Can I be totally honest with y’all and tell you the reason why I’m not an animal person? They’re too easily won. I know you’re gonna say I’m wrong, animals are really smart, they’re intuitive about people’s intent, they will guard your house, et cetera. I think it stands to reason, though, that they guard your house because you’ve trained them to do it. That if, let’s say, a gangster drug dealer trained his pitbull to attack you, they’d guard his house and him, too.
I point this out to say that if the family in The Witch hadn’t trusted their many animals, all that shit might not have gone down the way that it did.
I just need to make myriad worldview statements first before I get to my points about The Witch, because I want y’all to consider perspective when contemplating the genius of this movie, and it’s important to me that you know where I’m coming from so you can see this one perspective, which I haven’t seen addressed yet.
Here are two important things that I want to say about the nature of evil and my Christian upbringing:
[**Here’s where the spoilers start. If you haven’t seen The Witch yet, go stream it on Amazon Prime —you get a free year trial with an .edu address!—but do it in the light of day, with a friend who you know and trust. It is seriously SO GOOD. Truly beautiful and compelling. I really can’t oversell it.]
If I can be real with y’all, The Witch freaked me the fuck out. I still believe in demons. I won’t lie. You can think I’m dumb for doing it if you want to, but to an extent you can’t help what you believe. And in another, more practical explanation, guess who has two thumbs, a healthy distrust, and no demons? THIS GUY.
But there are other reasons that make The Witch terrifying no matter how you interpret the occurrences. To be precise, three things happen that make The Witch terrifying no matter what you believe or don’t believe.
One: What Happens to Caleb
Real quick recap: Caleb is the elder son of William and Katherine, who are exiled from the “plantation,” their colony. He’s a sweet boy entering puberty and equal parts terrified that his missing infant brother is going to hell because he was not Baptized and also wanting girls. The Witch, we are led to believe, shifts shapes into a stupid hot woman in a red cloak in the woods. She seduces him. In the middle of the night, Caleb shows up back at the house naked and delirious. After the family nurses him through his fever, scratches show up on him, and he starts choking on a whole apple. After William pries it (and several teeth) from his mouth, Caleb panics aloud that the Witch is upon him. The family circles around him, holding hands, and recites the Lord’s prayer until he comes out of his panic by saying the last line with them. He seems to come out of the spell, but then he talks about seeing Jesus, whom the others do not see, and then he dies.
The exorcism scene is easily the most traumatic for me, and I mean that in the context of the whole film. Partly because, I guess, it’s an exorcism—granted because of Caleb’s faith, we hear him fight the Witch, and we never hear the Witch talk him- or herself. (I stayed gender neutral, but I’m pretty sure that we all know it would be “herself.”) We also hear Caleb’s ecstasy at defeating the Witch and going to Jesus, which is just as unsettling because we see him react, lifting from the palette with eyes open and seeing not what we see, and then we see him placed back gently down. And then he dies, and the family does not interpret it the way that I did.
It’s scary because he almost lost that fight. If he hadn’t had the conviction of his whole family to pull him out of her clutches, Caleb might not have seen Jesus!
So, if you don’t have my belief in demons and Jesus and Hell, those reasons don’t hold water for you. They have no gravity. But that doesn’t make the scene any less scary, right? In my perspective, I knew what happened. But if you don’t have that mythology from which to draw, I imagine your response is, “Whoa, whoa, wait! Why is he acting like that? What are they saying? Stop talking! What’s happening? Who is lifting him up? How did that apple get in his mouth!?”
How DID that apple get in his mouth? How indeed?
So, a relevant thing to note here is how beautiful this lady appears. (I showed this picture of her to my boyfriend for the Ask A Man segment, and when I asked, “How beautiful is this woman?” He said, “I’d fuck her. I mean. If I was a ten-year-old boy, I could be seduced by her. That’s what I meant to say." He sighed and said, “She’s spooky hot like you I mean.” And then we made out for a while.) Another relevant thing is how all apples are THAT apple, especially in this case. So essentially, according to my upbringing, this lady convinced him to “eat of the apple,” which is a euphemism for sex. Which is why that apple shows up, choking him, later.
