Where is God?: Three Readings of "The VVitch"
[NOTE: I'm sitting down to write on the morning after the 2020 election because I'm not in the mood to do much of anything else. It's a dark time, and in dark times it can feel good to turn to art for a brief respite. As with other movie posts, this one will be full of spoilers, so I recommend watching the film before reading further.]
I saw Robert Eggers' "The VVitch" ("The Witch") for the first time a couple of months after it came out on streaming platforms back in 2016. At the time I didn't think much of it--I remember thinking that the cinematography was great, and that Eggers managed to create a nice, creepy mood, but that, on the whole, it was too slow and uneventful to keep my attention.
After watching it again last week on Halloween I have to say that I must have been in a bad mood or extremely distracted on my first viewing because this movie is just fantastic. Indeed, I can't relate to my initial judgment at all--yes, the action is slow, but every moment is filled with so much tension that only the most superficial viewer will come out of it thinking it's uneventful. In other words, I was wrong. It's hard to admit, but, as the immortal bards of Blink-182 say, I guess this is growing up.
Regardless, I wanted to share what I especially liked about my viewing this time around and what I think makes the movie so effective as a horror film. I'll do this by offering three connected readings, each of which touches on something profoundly scary. Normally, I would give a plot recap of the film before diving into an analysis, but I'm feeling lazy, so I'll assume that the reader has seen the film recently. (I direct folks who don't remember the plot to the film to its wikipedia page which does a good job of summarizing things)
First Reading: The Cruelty of Nature
The first reading is driven by a rather naive question: how much of what we see is supposed to be real? Or, to put the matter another way: "are we meant to believe that by the movie's own lights there are really witches?" The obvious answer to both seems to be, respectively, "all of it" and, "yes!", but it's important to note that there are reasons to doubt this.
Now, there's the obvious sense in which we know that because we're watching a movie, what we're seeing didn't literally happen in the way it is being presented--the film does not claim to be a documentary, and we're aware that we're being invited to participate in a shared fiction. This much goes for any piece of fiction. However, there's a further sense in which we're encouraged to take another step from reality insofar as we are explicitly told that the fiction we're engaging in is a folktale (after all, the full title of the movie is "The Witch: A New England Folktale"). Like fairytales, we know that most folktales are the stuff of myth and legend, and quite often involve impossible characters and scenarios. Furthermore, we also know that the purpose of most folk tales is didactic--to teach, instruct, explain, or moralize--and that they they do this by trading in metaphors and allusions rather than literal descriptions of reality. Thus, to be presented with a story that is framed as a folktale from the beginning is to prime one's audience to treat the story as just that, and not to take its veracity too seriously. This is true regardless of the fact that folktales treat what they present as quite literally true and is the result of how the framing of the story as a folktale affects how we view it. Thus, I think the fact that Eggers explicitly wants us to remember that we're engaging with a certain kind of fiction is meant to get us to view the film in that light and its events as metaphors or an exploration of broader themes.
The second reason that we have to doubt the reality of what's being presented is that despite what we see in the movie, there are alternative plausible explanations for the events in the film. Consider, that for the majority of the film, we see everything through Thomasin's eyes, and that, crucially, she is deeply affected by the religious indoctrination of her fanatic parents. She's obviously not as zealous as them, but it's clear that she understands her world as one that's nevertheless replete with evil, sin, guilt, and suffering.
Because she makes sense of the world through this framework, it makes sense to reason that she would employ this framework in order to make comprehend the events around her. Thus, the disappearance of her baby brother under her watch is explained by the conjuring up of a witch character who must have taken him away to use for her rituals and not due to a wild animal. Caleb's death is due to the same witch seducing him in the woods and bewitching him, and not because the boy got lost in the woods, spent a night in the freezing rain, and caught a fever that killed him. William dies not because of an enraged billy-goat and a poorly arranged woodpile, but because Lucifer himself took the shape of Black Philip and butchered him. Indeed, the only death that isn't explained explicitly through supernatural means is the one for which Thomasin herself is responsible--that of her mother. Yet, what immediately follows Katherine's death is the scene in which Thomasin seemingly embraces what her mother and father had projected upon her and becomes the witch by signing Lucifer's book and joining the forest coven. Thus, it is possible that we can interpret the events following Katherine's death as Thomasin's complete break with reality and her resignation to the fully embody the role of the corrupted sinner that she had already been saddled with.
