Suffer the Little Children
Kelli Weston on The Witch

This column features essays about films made in the twenty-first century that deal explicitly or implicitly with matters of American identity.

The violated child is the cornerstone of American hysteria, from the Satanic Panic to Stranger Danger to Pizzagate. Most recently there was the controversy, deserved or not, over the stateside Netflix release of the French film Cuties (2020), to say nothing of baseless, frankly perplexing allegations of a global sex-trafficking ring run by a liberal, Satan-worshipping cabal. It’s hereditary. In 1692, when young girls in Salem claimed their bodies were under the assault of supernatural forces, grown people tore Massachusetts apart, accusing hundreds of witchcraft and executing at least nineteen. Americans seem especially conspiracy-minded; perhaps a nation borne of invasion would so desperately fear itself always on the verge of being invaded, from monsters supernatural or social, lurking inside or along the margins.

The noble endeavor to protect and preserve innocence, then, is not disconnected from the image of America itself as innocent. It is widely conceived of as a “young” country, mythically premised on that original moral departure from mother England, and so maintains—far less convincingly these days—a deceptive progressiveness in the oft-touted promise of beginning anew in a place not beholden to uniform or ancient national identity. The split gave birth to other innate qualities, like moral extremism and a religious distrust of the collective, which enduringly projects evil outward.

Early in his debut feature The Witch (2015), Robert Eggers presents a shocking, fundamentally chilling scene in which we know a baby has been slaughtered, despite a series of sophisticated cuts that ensure we never see the limbs severed or the bones crushed. No visual elegance can flatten this horror. Such evil is unimaginable, inexplicable, and seductively uncomplicated—the beginnings of a fairy tale or, so it happens, the American Gothic. There’s little distinction, it turns out. The American Gothic, particularly as practiced by literary forebears Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving, who clearly shaped Eggers’s vision, tends to orbit around concepts of evil, madness, and the supernatural. But ultimately no monster ever compares to humans driven by fear.

Eggers populates his eerie “New England folktale”circa 1630, about sixty years before bloodthirsty panic seized Salem—with all the trappings that have haunted the American project from its colonial inception: religion, repression, individualism and violence. Exiled from their Puritan community after he spouts views too Puritan even for the Puritans, William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their brood—teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the prepubescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger), then later the newborn Samuel—relocate to a clearing where they erect a farm near foreboding woods, miles away from any colony. Already cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s depictions of overcast wilderness and creeping zoom-ins on the forest ominously dwarf the characters: they are out of their depth, on unknowable and possibly sinister terrain. The specter of race is never far. In the prologue, the gates close behind some Native Americans on the family’s way out. But Katherine and Thomasin still fondly recall England, and this mysterious, unyielding new land, where William struggles to grow crops and children may fall prey to “Indian magic,” is not yet quite home.

Their sense of unbelonging both heightens and threatens the family’s kinship. Historically children, too, have been treated as property, extensions of the self, to do with as parents please, and for centuries they were a crucial part of the labor force. After a witch snatches Samuel in a blinking second from under Thomasin’s nose, a grieving, increasingly resentful Katherine begs William to send their daughter away to work in another family’s house. Children—an innately vulnerable class, quintessentially domestic—traditionally occupy an ambivalent space in cinematic horror: alternately creepy, imperiled, or outright agents of chaos (here, they tend to be all these things at once). They have long operated in horror as the channel through which evil enters and infects the home, from usual suspects like The Omen (1976) to more modern examples like The Ring (2002) or Sinister (2012). Thomasin is doubly trapped in the domestic; even as she leaves childhood behind, her approaching womanhood threatens to confine her there. Her presence has already begun to destabilize the patriarchal and religious order of her family.

When The Witch was first released, critics naturally latched onto the film’s central feminist implications. Thomasin’s sexuality becomes a problem equal to her family’s economic scarcity and implacable grief. Katherine seeks to resolve all these issues at once by removing her daughter, and sending her to live with another family. Caleb’s furtive glances at his sister’s breasts (which do not so much suggest incestual feelings as evidence of his own looming adolescence and his alienation from peers), Katherine’s general bitterness, and William’s hesitation to protect his daughter from her mother’s wrath, all seem to hint that Thomasin’s body—through no fault of her own—is seen as a menace to this symbolic structure. She’s never able to move comfortably in a space so armed against her. If the film ultimately foregrounds Thomasin’s hard-won independence, it also seems clear that, once you strip away all the supernatural possibilities, the generational tension between parent and child emerges as the real source of horror. The threat is not actually outside the house at all, but within.

