A few weeks ago an indie horror movie called The Witch (for a full review click here) hit theaters in the US, which means that it only just came out in the UK a few days ago. I saw it, I liked it, and—truly the mark of any good film—it made me think. What did it make me think about? Witches. How about that?
Popular culture loves witches, and has for as long as people have been sitting around fires telling tall tales. There are countless reasons why storytellers love witches: they make great villains, can provide an important lesson to kids, have always had a certain aesthetic appeal, and audiences love hearing about them. Well, actually… that last thing is a fairly recent development.
Now, we’re all very familiar with how immensely screwed up old fairy tales are. If you crack open your pocket edition of Grimm or Perrault you’ll see nothing but sex and violence from cover to cover. It’s absolute, unadulterated filth designed not to entertain, but to teach children lessons with the most powerful educational agent there is: fear. Here’s the thing, though, the Brothers Grimm, whose versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin (which I spelled correctly on the first try), Hansel and Gretel and countless others have become canonical despite their wild adult content, those guys, they heavily censored and edited the folktales they collected until they reached a standard fit for early 19th century children. Our tolerance has just tanked since then, but when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm first compiled their stories, fairy tales were still meant to frighten children and warn them about the dangers of the great wide world, and be it giant, witch, troll, wolf, or dragon, their monsters were the most effective characters to deliver that message. Over the course of the next hundred years, though, the world became a safer place for Europeans and Americans so that by the time cinema became the dominant form of media recreation, horror had become entertainment, and no longer served a practical purpose.
If there’s one thing the 20th century was really, really good at, it was coming up with iconic, terrifying monsters, and then spending decades to make them harmless. Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula, The Mummy; all these films produced legacies of monstrous (albeit sympathetic) horror, and then eventually became cartoon characters for children. Or, in the case of vampires, objects sexual attraction. Either way, none of them have been scary in a while. Some of them have even become heroic. Take Godzilla for example, who over the course of a couple decades transformed from Japan’s greatest villain into its most beloved hero. Well, despite once being paragons of cannibalistic nightmares incarnate, witches underwent the same transformation, and here’s why. Or, at least here’s what I think is probably right having done almost no formal research.
Exhibit A: The Wizard of Oz
In 1939 the world was introduced to the Wicked Witch of the West. And that was that. This is, for all intents and purposes, the definitive cinematic witch, and hopefully shall remain so forever. She embodies evil in an ingenious, memorable way, and continues to frighten children to this day. In true witchy, fairy tale form, though, all this serves to teach children a valuable lesson (contrary to L. Frank Baum’s intentions, it’s not about the gold standard in the American economy): there’s no place like home. Ain’t that sweet? A creature of pure unbridled evil teaching a young girl a thing or two about heroism, friendship, and family. Cool beans, yo. There’s nothing wrong with the Wicked Witch of the West as she appears in The Wizard of Oz. You might call her a flat character, since her motivation doesn’t extend far beyond “I’m evil!” But for a witch, there is no better motivation. More on that later.
Exhibit B: Disney
Disney also loves witches, partly because they make a ton of fairy tale adaptations. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Tangled, The Little Mermaid, and so many other princess movies feature witchy antagonists, and while their motivations might not be particularly deep or interesting, they all still have a reason for doing what they’re doing, and this is where that shift really gets going, I think. Disney’s best witch appears in Sleeping Beauty. Her name is Maleficent and she is just awesome. A huge part of her greatness does come from her undeniable sense of style, but a lot of witches have great fashion sense and a cool castle. One thing in particular sets her above her colleagues and it’s not the fact that she can turn into a dragon (although that’s also cool); it’s the fact that she is wicked for the sake of being wicked. She visits a terrible wrath upon the good guys because they didn’t invite her to their party. Why didn’t they invite her? Because she was already super evil. She basically just trolls around the world looking for excuses to ruin peoples’ lives, and when she can’t find any reasons, she just makes them up. This is good, but it becomes bad in a couple paragraphs.
Exhibit C: Halloween, the holiday, not the movie.
