In January, scholars finally discerned the precise spot in Salem, Massachusetts where 14 women, five men, and several dogs were executed for witchcraft in 1692: it is now a Walgreens. A mile and a half away and 324 years later, CinemaSalem hosted a preview screening of Robert Eggers' "The Witch," which resurrects the paranoia of that infamous era.
The sublimity of Eggers' tenacious debut feature — which won the best director prize at Sundance last year — stems from its impeccable sense of time and place. You can almost smell the salt-stained air, feel the splinters of wood spraying from each vicious swing of the ax. "The woods will not consume us," intones the film's patriarch William (Ralph Ineson). But he's wrong: the woods, and "The Witch," do consume you. (Over the weekend, the film grossed more than $8 million in its first few days.)
Eggers and his star, Ana Taylor-Joy, were both psyched to be in Salem. "I've wanted to come here my whole life," Taylor-Joy told the audience. She later told me, "I really mean it. This is so exciting for me – I've been crying on and off all day."
The film's menacing atmosphere bled into the press junket. Interviews were conducted in the Witch House, where one of the trials' nine judges lived in vainglory, with its surplus of windows (actual glass windows being an avowal of wealth) and lofty ceilings. Floorboards creaked incessantly and old wooden doors opened enigmatically. ("Is someone there?" Taylor-Joy asked in the middle of one interview, as if she'd been stranded in a more middling horror movie. "Oh, that's just the ghost," Eggers comforted her.)
The film taps into the fear that pervaded Salem at the time of its infamous trials, though it actually takes place somewhere on the southern side of New Hampshire (Eggers' old stomping grounds before he moved to New York), some 60 years before the courtroom drama unfolded. However, the same hysteria suffuses the film an incurable affliction. Much of that stems from the performance by newcomer Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, the adolescent whose family is excommunicated from their religious colony, and whose subsequent attempt to survive in the woods — with its sour soil and enveloping cornucopia of wiry naked trees — ultimately ends in tragedy (or enlightenment, depending on your interpretation).
As several real-life witchcraft and Salem experts — including Emerson "Tad" Baker, Brunonia Barry, and Richard Trask — have attested, the film features a strikingly authentic depiction of 17th century puritanism, from the bow-sawed lumber used to build the sets (no fancy circular saws here) to the hand-stitched wool clothes, ripped-from-the-1630s-headlines dialogue, and depiction of familial disintegration. If the devil is in the details, then "The Witch" exists in a special circle of Hell.
Of course, authenticity does not guarantee good art. "Most historical dramas are awful," Trask said at the film's Salem premiere. "They don't get any of the details right!"
But Eggers strived for an immersive kind of realism (on a fraction of the budget for "The Revenant"): the prominent use of natural light and forties-era Cooke lenses lend the digitally-shot film a soft, almost tangible air of unrelenting dread rendered in grayscale. As Baker told me, his mouth agape and his arms over his head in excitement, no other film, of any budget, has achieved such a complete 17th century immersion before. "It's so vivid, you can smell the dung," he said. This pleased Eggers – he writes descriptions of desired smells in his screenplays, and "The Witch" was smeared in stenches.
The one detail that was inaccurate, the keen-eyed Trask pointed out, was the candle wicks, which burned too brightly. "Yeah, yeah, they were triple wicks we needed to light the scene, I know," Eggers said, head in hands, having now explained this multiple times, including once to me three hours earlier.
The uneasiness of the period extended to the stern rules of etiquette expected of the children. If a young boy spoke back to his parents, he could be executed; if a girl under 16 defied her father, she could be sold to a neighbor. "Being a feminist in the 17th century was not really an acceptable idea," Baker said.
Horror fans may recognize the hallmarks of classic horror (missing baby, evil animals, possessed kids writhing on the floor), but Eggers plays with cinematic language to keep the familiar from lapsing into comfort. He eschews artifice and rejects the urge to "make shit up," in his words, instead focusing on the hysteria that stems from facing unknown forces. The kind of desiccated, baby-mashing old hag at the center of Eggers' film is faithful to the devilish conspirators feared by New Englanders.
Eggers' witch is mostly continental, though New England witches are essentially culled from British, Scottish, Scandinavian, Greek, and Teutonic folklore. A uniquely American concoction, and considerably tamer than their overseas progenitors, they didn't sink ships or destroy towns – these mythological beings ruined crops, filled goats' utters with blood. (One detail that Eggers didn't depict in the film: the mark of Satan, which was said to appear on witches' bodies, and was depicted in the Vincent Price classic "Witchfinder General.")
When researching the project, Eggers hit on a lot of gruesome concepts, not all of which made the final cut. "Extra teats that often appeared on the labia or anus, which witches would use to feed their familiars," he recalled, adding, "Is that printable?"
But witchcraft, Baker and Barry pointed out, wasn't strictly evil. "White" witchcraft was practiced by many of the nine men who later ran the Salem trials. And the intelligentsia didn't decry the idea of the supernatural in favor of rational explanation; they used the supernatural to offer explanation.
The Oxford-educated Joseph Glanvill first described the embryonic idea of a continental witch that would soon bloom into the prototypical sorceress favored by New England folklore: "A witch is one who can do or seems to do strange things, beyond the known power of art and ordinary nature, by virtue of a confederacy with evil spirits." From there, the notion of a witch accrued increasingly elaborate attributes, mutating into cackling, licentious women flying through the nighttime air, broomsticks wedged between legs. As Stacy Schiff keenly observes in her book "The Witches" (which came out this past October), "They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest; they stole babies and penises."
("The penis-stealing thing is more of a Czech thing," Eggers said. "Czech witches love to steal penises.")
While Arthur Miller's McCarthy-ish bible-thumpers deviously twisted the truth, the real-life 17th century Calvanists genuinely believed in witchcraft. If your neighbor extended a finger in your direction and decreed you a witch, then he really, truly thought you were in cahoots with Old Scratch. Eggers wanted his movie to replicate that feeling. "To immerse you in this world, you have to understand that they really believed in this stuff," he said. "Fairytales bled into reality. I wanted you to experience that. I'm not judging them or their beliefs. Shitting on religion in 2016 is so easy, what's the point?"
Perhaps the most surprising behind-the-scenes secret of "The Witch" is that Eggers, who is very gregarious and looks like he might adorn the pages of a men's style magazine or work as a Greenpoint bartender, is a more casual horror fan.
"Every horror movie that made any money during the six years I worked on this…I watched them all, and I didn't like them," Eggers said. "I didn't care. I was learning what not to do." He added that a lot of the great entries in the horror canon have been sucked dry by imitators. "'The Exorcist' is obviously great, but we've seen that so many times now," he said. (He prefers William Friedkin's "Sorcerer.")
The one witch movie he admits he loves? "Hocus Pocus." "That's the one crappy movie I loved as a kid," he said, after I called it my generation's worst mistake.
"Hocus Pocus" is not, Baker and Barry assured me, a very authentic depiction of witches. But, Baker added, "My daughters love it."
"The Witch" seems to operate in a different universe, but it's tethered to history. While it may not be the sort of thing studios churn out anytime soon, clearly the appetite for the film is there. Rising distributor A24 opened the movie around the country on Thursday night; it was on track to make nearly $6 million at the box office. Not too shabby for a first feature designed to freak you out. "The whole thing sounds so lunatic," Baker said, "but it was real. Those dark corners of piety in the woods, where Satan resides… that's where the movie takes place."