"Black Mass", Academic Book, American Landscape, Anya Taylor-Joy, Daniel Chaudhry, death, Demons, Dr. Rockso, empathy, film review, Forrest, Goat-Demon Imagery, Goats Shit...A LOT, history, horror, Horror Movies, IOWA, Kate Dickie, Left Behind, Literature, Philosophy, Puritans, Ralph Ineson, Robert Eggers, Roger Nash, Samuel Hawthorne, Satan, Sexuality, Shawn “Clown” Crahan, Short Story, Slayer, Slipknot, The Witch, The Witch: A New-England Folktale, Wilderness, Wilderness and the American Mind, Witches
In the back of the Iowa album there’s a dead fetal goat. It’s a grotesque image because as I stared at it I couldn’t tell if it was a fake plastic model coated with red corn syrup or if the members of Slipknot had actually managed to find a dead fetal goat and photograph it. Given the fact that the band in their early days used to inhale the odor of a rotting animal before every one of their shows I really wouldn’t be surprised if it was real.
Goats and Slipknot have continued to persist in imagery and in fact the creative and aesthetic leader of the group Shawn “Clown” Crahan steadily employs the imagery because of its connection to satanic imagery. His drum set alone holds at least three “severed-goat-heads” and on the jump-suits of most of the band-members there is still a goat icon. Whatever the case the imagery of the goat worked because for some reason goats always manage to come across as malevolent animals.
Goats are temperamental animals, and I always remember my father’s lovely criticism about raising goats and sheep: they shit constantly. Apart from this goats are known to eat just about everything and anything which can sometimes lead to a tendency to nibble and bite at people. This is probably why goats eventually became associated with evil forces, though in fact the largest factor is the fact that goats like to fuck, a lot. The insatiable lusts of goats is in fact the reason why they became so intimately connected with the figure of Satan in medieval imagery because sexuality has often and almost always been the cause of the perceptions of sin.
The reader might assume then that when I finally sat down to watch The Witch: A new England Folktale, I should have seen it coming that Black Philip the family goat was Satan. And to the film’s credit they managed to catch me.
I had no intention of actually sitting down the watch The Witch because I no longer watch horror movies. There was a time in my life where I was an unapologetic horror junkie. After reading The Green Mile I began devouring the collected writing of Stephen King, I could list off the title of virtually every Wes Craven movie, I had an educated opinion about the movie career of Rob Zombie, and I could argue in a moment the aesthetic merits of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and why it was socially significant to the current zeitgeist. Unfortunately, after a while the horror genre lost its romanticism. When you’re a young guy and you’re developing, darkness feels great to be immersed in, but after watching The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel something happened to me and since that time the closest I’ve come to the horror genre was either John Carpenter movies or American Horror Story.
I think what happened was that I stopped seeing the victims in these movies as cattle, and I know how that sounds so stay with me for one more moment. It’s easy to lack empathy for people in horror movies because often the writing presents them in such a way that it’s easy to sympathize with the murderers and wackos that are killing them. Often the victims of horror films and stories are drunk, horned up teenagers who seem to purposefully place themselves in perilous situations and so when they suddenly get butchered in amusing or funny ways it’s easy to ignore the fact that another human being is suffering.
The Witch was a gamble for me then, because I had heard a friend sing it’s praises, specifically because the film was more or less Young Goodman Brown. If the reader has never heard of the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorn I really wouldn’t be surprised. This is isn’t condescension on my part; I have a Masters’s degree in English with a specialty in Queer Theory and American literature and even I try to avoid Hawthorne as much as humanly possible. Despite my loathing of much of the man’s work however I can’t deny that the man contributed a substantial aesthetic to American letters because much of his work deals with the Puritans and their struggles, and while I normally go to The Minister’s Black Veil as his crowning achievement, it’s in Young Goodman Brown that the man manages to tap into the idea of American Wilderness.
Young Goodman Brown is a short story about a young man who leaves his wife one night to make an unspecified journey through the wilderness. Along the way, he encounters an old man who carries a snake shaped staff. While they journey they eventually stumble upon a kind of “ceremony” in the woods that is more or less a “black mass,” the ritual used by witches to summon Satan. Brown sees that the crowd amassed around the fire are not just native americans but in fact people from his own city of Salem lead by his village priest. As he watches he’s horrified to see his wife Faith join the crowd and as they continue the ritual Goodman Brown screams and tries to stop it. As soon as he does he wakes and returns to the village not sure if the events of the night were a dream or whether they were real. As such he spends the rest of his life a gloomy man who can trust nothing and dies, as Hawthorne puts it so efficiently, in gloom.
Reading the story again my first impulse is to be angry with my high school English teachers. I had to read The Scarlet Letter when a great short story about possible-Satanism by the same fuckin writer existed? I’m just a little bitter. But after this initial annoyance there’s a real appreciation because this story digs into the idea of the Wilderness, specifically how early American society viewed the great “empty” territory of the American landscape.
