How Robert Eggers Made 'The Witch' a Modern Horror Classic
A director took his cast and crew into the wilderness and came back out with one of the most frightening films ever made.
The Witch is a nightmare. More specifically, it’s an American nightmare from nearly 400 years ago, according to its visionary, 32-year-old director Robert Eggers, who laid out his plan during a recent press day at production company A24’s offices in Manhattan.
“I’m trying my damnedest to deal with archetypes — they reconstitute themselves over and over again, so it needs to speak to you,” he said. “The idea is that this is an inherited nightmare.”
What isn’t inherited, but earned, is the buzz around The Witch, which is being called one of the scariest and most cerebral horror films in years. Its slowly creeping narrative of a strict, God-fearing family steadily terrorized by a woodland hag in pre-colonial New England hints at some throwback cinematic influences while striking out on its own calculated path. It’s a commentary on the evil lurking not only around us, but also in our souls.
The Witch wastes no time in establishing its macabre tone when a devout patriarch named William (Ralph Ineson), his obedient wife (Kate Dickie), and their four impressionable children (led by first-time actress Anya Taylor-Joy) and newborn are banished from their small plantation for being too fanatical even for the stuck-up breeches of 17th century puritans. Taylor-Joy’s character Thomasin, a blonde-haired, pixie-faced girl on the cusp of womanhood, plays peekaboo with her unbaptized infant baby sibling on the edge of the dark forest where William has built the family’s rapidly failing farm. Her smiling angelic face, haloed by wisps of blonde hair, soon turns to anguish as the baby is mysteriously snatched away by an unseen danger.
Things don’t work out too well for the baby, and a series of terrible events begin to mount for the family. It’s clear to the audience that the source of all the misfortune is someone or something lurking in the forest, and before long, Thomasin and her younger brother Caleb (passionately played by actor Harvey Scrimshaw), venture there to find answers. Thomasin’s repentant parents — and eventually the audience too — soon begin to suspect she might be serving the titular witch, and even Satan himself, as their very own earthly conduit for unspeakable evil.
“It sounds ultra precious, but the dead speak louder to me,” said Eggers.
The satanic themes didn’t scare the people whom the Brooklyn-based designer-turned-director wanted to recruit for his horror story, either.
“It was the biggest reaction I think I’ve ever had to a script; it was a physical reaction,” said Ineson — a veteran actor who has appeared in such wide-ranging roles as the original UK series of The Office and Game of Thrones. He was impressed at the impact the first-time feature filmmaker doled out in his words. “I was reading it and I got to a point about 20 to 30 pages before the end where I thought I’ve got to put it down for an hour or two — I couldn’t read it because it was so intense.” Concurrently, Taylor-Joy had a similar reaction: “I read the script and I remember I turned the last page and I was in my room on my bed alone very late at night and my body collapsed onto itself.”
Eggers’ script, which he researched and wrote for over four years, is bound to a potentially stiffening old English vernacular of “thees” and “thys” and “thous” that, according to a title card in the film’s end credits, was culled from period diaries, journals, and court papers. It was a detail the cast and Taylor-Joy in particular used to her advantage.
“It was so poetic and beautiful and took me along in this story. I’m such a word nerd,” she says. “It’s a complete way into the world.” Some of the period accounts of demonic activity were so graphic that Eggers told me he couldn’t even include them in the film. That kind of authenticity gives the speech an unearthly Biblical quality that doubles down on the off-putting mood of the what he created.
But it’s Eggers’ attention to detail as a former production designer that really brings the desolate and eerie tale to life. The director, whom Taylor-Joy called “a walking and talking encyclopedia” of the time period due to his meticulous research, included a lookbook of paintings and woodcuts depicting the era along with the script.
“I came in with hundreds of images, and I thought I was going to impress Robert,” production designer Craig Lathrop told me over the phone, “but when I showed him my research he pulled out his book and showed me pretty much the same things.”
