Erotic Awakenings And Misandrist Fantasies: The Horror Of Female Sexuality In ‘The Witch’

The vainglorious zeal of religious fundamentalists, the fear of immigrant outsiders, and the suspect power of female sexuality are thematic threads that stitch Robert Eggers’ The Witch together. Although this highly anticipated horror film offers up well-worn cinematic tropes of the woman-as-witch, it does so to thrilling effects. Full moons, horned goats, flying witches and the maiden, mother and crone all figure in, but without coming off too cliched. Through Eggers’ refreshing application of these archetypal pillars of occult horror, The Witch becomes a wicked slice of liberation for those who inhabit female flesh.

Within the first ten minutes of the film, we learn that teenage protagonist Thomasin is one of us (aka a “slut”/sexually desiring human female). On her knees in impassioned prayer, she admits to breaking every Commandment in thought, and begs Jesus for forgiveness. Soon after, her baby brother disappears while in her care, and the witch is to blame. Living deep in the woods, Eggers’ crone is classic: her wizened flesh hangs off her form, and she fondles the naked child before pounding a bloody mixture with a phallic staff, gyrating lasciviously beneath a glowing moon. The next morning, we see Thomasin’s brother Caleb incestuously eyeing her budding breasts beneath her shift. It’s clear that once the maiden confesses her lusty designs to the lord the degradation begins: the child is both literally and figuratively lost, and the sexual stirrings that bubble beneath the surface of the tale begin to propel it forward in dark, phantasmatic fashion.

Although touted as highly political, The Witch is equally if not more sensual, and Eggers expertly plays with semiotics of the erotic at every turn. Thomasin’s mother Katherine recalls a youthful fever dream about her savior that borders on blasphemous. Thomasin’s father William frequently chops wood, grunting and breathing heavily as he splits each log carefully in two, unleashing his aggression as sweat beads on his brow. But more than any other character, Thomasin herself is placed in all manner of subtly intimate situations, whether forced to be the object of her brother’s ogling or to slowly unlace and remove her father’s shirt in front of her entire family. The final interaction she has with her mother is perhaps the most titillating, as Katherine ends up straddling and choking her young rival in a bloody tussle that’s staged in true horror porn catfight style.

Throughout all this, it’s effective that The Witch isn’t jump-out-of-your-seat scary but instead is frightening because of the ways it taps into society’s primal fear of women. “We will conquer the wilderness, it will not consume us,” the family patriarch commands to Caleb as the two seek game in a wild, untamable forest filled with animals that elude capture. This sentiment is easily a sexual metaphor, driven home when Thomasin’s Peeping Tom brother kisses the crone in the guise of a bodacious, red-cloaked babe, returns home naked and delirious, and vomits up an apple (of carnal knowledge?) before joining his baby brother in Hell. It’s moments like these when The Witch becomes a misandrist fantasy of sorts: the young man punished for inappropriate urges, his father cut down to size by a daughter who mocks his inability to feed and clothe his family. Really, the only male character of any strength is Black Phillip, the goat, who offers earthly pleasures (the taste of butter! fancy dresses!) and sexual liberation when he unites Thomasin with her naked witch sisters in the wood at the film’s climax.

Coming full circle, The Witch begins with a banishment and ends with one, too. The first imprisons Thomasin’s family in solitude when they’re forced to leave their New England village due to religious conflicts and settle in a desolate clearing. The second frees Thomasin from the confines of her parents’ oppressive belief system and her siblings’ follies and initiates her into witchhood. Most reviews of the film have thus far focused on these parallel discourses and their potent connection to current issues (fundamentalist sects, reproductive rights, the Syrian refugee crisis) as well as the evergreen idea of the witch as a symbol of feminist freedom — and rightfully so. But beyond its allegorical function, The Witch (perhaps unwittingly) offers a sort of ecstatic vision of an alternate universe for women to inhabit, to find sanctuary in with other women unencumbered by God and patriarchy — a blood-soaked, clothing-optional, ladies only occult paradise that’s the stuff of feminist separatist wet dreams. To me, the true, delicious horror of Eggers’ film is in the brutal feminist redemption it portrays, depicting the worst fears of Republicans, MRAs and misogynists everywhere, perhaps best summed up by Pat Robertson back in the 1980s, when he decreed feminism a path for women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” So who’s in?