There are a handful of scenes from The Witch that have been playing, on repeat, every time I close my eyes. One involves a crow, pecking at a woman’s exposed breast. Another shows a fat, cooing baby boy, lit only by firelight, with a strong insinuation that he is about to be castrated. Then there’s the writhing, bulbous body of a witch, smearing herself in blood, darkened with shadow. But there are subtler moments of darkness, too: a tween boy gazing at his sister’s breast, a daughter ordered to unlace her father’s shirt, an egg cracked to reveal an unborn chick.
In The Witch, these scenes serve as ominous warnings of the disruptive power of the witch, her coven, and, by extension, the devil. At least that’s one way to read it: as a straight horror narrative, with a clear villain that steals children and destroys families. It’s a story as familiar as it is unconvincing — at least for contemporary audiences. But The Witch is also a piece of folklore and thus operates on two very distinct levels. It’s the story of a witch that terrorizes and eventually envelops a family, and it’s also a composite of stories our society has told itself for centuries: in this case, of what happens when a young woman fails to sufficiently reject her own sexuality.
The horror, in other words, is what theorists call “the monstrous-feminine,” a terror so terrible that centuries of storytelling have been dedicated to narrativizing its destruction. The Witch both reproduces and punctures that logic, highlighting its absurdity and its unmitigated sway. It might be a period piece, with accents and ways of speech and superstitions seemingly alien to our own, but the mythologization and misunderstanding that surrounds the maturing female body — somehow that hasn’t changed in more than 300 years.
On the most basic narrative level, The Witch is the story of a Puritan family who break from their New England community for unclear theological reasons, venturing out to the edge of the wilderness, where they attempt to survive alone. When their infant son disappears, the family begins to suspect the devil is to blame — and direct those suspicions to the beautiful, eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), just on the brink of womanhood. Things quickly start to go to hell.
Director Robert Eggers describes The Witch as an “inherited nightmare”: a palimpsest of the images, like those depicted in the scenes above, that have terrified us for generations. Those images are potent moments of abjection, which functions as the major chord in the grand symphony of the horror genre. The abject, most famously theorized by Julia Kristeva, is best described as the things that have historically grossed society out, either because our brains force us to see it as gross (pus, rotten food, cadavers) so we don’t get sick and die, or societal forces tell us to see it as a gross (incest, sexual deviance, women in general and powerful women specifically) because it threatens societal order.
These gross things often excite curiosity — you want to pick that scab, or look upon a dead body, or experience female sexual empowerment — so they must be repeatedly disavowed: We must be told, until it becomes common sense, that to live a good and safe and righteous life is to reject these things. Obviously, there’s good reason to be scared of corpses and festering boils and rotting meat. Our bodies revolt because they want to protect themselves. It’s slightly harder to convince the mind to be disgusted by things (like, say, women) that threaten the status quo, in part because it requires half of the population to be essentially grossed out by themselves.
And yet! Historically, there have been two ways to achieve this remarkable feat of maintaining patriarchy (and, oftentimes, a particularly white supremacist brand thereof). The first, and most explicit, is religion, which uses the threat of the great unknown afterlife as a motivation to hedge accepted mores and practices of a society. The Jewish tribes wandering the desert before the birth of Christ looked to the commandments of Leviticus — which were not “published,” but passed down orally — as the be-all, end-all on the word of God, who would judge them according to their adherence. To touch, consider, or desire the abject was to sin against God. Religion is particularly adept at making the terrifying unknown tenable, and one of the ways it does so is by offering a straightforward path to salvation: Don’t mess with mysterious and dangerous things like menstrual blood or women and power, and you’ll avoid sin.
By the 17th century — the era that serves as the setting for The Witch — Puritans had exchanged the material laws of the Old Testament for the more spiritual, and frustratingly amorphous, ideas of Calvinism, including the idea of “The Elect.” You didn’t arrive at salvation by following rules (or tithing to the Catholic Church, or purchasing “indulgences”) but through predestination, or the notion that God had preordained who would go to heaven, even before birth. Somewhat inconveniently, that knowledge — who was elect, and who was not — was available only to God. As a result, Calvinists spent their entire lives wondering, often with great psychological anguish: Am I elect?
The only indication of one’s predestination was one’s behavior: If you are inclined toward the behaviors of the saved, the circular logic went, then you are saved. Any yearning or curiosity about the abject was not just a sin, but evidence of one’s own lack of salvation.
