“The Witch” by R. Eggers is about the conflicts within a Puritan family that is afraid to embrace paganism. The circumstances that incline them to do so grow out of Hunger. An empty barn with a bare cellar leads the believers to think that God has abandoned their home. Left alone with Nature, deprived of the hope of finding sustenance in the forest, and tests his congregation with despair. But fear is not born of a sense of being left behind but of helplessness at the guess that Death will soon sit at the empty table without food. Perhaps she will knock on the door with the horns of the Black Goat, with which the younger children play in the street.
Could it be that the famine came because it was the children who turned away from God?
It is challenging to know the real reason. All that remains is to pray and trust in the will of the Almighty. The Puritan family does this from day one, finding themselves on the forest edge of their future home. In the first minutes of the film, we see the characters raising their hands to the heavens in front of the thicket. Because of the framing, it is difficult to understand what they are praying to. The lens is mainly occupied by the forest, so the sky takes up only a quarter of the image. With such a cameraman’s solution, it is not clear to whom the characters are offering their hands – to God or to Nature. It seems that by worshipping God in front of the thick of forest, the family is worshipping the forest.
The shift of emphasis to Nature is particularly curious in that the sky, with which the viewer associates the Christian God, could have been put into the frame more. After all, Eggers shoots with a widescreen lens. It is as if the director deliberately fixes the viewer’s attention on the forest. Not without motive: the thicket has a role to play in the rest of the narrative.
“The Witch” shooting
Let us note that the dynamics of the narrative itself are also directly dependent on the camera. Thanks to the “wide” frame, the objects in it seem more extensive than the viewer is used to seeing. Because of this, the picture is emphasized by the “volume.” It is especially highlighted when depicting a small number of objects. Then attention is riveted exclusively to them, and we are not so much reading the context of the scene as immersed in the actual image. This effect is revealed as much as possible in panoramic shooting, where several things (or people) are depicted at different distances from each other. Because of this, the scene gets special multidimensionality and simply “swallows” the viewer. As a consequence, the dynamics of the narrative change: having got bogged down in a multidimensional image; the viewer loses track of time. It becomes difficult to keep track of how long the picture stays on the screen – and the action is stretched even with a standard timeline.
Stretching out the action is not a good technique for cinema. But in the case of “The Witch,” it works spectacularly. When the viewers are “swallowed up” by the picture, they don’t care about the speed of events: their attention is already strained. Prolonged tension is a great way to instill in the unrelenting viewer anxiety before something creepy appears. And Eggers does that with all the canons of the Slow burner.
It’s not just the width of the lens that affects psychological discomfort. It is the layout that creates the feeling of unease. This happens in ritual scenes. As noted above, the director uses a wide format at full power, placing a minimum of objects and people within the boundaries of the screen. For example, in the first scene with the witch, we see a close-up of a naked, frail older woman preparing a ritual. She’s either smearing her hands with a lotion, cutting something, or gutting someone. We cannot see the sorceress’s actions in full: the darkness and, most importantly, the plan itself interferes – the scene is shown in fragments. This draws attention to the parts of the scene that are not in the frame. Because of that, the imagination has to finish the picture. Multiply the concentration of attention by this multidimensionality of the frame, and you get a three-dimensional scene, which is really a lot in “The Witch.”
Just as fragmentary as the eerie image, Eggers works with religious symbols. In contrast to the visually capacious scenes, there are not many biblical references in the picture. To understand the meaning of one symbol, however, one must stack it with others. And sometimes, one has to abandon the first interpretation altogether because the main idea of the symbol reveals itself after its appearance in another scene. We are talking about the biblical symbolism of eating an apple.
In “The Witch,” the father of a hungry family takes his son into the woods secretly from his wife. The aim of the man and the boy is to find prey caught in the traps set. Of course, there is no game in the traps. It is as if the God on whom the hunters rely had forgotten about the people who put their trust in him. After a few scenes, the viewer may be led to believe that perhaps the right God has simply not come. In the end, the result of all their efforts to save themselves from starvation is half-hearted. They find a motionless hare but don’t shoot it; they set traps but don’t find their prey; they stretch out their hands to the woods but pray to their God. It is as if the Puritans are being hinted at to carry what they have begun to the end. Perhaps a hindrance to sustenance, the hostile natural environment demands that it be worshipped entirely, without prayers to the Christian God.