The third reason to fear What Happens to Caleb is the animals. Caleb hunts rabbits with his father in the wood while he asks all around his overwhelming questions about Sam, his infant brother who was stolen. Finally he blurts out, “Is [Sam] in hell?” and then, in classic ride-or-die dad vernacular, William says,
“Look you. I love thee marvelous well, but ‘tis God alone, not man, what knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not. Who is good and who is evil. Feign would I tell thee that Sam sleeps in Jesus that thou wilt that I will. I cannot tell thee that. None can.”
Which is, kind of, the whole point of the movie: no one knows who is evil. No one can tell. I’ll come back to this line, DON’T EVEN WORRY.
Back to the main narrative: all of William and Caleb’s traps have been sprung but caught nothing, and they re-lay them. Then Fowler, the “fool of an animal,” scrounges up a fearless rabbit who stares down the barrel of William’s rifle, and then casually hops off when it backfires in his eyes.
IS THIS RABBIT THE WITCH? I don’t know! ‘Tis God alone, not man, what knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not. I can’t tell shit!
It’s partly the paranoia of FUCKING EVERYTHING that makes this movie scary when we consider What Happens to Caleb—by that I mean this: what DID happen to Caleb? And why?
Was he possessed? Did he have a seizure or delusions of grandeur that killed him? How did that apple get into his throat?
Two: What Happens to Thomasin
Real quick recap: She’s the only one scared at moving away from the plantation when they are banished. When they can’t find a real Witch or the reason why Samuel and Caleb died, Her father walls her up in the barn with Black Philip and the twins. The twins (roughly five years old) are terrified of her, and they tell her that Black Philip told them she was a Witch. Each member of her family dies but her mother, who has signed her name in the Book. She attacks Thomasin, and out of self defense, Thomasin kills her mother. She falls asleep at the table, totally alone. She goes back to the barn, and Black Philip talks to her. She makes a deal with the devil and joins his coven.
The nasty little still below is foreshadowing—it happens even before the rabbit scenes in the film. It’s really our first entrance into her world. I don’t think it’s by accident that it’s an EGG that was destroyed, fertilized but unborn, or eaten. By that I mean, it’s always at the adolescent stage where traumatic shit happens to girls—or maybe it’s BECAUSE they’re becoming women that this tragic shit starts happening.
After all, it was always oppressed teenage girls on the cusp of womanhood who pinpointed the witches in Salem, but they normally did so in groups, in shared psychosis—okay, have y’all for real not Googled that yet? I’m so serious. I basically lost my mind reading it, freaking out at science being like THIS IS DEMONS.
Demons and psychosis are not mutually exclusive, Bill Nye! JK, he never talked about demons or psychosis that I know… wait. Did he? Somebody send me that link if you find it. What I really meant is that right now we’re in an era of medicalizing everything. That’s what this generation is doing. (If you’re interested in this idea of how anomalous bodies and afflictions have been treated culturally and scientifically throughout history, though, for real, Rosemarie Garland Thomson has this dope anthology called Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, but her introduction “From Wonder to Error” is my personal favorite.) But yeah, so before medical science became less brutal, spirituality accounted for psychological/phenomenological occurrences like shared psychosis, epilepsy, menstrual cramps… I am definitely not saying that science is wrong—I would never be so bold or dumb—but I AM saying that its truthiness doesn’t discount the spirituality explanation. Not totally.
Which is why the idea that Thomasin acts alone—or really, is FORCED to act alone—is so much scarier. Because instead of the solidarity of a group of girls, she and her family have been exiled. There’s NO ONE. (Ugh, where are my clapping emojis when I need emphasis?!) Especially not after her whole family turns on one another.
