The witch in The Witch is real. Of that, there can be no doubt. While writer/director Robert Eggers could have easily created a version of this story in which the existence of his antagonist as a physical entity was a matter of interpretation, he provides clear evidence of a creature acting independently from the perception of his characters. It runs alone in the woods. It does unspeakable things, when no one else is watching. She is not a delusion of the films’ characters nor a creation of their collective paranoia. The witch exists.

That internal reality of The Witch is crucial, and it also makes this subtly terrifying movie about a group of devout Christian characters in 17th-century New England an incredibly difficult narrative to unpack. While it works simply as a horror yarn crafted to inspire bone-deep dread, it also seems like a story divided against itself. Is this a tale of religious fundamentalism transformed into mass psychosis? Or is it a recognition that this particular kind of belief is a perfectly rational response to a world full of genuine, implacable evil?

This is the world in which we find our central family, who have been banished from a New England settlement because of the refusal of patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) to back down from his insistence that the leadership is full of “false Christians.” Left to set up a farm alone on the edge of an ominous wood, William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children try to scratch out subsistence. But then their infant son Samuel disappears while in the care of oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the family gradually comes to suspect that some dark force is threatening both their lives and their souls.

Eggers’ direction displays the kind of restraint that might be unfamiliar — and, frankly, even unwelcome — to genre fans who have grown accustomed to jump-scares and overt booga-booga creepiness. While he does employ the unsettling sonic effect of dissonant strings and moaning choral voices, his individual scenes are almost clinical in their depiction of things like a possible demonic possession. Throw in the characters’ use of archaic English diction — a post-film title card notes that some dialogue was taken verbatim from period accounts of witchcraft — and The Witch becomes a challenging change-up from most contemporary supernatural horror films.

It’s also considerably more unsettling, thanks to the way Eggers digs into the idea of people consumed with the doctrine of sinfulness. A key scene finds William and oldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) hunting together in the woods, with Caleb responding, catechism style, to his father’s quizzing about the nature of human corruption and the need for grace. That’s quite a load to bear for the adolescent boy who fears that his lost, unbaptized baby brother has been doomed to hell and that his own growing lustful thoughts — we see him gazing curiously at Thomasin’s cleavage — mean that he is damned as well. Eggers ties that moment to the inherent fear of budding female sexuality, as Thomasin comes under suspicion for bringing tragedy to the family. Surely she must be the witch.

Except that she’s not. The witch is out there, and the witch is real. And that’s what makes untangling The Witch‘s perspective on fire-and-brimstone faith such a messy business. But the answer, if there is an answer, might be there in the film’s subtitle: “A New-England Folktale.” Because in a folktale, the monster may be real, but the monster isn’t just a monster; it’s a lesson, a piece of moral instruction to be conveyed from one generation to the next. There’s an element of hubris in William’s decision to accept banishment from the settlement; “We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us,” he tells Caleb, even though his crops and his attempts at hunting all fail. Eggers’ most daring conceit in The Witch may be suggesting that people obsessed with evil, and who throw themselves proudly into confronting it, may be even more vulnerable to it.

Or, like some of the best genre tales — and most enduring folktales — there may be other levels of meaning still to be unwrapped from The Witch. That may be part of what makes it so disturbing, even when Eggers doesn’t set out to shock you: He’s wrestling with something that we don’t fully understand, but that we know in our gut is real.

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