Fear and Familial Structure in ‘The Witch’

Robert Eggers utilizes elements of portraiture by deliberately positioning his characters in scenes that display the hierarchy of the Puritan family. By focusing on the composition and arrangement of characters in such an ominous landscape, the physical and behavioral structure of the family is slowly revealed.

Portraiture isn’t a particularly new concept explored in filmmaking. That hardly matters, though, since it’s used so effectively in this film. The last time I felt like I could use the terms ‘painterly,’ or ‘portrait-like,’ within a filmic mode, it was when I first saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, which has since become one of my favorite films. Another commonality between these two films is the isolated setting of the country, which is the backdrop for most of these characters’ conflicts. Another similarity is the composition of people in every shot, the way characters are positioned in proximity to each other and in relation to the land they inhabit.

Structure is important in both its physical and metaphoric sense. Everyone in this family fears displacement and the repositioning of the family structure through internal or external forces. This commonly explored idea of familial structure is especially interesting in the context of this particular film, though, since existing figures within the family structure are slowly revealed to be contradictions. Their composition disintegrates. The mother and father discuss physically displacing their daughter and sending her to live with another family (an implied arranged marriage). Thomasin, the daughter, has been blamed, manipulated, and resented by her family members. To her, the possible elimination of her familial structure will finally offer her freedom and personal agency.

This is a family that fears God, a family constantly making decisions in response to an ancient fear. The patriarch, William, tells his wife Katherine that it is, “the time to look toward God, not ourselves,” but the viewer knows that this is not a family that ever regards themselves on any individual basis. They have always looked upward, toward God, but their gaze is unreturned. Darkness and evil displace God. The constant fear and paranoia within the characters creates a genuinely unnerving atmosphere that makes the viewers of the film feel as fearful and cursed as its subjects are.

The Witch has some of the most compelling visual and thematic imagery that I’ve seen in recent horror, but it’s definitely not ‘Standard Horror’ and may be misleading to some. I can see people just looking at the poster in the movie theater, deciding to see it because it looks creepy, and then being ‘bored’ by it. I noticed that one person walked out of the theater during the first showing I went to, and I overheard a woman say “Refund” to her husband after it ended when I saw it the second time. It’s more of a historical drama packed with atmospheric dread and grotesque images than it is a traditional horror film, but I thought it was pretty fantastic, despite any genre label.

Overall, this film contains surprisingly disturbing imagery and a score that resonated with me long after seeing it for the first time. I loved it even more the second time, and I look forward to seeing it again in the future. Eggers presents a few specific challenges to the viewer, including strong accents, period language, and slow pacing, but it’s refreshing to find a horror film that trusts its viewers enough to challenge them. It’s especially unique to find one that contains unsettling moments through such an interesting execution. I want to see independent horror films make money, so please pay to see this instead of Insidious 4 or whatever.




About Natalie Jones

Natalie Jones has work published in print at Amoskeag Literary Journal, and online at Eunoia Review, Gambling the Aisle, The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine, and Haiku Journal.

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