The Historical Accuracies of The Witch Part 4 (Mythos)
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 us to lose ourselves 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 aboutwhite 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 film's mythos.
- Eggers built a library of primary source material with a specific focus on accounts of demon possession. Part of these sources included The Diary of Samuel Sewall and The Diary of John Winthrop, which Eggers said, "was really common stuff and there’s tons of cases of demon possession. I read through the books looking for good images and moments, and then, as I’d go along with the script, I would think, ‘How can I make that work?’"
- The Hare appears in several folktales in correlation with witches. In short, witches could turn into hares and are able to do malevolent things in the form of hares. This explains why the gun backfires when Caleb and his father attempt to shoot the ominous hare in the woods. This mythology dates back to the Greek god Pan, who is similar to the Christian Satan, and as a child was wrapped in a hare's hide.
- The scene where the witch uses the baby as lubricant for the broom stems from the belief that witches didn't just hop on their brooms and fly. Instead, they needed an ointment to help them fly. Eggers states, "the lore in the day was basically that the active ingredient of this unguent was the entrails of an unbaptized baby. And the baby, Samuel—given that his family was far from the settlement, and also given that the Puritans had weird ideas about baptism, he was susceptible to that."
- One thing Eggers noticed during his research is that a lot of the folk tales and lore from the 17th century mirror the accounts of actual witchcraft. He used this realization to craft the world the characters inhabited, one where the real world and fantasy are one in the same.
With regard to the film's ending, Eggers says "there are clues about different interpretations. So, for example, the rot on the corn is ergot, which is a hallucinogenic fungus, so if you wanted to take that route, you could. It’s not necessarily my route, but there are multiple ways in."
What do you think? Did the mythos of the film work for you? How crazy is the lubrication of the broom? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!