This essay is part of a Public Books capsule by Eleanor Johnson on feminism and horror.
When things aren’t going right for the church? Burn a witch. When the men in a Puritan settlement worry the crops aren’t coming in as expected, and there may be a famine? Burn a witch. When the women in a town get uppity and start resisting patriarchal violence? Burn a witch. Smallpox outbreak? Burn a witch. Economic instability? Burn a witch. Increasing attacks by angry Indigenous peoples? Burn a witch.1
As I noted toward the end of my last essay about Alien, insecure and unstable patriarchs are keen to find and persecute witches. Remember when Hillary Clinton lost the election, and right-wing patriarchs chanted, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead”? Not a coincidence. Weak patriarchies have been shored up for hundreds of years by prosecuting witches. But there’s also a fascinating subnarrative to this phenomenon: witches offer a powerful challenge to the exercise of patriarchal violence in the family. As depicted in A24’s brilliant historical fiction film The Witch, women and children in Western history could and did find in witchcraft relief from the violence they endured in their own families.
For most of Western history, “family violence” hasn’t even been a thought category, let alone an available legal term. That’s because—until very recently—the physical “correction and chastisement” of women and children by their husbands and fathers was an entirely accepted feature of regular, everyday life. Given that abused women and children have only very recently been able to turn to the law for help, what did they do in the past?
In the Middle Ages, if women were relatively wealthy and had friends or family in the area, they had some options. They could exert “soft” or social power over their abuser to mitigate his violence.2 Children, on the other hand, had no power at all. Many, many children died in the Middle Ages and the early modern period due to family violence. Many women did, too, particularly if they were short on money, friends, or clout. Because soft power only works if you have social backing. Absent that, who could women and children turn to in these periods for help? Sometimes, witches.
In 1367, an accused witch named Gabrina degli Alberti advised a battered woman to give her husband chamomile to calm him down. She provided numerous other remedies and medications (some hopefully stronger than chamomile) to women who traveled to see her about their tribulations. Decades later, another witch, named Matteuccia, also prescribed herbal remedies and tonics to try to help an abuse victim; Matteuccia was, in 1428, one of the first women in Europe to be burned as a witch.3 So, from the get-go—from the earliest days of the organized, European persecution of witches—witchcraft was associated with helping remediate domestic abuse.
In the New England colonies in the 17th century, things were interestingly different from the English Middle Ages or early modern period. In the colonies of New England, domestic cruelty to a wife was strictly prohibited; men who beat or even verbally abused their wives could get into serious trouble for their misconduct.4 Domestic violence between spouses could result in neighbors and the church intervening, or even the courts—because wives had meaningful rights.
But, despite this focus on the rights of wives, and on the idea that husbands owed their wives respect and good treatment, Puritan children were subject to an immense amount of quotidian abuse, both mental and physical. “Restless children were rolled into small squirming human balls with their knees tied firmly beneath their shins, and booted back and forth across the floor by their elders,” according to historian David Hackett Fischer. “Other youngsters were dangled by their heels out of windows, or forced to kneel on sharp sticks … small malefactors were made to wear shame-signs that proclaimed their offenses … Large children were caned or whipped.” Children were rolled into balls and kicked across the floor—as a way of “breaking their wills.” So, if these were expected norms of child-rearing in a culture focused on the “breaking” of a child, and if all the surrounding “elders” participated in this patriarchally sanctioned violence, who could offer a child a way out? No one.
Women and children in Western history could and did find in witchcraft relief from the violence they endured in their own families.
Except maybe witches, at least in The Witch. This film is set in the 1630s in the New England colonies, and centers on a family that is banished from their settlement town and goes to homestead in a new area near a forest, alone. Never a great idea. They all get killed—including the abusive father—except for the eldest daughter Thomasin, who succumbs to witchery and is transformed into a witch at the end herself.
Oh, I should have said: spoiler alert.
As the film’s writer, Robert Eggers, has noted in interviews, the film was designed to allow for many possible interpretations. All the crazy things that happen in the film might be “real”: demon rabbits, nipple-eating crows, infanticidal witches, possessions, naked flying women. Maybe there really is a witch in the woods. Maybe the family goat really is possessed by a sexy-voiced Satan. Or, maybe, all those supernatural and terrifying elements could have been hallucinations that the poor, starving family experienced, due to ergot poisoning that they got from the sickly corn that their feckless father harvested. My second-favorite thing about the film is precisely this undecidability.
But my first favorite thing about the film is its subtle but jaw-droppingly brilliant treatment of family violence toward children, in relation to witchcraft, whether the latter is real or imaginary. Because what this film does is to think through family violence directed not against adult women, but against children. Thirteen-year-old Thomasin, though not the only abused child in the film, is at the epicenter of the film’s meditation on witchcraft as, somehow, opposed to the patriarchal abuse of children in the Puritan family.