Set in the country’s “infancy”—for white people anyway—The Witch reveals the birth of the nation to be, fundamentally, a tale of horror, steeped in murderous paranoia. The young filmmaker may not have set out to map the country’s origins, but he inevitably succeeds at characterizing the fear so instinctively linked to the American spirit from its genesis. The film’s elegiac visuals and naturalistic sound design coalesce into a sleekly composed atmosphere of dread that herald tragedies soon to come. And because it’s principally a family melodrama where the occult becomes emancipatory, the film also proposes an effective way to consider how children function at the center of our most chilling cultural nightmares, when now we know more often than not, it’s the ones closest to them—not strangers—that they should be most afraid of.

At first the film seems to contradict this. Thomasin loses track of Caleb in the woods where he fatally encounters a young-looking witch, who may or may not be the same witch who earlier used his baby brother’s entrails for some type of flying spell. She beckons him close with her beauty and plants a terrifying kiss on the child, her aged arm gripping the back of his head. He returns to the farm “naked as sin,” feverish and hallucinating as his parents helplessly watch over him. The family’s descent into chaos is deftly staged. They’re divided against each other: the twins screaming that Thomasin is a witch and that she has bewitched them as well as Caleb; Katherine praying to God desperately through her tears; William, faced suddenly with his own impotence, prays, too. The camera closes in on Caleb, writhing in agony, plagued by some unseen force. “She desires of my blood!” he screams. “She sends them upon me! They feed upon her teats, her nether parts! She sends them upon me!” It would seem their deepest fears have been realized. Female sexuality causes the death of their son: he vomits a half-bitten apple and later cries out to God, welcomes His embrace, then falls dead from no discernible natural cause.

Katherine, of course, links the loss of yet another son to Thomasin, but, like nature itself, sex, birth, and death have surrounded the children throughout the film. Thomasin milks a goat that yields blood instead of milk. She drops an egg that reveals a dead chick. And the twins have forged a particularly bizarre bond with Black Philip, the farm’s billy goat, for whom they compose songs and to whom they whisper mysteriously. Back in Europe the goat was a symbol of promiscuity frequently associated with the devil. Thomasin suspects that it’s actually the twins who are responsible for all these unholy events through their rapport with Black Philip. All the same, William seals his remaining children in the stable. Their loss of innocence not only disrupts what he feels to be spiritually correct, but also crushes whatever familial deference he might have left: “I will smite Jonas as Abraham would have done his seed!”

Of course, here the witches are real; the devil is real. At the finale, Black Philip—confirmed to be the devil—purrs: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” Thomasin readily accepts. It’s a testament to the grim environment from which she finally escapes that her choice feels satisfying. She survives a father willing to see her hanged for witchcraft, and a mother who accuses her of seducing her brother and father. Their final confrontation externalizes everything; Katherine strikes at her daughter’s face and chest while Thomasin cries, “I love you!” Usually the witch as a figure stands in direct opposition to the mother, consuming babies rather than nurturing them; here Eggers offers another unsettling, weighty image: a raven pecking at Katherine’s breasts. Katherine does not simply nurse her grief, she and William both saturate their home in a dogma of death; what could possibly flourish there?

Horror cinema articulates the way children become vessels through which evil enters the domestic space because children themselves are borders, emblems of innocence to be rescued from shadowy syndicates of liberal pedophiles or disposable agents of war, shipped off to spread empire. Children do not so much corrupt the home as it fails to protect them. In The Witch, the monsters cast back on the very human cruelty of their non-supernatural counterparts in a domestic moral panic that concedes what all moral panics must essentially deny: that all of us may be capable of great horror.

Kelli Weston is a film writer whose work has appeared in Film Comment and MUBI Notebook. She is currently undertaking a PhD specializing in American horror cinema and Female Gothic fiction.