Is the only escape from the patriarchy through a deal with the devil? Just in time for Loloween, Annie Fell discusses Satan, feminism, and Puritan sexuality in the horror film The Witches.
The Satanic Temple—the non-theistic sect of Satanism—has only ever endorsed one film: Robert Eggers’s 2015 horror movie, The Witch. The film, which follows a Puritan family’s descent into hysteria after being banished to the woods from Plymouth Plantation in the 1630s, was embraced by the Temple for its “criticism of a theocratic patriarchal society.” It’s a bold claim to make of a film that (spoiler alert) culminates in the family’s eldest daughter, Thomasin, joining the coven of witches that killed her family—save for her mother, whom she killed herself.
It is one of my most firmly held beliefs that New England is the spookiest region of the world (even barring that it’s home to some of the vilest aspects of America’s history, only a truly cursed land could produce so many Wahlbergs). And so for its setting at least, The Witch is a truly satisfying horror movie. But whether or not it’s empowering is debatable.
After the disappearance of their newborn son Samuel, and the mysterious illness and eventual death of their tweenage son Caleb, Thomasin’s family accuses her of killing them both with witchcraft. As viewers, we’ve known since the film’s early scenes that Samuel was killed by an old woman in the woods—whom we assume to be the titular witch—and that his unbaptized fat was used as an ingredient in her flying ointment; later, before his “bewitchment,” we see Caleb, alone in the woods, seduced by what appears to be a busty young colonial woman (schwing!) until a decrepit hand appears on his back mid-kiss (not schwing!). But Thomasin and her family don’t have this pertinent information, so all the evidence they have to go on is their belief that good things happen to the mortals who have been chosen by God and bad things happen to those He has already damned.
There are signs that point to the family’s predetermined damnation, but the most potent theme in the film is the looming threat of sexuality. The movie features a considerable amount of implied and explicit sexuality—the crone slathering blood over her breasts; Caleb coming home “naked as sin” after being “witched”; Thomasin slinking off her shift after signing the devil’s book, then joining the naked coven of witches chanting in the woods. Throughout the movie we see Caleb, a real freak on a leash if there ever was one, sneak glances at Thomasin’s bodice (never mind how tightly laced it is).
Caleb seems to be the only openly horny one of the bunch, which eventually manifests in the small bitten apple he coughs up after getting seduced and bewitched. Of course, to her family, Thomasin is to blame for this—the only pubescent girl in the family, her mere existence is basically a sin. Even though her own sexuality never seems to manifest in any explicit way, the fact that she has a developing body for her brother to ogle is enough proof of Satan’s dirty work for her family. A “proud slut,” as described by her mother, she’s accused of using her witchcraft to tempt her own brother and ultimately kill him. In that sense, the idea that sexuality is impious is one of the major sources of conflict for the family. (Even sex between husband and wife is an affront to God in their eyes—as if practicing multiplication tables, Caleb’s father drills into him that he was “born in sin,” in one scene.)
Despite it now being shorthand for chastity, Puritanism is rife with sexual undertones. The moment before his death, in a fit of either religious ecstasy or possession (we can’t be certain), Caleb interpolates this quote from the diary of one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop:
O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable thou art! Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is sweeter than wine: How lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embraces! My heart leaps for joy when I hear the voice of thee my Lord, my love, when thou sayest to my soul, thou art her salvation.
Winthrop himself was appropriating the Song of Solomon here. The Puritans, aesthetically, seem to have always been close to bursting at the seams. With no other outlet, their prayer was ecstatic and basically orgasmic. Their love, in both its emotional and physical manifestations, was wholly devoted to Jesus. In practice, Puritanism was essentially perpetual tantric sex with God; edging in aeternum. Seeking any other outlet for one’s sexuality could only be the influence of the devil. Essentially, men’s desire, though impure, was natural; for a woman to reciprocate and lead him astray was diabolical.
It’s probably for that reason that witches have gotten a reputation for being temptresses. The seductive witch is a simulacrum for men’s fear of female sexuality; Witches are essentially the comic book villains of the patriarchy. It makes sense that they’re now also pop cultural feminist icons. The Craft, Anna Biller’s 2016 film The Love Witch, Winona Ryder’s general vibe—even Sephora has started selling “starter witch kits.” The aesthetics of Anglo witchcraft, for which women (and some men) were once hanged and stoned and burned, are now embraced as symbols of feminine power.
The first time I watched The Witch, it didn’t strike me as a feminist story; I don’t think it struck me in any particular way beyond that it must have been total dog shit to live in the 1600s, no matter your gender. Still, I’m not surprised that people interpret it to be a sort of feminist reclamation of history. Life in colonial America was generally horrific, but it was unequivocally worse for women, and for a teenage girl to escape that in some way—even if it’s through a deal with the devil—certainly seems like it should qualify as a triumph. Still, the film’s overwhelming darkness makes it hard for me to view Thomasin’s ultimate transformation as a happy ending, and is probably what stopped me from reading The Witch as anything other than a horror movie in the first place.
Is it empowering to reappropriate “witchiness”? Or is it a reductive approach to tragedy, particularly given its sustained relevance (non-cishet people are still killed for their sexuality)? Also, if we’re going to call The Witch a feminist allegory, it should probably be taken into account that Thomasin only broke free from the shackles of her patriarchal family after being coerced by the devil incarnate—sure, that’s super fucking metal, but is it Good For The Cause? One more question: Is all of this deliberation totally moot, since witchcraft in non-Anglo cultures—most of the world—doesn’t boil down to men being scared of horny women, or just being really into Stevie Nicks? Maybe all that can be said for certain is that one of the spookiest parts of The Witch is, perhaps, the circuitous feminist discourse it hath spawned. Jesus, take th’ wheel.