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.
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.
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?
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.