Welcome to Behind the Screams! In this article, we will be taking a look at the true stories that inspired some of our favorite horror films. Each month, we will dive into the stories behind these films and see that, sometimes, the truth is far more horrifying than fiction.
In the early months of 1692, a dark cloud fell upon Salem Village in Massachusetts. Four young women, including my 10thGrand-Aunt, Ann Putnam, Jr., were set upon by a devastating affliction. This tribulation would manifest in pinches, pokes, slaps, contortions and violent torments. It’s wasn’t a constant, however, for it most often struck them while they were in their homes or the house of worship they attended. Doctors were called from all over the territory, but none of them could determine what was making these girls react and behave in such a way. They tried different tests and they consulted medical manuals from the finest hospitals in Boston, but they were unable to see what was hurting the girls. They didn’t have to wait long, however, because their answer was soon given to them from the girls themselves.
It wasn’t a disease of the body they were fighting, but an infection of the soul. These four girls were not being consumed by an excess of one of their four humors. They were being tormented by their neighbors, their distant relatives. They were being attacked by witches.
“In just over a year’s time, over 200 people would be accused of witchcraft, including a four-year-old girl…”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the synopsis for a horror film. It is the beginning of what everyone in America knows as the Salem Witch Trials, which continues to be one of the darkest moments in Colonial history. In just over a year’s time, over 200 people would be accused of witchcraft, including a four-year-old girl, and 20 men and women who were executed as servants of the devil. Another five lost their lives in jail, having rotted away for months awaiting trail.
Salem was not the only place where supposed witches were arrested and tried, however. Women and men were accused all over the newly-settled Colonies. While it may be an aberration, the sentiments behind the accusations and the real-life fears associated with the devil existed in the minds of every New-World Puritan. In his 2016 film, The Witch, Robert Eggers transplants us into one such village, giving us access to one such family who is trying desperately to survive in a world that they believe is filled with devils.
The Witch follows a New England family that is banished from their Puritan plantation over a religious dispute. The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), takes his wife and five children out into the woods where they build their farmstead in a clearing in the forest. While playing peek-a-boo with her newborn brother, Samuel, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) opens her eyes to find the baby gone. The only trace of the young boy is the swaying grass, heading into the woods.
Samuel’s disappearance sets off a series of events that tries to tear the family apart. They become paranoid and begin to accuse one another of witchcraft and conversing with the devil. As the family unit dissolves into madness, Thomasin and her parents must confront the evil that has destroyed their lives, whether it be from within or from the woods.
Distributed by A24, The Witch is one of the most beautifully haunting horror films to ever be released. Eggers payed close attention to every single detail in the film, even going as far as to film with only natural and candle light. This gives the film a lived-in feel, where the forest really is dark and brooding and arguments in the night become all the more ominous. You can almost feel the wool on your skin, taste the soot from the fire and sense that something is watching you from the woods. There are better movies out there in the world, but there are very few that completely transport you to a moment and a feeling almost 400 years in the making.
The True Story
While The Witch is not directly based off of a true story, it borrows a few very real and very terrifying facts that actually did happen during this period. Before the end credits rolled, there is a title screen that admits this in full. It says:
This film was inspired by many folktales, fairytales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources.
So, while the story isn’t “true”, it pulls directly from official records to recreate the environment where events like this actually happened. Witchcraft like this may, or may not, be real, but the people of the 17thcentury absolutely felt that it was a real threat to their eternal lives. Even if The Witch takes some liberties with the story for artistic purposes, there are still three things that it gets absolutely 100% correct.
Religious Fervor and Separation
Obviously, the Puritans were into God. They were going steady, you might say. There was nothing in the world as important to them as their eternal soul, so anything that might have come between them and their idea of salvation was met with violent opposition. Their name is derived from their desire to “Purify” the Church of England from its Catholic influences. They felt that the Church held on too closely to some of these old practices and was, in turn, not fully reformed. They became very powerful in England, politically, but for many this simply wasn’t enough. So, to help create a truly “Pure” society, they packed up their families and moved to New England.
I won’t go into theological practices here, but what The Witch shows of its religious ideals is very accurate. All throughout the 1600’s, members of the church were sent away if they disagreed too heartily with the minister or if they did not fit into the “pure” ideal the plantations were striving for. In the opening scene of the film, William and his family are banished from the plantation for his “prideful conceit”. In response, he declares that he will continue to preach “Christ’s true Gospel” if his conscious sees fit.
“Was not Christ was led into the wilderness to be ill met by the devil?”- William
The film gets this practice of separation correct, and it happened a lot more than you might think. Even though the wilderness was dangerous, these people were willing to banish, or be banished, over a theological disagreement. This sometimes directly led to the deaths of the banished families, but the death of a heretic was not of the church’s concern.
It even happened in Salem, where members of the church who opposed the newly adopted “Halfway Covenant” (which allowed baptized but unconverted parents to present their own children for baptism, a practice that was forbidden in the past) moved to the west to start a new settlement. They called this Salem Village, separating it wholly from Salem Town in the late 1600’s.
The Fear of “The Other”
Leading straight from the Puritan practice of separation came the fear of “The Other”. They lived in constant fear of being tempted down the wrong path, putting their eternal soul into danger of its own form of banishment from the Kingdom of God. The saw it in the minds of heretics, in the actions of other cultures, even in the woods themselves. In the Puritan mind, anything that was not of their direct and “pure” beliefs was from The Other, Satan himself.
