Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Witch, an Authentic Look at Witchcraft From the Recesses of the Neurotic Puritan Mind

Here are some of my thoughts on The Witch, the incredibly popular occult thriller that has captured the imaginations of so many lately. 

(warning  spoilers)

In my opinion, the movie was a top notch psychological thriller and a "must see" if you prefer that type of film.

The film is grey and dark both in imagery and in atmosphere. The subject matter being what it is, I found the director's choices in regards to cinematography and color palette to be flawless. Naturally, with nearly everything on screen being capable of carrying a symbolic meaning, it seems quite clear that the bleakness and darkness of the film is rooted in the oppressive, soul-crushing, joyless nature of Puritanism that practically oozes from screen from its very beginning.

Having said that, allow me to state that this movie is not, despite the fanfare it is receiving among many Witches and Pagans, a Pro-Witchcraft movie.

"The Witch" is not an Anti-Witchcraft movie either.

In regards to Witchcraft, "The Witch" is neither an apologetic nor a polemic film.

Instead, the story underlying The Witch it is a tale told both through the lens of the Christian Puritan mindset and extant Witchcraft folklore. It is a story that hews closely to its source material which is exactly what makes it very much worth seeing. 
Therefore it is important to keep in mind that "The Witch" is a story told from the perspective of those who would have believed in Witchcraft at the time. 

If one wants to see what Puritans thought of Witches and Witchcraft, the "The Witch" is the movie to watch.

Witchcraft in, "The Witch" is dark and terrible and by "dark and terrible," I mean unremittingly evil by any rational definition of the term. 

The first encounter the puritan family, around whom the tale is built, has with a witch involves the theft of their infant son who is, in turn, slaughtered and used as an ingredient for a flying ointment (again, true to the folklore of using baby-fat in flying ointments). This first unflinchingly brutal act on the part of the witches in the film is symbolic of their nature. These witches are horrifically dark and, one could argue, barely human any least not in any way the viewer could understand. What they do, they do for their own inscrutable motivations. 

There is nothing to be found in these witches that one could see as sympathetic. The film, thankfully, does not attempt to peer into their psychology because in so doing, the witches would perhaps become relatable and this would fly directly in the face of the subject matter as told from the film's Puritan perspective.

If these witches, as cruel and calculating as they are in the film, started out as innocent as Thomasin (the film's primary protagonist), which one could I believe safely assume to be the case, then they are not only dreadful, they are tragic.

There is no "romantic darkness" to be found here, no misunderstanding, no sympathetic villains. One may argue that in this bleak spiritual landscape there are no "good" and no "bad" guys. This would not be true. The innocents struck down by witches, Thomasin's entire family, for a total of six victims, are the "good guys" even if the culture from which they come, and the beliefs they hold are noxious to us. They are still victims of a fate they did nothing to deserve. This is especially true of the children, even the creepy twins, who are themselves highly unsympathetic characters.

True malevolent Darkness (pathological selfishness, cruelty, libertine freedom at the expense of the well-being of others, etc.) only seems romantic when the Light ("the good") is defined as oppressive, moralizing, repressive ugliness as it is in this film. There is no joy, no laughter, no happiness, no love in the Light in this film. There is bleakness and debasement.

Unfortunately for Thomasin she is, because she dwells in a universe wherein Puritan Christian assumptions of spiritual truth are clearly implied (as is obvious in the storytelling and events of the film), doomed. She escapes from under the boot heel of her Puritan culture and its God only to find herself forced to choose a new master if she would retain her freedom. 

This new master, who is both directly and indirectly responsible for the brutal deaths of her entire family, does not grant Thomasin freedom out of  love for her or respect for her agency, but instead grants her agency so she can in turn serve as a tool of his own rebellion. He is no more noble a figure than the oppressive and joyless taskmaster God of the he seems as such to Thomasin who, at her lowest and most vulnerable, signs his offered pact.

As any occultists knows, should one fail to approach a power of questionable character as anything but its equal or superior, and instead approach as a servant, things are bound to end badly. Thomasin is not the equal of the Devil, and so her fate is to serve him as his creature. She will become the very thing that stole away and slaughtered her infant brother in the earlier portion of the film. In a Puritan universe, this young woman can never be truly free.

Yes, the protagonist's outlook is that grim from within the Puritan paradigm from which this darksome tale is woven. 

The Devil, in this tale, is no Prometheus, no Lucifer the Lightbringer, bringing illumination even at great personal sacrifice. He is the Satan that is the Enemy of God and man, who waits as a hungry lion to pounce upon believers. This is the Devil/Satan of "The Witch," as the Puritans would have believed him to be in accordance with the truths they believed expressed in their Bible.

The Devil, in this film as he is rooted in Puritan assumptions, is a malevolent force....even if he is only a slightly less odious figure, possibly, than the conception of God the Puritans worship. That's entirely arguable. One may attempt to, wrangle something of value out of "The Witch's" Devil, to make him somehow a liberator, or, gods forbid, a representative of older Pagan sensibilities, but this seems, in my opinion, to be projecting one's own hopes/preferences/biases onto a character and story that implies no such thing. If one swaps paradigms, seeing the movie's antagonists through the lens of modern Pagan Witchcraft (Wiccan, Trad, or other) wherein the underlying Puritan belief structure if lost or invalidated, the story loses all internal consistency.

In all instances when I refer to "darkness" or "light" in reference to this film, it is from within the paradigm of a dualistic Christian moral universe as presupposed by The Witch and not as these concepts are understood from within various Pagan faiths in general or from within Witchcraft, of any kind, specifically. 

This movie is interesting, disturbing, and even fascinating (for the student of folklore) look at the manner in which 17th Century Christians saw the world outside of that which fell directly under the influence of Christendom....this of course includes the wild places of the being under the dominion of the adversary of their God.

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