U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Representing Nightmares of the Past – Part I

This is Part I of a two-post series by myself and Eran Zelnik on recent films & questions of representation in film. Just, trust me, we’ll get there.

“Thought I’what vile and mean Things are the Children of Men in this mortal State. How much do our natural Necessities abase us, and place us in some regard on the same level with the very Dogs’…Accordingly I resolved that it should be my ordinary Practice, whenever I step to answer the one or the other Necessity of Nature, to make it an Opportunity of shaping in my Mind some holy, noble, and divine Thought.” – Cotton Mather, reflecting on pissing on a wall and then witnessing a dog do the same. 

This week I went to see the movie The Witch. Going into the theatre, I was intrigued by sharply conflicting reports on the quality of the film: one friend of mine said it had become his favorite movie, while a friend of a friend thought the dialogue was absurd and the content rankly sexist. Before I get to my own impressions, however, a quick summary of the film.


The Witch is the first film of Robert Eggers, who both wrote and directed the film. It follows the fate of a Puritan family banished from their settlement for, apparently, being more puritan than most Puritans.[1] Relocating to an open field in the middle of the forest, they are tasked with surviving in a near absolute wilderness.

I will tell you now that the film indeed involves an actual witch. You might think this merits a spoiler warning, but it is actually something you discover within the first five minutes of the film, and it is not subtle. This opens up the rest of the story to focus not so much on the mystery of the supernatural, but the dynamics of fear, grief, and religious belief in the context of traditional Calvinist patriarchy.

I recognize that most audiences are not likely to walk in or out of the theatre thinking, “what an interesting mediation on traditional Calvinist patriarchy!” But this is certainly what I thought and, whether or not they use such academic lingo, what they might be thinking – probably something along the lines of “Dude, Puritans be crazy!” – essentially adds up to the same observation.

And this is why I found The Witch to be such a delightful experience. Eggers pulls the majority of his plot twists and details from the actual diaries, letters, newspaper reports and court records of early New England settlements. Hence he legitimately introduces the film with the subtitle, “A New England Folktale.” In other regards as well, the movie is, at least broadly speaking (not being an antiques expert, I’m not sure of every detail), historically faithful. The daily lives of the unnamed Puritan family are clearly consumed with two things: staying alive, and praying. Moreover, the actors speak old English, a detail which I suppose some could find absurd, but I actually found quite convincing and refreshing – I’ve always wondered what such language would sound like in the mouths of normal people rather than Shakespearean actors, and it seems to me that The Witch likely got it about right. At the least, it sounds like a language the characters are actually used to speaking casually, rather than performing formally.

The most satisfying aspect of the film’s adherence to the Puritan world, however, is its representation of Calvinist theology. In the course of the film, we hear characters acknowledge that they deserve eternal torment, discuss how their love for one another is not relevant to the question of whether or not they are damned to hell, and speak earnestly about the ecstasy of God’s mercy. You know, typical dinner conversation. And that kind of immersion into a thought world so drastically different from our own is the type of experience that most historians, I would think, derive a certain thrill from. I certainly did, at least.

Yet it is this very faithfulness to Puritan life and belief that can also lead to some considering the film acutely problematic. To reproduce New England folk belief, after all, necessitates reproducing stories and tropes deeply connected to sexism and racism. (Although the former is far more present in the film than the latter, I think it’s fair enough to say it is not totally absent, seeing as how things turn out with one particular black goat.) If these are reproduced for a product that, at its most basic level, aims to entertain us, are such sexist concepts necessarily reinforced?

In the case of The Witch, some early responses suggest that it is not so simple. In fact, many critics find in the film’s story a powerful message of the empowerment of women and a critique of patriarchy. Add to this that the Satanic Temple has apparently endorsed the film, interpreting it as a call for women’s empowerment, and it is clear that it’s too easy to assume the film will reinforce sexism. Nonetheless, the film represents sexist traditions, from the ugly old hag on down to the dangers of young women’s sexuality.

