We’re back, and we’re talking about a horror film for the first time in far too long. The Witch: A New England Folktale is one of the most unusual and ambitious horror films of recent years. It is an intelligent, sinister and beautifully made period piece, set in the days of colonial America. Few horror films pay this much attention to historical detail and language. It also takes its subject matter seriously, with a straight portrayal of witch folklore rarely seen in modern film. All this means we find plenty to talk about, and not just whether the film is called The Witch or The VVitch.
As usual for our film episodes, this discussion spoils every aspect of The Witch. This is utterly appropriate for a film full of rotten crops, bloody milk and gory eggs. We also, as usual, look at elements of the film that we can steal for our games. Honestly, if you can’t find inspiration for a Call of Cthulhu game in The Witch, you should hand in your Keeper card now.
In the introduction, we mention Pickman’s Guest, the new short film from Chris Lackey and Greig Johnson. This is their third comedic Lovecraftian short, and it’s as wonderful as the others. Not only are their films very funny, but they are professional and polished in every respect. We recommend picking through their back catalogue like a hungry ghoul searching a tomb for charnel fruits.
We also have a new Patreon backer to sing to this episode. Anytime someone backs us at the $5 level, we literally sing their praises. Our original intent was to sing in a barbershop quartet style, but our lack of any musical talent has caused the songs to become something else altogether. We recently started experimenting with some new styles and vocal effects, pushing us into even stranger realms. If this episode causes internal bleeding, sympathetic wailing or demonic possession, please seek suitable medical or spiritual help.
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Great episode guys! Big fan of your movie analysis eps.
I tried to get into this movie a few months ago…and watched the first 30 mins and gave up. I think I was like Matt and missed some of the sequences you referred to…like the Witch flying off on the Broomstick? I had considered it a bad B-Movie and gave up on it. But after hearing this episode I will attempt to watch this again as you all seemed to like the film.
It’s certainly not an easy film, and especially so if you can’t see what’s happening! I hope you enjoy it more the next time round.
I watched The VVitch last night specifically so I could listen to this episode. I really enjoyed it. For most of the film I was sure that everything was the daughter’s doing and/or in her head, but the part that blew that theory was the mother having her breast pecked at and actually having blood there the next day, so now I’m back to a literal interpretation of there being a real witch behind the doings.
Glad you liked it, Danial!
I keep going back to the literal interpretation as well. There are definitely other interpretations, and I love films with this kind of ambiguity, but the literal reading works so well.
One explanation, and the one that it made me think of when I first saw it was that the goat has mastitis, which can lead to blood in their milk (as we saw when Thomasin milked the goat). This can be transferred to humans, Thus the mother gets it too, hence the blood on her nightdress. I meant to mention that in the show.
I haven’t had a chance to listen to the episode yet, regrettably, but it wasn’t mentioned, I thought I would recommend Arkham Gazette #3 (of which I am the editor and publisher) which was all about witches and witchcraft in New England. It is blatant self-promotion, I confess, but it is rather on topic.
An excellent publication! Rather remiss of us not to have mentioned it. There was so much to pack into that show!
I just watched the movie tonight, having waited to listen to your episode until I’d watched it.
If we’re talking about formalist interpretation of the film, then I think all the events of the film are certainly depicted as realistically happening, and of really being supernatural. It’s depicting the narrative of witchcraft as it is recounted in folktales. From our modern perspective, we might look for natural or psychological explanations, such as ergot toxicity, paranoia, or the natural dangers of the wilderness being interpreted through a particular religious lens. But I view the purpose of the film to be portraying the events of the film as realistic, allowing us to better understand how the people of that time and place would see them from within their own perspective.
I certainly found the horror effective, perhaps since the Amazon digital version I saw had correct brightness. And being a Christian of Reformed theological leanings (though not a thorough Calvinist by any means), I appreciated it as a very interesting meditation on the potential effects of certain religious beliefs.
Thank you! That also sums up my initial reaction to the film much more succinctly than I could ever have managed!
The exploration of the family’s faith fascinated me as well. It turned what might have been a simple folk tale into something deeper and more human, as well as anchoring it perfectly in that place and time.
Now I’ve finished listening to your episode completely. I must say, nearly everything you mentioned resonated with my viewing of the film, from the various sins of the family members opening them to the assaults of witchcraft to the impenetrability of twins’ Yorkshire accents (as a Midwestern American, I’m pretty bad a puzzling out strong accents, unfortunately).
Thanks for the ideas for integrating the historical feel of isolation, survival pressure, and religious devotion into horror gaming. I’ve been writing Call of Cthulhu scenarios set during the American Civil War, and these themes come up a lot for me. Particularly in my current project, which concerns escaped slaves living in the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia, I think I can take a lot of tonal inspiration from The Witch. I might even try for that “non-twist twist” technique that the film uses, too. Thanks for the insights!
As to Calvinism, by the way, I can speak with a certain degree of knowledge on the subject. Calvinist theology is the historical basis for most Reformed and Presbyterian church traditions, including the Church of Scotland and the Dutch Reformed Church, as well as much of Puritanism in Anglican history. In general, the terms “Calvinist” and “Reformed” are roughly synonymous In theological parlance.
In America, the main streams of Dutch, Scottish, Puritan, and German Reformed traditions evolved over time and split into various denominations (as all such things do, especially in my country). Nowadays, perspectives on the basic tenets of Calvinist theology can vary widely within and between denominations that descend from those common ancestors. For example, in the denomination I belong to, the Presbyterian Church in America, the official doctrinal documents are the traditional and fully Calvinist Westminster Standards, but there is significant latitude among pastors and congregations as to how much to emphasize or demand fidelity to all the details of those documents.
In The Witch, we see a quite strict version of several core elements of Calvinist theology, especially the doctrine of Predestination (as Scott described), and also of Total Depravity, which is the doctrine that there is no part of the human person that is not corrupted in some manner by sin. The way in which the members of the family live out these beliefs certainly illustrates some of the unpleasant consequences that they can have, such as anxiety and overwhelming guilt.
In the way of apology for Calvinism, I ought to say that this isn’t the only possible consequence of such beliefs. There are much more positive behaviors through which Calvinist doctrines can be expressed. For example, you could instead see Predestination as a comfort, in that salvation doesn’t depend on one’s performance, and that anyone might ultimately be saved no matter how evilly or tragically they may have lived. Similarly, belief in Total Depravity might make one more open to forgiving others, seeing that they aren’t fundamentally any different or worse than oneself, and empathizing with suffering people rather than blaming them for somehow deserving it more than others.
That being said, personally I’m not a thorough Calvinist, because I don’t believe that God actively predestines some people to inevitably go to hell. For several reasons, I don’t think that doctrine is reconcilable with my more foundational belief in God’s goodness and universal love for creation. But I’m afraid I’ve already gone on too long on the subject. Thanks for the brief but insightful treatment you gave it in the episode!
Thank you for the insight into Calvinism. My knowledge of it is superficial, to say the least. Your post was very enlightening!
Oh, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the episode!
Did anybody else notice the twins corpses in the fire at the end?
Really? No I totally missed that. Will look out for it next time. There really is so much to catch in this film.
The scenario “Garden of Earthly Delights” (published in “Strange Aeons” by Chaosium) uses the themes of witchcraft and religious faith.
I looked out for them after reading they were there – i think in a review. Couldn’t make them out…