“We travelled a vast ocean … for what? Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels and nothing more?”
So ponders William, a God-fearing father, Puritan and English settler—along with his wife, Catherine, and their five children—in New England in 1630. William and his family are so literally God-fearing, in fact, that his fellow Puritans banish him to the wilderness, so tired are they of his insufferable spiritual pride. Thus, William and his clan make their solemn way to the edge of a forest … a dark, foreboding, forbidding place.
But their new position in life will be adequate and acceptable, William insists—against a rising backdrop of minor key violins that cinematically suggest otherwise. Their faith will protect them, he claims.
Catherine, certainly, prays continually that it will be so. But there’s a troubling, doubting edge to this conscientious mother’s compulsive supplications: “Show me Thy mercy,” she pleads to God, “show me Thy light,” even as ominous muttered phrases like “deserve everlasting hellfire” get sprinkled into her obsessive, anxious intercessions.
Catherine truly fears God … and not in a good way.
It’s no wonder her teenage daughter and oldest child, Thomasin, spends most of her waking moments confessing her sins—vices such as “playing on the Sabbath,” she admits in one prayer. As for those commandments she hasn’t broken in deed, well, she’s devastated by the fact that she’s “broken every one of the commandments in thought.”
Meanwhile, Thomasin’s slightly younger brother, Caleb, steals lusty looks at his sister’s growing cleavage. Younger twin siblings, Mercy and Jonas, prattle on about the devil speaking through the family’s exceptionally large-horned goat, Black Philip.
And then there’s little Samuel, the baby.
Thomasin’s tending to him one day on the edge of the forest, playing a friendly game of peekaboo. But the fourth or fifth time she uncovers her eyes, Samuel is … gone.
Thomasin insists that she knows nothing of how the boy disappeared. But as the family grieves the infant’s absence, it’s hard for them to not entertain the possibility that perhaps Thomasin herself is … a witch. Those suspicions only increase when Caleb soon vanishes, too, while he’s with Thomasin in the woods they’ve been forbidden to set foot in.
The more Thomasin pleads her innocence, the more her increasingly unhinged parents doubt her earnestness. And then Caleb finally returns from the woods … and he’s not quite the same.
As the movie’s title tells us, it’s pretty clear that there is indeed a witch involved in all this. So the question is not whether, but who. Which is, of course, very bad news for Thomasin … even if she’s not, in fact, the witch.
Well, not yet, anyway.
[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
William may not always channel his deep spiritual conviction in the right directions, but few would fault him for how he strives to provide for and protect his family. In a tender moment, he tells his wife, “Thou dost remember I love thee.” And when Catherine becomes increasingly suspicious that her oldest daughter is a witch, William is (at least initially) more level-headed in seeking to defend the girl from such claims.
Thomasin, for her part, is a (mostly) kind, hard-working teen who seeks to serve her family—both her parents and her younger siblings—despite accusations being hurled against her from both directions.
William is absolutely devoted to leading his family in holiness and the ways of the Lord, which should be a good thing. But the fruit of William’s rigorous focus on dogmatic piety isn’t a lifting of burdens, which we’re told should happen in Matthew 11:30, or a joyful celebration of living life to the fullest, as is referenced in John 10:10; rather it is deep fear and morbid meditations on hell, damnation and the forces of spiritual darkness. Catherine, especially, seems to fear the prospect of hell. And when Samuel disappears, we learn that he was never baptized—something that leads his mother to believe he’s been utterly damned. Eventually, such worry forces her to slip perilously close to insanity. She tells her husband that she’s lost the ability to sense God’s presence and that she believes the whole family is cursed.
Reciting something memorized from catechism, Caleb says, “Aye, I was conceived in sin.” He talks of having a “corrupt nature” and being “empty of grace and bent unto sin, and that continually.” Later, the boy asks his father whether little Samuel is in hell. “What wickedness hath he done?” Caleb asks earnestly. William gives a somewhat agnostic answer to that question, saying, “Only God knows who is good and evil.” For all the family’s talk of grace and mercy, then, they don’t experience those spiritual virtues at all as they live within the confines of William’s proud, performance-oriented legalism—the trait that caused him and his family to be exiled in the first place.
Here is a taste of how the man prays: “It is my fault. And I confess it. Oh my God, I am foul. I am infected with the filth of pride. I am, I know it. Dispose of me how Thy wilt, yet redeem my children. … I beg Thee, save my children. I beg Thee, my Christ, why hast Thou damned my family?”
