Robert Eggers’ striking debut The Witch is still one of the year’s very best films months after its release. With its creepy period specificity and effective tension that never cheats, the film is a bona fide instant horror classic. And October is a perfect time to revisit the film, or check it out for the first time. My original review can be found here, but this spoiler-filled post explores more of The Witch‘s themes of Satanism as an inversion of Christianity, and a perversion of spiritual ecstasy.
With The Witch, Eggers sets up a rigorous philosophical exploration of Satanism and anti-theology, within an equally compelling story of familial mistrust and treachery, within an equally compelling pastoral period exhumation. The textures—photographic, sartorial, linguistic—are completely transporting, and this verisimilitude adds a level of social relevance (both for the 17th century and today) that just give the film even more resonances on even more levels.
Among other things, the film shows the ease with which sin and evil can infiltrate an ideology so completely obsessed with denying them. There is no love, grace or forgiveness in the family’s version of Christianity, only a denial of it disguised as repentance. See, for example, this exchange between William and his son Caleb:
– Art thou then born a sinner?
– Aye. I was conceived in sin, and born in iniquity.
– And, what is thy birth sin?
– Adam’s sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling within me.
– Well-remembered Caleb. Very well. And canst thou tell me what thy corrupt nature is?
– My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually.
In other words, be careful what you wish for. William’s family dwell so wholly on their own perceived evil that they end up inviting it into their lives.
This perversion and inversion of the grace of Christianity is also what defines Satanism (from my limited understanding). And as Satanism enters the lives of this family, the film depicts it through a perversion of the Christian idea of ecstatic divine love. Katherine describes a “ravishing” proximity to the lord, and the sensuality and shame in her retelling is extremely illustrative.
I was so very near him, and in many tears for the assurance of the pardon of my sins, and I was so ravished with his love towards me, I thought it far exceeding the affection of the kindest husband.
No pleasures of the flesh could ever reach this ecstatic thrill for her—that is until she signs her name in Satan’s book. Then she is reunited with her dead sons in her own mind and her cackle of delight as a raven pecks at her nipple is a perversion of maternal love and divine ecstasy. Similarly, Caleb experiences ecstasy as he embraces the evil that has taken over this body. His weakness is lust, and as he expels the symbol of his temptation and gives into it, he is ravished. No experience could be more total. William is perversely proud of his asceticism—a perversion of true piety for which his family is banished—and at the moment of death embraces “corruption” as his lord. And of course, Thomasin’s ecstasy is apparent and all-consuming as she joins the chorus of witches in the woods.
The Witch painstakingly shows how each member of the clan, courting evil by basing their entire philosophy around it, succumbs to its ravishing pleasure. Only the young woman, though, agentless victim of her society, is able to use this perversion to achieve a kind of righteous power.