The genre of horror doesn’t exist in a vacuum: what is scary isn’t the same throughout time or space. For example, my idea of a great scary story*:
On a hot and sunny day, your intrepid blogger was blindfolded and forced to attend a gender-reveal party for a baby.** Watch as they encounter…
Misgendering! [cut to “Well, hello, there, miss!”]
Cissplaining! [cut to “They/them aren’t real pronouns!”]
The very concept of binary genders assigned based on in-utero pics of baby’s genitals! [cut to BLOGGER, confused: “hamburger?! turtle?! are we speaking English rn does the ultrasound now tell you folks’ pronouns now?”]
Ruining cake with the arbitrary and artificial gender binary! [cut to CAKE oozing pink or blue]
Regrettably, being marginalized usually means folks are afraid of people like me: queer and genderqueer/gender non-conforming (though the brunt of that falls on trans women). Cultural fears, particularly about the marginalized gaining power and influence (or, self determination even), drive horror films. The vampire as a queer woman or a (somehow also queer) Eastern European; the serial killer as bisexual or trans; zombies as a metaphor for racial Others; and, among many others, witches. Witches are conflated with everything from the fear of ethnic Others (Roma, Creole, Latinx, African) to the generalized fear of women, including but not limited to women having rights to their own bodies, property, money, sexuality, and self determination.
Which brings me to The Witch, a horror film for Puritans by Puritans. No, really, it’s based on accounts of and lore about 17th century witchy business. I didn’t find it scary in the sense of “I will never sleep again” but scary in the sense of the abuse that can happen in rural isolation, the lack of allies, the nothingness of life as an outcast stretched out before you. Things that scare me: heights, stalking, hate crimes, abusive cis men, monosexual privilege, the lack of division between church and state, police violence, transphobia. Things that don’t scare me: goats, rabbits, the Devil.
So to debate the relative scariness of The Witch depends on your point of view: are you a farm owner worried about surviving, blaming your teen daughter for the crops failing and for your son getting possessed by the Devil; someone who finds women’s latent power, and well, existence, an affront to your identity as a man? Or are you terrified of the man I just described–the real, physical threat of adults murdering you because they believe you’re evil somehow–and are like, hell yeah, going on a naked broom ride with my gal pals sounds pretty good right now?
For more on the making of the film, check out interviews with director Robert Eggers: on Bustle, about the (amazing) costumes and creation of the sets; on Slate, a look at each gruesome reference (spoilers and gore warning); and, on Vulture, about the research behind the film:
Beyond specific lines of dialogue, you had to build out the Puritan belief system. What did that look like across your research?
Digging into the creation of the Puritan mind-set involved really trying to wrap my head around extreme Calvinism and what that’s all about. I now understand predestination, and I had to read the Geneva Bible cover-to-cover and read the gospels quite a bit to get into that world. Reading these religious texts and these personal diaries was a great way to get an understanding of these people as human beings. They’re just like us, even if their worldviews are very different.
*See related: the campfire tale in “Ciel at Camp Fabulous”
**I mean, unless it’s a gender-reveal party I’m throwing for myself or a friend who is coming out. My cupcakes are green, white, and purple!