The original draft was about how the titular witch manifested herself to different members of the family, meaning the film spent roughly equal time with everyone. “But through working on the second draft with my producers, Thomasin became the protagonist,” he said, adding that the film still works as an ensemble piece. In the story, the witch and her demonic partners take several forms: a goat, a raven, a rabbit, a beautiful woman, and a disfigured crone. While most of the other family members are besieged by these figures, Thomasin is targeted instead with suspicion from her parents and siblings, who come to think she’s in league with evil forces. “It was not my intention to make a story of female empowerment,” Egger said, “but I discovered in the writing that if you’re making a witch story, these are the issues that rise to the top.”
The director grew up in a rural New England town and was fascinated with the history of the witch-trial era from a young age. “I wanted to make an archetypal New England horror story, something that would feel like an inherited nightmare, a Puritan nightmare from the past,” he said. The film is, after all, subtitled A New England Folk-Tale, and seems to serve as an eerie warning from the era against being prideful and leaving the community, which is William’s original sin. “The Puritans believed that if you were part of ‘the elect,’ you could not be harmed by witchcraft,” Eggers said.
He tried to build The Witch around the Puritans’ psychology. A folk tale like this one wouldn’t have been seen during that time as an allegory, or a story told for broader social reasons. “It wouldn’t have been a yarn to keep people under control, just like the Ten Commandments wasn’t just a yarn to keep people under control,” he said. “All of this is ‘literal truth’ in the period.”
The Witch really does feel like it’s coming out of the past—much of the dialogue is lifted from historical record—and its characters approach the horrors of the woods in a period-appropriate way. Talk of witches isn’t mumbo-jumbo to be dismissed, but a very real fear associated with shame and guilt. “In these people’s minds, there’s no question of the supernatural,” Eggers said. “When William is upset about Katherine bringing up the idea of a witch, it’s less that he doesn’t believe a witch is possible, and more that his pride has been hurt.”
The film’s exploration of patriarchal power was the key to unlocking Thomasin’s story. As a woman in the 17th century, she’s entirely stripped of agency. She exists only to work and help her family, and eventually be married off and bear more children. As The Witch progresses, it becomes clear that the campaign being waged against her family is targeted at freeing her so that she can join the coven in the woods. The idea that she’s been liberated is an intentionally muddy one—when she submits to Satan near the end of the film, he takes the form of a man—but there’s a giddy sense nonetheless that she has triumphed.