This is maybe where most people would say the most horror happens, but I’d say it’s the middle-most. Thomasin is our #finalgirl. She withstands the paranoia. She stands up to her twin siblings who TALK TO FUCKING ANIMALS. Can I reiterate here that no matter what Disney movies tell you, animals do not speak. If you hear an animal speaking, it’s a hallucination and/or a demon.
Thomasin picks up on the evil nature of the twins AND the goat before anyone else does, but rather than say, “Hey, you know how all cultures have historically been ambivalent toward twins? Well, I’m pretty sure that our twins are being manipulated, and that goat that Mercy keeps talking to might be the devil.” It’s sort of along the lines of what the interviewer says in the pilot episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt...
Seriously, though, Thomasin does hold her own in all the arguments about whether she’s sold her soul to the devil, even talks back to her dad, which you do not do. Hold that thought. We comin’ back to that, too.
I think the main reason this plotline (Thomasin’s plotline) scares most people more than the others is because contemporary viewers expect the plotline to be revisionist. By that, I mean, we expect the traditional, deus ex machina, M. Night Shyamalan ending of there was no witch. This whole thing was in your mind all along! The monster is in your brain! Everything will tie itself together in a nice little bow at the end, the plot will twist, and we will be comfortable with the resolution even though it doesn’t necessarily fit in to the zeitgeist.
But no cheap tricks from Eggers.
Once Thomasin kills her mother in self-defense, she falls asleep with exhaustion and walks into the barn where Black Philip sits, and she demands of him, “Black Philip, I conjure thee to speak to me.”
The pause drags so long that we wonder, again, if this story is going to be revisionist. Even Thomasin turns away before Black Philip says, “What dost thou want?”
Thomasin says, “What canst thou give?” I’m not one for signing the devil’s book, but hell, at least she’s negotiating.
But, in asking this question, the viewers find out, if they were unsure before, that Thomasin has not actually ever talked to him before. Meaning, she was telling the truth the whole time. Meaning that the family turned her straight into the hands of the devil by disbelieving and abandoning her. Because, at this point, what other option does she have?
So here’s where the What Happens to Thomasin gets scary if you are a Non-Christian. So, maybe Black Philip is not the devil in this interpretation, but he’s someone. We hear his sexy, gravelly voice and we see those nice-ass shoes walk around to the back of Thomasin, see the shadow across that long, straight nose, that big strong hand lay on her shoulder under her hair… just from that physical description alone, his offer is fairly enticing. Even if Black Philip is not the devil, he’s still seducing Thomasin.
The scariest part is that we know she’s going to say yes. She’s putting off the inevitable, because what other option does she have? I mean really, what other option? Go back to the village? Be accused of killing her family or at least her mother, which she did? Probably executed for murder or witchcraft? Or tortured and murdered. Them’s slim-pickin’s to me.
This scene in the film breathes. The pauses between dialogue lengthen so that the viewer can make a decision for Thomasin. If you’re like me, you thought something like this:
Oh, no! He’s the devil! Don’t do it! Do… I don’t know, something else! But what is he offering! Don’t take it! What is he saying? What does that mean, to live deliciously! DO I want to live deliciously, son! Look at me! Do I want a pretty dress? DO I? OH FUCK ME TO DEATH. I failed.
I’m not saying I have even half as much resolve as Thomasin, but my hedonistic nature was really giving my spiritual self a real fighting conflict. Black Philip sweetens the pot with his offer, “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?”
Thomasin answers by asking, basically, What will it cost me? But he knows she has no bargaining chips left. He asks if she sees a book in front of her. She knows what’s up. She knows what he’s about to ask her to do, and she doesn’t make him ask, as if there would somehow be no dignity in it. She says, caving, “I cannot write my name.”
It’s then that we realize, Oh, she really has no options.
And the devil says, “I will guide thy hand.” He won. The whole time, we realize, that has been his game. To turn the family against one another (by using their animals), and take Thomasin as one of his own.