On this reading, none of the supernatural elements are real, but they are rather brought in as symbols that represent and rationalize the brutality of Thomasin's life: misery, scarcity, emotional abuse, sickness, death, and an indifferent, primal nature that surrounds it all.
Taking both of these reasons together we have what I take to be a plausible reading of the movie: it is a folktale about the precarious nature of human life, existential suffering, and our attempts to cope with it. There are no witches and there is no Lucifer--but there's no need for them either: the hard, unforgiving earth, the beasts of the forest, and the cold climate are enough. We face them at our own peril and under the delusion of our own hubris.
The Second and Third Readings: Where is God?
The first reading is, I think an interesting one, but to pull it off we have to consciously step out of the movie and break the rules that the film tries to set up for us. That is, we have to reason that although it looks like there really are supernatural forces at play and we're shown that they play an active role in the story, there must be some other explanation for what's happening. Sometimes such readings are appropriate if given sufficient grounding (I've tried to do that in the last section), and, indeed, I'm inclined to say that some movies require that we read them in this way (e.g. satires) or risk missing the point. However, I generally prefer readings that purely stick to the internal logic of the film as it is presented--if the movie says that a radioactive spider can bite a young man and give him super-powers, then we should treat that as fact and give a reading that is as consistent with those facts rather than trying to explain them away by bringing in external considerations. Ideally, as far as I'm concerned, a good analysis of a film is able to do this task first, and is then able to show how when external considerations are brought to such a reading we get a deeper and richer understanding of the film. All of which is to say that I prefer the following two readings as kinds of 'internal' readings which can then be further developed by my comments in the first section. But I'm getting carried away...
On a different reading, we start by assuming that all the supernatural elements in the story are real and the characters inhabit a world populated by witches and in which Lucifer has a real and active presence. Of course, all of the other elements of the story are also present--the land is still unforgiving, Thomasin is still unjustly accused of being a witch, etc.
So far this doesn't get us very far. What's the movie trying to say if we're meant to take its supernatural elements literally? Maybe it's just a morality play about the dangers of the unknown, or the threat of being outside of the community, but I think we can do better.
In particular, we can note that the one supernatural entity whose actions we never see is God's. We see witches and we see Lucifer himself, but God is mysteriously absent from the film despite the fact that we are lead to believe that every character believes in Him fully and completely. Indeed, what we see of Him is only indirectly reflected through the actions of the family who fill their days with prayers to Him, and who focus on the constant state of sin that offends Him. He exists as an entity that shapes their lives, but is not present in them.
Focusing on God's absence in the film allows us to give a different reading of the film. Namely, we can see it as a story about how sin affects our relation with God, and, in turn, the nature of the relation between us and God.
Recall, the movie begins with William's arguably prideful insistence that he is more pious than the townsfolk. This results in their being banished and having to scratch out a living near the edge of the forest despite the fact that, as we find out, William is not a good enough farmer to support the family (Thomasin says the only thing he's good at is chopping wood and we repeatedly see him chopping wood even when the woodpile is clearly full). This leads directly to the disappearance and death of his youngest son since, presumably, the witch (which we're treating as real) wouldn't have stolen him if the baby was not so easily accessible to her. William's folly doesn't end there. His inability to understand his own limitations forces him to sell Katherine's silver cup and lie about it, implicating the young Caleb who covers for his father, and putting the blame squarely on Thomasin who is going to be sent away from her family as a result. This, in turn sets in motion the rest of the events in the movie as the family is tortured by the forces of evil that vist them.
If we look at the events that drive the action through the lens that shapes the characters--that is, from a hyper-religious lens--then we can see it as a story about sin and God's response to that sin. In other words, God isn't absent in the story, but has turned His back on the sinners, and in particular on William, whose sin of pride is passed on to his children and wife. It's worth noting, for example, that Katherine is visited by Lucifer in the form of her children after she admits that her faith in God has lapsed and that that lapse occurred only as a result of William's pious pride.
