Like a campfire spotted far into the distance, The Witch is enticing, welcoming, and the approach to get to it is full of unease and mystery. Cinematically, it is harder to maintain dread than it is to make you jump or sick to your stomach. In this way, director Robert Eggers has created an undeniably great horror film.
Indeed, The Witch doesn’t rely on premeditated jump scares or grotesque imagery to strike fear into its audience. It doesn’t ask people to suspend their disbelief for an hour-and-a-half in order to properly enjoy the movie. Instead, it asks people to try and understand what life would have been like for a family of devout Christians living in solitude, terrified of what may happen if they go against the word of God. One of the reasons The Witch works as well as it does is because, despite its name, the movie isn’t a horrific folktale about a paranormal being, but rather a look into the depravity of what humanity can become.
Today, we are going to be talking about the film’s ending and what it possibly means beneath the surface. So, needless to say, a SPOILER ALERT is in full effect. Before we talk about the film’s finale, however, let’s take a look back at the events leading up to it.
Set in 1630 New England, a generation before the Salem witch trials, the film revolves around a small family that has been excommunicated from its plantation due to father William’s (Ralph Ineson) outspoken objections to what he sees as the community’s lax religious principles. William welcomes the chance to leave the plantation and practice his strict adherence to the Lord on his own, moving his family to a remote cabin near the foreboding woods.
Early in the story, daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) – verging on becoming a woman herself – is playing peek-a-boo with the family’s baby near the treeline when, all of a sudden, she opens her eyes to see the boy is gone, with no trace of where he went. The audience is then introduced to a cloaked figure running with the baby through the woods – the titular witch – who kills the young one and uses his blood and fat to make a topical ointment for her body. Sheesh.
What follows is the crux of the film’s conflict: the family struggles with the disappearance of the child while attempting to maintain their faith in God in light of such a tragedy. Moreover, things keep getting worse, as their harvest of corn goes bust and, without the safety of the plantation, the family is in danger of starving to death during the winter.
The faith of the individual family members – which also includes mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), pre-teen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and two young, rambunctious twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) – alternatively wavers and stays strong as they question original sin, the afterlife fate of the young baby, and whether they themselves have been redeemed in the eyes of God. Is it possible to go to heaven if you’ve sinned? Can we know for sure that God forgives? What does it mean to invite sin into your life, and what do those consequences look like? These questions are pondered by the individuals of the family, namely Thomasin, William, and Caleb, and begin to weigh on their hearts, turning their tension and doubt on each other.
Thomasin gets the worst of it, as she is basically blamed for everything. Her two younger siblings are dead. Her mother has gone mad (in one scene, she begins breastfeeding her deceased infant, when in actuality a raven is pecking at her exposed breast). Her father is gored to death by Black Phillip (the family’s goat, and runaway star of the picture). And she’s ultimately forced to kill her mother in self-defense.
The movie ends with Thomasin speaking to Black Phillip, who answers in a human voice and appears as a man. He convinces her to sign a deal with the Devil, offering her the sights of the world and the life she wants to live. Thomasin walks naked into the forest where she finds a coven holding a Witches’ Sabbath. The witches begin to levitate and a cackling Thomasin joins them, rising into the trees and completing her transformation and identity as a witch. Good gracious.
So, what the hell happened? Why would a good Christian girl who saw her family just slaughtered by Satan-worshipping witches then join their killers!? How could someone raised not only to be a Puritan, but also so visibly long to inhabit that ideal, literally succumb to the Devil, surrendering her body and soul to his dubious charms mere hours after the Dark One took the shape of a beast and personally slaughtered her father?
Well, the obvious answer would probably be lack of other alternatives. Realistically, what other options did she have? Her entire family is dead (except maybe the twins) and she’s surely not fit to survive through the winter on her own. What, is she going to travel back to her former plantation only to face likely charges of murder and/or witchcraft?
Some say that the movie is about female empowerment. Between the social isolation, the separation from their homeland and the strictness of the Puritans’ religion, life is fairly terrible for Thomasin’s family. And it’s worse for Thomasin, because she’s a teenage girl, coming into womanhood. Her parents, particularly her mother, are suspicious of her growing impiety, her independence. People were scared of feminine power back then.
If your career options are cooking, cleaning, child-rearing (for your parents), cooking, cleaning, child-rearing (for a family your parents give you to), and cooking, cleaning, child-rearing (for, eventually, a husband), then joining a coven might be pretty liberating. Is this actually a happy fairy tale ending?
There is a constant thread of “uhhh, what?” in just about every scene of this film. Though, one of the best things about a movie so open to interpretation is that there’s no real “solution”. And there are, of course, many ways to understand it. Those final scenes are a litmus test: is she free or damned? Independent or just a slave to a new master? Those questions are as chilling as anything else.
What say you? Do you have your own interpretation or explanations? Let us know below.