You can see how this created a deep and abiding pathology around objects of abjection. But in order to express that pathology, you need something more expansive and flexible than static biblical texts. Thus: the sermon, the fairy tale, the nursery rhyme, all of which coalesce into the second and equally potent form of maintaining the status quo. Call it folklore, call it storytelling, but it takes on the guise of being “just a story” while performing necessary ideological policing.
Eggers says that he drew on myriad stories, testimonies, and reports from the era to craft the narrative of the The Witch, each of which would have been circulated as a means for adults to tell children, and children to regulate other children, and adults to caution other adults about the dangers not only of leaving the fold — and, by extension, the status quo — but also of the monstrous potential of the teenage girl, in this case Thomasin.
Social niceties and internalized self-horror prevent most from speaking about anxieties regarding female sexuality; as a result, those anxieties are transposed on the horror narrative, her ideological threat transformed into physical abjection. The horror of women gaining power — and, by extension, threatening patriarchy — thus takes the form of an actual witch, her feminine features (breasts, hips, ass) exaggerated to the point of monstrosity. Her pointed nose, like Medusa’s hair, is a physical manifestation of castration anxiety: She’s stolen the phallus and connected it to her body! It’s no mistake that the witch takes the two male children — the bearers of the next generation of male rule — and literally cuts off the penis of one and sexually decimates the other.
If the terror of powerful women forms the backbone of the fairy tale, it makes sense that it pulses at the core of the horror genre, which, according to media theorist Barbara Creed, is “grounded in ancient religious and historical notions of abjection”: “sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay and death; human sacrifice, murder, the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest.” Abjection is at the heart of classic horror texts like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes; it’s the hackneyed narrative muscle of “horror porn” films like the Saw franchise. Feminist horror texts like American Horror Story: Coven amp up the abjection, reveling in the absurdity of the panic it fosters.
In The Witch, the locus of abjection is Thomasin’s maturing female body, anxiety over which overflows in the most unsettling ways. It’s in the heavy incestual undertones, in the weird, demi-adult form of the twins, who, with their adult clothes, tiny bodies, and sophisticated language, confuse the Puritan delineation of child and adult. It’s in the blood that spatters, never splashes, in a way that suggests the drip of menstruation, and the rotting corn, and the wide gaping woods, readily aligned with the unknowable, dark expanse of the vagina. These things are dangerous, scary, abject because they threaten established ways of understanding the world and humans’ place in it: They’re existential terror made manifest.
The Witch isn’t scary, at least not in the traditional sense of the word, even though it’s filled with images of horror. The narrative itself can feel stilted (much of it feels like a play) especially at the film’s conclusion, when Thomasin joins her coven, and, we’re to understand, the devil — a moment that prompted several at the packed screening I attended to break into laughter. The ending feels unearned, but that’s often the feel of so many endings in folklore, as the story grasps for moral legibility.
That Thomasin was tempted by the offer to “taste butter,” “have the finest dresses,” and “travel the world” seems odd today, but all of those experiences are stand-ins for a woman’s liberation from the strictures of a Puritan God and patriarchal society. All that’s lacking, in terms of a woman’s intellectual awakening, is the promise of an education. For a woman of Thomasin’s time to entertain desires for any of those things was deep and convincing evidence of her damnation: She was gluttonous, greedy, and respected neither the wisdom of her parents nor her God. That’s the story that was told to young girls: Embracing control of your own body, sexuality, or future was tantamount to self-damnation.
Today, we call a woman who embraces those things a feminist. And while she no longer becomes a literal monster in our contemporary folklore, she still takes on all manner of monstrous forms: the old maid, the hag, the nag, the woman with the dried-up vagina or too much plastic surgery. Societal voices label her too fat, too loud, too slutty, too old, too abject, when her primary sin has been to reject the notion that patriarchal society has a say over her body or her happiness.
While all patriarchal societies have stories they’ve long passed down about the “monstrous-feminine,” The Witch is a particularly American tale. The rigid, self-shaming ideologies of Puritanism may have diffused themselves over time, but as the last decade of largely successful attempts to legislate the female body underline, they have not diluted. Ultimately, the horror of The Witch isn’t any mythological creature. It’s the persistence of patriarchy: an ideological stance so fragile it can only be sustained by terrifying its subjects into submission.