Examining Puritan Values in ‘The VVitch’

The VVitch follows a family who is banished from their Puritan colony after a disagreement about scripture.  They are forced into the neighbouring woods.  The eldest, Tomasin, is our heroine, tasked with watching over her siblings.  She takes the baby, Samuel, for a game of peekaboo, and he is spirited into the woods.  The family continues to be terrorized as a whirlwind of suspicion falls onto Tomasin, who is accused of witchcraft by her two youngest siblings, quite possibly the biggest brats in cinematic history.

The VVitch was met with much critical acclaim upon it’s release.  It became one the first on a resurgence of arthouse horror which sparked a debate that is still ongoing: if people who don’t normally appreciate horror enjoy it, is it classified as horror?

The answer is yes, by the way.  Horror is horror is horror is horror.  Historical horror, psychological horror, social commentary horror…it’s all horror.  Films like The VVitch spark this cinematic debate when they are released because they can’t easily be thrown under a blanket “thriller” category that will make those who stick their nose up at horror happy.  The fact is that these films make those who don’t see horror as legitimate very uncomfortable.

The VVitch is many things, and at the top of the list is thought-provoking.

This many-layered film does an absolutely masterful job at not only creating suspense, but also in casting doubt on the audience.  We don’t doubt Tomasin;  the story is told from her perspective and we can see her becoming a scapegoat.  What we doubt is the fact that there is even a witch at all to fear.  Many things that happened can be explained from an outsiders perspective.  Life was not easy for these people.  Stress was rampant, and fear that the elements would be working against you during any given season was bad enough without the “help” of a witch haunting the woods.  An overactive imagination, hungry animals, stress, grief a new disease, little kids who don’t understand consequences and are humungous jerks.  However, there is just enough of an element of doubt, just one little thing each time, that makes you doubt what you see.

This movie also provides an interesting look at family dynamics and the expectations of women within the family.  Because they are the only people around, they only have each other to depend on.  What makes this interesting is that in some ways, the matriarch of the family is a little more liberated.  There are clearly religious beliefs at play here.  For instance, in the presence of her children, Katherine tends to side with her husband.  She also briefly entertains what would happen if her husband were to die, and while she finds it ridiculous that the youngest, who can’t be more than five, would be in charge, she clearly also knows it to be true.  There is no entertaining the idea that she will provide for her kids or have any sort of power whatsoever.

However, because there isn’t a larger society or neighbours to see, I found it very interesting at what she allowed herself.  You get the impression that it is not the norm, but it begins to come out of her.  For instance, behind closed doors, she questions her husband’s authority.  Another prime example is her naked grief.  While no one in the family discusses the baby’s death, she is actually quite naked in her grief, their small home not allowing for much privacy.

The real story of feminine oppression is, of course, Tomasin.  She is coming of age, and despite there being no society to speak of, the Puritan fear of sexuality is screaming loudly here.  The middle brother, Caleb, sneaks a peek at her bossom as she sleeps, and feels instantly guilty.  His guilt over sexual feelings comes out at a later point in the story as well.  Tomasin, while loved by her family, is expendable at this point.  She is not a man, she is not married (and has no opportunity where they are), and is blamed for the baby’s disappearance.  She is walking a fine line from the first frames of the film, a fact that she, and the audience, are both painfully aware.

The youngest children can do no wrong yet.  They are blameless as they are too young to be of help around the house, too young for any real responsibility.  As such, the youngest girl wields her power in the worst way  over Tomasin.  Once it becomes clear that their mother can barely stand to look at Tomasin, the couple is heard discussing farming her out to another family as hired help, so that she can at least be useful and bring the family income.  The fact is that the youngest children are either male or too young to be sexualized; they are pure, and it is not possible in their mother’s mind that any of them but Tomasin could sin.

All of this tension leads to Tomasin becoming a very clear target for suspicion of witchcraft.  The movie is brilliant in that it is like watching the Salem witch trials unfold on a small and faster paced stage.  The fear begins to grow, then the suspicion, then the religious proof, then a finger points and it is all that it takes to send the family over the edge.  Tomasin doesn’t stand a chance here.

Surprisingly, through all of this, the patriarch of the family stands firm that Tomasin is not a witch.  Oddly, he is convinced that no child of his could be so wicked, and that he did not raise any of his children to be easily led astray.  He defends her as long as he possibly can, and even when all is against her, he still believes that she is telling the truth.  This, again, is a clever look at the escalation of the witch trials.  Once he is outnumbered in his belief, he is silent, and takes precaution against her anyway, depite the fact that he knows in his heart that she is telling the truth.

While the family dynamic is very intriguing, the end of the film is what really strikes me the most.  It is horrible, and so horribly ironic.  It represents all of the choices that Tomasin would never have had, but she goes through hell to get to where she is.  She is betrayed one too many times, and turns her back on everything that she knows.

While not set at a break neck speed, the plot of The VVitch carries through the film nicely, until the climax when everything begins to move at warp speed.  It’s all downhill from the tipping point, and there is no turning back.  What I really thought was great here is that it is a thought-provoking look at femininity without beating the audience over the head with it.  Instead of making a statement with a megaphone, it really challenges the audience to empathize with Tomasin, asking what they would do in her situation.  Thought-provoking, original, and truly horrifying in many ways, The VVitch is a solid look at how far we’ve come, and also how far we still have to go.

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