Together they used those kinds of aesthetics as inspiration when they substituted New England for a remote wilderness setting in Ontario to shoot the movie. An entire family homestead and farm was built on location. It’s perfect for the cloistered on-screen tale of the family’s deepening paranoia. That inaccessibility could have been detrimental to the sanity of all those involved if it weren’t for the familial atmosphere Eggers also helped build. “I’m very lucky that I’m not a method actor,” Taylor-Joy joked, “because this film would have sucked.”
“We were really, really close — a cliche, I’m sure,” Ineson admitted to me, but elaborated further: “People say that about every job, but this one was absolutely true. We bonded incredibly, so we had a lot of fun — but also, because it was so isolated, there weren’t lots of distractions. No phones, wifi, nothing like that.”
That sense of isolation, so closely tied to a particular place, is what inspired Eggers to conjure the morality tale of The Witch in the first place. Raised in the northeast United States, Eggers subtitled the movie “A New-England Folktale” partly because the time period of the story he wanted to tell necessitated it. But also because of the deep-seated and almost occult history inherent in the mythological roots of his native land.
“Growing up in rural New Hampshire, there are all these little dilapidated colonial farm houses and graveyards in the woods,” he explained. “It seemed to me that the woods behind my house were haunted and I felt like — without getting too hokey — I could feel the ghosts of the Puritans or witches around me.” Taylor-Joy added, “I was raised Catholic and the lines that Rob wrote made me think this is an ancestral fear that has come down from generation to generation, inherited by people,” she said. “That excited me. It’s primal.”
When I asked Eggers if he was raised in a religious household, he neglected to answer.
Eggers somehow manages to imbue that antiquated, fire-and-brimstone feeling into his movie’s framework with a contemporary slant, one that intentionally hits on timeless themes of religion, virtue, and sin. “We have to find the human connectivity in this stuff, or there’s no point in it,” he explained. Old fears, it seems, remain new ones.
But the movie also firmly embraces its subtitle. It doesn’t shy away from black magic by presenting the witch herself early on as a legitimate menace who cuts away at the reverent fabric of the family’s weakening faith. She doesn’t operate at the fringes of the film, à la Jaws or Alien, but she isn’t a constant presence either. Her eerie unseen energy and anxiety that slowly drains the desperate family gives the movie an unsettling tension. “It was important for me to show her right away because people think of a witch now as a cheesy Halloween decoration, so the audience needed to know what the stakes were,” Eggers explained.
From that perspective, the movie is perhaps one of the best examples of Puritan-era witchcraft stories seen through a Freudian lens. The film seems to use its title creature to condemn the fear of feminine sexuality by overzealous patriarchs, like Ineson’s character, who feel threatened about their blossoming progeny. She wants to be free of puritanical restraint, but would she risk damnation? “The fear of feminine power back then was so intense that they actually believed there were fairy tale witches capable of doing all the things the witch does in the film,” said Eggers.
The film still portrays the family’s downfall with an assured restraint. A lesser movie would rely on easy jump scares or over-the-top effects. The Witch still gets extreme, but Eggers holds back its explicit horror to make what may lurk outside of the frame even scarier. The unsettling strength of The Witch is that it’s confident enough to know you’re scared of what it could unleash throughout its carefully paced 92-minute runtime. It makes each of its shots, displayed in gorgeously spare woodland tableaux, have a quietly disturbing air of stylistic beauty or dread, or both. It’s a quality that cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who worked with Eggers on his previous two short films, told me was difficult to capture because, “the movie needed to have a bleakness, but in a pure and powerful way.”
The early America of The Witch is one cased in an atmosphere of fear, violence, and righteousness. What audiences are left to ponder is whether we’ve managed to shake the oppressive hold that outside forces — good or evil — could have on susceptible people hundreds of years later. “Think on thy sins,” Ineson’s character implores in the middle of the film to his allegedly possessed children as he imprisons them in the farm’s small wooden barn. We’ve had centuries of witch stories, yet we’re still thinking about them.