What is missed in emphasizing this fact, however, is that in the context of twenty-first century modernity, an accurate portrayal of the psychological lives of Puritans does not necessarily recommend such a perspective to a viewing audience. Because quite frankly, all the characters seem pretty miserable, and this film certainly is not going to undo the absolutely engrained modern perspective that whether or not a belief system produces personal happiness is perhaps the most important way for assessing its value!

My conclusion about this particular film, however, does not settle the larger problem, or challenge, of assessing the impact of representation: how do you ensure, when depicting either historical events or world views that involved oppression, cruelty, or rapacity, that such accuracy does not end up reinforcing that which you represent? In the next post, Eran will consider this question also in the context of discussing The Witch, but also the recently released Hail, Cesar!

[1] I also personally appreciated this detail, as I derive perhaps not entirely kind amusement from the dynamic of New England communities, after founding themselves on being the most hard core of Christians, having to banish people and/or kill them when they decided to take that whole idea a bit too seriously and be even more hard core than them. Indeed, in a way it is this very dynamic that somehow gave us the likes of a Roger Williams out the mire of the likes of a Cotton Mather. So historical irony goes!

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. New England communities were not founded on being the most “hard core” of Christians. They were founded in pursuit of a very determined but very difficult search for what they believed to be true with respect to church doctrine, ecclesiastical polity, its relation to secular power, and the like. The banishments of which you speak were the outcome of deeply held conflicts over the nature of those truths, but not as a contest over who could be the most “hard core,” whatever that might mean. Also, “newspapers”?? And what can “the mire of the likes of Cotton Mather” possibly mean?

  2. “They were founded in pursuit of a very determined but very difficult search for what they believed to be true with respect to church doctrine, ecclesiastical polity, its relation to secular power, and the like.” Like I said, hard core. Which usually refers to being very good at something that is difficult, and/or being very dedicated to it.

    “And what can ‘the mire of the likes of Cotton Mather’ possibly mean?” It means I don’t want to either be like Cotton Mather, or have a close relationship with anyone like him. You are welcome to feel differently.

    • just a small correction from the linguist in me:

      “Moreover, the actors speak old English”

      They would not have spoken Old English, which was introduced into England in the mid-5th century and evolved into Middle English by the early 14th century. Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English and this would have been what the Puritans were speaking.

      On a lighter note “Dude, Puritans be crazy!” might more accurately be uttered as “Dude, Puritans be trippin’!” The Salem witches had consumed ergot-tainted rye grain. LSD-25 is a product of ergot. You can read about Salem here: http://customers.hbci.com/~wenonah/history/ergot.htm

      • Clarification: the source material for this particular film seems to derive primarily from English witchcraft “traditions”–which may or may not privilege Middle and especially Old English as well as (more debatable) various dialects of Indo-European languages.

      • Also: I’ve read reviews that designate the 1630s community as specifically “Separate.” According to recent scholarship (including last year’s Pilgrims documentary), such a community could result in provenance variations for dialects and Old as well as New Testament names, esp. during Puritan “Great Migration” period. Although again, the source material seems to derive primarily from English witchcraft “traditions.”

      • D oubt it was Old English. Here’s the opening lines of Beowulf in Old English:

        Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
        þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
        hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
        Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
        monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
        egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
        feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
        weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
        oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
        ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
        gomban gyldan.

      • *which may or may not privilege Middle and especially Old English*

        In any case, secondary sources indicate that William Bradford’s Bible, for example, was “old English” Geneva (black-letter Geneva Bible). I’ve never perused the primary source.

      • William Bradford’s Geneva Bible is on display for perusal in the Pilgrim Hall Museum Library in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was printed in 1592. That it was a black face edition refers, of course, to the typeface or font used. It also was printed in Roman typeface. The Geneva Bible was introduced in 1560 and first printed in England in 1575. It was replaced by the King James Version for political reasons.

