“The Witch” is being billed as one of this year’s most terrifying horror films, yet it will also possibly be one of the year’s best researched and most historically accurate offerings. The idea of the supernatural and historical accuracy may on the surface seem incongruous, but for writer/director, Robert Eggers the mix was essential.
“It’s interesting, because as you read folk tales and fairy tales from the 17th century, they’re the same as the accounts of real witchcraft,” Eggers told Indiewire in a recent interview. “The key to creating this whole thing was understanding that the real world and the fairy tale world were the same thing in the early modern period, except for in the minds of the extreme intelligentsia. Everyday life was imbued with the supernatural. Witches were as real as mud, shit, the breeze and God.”
Eggers built a library of primary source material with a specific focus on accounts of demon possession. He found numerous detailed descriptions of what would happen to people when their bodies were overtaken by the supernatural. “I wasn’t in some rare archive in some small town in Massachusetts with white gloves on looking a parchment paper,” clarified Eggers. “‘The Diary of Samuel Sewall’, ‘The Diary of John Winthrop,’ these are easy for anyone to get their hands on. This was really common stuff and there’s tons of cases of demon possession. I read through the books looking for good images and moments, and then as I’d go along with the script I would think, ‘How can I make that work?'”
One the most fascinating aspects of the time period for Eggers was that, when tragedy struck, people would often cast suspicious eyes on women because the assumption was that witchcraft was behind their plight. The plot of “The Witch” centers around a 1630s Massachusetts family who are cast out from the rest of their Puritan community and forced to fend for themselves. When a supernatural force, emanating from the nearby woods, brings tragedy, the family starts to look at their oldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) with suspicion.
Eggers does not view this scapegoating of women as a relic of a different era and sees direct parallels between the themes of his movie and modern society. Yet for all his historical research and wanting to show how the innocent were falsely accused, Eggers knew from the start that his film would treat the supernatural as real and embrace the genre elements.
“It always needed to be a horror film,” explained Eggers, who grew in New Hampshire. “As a kid we’d go to Salem and we’d learn about what happened, but I was always disappointed the witches weren’t real. I don’t want to act like the witch trials all over New England were warranted, but when you live in a culture that believes something is real, it feels very real. This makes me sound like some new age, crystal-worshipping weirdo, but the woods behind my house really felt haunted by the past when I was a kid.”
“The witch was a huge reality in the minds of the people in the early modern period and the reality they had, true or not, shapes modern culture and exists in the unconscious of today.”
For Eggers, paying close attention to detail was vital to capturing this reality. A former production designer himself, the writer-director tasked his “Witch” designer Craig Lathrop with building the family’s home and furniture using the same techniques and tools that would have been used in the 17th century. Yet, in no area was this attention to detail more important than in the film’s dialogue.
“It’s an interesting period, because New England was the most literate part of the western world, it was illegal to not teach your children how to read because reading the bible was imperative,” explained Eggers. “You’ll find dictated wills of farmers who could read, but couldn’t write, and assuming the dictation is accurate, they have a really interesting, beautiful, but clunky way with words because they are reading the Geneva Bible, which is a really beautifully written text.”
Eggers has a background in Shakespeare and was not intimidated by the language. While reading primary source material, he would write down sentences and phrases that stood out to him and then categorize them into situations where he might want to use them in “The Witch.”
“The early versions of the script were monstrous, cannibalized collages of other people’s words, until I could later hone it into my own,” recalled Eggers. “Although intentionally, some of the stuff is very intact. [For example] some of things the children say [in the film] when they are possessed are things real children were alleged to have said when they were possessed.”
Eggers’ research-based approach to writing “The Witch” was creatively rewarding for first-time feature filmmaker, and it’s a process he is embracing for his next project as well.
“[Doing research] is super inspiring and fun,” Eggers said. “I have a big old portion of a bookcase dedicated to witch books and on the thing I’m writing now, it has a couple bookcases just devoted to that stuff. What I love about research is when I’m having a bad day and I can’t write, I’ll just research some more, I’ll learn some more and I’ll have better command of the world of the film.”