Watch: Why is 'The Witch' So Terrifying?

A new video essay showcases the art of dread and terror in 'The Witch.'

Among the many questions raised by Robert Eggers’ debut, The Witch, is this: what is it that makes a film terrifying? The easiest answer to this question would be "the general atmosphere," or, more vaguely speaking, "the mood." Or, simply, "it just felt scary."

The total effect here is that of indelible dread and terror.

As Chris Haydon so deftly points out in the below video essay, such an effect is created in a film because several components are working together in beyond-perfect harmony.

Landscape

For starters, we have DP Jarin Blaschke’s stark, dramatic portrayals of the untamed colonial New England landscape. Dark forests and rolling plains complement each other in an unsettling way. As we watch small figures making their way through dense foliage or across vast fields, we empathize with them. We feel their loneliness, but beyond that, the fear—the sense that they have no idea what lies ahead, as each step they take leads them closer to what could be called the sublime, raging, wild, and tremendous heart of nature itself.

Soundtrack

And then there’s Mark Korven’s soundtrack: violins steer us smoothly through the wildflowers and tall dry grasses at one moment and then jolt us out of our seats at another with their screaming crescendos. This further creates a sense that we humans—the viewers—are not in control here, and we will not be able to predict what comes next. Are there witches in the woods? Is young Thomasin’s baby brother, snatched from her one afternoon, still alive? What will be the fate of these settlers?

Light

And then, last but certainly not least: the light. What is it about New England light? Blaschke has captured it here: the blazing, bright clarity of the days, unforgiving but also beautifully attentive to every last detail, even when the skies are overcast. And then the utter darkness of the nights, lit only by primitive fireplaces or lanterns. The total effect here is that of indelible dread and terror, and video essayist Haydon does an admirable job of showing us how that terror is built—and how it could be built in other films.     

Your Comment

8 Comments

While I like the overall look of the film, I would not use the word terror in any description of this film.

August 16, 2016 at 10:26AM, Edited August 16, 10:26AM

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Agreed. This film was great, but not really scary in any sense of the word. It almost seemed hell-bent (get it) on NOT making the audience jump.

August 16, 2016 at 1:54PM

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Exactly. I would use the word "tension", as the movie is like a taut rope from beginning to the end. And personally, I think there's only two shots in the movie that could be avoid to be more tense... and it's always when they SHOW something.

August 17, 2016 at 6:27AM, Edited August 17, 6:27AM

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Fabien W. Furter
Filmmaker / Musician
149

I honestly could not understand half the dialogue in the movie. Between the accent and the acoustics it was just uninterpretable.

August 16, 2016 at 2:16PM

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Same here. One of my major issues about the movie.

August 17, 2016 at 4:43AM

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Apparently the premise of the trailer and the experience of the movie itself was what disappointed many moviegoer. As it is often the case in show biz, probably separate departments, who did not communicated well on how to advertise the movie. Or didn't want to.

August 16, 2016 at 3:58PM

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Kruno
Cinematographer, storyteller.
162

On-tear-eee-oh Canada....just putting that out there...eh!

August 16, 2016 at 7:40PM

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Tom Cain
110

So terrifying that I fell asleep twice in the theater...

August 19, 2016 at 5:18AM

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Daniel
Filmmaker
185