The terror found in Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch is of a feminine persuasion. It is a film concerned with what a young woman represents in capital S, Society, about that young woman’s abject objectification, and about the dangers of misplaced masculinity. The Witch is also, commendably, a film about its milieu, with Eggers detailing 1600s New England as an alien terrain, akin to the black void that consumes its inhabitants whole in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. And it is Glazer’s film that bares an immediate kinship with Eggers’ work, exhibiting a thematic bloodline on the fear of femininity and its hostile repercussions.
The Witch begins with a family’s expatriation from a New England Puritan society. The reasoning for that expulsion is not specifically cited, though it is within reason to accept that it’s the family’s patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson) that spurred the exile. William’s strict Puritanical keepings in contrast with a liberal community undoubtedly prompted the banishment - the singular POV shot of the family’s departure includes the image of Native Americans within the confines of the closed community. This is a particularly unique detail given the hostility between the two cultures during the Puritan’s settlement and undoubtedly a touching point of contention given their clashing theologies. So it’s William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children that take refuge in a terrain vacant of God’s presence, adjacent to a forest that signals the presence of the Devil.
And it’s in this opening portion that we listen to the family’s eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) confess to a litany of sins, acknowledging that her mind has wandered to thoughts of murder and debauchery. Yet she is the only person in the film to ask for forgiveness, to wash away the sins that have amassed and look to the Lord for compassion. What follows is an exhibition of sin, where every member of the exiled clan embraces some measure of deviance. For example, Thomasin’s brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) fends carnal feelings for his sister, glancing at her budding chest. He also lies to his mother, concealing a hunting trip with his father to the forest as an excursion for the most sinful of produce. William, too, fails in his Puritanical role as a hegemonic figure, failing to produce a corn yield in the face of an upcoming winter, nor does he provide in a substantive way as a hunter. Instead, we see him occupy his time by chopping an excess of wood, attempting to impose his masculinity in a superficial way.
Though as Thomasin loses sight of the family’s newborn child, she becomes the proverbial scapegoat for the wave of perceived demonic forces that fall upon the family. The crop that failed to yield? A demonic presence. William’s inadequacies as a provider? The devil’s work. And the vessel that brought upon this blight? Thomasin.
The fear of femininity in The Witch is distinctly tied to youth and sexuality. Thomasin is a figure of fear and apprehension, as opposed to say Katherine, because of the sexuality that she symbolizes. As Katherine attempts to cajole William to rid Thomasin as a servant to another family, she prefaces the proposal with the detail that Thomasin is a woman – that her period has now brought upon anxieties of sex and carnality that needs to be expelled. This jealousy signals Katherine’s weakness, a sort of fear of replacement whereby Thomasin will function as her locum. It’s absurd, but it aligns with the family’s stubborn allegiances to fundamental Puritan totems, whereby Katherine’s attempt to rid the family of the younger Thomasin is her attempt at maintaining domestic sovereignty.
It may seem unusual to compare The Witch to Under the Skin, given the specificity of each film’s milieu and the omission of spirituality from Glazer’s film in contrast to the vital Puritanical element of Eggers’ work. But like Glazer, Eggers exhibits a formal acuity that connects femininity with the terrain that his characters inhabit. Thomasin is cognizant of the fallacies and contradictions of her faith, exposing her parents’ weaknesses and her siblings spiritual shortcomings, yet remains a scapegoat when applying logic to the illogical – where man-made scripture supersedes nature. If Under the Skin’s ending implies the ugliness of humanity overtaking nature, than The Witch’s ending refutes the thought: nature will expose humanity and render it inadequate. But among the many spiritual complications that Eggers offers in The Witch, it’s that a compromise between the feminine and masculine (realized by the Devil himself) will need to be reached. Capital S, Society will nullify a woman’s role in nature; that is until a deal with the Devil is made.