wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public
Many roads lead here, but we are unmistakably off the map. Like High-Rise, Robert Eggers’s film is firmly rooted in both place and location: the edge of a New England forest during the Puritan era. This in turn situates it a mere step away from A Field in England. Other distant reflections will flicker through the trees as we progress. Make no mistake, however, Whatever this belongs to, it is not our comfortable hypercube, with its cool brutality. This is somewhere else. Somewhere the land is cursed. Where the crops wither, the hunts fail, and the beasts turn against their masters. Where the sky is as stark as the muddy, useless soil. And that’s outside of the forest. Within its canopies there are even more horrors to be had.
At the heart of this malaise is the eponymous witch, a fact that led to an easily dismissed but frustratingly widespread reading of the film as somehow concerned with validating Puritan anxieties. It is tempting to dismiss this by asking whether this logic applies to all horror movies, or to point out that for all the film commits completely to the presence of an actual witch straight out of New England folklore it also repeatedly undermines Puritan ideology at large. But the more important angle to take on this is simply that this fundamentally mistakes the film for being about the family at large, as opposed to what is clearly demonstrated by the opening shot, in which William being exiled from the plantation is depicted not in terms of his philosophical and religious defiance, but in terms of how it is experienced by Thomasin, his eldest daughter. This may be a story in which a bunch of Puritans confront their biggest cultural nightmare, but what the story’s about is female sexuality and agency.
In this regard its ending, in which Thomasin becomes a witch, levitating into the sky at a Sabbat cackling with ecstatic joy, is a surprisingly vivid match for High-Rise, which similarly resolves into a murderously utopian vision of matriarchy. This is derived from Ballard’s novel, but Jump expanded on it considerably in scripting the film as part of a larger and welcome revision away from Ballard’s fairly banal overuse of rape, making the ultimate dominion of the building by its female residents into a point in its own right instead of a glib culmination of Wilder and Laing’s psychosexual architecture. But it is here, fully liberated from the tower’s phallic shadow, that the idea finds its fully developed form.
Central to the film is the way in which Thomasin is trapped and essentially powerless. This is a subtle thing in a horror movie, in that everybody is trapped and essentially powerless. What’s only gradually made clear over the course of the film, however, is that unlike all the other characters, it’s not the witch and her blight that imprisons Thomasin: it’s all the other characters. Her mother is vindictive and suspicious, her father is a mediocrity willing to lie and let her take the blame, her younger brother is more powerful than her in terms of the family dynamic but still looks to her for physical comfort and, increasingly, with lust, and the twins don’t obey her (and are worshipping Satan in the form of a goat). These are all personal failings of her family, yes, but they also extend out of the same Puritan ideology that the witch was conjured from – a simple reflection of how limited her options in life really were. But in the face of it, the witch is not a threat to her, but an opportunity.
The problem is that the witch, as constructed here, is bound too intimately to her own hypercube. She is a product of Puritanism, monstrous enough to shatter the walls of that place and time, but precision-engineered for that specific context, her power seemingly derived from that very fact. I mean, sure, witches are all well and good, but what do they have to say about the problems of today?
Peter Grey offers a compelling answer in his 2013 polemic Apocalyptic Witchcraft, which is at its heart an attempt to understand witchcraft in the anthropocene when, as he puts it, “the wheel of the year has broken from the spokes of the seasons.” In the face of this, he is blunt about the fact that “there is no escape. Witchcraft is already dead as a hag, as barren as the moon, as contaminated as the tar sands. Yet Witchcraft is born again in this sacred despoiled landscape, and will be despised as an abomination by those who cannot navigate by the candlelight of guttering stars. Those who seek to escape the fates and furies will learn that they are inexorable. We celebrate this, wreathed in the afterglow with a half-life of a million million years. We the murderers, the poisoners, the tightening noose of curse, the fire on the mountain.”
In many ways, for all its ostentatiously well-researched period detail, the film makes it easy to sever the idea of the witch from the historical context of Puritanism. Eggers doesn’t shy away from showing the witch, but she is used sparingly, displayed only inasmuch as it’s necessary to dispel any ambiguity over what’s actually happening. The only witch whose motivations or interiority we get any insight into is Thomasin. This keeps her nature vague, so that when the devil tempts Thomasin with offers of “the taste of butter” and “a pretty dress,” we are left with a clear sense that we are seeing a scaled down version of a far larger design, an effect deepened when all we see of the coven at the end are a distant shot of women dancing around a fire and the eventual levitation. As though the classical witch of the Puritans is just a shell folded around a far more cavernous interior.
Grey makes some poetically florid stabs at describing this larger witchcraft: “witchcraft is the work of the enemy. Witchcraft is the sex that other people have, witchcraft the drug that other people take, witchcraft is the rite that other people perform” and so on. And subsequently, “the Witch, as foreign woman, exemplified by Inanna-Ishtar and demonised in the Bible as Babalon. As populations are displaced by war, flood, fire and famine, we will see many more strangers in a strange land. To the witch, they are kindred.” But in all of these cases the point is deliberately elusive. This is the astonishing, infernally clever trick at the heart of witchcraft. At any given level of detail the design points inexorably towards a limitless depth contained within. It is the exact opposite of the effect generated by Corbusian planning – a progressive excavation whereby the exhuming of one ghost leaves nothing save for an imperative to dig deeper still. The emboitment goes on forever.
In and of itself this is merely a neat trick. Where it becomes a potent weapon, however, is in witchcraft’s second proposition: what is buried will emerge. No. More than that. It will emerge in rage and hunger, with knife drawn and teeth bared, hissing curses that swell to howling winds. It will emerge from the shadows, from every implication and trace of itself – anywhere that it is hinted at, it becomes. It will emerge from the woods, from the edges of the map, sweeping in like a bloody tide to flood the center. It will steal your children, spoil your crops, and kill you in the night. It will fly through the air, bathed in blood, cackling and living deliciously.
This is the secret double to history’s endless series of blood-debts. Where that process defines an era primarily by the unfinished business of what came before, witchcraft defines a period by what it is ignoring. The result is often something of a secret history, especially when framed in terms of groups whose repression is a recurring theme across history. The big two as identified by Grey in his definition of witchcraft, women and foreigners, serve to illustrate this well, but they hardly mark the full extent of repressed concepts whose demand for a reckoning drive history. More to the point, any attempt to list all or even most of these concepts is doomed: by definition, these are unseen processes. And more to the point, as we’ve seen there’s always another layer of ghosts.
This is not quite escape, although it does satisfy the bulk of our formal requirements. Its only problem is that it is in the end dependent on the hypercube for its existence. Hauntology is not a self-sustaining process – it exists only in relation to something else. Still, even if we have not broken free of history’s death march (and let’s be honest, did we ever really expect that such a thing was possible?), we’ve at least found an alternative vantage point. History will come and bury us all, yes. But we’ll be back.