Regardless of whether the supernatural is driven by Satan or bad corn, the film’s depiction of family violence is an element of the plot that is undeniably real. Over the course of the film, we see family violence. Specifically, we see a father scream to his daughter that she is a “bitch,” and throw her to the ground. We see him drag her screaming across a field. We see him threaten to chop his son’s head with a billhook. We see him board up his three surviving children into a goat shed—with the goats. We see him force his eldest daughter to lie down in a grave, while he contemplates burying her alive; she suffers this in silence—she is inured to his patriarchal violence by this point in the film.
The film’s realization of this abuse is brilliant, precisely because it makes it all seem so normal, even set against the supernatural/hallucinatory background of the film. We don’t bat an eyelash at the grabbing, threatening, hair pulling, fighting, screaming, throwing, partial burial, and boarding into a goat shed. I mean, we do, in that it’s upsetting; but none of those acts of violence feel surprising. Because the filmmakers so successfully drag us into the mentality and lifeways of 17th-century Pilgrims. We accept that, in this world, corporeal punishment is a rule and a norm within a family. The only weird stuff is the stuff happening around the physical violence of the family.
Indeed, the physical violence that the father—and the mother—exert over the children makes all the more sense in the broader context of the film’s subtle but unflinching critique of patriarchy. To see that critique in action, we have to go back to the beginning of the film.
In the opening scene, we see William on trial for some kind of heresy. He refuses to recant, so he is banished. We see Thomasin recoil in fear and shock when the community leaders pronounce their family “banished.” She looks to her father, to see whether he will recant and save her from this unthinkable fate. But her father simply mouths off at the tribunal, says he’s eager to leave, and then says, “Katherine,” beckoning his wife to his side, like a dog, as he leaves the meetinghouse to lead his family to their (ultimately fatal) exile.
William’s prideful commitment to the idea that he knows Jesus and God’s messages better than his community is what gets his family into trouble in the first place. His daughter clearly sees that he is making a mistake but is powerless to stop her entanglement in his manic belief in his own masculine entitlement. However badly Katherine and their children might want to stay in town, they have no choice: William is the paterfamilias, and they go where he goes. Even if he takes them to a witch-infested arboreal verge. Which he does.
Throughout the film, the patriarchal structure of the family allows William to reaffirm his own pigheadedness and folly. When Katherine reproaches William for bringing the family to the horrible cursed wood, she moans that her son—who was unbaptized because of their exile—is in hell. All because of her husband’s willfulness. She begs him to let them return to the church and to the settlement, saying “We will starve!” But he says no. The death of his son, the madness of his wife, the lack of food … nothing can undermine William’s conviction that he is morally righteous, while the settlement is a “damned church.” He even says that they should lease out their daughter Thomasin to a wealthier family, to gain some income and reduce costs. His view of himself as lord and master of their blighted homestead is absolute and unimpeachable.
While all of this is going on, we are encouraged to focus on a witch in the woods as the gravest danger to the family. She kidnapped baby Samuel and then used his blood as salve for her skin. She seduced, kidnapped, and somehow mortally injured Caleb, the eldest son. But the family doesn’t know about the witch; instead, they start to suspect that Thomasin herself might be a witch. Maybe she killed Samuel and poisoned Caleb.
Once suspicion is cast on Thomasin, things devolve rapidly to consume the rest of the family: the younger siblings die; William is gored to death by the Satan goat. Katherine attacks Thomasin, who murders her to save herself. Pretty grim stuff.
Pretty grim, that is, right up until Thomasin converses with the Satan goat, who offers to let her taste butter, see the world, and “live deliciously.” This sounds way better to Thomasin than eating moldy corn on a shithole farm and being assaulted by her parents. And so, she strips off her clothes, signs her name in Satan’s book, and goes into the woods—where she joins an ecstatic coven of witches and floats into the air and away.
The ending of the film is startling. Because it feels like Thomasin has, somehow, won. Her whole family is dead. She is a young woman—thirteen—now outcast from Christ and salvation, having given her soul willingly to Satan and witchcraft. Yet, she’s smiling and laughing as she ascends into the trees.
The reason, I think, is that “being a witch” in this film is symbolic of resisting patriarchal violence in the family. Or even escaping from it, permanently. This film recognizes what Gabrina and Matteuccia’s fellow citizens had realized hundreds of years earlier: whatever form it may take, exactly, witchcraft is refusing to submit to the violence sanctioned by the patriarchal structures of family and Christianity.
The Witch is many things, but, in the end, it is a triumphal revisionist history. Now, through Thomasin, countless thousands of children—those abused and tortured at the hands of their own parents and family members—get to have the last laugh.
- Before the Salem witch trials, there had been a smallpox outbreak, increased attacks by Native Americans, and economic instability in the colony. ↩
- I’m using “his” here and throughout for the abusers first because 85 percent of domestic violence is committed by men against women, and second because I’m teeing up an argument about witches, who are usually women. But I do want to note that domestic violence and intimate partner violence happen to men as well, sometimes committed by other men, sometimes by women. And I want to note, further, that nonbinary and trans populations are often particularly vulnerable to abuse. ↩
- See Saintly Women: Medieval Saints, Modern Women, and Intimate Partner Violence, Nancy Nienhuis and Beverly Mayne Kienzle (Routledge, 2018), p. 110. ↩
- Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989), pp. 84–5. ↩