A Journey To the Center of The Witch, Salem, and Criticism


When people think about Salem, Massachusetts, they think about witches, and that’s fucked up, if you think about it. Looking back on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693, in which 24 people were executed after being falsely accused of witchcraft, the town should be defined by its absence of witches. Lacking witches has, in fact, never meant more to the history of a single U.S. city.

And yet, witch imagery (generally of the pointy plastic hat-wearing variety) abounds in the otherwise charming New England town where every step feels like it should be accompanied by a score of crunching dead leaves underfoot. There’s the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch House (tangentially related to the trials), and more witch-related stores and psychics (some of whom openly identify as witches) than you can shake a broomstick at. Salem’s high school sports teams, too, are the Witches.

Jezebel’s Madeleine Davies spent some time in Salem in 2014 and pointed out the apparent contradiction in her piece on the local culture. Regarding a discussion she had with Kristina Wacome Stevick, the artistic director of the History Alive! theater company, Davies wrote:

“It is ironic that out of one side of our mouths we can say that [the 24 people who died during the Salem Witch Trials] were innocent victims and at the same time say that they’re the spiritual ancestors to [these modern day witches],” she tells me. “I think the 17th century accused witch would be like, ‘Who are you and why are you claiming this affinity?’”
“At the same time,” she continues, “I’ve made peace with it, I guess. I don’t know that people would be coming to Salem as much as they do if it weren’t for that mercenary side of things. When they’re here, hopefully they can learn some history.”

Consistent with the way it tethers itself to its history, Salem’s nickname is Witch Town, when something like Uh… We Fucked Up There Weren’t Actually Witches Here Town would be much more historically accurate. But people don’t always care about historical accuracy, and what people think matters so very much.

It is precisely the force of a different consensus, and my exclusion from it, that led me to Salem. I saw a press screening of Robert Eggers’s period horror movie The Witch in January and didn’t really like it, save some batshit hallucinatory images, its frenetic final 15 or so minutes, and a memorable turn from a menacing goat named Charlie (he plays Black Phillip in the movie). I admired the sustained tone of despair while considering the movie to be a mostly plodding portrait of a family of 17th Century New England settlers whose existence would otherwise not be worth examining if it weren’t for the tragedies that befell them. (Yes, people die fantastic deaths in The Witch, but hey, that’s better than having nothing remarkable happen during your primitive life, at least from a narrative perspective.) The family members end up turning on each other, in attempt to ferret out which of them is the witch suspected in their midst—and really, what else did they have to do in the late 1600s but cause and engage in their own drama? The long stretches between action sequences reminded me of those in a run-of-the-mill slasher—miserable Puritans, The Witch suggested to me, are the new dumb, horny teenagers.

The Witch, however, was a smash at Sundance in 2015, where Eggers won the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category, and became an immediate critical darling. Disagreeing with what’s anointed as the important movie of the moment is nothing new to me, but it sometimes vexes me all the same. Social media makes the mechanics of groupthink more tangible than ever, and it makes me wonder if people say they like things because they actually like them, or out of a sense of obligation, or because, simply, they’re afraid of being wrong while going against the grain.

And then that makes me wonder about what the point of criticism is anyway, in 2016. I worry that nuance is being steamrolled in favor of the kind of telling and not showing that Twitter encourages, which I see hampering all kinds of writing now on a daily basis. Certainly, the numerous dumb things said about another Sundance smash from last year, Tangerine, (including the idea that any of its performances deserved Oscar nominations) seemed to indicate a desire to position oneself on the perceived right side of culture by grading way, way on a curve and without much deep thinking.

And yet, when a publicist offered me the opportunity to take a virtually free trip to Salem to speak with some experts about The Witch, including Eggers and, it turned out, Witch star Anya Taylor-Joy, I agreed. This would allow me to inhabit a 3D, interactive rendering of the kind of extra features the likes of Criterion include on their Blu-rays to help explicate beloved but often difficult films. It would be a way of immersing myself in a movie that almost everyone who saw it seemed to love, but that I just couldn’t connect with, despite my affinity for horror movies. After all, The Witch is a meticulously designed period piece that’s the product of four years of planning on Eggers’s part. Its embedded with the same sense of history as Salem itself. It is, by any measure, an achievement. I figured that my assessment of The Witch could be off the mark, and gaining this knowledge could only help me get closer to truth.