        The language used in the Geneva Bible was, as one would expect, Early Modern English.

        Here are the Geneva and the King James versions of Genesis 3:7 with spellings as in their originals (not modernized):

        Geneva Bible
        Then the eies of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and
        they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.

        King James Bible
        Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

        Neither of them are Old English, which someone in 1620 would not be a le to read anymore than we can without study, but rather had the privilege of being Early Modern English, which is recognizable and readable by us today.

    • I assumed you referred to the insular script (per your reproduction of Beowulf)! The Geneva Bible draws upon Greek as well as Hebrew translations and purportedly included an “Old English” glossary. That said, the black-letter typeface and “Old English” are distinct, but related, components of changes and continuities from Old to Middle to Early Modern English. Again, I haven’t perused the primary source. At the risk of puritanical repetion: the source material for this particular film seems to derive primarily from English witchcraft “traditions”–which may or may not privilege Middle and especially Old English as well as (more debatable) various dialects of Indo-European languages.

    • Not to beat a dead horse, but Bradford read from a Geneva Bible printed in Middle English, or promoted as such. Considerable debate apparently pivots on whether a more accurate description is late Middle English or even (ala Publius) Early Modern English. The typeface is black-letter, distinguished from insular, but still a pertinent mode of textualis. I’m quite certain that New England Puritans conversed in late Middle or Early Modern English, but 1630s sermons and “traditions” that served as the film’s source material undoubtedly rested on a linguistic continuum (Old, Middle, Early Modern) as well as a variety of provenance dialects (i.e., Norfolk).

    • Yes, that may be a definition of “hard core,” but the various kinds of political conflicts you mention (ecclesiastical or otherwise) were not about who was the most best or most dedicated, they were about substantive disagreements that both sides took very seriously. It was not a “hard-coreness” contest.
      And the acknowledgment that the 17th-century’s “thought world is so different from our own” might give one caution about assuming that we know what Cotton Mather or Roger Williams was “like,” especially as both of them have been so deeply encased in stereotypes as villains and heroes through the ages.

    • the most hard core of Christians

      No comment on the semantics of *hard core,* formal or otherwise, but you should read Roger Williams’ 1645 Christenings Make Not Christians. He retracted full support for Algonquian missions, citing “heathen” linguistic impediments and apostolic convolutions (before his role in the RI Charter Algonquian clause but also before the KPW experience and Narragansett captive slave codes). An aged Williams also composed a shorthand dénouement to polemics against the “treachery and seduction” of John Eliot. He even rallied against Algonquian conversion and Eliot defense of infant baptism prior to his death in 1683.

  3. In addition to the politics (emphasis mine) of the *ecclesiastical polity,* concomitant *nature[s] of those truths* precipitated the banishments. For example, in 1635 correspondence (as I recall), Roger Williams called for Salem congregational separation but also denounced Bay Colony Patent infringement of Eastern Woodland Algonquian spaces and places. Nearly eight years later, his Key noted dialects and impermanent villages within permanent principalities and kingdom “bounds” across “America.” Conversely, in the 1632 Answer to the Remonstrance, King Charles outlined his policy on
    Plymouth seizure of soil and vessels (such as the Eendracht) deeded to Dutch traders by
    Algonquian sachems: “first, it is denied that the Indians were possessoria bona fidei of those countries, so as to be able to dispose of them either by sale or donation, their residences being unsettled and uncertain, and only being in common; and in the second place, it cannot be proved, de facto, that all the Natives of said country had contracted with them at the said pretended sale.” The Key undermined this possessoria bona fidei denial of King Charles and confirmed sachem deeds to Williams for the RI and Providence Plantations Patent. Confirmation in turn challenged a “Narragansett Patent” by Hugh Peter and Thomas Weld as well as Massachusetts land grants to Providence co-founder and 1642 defector William Arnold.

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