You see, this new world they were settling was not inhabited by Indigenous people with their own belief systems and customs. They were servants of the devil. They were evil, unsaved and unbaptized savages who are there to oppose their “pure” beliefs. The woods were evil places where these natives lived. They harbored devils, and witches in their midst, and anyone not strong enough of faith who entered the woods would be destroyed. This applied to the non-indigenous of the time, too. Quakers, Catholics, and dozens of other sects of Christianity were also seen as servants of the devil, and they were dealt with viciously.
“A toad. A cat. A crow. A raven. A great black dog. A wolf […] She desires my blood. She sends em upon me.”- Caleb
In Salem, a great many of the accused were either rivals of the Putnam family (sorry, guys) or people who simply lived a life separate from the church. If you were a beggar, or a widow with no means of taking care of yourself, or even one woman who was suspected because she took in and adopted a Quaker child, you were apart from god and a servant of “The Other”. When William and his family are sent away from the plantation, they entered the world of Satan. That is why the children were forbidden to enter the woods. They were unbaptized. They were vulnerable to the devil. And, in the case of poor Caleb, the servants of the devil: Witches.
The Devil and His Book
As we mentioned before, the devil was very real to these Puritan settlers. This wasn’t always the case, however. Up until the late 1500’s, Satan was seen as an almost comedic foil. He was, in a way, early Christian’s Loki. He was a trickster who bothered those who followed God’s Gospels. As the Middle Ages ended, the image of the devil changed. He was no longer a harmless trickster, he was the most terrifying force in the world.
The Devil was everywhere, in everything, and would stop at nothing to destroy your body and soul. His domain was hell, and he would love nothing more than to rip your family apart to bring your children down to damnation. This fear of everything is prevalent in The Witch and is a driving factor in the paranoia that settles around the family after Samuel and Caleb’s deaths. They feared everything. They feared themselves.
“The Devil was everywhere, in everything, and would stop at nothing to destroy your body and soul.”
The hare. The raven. The witch in the woods. All were servants of Satan in The Witch, who took the form of a goat to gain the trust of the children he desired. This image of familiars and the devil’s animal form is prevalent in every witch trial since the practice began. Accused witches were always inspected before their trials. They were oftentimes shaved and looked over for what the constables called a “Witches Teat”. This raised bump on the witch’s body was where they would suckle their familiars, perverting the maternal and feminine power in pagan religions.
“Witch’s Teats” eventually evolved into a simple “Devil’s Mark” or “Witch’s Mark”, which could be anything on the body. Any mole, freckle, wart or scar could be the place where the devil scratched or licked you, sealing your soul to his will. While William did not strip Thomasin and search for these marks (he does mention that there will be a council in the plantation, which is where this would have been done), the film does show us how the devil binds souls to his service. His book.
[The Devil’s] book is what forced the men and women (mostly women) to the gallows during the Salem Witch Trials”
The twins, Mercy and Jonas, mention the book. Caleb, or at least the vision of Caleb, approaches his mother and asks if she would like to see the book he brought. At the end of the film, Thomasin is told by the devil himself to make her mark in his book. He will guide her hand. This book is what forced the men and women (mostly women) to the gallows during the Salem Witch Trials. Tituba, the enslaved woman who (due to the color of her skin and her “otherness”) was accused of being a witch, mentioned seeing the book during her inquisition.
She stated that there were many other women who had signed the book, sending a jolt of fear and paranoia into the village. After realizing that there was a book, one with many names in it, mind you, everyone became a suspect in Salem. Without this image of the devil’s book, The Salem Trials would have likely ended with the accusations of the first three women, instead of the 200 it eventually garnered.
As the ending title screen states, The Witch is not based on a true story. What that means is that there was no one named William who took his family into the woods only to be killed one-by-one by the devil and his servants. What it doesn’t mean, is that this story did not happen in the minds and hearts of the people of that time. So, even if these specific events did not occur, each event did happen and was commonplace in Colonial America.
The family was separated from their church and their home for differing religious beliefs. This actually happened. They lived under the belief that this land was theirs and God’s to conquer. That was true. The woods were seen as evil places that housed demonic peoples that were unsafe for the unbaptized. This was true. The devil was a very real entity that surrounded them and was looking for a way in no matter the cost. People really believed that.
[The Witch is] a stark reminder of what is possible when we allow our fears to dictate how we treat others.
Women were accused of witchcraft and of killing babies to gain their supernatural powers. That actually happened. The devil often came in the form of an animal and had a book to sign if you wished to follow him. That was believed. After you signed the book, you would no longer be able to recite the Lord’s Prayer. That was believed and happened to the twins in the film. After you made your mark in his book, you joined your “Sister-Witches” and did the devils work in exchange for long life and prosperity. People of the time actually believed that.
To say that The Witch is not based a true story is a disservice to the 25 who were killed in Salem during the late 1600’s. Claiming that it is totally fiction is dismissive of the role that religious fervor plays in our world today. It is also a disservice to the women all over the world who are still being killed for witchcraft and for empowering themselves. So, even though The Witch is fictional, it is very much based in fact and should be a warning against the fear of “The Other”. It should be seen as an example of perfect filmmaking and a stark reminder of what is possible when we allow our fears to dictate how we treat others.
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