I feel certain I can’t be the first person to have figured out that any horror movie not about sex is about God, but the revelation reasserted itself as I watched The Witch, which is about both. Stories in this genre, from 1931’s Frankenstein to 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, with every manner of undead in between, assume death isn’t the end that we fear it is or that the vampires and zombies who populate film and television wish it were. If death isn’t the end, that leaves God, or at least the question of God, which the devout Puritan father of The Witch supposes (as do all zealots and as does all religion) he’s answered. When his family is cast from its early-17th-century New England village for heresy, scratching out an existence at the edge of woods that loom like an abyss, William clings to the conviction, even as his corn fails and members of the family go missing or mad, that he has a grasp on what God thinks and wants, or what He (God is a He, you know) doesn’t want—which brings us back to sex. Horror movies share religion’s view that, as an invention of the Devil, sex is a thing of dark consequences and in opposition to God, which is a way of saying God is in opposition to what makes us human. The horror genre is a deeply conservative one. And you thought it was just scary.
On the other hand, if sex and God don’t scare you, probably nothing does, short of ISIS and Donald Trump. One of the first lessons each of us learns is what scares us. When I was younger, the human race came up with something new to be scared of, which was its own obliteration, although those confronting the Black Death 700 years earlier may have entertained similarly apocalyptic fantasies. Despite the high stakes and portentousness of the subject matter, in the 1950s the nuclear age and Cold War were almost exclusively the province of B movies, in which everything was radioactive and an allegory for subterranean ideologies. The sight of the sand dunes in 1953’s Invaders from Mars, into which disappeared a forbidding father played by Leif Erickson (no relation, but still), and a close-up of Dana Wynter just opening her eyes at the end of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers were the scariest scenes I saw as a kid; few moments in five seasons of American Horror Story half a century later match them. When ’50s and early-’60s producers started turning out horror pictures with style and panache, such as The Pit and the Pendulum for American International Pictures and Horror of Dracula for Britain’s Hammer Film Productions, late-’60s auteurs like Roman Polanski, emerging from the Eastern European rubble, took note.
In Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, the atomized doom explicit in the previous decade was subsumed back into the God/sex dilemma and chased down the rabbit hole of the psyche. Polanski’s pictures marked a fork in the road of the modern horror film, but whether succeeded in the ’70s by neoexpressionist The Exorcist, which was nothing less than a mass phenomenon, or by Italy’s Suspiria, an underground cult picture arguably even more influential, God and sex remained in conflict. Australia’s recent horror sensation, The Babadook, has Polanski in its DNA. Spared the luxury of a big budget, which means it’s spared the self-indulgence, The Babadook overcomes its crude effects with a bravura performance by the relatively unknown Essie Davis and—forgive me if the following high-tech talk is way over your head—something called writing, the greatest computer-generated effect of all. While I may be taking a blind leap into sexism by saying so, it probably didn’t hurt that The Babadook was written and directed by a woman, Jennifer Kent, who missed that memo about God being a He. Forgoing the usual boys’ fascination with goofy things that jump out at you and the endless virtuoso ways a person can bleed, her film instead plumbs the depths of a mother’s alienation from her son and thereby her maternity; I imagine any fraught mother watching in the audience would recognize it. No corners are blacker than the emotional fissures of real life.
From this link between parent and child, its durability at once exalted and suspect, grows the similar madness of The Witch, and only when the movie finishes do we realize its family was cracked before the movie started. Arrogant in their righteousness, the father is rigid to a breaking point and the mother harbors furies she doesn’t know she harbors; meanwhile the little brother lusts, with feelings he doesn’t understand, for his older sister, who’s blossoming into an adolescence she’s prohibited from expressing, as their mean-spirited younger sister seethes in her powerlessness. The last time we saw a movie or TV family this crazy and clueless was 350 years later in Transparent. When The Witch reaches the climax, its central figure swept up in a vortex of delirium and derangement, it’s difficult to be sure whether writer-director Robert Eggers fully comprehends that the conclusion is in fact a happy one, the battle between God and sex joined and finally reconciled, the family member in question liberated and finally alive. The terror of this assured and historically meticulous film lies less in gratuity than in a billowing and frenzied dread; I’m guessing Eggers has spent more time watching the ’30s and ’40s pictures of Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer (Day of Wrath) than those of torture-porn maestro Eli Roth (Hostel ). Current audiences, for whom the notion of a subtle horror picture is oxymoronic, may wonder whether The Witch is a horror picture at all.
The quandary of the modern horror film is that it’s constantly peaking and playing catch-up. When it seems the metaphors for God and sex can’t become more hysterical (often in both senses of the word), they’re rendered insufficient by whatever unhinged spectacle takes place in the world around us. We live in a century beset by forces constantly trying to reset the future at Year Zero, where avowed foes (ISIS and Donald Trump, say) actually believe different versions of the same idea. When those ’70s forked roads merged again in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 opus, The Shining, the result was a film—in execution if not theme—sui generis enough to be a touchstone 35 years later for dedicated imagists such as Guillermo del Toro, whose haunted-house tale of last year, Crimson Peak, was two-thirds of a fever dream before it devolved into the third third of a slasher film. Unlike any horror movie in recent memory, The Witch may be both the end of an old genre and the beginning of a new one, the future of a genre or a genre’s Year Zero, more brazen in metaphors that are bigger than a haunted house can hold. And you thought it was just scary.