‘The Witch’ – A Review and Some Thoughts on Christians and Horror Movies
Yet I stayed for the duration of The Witch, a film filled with often disturbing, always powerful imagery and experienced a thrilling, intelligent examination of religion, superstition and life in extreme circumstances. I still won’t go near a lot of horror cinema – too much of it takes a kind sadistic glee in pushing its characters and the audience well beyond their limits. Yet something about the genre is also refreshingly uncompromising, taking a more confrontational look at human nature and finding disconcerting answers.
The Witch tells the story of a Puritan family on a desolate frontier farm trying to come to terms with the disappearance of their baby. In the paranoid atmosphere that led to the witch trials in Salem, suspicion naturally falls on witchcraft and, after a while, this suspicion lands on the family’s eldest daughter, Thomasin. Much like The Crucible, The Witch shows the devastating results of suspicion and fear, but unlike Miller’s play, the spiritual elements here are portrayed with far more ambiguity.
Some horror aficionados have felt a little cheated by the lack of proper scares in The Witch, as this is a film that focusses more on creating a persistently unsettling atmosphere, rather than outright terror. Robert Eggers, directing his debut feature film, knows exactly how to sustain this pervasive sense of unease, often holding wide shots for a long time to play on the imaginations of the audience. The haze and gloom created by using natural lighting makes some of the film’s more upsetting images look like a disturbing painting.
Such accomplished direction is matched by the screenplay, also written by Eggers. Running throughout The Witch is a strong religious undercurrent that plays out like a version of Job, except with even fewer answers. By keeping the spiritual elements reasonably ambiguous – a scene of possession can be read in several different ways – Eggers turns The Witch into a fable that warns its audience about the results of legalism. Scripture is read out, debated and used as a form of defence when evil forces appear to be closing in. Yet it’s also misused, with an overbearing father losing all sight of compassion as he controls his family, damaging them irreparably. To try and pick apart the moral of the story – and I do think there is one – would be to ruin part of the thrill of watching The Witch unfold, but needless to say it’s a painfully timely message.
The Witch is undeniably effective but an important question remains; why does cinema need to be so dark to convey such messages? Many Christians will also have a spiritual concern when watching films that are preoccupied with the occult. When you believe that the devil does exist, such stories take on a discomfiting element of reality. I wonder, however, if such an aversion to darkness in art is a recent development and part of a modern squeamishness that results in a detachment from spiritual warfare. In our relatively comfortable existences, confronting darkness is unpleasant and, we feel, unnecessary.
This clearly wasn’t a problem for Michelangelo when he painted the distorted, writhing figures descending into hell on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. Similarly, if Dante’s Inferno were published today, it’d likely be denounced in certain quarters. Religious art has a long history of using darkness to make the light seem brighter, possibly taking its cue from the Bible as it does so. Whether it’s in the imprecatory psalms, disturbing apocalyptic images or prophetic pronouncements against entire nations, there are passages in the Bible that are almost relentlessly bleak. The Bible is unafraid of showing the worst of humanity. Now, The Witch is not Dante or Michelangelo and it certainly isn’t positioning itself as religious art or something sacred. Yet sometimes it might be a fruitful experience to confront and engage with darkness and find the truth that it contains.
So, should Christians watch horror cinema? Well, as with any question that starts with “should Christians…” the answer is, if your conscience allows it. The majority of Think readers are unlikely to watch The Witch; this endorsement comes with the very obvious warning that it’s pretty disturbing, especially for people who aren’t used to the genre. At the same time, Eggers’ film uses its dark themes and spirituality to wrestle with deep, uncomfortable questions that are worth asking, all framed within a mesmerising piece of old-fashioned storytelling.