| Arts & Culture
The PettyCoat Chronicles The Occult, Fear, and Crises of Faith in ‘The Witch’
According to ‘The Witch,’ there’s no surer way to invite evil in than by being reckless enough to try to play God.
I grew up with a consuming fear of hell. It was a terror that was also an obsession: something I courted within the confines of our family’s staunch Evangelical home. I read everything I could about hell, as though by learning about it I could somehow dodge the lake of fire, master how to remain in God’s good graces. I think I was about eight years old the first time I read the book of Revelation from start to finish. And I was about eleven years old the first time I read Jonathan Edwards’s infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I read obscure, controversial accounts by people who’d claimed to see the other side—books like 23 Minutes in Hell , a memoir by Bill Wiese, an evangelical Christian. Wiese claimed to have had an out-of-body experience in 1998, in which he saw and experienced hell himself and was brutally tortured by demons before being rescued by Jesus Christ. I don’t know why I was obsessed with reading these kinds of books, but I found perverse comfort in the familiarity of fear, a fear that confirmed the things I believed. Fear was a constant, as kindred and familiar as the lyrics of Sunday school songs.
Robert Eggers understands the arresting intimacy of religious fear. How else could he have created The Witch: A New England Folktale ? The film was released in 2015 and is, in my estimation, a ninety-minute masterpiece more akin to a poem than a film. Set in Puritan New England in the 1630s, The Witch tells the story of a young teenage girl named Thomasin, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy in a stunning debut performance. Thomasin’s family is exiled to the wilderness after her father gets into an unnamed religious disagreement with the local church. Banished, Thomasin and her father William, mother Katherine, and younger siblings Caleb, Jonas, and Mercy pack their entire lives into a wagon and venture out deep into the forest, away from the protection of their community and into the vast, terrifying darkness of the woods.
About a year later, we find the family struggling with the small working farm they’ve managed to raise. Katherine has since given birth to a baby boy named Samuel, and William labors away at their failing crops as winter slowly approaches. Their survival against the wilderness is precarious, to say the least, but never more so than when baby Samuel mysteriously disappears into thin air one day, while Thomasin is playing with him.
We soon discover Samuel has been kidnapped by a hideous old witch living in the woods beyond the family’s small clearing. The witch, searching for an unbaptized baby, murders Samuel and uses his body to prepare a flying ointment for her broomstick. Back at the farm, grief, fear, and suspicion tear the family apart, as William insists that Samuel’s disappearance is due to being taken by a wolf. But Katherine, heartbroken and devastated by the loss of her baby, suspects witchcraft is to blame.
Over the course of several weeks, the family descends into a hell of their own, as they’re tormented by more disappearances, satanic possessions, and imminent starvation. And through it all, Thomasin occupies the dual role of an eldest daughter—simultaneously treated as a troublesome child with no legitimacy as an adult and as a grown woman who must bear the brunt of her parents’ grief and dysfunction.
Two scenes in particular haunt me in The Witch . In the first, at the start of the film, Thomasin kneels in the farm loft, where she and her siblings sleep, and earnestly prays out loud. She looks like the very picture of European girlish innocence: large eyed, dressed in white, paler than the moon itself. She prays:
I here confess I’ve lived in sin. I’ve been idle of my work, disobedient of my parents, neglectful of my prayer. I have, in secret, played upon thy Sabbath and broken every one of thy commandments in thought. Followed the desires of mine own will and not the Holy Spirit. I know I deserve all shame and misery in this life, and everlasting hellfire. But I beg thee, for the sake of thy Son, forgive me, show me mercy, show me thy light.
For me, the tenor of Thomasin’s prayer strikes very close to home. I can’t remember how many times, in my early teens especially, I prayed in my own room, fearful that I wasn’t actually saved and that I had too much sin in my heart for God to want me in heaven. I don’t remember how many “just in case” prayers I uttered, asking God to redeem my soul in the event I died outside his covering. My desires, my growing body, and my sexuality in particular were all objects of fear and shame for me—surely God knew that I fantasized about kissing, or touched myself in private, or thought swear words when I was angry. Any one of those things would have been enough to condemn me, for “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Like Thomasin, the thing I thought I craved most was mercy. But in hindsight, the thing I craved most was assurance—a clear voice that would tell me in no uncertain terms that I was protected and that I belonged.
In hindsight, the thing I craved most was assurance—a clear voice that would tell me in no uncertain terms that I was protected and that I belonged.
The second scene in The Witch that haunts me: After Samuel’s abduction, William takes his eldest son Caleb (also on the verge of puberty) out into the woods to hunt and check their traps. While walking, William has Caleb recite his prayers and religious lessons, all of which—you guessed it—are about the promise of hellfire outside of God’s salvation. Caleb, who we quickly see is a thoughtful boy, begins to ask his father increasingly pressing questions about the afterlife. Distressed, he asks his father outright if his baby brother is in hell, since he’s almost certainly dead by that point and had not yet been baptized. His father tries to placate him, simply saying, “Have faith in God.” But Caleb persists, and finally William answers honestly that he doesn’t know, that only God can know who is going to heaven and who is not. It’s hardly a comforting answer, but it’s one of the few moments of vulnerable honesty we see his father show throughout the film.
