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Terror, Horror, and the Philosophy Behind ‘The Witch’

*Warning: Spoilers are coming*

The Witch has officially been out over a week now for wide audiences and to some surprise, it hasn’t been received quite as well by horror fans as critics expected. But why? Well, the resounding answer seems to be that it wasn’t “scary” or worse that it was “boring”. But I don’t buy it. I saw it, loved it, and when I was walking to my car I had a twinge of uncertainty as to what might be lurking around the corner. The Witch is a film that commands repeat viewings to really dissect it and I plan on doing just that to catch little things I may have missed.

But why did critics like myself, other writers here at BD, and audiences at Sundance find it to be fantastic but not the wide audience? I have several theories but one that strikes me as the most interesting is the idea of terror vs. horror. It was born of gothic literature and is thus a literary concept but it has been translated to the screen without much explanation. At basic definition horror is the feeling of revulsion after something frightening has happened and terror is the building dread the precedes the frightening scene.

The idea of Terror vs Horror was first proposed by Gothic writer Anne Radcliffe who concluded the indeterminate context of events that could be potentially harmful terrorizes the reader, or in this case, the viewer, and the payout of horror comes after. This is expertly shown in several scenes in Egger’s film but the one that stands out to me the most involves Kathrine. Shortly after her eldest son, Caleb dies she sees him and his already deceased baby brother Samuel in her room. We know this is the devil’s doing right off the bat but Kathrine is overwrought with despair and is quick to believe they truly are there. As I sat in my seat watching this hellish scene unfold I was bracing myself for whatever came and hoped Eggers wouldn’t cut away at the last moment. And he didn’t. Instead, we got the horror of a grieving mother thinking she is nursing her dead baby but in reality, her nipple is being torn off by a crow.

The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse. -Devendra Varma The Gothic Flame 

“But this is a movie, not gothic literature!” While that technically is correct it is also a very one-dimensional look at the genre. In a recent interview with Rue Morgue, Eggers reveals he is a total nerd for Colonial literature and has studied all of the journals and books available on the subject of witchcraft so it is entirely fair to say The Witch is a visual form of this literature like, say, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” but with more emphasis on terror by making the witches real. From almost the very beginning we know witches are real and we aren’t going to be taken for a ride on the will they won’t they train. Knowing this, coupled with the almost Shining like score and the stifling use of religion makes the audience dread what’s coming to Thomasin and her family. All the praying in the world can’t help this family which inevitably turns them against each other. And the fact that this is really how people lived and thought not so long ago is terrifying in and of itself.

Caleb

Watching children suffer in this film is really where the dread builds. Caleb going into the woods to help his family find food only to be seduced and inevitably tormented and killed by the witch taps into the parenting side of the brain. I don’t have kids but watching a 12-ish-year-old boy who is desperately afraid of going to hell be sexually seduced and tortured tapped into my need to protect children from this. Later on, when shit really hits the fan there’s an opposite feeling of confusion and anger when we see the parents really do believe the accusations of witchcraft coming from 6-year-olds. And this stuff really happened! Going back to the term Gothic and the concept of “slow burn” I have only to point at Dracula to make a case for the gothic style of filmmaking. I guarantee no current horror fan is afraid of Dracula, but at the time audiences were terrified and the fact that Dracula has appeared in more movies than any other character, except maybe Sherlock Holmes, shows us that the idea of Dracula holds some kind of power over us.

For a more modern look at slow-burn let’s look at Rosemary’s Baby and even Polanski’s less-celebrated Repulsion. Both of these films are virtually bloodless and for the better half of each film not a whole lot is happening in the way of “horror” but we know something is coming and we feel panic for Mia Farrow and Cathrine Deneuve. Both of these films are centered on women and their struggles in society but with an added layer of terror thrown in. In my mind, if you enjoy Rosemary’s Baby there is no reason not to enjoy The Witch. The only thing that is drastically different is that Rosemary has the benefit of time and the word “classic” attached to it.

“Horror” has become a catch-all word because of the genre we all love so dearly. Because of this and the last decade of torture-porn and remakes of films like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave audiences have grown accustomed to the “money shot” of horror. The layers of horror films have been so stripped down to almost nothing but the gore shots and jump scares that most mainstream genre films ring hollow. I’m not calling for a change in genre name but simply a change in how we view it as a whole. I love 80s slashers as much as the next fan but for me, those are junk food for my brain. Films like The Witch and The Babadook that take on very real issues like sexual repression, religion, and grief should not be berated by the community for not being “scary” in a generalized way. This thinking is why our beloved genre is never taken seriously.



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