spend too much time twined in the movie’s margins instead of jumping out from behind corners—this is not an unprecedented reaction to creepy, confounding niche offerings that bravely attempt to swim in mainstream horror lanes. In 2015, both The Babadook and It Follows ginned up indie-festival hype only to meet with howls of “boring!The Blair Witch Project, now a staple of the nightmare-fuel canon, received a Cinemascore of C+ among viewers 21-34. “America fucking hated [Blair Witch],” recalled Mike D’Angelo, 15 years later. “Promised the most terrifying movie ever made, they instead got three annoying people wandering through the woods being terrorized by piles of rocks and bundles of sticks.”

Assessing Cinemascore’s place in film criticism, Scott Tobias wrote that the polling outfit doesn’t offer “a metric of merit, but a barometer of comfort, with satisfaction on one end and estrangement on the other.” (Consider that Hail Caesar, an off-center farce marketed wishfully to the mainstream, also clocked a C- rating.) We penalize films that thwart our expectations—and The Witch has a more poetic and more patient logic than many of its horror brethren. Not every scary utensil gets lodged in a warm body. 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. (The creators took pains to construct each building with period tools and materials. The drab costumes are hand-woven, and characters quote from 17th century sermons and diaries.) 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. (In one sustained shot, we see the witch doing … something … to an infant in her hellish grotto; gore drips down her arms; the freakish angles obscure her hands and face. It is confusing, horrible, and it lasts forever.)

The Witch’s commitment to unrelenting, ambient dread helps it evoke the mindspace of its Puritan characters. 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. “We will conquer this wilderness,” swears William. “It will not consume us.” But he knows they’ve already been consumed.

In his piece on Cinemascore, Tobias suggested that “not having the courtesy to end on a happy note” would doom a movie seeking broad appeal. The rules for “happily ever after” in horror may look slightly different, but Eggers’ final scene still achieves mind-blowing gonzo-ness. (On Twitter, debate about the ending abounds.) 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 wood 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 last shot is a close-up of her transfigured face.

Wait, what? Normally, the fall of the main character in the final scene of a horror movie would be a director’s gloomy or gleeful surrender to evil. But 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 can’t overstate just how shocking this moment feels, when you realize that the movie has up until now perpetrated a fundamental deception about its own point of view. All along, Eggers has stood on the Devil’s side; the triumph of the forces he’s trained us to dread and fear actually constitutes a happy ending. This hugely daring reversal could read as a middle finger to viewers, who’ve spent the past hour and change sympathizing with the pilgrims and rooting against the dark hosts. But don’t have such a limiting, orthodox view of what a horror movie ought to accomplish! Let the film’s ending serve as a reminder—as a certain goat might say—how delicious heresy can be.