The Witch Explores America's Essential Fear of Female Power

A reflection on the historical roots of Robert Eggers' feminist folktale.

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The first person sentenced to death for witchcraft in the 13 colonies was a woman named Bridget Bishop. Tried in the spring of 1692, Bishop was found guilty of bewitching a group of young women from her hometown, Salem Village. The proceedings that led to her execution included testimonies by neighbors who claimed that Bishop had appeared in their homes, where she allegedly choked and pinched them. She was also accused of murdering children, tormenting pigs, and using "poppets" (small dolls) for divinatory purposes. Court documents also refer to the results of a physical examination administered by a group of local women who claimed to find what they called a "preternatural teat" on Bishop's body, which in their eyes served as valid proof that she was indeed in league with the Devil.

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The evidence that condemned Bishop, much like the evidence that led to the deaths of many women prosecuted for witchcraft before her, was heavily dependent on the eyewitness accounts and testimonies of her peers. When asked by the presiding judge, John Hawthorn, if she was a witch, Bishop responded, "I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is."

Despite this, she was convicted of witchcraft and publically hanged on June 10, 1692.

Bridget Bishop's death and the witch trials of Salem are as legendary as the folklore that incited them. In early colonial society, witchcraft and women alike became the scapegoats for failed crops, epidemics, and other natural phenomena. The colonists' obsession over witches overtly illustrates their culture's fear and fascination with women's bodies and the agency that those bodies can possess.

In our modern era, such worldviews feel antiquated and ludicrous, yet if we closely examine recent conversations around issues like reproductive rights and the pay gap, it is easy to see that the patriarchal panic of the 17th century is still alive and well. Women's bodies, agency, and voices are still contentious issues. We are still feared, and our truths are still questioned and unjustly challenged by men.

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Enter the writer and director Robert Eggers's latest film, The Witch: A New England Folktale, in which the complex mythos and history of the archetypal witch are revisited and turned into a heart-palpitating drama. Eggers, who has been fascinated with witches since childhood, aimed to transport viewers back to a time when witches were thought to be real. "The real world and the fairy-tale world were the same thing for everyone aside from a few people in the extreme intelligentsia," Eggers explained at a recent screening for The Witch at BAM. "We get this idea that there were white witches and herbalists and that the idea of an evil witch was something that the clergy thought up so that they could get rid of women in power. And that kind of conspiracy did exist, but the sexism was so intense and the belief in witches was so real, that when they would accuse someone of being a witch, they really believed [it]."

Set in 1630, The Witch predates the puritanical narrative that most of us are familiar with. It opens at a moment of transition for the film's protagonists and its heroine, Thomasin. From the very beginning, the mind-set of the early colonists is tangible. The film plunges you into a world where going into the forest alone is forbidden, where witches fly high in the sky at night, and where the slightest accusation of witchery can tear a family apart. The experience of inhabiting Eggers's New England through the eyes of his characters is the closest thing to occupying the historical moment that led to the death of women like Bridget Bishop.

Without revealing too much of the film's highly suspenseful plot, it is safe to say that The Witch begins with an ending and ends with a beginning fostered by irrevocable change. "I had an idea about the mythic past of New England at the very beginning," says Eggers, who compared it to the Middle Ages. "It wasn't New England culture, it was English culture in this place where they were totally vulnerable, right at the start of the Great Migration. It was a scary time."

The Witch flawlessly reflects such vulnerabilities by reviving the emotional interiority of 17th-century hopes and fears. Between its spellbinding scenery, the historical accuracy of even the most minute details (the costumes were hand-stitched according to period-appropriate specifications), and the relatable bond between Thomasin and her family, The Witch pays tribute to the impact that feminine power has had on our cultural imagination and psychology. When you watch The Witch, the boundaries between the film's narrative and history blur, and you will find yourself willing to believe in a power that defies logic and fear.

Dianca London is an assistant at Lenny. 

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