The Witch Is Sinister, Smart, and Wildly Feminist
The Witch is the kind of horror film diehard genre fans constantly hunger for, but rarely get. That’s because while it’s as unsettling as any scary movie should be, writer-director Robert Eggers’ first feature is also smarter than much of its ilk—blending old-time religion with modern feminist ideas in a way that can be totally missed if you’re not looking, and greedily devoured if you are.
Eggers’ method for crafting such a sinister film is simple. First, he starts with the tale of a devout family ousted from their Puritanical settlement and forced to start a new life. Then, slowly weaves in actual witchcraft folklore until its unclear if there is an enchantress in their midst, or if fear of sorcery has just driven them (and the audience) mad. But whereas “She’s a witch!” might feel like an old trope, Eggers’ movie presents it in such a way that—in our (still) politically, morally, and ethically divided times—it is easy to see how it parallels the treatment of powerful women nearly 400 years later.
But while the movie’s maker wasn’t going in with an agenda—“In all of my trying to stand back and be objective about themes, feminism rises to the top,” Eggers recently told USA Today—others have clearly found one. Jex Blackmore, the spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, for example, notes that The Witch isn’t just a horror movie for horror’s sake, but a story of female rebellion and accepting outsider status.
Of course in New England at the time of Eggers’ movie, any woman who fell outside of societal norms became a suspected witch. Women who lived atypical lives, women of color, women who challenged patriarchal systems, even a girl like The Witch’s Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy)—who just found herself in the unfortunate position of becoming a woman in a family of zealots with a few misbehaving goats—got called witches.
“It was mostly the female manifestation of this evil figure,” Blackmore says. “The witch was supposed to have this relationship with the devil by selling her soul to him, in exchange for any number of sinful goods.”
Even though people these days are far less likely to actually believe a woman has a relationship with Satan, demonizing them for acts of individuality or self-empowerment is still quite common (see: Beyoncé Illuminati rumors, Hillary Clinton criticisms, jokes made about Lorde’s appearance, etc.). And that behavior dates back to a time even before the era of The Witch.
The Witch’s ‘Satanic Uprising’
That idea of the witch as any sort of female outsider, Blackmore says, “actually did a lot of harm to our society.” To point out that harm, and how it’s still present in the treatment of women today, the Satanic Temple partnered with The Witch’s distributor, A24, to host a series of screenings and performances—dubbed the Sabbat Cycle—in New York, Los Angeles, Texas, and Detroit. The Temple—which, it should be noted, is a non-theistic organization more aligned with issues like reproductive rights and same-sex marriage than the Devil himself—hopes to use the film to explore the ties between historical and modern bigotry and inspire a “Satanic uprising.”
“As Satanists, we are ever mindful of the plight of women and outsiders throughout history who suffered under the hammer of theocracy and yet fought to empower themselves,” Blackmore said when announcing the Satanic Temple’s support of the film. “While the patriarchy makes witches of only the most socially vulnerable members of society, Eggers’ film refuses to construct a victim narrative. Instead it features a declaration of feminine independence.”
On one hand, Blackmore finds it wrong to reclaim anything witch-related. At the same time, she notes, stories like The Witch need to be told to question idealized notions of the values of early America.
The Evolving Concept of the Witch
Complicating the matter is how the idea of the witch has evolved. In the 20th century, Wiccan ideals created the possibility for so-called witches to be more than just beautiful, evil sirens or old, evil hags. And during that time characters like Glinda, the Good Witch, in The Wizard of Oz, the Halliwell sisters on the TV show Charmed, and Sarah Bailey in the movie The Craft became cooler, more acceptable versions of the witch archetype.
“We still have that part of our cultural memory,” says Blackmore. “[But] the witch wasn’t really created by anyone besides the dominant power structure, which was the church and a few idiocratic governments.”
The Witch forgoes friendly Wicked-esque characters and instead gives that more patriarchal, puritanical origin story. Thomasin isn’t suspected of being a witch because she rides a broom or wears a pointy hat, she suspected of being one because her family’s farm is unproductive and its believed some curse of her burgeoning womanhood is to blame.
A day after speaking to Blackmore, I went to the Temple’s first Ritual, on Ash Wednesday, at the Jane Hotel in New York. Inside, roughly 500 people gathered in the hotel’s Jane Ballroom. Earlier that evening, Blackmore gave a speech there. She said much of what she told me the day before: people should accept and empower themselves, and embrace the Satanic values of the self. This proclamation of personal independence, she argued, would inspire others to be active in their own neighborhoods and social circles.
I asked many people why they were there. Most didn’t know. They’d been invited by friends of friends. However, one woman, a 38-year-old photographer named Ellen, knew exactly why. Like many witches before her, she had been ostracized by her family. She and her mother stopped speaking more than 15 years ago, after a photograph of her breasts appeared in an art gallery. This was her community now.
“I don’t like it when someone’s too obvious, like wearing black lipstick,” she said, but “I’m here because these are my people.”
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