When Robert Eggers began doing the research he needed to write the historical horror flick that would eventually become his debut critical hit "The Witch," he wasn't intending to make a feminist movie. But, as he learned when he dug deeper into the history of New England's Puritan settlers to effectively tell the story of a family of Calvinist outcasts, "feminism is bursting out of the pages of history."
Eggers' movie — you can read our review here — is therefore bursting at its seams with themes of female sexuality versus Christian patriarchy, just as its teen heroine Thomasin's newly formed breasts are bursting from the multiple layers of clothing she's required to wear at all times both for warmth and for modesty.
When Thomasin's family of seven is cast out from its 17th century settlement due to religious differences, they settle in a farm at the base of some sinister as hell woods to survive. Of course, given the film's title, their strenuous but peaceful existence is quickly ruined when a witch steals the family baby — and thanks to a nasty combination of sexism and the type of religious hysteria people cling to in desperation, Thomasin becomes a main suspect.
Eggers and his cast's commitment to historical accuracy — specifically, their use of Puritan-era English throughout the entire film — can make the family's paranoia read as slightly absurd (they take everything from a dirty look from a bunny to a rowdy goat as a sign of the supernatural), but Eggers told Revelist over the phone that back in the years before Salem, "people didn’t just believe in witches — witches were real in the way that a tree is real or a rock is real; it was just a given."
"It wasn’t as if there was some conspiracy where a Puritan minister would call an outspoken woman a witch because he wanted to hang her," Eggers continued. "In this time, people were so afraid of female power that not only did they want to shut down this woman, they literally thought she was a fairy tale witch capable of doing all of these horrible things that the witch does in my film."
This utter commitment to their belief that witchcraft is an actual, tangible thing — and to be fair to them, in "The Witch," it certainly seems like it is — is what makes Thomasin's parents (played by Ralph Ineson and the famous "Game of Thrones" breastfeeder, Kate Dickie) believable as actual nuanced characters instead of cartoonish villains, which they probably would have been if they were aware on any level how much they feared Thomasin's budding sexuality, and equated it to witchcraft.
"In the early modern period, the witch manifested itself as men’s fears, desires, and ambivalences about women and female power," Eggers explained, adding that, in the case of Thomasin's mother, who begins to fear Thomasin as soon as she gets her period, the fear of the witchcraft "was also women’s own fears and ambivalences about themselves and motherhood" in a "super intense, male-dominated society."
At the end of the day, Eggers' film ends on a note that I felt read as a giant "eff you" to the Christian patriarchal world presented throughout the film. Eggers himself doesn't necessarily feel that way — "I wasn’t trying to have any commentary about religion specifically," he explained — but after researching the hell out of the New England Puritans and writing and directing "The Witch," he insists that the themes of 17th-century female rebellion presented in the film should resonate with women today.
"The ramifications of [witch hunts] throughout history are really intense," he concluded. "And framing female power in a positive way is definitely not something that we have been able to totally grasp as a contemporary culture."