February 10, 2020


POSSESSED BY THE PAST (Noah Millman, Winter 2019, Modern Age)

To be haunted by history is ultimately to be haunted by phantoms of our own creation. Windows on the past turn into mirrors in which we see ourselves, our present concerns, reflected. That is why we looked in the first place. Likewise, when we tell stories about the past, we are most often talking to ourselves about ourselves, making of the past what we need it to be useful in the present. Increasingly, we seek to make a virtue of this natural tendency to anachronism, and simply recast the past culturally, ideologically and linguistically, as Lin Manuel Miranda did in his hit Broadway musical, Hamilton.

There's something to be said for that approach to binding past and present; Hamilton certainly deserves its accolades. But if this is the way the tide is going, then there's special value for us in artists who swim against it, who use modern forms to show us the strangeness of the past and thus refresh our nightmares with something once familiar but now eerily foreign.

Robert Eggers's first film, The Witch, did precisely that. Based on seventeenth-century New England folktales, it was in many ways a traditional horror film, with numerous elements familiar from the genre and copious references to classics like The Shining and Rosemary's Baby. But the film refused to cater to contemporary concerns or sensibilities. The witch that torments the isolated Puritan family is a solitary old woman, but the film doesn't treat her as a meaningful symbol, from a feminist or any other modern perspective. She is radical evil incarnate, an evil that finds purchase in entirely normal human frailty: in the husband's pride in his own rectitude, the wife's pain at losing a child, the son's just-awakening adolescence, even the littlest children's sense of imagination and play. And once active, the family cannot defeat it by courage or cunning, or even prayer; their earthly salvation is beyond human capacity to achieve. The story, which would ring terrible and true to a convinced Calvinist, to a modern audience might be irritatingly pre-psychological. The Witch is, in other words, the horror film that seventeenth-century Puritans might have made if they somehow had access to contemporary film technology and knowledge of film history.

Posted by at February 10, 2020 5:48 PM