The Historical Accuracies Of The Witch Part 1 (Character)
Article by Aaron Haughton
Last year, Robert Eggers floored audiences with his chilling tale of 17th century folklore, The Witch. However, it wasn't solely the Puritan nightmare that wowed the crowds, but Eggers' painstaking attention to detail and the film's historic authenticity. Being a production and costume designer before turning writer/director, research is no new concept to Eggers. He researched the film over the course of four years while simultaneously juggling costume design and other projects, going so far as to work directly with museums and historians, who helped compile an expansive collection of primary sources, which comprised of volumes of period fashion, animal husbandry, agricultural techniques, firsthand accounts and journals, religious texts, and folklore.
This research permeated the screen in various shapes and forms, be it the dialogue, the dress, or the very farm the family resides on, all of it necessary for the final product. It helps to suspend any disbelief, helping the audience to lose themselves and become transported to 17th century New England.
As Eggers mentions in the Salem Panel Q&A, which appears on the film's digital release, “I was trying to understand how the Salem witch trials happened, how the witch holocaust in Europe happened, and, I think, because today, when we think of evil witches — and I’m not talking about white witches and Wiccans and contemporary witches — but when we think of evil witches, it’s as if it never existed… But to actually understand that in the early modern period for everyone, except for a few people in the extreme intelligentsia, the real world and the fairytale world were the same thing, and if someone called you a witch, they really thought that you were a supernatural being capable of doing the things that the witch does in this film. So, if I’m gonna get audiences to actually go along and accept that, we have to be transported to the 17th century, we have to be in the mindset of the English Calvinists, or it’s never going to work.”
With that in mind, I've done some digging of my own and broken the film down into 4 essential categories, delving into the accuracies and research that make each piece feel so very real. This week, we'll take a look at the historical accuracies as they relate to the characters.
- While digging into the creation of the Puritan mindset, Eggers had to wrap his head around extreme Calvinism and what that's all about. Part of that involved reading the Geneva Bible cover-to-cover and the gospels quite a bit to slip into that world. In addition to these religious texts, Eggers also found several personal diaries, which he found as a great source for understanding these early settlers as human beings, finding that "They’re just like us, even if their world views are very different." He also coupled with museums and historians to try to comprehend the agricultural practices were in England and how they altered upon reaching America.
- Eggers settled on a family of goat farmers because, historically, they were considered very backwards. It wasn't hip or cool to be a goat farmer, and no one was really eager to have that as a profession. When the settlers came over, they brought goats along with them because they could clear the land very efficiently and were small, and therefore easier to travel with. The idea of goats being related to Satan spans from the work of Goya, which sources from a later period than the film is set; however, in the late Middle Ages, in the works of Hans Baldung Grien and Hans Holbein, you'll also find material linking witches and goats. Eggers admits that the goat symbolism may be a bit of a stretch, but considering the family had goats, it's symbolism that seemed to marry well.
- Part of what makes the film so effective is that it shows us the terror lurking in the woods right up front. This helps the audience to understand Thomasin's character (played by Anna Taylor-Joy) and shows us right away that this is not a psychological game, a film about determining whether she's a witch or not. Eggers says this decision was intentional and designed to convey to the audience exactly what a 17th century witch was. "So people need to know, 'Oh, this is what the stakes are' right away." Eggers goes on to say, "William [the family patriarch], when he's denying that there's a witch involved, it's not that he doesn't believe in the witch. It's that he has so much pride that he doesn't want one in his house. And if his belief isn't pure enough, if he's not part of the elect, then he is susceptible to the witch."
- Eggers knew that he didn't want the witch to be a creature, but an actual distressed human being. "I really wanted to not use makeup aside from making her diseased and filthy and things like that. We were trying to find someone who had the correct physical attributes to look like an accurate witch, as opposed to building one using prosthetics." One thing Eggers knew he wanted specifically was the witch to have no teeth, so he had to find someone comfortable and willing to play the role without their dentures. A primary influence for the look and feel of the witch was painter Francisco Goya and his depiction of witches, though Eggers admitted that Goya's paintings weren't period accurate. "[Goya's] witches are kind of outside any period anyway. They’re kind of the best visual representations of witches you could ask for."
What do you think? Did all of Eggers research pay off and help you slip more into the film? Did the characters feel accurate and believable? Did the period accuracy impede on your ability to enjoy the film? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and, as always, remember to viddy well!