Most people who have seen Robert Eggers’ 2015 directorial debut film, The Witch, probably remember the movie’s final scene. The scene features Thomasin (played excellently by Anya Taylor-Joy) joining a group of women performing a ritual around a fire in the forest. The horrifying chants intensify until the group begins to float as their fiendish laughter pierces the air. This is where we get one of the most visually dynamic shots of the film – a close-up of Thomasin as she accepts and in fact, becomes enthralled by the effects of the ritual. Her laughter joins in with the laughter of the other women in the group, creating a disturbing chorus of devilish mayhem. The movie ends ominously on this note. This final scene has gained a lot of notoriety since the film’s release as one of the most terrifying endings in horror film history. Yet, as ludicrous as it might seem to propose, I believe this scene can also be interpreted as markedly feminist within the film’s larger context.
Thomasin comes from a family that follows strict Puritanical doctrines of religious conservatism and traditions of misogyny. Her younger brother and father are represented as central figures in the household while most of the discussion around Thomasin is based around her inevitable and eventual marriage. While her family is depicted as having a deep-rooted faith, Thomasin’s own spiritual connection is shown as far more shallow, based more on superstition and blind faith. It would be an overstatement to say that her family is not “loving” in a traditional sense but Eggers masterfully creates a sense of oppression for Thomasin – this feeling that her faith and way of life are somehow more constricting than empowering. Much of this sentiment comes from a depiction of Puritanical ideals as overbearing and radical to the point that they have become suffocating for Thomasin. This is perhaps most evident through the family’s complete isolation from the rest of civilization, a result of being banished from their previous society due to their strict religious beliefs.
When certain supernatural events begin to affect the family, the oppression begins to manifest itself in the form of paranoia and mistrust. All of the family’s misfortunes (the death of her brother, for example) are blamed on Thomasin as she officially becomes labeled as a witch. Of course, at first, Thomasin is saddened, frustrated, and confused by her new label as she attempts to convince her family that she is not the cause of the problems the family is facing. There are several sequences of this nature in the film – Thomasin attempting to defend herself against her family and attempting to prove her innocence. The paranoia towards Thomasin begins to boil over within the family until it turns into a deep-seeded fear. Thomasin becomes increasingly frustrated and saddened by the fact that she has become so quickly outcasted by the family that she thought loved her. It’s a turning point in the film- a realization that those who had previously practiced such a strong faith of perfect idealism and trust in God had fallen so quickly as prey to blind fear. Her trust in the religion of her family falls apart and thus, so do the walls of conservatism and oppression that had come with it.
When evil finally comes knocking at Thomasin’s door, she takes the invitation without hesitance. The evil powers come to symbolize Thomasin’s newfound liberation as under the framework of her religion, liberalism of that nature can best be equated to something fiendish in nature. Her interaction with evil, while to the audience may seem disturbing, is actually extricating for Thomasin. It’s a strange yet intelligent philosophical concept that Eggers masterfully ingrains into the film – the duality of oppression and religion as well as liberation and rejection of traditional religious morals. Whether or not that dichotomy fits within each audience member’s personal faith system will vary, but it is certainly a thought-provoking idea that is excellently executed through the subtext of the film. In this way, The Witch gives us an unorthodox story of feminism- a female character who makes the difficult trek from oppression to liberation…that comes with some difficult choices.