“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” asks the father of the doomed family at the start of The Witch. “Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers’ houses, we travailed a vast ocean. For what?” Much of the conversation around the historical setting of this maybe-not-very-scary, depends-who-you-ask horror film has been about witchcraft and aesthetics. Would English people in Massachusetts in 1630 have believed that goats harbored Satan, or that a witch might kill a baby in order to take flight? How accurate are the materials used to make the family’s dark, tiny house, and their drab homespun costumes? (Slate’s Forrest Wickman’s Q&A with director Robert Eggers answers many of these questions.)
But I submit that the most interesting way to watch The Witch as historical fiction is to put witchcraft aside, and instead to focus on the very questions William poses to the tribunal that will soon exile his family to the woods. The Witch is a great exploration of the dark, chaotic, troubled psychology of English colonists at the very beginning of the empire’s colonial experiment in North America. People who “travailed a vast ocean” to find a new life turned starving and paranoid, surrounded by their dead, uncertain of their identities or their missions. To put it bluntly: People living through those first settlement years often lost their goddamn minds.
In a well-received 2014 book, literature scholar Kathleen Donegan wrote about the earliest histories of Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and Barbados, arguing that the awful things that happened to colonists—starvation, sickness, violent death, breakdown of the social order—in the first few decades of habitation of these places fundamentally challenged their worldview and deeply traumatized them. I don’t know if Eggers read Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America while making the movie; I don’t care. It’s a great companion to The Witch.
“When I began this study, I wanted to write about the first years of colonial settlement because I could not get the stories out of my mind,” Donegan writes. Indeed, some of the episodes she describes—people dying by the score at Jamestown, so hungry that they licked blood from the bodies of sick compatriots; panicked colonists mounting ill-conceived raids on nearby Native American tribes, committing awful atrocities; doomed trading outposts populated by rough men who eventually descend into lawlessness—are truly terrible.
Donegan’s fellow literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt writes about what happens in places where cultures meet, calling them “contact zones.” Adapting Pratt’s idea, Donegan calls the psychological state induced in early colonists facing these trials a “chaos zone.” “I use this term to refer to both social and mental spaces within the colonial context where the ability to understand what is happening is recurrently and threateningly disturbed,” she writes.
Whether such failures of recognition result in uncanniness, paranoia, misprision, panic, physical violence, or (most frequently) a dangerous combination of all of these, they must be understood as something other than a temporary sense of disorientation.
Native Americans often bore the brunt of the colonists’ mental dislocation. As an example, Donegan describes the actions of George Percy, the governor of Jamestown who presided over the colony’s worst months—the “Starving Time” of 1609-10. Eventually, as tensions with the neighboring Paspahegh escalated into open conflict, Percy, trying to send a message, “threw Indian children into the James River and shot their brains out as they were trying to swim ashore.”
Mental dislocation, extreme survival conditions, failures of epistemology and faith—these are perfect starting points for a horror movie. Let’s leave behind the impulse to do perfect historical fact-checking of The Witch, and look instead at the way the movie evokes, with scary psychological precision, this “chaos zone.”
The family in The Witch is utterly alone. When brother Caleb is lost in the wood, along with their dog, gun, and horse, the parents realize they can rely on no one else to find him, since the plantation they left is so far away (a day’s ride by horse). “From the very point of initiation,” Donegan writes, “England’s overseas colonies could instantly be cut loose from protection, alliance, or any means of belonging to the home country. Settlers at Roanoke were… shocked when supply ships failed to come to their aid, but abandonment was literally written into their constitution.” William and Katherine have chosen to live apart from their fellow colonists, and at the beginning of the movie, this independence seems like bliss; they smile toward the woods, alone in the clearing where they will build their farm. When they desperately need help, it’s too late.
Looked at from this perspective, the absence of Native Americans (they are visible only in the very first few minutes of the movie, and mentioned twice by William and Katherine) cements this forsaken feeling. The Native Americans around Plymouth died in tremendous numbers in the years after colonization. Donegan writes that these deaths, as well as the withdrawal of the remaining Wampanoag and Massachusett (who were rightfully wary of the English intruders after they did things like mount the head of Massachusett warrior Witawamut on a pike on their fort), left the Pilgrims bewildered and alone, without trading partners, in the decade after they arrived. The empty woods in The Witch, populated only by supernatural beings, offer no human fellow-feeling at all. The historical parallel is probably not intentional, but it works.
