How The Witch Uses Its Historical Accuracy to Craft Scares

By  · Published on March 2nd, 2016

For his debut film The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers constructed a slice of the 1600s made tangible by his exhaustive research. Turning the drawn-out process of feature film funding into a neurotic blessing, Eggers worked for years with museums and historians to compile an exhaustive library of primary sources. Volumes on period-appropriate fashion, animal husbandry, and agricultural techniques guided the hands of the former production designer as he shaped this world. Interviewers, writers, and critics have fetishized the handstitched clothing and accurately built farm, but Richard Gillian’s On Writing Horror notes that “faithfulness to history does not, by itself, create compelling stories”. However, in this case, it definitely helps.

The film, about a Puritan family (father, mother, and five children ranging from pubescent to newborn) who settle near the edge of a forest after their banishment from their New England colony, does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean. They’re ruined for you. Imperfectly hewn logs form farmhouses and goat pens, providing inadequate shelter from the wilderness. In those thickets hide the uncertainty and mystery circling around the family while we’re trapped right there with them.

A witch lurks in the darkness of this historically perfect fable, so how accurate can it really be? Well, in order for us to really believe in the witches of folklore, threats less immediate and modern than a ghost in a mansion or a webcammed specter, Eggers needed to drawn on his rural New Hampshire roots, the fears of crumbling farmhouses and deserted graveyards. The period-perfect construction, even down to the type of wood making up the house, chips away at our disbelief. The details make it easier to lose ourselves, be transported.

Good horror depends so heavily on mood that any discrepancy can jar you loose from its spell. In other words, if the appearance of the film, any molecule, is in any way distracting, your film loses power. A comedy can break the fourth wall and a drama can ensnare us while fuzzing its inner logic because their goals are different. Laughs, plot. But mood horror needs to be airtight. Not in its reality as it pertains to the world we inhabit, but its cinematic reality. We need to believe the persecution, the desperation – that’s what’s important. Not the details of the house per se, but the time they house us in. The Witch’s philosophy towards suspension of disbelief is the Italian phrase, “si non e vero est ben trovato”, which means “Even if it isn’t true, it should be”. This lets the constructed setting sweep us away.

The Puritanical faith of the main family creates a cultural isolation and, because the accents and rituals are so close to our modern eyes and ears while still being strange, we pay closer attention than usual. We strain to get close to these people with whom we share a language but not an accent, or a religion but not an overwhelming devotion. It’s as if we’ve discovered a terrible secret about our great-great-grandparents.

This infects us with the same gravity they feel when Satan and witches rear their heads. We don’t need to go get a priest or a paranormal investigator. The people of this time, the people whose home we share and dialogue we understand yet do not completely register, inhabit a world where the supernatural and the natural are one and the same. Witches are real; they’re spoken of in a language as real as farming. When this uncomfortable intimacy juxtaposes with terrible isolation, danger flickers at the edges like flesh in the film’s ubiquitous candlelight.

The key to this brand of horror is not necessarily historical accuracy, but internal accuracy. The creation and adherence to a setting. This is easier with the seclusion of a family unit, removal from a safe world to one no less accurate but far more dangerous. Right after directing Barry Lyndon, another period-appropriate film that saturated the audience in the relative darkness of the past, Stanley Kubrick directed the Stephen King adaptation The Shining. That film’s opening panorama shots and scenes of a lonely Volkswagen Beetle winding along scenic roads to an isolated hotel are echoed in the opening of The Witch: a covered wagon rolling away from the safe gates of a colony.

Cutting us off from civilization allows a filmmaker to construct a fantasy that feels like reality, no matter the fabrics or woods used. While The Shining’s hotel is a famous architectural impossibility, with windows in enclosed interior rooms and hallways to nowhere, its mood relies on uncertainty and the loss of sanity. The Witch depends on certainty, the dreaded approach of inescapable evil. For this, we need to be sure of the world we inhabit.

All movies lie to us one way or another. Accuracy for the purpose of accuracy is a therefore empty point. Historical fiction may stretch to reach its own truth. Narrative isn’t journalism. Which is why nobody should treat The Witch like a particularly disturbing book report. Its historical basis doesn’t exist to be examined and prodded, but the opposite. Like the best period pieces, the accuracy serves as a time machine, letting the audience forget that they have cell phones in their pockets and a Neil deGrasse Tyson who will reassure them that dark magicks are fictional.

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).