Witchcraft in colonial New England both intrigues and confounds us. Long before film and television focused obsessively on supernatural themes, Americans writers and artists have grappled with how best to comprehend the 1692 witchcraft scare in Salem and the larger system of beliefs that gave rise to that chilling incident. Most of us start from the premise that witches do not really exist and that therefore there must be some other explanation for the panic that resulted in the executions by hanging of 19 people, most of them women. As a result, most efforts to explain Salem focus on finding what could have caused people to believe witches plagued their communities. Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible offered the idea that jealousy, fear and guilt lead to false accusations, much like those that occurred in another "mass hysteria," that of the McCarthy trials of the 1950s. Just as in McCarthy's America, individuals in Salem could rid themselves of rivals by generating suspicion toward them. And just as in McCarthy's America, the bigger threat came from the accusers, not the accused.
A handful of modern Americans don't indulge in such complicated efforts to find alternate causes, since they believe in witches. Some accept the basic narrative that participants told themselves as events unfolded: that actual witches died at Salem because a group of colonists had sold their souls to the devil and were bent on doing harm to their communities. These believers in witches spoke out against permitting children to read Harry Potter books since J.K. Rowland made witches seem intriguing and potentially benign; they feared such openness might lead children inadvertently to dabble in the occult. Another group also assumes that witches exist, but thinks of them in a more positive light. Members of the modern Wicca movement expect that the Salem scare caught up and punished some actual witches, although unjustly.
For most of us, though, Salem perplexes. How could neighbors turn on each other suddenly, accusing each other of witchcraft, experiencing fits that appeared to be the result of invisible torments, and believing that only widespread trials and executions could save their communities? We tend to assume the problem was not witches but something else: economic rivalries run amuck, PTSD caused by brutal border wars, even the favored but apparently entirely bogus interpretation suggesting moldy bread gave the accusers LSD-type hallucinations. Any interpretation will do, as long as it does not rely on witches tempting and tormenting their innocent neighbors and former friends.
The horror movie genre allows that story to start from a different premise -- that witches do exist -- and such a starting point gives filmmakers an edge, making them potentially better able to plumb the depths of the colonial New England psyche than most of us are equip to do. Beginning with a real witch, the recent Indie film The Witch: A New England Folktale shows a family's descent into fear and torment. The filmmaker used period-appropriate language and worked to recreate the material reality that confronted the first generation of settlers.
Beyond the language and the look, the filmmakers got one other essential element right: the dynamic among sin, temptation and witchcraft. The family fails to live up to the standards of godly comportment that they (or at least the older family members) prize. The father suffers from the sin of pride, a self-realization he achieves belatedly but which the viewer has hints of in the opening scene; the mother struggles to accept tragedy in the proper spirit of Christin acceptance; the older son is tempted by his sister's cleavage; and the sister rebels against the expectations placed upon her. Their inability to adhere to their own strict moral code makes them vulnerable to the machinations of the witch. When they turn on each other, they enact what colonial New Englanders feared that witches sought--to turn them into bitter, bickering, sinful creatures. The Witch scores a win with that element of the film.
The witch herself remains an elusive figure, which strikes a false note. That the family does not know and rarely glimpses their tormentor is in fact exactly wrong. Witches, highly social creatures, lived in the midst of society and worked their ill will on neighbors whom they saw every day. Know anyone who sows dissension everywhere, setting people against each other, riling them up to feel resentment and discontent? That individual -- especially if they were old and female -- would be a strong candidate for an accusation of witchcraft in colonial New England.