As hysteria over whether Thomasin is a witch deepens, the family sees the devil in all sorts of places where he isn’t while missing where, in fact, he is. For there is a very real witch living in the forest—many of them, in fact. And it is one of them who steals Samuel and kills him, sacrificing him to Satan. Caleb is possessed after encountering a beautiful witch in the forest (perhaps the same woman, who uses the blood sacrifice to restore her youth). He dies amid his family’s frantic prayers.
Two more children are killed by the witches. And after the death of her parents (certainly not of natural causes), Thomasin, the lone survivor, begins talking to Black Philip, the goat, asking if he is in fact the devil. And … it turns out that he is. The beast morphs into a man and coaches Thomasin through the process of surrendering her soul to him in a blood pact. She then wanders naked into the forest to find a coven of other (similarly unclothed) witches who are performing an ecstatic rite around a fire before they begin to levitate.
Regarding Thomasin’s and the witches’ nudity, Black Philip tells the girl to remove her clothes after she agrees to the pact with him. We see her bare and bloodied shoulders and bare backside as she walks through a shadowy forest. Perhaps eight or 10 other witches are then seen fully nude, with the camera catching some of them from the front at a distance of perhaps 100 yards. We also see an old witch’s nude torso and legs as she smears Samuel’s blood on herself.
Caleb, as mentioned, looks lustfully at a tiny amount of his sister’s cleavage, and there’s a reference to Thomasin’s first period. Caleb is barely a teen when he encounters the witch in the woods. She is buxom and cleavage-baring, and she seduces and kisses him. Eventually, he returns home without his clothes, and he’s seen naked from the side. (In a feverish haze, he exclaims, “My balls, my stomach, sin, sin, sin.”)
The witch, as mentioned, sacrifices Samuel (offscreen) after creepily caressing the baby’s naked body. She smears herself with his blood.
While Caleb’s unconscious, his mother slits his temple with a knife to try to bleed the evil out of him, and we watch as blood trickles into a bowl. Caleb’s parents also pull a huge, bloody apple out of his mouth. Catherine tries to choke Thomasin to death, but the girl hits her mother repeatedly in the head with a cleaver, killing her.
The family’s dog is found dead and mutilated. We see a dead and decaying chick still in its egg. A witch milks a goat, and blood comes out of the udder. Black Phillip gores someone with his horns, then rams the victim into a wall of logs that fall down onto him. Catherine has a vision of breastfeeding her deceased child, only to find that it’s a crow pecking away at her.
William and Catherine scuffle, and she hits him in the face. William drags Thomasin harshly outside. Thomasin falls painfully off a horse. William has a gun backfire in his face.
One misuse each of “d–n” and God’s name.
William doesn’t tell his wife the truth for some time about trading a beloved heirloom for animal traps. His reticence furthers his wife’s wrongheaded beliefs about Thomasin.
For some, the 17th century was a season of hysterical fear in the nascent British colonies regarding the threat of witches and witchcraft. Screenwriter and director Robert Eggers says he wanted to craft a horror story that captured those feelings that encompassed the sometimes dark chapter in American history.
“I grew up in New England, and I wanted to create an archetypal New England horror story, something that would really articulate my childhood idea of New England’s mythic past, something that would feel like a Puritan’s nightmare,” he told the Internet Movie Database. “So I threw myself into my research, and I understand that the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing. People actually believed that witches stole children, performed unspeakable acts to them, [that] they flew on sticks. The witch was a brutal and primitive fairy tale ogress, and that was an accepted reality at the time.
“Therefore I needed to create the most authentic version of 17th-century New England possible. Four years of research on my own, working also with museums and historians led to a script that was based entirely on period accounts of witchcraft, and the dialogue is the dialogue of the period I pulled from diaries and journals and so on.”
The result of all that obsessive attention to detail? A horror movie that’s profoundly disquieting in its depiction of a family’s descent into soul-sapping terror. And since the director was not content to simply expose the irrationality of the day, he presents us with an even more disturbing idea: While this devout family imagines evil in their midst that doesn’t exist, real evil stalks and eventually claims them.
The devil truly is in the details in this dreary, demented rumination on wickedness … that has no godly counter and certainly no happy ending.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.