By Maeve Pioli, contributed to by Reagan Green
In modern culture, the term “fairy tale” often evokes images of enchanted forests, Prince Charmings, damsels in distress, and benevolent godmothers. The original stories. however, were often far more gruesome, imbued with rape, mutilation, and murder. This more twisted idea of a fairy tale with a dark, disturbing narrative, suits Robert Egger’s interpretation of “a New England fairy tale” in the 2015 film The VVitch, which veers towards satanism, infanticide and pedophilia. What begins as a dramatic period piece quickly devolves into chaos, highlighting the depth of the extremism and oppression inherent in Puritanical values, particularly for the protagonist, Thomasin.
As Thomasin’s family begins to break down and she is increasingly drawn into the occult, the historic, traditional boundaries of femininity are tested. Looking back through the modern lens of the Salem Witch trials, viewers might see this as an empowering account of female enfranchisement. Nowadays, most students are aware that the paranoia surrounding the “witches” of Salem was a reaction to fears of women’s liberation and education. Puritan values at the time stressed women’s duties as homemakers, mothers, and wives, and theological justifications posited that women were physically and spiritually weaker vessels and therefore more susceptible to sinful forces. In this way, turning to witchcraft can be seen as a means of taking agency, taking autonomy -- of a woman empowering herself. Witchcraft provides a break from the abuse, domination, and mundane. But is turning to another masculine figure for power -- the devil -- truly liberating?
Some sects of contemporary witches, including Wiccans, insist that witchcraft is dependent on folk practices and pagan beliefs that channel the supernatural within the natural, the powers that inherently exist in nature. These witches raise and direct energy towards their largely benevolent intentions. The debunking of negative stereotypes is even a popular topic among Tik Tok users, who promote unobtrusive, everyday practices, such as affirmations and crystal collections, to harness self-love and prosperity.
On the other hand, some practitioners of witchcraft posit that these benign portrayals betray the branches that find freedom within the powers of Satan. Satanists’ beliefs can span from theistic worship to agnostic practices or political movements. In the latter, Satanism is not simply reverence for an evil deity but rather a symbol of liberation from the constraints of organized religion. This form has gained popularity through “The Satanic Temple’s” campaign to protect the reproductive rights of women against recent encroachments on Roe v. Wade. On the spiritual side, channeling darker universal forces represents the destruction of the binaries of good and evil. They view traditional, specifically Abrahamic religions as mediums of oppression and hypocrisy rather than virtue and righteousness. The VVitch follows in this wake by demonstrating the complex, grey areas of morality. When considered symbolically, the film conveys a poignant, powerful message about women’s desperate desire for control over their own lives during a time when they were allowed none and the means to which they would go to get it.
Thomasin feels powerless as she watches the events unfolding before her eyes, events not unlike those grim, grisly fairy tales that history and Disney movies have diluted. Eggers reminds us that feminist tales don’t always have to depict triumphant heroines overcoming unthinkable odds and tying it off with a bow. They can simply show the cruel realities of living in a patriarchal society within matrices of domination based on class, race and sexuality, where women and girls long for ascendancy and autonomy. In a world where even the forces of supposed ‘good’ -- the Puritan religion -- are fraught with sexism, oppression, and hypocrisy, what is a young woman to do when faced with the alleged forces of ‘evil’?
This film will guide you through increasingly strained, sinister family tensions as the lines between good and evil blur, all set against a 17th century colonial New England backdrop. With the threats in the wilderness looming, Thomasin is faced with the decision of a lifetime -- and perhaps even an eternity.