The most impressive thing a horror movie can do for me is to involve me personally, as a viewer. To bring me into the story, to get under my skin and immerse me so deeply that I am the unseen character, the watching camera who is just as threatened as all of the characters, is a terrifying and impressive experience in equal measure. Remind yourself of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982): the audience is invited to become the detective, to work out who the monster is posing as, for their own safety as well as for the characters too. Audience participation is something which most horror movies don’t even attempt, let alone actually execute, so when a film does it as perfectly and as maliciously as Robert Eggers’ The Witch does, you have to sit up and take notice. Not only is it a meticulously crafted example of psychological horror, it is also an absolutely brilliant, textbook example of audience participation in the genre.
The Witch is a film without a Witch in it. The story follows a 17th century Puritan family, who have been cast out of their community and are attempting to set up a farm when their youngest son mysteriously vanishes. The father claims it was a hungry wolf, the wife believes God has punished them, and yet their youngest twins seem to know what the audience has been shown: that the baby was stolen and killed by a witch. Soon, more family members disappear and fingers start getting pointed at Thomasin, the eldest daughter, in fear that she is the dreaded Witch. The family has spiralled out of control in desperation and paranoia, but what of the audience? The setting of The Witch is crucial to this discussion: this 17th century, deeply religious family have no means to deal with grief, and their paranoid ideas about sin and judgement take over when they are confronted with a loss in the family. Eggers immerses the audience in these fears; he shoots every frame and every moment as if it were directly from the eyes of a member of the family, with confusion and fear seeping into every shot.
Can we trust what the director shows us? Animals are framed as if they are the devil’s accomplices; an immobile rabbit keeps reappearing in the woods, while Black Philip, the new family goat, seems to have a strange relationship with the young twins of the family. Eggers frames them as if they were strange and unnatural, and the audience is not given a minute to doubt whether or not they are actually evil. Without knowing it, the audience has been immerses and transported into the setting of the movie, and has also taken on the myths and paranoia that the family hold. We, the viewer, are shown the monster very early on, in the flesh, and we therefore explicitly believe what the filmmaker has shown us. It is easy then for the director to make us believe other things through suggestion, and even make us doubt the main character of the film, and whether or not we can trust her innocence. The audience has become the scared and paranoid seventh member of the family; hiding in the corner, pointing fingers and latching on to impossible truths, just like the rest of the group. We believe the children when they say that Black Philip has talked to them. We believe the mother when she exclaims that their young son, Caleb, has been possessed through witchcraft. Most of all, we believe Robert Eggers when he tells us that Witches are real.
The Witch is a masterful example of audience participation. The viewer is projected into a world where grief is bestowed upon you as a punishment, your eldest daughter could be a witch, and your black goat could be Satan in disguise. The key to the true terror of The Witch is that we believe these fears completely and utterly, that we indulge in this paranoia and join the family in collapsing into the terror and confusion. Robert Eggers manages to pull off an amazing trick; he gets you to believe in the devil without you even realising.