SPOILER WARNING: The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) does much to convince its audience that God is a feature in the film. From the opening scene detailing the exile and excommunication of the primary family of the film to that same family’s constant devotion and faith, the film is insistent that God is there, at least in one form or another. But while The Witch may insist upon the perceived fact that God is present, other aspects of the film insist the opposite. From the horror-style music swell as the family prays over the field that will become their home, to the revelations of the exact tenets that the family follows, the audience is cued in that something is very wrong with the family’s faith. And once the family members begin to talk about their various beliefs and insecurities, the problems present in the film can primarily be attributed to God. But despite all of this there is the possibility, and a very real and reinforced one at that, that God is simply a red herring in The Witch, both to the characters within the film and to the film’s audience.
If considered as a whole, God does very little, if anything, in The Witch. The film does not dwell long on the plantation which the family is forced out of for William’s “blasphemous” statements. These exact statements are never given to the audience, but as the film continues it becomes apparent that William, and by way of him the rest of his family, believe that they are all damned by way of simply existing in the world and that they must constantly beg God for forgiveness. The belief that they are damned becomes eerily prophetic as Samuel vanishes and the rest of the family begins to tear themselves apart. This is primarily driven by the fact that if the family is to hold true in their beliefs, then they must conclude that Samuel is in Hell.
This is where the beliefs of the family feed directly into their downfall. The family does not believe in grace coming from God, and as a result they are in a state of constant fear and begging for forgiveness. As it becomes apparent that there is something evil in the woods, first by way of Samuel’s impossible disappearance and then later by way of Caleb’s vanishing and subsequent possession, the family’s faith is only shaken more. They harbor no hope that God can or will save them and instead they believe that all of these actions are because of their own transgressions. They focus on the possibility that they have allowed evil to penetrate their family and because of this they are being punished. It is because of these beliefs that the evil is able to completely annihilate the family as they tear themselves apart. In the end, the family is split based on their beliefs, and once their trust is lost in each other it is never regained. William remains devout in his faith no matter what, but he is ultimately ineffective as his teachings do not prepare him, or anyone else, for what to do if confronted with true evil. Caleb tries to remain faithful, and he is shown to have to most faith second only to his father, but he is confused and repulsed by his own sexual desires and in the end he gives himself over to the embodiment of these feelings. Katherine, as opposed to her husband and son, admits to having many insecurities and doubts about her faith and she believes in and loves her children more than anything else, including God. Mercy and Jonas are even further removed from the rest of their family as they place their interest in “Black Philip” and speak constantly of what he has “said” to them. Last of all is Thomasin, whom is shown praying once but is soon practically exiled from the family herself because of her involvement with Samuel’s vanishing.
Because of this, God actually does more harm than good to the family. But it is not God himself that separates the family, but rather their own beliefs in relation to him. God is a distraction for the family as opposed to an aid in their fighting against the very real evil that is attacking them, and in the end it seems that God may have only existed for the family within their own minds. If God does exist in the film, then the plantation is perhaps the only place where it is so. After all, the family is banished from the plantation for their beliefs and because of this the evil in the woods is able to overtake them. The family has become cut off from the rest of the world, and they have also become cut off from the faith that is associated with the success of the plantation. The Witch consistently associates the plantation with safety and civilization, and therefore it also associated their respective brand of faith with this as well. When considered this way, the family becomes true outliers which are at the mercy of the wilderness that they have placed themselves in. The family believes that God is still with them, but both the events in the film and the film itself argue to the contrary. God is the focus of the family, but it is this focus, however incorrect or harmful the tenets of their faith are, that ultimately leads the family astray. They focus on forgiveness from a force that they do not believe will help them anyhow, when in fact they are completely out of their depth and could only survive with some sort of external help.
God is absent in The Witch then. Despite what the family may feel and what the film may show, God does not help the family in any way in their fight against evil. Instead, their focus on their religion diverts their attention from the evil that has already penetrated their family unit and is now making itself known. While Samuel may be unconditionally devoted in his faith, he is ultimately ineffective when it comes to countering the evil that he faces. As Thomasin says, he is only good for chopping wood. The film poetically buries him in his handiwork in the end, but his overall effect should be considered based on the actions he partakes in outside of the firewood-related ones. He cannot provide food for his family, and so he begins to trade away their possessions in order to attempt another route of feeding them. But these efforts are futile, leading only to speed the destruction of Caleb and Thomasin, and as a result everyone else. His teachings do nothing to prevent the destruction of his family, but they do not directly harm them either. In the end, Samuel is killed by the very evil he was unable to see, the ever-present Black Philip whom might be thought to be a red herring himself at first. The rest of the family suffers a similar fate for equally similar reasons, with the exception of Thomasin.
Overall, Thomasin’s faith is the most ambiguous of any of the family. Unlike her father, mother, and Caleb, Thomasin speaks little of her faith except when she is defending herself against accusations of witchcraft or other sins. Mercy and Jonas, in comparison, speak little of their faith in God but much of their interactions with Black Philip, in whom they show absolute belief. At the same time, the twins harbor a very real fear of witches, to the point that they vigorously accuse Thomasin of practicing witchcraft. Thomasin plays into these fears for her own uses, but even these jests put her in a position that borders on blasphemy to the rest of her family. Thomasin is free agent, as she is not as devoted to God as one part of her family but also slightly interested in, though still fearful of, the evil that surrounds her. The evil recognizes her status, and in the end, after everyone that has accused her, doubted her, or taunted her is dead or missing, Thomasin joins the very force that has brought about these actions. In the final moments of the film, along with the other witches, Thomasin ascends, free of the bonds that had repressed and accused her throughout her entire life.
God does not make an appearance in The Witch, but the Devil himself does. Symptomatic of the rest of the film, evil is always present while good may or may not even exist. Every member of the family remains blind to it until it is to late and their deaths are reminiscent of their failings and insecurities in life. The only thing that God does do in the film is distract the family, and also the audience, from the evil that is encroaching on them. This is the cleverness of The Witch, as it is able to convince both its characters and the audience of the presence of God, while at the same time providing even more convincing evidence to the contrary.