In numerous Puritan texts the landscape of early America is seen as something of a challenge, and this is not just my interpretation. Roger Nash in his book Wilderness and the American Mind explores how the landscape of America has influences writers and philosophers of the United States. He notes in one early chapter:
For the Puritans, of course, wildness was a metaphor as well as actuality. On the frontier the two meanings reinforced each other, multiplying horrors. Seventeenth-century writing is permeated with the idea of wild country as the environment of evil. Just as the Old Testament scribes represented the desert as cursed land where Satyrs and lesser demons roamed, the early New Englanders agreed with Michael Wigglesworth that on the eve of settlement the New World was: “a waste and howling wilderness, / Where none inhabited / But hellish fiends, and brutish men / That Devils worshipped.” This idea of a pagan continent haunted the Puritan imagination. (36).
It’s difficult to blame these early settlers to the North American continent for their suspicions of the wildernesses. Many had come from urban hubs in Europe where civilization is packed together tightly and people had to fight for breathing room, and even the rural environments were nothing compared to the great “empty” forests of the “new” continent. When you also consider the fact that the Native Americans had a mode of living that was dramatically different than the European lifestyle this reaction makes a bit of sense. Though to be fair it is important to realize that there is plenty of racism taking place towards Native Americans but that’s for another essay.
The forests that rose up and seemed to swallow the continent were part of this obsession and looking back to Hawthorne this is easily apparent. As Goodman Brown is watching the ceremony there is one passage that shows how the forest becomes the manifestation of evil:
Another verse of the hymn arose, a slow and mournful strain, such as the pious love, but joined to words which expressed all that our nature can conceive a sin, and darkly hinted at far more. Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends. Verse after verse was sung, and still the chorus of the desert swelled between, like the deepest tone of a mighty organ. And, with the final peal of that dreadful anthem, there came a sound, as if the roaring wind, the rushing streams, the howling beasts, and every other voice if the unconverted wilderness, were mingling and according with the voice of guilty man, in homage to the prince of all. The four blazing pines threw up a loftier flame, and obscurely discovered shapes and visages of horror on the smoke wreaths, above the impious assembly. (285-6).
The only things missing from this passage is Slayer playing Raining Blood or Angel of Death, though I suppose Metalocalypse would work too. Only as long as Dr. Rockso wasn’t present.
This passage is important though because, apart from giving me a great idea for an album cover, it emphasizes how the forest allows the presence of evil to enter into this ceremony. The fire illuminates the trees casting shadows that become real spirits or implied demons that Goodman Brown can actually, and finally, see for himself. What’s taking place is most certainly a pagan ceremony, and while the words and fire are allowing the humans participating the means to access devil and evil ones, the ceremony takes place within the forest. Were this scene to take place inside of the village square it would have entirely different context. Hawthorne purposefully uses the forest because he recognized that the Puritans would have seen the woods as the realm of the spirits and so when they are trying to summon them and effectively pledge their souls to these unholy beasts they have to be in the space where they are most vulnerable to temptation.
At this point though the reader is probably frustrated and would like the floor to ask: so what? What does any of this have to do with The Witch? I came here because you promised me stuff about Black Philip and horror, not boring stories I had to read in high school or College Lit 101. More to the point why should I care about The Witch or Young Goodman Brown?
My reader is a careful contester as always and so I suppose I do need to get back to The Witch. If the reader hasn’t seen the film the movie is about a young Puritan family which is effectively cast out of their village because the father contests the religious principles of the town. The family packs up their belongings and establishes a small farm on the edge of a dense forest where they try to grow corn, emphasis on the word try. As the farm is failing, a baby name Samuel is born and is subsequently stolen from the eldest daughter Thomasin during a game of peekaboo. It’s clear from the proceeding scenes that Samuel is murdered by a witch who chops him up and uses his blood to coat a stick she uses to fly through the forest. The loss of Samuel creates fear within the family, and after the son Caleb is kidnapped and possessed by a witch the family splinters apart until everyone is dead except for Thomasin who discovers the family goat Black Philip is the devil who gets her to “sign his book” before leading her to the woods where a group of naked women are celebrating before a fire in the woods. Thomasin watches the women shriek and dance before they are all slowly lifted up into the trees where their bodies disappear into the shadows.
Watching the closing scene, and feeling a mild panic as I watched what is arguably the most horrific alternative timeline fan-fiction of Hocus Pocus, I immediately thought about Young Goodman Brown for the final black mass is almost verbatim Hawthorne.
The Witch doesn’t shy away from using these old stories for its inspiration and the end credits reveal that the director, Robert Eggers, used Salem-era court transcripts to inspire actual lines of dialogue. The greatest joy of watching The Witch, apart from a score which seems stolen from a Kubrick movie sometimes, is listening to the characters speak. The opening lines alone establish the dialogue within the period while also managing to craft a real character:
William: [before the court] What went we out into this wilderness to find? Leaving our country, kindred, our fathers houses? We have travailed a vast ocean. For what? For what?
