When I was ten years old, a strange sound roused me from my sleep. I looked out my window to see a dull blue light discoloring the cornfields that surrounded my house.
I was accustomed to combines working at night—so much so that I found comfort in the way the flood lights illuminated the cornstalks just before the machine blades devoured them. And I knew that the sky could look strange because nothing went completely dark in Kalamazoo, the closest city to my childhood home.
But this was different. City lights never made the sky bleed this shade of violet, and the combines never ran this late. And even if they did, the noise they made was a low growl, not the sharp whine I just heard.
So I came to the only reasonable conclusion a devout and fearful child could come to: that sound was Gabriel’s trumpet, and he was starting the rapture. And here I sat with fresh sins still unconfessed and unforgiven.
This wasn’t the first time I played out that nightmare. For years, strange noises would conjure in my mind Jesus returning like a vengeful thief in the night, drawing his blood-soaked sword to enact justice against all my recent sins.
And that was far from the only sanctified scare I experienced as a kid. Growing up during the Satanic Panic of the 80s, I was subjected to reactionary rock documentaries, tales of Mike Warnke’s escape from satanism, and Adventures in Odyssey episodes about demons conjured by a game of D&D. Add to this stories about demon encounters shared by desperate youth leaders and gossiping cousins, it’s no wonder that my faith is tied to fear. If, as Proverbs 9 teaches, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then I was the wisest kid who ever lived.
So I’m always a little surprised when fellow Christians are shocked at my love of horror. “Christians should be filling their minds with thoughts of God instead of scary things,” they tell me.
“Thoughts of God are scary things,” I retort, with tongue only partially in cheek. Yes, I know that we believers have not been given a spirit of fear, “but of power and love and self-control.” And I know that “perfect love drives out fear.” But these reminders presuppose the existence of fear. They speak to a process, not a condition. In order to drive out fear and to live in power and love and self-control, we need to be able to recognize fear, to see what’s scaring us.
The Season of The Witch
It’s not always easy to face our fears, but that’s where horror movies can help. They exist to scare us, to take our anxieties and insecurities and display them in the form of a hockey-masked slasher or a shuffling zombie. In the process of terrifying us, they also manifest our fears, they let us see them, name them, and deal with them.
Robert Egger’s 2015 debut film The Witch captures this process better than any film in recent memory. Set in 1630s New England, The Witch follows a family banished from their village because their self-righteousness was more than even the Puritan town fathers could stomach. No sooner does the family begin to settle their new farm at the edge of the forest when the infant Samuel disappears while in the care of oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Despite the best efforts of Thomasin and her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the family quickly turns against one another, with mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) accusing father William (Ralph Ineson) of arrogance, William accusing Katherine of unbelief, and little twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) accusing every one of aligning with the witch of the woods.
The movie makes no secret of the witch’s existence, that she magically kidnapped Samuel from Thomasin, because the movie shows in ghastly detail the baby’s fate. But despite the supernatural presence and grotesque scenes, the real horror of The Witch comes from the family’s understanding of God.
Shortly after Benjamin’s disappearance, William takes Caleb on a hunting trip, and tries to calm his son by assuring the boy of his faith. “Art thou then born a sinner?” William begins, to which his son responds, “Aye, I was conceived in sin, and born in iniquity.”
“And what is thy birth sin?” the father continues.
Caleb answers, “Adam’s sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling with me.”
William’s catechism ends shortly thereafter, interrupted as the men check a trap for food. But the line of questioning only draws Caleb’s thoughts to his lost brother. “Was my brother born a sinner?” he tentatively asks, before eventually exploding with fearful questions: “Is he in hell?” and “If I die this day . . . I hold evil in my heart; my sins are not pardoned? And if God will not hear my prayers?” William’s Puritan doctrine provides no relief, forcing him to admit that despite his love, “God alone, not man, knows who is the son of Abraham and who is not.”