She looks so happily evil when she floats naked into the clouds with the rest of her coven.
Three: What Happens to Jonas and Mercy
Real quick subplot: I can’t not acknowledge the twins. The twins are roughly five or six, earlier than the age of culpability so they’re being used as the devil’s conduits, and they talk to animals. Fucking horrifying on every level.
Four: What Happens to Katherine
Real quick subplot: Mother of five exiled because her husband won’t stop preaching against their church. Her infant gets stolen, then her eldest boy gets possessed, then her twins disappear, and then her husband gets gored to death by their he-goat. She believes her daughter then to be a witch and a “proud slut,” not remembering that she signed her name over to the devil in a dream when he used a crow to mislead her into thinking she nursed her infant.
I really can’t even unpack all this horror without dying. Read my post about mother! I’d be basically unpacking the same fears. (Plus that post was STUPID long and STUPID hard to write. But it was, obviously, one of my favorites.)
Five: What Happens to William
Real quick recap: William causes the family’s exile by preaching against (or just adjacent to, maybe) the plantation’s beliefs, but he won’t budge because his conviction is so strong. He holds the family together despite their many tragedies—no harvest, their infant being stolen/killed, disobedient twins, Caleb’s bewitching, and then, ultimately, the paranoia that sets the family against each other. He champions Thomasin, who throws a growing-pains tantrum, believes her and believes her until he finally doesn’t, and then walls her up in the barn. Immediately he feels guilty and as though God is punishing him through harming and tempting is family. He is ultimately gored to death by Black Philip and then crushed under his own woodpile, the only thing, Thomasin says, that he could do well.
What Happens to William is the most terrifying to me despite the undeniable fact that I should socially identify much more with Thomasin. The reason why his story is so scary to me is that to me and all other Christians (I think—I’m sure there are exceptions, because there are always exceptions, but I think this serves as the rule) William and his resolve in the face of what he believes to be blasphemy should be our role model. But he’s not. He was wrong.
From the Christian perspective, William looks like Job, the true follower, the one whose faith is endlessly tested by Satan, the one who never caves. Katherine even says, “I do not mean to nag thee like the wife of Job,” so this allusion (allegory?) is not lost on the characters either.
But he does lose faith. He goes through so much to keep his conviction, he puts his family in physical harm’s way, but because the wholeness of the soul is priority, dying is a secondary concern. I get that. I do. He doesn’t even seem too shaken when Samuel goes missing, and he takes it in stride when Caleb fights the Witch, too. (He’s upset, for sure, but he doesn’t freak out, he doesn’t start blaming Thomasin right away, he doesn’t curse her like her mother does.)
William is the best father. He really is. He does what he thinks is best for the family even when it requires hazarding his own soul. When Caleb dies and Katherine blames Thomasin, he follows her outside and holds her while talking about how he could have planted the harvest better, how if he had just done (whatever), everything would have been okay. That’s what he’ll do next time. That GOOD ASS PARENTING, that redirection.
Then we have our climax. It’s weird to me that THIS conversation is the most interesting part of this movie. The tension builds, I think, up until this point, and it continues to build, for sure, but then it has more direction. But it’s weird that it’s this conversation. Not the exile itself. Not the baby going missing. Not the eldest boy being possessed and dying. Not the exorcism. This conversation.
William says to Thomasin, “You must tell me, Thomasin. Tomorrow I cannot keep secret of this. A council will be called, and thy life is… thy life—“
“Will you not believe me?”
“I saw the serpent in my son. You stopped their prayers.”
“I saw it!... Listen to me. The bargain thou has made has no effect. Thy soul belongest to Christ.”
“I made no bargain!”
“The devil hath no interest in thee.”
“I am no witch, father!”
“What did I but see in my house?”
“Will you not hear me? Why have you turned against me?”
“Christ can unwitch us if you will but speak truth to me. As I love thee, speak truth.”
