This Ain’t No Good Witch: Race and Gender in Roger Egger’s “The Witch”

Hey hi hello yo what’s up? My oh me oh… Ahem. *coughs out Azealia Banks voice*

 

 

Hey, how y’all doing? Hopefully better than the characters in this freaking movie, I’ll tell you that much.

YASSSS NATURE IS BEAUTIFUL AF NOTHING COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG OUT HEREEE.

 

So I watched The Witch, the movie that the Guardian calls “a tremendously creepy, immersive horror piece”, the movie that Jex Blackmore, national spokesperson of the Satanic Temple, calls “a declaration of feminine independence”, the movie that the director himself Roger Eggers calls “a Puritan’s nightmare, uploaded into the audience’s mind’s eye.

 

Yeah. I watched that. And it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

 

Let me just say for the record that I totally sympathize with any girls, people of color, or especially women of color who lived during the Colonial Era. It must have been way hellish (no pun intended). I mean, imagine having practically every single thing you did be deemed unholy. Even just like, I dunno, existing as a nonwhite person. Or a person with a vagina. Seriously,  you think parents nowadays are bad? Back then, if you even like coughed too hard you had better recite like fourteen Hail Marys or they would deem you bewitched. Yeah man, pretty dire.

 

So what is The Witch about exactly? Let’s see if I can get this right:

 

*clears throat for deep officious narrator voice* Set in the 1600s, the film chronicles an exiled colonial family’s torment by the handsand scaly fingersof a child-stealing, broom-riding, blood-bathing witch! Oh, and there’s like a bit about misogyny or something. And like… a goat… and some blood… and a–a– a goat… So yeah.

 

Good? No? Okay, I’m the worst at explaining. Here, let the director talk a bit. Roger Eggers told NPR exactly what he wanted to convey to audiences:

 

What was really interesting in doing this is to understand what a witch was in the early modern period. The evil witch manifested herself as men’s fears, desires, ambivalences and fantasies about women and female power. And in making this film about Thomasin, I didn’t set out to make a feminist film. But feminism or female empowerment just rises to the top. When you’re dealing with witches, that’s what you’re doing with.

 

So yeah, the film is really about how female sexuality wasand still isas feared as Beelzebub himself. Most people would just watch a bell hooks lecture or read “The Feminine Mystique” to stretch their feminist limbs, but Eggers said ‘You know what? Let me just like kill off some Puritans to make a point.’ Rock on, dude.

 

I won’t go into the plot because, uh, you need to watch the movie for that. Duh. But I will say this:

 

I will never look at goats the same way again.

 

Anyway, what I really want to talk about is witches. No, not these witches:

 

Despite how freaking hot they are. Rachel True and Neve Campbell… There are no words.

No, I’m talking about the supposed witches from the Salem Witch Trials.

I found this article called “Shifting Perspectives on the Salem Witches” by Robert Detweiler, which summarized the Trials and explored a bunch of different theories about them. Like for example, he brings up the whole idea that Puritanism was to blame for the whole ordeal, quoting a guy from the era itself who saidrather modernlythat during the Colonial Era “every unfamiliar idea [was] likely to be seized upon as evidence of the devil’s wiles.” Which made me say “Whoa”, because even people back then knew that conformity was a trip.

 

Essentially, according to Detweiler, this is what happened: In Salem Village, a West Indian enslaved woman, Tituba, would often tell local girls supernatural stories from her native folklore. In Spring of 1691, a few of those girls got sick. The doctor, unable to explain what was happening, claimed that their conditions were caused by “an evil hand”; in other words, homeboy said “THERE BE WITCHES UP IN HERE, YALL”. And according to the Bible, witches gotta burn!!! Well, not specifically “burn”, but you know how people like to twist God’s words. From there, a public hearing commenced which resulted in a whole lot of false accusations and a whole bunch of hysteria and a whole bunch of death. 19 people were hanged, including the accused and an old man, along with two dogs (which is just… so random. Like, did the dogs cast a kibble spell or something? I don’t get it), and about 150 were jailed.

 

That’s the gist of it. This was, as Detweiler puts it, “the most important outbreak of witchcraft in British America”, and he offers some more theories about why it happened. He mentions this idea that ministers encouraged the persecutions as a way to get people back in the church, which I never considered but makes total sense. A “contemporary” named Robert Calef offered this idea, since he had beef with Salem witchcraft historian and cleric Cotton Mather (who Roger Eggers has cited as a good source of information for the film). Mather was very much of the mindset that the Devil was to blame. Calef said (I paraphrase) “Y’all lying”.

 

Detweiler also talks about the idea that the “pubescent” girls themselves are to blame, but since this is a blogpost and not a paper I’m gonna go ahead and ignore that part because someone was quoted as saying that the executed girls needed a ‘spanking’ and I have no time for patriarchy, especially 1600s-era patriarchy. Like ew, talk about some victim-blaming. “Listen, girl. If you didn’t want to get hanged for witchcraft, you shouldn’t have been hanging out with a Negress.”