But whatever the cause of failure, the hunters are ashamed to admit defeat to the family. And the father tells the household that he took his son to get apples. The old man covers himself by going to the tree with the fruit that will please his wife – by himself, without her pointing. On the one hand, this is really just a cover-up because the man was going for sustenance, fulfilling his role as a provider. Still, on the other hand, it is a strange reverence for the biblical symbol in its reverse presentation. The allusion would have been more capacious if the wife herself had sent her husband for apples into the forest, where the husband would have been mauled by wolves. On the one hand, such a disastrous initiative for a man by a woman who lusted for the fruit would have remained a direct reference to the Bible. On the other hand, it would have connected with the desire to get rid of a family member by sending him into the woods, playing on the motif of some witches’ tales.
Here the man speaks of his own desire to go for apples. It is as if the sin of the Old Testament is laid in him and not in his wife. It is interesting that in the woods, the father convinces his son of his original sinfulness (“sin is in you and in me”). Perhaps the intention of pleasing the woman by looking for an apple is a cover for failing to fulfill his role as breadwinner.
Either way, it isn’t easy to understand this biblical symbolism. A subsequent, more lucid metaphor with William’s son provides clarity. When the boy himself appears in the woods, he falls prey to the witch by eating the apples offered to her. From the witch’s food, he dies. The motif of death due to communion with forbidden fruit is known in fairy tales. But it is not entirely appropriate to interpret this motif from a fairy tale perspective in the analysis of “The Witch.” The biblical layer in its symbols works more powerfully than the fairy tale one. So there is more Old Testament in the eating of the mortifying apples here. In the end, the cause of the boy’s death is the fruit of sin that was inside him (“sin” is in you and me). But now, literally not as a metaphor. Also, note that by receiving and eating the poisonous fruit, Caleb completes his father’s work, who “went for the apples, but did not reach. It is as if the boy is completing what the older Christian failed to do.
Caleb ate apples for a reason. As he entered the woods, he found himself deeper than the thicket into which his eldest had first led him. And here begs the main question, what is the connection between said faith in the Puritan family, the ritual needing completion, and the age of each householder?
Here the biblical motifs of the story give way to folklore. Eager to complete his father’s work, the son returns to the woods with his horse-saddled sister. Note that the horse and the forest in mythological tradition are symbols of the afterlife. The animal carrying the rider to the world of the dead and the forest that separates the realm of the dead from the world of the living have a similar function as a guide to the space on the Other Side. Stepping there is an initiation necessary for hunters who wish to spend a certain number of days in the forest. In fact, to die in it and be reborn, according to pagan traditions.
Caleb undergoes this initiation. Taking up a gun to shoot a game for his family’s sustenance, he goes to his death as a hunter. Here the character develops in a system of pagan coordinates, unlike the Christian father, who could not cross the line. Playing with the laws of nature, the son violates the Christian taboo of not tasting the forbidden fruit, causing death to occur. Here Eggers uses a fairly straightforward play of symbols.
Still, Caleb’s actions are paradoxical. By breaking a Christian taboo for the sake of survival, he later breaks even a chain of primitive, pagan prohibitions. Going into the woods as a warrior-extractor, the boy meets a witch and, despite his fear, becomes close to her. Thus the warrior undergoing initiation is thwarted by the woman, who is a threat, playing on the man’s own instincts. In essence, the witch has deceived the hunter because he has deceived himself. Perhaps the Christian injunctions were broken because the victim departed from the primitive rules.
Nevertheless, through their violation, Caleb came closer to his goal. Unlike his father, who was afraid to go beyond the boundaries of Christian morality. Without considering the consequences, the older man clings to the religious core. In this sense, the figure of the old man is more integral, although it leads to half-hearted results in feeding the family. On the other hand, the son’s actions are consistent, with the paradoxical duality of motives driving him. It could not be otherwise: Caleb is a too contradictory figure with several function roles. The folkloric plots reveal them through biblical and fairy-tale symbolism. But it does not change the status: these roles are psychological, like those of the other characters.
