U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Representing Nightmares of the Past–Part II

This is the second installment of the two part post about recent movies started by Robin Marie last week. This post features a few minor spoilers about The Witch and Hail, Ceasar!

I did not know what to expect from the movie The Witch, though I was a bit concerned—horror movies are not usually my thing. They mess with my head too much. Fortunately for me, very little of the movie abided by the well worn—albeit effective—formulas of the horror genre. In retrospect what best prepared me for the movie experience was my quite broad knowledge about the early modern European witch hunt. Indeed, watching the movie felt a little like reading a piece of early modern scholarship written during the 1980s, the heyday of the New Cultural History, when Foucaultian postmodernism was in great vogue among historians, particularly of early modern Europe. It was also the time when a rising interest in the history of gender converged with these new trends in cultural history to make witchcraft one of the more exhilarating subjects of historical inquiry.

When I first studied history the findings and approaches of the New Cultural History captured my imagination, as they still do. Not surprisingly then, so did The Witch. What I found most compelling in the approach of cultural historians back then, and to a large degree since, is the suspension, at least for a while, of the quest for truth. “How would the world look if we believed in witchcraft?” asked Robert Eggers, and the movie embodies his attempt to explore just that. Counter-intuitively, scholars as Natalie Davis, Lynn Hunt, and Robert Darnton urged us to believe our sources before we interrogate them. And indeed their phenomenal scholarship demonstrated that it could be far more revealing to suspend the search for truth than to keep it front and center.

The brand of post-modernism advocated by Foucault proved immensely liberating for historians. Movies like The Witch reveal why. Foucault induced historians to frame their questions differently, opening new horizons for historical scholarship. Asking how the truth operated rather than what the truth was seemed like such a delightful proposition for people infatuated with the past. If the past, as they say, ‘is a different country,’ would we not prefer to enjoy the trip through full immersion and belief, rather than determine how to evaluate it? To be sure, to some degree every good historical study did—and still does—that, but Foucault gave historians the full legitimacy to pursue such a perspective with a new zeal. The Witch is not only in some ways a much better assessment of the past than a movie that would have tried to show us what really occurred in a New England settlement, it is also a much more compelling thriller than most horror movies.

Curiously, the very first thought I had when I left the movie theater was that The Witch felthail2 unexpectedly similar to a movie I had seen just a week earlier, Hail, Ceasar!, for in some ways they are mirror images. Both try to capture what to contemporary audiences would otherwise seem like ludicrous fantasies of a bygone era. The one uses the horror genre to examine how Puritans might have regarded the terror of the new world, leaving us to grimly make of it what we will. The other uses comedy to show us just how fatuous McCarthyist fantasies were when so many contemporaries seemed to suspect communist plots behind every Hollywood movie script. In both cases we garner interesting historical insights, that we might well have missed otherwise.

The question that does remain, however, is how to assess a movie, or for that matter a history book, that does not—at least formally—seek to make a value judgement. Both The Witch and Hail Ceasar!, not only do not try to hit us over the head with a moral conclusion, they do very little to provide us with one. The onus is on the audience to do that, each person for themselves. To be sure, there are certain structural and aesthetic attributes to every piece that lend themselves to one kind of interpretation or another. Yet, is that enough? Is not the object of every artistic or scholarly production to promote values of some sort?

I recall several heated conversations I had with friends about the movie The Wolf of Wall Street after it came out several years ago that captured this predicament. Sympathetic to Foucaultian post-modernism, I found the movie compelling. I felt that it applied its full artistic force to present us with a penetrating glimpse into how the capitalist American economy operates. It also explained quite well why so many over the centuries have fallen for its allures. Others found the movie abhorrent. They correctly suggested that the movie might in fact inspire certain types of people to celebrate capitalism and its “marvelous” excesses. I had to concede their point, at least to a certain degree. I could certainly imagine a scenario in which viewers reveled in the excesses the movie seemed at times to celebrate.

