During the month of October, I decided to partake in the 31 Days/31 Horror Films Challenge (spoiler: I failed). One of the films I re-watched was The Witch, a film that beautifully articulates the absolute terror associated with limited education and close quarters. We watch as a family of seven dwindles down to the last witch standing as paranoia and in-fighting builds. It’s excellent, from the nasty little twins that you can’t wait to see die to the dark lighting to the judicious use of music. One thing that can’t go unnoticed, though, is the sexual connotations of this isolated family. We need to talk about this one, because it’s squicky and adds another layer to this folktale.
Our worst offender in this film is arguably the relationship between brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). A wide-eyed girl, Thomasin appears every bit the devout girl, particularly in her appearance. When we first meet her, she’s gazing upward, wide-eyed and almost angelic as her father denounces the sinners around him. From her blonde hair to her doe eyes, she appears naive yet budding toward womanhood. This isn’t lost on Caleb, who stares at the girl’s breasts as she sleeps. This isn’t a one-time thing, though: Caleb gets another good look in a short while later, while his sister cleans his father’s shift by the river. How does Thomasin respond? By pulling him in for a comforting hug. The overtones of said hug aren’t exactly pure, as she strokes his head and rocks him in a fashion that is both maternal and, strangely, sexual. There’s something almost loverly to the action – you can’t deny that he looks a little too content and she is a bit too familiar. It’s not just me, either – ask anyone that watches this film, and they will tell you that these siblings appear to be a little too close, and that if they were betting folks, they’d place their money on these two having an incestuous relationship in time.
Making matters worse is the odd rivalry between Thomasin and her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie). Katherine blames her daughter for the disappearance of her newborn, while Thomasin seeks to serve her mother in a role that is almost that of a handmaiden. Katherine openly glares at the teenage daughter that helps raise the children and do the daily maintenance on the farm, including the washing and childcare. Meanwhile, Katherine is not at all peeved by the fact that she has the brattiest twins in creation, a pair of children that delight in making Satanic references despite the fact that their clearly depressed mother has just had her infant abducted. Katherine’s ire is focused on Thomasin, who she expresses desire to send away than for no other reason than she’s a young woman that lost track of a baby that shouldn’t have been her responsibility. For her part, Thomasin is ordered to help her father undress at one point, taking just a hair too long to undo his shift and gently lifting it up over his head. As time goes on, Thomasin becomes a confidant to her father as she dutifully keeps his secret concerning the sale of Katherine’s silver cup, a closeness that causes Katherine to visibly bristle and attack as her husband being on the girl’s side. In a chilling parallel, both scream at William (Ralph Ineson) at different points in a wifely fashion: Katherine blames him for the deaths of Caleb and baby Samuel, while Thomasin chides him for being an incompetent farmer and a lying sack of shit concerning his stony silence on letting her take the fall for stealing the cup. In this respect, the line between child and partner is blurred, and this isn’t lost on the matriarch.
This film is essentially a study in the deviancy that happens when you take a group of people and expect them to behave perfectly in close quarters. Let’s be frank: Caleb doesn’t have an outlet for a boy about to reach his teenage years. He’s getting curious about the opposite sex, and does not have anyone else to project these feelings and explorations onto – of course he’s going to latch onto his sister, because she’s the closest thing to a pair of breasts that doesn’t have a baby attached to them. It’s not right by any means, but we can understand why this is happening. Katherine, for her part, reflects the fears of a woman that worries about being replaced by a younger model, which is something of her own making in some respects. After all, as was expected, Thomasin assists in the daily tasks, such as helping with the chores and minding her younger siblings. It may seem alien to us in the modern age, but this was common practice for large families: as a breastfeeding mother, help was needed, and the eldest daughter was therefore trained as the second-in-command of the household. This served to prepare the girl to presumably run her own household one day. The problem in this situation is the fact that there’s no place for her to go; therefore, Katherine is training for someone else to take her post. For a woman in the grips of depression, this comes off as a rivalry. It makes logical sense, too: if something happens to Katherine, it will fall to Thomasin to run the show around the Farm of Broken Dreams. Katherine has birthed multiple children, while her beautiful daughter is young and virginal – she’s everything this woman wishes she was, as she feels that her life has gone so badly sideways that the presence of god cannot be felt in her home. Of course she’s going to view her child as a rival; this girl is already raising her children and performing all of the chores. Think about it: when do you see Katherine do anything other than breastfeed and rant in this film?
While it may not have been the intention of any of our characters, the family certainly carries its own sexual politics. Whether it’s an outlet for normal curiousity, a step toward a partnership, or the insanely jealous threat of replacement, this family speaks to the dangers of isolation. While they are being tormented by an actual witch, one can’t help but notice the path down which they’re already headed. It’s up to us to decide which is the more twisted tale: the isolated family that starts looking inward, or the supernatural predator.