“I am that very witch. When I sleep my spirit slips away from my body and dances naked with The Devil. That’s how I signed his book.”
“The Witch”, a 2015 horror film directed by Robert Eggers, is set in 1630s New England, when a Puritan family is banished from their colonial settlement and forced to live in an isolated farm near a vast secluded forest. The family consists of William and Katherine and their five children; eldest daughter Tomasin, eldest son Caleb, twin siblings Mercy and Jonas and newly- born Samuel. During an innocent game of peekaboo, baby Sam abruptly disappears from Tomasin’s side, being snatched by a wicked cloaked figure and seemingly killed. This event sparks devastation in the family, particularly a distressed Katherine, who blames Tomasin for the disappearance. Tension mounts within the family, days progressively becoming miserable as a chain of tragic events leads to calamity, members of the family slowly dying at the hands of the malevolent and cruel Witch within the woods. Once all is lost, Tomasin is left to confront the darkness and the unknown precise which has claimed the lives of her loved ones, only to realise that she must accept that she is the fiend which she had feared for so long. Tomasin ventures into the forest, embracing her newfound identity as a witch and joins the nearby coven. The Witch is very dark and expresses many common conventions of Gothic fiction. In particular, the bleak and discomforting setting, supernatural elements and the sinister and utterly depressing mood are three notable conventions. In this report, I will be discussing how the director applies these conventions to unsettle the audience and instigate fear for what lurks in the shadows.
To start with the farm, the structures are fragile, vulnerable and dull in colour, emphasising the damaged and unjoyful life of the family. Eggers has the farm be very small and inferior to the gigantic forest that surrounds it in order for the family to seem disadvantaged and weakened to the vicious predators that hunt them. Another feature of the farm is the billowing smoke which pours out of the cottage chimney to add a ghostly and mysterious vibe. Another is the vintage hand built aesthetic of the farm which aids in convincing the audience that the story was set in this particular time period. With the seemingly endless forests surrounding them, the setting truly establishes both isolation and entrapment, two common conventions of Gothic settings. Branches seem to stretch out in a wicked and obscure manner and trunks are elongated and tower over the farm acting like bars which, when finding themselves lost within the forest, act as a trap for the family to be seized by the Witch. This sea of trees also appears to enclose around the farm, trapping or isolating them from society. Similarly, gothic films such as Sleepy Hollow employ this dark woodsy setting to trap characters with an evil presence. Eggers creates a character in the forest in that it plays a major role in the destruction of the family, sheltering evil and concealing family members from safety. Ambiguity shrouds this forest and the audience really doesn’t know who or where this Witch resides or lurks in order to thieve the children. Supernatural abilities, therefore, certainly become evident, instances such as the Witch transforming into a young seductive lady in order to lure Caleb and her stealing of baby Sam in a matter of seconds demonstrating this supernatural element. Through the naturalistic setting and the supernatural entities that live within, the film made me feel frightened of venturing into dark forests alone and feel warier of what might lurk within the midnight shadows.
With a slow building pace, eerie and off-putting soundtrack and disturbing imagery, the audience becomes fearful and disturbed by the tragic events unfolding in front of them. Eggers achieves a particular mood to immerse the audience into the isolated and devastating world within the film as well as the alluring fantastical elements which are displayed in certain sequences. He captures the imagination, letting thoughts run wild, racing like a rampaging goat, only to allow that goat to violently ram into you unexpectedly with every frightening twist and turn. Gradually, the audience becomes invested in the family and their struggles and when catastrophe strikes its vicious claw against them, an emotional impact hits, particularly as the children die and the family must grieve, mourn, but then turn to blame, this conflict within the farm conveying just how broken and in suffering this family is experiencing. Death and its psychological damage is a common occurrence and frequent symbol, metaphorically and physically, in that the fear of death and devastation is what preys on the characters, these fears taking a physical form of three particular animals. Evil itself frequently makes appearances, in the form of a goat named ‘Black Phillip’, an evil gleamed hare and a bloodthirsty raven, all three playing their part in harming -or murdering- the family, symbolizing that death or the devil is stalking and claiming the family one by one, adding to the wicked nature of the film. When one of these three animals appears, the audience tenses, preparing for the next dreadful event to come and therefore forming the suspenseful and foreboding mood. Another important feature in evoking the grim and bleak mood is the monochromatic colour palette, which both provides a sense of hopelessness to the situation and drains all happiness or hope from the setting. Black, white, grey, brown, green and scarlet red are six key colours used to establish an unpleasing feeling of gloominess and incoming danger. Eggers expertly paints the character’s surroundings as a cold and unforgiving world, dark colours consuming the evil that lurks within the expansive forest. Personally, the film struck an intense emotional punch within me. Eggers was, therefore, in my opinion, successful in crafting a particular mood, as I both felt terrified of this mysterious Witch and saddened by the tragic downfall of the family. Rarely, horror films cause me to feel scared because I have seen far too many to count. However, because of the refreshing and original take on the genre, horror films generally following the same basic and boring formula. As a result of the original spin on supernatural horror, I was unfamiliar and felt a sense of unease, this impact on the audience being one of the main goals of horror directors and Eggers certainly achieving it.
To conclude, Eggers masters directing this highly successful horror film and manages to apply several common Gothic conventions, such as the setting, the supernatural and the mood, to unsettle the audience. Going for a more classic Gothic atmosphere and vibe, as opposed to pointless jump, scares and clique plots like what many of today’s horror movies choose to do are what sets the film apart from others and draws the audience in. Honestly, I highly enjoyed experiencing this film and I deeply recommend others to watch it, maybe even twice like I did.