I got off to a slow start on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express. Thursday morning, en route to Boston, I fell asleep while reading the 10,000-word Wikipedia entry on the Salem Witch Trials. A crowd may be able to determine the worth of art, but I’ll be damned if it can turn out vivid prose worth savoring. I decided to change tactics and research reactions to The Witch, eventually landing on Alan Scherstuhl’s review of the film for the Village Voice. One scathing paragraph convinced me that Salem was the perfect place to think a lot about this movie:

For all its genuflections toward history, The Witch offers the same cheapjack lesson field-trippers get when they visit tourist-trap museums in today’s Salem, Massachusetts. Every condemnation of witch-burning fools is matched by some shivery spook-out, a promise that we’ll never know just what evil might have romped among the Massachusetts pines. The Witch purports, at times, to confront ignorance and hysteria, but in the end, for horror thrills, Eggers’s film sides with the preachers and executioners. It literalizes the fevered terrors of our God-mad ancestors — and then brags that it’s all steeped in research. It’s like if, a couple of centuries from now, the latest holodeck true-crime horror flick is a West Memphis Three story that wraps with the boys high-fiving Lucifer.

Scherstuhl seemed to pinpoint my problem with the morality of the film, which as it often happens, would have been easy enough to look past if the movie worked for me on a visceral level (that is, if it actually scared me, I’d be more forgiving of its uncomfortable implications). The Witch argues for the presence of witches, thus reifying the Puritan narrative that sent innocent people to death, I reasoned.

I ruminated on that opinion for a few hours. That afternoon, I sat down with Eggers and Taylor-Joy in the Witch House, where Judge Jonathan Corwin lived during the Salem Witch Trials. Corwin presided over some of the trials, which means that his preserved house has ostensibly nothing to do with witchcraft and whatever creepiness it retains is a product of it being so damn old and spare and wooden.

Eggers is a bearded Brooklynite whose every word plays like the precise articulation of serious consideration. He told me that though he didn’t set out to make a feminist film, he’s pleased that it’s what it turned out to be.

“It’s very clear to me today that the evil witch of the early modern period was men’s fears, desires, ambivalence, fantasies about women and female power, and also women’s own fears and ambivalences about themselves and motherhood within this super male-dominated society,” he said. “Female sexuality is female power and female power in this period is supernatural. It’s the devil, you know what I mean?”

Through that lens, then, the film isn’t offering an excuse for Calvinist persecution—it’s exposing the galling degree to which that persecution was immoral and inhumane. If you are afraid of women’s sexuality and power, be very afraid you fool, says The Witch. Eggers has described his movie’s concept as “a Puritan’s nightmare.” The passing of over 300 years translate that to a story about the making of a female hero. It’s the same narrative, but modern enlightenment changes the meaning.

If you want to apply this reading to Salem, perhaps the philosophy of the town and all of its Party City-type witch imagery doesn’t make light of the thinking that led to the deaths of innocent. Perhaps Salem is saying, “So what if they were witches?” They still wouldn’t have deserved to be put to death.

“It’s reclaiming the word,” added Taylor-Joy to Eggers’s explanation his movie’s celebration of female power. “Now, the word ‘witch’ can be empowering. It needs to be taken back in a way that’s not so drenched in fear of an outspoken woman.”

Despite Eggers’ clarity on the matter, he conceded possible merit in the critique that charges his work with wanting to have it both ways, by projecting its historical accuracy (a title card at the film’s conclusion assures viewers that the film is based on historical accounts) in a tale that is ultimately ahistorical. There are few things more endearing to me than an artist who can rationally discuss and accept criticism of his output.

“I think some people have accused me of trying to have my cake and eat it, too. Maybe I am,” he said. “I guess you would say, especially if you were a contemporary witch or part of a neo-pagan tradition, you might say, contemporary witches do make flying unguents, still, but the active ingredient is not the entrails of an unbaptized babe. That could be potentially muddying for some people who want to adhere to a dogma. The thing about Salem is they knew they fucked up. They knew they had accused innocent women of witchcraft, but that didn’t mean they didn’t believe that witches were real.”

That is how a house that doesn’t have anything to do with witchcraft still has plenty to do with witchcraft. Taylor-Joy seemed particularly affected by her surroundings at the Witch House, at one point requesting that they switch rooms they were interviewing in because of the ambient energy she was receiving.

“From the second we got into Salem, I’ve just been crying all day and it’s been really intense,” she’d say later that night at the CinemaSalem movie theater in front of a rapturous audience of locals, many of whom would reveal themselves as witches (or at least, it seemed, witch-adjacent) during a Q&A.

Eggers continued driving home the idea that witches were real in 17th Century Salem because consensus made them that way. “Even if the evil witch only existed in the mind of the ignorant, she was such a huge idea in the consciousness of the early modern period that we’re still dealing with the ramifications of that today,” said the director.

During the panel, much was made of the “authenticity” of Eggers’s work by fellow panelists like novelist Brunonia Barry, and Salem Witch Trials experts Richard Trask and Tad Baker. Baker, whose indefatigable affability belies his fascination with the mass murdering of innocents, told me earlier at the Witch House that The Witch’s portrayal of family members turning on each other was historically sound and contemporarily relevant.

“You don’t know who the witch is [in the movie] any more than we know who the terrorist is,” said Baker. “Therefore, we’re going to banish them all. We’re not going to let any of them in, because they might be the other. They might be the threat to society. There’s the ultimate terror.”

