The Necessity of Shadows: A Closer Look at THE WITCH

By John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

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The field of horror can be an obstacle course for those seeking transcendence in dark theaters. Searches for deeper subtext and challenging thought can peek around the corner only to disappear moments later. The symbolism of blood, shadows, and monsters reveals an aspect of our subconscious that few of us ever thoroughly explore. The opportunity to face our fears, and perhaps unspoken desires, in a controlled environment is something we need in civilized societies. In fact, our need for such opportunities has greatly increased with our societal loss of myth and folktales. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote at length about the important role that dark fairytales play in a child’s development. Before Disney laid claim to the most widespread oral traditions, children were forced to encounter the shadows that lived in the nearby woods. Parents understood that only after a child confronted the “monster” outside the house would they be ready to face the most significant beast they would ever encounter – the one that lived inside them. A24’s latest cinematic offering, The Witch, aims to restore these much-needed folktales to our public consciousness.

The Witch tells the story of a devout Christian couple and their five children who are forced into the wilderness of New England after it is determined their faith differs too greatly from their neighbors. When the youngest child mysteriously vanishes and their food refuses to grow, they begin to question if there is a greater force at work in their midst. The tale unravels with fear and anxiety dismantling the family, leaving them vulnerable to a greater evil that waits nearby. Posters advertising the film state the story is “A New England Folktale.” The repercussions of this truth are far reaching.

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Folktales have historically been more than entertainment. They have been warnings. They serve to hold a mirror to our face, forcing us to examine the plank in our own eye before we try to dislodge the splinter from our neighbors. Like fables, the characters in a folktale were often not meant to represent archetypes we encounter in society, but rather different sides of ourselves. The Tortoise and the Hare was not meant to communicate that some people are like turtles and others like rabbits. Instead, it taught that we all have one aspect of our nature resembling the tortoise. Another side of us resembles the hare. The lesson is that we should embody the character of the tortoise when possible and avoid the temptation the hare falls prey to. The same principle applies with witches in the woods. We needn’t seek out those who deserve demonization, as the puritans insist on in the film, but rather confront the witches that lurk in the shadows of our own hearts and minds.

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While The Witch certainly has moments to make audiences jump and shriek, it’s most effective when it lets its horrific subtext linger just below the surface. The earth’s natural products offer far more suspense than anything we could invent. The soil, the woods, corn, the darkness, and a goat named Black Phillip leave impressions that stain areas of the brain incapable of language. The moments where nothing seems to be happening actually create more terror than those we anticipate. The eternities when we can’t see the witch make the moments when we do far more jarring. And as with any good folktale, the end of this story delivers a punch we never see coming. Our worst fears manifest true. That which we feared most has come upon us. And what has been done cannot be undone.

It’s been decades since The Blair Witch Project struck fear in audiences. This is not that film. The Witch actually delivers on the promise that film teased. While the former eventually became a pop culture joke, the latter will continue in the tradition of the folktale – a story we turn again to every few years to examine what meaning for us it now holds.

The Witch opens nationwide on February 19, 2016.

Click here to view the trailer.

 

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