On this reading, God is a vengeful God who has abandoned his children to the very real forces of evil.
A slightly different reading in the same vein simply answers the question of "where is God?" by biting the bullet: God's absent because there is no God. There are witches and there is evil, but there is nothing out there to keep those forces at bay other than luck and the cooperation of other poor souls who can band together to resist it. Having given up society for a non-existent God, William and his family are at the mercy of these forces as soon as their luck runs out.
Why This Makes for Such Good Horror
All three of the readings I've given are understandably upsetting and frightening on their own. It's upsetting to be confronted with the brutal indifference of nature even if there are no "real" witches out there waiting to snatch our babies. It's also upsetting to put oneself in a situation in which God has turned His back on you because of your folly and in which, because of the lack of His protection, you become the subject of torture by evil forces. And it is also upsetting to realize that the evil might very well be real and that there was never anything that you could have done to prevent it. The latter two can be frightening even for atheists (like myself) who don't believe in their being a God at all, so long as they are able to step into the shoes of those who do believe, or so long as they can abstract God to be the presence of any kind of force of good or justice in the world. In the first of the latter two, there's the sense of tragedy that comes with holding that there is some justice out there from which you're separated by your own actions, and in the second there's a similar sense of tragedy and desperation in the realization that no such force exists.
In that light, all three cases are frightening because they speak to the lack of power and autonomy that we have in the world to make our lives go well.
However, there's a further element in the mix that is also present in the film and that I've found to be present in almost all good horror films: the uncanny. The presence of this element gives us the freedom to understand why the film is frightening without having to choose one of the three readings presented.
The concept as I'm referring to it is best laid out in Curtis Bowman's excellent paper "Heidegger, the Uncanny, and Jacques Tourner's Horror Films" (I couldn't find a public pdf of the paper, but I'm happy to send one if you email me). Bowman characterizes the uncanny as follows:
The main element of the uncanny is not-being-at-home in the world. We lose, so to speak, our ontological balance and become unsure of ourselves and of our understanding of the world around us. The main form that this can take is the realization that more possibilities exist for action and understanding than we ever though. Perhaps we revise our ideas in light of experiencing the uncanny; perhaps our ideas remain the same. The point is that the experience of uncanniness forces us to appropriate or reject accustomed ways of thinking and acting. In this way, we make some small step towards authenticity.
Bowman, pg. 72
Simply put, we experience the uncanny when we are made to confront the fact that the ways in which we've made sense of everything (ourselves included) is up for revision and could be radically different than they appear to us. Needless to say, this is a frightening feeling that, in Heidegerrian terms, results in angst--the urge to flee from that which threatens the (apparently) certain knowledge with which we lead our lives. It forces us to ask: if this character could be so wrong about this (whatever it might be) and if I can understand how someone could be so wrong and not know it, then how certain can I be in how I make sense of everything? As Bowman points out, this might result in some steps towards authenticity in which we try to rectify our behaviors and beliefs, but this isn't necessary--the confrontation with the possibility is what matters. And this is precisely what the film does.
We can see how the uncanny is at play in each of the three readings as each of them points us to some aspect in which we may have failed to understand ourselves or the world around us. In the first, we are confronted with the possibility that we've quite literally misunderstood the world--nature is brutal and unforgiving, and will crush us physically and psychologically if we're left to deal with it alone. In the second and third, we've misunderstood the moral nature of the world and our place in it. Either we realize that we can be abandoned by the goodness in the universe and left to suffer, or we realize that there is no such goodness there to begin with and that we've always been alone in our predicament.
Now, I don't claim that the three readings of the film I've presented are the only ones available, but I don't think any of them are either particularly esoteric or implausible. And I think there's something about the fact that each of them has the element of the uncanny that makes "The Witch" such an excellent horror movie.
Okay, with that, I'm going to go live deliciously.
 He asks the tribunal: "What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our father’s houses? We have travailed a vast ocean… For what? Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels and the Kingdom of God?"
 We never learn about the fate of the twins, but are lead to believe that they were snatched by the witch.