Vulnerable honesty, we soon find, is not one of William’s virtues. Driven by pride and a keen intention to stay in control of his family as the spiritual head of their household, he remains committed to saving face within his tiny kingdom. Knowing that they’ll likely starve during the winter due to the failing farm and his lackluster hunting skills, William goes behind his wife’s back and sells her prized silver cup in exchange for more traps. Needless to say, it’s a poor trade. When Katherine accuses Thomasin for the cup’s disappearance, William allows her to take the heat and pushes the matter aside. But Katherine, whose grief has all but consumed her, continues to resent their daughter and blame her for both the baby’s and the cup’s disappearances, despite Thomasin’s insistence that she has nothing to do with either.
It seems that no matter what Thomasin does, she’s constantly failing by her parents’ estimations. What’s more, her actions—large and small—accumulate with consequences far outside what anyone could anticipate. Not long after the witch abducts and kills Samuel, the two youngest children, Jonas and Mercy (an extremely creepy pair of fraternal twins), begin to behave even more strangely than usual. They’re naughty, and they scream and play constantly with Black Phillip, the farm’s large horned billy goat. Mercy prattles on about how she’s “the witch of the wood” and of how Black Phillip whispers to her and Jonas, telling them to do whatever they want. In a moment of frustration while babysitting Mercy, Thomasin sarcastically tells her younger sister that she’s actually the true Witch of the Wood, and that if Mercy doesn’t behave herself and obey her, she’ll “witch” her and eat her.
The lie works, for a little while, but not without dire consequences. As more evil spreads throughout the farm—more panic, more demonic possessions, and more mysterious and terrifying deaths—Thomasin’s parents and youngest siblings turn on her and accuse her of being the witch responsible for their misfortune. When William decides to take Thomasin back to the settlement to stand trial before the Puritan community they’d left, what follows is a chaotic series of events leading to further bloodshed and death.
In The Witch , religious fear and doubt are as powerful as witchcraft itself. Equally powerful is Robert Eggers’s commitment to literalism in his filmmaking, as he renders his characters’ belief systems as fact, allowing his narratives to play out in surprising, bizarre ways. Instead of dismissing his subjects’ beliefs as mere superstition, he allows his characters to define what constitutes reality and in turn shows that reality plainly to the audience. To the Puritans, demonic possession and witches that fly were accepted facts of the time. In showing the occult in such a literal way, The Witch not only fulfills expectations as a horror film but also raises generative questions about a single family’s crisis of faith in the face of physical evil.
I’m fascinated by The Witch ’s ambivalence about the moral nature of supernatural power. Throughout the film, Thomasin and her family are offered no solid assurance about the existence of a merciful God. But one thing they are assured of is the existence of the devil, who preys on them and tempts them away from goodness. I can’t think of anything more Puritan in nature than a binding fear of damnation other than Puritanism’s very own descendant, Evangelical Christianity. In both practices, salvation comes only through faith in Christ, but that salvation by faith is constantly under siege and always in question. Belief itself is not enough. Correct belief is what saves. And what determines “correct” belief other than orthodoxy? And who determines orthodoxy other than individual churches themselves?
The boundaries between faithful Christian practice and witchery are notably porous in this film. There’s something occult about the way the family practices their faith—the Scriptures they chant, the way they kneel and raise their hands in prayer, their preoccupation with the darkness. While we don’t know the specifics of William’s fateful religious dispute with the church, we do know that it resulted in exile and abandonment. Like witches, the family is condemned to the wilderness to survive. Like witches, they tend to the earth and invoke supernatural intervention upon their lives. Even Katherine, in her bitterness and religious fervor, says, “Was Christ not led into the wilderness to meet with the devil?” Thomasin’s parents accept their position as outcasts, the consequence of their faithful adherence to “correct” belief. But as doubt and panic creep in, this acceptance transforms into fear that there’s been no higher purpose to their suffering. Someone must be at fault for the fabric of their lives going to pieces.
That Thomasin is branded a witch is no surprise. She’s the perfect mark: a challenge and a pure soul for Satan to claim. She’s beautiful, sensuous, young, and openhearted. Of her siblings, she’s the only one who remembers life back in England, when her family had plenty and enjoyed a material life of comfort and relative ease. That she’s ultimately betrayed—even called a bitch by her father and a slut by her mother—is sadly no surprise as well. She’s the only member of the family who speaks what everyone else is too afraid to say, challenging her father’s ego and confronting him for his lying, his double standards, and his pride that led them there in the first place—faults William himself is aware he possesses. In a strange twist, Thomasin becomes the film’s sacrificial Christ figure. But instead of heavenly redemption, her fate lies with the devil, the only supernatural presence her family is actually confident exists.
