“But,” you say, “it’s a supernatural horror story. How can an atheist see something like that and not sneer at it?”
Easy. It’s a movie. I believe that movies actually exist. I also enjoy some superhero movies in spite of the fact that they postulate huge violations of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. I like movies that tell me something about the human condition, and big budget spectacle is a distraction from the story at the core.
So what’s the story at the heart of The Witch? It starts with a council meeting in a Puritan town in which a family is banished for religious fanaticism — the father has been preaching about how to worship god in the wrong way to the wrong people, apparently. Throughout the movie we’re going to see this current religious fanaticism — the entire family is steeped in these lethal notions of their fundamentally evil nature. Dad trains his son to recite cant about sin and death. One child dies and they are convinced he is burning in hell because the right rituals weren’t performed. So yes, this was a part of the story an atheist can relate to, because we’re imbedded in a culture where that sort of nonsense is taken for granted.
Another part of the story is about loneliness and fear. This family takes a wagon out into the wilderness, finds a clearing in the woods, and builds a homestead, which seems to be the last competent thing the father does. The crops are rotten. He sells off some of their goods to buy traps so they can catch rabbits — they catch nothing. They dread the coming winter, and they amplify their fears with more fearful religion. Of course there are witches. Their whole worldview demands an enemy.
The son is feeling the pains of adolescence. He looks lustfully on his sister — she’s the only girl in his world — and it’s no wonder that he sees a witch in the woods who is red-lipped and buxom and inviting.
The daughter is the center of the story, and this is where we get into real fairy tale tropes. The family is considering selling her into servitude: it’ll be one less mouth to feed, and she’ll bring in some income. She knows. She is resentful.
The twin children are creepy. The goats they’re raising are satanic. The corn is raddled with mold. The mother is frantic with grief and anxiety. The oldest son is confused and filled with guilt. The daughter is radiantly beautiful, and will fetch a good price in town, and knows how she will be used. The father retreats into masculine passivity, and chops a heck of a lot of wood.
You don’t need supernatural agents for this to be a terrifying horror movie. The fear and tension build, and when the witches do appear, they don’t need magic to make the psychological powder keg explode.
And that’s what made it an interesting movie, even to an atheist. It builds the horror out of mundane reality, not the supernatural, so it’s relatable and real. The witches seem less an unnatural force than the product of stewing human beings in a cauldron of isolation and dread and religion.
So I enjoyed it, even though it’s definitely not a happy movie. But it’s well made, and all the acting was excellent, and the story was coherent. Recommended. Even for the godless.
Also playing at the Morris Theatre this week: Gods of Egypt. Could they possibly have found two movies that are more the antithesis of each other? I’m tempted to go tonight just to subject myself to a different kind of horror, the horror of personal disgust and disillusionment and contempt. Might be fun.