Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Witch: Puritans and Patriarchs and Satanists, Oh My!

A daughter searches for her way in Puritan New England
in "The Witch". With permission, A24 Films
What kind of film appeals to both Christians and Satanists? Try "The Witch" on for size.

"The Witch" is a period horror film set in Puritan New England just before the Salem witch trials. It won its director, Robert Eggers, a Dramatic Directing award at Sundance 2015 and emerged as the most talked-about horror movie of the year. In general, it has done well with both critics and viewers.

This is not a film for the young or immature. The Catholic News Service, an office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), rates it L – Limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling[i]. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gives it an R rating -- Restricted, under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian. There is brief nudity and disturbing content.

Catholics like myself who are aficionados of horror films – and who have a mature understanding of the darker elements that are specific to the genre -- will likely appreciate it. Interestingly enough, a satanist group called The Satanic Temple has pronounced it to be "a transformative Satanic experience" and is sponsoring screenings of the film to provide this experience to others.

The fact that the same work can be seen as a cautionary horror tale for Christians and a recruitment tool for satanists speaks volumes about the philosophical divisions within our society and culture. I was curious to see how the same film could be viewed through both a Christian sacramental lens and a satanic interpretive lens.

The premise of the film is simple. A devout Puritan family in 17th century America faces horrors from without and within as it struggles to survive in a hostile wilderness. As the film opens, the father, William, defiantly asserts his righteousness in an unspecified doctrinal dispute against the authorities of his church. The governor of the community rules against this heresy and publicly expels William and his family from the church community, the only civilization at hand. William then leads his family to a piece of wilderness land where they will build a home, work the land, and worship God on their own terms. The land borders a dense, dark forest that the children are forbidden to enter.
A family prays around the dinner table, on the brink of spiritual trial.
With permission, A24 Films.

This is a family of seven: parents William and Katherine; Thomasin the eldest child, who is on the cusp of womanhood; Caleb, who is a few years younger; Mercy and Jonas, twins who are past the toddler stage; and newborn Samuel. Almost immediately, disaster strikes. A family member disappears while under Thomasin's care. In a few swift images involving some blurred nudity and implied violence, the audience sees that the woods harbor a horrible menace. As the family reels from the tragedy, the crops fail, family members turn on each other, William makes increasingly poor leadership decisions, and the dark power in the woods grows ever closer to their home. To reveal more would be to spoil the movie.

Looking at the film through a Catholic sacramental lens, I see a story of a strong-willed father exercising leadership of his family while isolated from other human company and struggling against a hostile natural (and possibly supernatural) environment. The film reminds me of The Mosquito Coast, another film about a father -- in this case not religious, but a utopian idealist-- who leads his family into a harsh environment where his idealism and leadership are no match for the realities of the environment. Both films feature a nearly-adult child who makes the hard discovery that a revered father is fallible to the point of hubris and failure. In The Witch, that child is Thomasin. Both films examine both the high level of personal virtue required of a leader, and the personal choices that open up to a child who experiences terrible consequences of the clay feet of a parent.

To his credit, the filmmaker presents the austere piety of the father, William, straight on, without the stereotypical condemnation or religious buffoonery we have come to expect in film depictions of devout Christians. William is confident of his role as the head of the family, but he isn't a tyrant. He shows his wife and family love; he does not terrorize them. He considers it a duty of leadership to teach his family to live a life of daily faith. He holds strong theological beliefs, but when Caleb questions these he does not get angry at the questioning. He catechizes, encourages and explains-- gently and without harshness-- up until the time that the mounting horror of his family's situation overwhelms him. Then he erupts in fear and anger. His faith has not proven equal to the challenge surrounding him.

A question for Catholics viewing the film might be, why and how does the family unravel? Is it the family structure per se, the father's hubris, a flawed theology, or the family's insufficient spiritual lubricant , i.e. love? Delving even further and more thoughtfully into the film’s content, we might focus our sacramental lens on the portrayal of Christian desolation. The Pauline practice of Cinema Divina encourages us to ask, What is the Holy Spirit saying to me, specifically, through the images and content of the film I am viewing?[ii] Do you experience times in your life of faith when it seems that the darkness is ready to swallow you whole? How do you keep body and soul together when all you want to do is cry out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?[iii]” If it appears that God is not answering your prayers, do you turn elsewhere?

The Satanic Temple (TST) would reject most of what I wrote above. For TST and other groups that have seized on the movie, the problem is as simple as the patriarchal structure of the Christian family itself. Anti-patriarchy groups see nothing healthy in a family where the husband and father holds a leadership position. Religious piety in such a father is seen as a vehicle of oppression of his wife and children. In the thought of Jex Blackmore, national spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, you need look no further than William himself to discover why his failure as a man of faith, as a father and as a husband is a triumph for Thomasin and the females in the film.

"The Witch examines theocratic patriarchy in microcosm, documenting the pathology of a religious hysteria that is still influential in politics today," writes Blackmore[iv]. "While the patriarchy makes witches of only the most socially vulnerable members of society, Eggers’ film refuses to construct a victim narrative. Instead it features a declaration of feminine independence... We are empowered by the narrative of The Witch: a story of pathological pride, old-world religious paradigms, and an outsider who grabs persecution by the horns... The witch does not burn but rises up in the night.

