by Melissa Strong
Greetings from the first half of the undergraduate American literature survey. For nearly 10 years I have taught the “Beginnings to the Civil War” college class that seems a lot like the boring half when compared to its sibling “Civil War to the present” (a semester full of cool stuff like the Harlem Renaissance, Sylvia Plath, and postmodernism). I love “Beginnings to the Civil War” because it reveals the origins of issues our country faces today, but it can be a hard sell due to boring crap like sermons, letters, diaries, and speeches. This goes on for months until Poe and the Transcendentalists show up. No matter how excited I get about the Enlightenment and the era of reform, the excitement tends not to be contagious.
Having just spent weeks covering 17th-century New England inspired me to write about The VVitch (2015) and the extent to which this period horror film portrays it accurately. Well made and worth seeing, The VVitch follows a family contending with virtual theocracy and real or imagined evil forces in the 1630s. The costumes are top notch (if a bit cleaner than they likely would have been) and the dialogue is “historical” enough that you may want to turn on the subtitles.
But what makes The VVitch feel most authentic is how it captures the sheer paranoia of the times, which drove accusations of witchcraft between neighbors, friends, and family members. Watching this movie, I kept thinking of stuff from the “Beginnings to the Civil War” class and how it gets the Puritan worldview just right.
See, those crazy Puritans believed they were on a mission from God to conquer North America with their white European Jesusy awesomeness, which John Winthrop describes in his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630). Also, Puritans believed in predestination and election. In other words, they thought that before you were born it was already decided whether you would go to heaven or hell when you died. Yet nobody but God knew your fate. For that reason, Puritans spent hella time in church and reading their Bibles. Anything good that happened was due to divine intervention, and bad luck meant you were being punished or tested. America’s first bestselling book, Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 narrative about living as a captive among native people, is just one of many examples of this.
Given the importance of religion in the lives of these early Americans and the unhealthy mental state resulting from the concept of predestination, is it any wonder that people in Salem and other places began sniffing around for witches? Think about it: if someone in your village was convicted of witchcraft -- a clear sign that this person was not elect -- suddenly your own odds of being elect get better. More witches in town? Greater likelihood that the non-witches are bound for heaven! On the other hand, the environment of accusation set everyone on edge. You watched others, they watched you, and you watched your own back. Just about anything could be a sign of witchcraft, from a red petticoat (hello, olde tyme period underwear!) to a sick cow. Nobody was safe. Remember The Crucible from high school?
The VVitch expertly reflects this environment from the opening scene, in which the family is banished from their stockaded community for religious reasons. Their crime? Worshipping differently than everyone else. In spite of this, the whole family has drunk the Calvinist Kool-Aid. Mom and dad Katherine (Kate Dickie) and William (Ralph Ineson) drag their four kids out to the woods, a dark and scary place that represented evil in the Puritan worldview. Outside the gated community were animals, nature, heathens, non-white people, and other things that terrified Puritans because they were different.
Sure enough, The VVitch makes the woods look dark and scary, and it emphasizes this with Mark Korven’s spooky music. Katherine is sure that having to live in the woods will doom their family, and she is not exactly wrong about this. Almost immediately, weird shit starts happening. Baby Samuel disappears, apparently nabbed by a shapeshifting bestial crone (Bathsheba Garnett) who uses his blood to make potion. In true Puritan form, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) frantically worries for his baby brother’s soul, but when he is alone in the woods, he is lured by a mysterious hot chick/baby killer in disguise.
Meanwhile, twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) claim that the family’s goat gives them evil orders. The goat, Black Phillip, represents the devil as well as the Puritan idea that evil is a present and constant temptation living among us. To get the twins to shut up, their older sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) tells them a scary tale in which she pretends to be the witch. But this story actually fuels paranoia and accusations within the family, and Thomasin’s relatives begin to suspect her of witchcraft. I love that The VVitch does not clearly identify its titular evildoer: is the witch the creepy lady in the woods or Thomasin? This ambiguity suits the uncertainty that ironically partnered with the Puritans’ unwavering faith.
The final scenes add more potential witches to the mix when Thomasin succumbs to the devil and heads for the woods to join a bunch of naked women flying through the air. This ending kinda seems to come from nowhere. As Best Boy put it, “the rest of the movie did not feel like it built up to her breaking and giving in at that final moment. There was no big push to send her over the edge.” Best Boy is right: cinematically and narratively, The VVitch fails to adequately set up Thomasin's deal with the devil.
Yet I saw it differently because of the American literature survey I teach. A pure, godly person could suddenly become a witch/minion of the devil seems to be a historically accurate idea. Moreover, the images of a good Puritan girl going bad and joining others in the woods for sexy, witchy, airborne activities is right out of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown.” Sure, Nate the Great wrote this in 1835, but it is a period piece like The VVitch with an identical setting of 17th-century New England.
With all this in mind, I can say The VVitch accurately reflects its times as they were recorded in American literature. Take it from me, or take a “BFinfinaleginnings to the Civil War” class and find out for yourself.