“You ask ME to speak truth?”
Thomasin lets him have it, then, just like me with my policy about ass-kicking and asking for it. When you ask for it, I have to give it to you. She goes on and on about Black Philip being the devil: “Ask the twins, then. Go ask them. They spend all day long babbling to that horned beast. They know well his voice. Your adversary comes in the shape of a he-goat and whispers. Ay, whispers. He is Lucifer. You know it. The twins know it!”
The part that I missed on my first through third viewings of The Witch, and this is probably because I didn’t have the subtitles on in the beginning, but she says to her father, “You know it!” Subtext: don’t be a fucking idiot. The goat is Lucifer. Sub-subtext: Don’t treat me like I’m stupid. I know that you know that goat is Lucifer.
William does not deny it. I repeat: William does not deny that he knows Black Philip is Satan.
Instead, he screams, “Slander thy brethren no more!” and drags Thomasin to the barn. We hear the twins crying and Thomasin begging him not to do that because she so fears the twins and Black Philip, who stares at her while they wait in the night.
William prays while he does this deplorable thing, which implies that although he has not lost his faith, he, too, is scared of what happens. This time, though, his martyrdom seems fishy: “Dispose of me how thou wilt,” he says, “yet redeem my children. They cannot tame their natural evils. I lie before thee a coward and thine enemy.”
What is this? Why is William backpedaling? Why is he saying that he’s Christ’s enemy?
From the beginning, William has not trusted animals, which is wise. It’s not that he thinks they’re evil—he doesn’t—he just sees them as food and as tools. In the episode with Caleb, we see him laying traps and collecting their dog to run a rabbit down. He also chides Thomasin when she says of the twins, “They spend all day long babbling to that horned beast.”
The line that kills me is this one: “If that old billy be the devil I’ll have danced with him myself.”
Turns out, he had.
Or at least, that’s how I interpreted it the fourth time I watched the movie. William is the one who believes in Thomasin’s innocence the longest. I thought until THIS viewing that he believed her because of his unrelenting conviction, his incredible resolve. After all, he didn’t even cave when the council exiled them in the opening scenes
He only doubts himself after he has walled up his three children. We hear him pray:
He wakes up after his wife has signed her soul over to the devil, and he walks outside to see that the barn has been torn apart and all his livestock are dead. Jonas and Mercy are missing. Thomasin lies on the ground, and she looks up just in time to see her father gored to death.
William’s last words are “Corruption, thou art my father.” And then Black Philip drives him into the woodpile.
On the one hand, this episode is THE MOST terrifying for the Christian because William was wrong. He was wrong about himself the whole time. He was wrong about what he believed, and he had this crisis of faith too late.
The too-late faith crisis is terrifying to everyone, because what is this body but mortal? Either you die, or you die and you didn’t have to. Both are bad endings.
And, obviously, What Happens to William is terrible for animal lovers because the family’s sustenance, their goat, turns on them and takes out their patriarch. After that, the rest of the family crumbles.
WHAT HAPPENED, GENERALLY.
While The Witch’s ending was definite, how we get to it—what each of the events means to the individual reader, is left up to interpretation. The method toward the end is different.
If you are anything like me, the ending left you totally appalled, but with a sense of closure, but then three days later in the grocery store checkout like, you had this happen:
Because no matter what you do, or what you think, that movie was, to quote my dear friend, “STRAIGHT FUCKED,” and we can never be certain that anywhere or anyone is safe. We just have to trust our intuition, which will be, most likely, wrong.
Mary Kay is a blogger at Everything is Trying to Kill You. She is a belly-dancer, horror enthusiast, sideshow lover, prose writer, Christian, and literature professor from south of Atlanta. Mary Kay is also the creative nonfiction editor for Madcap Review, a semi-annual online journal of art and literature. She is currently working on her first full-length novel about America’s actual first female serial killer, but until then you can read her essays at Prick of the Spindle and The Blueshift Journal.
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.