Erstwhile: A History Blog

Fear, Fairy Tales, and Fungi in the Premodern World: Robert Eggers’s “The VVitch: A New England Folktale”

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Regular contributor Travis R. May looks into the history of witches as it relates to the recently released and well-regarded horror film The VVitch (2016)This post does contain spoilers.

“The most notorious traitor and rebel that can be is the witch, for she renounceth God himself, the king of kings, she leaves the society of his church and people, she bindeth herself in league with the Devil.”– William Perkins, Sixteenth-Century English Puritan Theologian

In the modern era, the witch has become a constant fixture of popular culture in the Western world. From the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm to the novels penned by Frank L. Baum and J.K. Rowling, witches have played prominent roles as both heroes and villains in beloved and widely consumed fiction. A contemporary religion–known as Wicca–has been formed that celebrates modern pagan witchcraft and the legacy of past witches and their experiences. And of course every October pointed hats, brooms, and plastic cauldrons are conjured up on retail shelves across America for mass consumption; the ubiquity of the costume is such that failing to encounter a single witch would make for an eerie Halloween indeed.

The witch, like the vampire and the werewolf, has become domesticated over time: defanged and robbed of its power to inspire pure, unadulterated terror. But it was not always this way. Writer/Director Robert Eggers’s fascinating debut film The VVitch: A New England Folktale[1] is a meticulously crafted genre mashup of the horror film and the period piece that harkens back to an early modern world of deeply held religious convictions, superstition, and fear, where the witch represents a very real, tangible threat to the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of the protagonists. The witches of the film are multi-faceted: sometimes depicted as the horrific, wizened crones of Shakespearean verse or Francisco de Goya’s paintings, and sometimes as beautiful, naked young women celebrating their liberation from New England’s patriarchal and theocratic society. But they are never presented as anything other than real to the characters encountering them. Herein lies the greatest strength of the film, but also its most vexing weakness. Eggers manages to convincingly breathe life into the premodern threat that witchcraft presented to the sensibilities of God-fearing Christians, but in so doing presents the fears of the Puritans as legitimate in a manner that absolves them of the murder of innocent women. These women were the victims of persecution and witch trials, which reached a gruesome crescendo during the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692-93. Although Eggers remains heavily invested (for good or ill) in animating this early modern Puritanical worldview, which was informed by a wider context of European, Christian beliefs in the physical manifestation of satanic power and witchcraft, he also briefly but compellingly provides an alternate reading of the horrific events that transpire in the film. By referencing modern psychological research that asserts that ergot, a fungus, may have been the culprit responsible for the witchcraft hysteria of the seventeenth century, Eggers provides a decidedly twentieth-century scientific explanation for the mischief afoot in colonial New England.

A malevolent black goat. Possessed children convulsing uncontrollably. A satanic sabbat ritual. These striking images and others that Eggers invokes in the film are a glimpse into the conception of witchcraft and the Devil in the premodern world. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Western Europe, witches were thought to be all-too-real, a symptom of a larger plot by Satan to ensnare the souls of unsuspecting Christians. As the historian John Putnam Demos has observed, the Devil “was continually adding earthly recruits to his nefarious cause. Tempted by bribes and blandishments, or frightened by threats and torture, weak-willed persons signed the ‘Devil’s Book’ and enrolled as witches. Thereafter, they were armed with his power, and obliged to do his bidding.”[2] No clear divide demarcated the boundary between the natural and the supernatural world in the premodern era, and so the idea that the Devil and his legions walked the earth seemed terrifyingly plausible, even to the most educated men and women of the period. Officials on both sides of the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant alike, were convinced of this constant threat, and went to great lengths to root out the evil they believed dwelt in their midst, often by following the instructions of the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Hammer of Witches”), a document compiled by two Dominican priests and inquisitors in the fifteenth century that outlined guidelines for identifying and dealing with suspected witches.  Witchcraft became defined as a capital crime: in the English context, it was defined either as “solemn compaction or conversing with the Devil” or, more artfully, as “giving entertainment to Satan,” and it was punished with hanging, burning at the stake, and other gruesome forms of torture and execution.[3] The results of this state and church-sponsored violence were horrifying and barbaric to modern sensibilities: in the German states of the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland, Scotland, France, and England (not to mention a host of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, and Eastern European states), at least forty thousand individuals–overwhelmingly (but not quite exclusively) women, as witchcraft was conceived as a distinctly gendered crime–were executed for witchcraft. Early modern Europe was the scene of the most violent witch-hunts in history, as persecution periodically swept over the countryside like a fever in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stirring the populace from pastoral placidity into a dangerous frenzy.[4]