I love Halloween. I love it so much, but it is partly to blame for this unfortunate shift away from the scariness of witches. The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent still, to this day, possess the ability to frighten young audiences, but they also make dope-ass Halloween costumes. Actually, I have yet to see a kid do Maleficent. That kid would win all the candy. But here’s the thing about Halloween. On Halloween, we tell our children to dress up as something scary (or, nowadays, basically any Marvel or Star Wars character). If a kid is going to dress up as something scary, he/she/it thinks about what scares him/her/it, and finds a fun way to appropriate that into a costume. If a little girl dresses up as a scary witch, and goes around all night acting like this witch, and we tell her that she looks great and we give her candy and she has a ton of fun, she will come to identify with that character and love it. I grew up watching old monster movies and loved all of the monsters partly because I got to pretend to be them. The only monsters that scared me were Triffids and the ants from Them!, basically anything I couldn’t dress up as. If acting like the Wicked Witch of the West results in a night of fun and candy, you will no longer fear that character.
Exhibit D: The 21st Century
So. In the beginning witches were feared by all. By the time the Grimms rolled around, witches were feared only by children. By the 20th Century we were still scaring kids in Sleeping Beauty and The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, etc., but we’d also completely given up on telling children that any encounter with evil could end badly. The popularization of Halloween trained children to embrace the ghostly and the ghoulish, so that by the 1980s, most of our horror movies depended upon masked serial killers in franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th, and while the classic literary monsters had since become familiar, lovable characters on screen, witches were, at least, still evil in the media… for the most part. I mean, you had good witches ever since The Wizard of Oz, but the bad ones were still bad. Right? Well… the 21st century has wasted no time extending this redemptive practice to the 20th century’s best witches. Wicked continues to dominate Broadway and high school glee clubs alike, rewriting the Wicked Witch of the West as the story’s heroine, and Disney’s recent Maleficent did much the same thing.
My point is, when The Witch hit theaters, no adult had been afraid of witches for centuries, and even most children were learning to cope. Witches were Hermione Granger and, oh, I dunno, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. You had to look to Macbeth to be creeped out… and I guess sort of The Blair Witch Project. Sort of. As a horror movie, The Witch has a few missteps, maybe some unfortunate bluntness, but as a folktale (which it calls itself), it excels, and those weaknesses become strengths. It is a grueling, unrelenting, unapologetic and altogether unpleasant experience from start to finish, a horrific slow build with an atmosphere of dread and doom, perforated with violence, cruelty, madness, and some truly sickening images. It’s very effective in that way. What stops it from being merely a good horror movie and allows it to be a truly excellent film is its witch.
You know what this witch reminded me of? The greatest witch of all folklore: the Baba Yaga. For those of you unfamiliar with the Russian hag, Baba Yaga is an iron-toothed old crone who lives in a chicken-legged house in the middle of the forest. Which forest? All forests. How do you get to it? You get lost in a forest. Sooner or later, you will always end up at Baba Yaga’s house, a liminal space between life and death. She might let you live, depending on her mood. Otherwise her main leisure activity is committing unspeakable evils. The witch from The Witch is the same. She has a house in the woods, she can take many forms, she might bother you and she might not, but if she does, you’re pretty much fucked.
Now what does that remind you of? If you said “nature,” you answered correctly. That’s what witches are. They embody the unknowable, maddening force of nature. Like witches, nature may be happy to let you live and thrive for a while, but once it decides that your time is done, that’s that. That level of indiscriminate, inexplicable apathy feels evil when it happens to us. If your child goes missing in the woods or gets eaten by a wolf or something, that feels evil. In reality, that’s just what happens in nature, but it’s easy to label such occurrences as acts of the devil. What is a witch? It’s just the manifestation of an ill fate. That’s why people used to be so afraid of them, and that’s what The Witch gives us: a perfect representation of why witches were scary, and a reminder that it doesn’t take much to make a person believe in pure, inhuman evil.
Putting this film into cinematic context alongside recent horror successes like The Babadook and It Follows implies that, finally, after a really long dry spell, people are beginning to put thought and effort into their tales of terror once again. The Babadook and It Follows produced, especially for the latter, wholly original, ingenious monsters. The Witch’s monster has been so long forgotten, it feels new, but in actuality, like all the best witches, it is very, very old, and has been festering in the wilderness for decades, perfectly happy to mind its own business, until the time came to unleash its terror upon us. I can’t wait to see what horror 2017 has in store for us.