Fear of damnation, of a total depravity that keeps one from even knowing about the existence of God’s love, haunts this film more than any witch. And under such circumstances, it’s no surprise that the family soon becomes adversaries to one another.
The Spirit of the Accuser
After Caleb himself gets captured by the witch, it’s Thomasin who finds him, standing naked in the rain. Eggers keeps the boy’s final moments ambiguous, as his fever leads to a seizure and then a vision of Christ—which may be genuine adoration or mockery—but Caleb’s family sees his behavior as a sure sign of possession. Between her involvement in both Caleb and Samuel’s deaths, and an ill-timed bit of teasing in which she told Mercy and Jonas that she was a witch, the family is certain that Thomasin has betrayed her siblings to the devil.
In a perfectly filmed scene following Caleb’s death, William brings Thomasin out into a field and tries to calm her. The camera finds Thomasin resting in her father’s arms while the wind blows the grey, dead grass behind them, a contrast to the full fields and strong barns William imagines. But when William begs his daughter to confess her sin of witchcraft, the peace between the two breaks. Thomasin leaps from her father’s arms and crouches on one side of the frame while he stands aggressively from the other. Finally sick of taking the blame for everything from lost silverware to her siblings’ demise, Thomasin fights back by accusing her father of failures and cowardice, an argument that spills back into the house and ends with every member of the family lashing out against the other.
It might be hard to hear through the venom with which the family attacks one another, but their fear comes directly from their Christian faith. Katherine fears that now two of her sons are in hell, victims of witchcraft. William fears that he’s corrupted his family’s innocence. Thomasin fears that she is as evil as her parents claim. As much as they profess the goodness and sovereignty of God, these Puritans fear God as their enemy, ready at any instant to destroy them.
Thus, it’s no surprise that the devil need come with only the simplest temptations. Driven to become what her family has claimed her to be, Thomas initiates the film’s denouement by seeking out the devil, who arrives first in the form of the family goat Black Phillip and then in the form of whispering man cloaked in black.
Eggers keeps the harried and blood-splattered Thomasin in the center of the frame, the one well-lit figure surrounded by shadow, while the devil paces slowly behind her, moving in and out of our vision. He comes offering Thomasin not power or palaces or money, but simple comforts. “Woulds’t thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress?” he whispers; “Woulds’t thou like to live deliciously?”
She does want to live deliciously, to feel joy instead of regret, and so she gives in. That might seem like the flimsiest of reasons to sell one’s soul, to do as Thomasin does and sign her name to the devil’s book, to walk into the woods and join a coven of witches. But given the life of accusation and fear, of utter unhappiness that she experienced in her Christian walk, who can blame her?
Healing Through Horror
I know that’s a pretty scary sentiment, but I suspect that it’s one that many Christians have experienced. Who hasn’t thought that maybe the Christian walk isn’t worth it? Who hasn’t been judged or condemned by someone they respected, and feared that they were right? Who hasn’t sensed that their pursuit of holiness could turn graceless and vile?
I suspect that nearly every believer has experienced those fears, even if we’re not quite sure how to express it. And as horrible as some of the imagery in The Witch may be, that’s the film’s ultimate effect—I see these difficult to articulate fears play out on the screen, and I can begin to address them.
When ten-year-old me finally told my parents about my end-times terrors, they listened and they responded. My dad helped me look up reassuring Bible verses, and my mom encouraged me in my faith. We talked honestly about my worries and then we prayed on them together. Neither the praying nor the scripture made those fears go away, but they did give me a process to enact.
While my parents aren’t exactly thrilled about adult me’s love of horror movies, films like The Witch help me continue the process they taught me as a child. When I watch scary monsters on screen, I interrogate my own fears and anxieties—whether they be concern for my children, regret for self-righteous accusations, or simple insecurity about my salvation. And with my fears seen and named, I can call upon that spirit of power and love and drive out fear, all with the faith of a child.
Cover photo by Rosie Fraser.