Fears of witchcraft were not alleviated when Europeans emigrated abroad to the new colonies and plantations being carved out on the Atlantic seaboard of North America. In fact, in Puritan New England, they may even have been amplified to some degree. Cotton Mather, an outspoken and influential New England Puritan minister of late-seventeenth-century fame, described the “squalid, horrid, American Desart [sic]” that his forefathers had settled in as “the Devil’s Territories.”[5] Three thousand miles beyond the former boundaries of Christendom, he and his fellow co-religionists were strangers in a strange land. Perhaps this was also a motivating factor in the Salem witch trials, in which eight local girls accused dozens of residents of Salem Village and the surrounding towns in Massachusetts of practicing witchcraft. What followed was a series of sensational trials, in which the girls often interrupted the proceedings by making loud outbursts in the courtroom, decrying the villainy of the accused. In the end, the authorities in the form of an assize court specially commissioned for the purpose of hearing the cases executed twenty people before the hysteria subsided.[6]

A feeling of isolation and dread, rather than mass hysteria, pervades The VVitch, which is set six decades before New England’s most famous and calamitous brush with witch huntingBanished from the Plymouth Plantation in the 1630s in one of the many religious quarrels that characterized dissenter society, a family of Puritans establishes a farm far beyond the relative safety of the walls of the colonial settlement. Their vulnerability is palpable: the family’s only means of defense, a primitive matchlock musket, misfires almost immediately. Their crops fail, their livestock are too limited in number, and their traps do not catch adequate local game. The fragility of life is a constant source of worry for the people of the time period, and it also forces them to continuously contemplate the fate of their eternal soul.

Eggers, who spent four years researching primary source documents from the time period and even employed some direct quotes from journals and diaries to bolster his beautifully archaic dialogue, painstakingly recreates Puritan religious sensibilities and puts them on the screen in revealing exchanges between characters: the patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) quizzing his son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) on the nature of original sin and Calvinist predestination doctrine as they trudge through the barren wood reveals more about the angst and existential anxiety of these people in a few moments than a textbook could possibly hope to convey in a chapter, for example. It is also their religious fervor that is the family’s undoing as they unravel under the stress of their mysteriously vanishing children and other sinister phenomena. Here, their encounter with witchcraft is framed by petty lies, lust, and infighting: in a sense, they are facing the judgment of a God who has allowed Satan into the world to mete out punishment to those who have strayed from the proper path. Their grisly fate, and especially the fate of the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy), who succumbs willingly to the temptations of a manifested Satan offering the chance to “live deliciously” and signs the notorious “Devil’s Book,” embracing her new identity as one of his dark servants–a witch–are effectively every Puritan’s worst nightmare. This clear refutation of their status as members of an “elect” predestined for the salvation of heaven is a fate far worse in their estimation than simple death: when baby Samuel first goes missing and is presumed to have been devoured by a wolf, they soldier on with grim stoicism, but when the presence of malevolent supernatural entities is revealed, they are faced with their worst fears. The film is, as Eggers notes, not based on true events, but instead it is a “folktale”–a warning parable or an unsweetened fairy tale–that he has summoned from the collective subconscious of a premodern people.

What are we to make of a film that so convincingly recreates a lost historical mentality, but in so doing seems to legitimize obscene violence against the bodies of innocent men and especially women? When questioned on the subject, Eggers has indicated that he was concerned primarily with recreating the world as it was experienced by the Puritans, as reprehensible as this may be in some ways to our modern sensibilities. This entails adhering not only to the cultural baggage that he unpacks in an attempt to get into the headspace of the Puritan family at the center of the film, but also paying extremely close attention to period detail in all aspects of the film’s crafting. To this end, the technical aspects of the film are masterful: period candlelight was used when shooting indoors, illustrating just how dark nighttime in the pre-electric era could be. The family farm that is the primary setting of the film was built by hand utilizing period-accurate materials and methods whenever possible, down to the type of nail employed in erecting the house, despite the invisibility of this measure to even a trained eye in the audience.

Significantly, but very subtly, Eggers also offers the modern viewer with a possible alternate explanation of the supernatural events unfolding in the film that goes entirely unnoticed by our protagonists. In an early scene, William inspects his crop and finds that it has been stricken down with some form of blight. This ecological catastrophe, Eggers has acknowledged, is a reference to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), an Old World fungus that has been linked to a devastating medical condition known as “ergotism” when accidentally consumed by humans with ground cereal.[7] Beginning in the 1970s, academics led by psychologist Linnda R. Caporael have speculated that the “Satan loosed in Salem” during the craze of the witch trials was not petty rivalry, outright fraud, or blind religious hysteria.[8] Instead, Caporael has theorized that the panic has a physiological explanation: ergot-tainted rye grown in the fields west of Salem Village led to an outbreak of “convulsive ergotism,” a strain of ergot poisoning that produces a wide variety of symptoms including “crawling sensations in the skin, tingling in the fingers…headaches, disturbances in sensation, hallucination” and also mental disturbances “such as mania, melancholia, psychosis, and delirium” that could have altered the perceptions of those afflicted–alkaloids produced by ergot contain ten percent of the activity of LSD, for example. Caporael speculates that at least six of the eight girls who were at the center of the accusations may have been exposed to ergot-tainted rye, and that many of their particular afflictions can be explained by this medical condition. It may even have altered the mindsets of observers and the judges adjudicating the case, given that outbreaks are often local due to common supplies of affected grains. She concludes by conjecturing that “without knowledge of ergotism and confronted by convulsions, mental disturbances, and perceptual distortions, the New England Puritans seized upon witchcraft as the best explanation for the phenomena,” while also acknowledging that other “psychological and sociological factors” at play “gave substance and meaning to the symptoms.”[9]