 

Speaking of Black people, the Witch, besides being a stunning horror film, is a great conversation starter not only about gender politics but racial politics.

 

Take Tituba, for example, who seemed to be the center of the conflict. Emily Blanck talks about her in a Slate article:

 

Puritans’ efforts to expunge untrustworthy members with white skin were legendary. Men and women from other cultures with different skin tones posed a more complicated dilemma. Africans embodied a spiritual threat. Tituba, for instance, a West-Indian African, became an important focus during the Salem witch trials. Many Puritan leaders saw her blackness as a sign of the devil. But despite the spiritual threat, Massachusetts reluctantly became a society with slaves, enslaving those Africans that entered its society.

 

Whoa. So a whole group of dark-skinned people was seen as of the devil, yet the Puritans “reluctantly” enslaved them. Hm. How convenient, you know, having the devils’ workers do your bidding. What a spiritual dilemma.

 

Anyway, I find Tituba’s story of great interest. Who was she? What was her life like? How did it feel being persecuted not only for your supposed religion but for your race, your gender, your otherness? I’d love to see her story in a well-directedpreferably by Steve McQueenfilm about her persecution.

 

I’m also greatly interested in Lucy Terry, an enslaved woman who wrote what is considered the first poem by a Black American, “Bars Fight”, which chronicled a Native American attack on some white folk. The title comes from the nickname of the area the carnage occurred in, “The Bars”,  which is colonial terms means a meadow.

Lucy Terry Prince

“Painting of Lucy Terry Prince

by Louise Minks, accession #M.25,

Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association,

Deerfield MA.” (Attributed to NWHM.org)

 

In her article, Blanck also talks about Lucy:

 

Lucy arrived in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1728 aboard a slave ship. In 1730, when she was probably about 5 years old, Ebenezer Wells purchased her from Samuel Terry of Boston, who had purchased her from Boston slave merchant Hugh Hall. Almost immediately, Abigail [Wells] had her baptized by the Rev. Jonathan Ashley. Wells taught Lucy to read and write. Indeed, in many ways, she offered Lucy an unusual degree of support. Although historians might never know why Wells lavished such attention on Lucy, it is possible Wells felt particularly strong affection for her slave because she herself was childless.

 

I’d adore a film that explored the relationship between Lucy and Abigail, because it would bring up so many questions about love and ownership and respect and oh my God the more I talk  about this the more I want to make this film my dang self. Blanck writes:

 

By the time Lucy turned 14, she was entrenched in her work for the Wells family and was familiar with life in the Western Massachusetts town of Deerfield. Her admission to the local church as a full member on August 13, 1744, testified to the completion of her Christianization. Two years later, she used her writing skills to memorialize Deerfield’s resistance to an August 25, 1746, Indian attack in a poem titled “Bars Fight.” Although her poem is today known as the first poem written by a black American, she did not live to see it published in 1855. For 100 years, it seems that only the oral history of Deerfield kept the poem alive. Extraordinarily, this young woman, born in Africa, had written history for a society that had brought her to America as a slave and that under most circumstances would not have allowed her to read or write.

 

Like, DID YOU READ THAT? Lucy Terry wrote the first published Black American poem. That is incredibleif bittersweet considering her subject matter had to centralize her white entrappers. The amount of empathy required to do that makes Terry even more of a legend in my eyes. Seriously. If I were her, I’d probably be writing hella angry poems like “Down with whitey! #BlackPower”(Shoutouts to anachronisms). Maybe she did write those poems; maybe they got lost in the fray.

 

*cough cough more like burned (no Witch pun intended)*

 

And guess what she did after all of this?

 

Seriously. Guess.

 

I’ll wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

OKAY I’LL TELL YOU SHE BECAME A FREE WOMAN!!! A FREE WOMAN WHO MARRIED A FREE MAN (Abijah Prince; what a name!) WHO HELPED HER ACHIEVE FREEDOM, AND FOR WHOSE LAND INTERESTS SHE FOUGHT BEFORE A FEDERAL COURT, AND THEN SHE HAD A SON WHO SHE APPEARED IN COURT AGAIN FOR TO APPEAL HIS REJECTION TO A COLLEGE.

 

LIKE WHY IS THIS NOT A FILM? SCRATCH THAT. WHY IS THIS NOT SEVERAL FILMS?

 

LUCY DESERVES BETTER Y’ALL.

 

Anyway, The Witch was a great exploration of gender politics and, inadvertently, a galvanizer for my own (and hopefully other people’s) interest in the Salem Witch Trials and the intricacies of race and gender during this tumultuous era.

Now let me go listen to Defying Gravity to remind myself #NotAllWitches are bad.

— “Is that a witch, brother?”

— “No, worse: it’s IMPERIALIST WHITE SUPREMACIST CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY!!!”

 

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