The Witch unfolds as the family starts to fear the winter. The initial deception that drives a wedge between Katherine and Thomasin comes about because William trades away Katherine’s treasured silver wine cup in order to get traps to supplement their failing crops (then lets Katherine believe Thomasin lost it). As things start going wrong, and the tension builds, the children lie awake in the attic, their eyes wide and staring, listening to their parents argue. Hunger was a persistent presence at Roanoke, Jamestown and Plymouth, and was the shadow factor that caused so many of the colonists’ other problems: disease, internal enmities, bitter conflicts with Native Americans. Likewise, hunger dogs the narrative in The Witch.
The colony at Plymouth lost half of its people in the winter of 1623. “In two or three months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them,” wrote Plymouth Colony leader William Bradford. “So as there died some times two or three of a day in the foresaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained.” The mortality rate had a profound effect on the social fabric of the colony. “Only three of eighteen married couples survived intact. All of the colony’s principal men—William Bradford, Miles Standish, Isaac Allerton, and Edward Winslow—were widowed. Only two families did not suffer a loss,” Donegan writes.
The Witch starts with the bizarre and unexplained subtraction of a child—the infant Samuel, who is whisked away into the woods with supernatural quickness. In their curtained bed, William consoles Katherine, who can’t stop crying and praying. He reminds her that they have been lucky: they’ve never lost a child. The movie is about to take away all of their family members, one by one; by its end, Thomasin is left in the woods by herself. The strangeness of some of these losses—Sam, taken; Caleb, bewitched; Jonas and Mercy, apparently killed, though we never see their bodies—is matched only by their relentless progression. Donegan acknowledges that people in England were used to their family members dying, by plague, disease, or accident. But English colonists suffered these losses in the middle of the forest, without the larger web of social comforts to sustain them. Thomasin, alone at the dark cabin’s table, is the last of all her family, and without any ties at all.
One reason mainstream audiences may be having trouble really loving The Witch is that the characters speak in thick English accents, using archaic syntax. They are, relatively speaking, fresh off the boat. It shows in the way their thoughts turn back to previous days. Katherine and Thomasin, especially, are homesick for England. Thomasin tries to get Caleb to reminisce with her about the glass windows they had in their house back home, asking him to remember how their dog Fowler used to lie on the floor in the sun. (Given the hunger the family is suffering, and the imminent death of the dog, her memory of her father’s joke when Fowler hopped up on the table in their English home—“We will have him for meat!”—is all the more poignant.) Thomasin also remembers English apples, and longs for one; when the bewitched Caleb throws up a perfect Red Delicious, glistening with blood, its physical presence in their wretched home is the perfect cursed answer to this wish.
Loss of faith and personal identity
For English colonists who came to Virginia or Massachusetts without an explicit religious mission, the feeling of being set loose from England—with all of the strictures and comforts that implied—was sometimes terrifying. For the people who came to Massachusetts for religious reasons, the colony’s early failures sorely tested their faith. “The threat of becoming a corpse abandoned in the wilderness was not only a material concern for the Plymouth colonists; it was also a typological nightmare,” writes Donegan, referring to the story of the wandering Israelites who, doubting the bounty of the land of Canaan, were cursed by God for their disbelief. People in Plymouth must have wondered: Are we dying because we didn’t trust God?
The failures of the farm, and the successive deaths of the family members, cause parents and the older children to question their own status in God’s eyes. For Katherine, it’s the worst; she once had a strong sense of God’s love, and, with the disappearance of Samuel, it departs from her. Caleb worries that he is going to hell; when he dies, bewitched and screaming about the presence of Jesus, his parents are left to wonder whether he is truly in heaven, or whether his final words were a mocking burlesque of religious fervor, placed in his mouth by the witch who killed him. And William dies stripped of his own sense of worthiness as a Christian and as a patriarch, buried in the huge woodpile he has built up alongside the house—the only thing he has been able to provide for his family.
So. Is The Witch scary? I didn’t jump. Is it historically accurate? Maybe not in the strictest sense. But it got the mindset of America’s lonely, desperate early settlers exactly right.