Other experts, however, have cautioned those who might be immediately attracted to Caporael’s rational, empirical explanation for the Salem witch trials to not rush to hasty conclusions. Psychologists Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb have challenged Caporael’s research and cast significant doubt upon the validity of her conclusions.[10]  Spanos and Gottlieb have noted that convulsive ergotism outbreaks historically have been closely associated with Vitamin A deficiencies, which would not have affected the majority of the people of Salem due to their access to fish and dairy foodstuffs. Additionally, young children under the age of ten are especially susceptible to ergotism, whereas the majority of the accusers were in their teens or early adulthood. Convulsive ergotism also usually afflicts entire families (due to their common access to the tainted grain), something that did not materialize in the case of the Salem episode. Finally, and most damningly, Spanos and Gottlieb meticulously outline how the afflictions that the girls suffered from do not match up well with the symptoms of convulsive ergotism by combing the archives and challenging Caporael’s characterizations of various afflictions. None of the girls suffered from chronic vomiting, diarrhea, livid skin color, or permanent dementia, and all seemed to recover their faculties when not in the courtroom in the presence of someone they had accused of witchcraft. In effect, Spanos and Gottlieb argue that fraud was a much more likely culprit than ergot poisoning in explaining the girl’s actions: they theorize that the girls were entirely physically healthy and that their vivid descriptions of seeing the spectral apparitions of their supposed persecutors match commonly-held cultural beliefs about witchcraft much more closely than any of the potential symptoms of ergotism, and that the expectations of their audience influenced them considerably. While other physiological explanations like Lyme disease have been put forward as potential culprits, the preponderance of the evidence seems to argue against any simple physiological explanation for the Salem crisis.

Despite the intriguing trail of ergot-tainted breadcrumbs that Eggers leaves for historically informed observers, this rejection of the purely physiological conclusion seems to fit his conception of the events that transpired around Salem. When asked whether he believed ergotism was the real explanation for the witchcraft scare, he remarked: “I doubt it. I think if you live in a time when you believe something is true, that makes it true.”[11] This statement cuts to the heart of Eggers’s project in recreating the seventeenth-century Puritan paradigm: he presents it faithfully, misogynistic and religiously fanatical warts and all, as a sort of rumination on how premodern Europeans perceived the world around them. But, as excellent as the film is in crafting this worldview, one can still justifiably wonder whether his decision to play those Puritan fears out to their fantastic, supernatural conclusion (as entertaining as this is) undercuts any useful historical discussion that could have been made about the role of religion in perpetrating violence against defenseless women. In so doing, Eggers passes on a compelling opportunity to make an overtly feminist counterpoint to the patriarchal views of the era (although to be certain, there is an element of rejection of these values by Thomasin at the end of the film: it just so happens that, rather problematically, her rejection evidently puts her in league with Satan). But perhaps he would make a counterargument that this would be an unsustainable, anachronistic imposition on the past, shattering his carefully-cultivated verisimilitude: should we expect anything different of a man who demanded hand-hewn clapboards and shoes cobbled via period-accurate methods?

Notes

[1] Eggers’s rendering of the word “witch” with two Vs is purposefully archaic–a tip of the cap to seventeenth-century printing standards.

[2] John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 6.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Malcolm Gaskill, Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 76.

[5] Cotton Mather, On witchcraft: being The wonders of the invisible world / first published in October 1692 and now reprinted with additional matter and old wood-cuts for the Library of the Fantastic and Curious (Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1950), 15.

[6] Ed. Elaine G. Breslaw, Witches of the Atlantic World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

[7] It must be noted here that Eggers appears to have made a rare unforced error: ergot is generally parasitic on Old World cereal grains like rye, barley, and occasionally oats. There is no evidence to suggest that it is capable of affecting maize, the New World crop being grown by William’s family.

[8] Linnda R. Caporael, “Ergotism: the Satan loosed in Salem?” Science, vol. 192 (2 April 1976), 21-26.

[9] Caporael, “The Satan loosed in Salem,” 26.

[10] Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials,” Science, vol. 194 (24 December 1976), 1390-1394.

[11] Katie Rife, “The Witch director Robert Eggers on Fellini, feminism, and period-accurate candelight.”  A.V. Club (23 February 2016): http://www.avclub.com/article/witch-director-robert-eggers-fellini-feminism-and–232450

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