Puritans, Witches, and PR


Last week, an interesting film came out. I haven’t seen it, and I don’t plan on seeing it, but I’ve been reading reviews and commentary on it for a few days. Written and directed by Robert Eggers, The Witch is a simple horror story set in the American wilderness of the 1600s. What’s more interesting than the film itself is what it reveals about film critics, audiences, and Satanists.

I had the opportunity to talk to Kevin Swanson about this film on his Generations Radio program, which you can listen to here:

The film revolves around a family of Puritan caricatures, who are building a little house in a big woods. Complications ensue when witches begin killing members of the family, starting with the baby. The film is not ambiguous about this; viewers actually see the witch sacrifice an infant and do blood ritual stuff on screen.

Things go downhill from there, with everyone mysteriously disappearing or dying horribly on screen, until only the 14-year-old daughter is left. It is bleak and horrible, and unlike the semi-triumphant endings of most horror movies where the main character finally defeats or escapes from the monster, this protagonist loses everything, and then joins the coven to become a witch herself.

Now, I certainly don’t think that every film needs a happy ending. I’m not disturbed or even surprised that an indie filmmaker told a story with a downbeat ending (or that he won Sundance’s Best Director award for it). What is shocking to me is most critics seem to think that this character’s assimilation by the very evil forces that slaughtered her family is a happy ending.

The reason is pretty simple: modern Americans have such a dim view of our Puritan forebears that they presume that anyone opposing them, even a murderous witch, must be the hero. There have countless books and movies demonizing Puritans and romanticizing witches over the last 150 years, and they’ve had such a powerful influence on audiences that this film doesn’t need to do much of either. It just assumes that everyone knows that Puritans are bad, and witches are good, even when they are covered in the blood of children.

Apparently, 89% of critics agree, as well as 53% of audiences, and also the Satanic Temple, who not only endorsed the film, but teamed up with the distribution company A24 to organize several ceremonies for theatergoers after special screenings. Complex.com described one of the ceremonies here, but in summary, they included a lot of nudity, a lot of fake blood, and rituals with knives. Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think the Satanic Temple identified with the naked, blood-smeared, knife-wielding witch of the film.

Of course, Jex Blackmore, official spokesperson of the Satanic Temple, assures us that the knife only represents “breaking down injustice and cutting through the fog of the world in order to have clarity,” and that her religion doesn’t worship an actual, personal Satan: “Satan is a metaphorical figure… We base our understanding of Satan off of the literary texts from the Enlightenment period. She really is the emancipator of our time and a figure that fights against tyranny and injustice.”

If that is truly the case, it seems strange that her “church” would choose, for their first film endorsement ever, a movie where an actual, personal Satan possesses a black goat in order to personally seduce the young protagonist into witchcraft and personally kill her father. And yet, that last point is probably the real reason that Jex Blackmore is such a fan of this movie.

As she told Variety last week, the film resonated with her because “It’s a criticism of a theocratic patriarchal society and a fair representation of the stresses that puts on a community… They were kind of demonizing anything that they saw as a threat and using religion as a means to justify that.” But no matter how mean your parents are, are they really as stressful as having your entire family butchered one by one? Is it really so bad that these fictional Puritans demonized actual demons, or that they saw a murderous coven of witches as a threat?

Even Vox.com pointed out this confusion, suggesting that the film’s producers could have asked Calvinistic theologians to back the film instead of Satanists, since the Puritan’s anti-witch position is undeniably validated. Vanity Fair also seemed a little hesitant about the final message of the film, but then shrugged it off, saying, “if the Satanic Temple read a positive message of celebrating individual liberties between the blood-spattered lines, then who are we to argue?”

But this is an important thing to argue. Even if the Satanic Temple seems like a watered-down game of make-believe evil, and A24’s partnership with them like a feeble attempt at ticket-selling controversy, Christians should pay attention to things like this. And I highly recommend listening to this episode of Generations Radio to hear more insight on this film, horror in general, and some fascinating history on how real Puritan families have been redefined over the years.

  1. Maybe it would be best to watch the film before commenting on it.

    - Sheila
    1. I don’t think that’s necessary. If you’ll re-read my post, you’ll see that I’m talking about the marketing of the film, the reviews of the film, and aspects of the story that have been publicly discussed by the cast and crew. I don’t have to see the film to comment on those things. If I was going to delve into the deep subjective subtext of actor’s choices, I would need to see the film to know what those choices were, sure. But to comment on the broad storyline of a movie, or a director’s stated goals, or how a film is being marketed? Hardly.

      And as I mentioned earlier, I’m not going to see this movie. Even Snow White knows that you don’t have to eat the whole apple to know that it’s bad.

  2. I read your post. I read your post so that I could know what you said so that I could then comment on it. Unlike, incidentally, what you have done with The Witch. You called the movie “bad” in your comment … and you haven’t seen it. Very silly.

    - Sheila
    1. Again, I’m not commenting on the technical quality of the film, although from the reviews, trailer, and what little I know about Jarin Blaschke, I’m pretty sure that it’s excellent. I’m commenting on the message of the film, which, based on statements made by the director, cast, reviewers, marketers, and Satanic Temple spokespersons, is historically wrong, theologically corrupt, and morally defiling. I probably should have said “evil” rather than “bad.”

  3. Sheila..we just confirmed that an infant was..murdered. I can’t even say anything more than that, can’t put it in words because it’s so unimaginable. And on top of everything else, the stupid, foolish anti-heroine JOINS the filth that slaughtered her family, and you say it’s silly to call such a wicked travesty of a film bad?

    - Jennifer Corry

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