Governor: We must ask thee to be silent!
William: Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels, and the Kingdom of God?
Old Slater: No More! We are *your* judges, and not you ours!
William: I cannot be judged by false Christians, for I have done nothing, save preach Christ’s true Gospel.
Governor: Must you continue to dishonor the laws of the commonwealth and the church with your prideful conceit?
William: If my conscience sees it fit.
Governor: Then shall you be banished out of this plantations liberties!
William: I would be glad of it.
Governor: Then take your leave, and trouble us no further.
William: How sadly hath The Lord testified against you.
The story of the The Witch is a story of pride, and as much as the platitude “Pride cometh before the fall” is a platitude it’s important to remember that that doesn’t change anything. Even if The Witch is a period piece, it’s governed by the sensibilities and religious paradigms of the time period. The father William demonstrates pride, so much so that he becomes a challenge to the established church and government. At this time the village, the community, was everything, and individuals who demonstrated too much personal initiative would have been seen as suspect. Pride is a sin, and one that leaves an individual most susceptible to the charms of the Devil. To put it in a more contemporary lens, if a man feels too much pride his ego will reject any sort of healthy criticism that will help him help his community. A man who thinks and acts such is susceptible to flattery and manipulation, and this is exactly what happens to William.
He leads his family away from the safety of the village and establishes them in the center of temptation: the woods. And in his vanity he believes himself stronger than the embodiment of temptation.
William: We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.
I suppose I could be cute and write something like “Spoiler alert, they don’t and it does,” but that just seems juvenile.
Ultimately the Wildness does consume the family, weakening them to temptation and ruin until all that’s left is Thomasin who makes the bargain with Black Philip the family goat in what is one of the finest and now iconic scenes in the movie:
Thomasin: Black Phillip, I conjure thee to speak to me. Speak as thou dost speak to Jonas and Mercy. Dost thou understand my English tongue? Answer me.
Black Phillip: What dost thou want?
Thomasin: What canst thou give?
Black Phillip: Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
Black Phillip: Wouldst thou like to see the world?
Thomasin: What will you from me?
Black Phillip: Dost thou see a book before thee?… Remove thy shift.
Thomasin: I cannot write my name.
Black Phillip: I will guide thy hand.
Ultimately the success of The Witch is in Eggers vision as a director because every scene, every line of dialogue, every bit of the music is carefully designed to establish the Wilderness as the force that is containing these characters, surrounding them, and ultimately leading them to their ruin. While it is true that Black Philip is the devil (or at least a lesser demon) it’s the wilderness that allows Black Philip to corrupt the family in the first place and this is finally apparent in the closing scene when Thomasin is lead naked into the woods to the black mass and eventually disappears into the trees.
Like Young Goodman Brown before it, The Witch is an exploration of early American literature which tries to understand how human beings saw and interacted with the territory of the United States. Human beings are narcissistic animals, but we’re also imaginative animals which create meaning and symbols out of the world around us. For a group of people who had come from largely urban hubs it makes sense as to why the seemingly endless forests filled with Native peoples seemed terrifying and even evil to some extent. But what’s important is the fact that narratives were created to further perpetuate this idea of Wilderness because that allowed new stories and rhetoric to be drafted.
The wildness of early America was a challenge. It was a chance to establish something new because, unlike the deserts of the ancient world, trees could be chopped down and villages and farms could be established. The demons and monsters and witches that were hiding in the woods could be pushed back and “civilization” could be established over the blasphemous country.
But what’s revealing about Young Goodman Brown and The Witch is that even as human beings entered the woods to make their new life they hadn’t lost that ancient sense of dread, or perhaps humility is a better word. Even if the trees could be cut down and farms could be established, there was a force or energy in the woods that was recognized for what it was. A man, and his family, could be easily broken by the Wilderness because it was far older than them, and had seen far more than they had.
The Puritans might have had scriptures and local government, but the trees held their own council with far older and far craftier beings that had made a home in that Wilderness. Not to mention it had that fucking-terrifying-as-fuck rabbit.
All quotes from Wilderness and the American Mind came from the YALE University Press Paperback edition. All quotes from Young Goodman Brown came from the Nathaniel Hawthorne Library of America collection Tales and Sketches. All quotes from The Witch came from IMBD.
I’ve posted a couple links to several articles hosted on the site Bloody-Disgusting because they talk extensively about The Witch, The symbolism found therein, and then also one articles discusses the role of Satanism in films. Enjoy.
I’ve included a link to Slipknot’s Left Behind video. I should warn the reader that unless you’ve seen a metal video before this can get kind of brutal, but I’ve included it here because throughout the song there is a goat walking between the players. Please don’t ask me if the goat is Satan, he and I aren’t talking anymore. It’s not that we’re not friends, it’s just that his girlfriend has him on this vegan diet and he’s getting a little self-rhiteous about it, and I think he’s just compensating because he hasn’t told Stephanie yet that he also sleeps with men…so, yeah. Enjoy the video.