"The Witch is not only a powerful cinematic experience, but also an impressive presentation of Satanic insight... The Witch is more than a film; it is a transformative Satanic experience that, in its call to arms, becomes an act of spiritual sabotage and liberation from the oppressive traditions of our forefathers.[v] "

Transformative Satanic experience? Satanic insight? Pretty scary stuff from a Pauline perspective! Why would I even go there? I think it is important for Paulines to hear this for a couple of reasons. We are a Catholic religious family whose primary mission is to make use of the media in order to tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ. Words have significance, and so do images.

Consider the words "Satan", "Satanism," "Satanic", and the like. We Paulines take the existence of evil as seriously as did Our Lord himself, who came to us as the Way, the Truth and the Life. We know that "our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.[vi]" Satan is real. Our journeying with our Lord as He makes all things new involves real spiritual attacks from the realm of the fallen angels, who much prefer the old ways. We see it in Jesus' own life, we experience it in our own.

The Satanic Temple, though, is a satanic group that does not believe in the supernatural. They do not believe that Satan is real. They embrace the concept of Satan as a dark, Byronic rebel against authority, specifically the authority of those who represent the Judaeo-Christian God. But they also know, as we do, the power of words. Satanic Temple members self-identify as and revel in their status as pariahs. They love to outrage and terrify Christians by proclaiming themselves Satanists, urging others to sign the devil's book and join them in calling for a Satanic revolution.

Catholic responses to this need not be over-reactive. I suggest that our proper response is prayer and education. Many of our contemporaries are drawn to the occult, whether they profess belief in it or not. This makes them vulnerable to spiritual influences that are not benign. Many contemporary Satanists, unlike The Satanic Temple, do in fact believe and profess allegiance to the real Satan. This is dangerous territory indeed, calling forth compassion and not enmity for those who, like us, are infinitely precious to Our Lord.

What many of these folks have in common is acceptance of a fierce and often wildly hateful critique of Christianity and its traditions, especially its understanding of gender, sexuality, and family. This critique is in the schools and the universities. It is all over the Internet. Rather than wringing our hands about it, we need to understand it and educate ourselves in the topics. We should aim at developing a range of reasonable, informative responses to legitimate criticism and compassionate, forthright responses to illegitimate.

Production values are good. The movie is beautifully shot. It moves at a slow, suspenseful, creepily contemplative pace with sporadic bursts of action. It was meticulously researched (according to its director), with large chunks of dialogue taken from 17th century sources.

I recommend the movie "The Witch," with a couple of disclaimers, to horror movie fans who have a mature grasp of their own faith. First disclaimer is: don’t watch the trailer! It gives away plot points. Second disclaimer: it does not provide the kind of entertainment many people look for as a way to relax at the end of the day. It's not at all a "feel-good" movie. I found it disturbing. I recommend watching it in a time and place where good discussion can follow. Seen through a sacramental lens, it addresses timeless issues of leadership, family life and Christian discipleship.
As for the satanic lens, I think The Satanic Temple misses a very obvious point in the movie. In their FAQ, The Satanic Temple describes the satanic attitude to which they aspire as that of the eternal rebel who bows his to no authority, and that of the heretic who questions religious authorities and rejects tyrannical impositions [vii].  

Who is it in the film who most closely resembles the Satanic hero?
A father walks the path of religious rebellion, choosing
personal sovereignty over his faith community: at what cost?
With permission, A24 Films.
Recall now the small bits of the movie’s plot that I have described here. What was the opening scene? The father of the family presents himself as a rebel in opposition to authority, defending personal sovereignty in the face of insurmountable odds. He refuses to bend his will to that of the authorities of his church, and he presents himself as a heretic willing to be banished as a pariah.

In other words, he adopts a satanic attitude. And it did not work out too well for him...

[i] Jensen, Kurt, "The Witch", Catholic News Service; see for full review, with permission.

[ii] See Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP’s excellent explanation of Cinema Divina in “What is Cinema Divina?”, , with permission.

[iii] Words of Jesus Christ from the Cross; Matthew 25:46.
[iv] Blackmore, Jex. "The Witch X Satanic Temple: A Letter from Jex Blackmore", , with permission.

[v]  Ibid.

[vi] Ephesians 6:12.

[vii] The Satanic Temple, FAQ, 


Rae Stabosz has been a member of the Association of Pauline Cooperators since 2003. She and Bill Stabosz, her husband of 46 years, have six sons, three daughters, nine grandsons and eight granddaughters; they eagerly await the birth of grand #18. Rae retired in 2007 from the University of Delaware, where she was a technology and media specialist for 27 years. She is co-founder and past president of The Society of Catholic Scholars of Delaware and proprietor, since 2004, of the Pious Ladies Bookmobile.


Duffy said...

Excellent analysis of a terrific movie, Rae! I bought the Blu-ray so I can re-watch it with the highest picture quality possible, and I look forward to viewing it through the "lens" you've provided.

Anonymous said...

I did see Misquto Coast. And I had two anscestors who were accused of witchcraft in Salem, MA one before the famous trial and the other caught up in it. In both cases it was th he women who were powerless against the accusations by men who were both angry and waned property. This still happens in some countries in Africa epically to widows. The way you wove in the Pauline charism is insightful and balances out the more popular perspectives.
Sr. Margaret Charles