From one side, Caleb is the son who does not trust his father and wants to separate from him, but who accepts the “sin within me” program laid down by his eldest. At the other end of the spectrum, he is the younger brother, holding back his attraction to his sister. And on the third, he is the man trying to become a hunter but not knowing how to behave with a hostile nature. Note that each of the roles listed is dual. The son acknowledges his father, not wanting to copy his actions; the brother quarrels with his sister but wants to learn her body, and the man intends to help the family but has no experience as a prepper.
Curiously, the psychological resolution of one of the roles exacerbates the painfulness of the other role. Thus, Caleb goes into the woods to become a hunter but succumbs to the witch’s charms and is lost. We see how the boy, having accepted the forbidden fruit from the woman, becomes a man in a sexual sense. But he does not become one in the social sense, having failed to find prey for the family. Interestingly, because of this metamorphosis in the hero, the plot loses one of its layers. By making Caleb a man, the director has not fully revealed his attraction to his sister. By and large, Eggers sacrificed this motif to the biblical motif. After all, his interest in his sister cannot develop because Caleb dies because of ingested apples. And without the poisoning of the forbidden fruit, the metaphor of death from “the sin that is within” is impossible.
Apparently, for Eggers, metaphor carries more weight than the finality of the intended conflicts. It is worth noting that the director subordinates even psychology to symbolism by strictly dividing the relationships between the roles. For example, the younger members of the Family are, the less discord between them; the degree of faith also depends on age: for example, the younger twins do not quarrel and piously honor God, not thinking of what playing with the Black Goat will lead to. The older brother and sister bicker like teenagers and, inheriting from their parents, are afraid of starvation but somehow try to subordinate family survival to biblical precepts. The parents have long crossed the line: because of the pervasive terror of nature, the forest, and hunger, they are quarreling and getting disillusioned with biblical law. For the father, Christian morality becomes an excuse not to blame himself for inaction, hiding behind the expectation of a higher Providence. For the mother, Christian obedience to fate is a fiction rendered meaningless by the creeping death of hunger.
Paradoxically, the more aged and psychologically mature the characters, the more discomfort they feel from their circumstances. Unlike children, for whom leaving the familiar urban environment and getting to the outskirts of the forest could be a traumatic experience. In “The Witch,” however, the opposite is true: Eggers has changed the properties of the roles.
The director experiments with the symbolism of the roles not only plot-wise and psychologically. He tries, wherever possible, to make the most of symbolism. To do this, he works with the visual image. Thus, after death, Caleb is not only the son bringing the youngest child to his mother but also the dead boy with the baby in his arms. And the mother is a death-crazed woman breastfeeding a crow.
Without growing or degenerating (unlike Caleb), the characters decompose into many types and personalities.
As Caleb’s older sister, Thomasin, she stripped away a number of conventions before revealing her personal essence. Despite the fact that the essence of the character is contrary to Christianity, the image of the girl has similarities with the image of her father. Thomasine is just as wholesome: there is even less duality in her than in the old parent. But because of her gender, the girl is psychologically closer to her disappointed in Christianity mother. And she herself perceives Christianity not as the law of God but as a system of prohibitions necessary only to the men in the family. This is Thomasin’s only ambivalence. And it is not so much her as the situation in which the girl finds herself.
Being whole, the girl renounces her faith more readily than her puritan brother. However, it is through her non-Christian initiation that she receives her brother’s example of becoming a man in a sexual sense. Whoever came first, adult children accept the connection to pagan reality before their parents. Intuitively, Caleb and Thomasin complete the ritual the family began, as if they did not want to suffer the pangs after the grapes their parents had eaten.
One does not want to conclude that Eggers puts an end to the family conflict by freeing children from the parental experience because the psychological layer of the story is secondary here. The emphasis is on metaphors and biblical symbolism, which is difficult because of the liberties in its artistic interpretation. Moreover, the psychological roles of the characters are revealed through the very symbolism of the Old Testament and fairy tales. Through them, too, the duality within the characters is conveyed. But fortunately, there is no complicated psychologism because the characters don’t change but reveal themselves. This is helped by the shooting technique itself. After all, the images, visually accentuated by the camera work, hint at the conflict with the environment that reveals the characters. However, this was mentioned at the beginning.
As a director, Eggers is complex. But there are enough codes to unravel in his work. All the viewer has to do is not get confused by them.