Ultimately, Thomasin is left with little choice but to become a witch herself. Having succeeded in isolating her from every world she’s known, the devil once more appears to her as Black Phillip—but not as a goat this time. Instead, he appears to her as a finely dressed handsome man who asks her, “Do you want to live deliciously?” With little hesitation, Thomasin accepts and pledges her soul to him. She finds belonging not only with Black Phillip but with the coven of witches in the woods that serve him—the very ones who stole her family from her. Or delivered her from her family, depending on your point of view.
I think of The Witch the way I think of a marvelous poem: a text that invites multiple layers of reading, discovery, and interpretation. There’s certainly a reading of this film that sees Black Phillip and the witches as Thomasin’s saviors, and I think it’s a legitimate interpretation—arguably the most readily available reading of the story. Still, I can’t shake the film’s steady ambivalence about the nature of supernatural power, particularly in a religious practice that places more emphasis on evil and sin than on the kindness of God.
I can’t shake the film’s steady ambivalence about the nature of supernatural power, particularly in a religious practice that places more emphasis on evil and sin than on the kindness of God.
I’m no longer part of the Evangelical Church, though I never truly felt comfortably part of it even when that was the only faith practice I knew. I struggle with what to call myself these days: the word Christian means almost nothing anymore, and what it does mean today is more synonymous with colonial violence, white supremacy, sexual brokenness, and fearmongering than anything resembling the historical Jesus or his teachings. I still very much believe in a God, and this is highly unlikely to change. And corny as it may sound, I love Jesus—both for who he was in history and what he means to my personal faith, even my sanity. But I struggle to know where I belong—my Black, queer, earnest, vulgar, adoring self.
Thomasin’s ultimate fate is the epitome of my childhood fear: of aligning myself with the devil by misadventure, though my heart desperately craves God’s approval. Recall Thomasin’s prayer at the beginning of the film, “for the sake of thy Son, forgive me, show me mercy, show me thy light.” Eggers’s subtle power as a writer comes through here in this fateful prayer: In asking forgiveness, Thomasin invokes her sister’s name—Mercy, who is her first accuser and who we find is actually possessed by the devil himself.
This bait and switch raises an old theological question. Can an earnest seeker who’s too openhearted fall into sin and accidentally invoke Satan’s power? And is this itself a sin? The Witch certainly seems to allow for both possibilities. But I wonder if the sin uncovered in the film lies less in Thomasin succumbing to evil far beyond her strength and instead lies in what brings her family to ruin in the first place: their church’s rejection due to difference, and ultimately her own family’s false judgment of her as an agent of evil. By the Puritans’ own theology, those outside of God’s grace are doomed to hell. But who, we must ask, cast the family out into the wilderness in the first place? And who ultimately betrays Thomasin, leaving her to the handiwork of the very devil they were supposed to protect her from?
As a folktale, The Witch raises more questions than can ever be answered conclusively. Here in this world of religious literalism, evil has a face, a name, and a voice. One might even argue that the strength alone of the family’s belief in Satan’s power physically manifests that power in their own home, but whether or not this is the case is deliberately unclear. What is clear, however, is that fear is a merciless god. And fear of hell is at the heart of this Puritan family’s practice and is the spearhead of their eventual demise.
I can’t help but view The Witch as a deeply religious text. Yes, it’s a deliciously creepy horror film that makes masterful use of dread, tension, and silence instead of jump scares and gore. But I also see it as a parable about the destructive nature of religious fear. And like all good parables, it asks us to look past shock value and the surface and to consider what deeper meaning we can make of it within the contexts of our own lives.
I’ll be damned (literally) if I’m ever caught signing my name in some man’s book, but I do see my younger self in Thomasin. Her desire to be listened to, to be taken seriously, to be accepted and blessed with incredible spiritual power. In many ways these days, rejected by my former church and by the religious beliefs of my own family members, I more often than not feel like Thomasin floating in the darkness of the woods, silently weeping and aching to belong somewhere. But today as an adult, the thing that strikes fear into my heart isn’t hellfire or the devil but the depths of cruelty otherwise-decent human beings can plummet to—especially when they believe their religion condones and instructs such cruelty. We are capable of so much destruction on our own, without the aid of devils.
Of course, attempting to prove empirically that God or Satan are real metaphysically is a futile and pointless exercise. The story of The Witch is concerned with “proving” neither, even by Puritan theological standards. What it is concerned with, however, is the sheer power of human fear and belief and how that deadly pairing shapes how we treat one another especially in religious contexts. It’s concerned with who we choose to accept and who we reject—who we decide is inside the grace of Providence and who’s outside of it. According to The Witch , there’s no surer way to invite evil in than by being reckless enough to try to play God.