Also hosted ever graciously by The North American Anglican.
I’m not one for horror movies. I like my sleep and simply don’t have the constitution to watch hours of spooks, jumps and gore. But after a great episode of Virtue in the Wasteland and several recommendations from various friends, I figured I’d give The Witch a try. It ended up being one of the few horror movies I’d recommend to anyone and it was one of the most sublime, unsettling and interesting films I’ve seen in in a long time. It’s one that has a novel premise and timely lessons for today.
Hawthorne, Miller now Eggers
I won’t lie to you. It’s one of the most terrifying films I’ve watched (and that’s not just me, that’s from Steven King, too). Long story short, a family of English Puritans leave the safety of the organized colony over a theological dispute (it’s hinted that the dispute is over infant baptism). They strike out on their own, only to be immediately plagued with supernatural and natural affliction. Their crops fail, their infant son goes missing and the family descends into maddening confusion and fear.
The horror works due to the main premise (also due to the terrifying accuracy right down to the accents): The supernatural exists and it is malevolent. The whole time you are waiting for your modern pretensions to be proven true. “Soon,” you think, “some piece of evidence will arise that will show this is all explainable.”
The weird, intolerant religious bigots were right. Satan and his minions are harassing and killing members of this family. Sometimes, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean Satan’s not out to get you. The film is fascinating precisely due to the fact Robert Eggers’ story contradicts our mythic picture of witch trials.
While The Witch doesn’t directly delve into it, the common myth is that the witch trials were a barbaric medieval practice of the Church, intent on attacking women and remnants of paganism. Eventually the Enlightenment did away with all such nonsense. In reality the witch trial phenomenon was nothing of the sort. It was a thoroughly modern affair, starting with the end of the supposed “Dark Ages.While women made up a majority of those accused and executed, their accusers were usually women, while in places like Iceland and Estonia men made up a majority of the victims. Lastly, even if Wicca like to tell themselves otherwise, there was no “witch cult” that the Church was stamping out, much less an coherent religion that neo-Paganism can draw its roots from.
The Witch Trials and the Church of England
The experience of Anglicanism during the witch trial panic is not one that is told often but it is an engaging one. The story usually begins with King James VI of Scotland. Though King James was a devout Christian (in many ways the model Anglican), he took an immense interest in witchcraft after visiting Denmark, where witch hunting was all the intellectual rage. In fact, James had gone so far as to publish his own scholarly study in his 1597 Daemonologie. By the end of the panic, nearly 30,000 accused witches were executed in Great Britain, primarily in Scotland.
However from the start Anglicanism offered a positive outlier compared to the rest of Europe. Only 15% of accused witches in England were executed and accusations were comparatively less common. In Ireland during the Anglican ascendancy, trials were borderline unheard of. In England, witch hunting was driven primarily by dissenters from the Church of England, not the Church itself. Strict Puritans like Matthew Hopkins appointed themselves judge, jury and executioner. Counties that saw the worst of the witch trials usually were hotbeds of Puritanism. While New England notoriously played host to several trials, Anglican Virginia suffered rarely. The colony had virtually no laws to address witchcraft and those that did usually punished false accusers severely.
Unfortunately people did die and regrettably at times Anglicans lit the torch. Thankfully it was often Anglican clerics and scholars who lead the way to end the abuses. When Sir Reginald Scot wrote a famous treatise, he was defended mainly by English clergymen. By the late 1500s, the Bishop of London and his personal chaplain launched a campaign to discredit witch hunters. It may be tempting to assume elite Anglican skeptics criticized the practice on humanist grounds, but instead they did so out of their fidelity to Scripture. Sir Robert Filmer summed up the common objection as,
[Y]et he (Satan) hath no commission to destroy the lives or goods of men, it is little less than blasphemy to say any such thing of the admirable Providence of God, whereby he preserves all his creatures.
Even King James had become a skeptic, taking it upon himself to expose fraud. Under Jacobean direction, the amount of prosecutions and executions declined. By the end of the seventeenth century, English prosecutions became unheard of.
Lessons from a Christian Folk Tale
While the story of Christian witch trials ended by the 18th century, Eggers’ New England folk tale still has lessons for us today. The fictional travails of William’s family and the very real and lengthy struggle to end the witch hunts in Great Britain remain relevant.
To begin, the family in film are an extreme example of when one’s theology is out of balance. The Puritan family barely references mercy, despite naming one of their daughters Mercy. For being such über Protestants, their image of God is more like the Unforgiving Judge, except this time without so much as the Virgin Mary’s prayers. The God of the Book of Common Prayer, who is “more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve,” is nowhere in The Witch.
Secondly, the story reminds us of the importance of being rooted in tradition. While many of the dissenting English Protestants were decent enough exegetes, too often their theology divorced themselves from the greater, universal Church. Had William read his Church Fathers he may have known St. Augustine pointed out that it is the “error of the pagans,” to believe in, “some other divine power than the one God.” Equally important, the film highlights the tragic consequences of pretending we can thrust ourselves out in the spiritual wilderness, connected to no one else. Isolated from the rest of the Church, William and his family were easy prey.
A poignant example of the necessity of these lessons is the situation in Africa. Regrettably the same panic that gripped early modern Europe is alive and well today. Thousands of women and children have been killed and thousands more live their lives in daily fear. Nearly 300 years after England ceased prosecuting “witches,” governments in Africa hunt down the accused. The Anglican Communion does unsung work of condemning witch hunts and combating absurd superstition. Unfortunately, it seems there are some Christians whose gullibility and poor theology exacerbates the tragedy. While the bishops labor to end the fear and panic, charismatics spend significant resources on undoing this by stirring up as much hysteria as possible. The theology of these naive instigators is about as unattached to historical Christianity as their 17th century English predecessors. I don’t wish to be cruel, but the ravings of these folks quite literally endanger vulnerable lives.
The Witch is more than just a scary story. On a cinematic level, it’s a genuinely compelling tale. It’s sublime in the most frightening of the aspect of the word. Watching, it’s impossible not to grasp the sense of isolation and terror of the bewitched family. It’s a truly unsettling “New England folk tale.” Yet if we can look past the cinematic scares, it has some real truths. It may be an unsettling story but it’s an unsettling world. Detaching ourselves from the rest of the Church can usually lead to extremes that only bring on tragedy, as occurs in Africa right now. William and his family were thankfully fictional, but their self induced problem is all too real.
I wish you all a happy All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day.
For various & sundry related to the topic
- Dr. Brian A. Pavlac’s Ten Common Errors & Myths About the Witch Hunts. King’s College.
- Philip C. Almond’s England’s First Demonologist: Reginald Scot & ‘Discoverie of Witchcraft.’ I.B.Tauris, 2011.
- William W. Coventry’s Demonic Possession on Trial: Case Studies in Early Modern England & Colonial America, 1593-1692. Writer’s Club Press, 2003.
- King James I, Daemonologie. Gutenberg Press, 2008.
- Gilbert Geis & Ivan Bunn’s A Trial of Witches: A seventeenth-century witchcraft prosecution. Routledge, 1997.