“New Englanders, Out of Their Minds”
Horror fans reacted to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film adaptation of The Shining with profound disappointment, arguing that the film’s artiness destroyed their visceral genre expectations, ones that were clearly and directly presented in Stephen King’s widely read 1977 novel. Robert Eggers’ new film, The Witch (2015) might be the greatest American horror film since The Shining, and not by accident. When Caleb, the eldest son of a fanatical Puritan whose stubbornness has gotten his family banished to the wilderness, discovers the witch’s hut in the woods, she emerges as a young seductress. She kisses the boy as we watch her hand transform into that of an old crone’s. She quite literally sucks the life out of the boy. This sequence, of course, replicates Jack Torrance’s fantasy in Room 237 in Kubrick’s film. The hotel’s winter caretaker approaches a naked woman just emerging out of the room’s bathtub. She begins passionately kissing him. She turns into a rotting hag long before he notices, enraptured by the surface beauty that may have been a projection of his sexist imagination all along.
The Witch inverts the patriarchal relationships of The Shining. Kubrick’s film studies the destruction of a normative post-war American family under the weight of the father’s sexism. It is Jack who carouses with naked women in bathtubs, calls his wife “the old sperm bank,” and bristles under the imagined sacrifices of his success he has made to take care of his wife and son. Danny is pre-pubescent, devoted to his mother. In the frozen hedge maze at the film’s end, Jack rages at his son, “I’m right behind you, Danny.” We know this to be not only literally true, but also symbolically: Danny will have a hell of a time avoiding becoming like his father, abusive, self-loathing, and vicious.
Unlike King’s novel, which ends with a new multicultural family formed—the African-American hotel chef, Hallorann, takes Danny fishing while his mom, Wendy looks on approvingly—Kubrick is after bigger game. The film version of The Shining ends with Jack Torrance frozen in time, seemingly impossibly present at an Independence Day party at the hotel in 1921. An American Studies manifesto, Kubrick’s film is an indictment of the patriarchal mess the nuclear family has become under the yoke of Manifest Destiny. Jack’s murderous rampage is a metonymy for the Indian attacks the builders of the hotel had to repel to construct the resort for rich descendants of white Europeans.
In The Witch, it is Caleb, the teenage boy just slightly older than Danny who sexually engages the succubus. He has begun to notice his sister Thomasin’s breasts, furtively glancing at them in the midst of their otherwise normal and loving sibling interactions. Despite this difference, in a far more important respect, The Witch is telling the same story as The Shining, but crucially from Thomasin’s point-of-view. The patriarch William has dragged his family from England into the woods of the New World in order to live a devout life honoring God not available in corrupted civilization, and he is tone deaf to the devastation this wreaks on his wife, his daughter, and his younger children. Yet regardless of their different reasons—delusional Jack believes he is capable of writing the “Great American Novel”—both fathers sequester their families in the remote American wilderness. Without the structures of social support surrounding them, the families are doomed to rip themselves apart.
In his book, Errand into the Wilderness (1952), Perry Miller founded American Studies on the notion that the Puritans were not the totalitarian monsters of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), but nuanced thinkers engaged in a religious revolution, fueled by their desire to reinvent human civilization outside of the corruption of an already destroyed Europe. The Witch methodically dismantles Miller’s argument from its first scene to its last. In the opening, we see William standing up to his New England town elders. These leaders give him the option to repent or be banished. William chooses the latter, and the next thing we know, he and his family are living in isolation on a failing farm, about to starve to death as the winter approaches. William is Miller’s acolyte, and his fealty brings destruction. Miller emphasizes the Puritans’ respect for private conscience. The Witch pits the town’s leaders, depicted as unyielding as any in Hawthorne, against William, an independent religious thinker. William is an attempted embodiment of Miller’s revisionist, sympathetic approach to the Puritans.
However, Eggers’ film demonstrates that William has led his family, not into religious redemption, but merely a fool’s errand. The wilderness, personified by the witch, will carve his family up, one by one, in slasher film style. Indeed, the film’s final girl, Thomasin ends the film triumphant. After being forced to kill her mother with a knife in self-defense, the isolated Thomasin seeks out the coven of witches who await her in the wilderness beyond her family’s farm. The film stakes out its position against Miller, not by rejecting Hawthorne’s hatred of the Puritans, but by doubling down on it. Thomasin encounters other naked girls, the first people outside of her family we have seen since they left the safety of the colony.
Nathaniel Hawthorne ends his short story, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835) similarly, with the revelation that all of the seemingly godly Puritan townspeople are hypocrites. The young man discovers those he formerly respected, his religious mentors and even his own wife, out in the woods paying fealty to Satan. The Witch extends Hawthorne even more forcefully against the Puritans. The horrifying story we have just witnessed, of William’s rigid religious beliefs consuming his entire family in witch hysteria, is not the isolated experience we thought it was. We come to understand that the very infrastructure of Puritan life has resulted in girls from other families gathering in a coven.
The film’s ending (Thomasin floating in the air surrounded by her new-found sisters) functions similarly to the photograph trapping Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining. Kubrick emphasizes that the story we have just witnessed about Jack destroying his family is at the center of American life, just as true of the 1920s Jazz Age as it is of the 1970s. The Witch similarly binds Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century critique of a flawed America to our present, passing over Perry Miller’s defense of American exceptionalism as a dangerous fantasy.
The Witch repeatedly evacuates the 20th century. In the film’s cleverest maneuver, Caleb returns from his encounter with the succubus speaking in tongues. Just before he dies, he coughs up an apple. The symbol clearly positions Caleb as what another foundational American Studies scholar, R. W. B. Lewis called the “American Adam,” having partaken in sin. However, the bitten apple equally conjures a film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). In that film, a witch also terrorizes a child with a poisoned apple, but this time out of jealousy for her beauty. There is no hope for a prince to come and rescue Thomasin, who intriguingly is never terrorized by the witch. Eggers’ film implies that the palliatives of the 20th century do not pertain to our current situation, fallen from grace, alone and without hope. The Witch is a film that is resolutely attached to the pessimism that is the hallmark of the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stanley Kubrick, not Walt Disney.