I tend to resolve this tension by arguing for the worth of a plurality of voices and expressions, in art and in history—though I do understand why such a response could sound unsatisfying. It is a bit a wishy washy, to be sure, but I would hate to lose either form of representation. I would certainly hate to advise people not to watch The Witch or Hail, Ceasar! To miss out on such delightful experiences—especially for historians—would be a shame.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Having seeing both movies recently, I enjoyed the comparison between The Witch and Hail Caesar! and agree that they operate similarly in how they approach the past in an open-ended way. The question of genre is essential at the same time in how we approach these movies: The Witch mixes the conventions of historical realism and horror, while Hail Caesar! is a satire. In satire’s critique of the social world it represents–here, the Hollywood system–, the question of identification between film characters and the audience usually goes out the window, though the film does encircle the populist “aw shucks” figure of the cowboy with an aura of empathy. The question about identification with The Witch is more ambiguous: on one hand, I thought that through its muted realism the film criticizes Puritan culture–the word hypocrisy is repeated various times as a condemnation of these supposedly highly devout family. But the film’s realism stops at the representation of witch culture, which is shrouded with mystery and not much examined throughout the entirety of the film–indeed, some may find the witch elements to be excessive and even hackneyed. This leads us of course to the main character, who we are supposed to identify throughout. But does her ultimate rejection of Puritanism suggest a positive identification through the film with the witches? That is not altogether clear for me. If the movie extended a more realistic representation to the witches and their social world these issues could be resolved. And the movie would have been better in the end.

    The problem I had with The Wolf of Wall Street is that, it’s not exactly a satire: it fits the mold of parody in its ambiguous distance from the excesses of US financial capitalism. This was particularly evident in the film’s sexist humor, where in laughing the audience joined the male characters’s objectification of women. For me it was too much and I left the movie theater after an hour and a half.

    • Yeah, I totally get the problem with The Wolf of Wall Street and part of me fully agrees with your take on it. The problem for me is that personally it proved immensely instructive. It seemed to capture so well what Capitalism is about and I personally would hate to lose that perspective. But then again, it might be my privilege as a white straight man that allows me to react this way.

  2. Witch Writer-Director Robert Eggers:
    “[The film is ] a Puritan’s nightmare…if I could upload a Puritan’s nightmare into the audience’s mind’s eye…[rather than] once upon a time there was a story of a witch.”

    Eggers on “hardcore” historians: “the idea that goats are related to Satan is something that’s familiar enough from Goya—which is of course a later period—but in the early modern period and the late Middle Ages, in [the works of German artists] Hans Baldung Grien and Hans Holbein, we see all this stuff with witches and goats. I think that having the goat as a Satanic image in English witch narratives is more rare; it’s definitely more of a continental thing, and I think that hardcore witch historians would say that I might be pushing it a little bit…Certainly Puritans would all be aware of the apple being synonymous with sin. But I read a book full of Elizabethan witch pamphlets, and there was an Elizabethan witch who was accused of giving children poison apples…it’s really interesting to me how, in the folk tales and the fairy tales and the historical accounts of real witchcraft, the same themes and motifs come up. In all these stories, there’s no difference between the ‘real witch’ and the ‘fairy tale witch.'”

    Eggers on “different interpretations:” so, “for example, the rot on the corn is ergot, which is a hallucinogenic fungus, so if you wanted to take that route, you could. It’s not necessarily my route, but there are multiple ways.”

    From Slate interview, found here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/02/23/the_witch_director_robert_eggers_on_the_real_history_behind_the_movie_s.html

    In another interview, Eggers states that he initially intended the characters to converse in “early modern English” prior to film production.

  3. Eggers on the dialogue [Reddit interview]: “It was my best interpretation of a common person’s Caroline English from Yorkshire. Some of the grammar is maybe a bit more Jacobean than Caroline, but there was more books available on Jacobean English, and coming from a Shakespeare background…the actual Yorkshire accent from the period would also have been a bit more difficult to decipher (“knife” would be pronounced something like “Ka-noif” – with a hard K).” The Jacobean-era Yorkshire dialect featured article reductions, contracted negatives, and vocabulary derived from (I believe) Old English, “so we used a modern Yorkshire/Leeds accent and stripped it of any modern urbanisms.”

    Eggers on “factual inaccuracies” and corn shocks:

  4. Yorkshire dialect samples (nineteenth/twentieth century West Riding):
    Wi ‘ad ter wesh wersens i’ cowd watter We had to wash in cold water
    Tak nooa gaum on it Take no notice
    Allus at t’last push up Always at the last minute
    Ah’m bahn ter side them pots I’m going to clear away the dishes
    Thamunsupupanshurrup You must drink up and be quiet

    There’s been a spate of recent research on the provenance of dialects (vernacular) in early seventeenth-century New England. Also influences from Greek, Hebrew, etc. on sermons and jeremiads.

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