“Authentic” is a description that generally makes me grind my teeth when it’s applied to the formalized lies that we call art. Yet what other word could more accurately describe the work of a director who rejected the circular-sawed lumber brought in by his production designer Craig Lathrop for being anachronistic? (Lathrop ended up remilling the lumber with a band saw.) So meticulous was Eggers in his overseeing of the set design (he has a background as a production designer), that he required the use of trunnels instead of nails on the house that the family of The Witch lives in. He scrutinized down to the smallest detail that would be undetectable to the vast majority of viewers.

“To actually understand the early modern period, for everyone except for a few people in the extreme intelligentsia, the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing,” he explained. “If someone called you a witch, they really thought you were a supernatural being capable of doing the things the witch does in this film. If I’m going to get audiences to go along and accept that, we have to be transported to the 17th century. We have to be in the mindset of these English Calvinists or it’s not going to work.”

“No one’s going to jump up in the audience and say, ‘That’s not hand-riven oak, this is bullshit!’” he admitted. “But the more of those things that I would slide in, the more it falls apart, the more the specificity is not there and the more you can’t believe in this.”

The audience and panel that night were full of people unafraid to display their eccentricity and to discuss their ancestors. In that respect, the entire event felt like living in Waiting for Guffman, and I strongly believe there is a fun mockmentary (or just documentary) to be made about Salem’s culture. One of the audience members was Lori Bruno, a local witch who was invited to the screening after reading the tarot cards of some of the movie’s publicists. You may remember Bruno from a news report that went semi-viral last year, regarding a lawsuit she filed against a warlock. Like many audience members who get up to speak during Q&As, she had more A than Q. Her three-and-a-half minute sermon touched on her ancestor who’d been burned alive in 1600 Campo de’ Fiori for being a witch, the Presidential election (“Watch you you vote for because you don’t know who you’re getting under that goat!”), and some useful, rhyming rules of thumb (“Watch and be aware of what is going on in the world today. Be strong. Right the wrong. And always sing the freedom song.”). Her charm made me feel high as hell.

While waiting for an Uber to take me back to the Salem Waterfront Hotel after the event, I watched Eggers leave the building, beaming. He could barely verbalize what it meant to him to have his movie be so warmly received by a room full of people who seem to be deeply connected to witchcraft, Salem history, and the strange space the negotiation of those forces has created.

I told him that it had just dawned on me that this movie is a true expression of geekdom. By now I was convinced that what I smelled when I watched this movie wasn’t bullshit, but the dung Eggers used on his set’s walls for the sake of historical accuracy. He told me that as he waited four years to secure funding for The Witch (the first movie he directed), he never stopped researching. The time spent only made his movie more meticulously assembled and admirable for being so. During the Q&A he’d touched on resistance he received from potential investors who passed, summing up their viewpoint as, “Child actors from the UK? Building all this stuff? Period accurate? This is a waste of money.”

The Witch cost a reported $1 million to make, and grossed over $8.6 million its first three days in theaters. What people think matters, but some thoughts matter more than others.

After hearing that Eggers spent four years conceiving this movie, the idea that I’d swoop in after considering it for just a few hours, and deliver my verdict seemed awfully silly. That’s the nature of criticism: It’s one person’s relatively glib reaction against another’s expertise. Line up enough of those reactions, however, and you have an image that is just as tangible as the product it’s gleaned from. A picture of a picture, no matter what went into the composition, is still a picture.

I set out to Salem to understand The Witch better, to bolster my opinion, and inform myself, only to end up feeling like my opinion is the last thing this movie needs. What I can say at this point without reservation that I appreciate The Witch as the product of sharp, hard-working minds.

I wondered how it feels for Eggers to have those outside forces shape the overall narrative of his movie, if we’re including the release and reaction as part of its narrative (and given all of the time we humans spend dissecting and obsessing about pop culture, I think it’s more than fair to say that response helps shape the bigger picture of what a movie is). I noticed in interviews that he’s glossed over questions about the Satanic Temple endorsing the movie and hosting pre-release screenings of it. To io9, Eggers said, “That’s between them and the distributor. I’d like to leave it at that.” To Bloody Disgusting, he said, “I would like to speak for both of us and just say that it’s nice to have fans, and keep it at that.”

During our Witch House interview, I told him that I knew he hated talking about the apparent alliance between A24 and the Satanic Temple.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“Because I’ve been reading interviews where you refuse to answer the question,” I told him. “But I wonder why. Clearly, [the Satanic Temple] worked with A24, so to me what this signals is A24 did this behind your back and that you didn’t want anything to do with that because it then hangs this association on your movie. It’s part of the narrative of your movie.”

He offered to talk to me about it off the record.

“Well, I think I got it right,” I responded. He laughed.

I continued: “It must be difficult to have that component attached to your movie when it’s totally out of your control.”

“No comment,” was his response.

Images via FonsPR

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