Thankful for this post from Derrick Bledsoe:

I have not always been a fan of horror movies. Perhaps it was a mix of legalism coupled with an exposure to a more lurid kind of horror (read: the Saw franchise), but it wasn’t until all that long ago that I truly began to appreciate the art of great storytelling from the likes of A24. Directors such as Robert Eggers and Ari Aster have figured out that true terror is not evoked primarily through gore, but by tapping into more lucid dangers that threaten us on a day-to-day level.

Now, being an evangelical pastor, I should add: this is not the most popular confession. There is a sort of stigma, especially in my denomination (I like to say, “I’m Baptist, I’m just not mad about it”), to avoid such malevolent influence. And yet, there is embedded in some of these horror movies much needed warnings to Christians today, and to that end, horror movies serve a role that many movies of other genres fail to achieve. The Witch (stylized as The VVItch) is one such film worthy of consideration.

*If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading here

Directed by Robert Eggers and released in 2015, The Witch was lauded by critics as a truly great film. A perfunctory viewing of the movie tells a pretty simple story: a Puritan family in New England in the 1630s is terrorized by a witch who kidnaps and kills their infant son. They are then tormented by Satan himself in the form of a goat named Black Phillip, and ultimately torn apart (somewhat literally), before the eldest daughter is drawn into the dark coven in the surrounding woods. It’s visually simple and yet hauntingly stunning. There is great tension developed throughout the movie between multiple members of the family as a result of resentment and bitterness for various failures, all of which are highlighted by the secrets that they keep from one another.

The most compelling part of the movie, however, is that it speaks a warning to all who watch it, a much-needed warning especially to committed churchgoers. Eggers sets the stage by showing the father, William (portrayed by Ralph Ineson), defiantly cutting ties with the congregation that they belong to. William stands before his congregation in what appears to be an excommunication hearing of sorts. Standing in contempt of the leadership of the congregation, we get a glimpse of his overt piety at play:

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 plantation’s liberties!

WILLIAM: I would be glad on it.

GOVERNOR: Then take your leave, and trouble us no further.

WILLIAM (indignantly): How sadly hath the Lord testified against you.

The details surrounding the family’s departure are unclear, but we can deduce that William believes the church to be in error. He chastises the council for “leaving our country, kindred, our father’s houses … for what? Was it not for the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels and the kingdom of God?” To use current vernacular, “they are too progressive.” That’s right–Puritans were too progressive for William. His daughter and the protagonist of the film, Thomasin (portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy), sits in disbelief as her father chastises and berates their lack of commitment to the “pure gospel,” a commitment he presumably believes that he himself has demonstrated.

It’s this belief, that he has obtained a righteousness by religious performance that surpasses the righteousness of everyone else, that causes him to separate himself and his family from their community and into isolation. And it is there, in isolation, that their own sin begins to unravel them, leaving them open and vulnerable to Satanic oppression. To quote Thomas Adams, “Self-righteousness is the devil’s masterpiece to make us think well of ourselves.” One wonders if the witch would have been able to attack the family if they had remained a part of the whole. It is only when they are separated that they become vulnerable (think Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Tim 1:20). Self-righteousness isolates, and isolation is Satan’s playground.

Even still, the demonic attacks come in phases, and there is plenty of time for them to repent and return to their people. Later in the movie, after their child has been taken, the mother, Katherine (portrayed by Kate Dickie), pleads with William to return:

KATHERINE: Was not Christ was led into the wilderness to be ill met by the devil?

(confused silence)

KATHERINE: We should ne’er have left the plantation.

WILLIAM: Kate …

KATHERINE: We should never have left.

WILLIAM: That damned church!

In the midst of inexplicable evil, William is still unable to admit his error, even when those he loves around him can. He cannot see past his self-righteous umbrage for those who did not meet his standards, and thus his piety not only is the judge that sentences him to the prison of isolation, but becomes the warden that keeps him there as well.

The Apostle Paul writes of a similar belief of performance-driven righteousness in his letter to the church in Philippi:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4b-6)

Paul had a verified line in the tribe of Benjamin, was studying as a Pharisee, was zealous to persecute and even kill Christians, and faultless in his strict commitment to the commandments. And not only was he committed to the law, but he came from a zealous family as well (being circumcised on the eighth day is hardly something Paul could claim responsibility for). He checked all of the boxes of self-righteousness better than anyone, and yet, Paul realized the foibles of such an argument in light of the surpassing beauty and power of the cross. In other words, true righteousness means to humble, not harden. It bends us toward dependence, not defiance. It flourishes in community, not solitude. The righteousness of God that depends on faith surpasses all of our feeble spiritual trophies (Phil 3:7-9).

The truly horrifying part of The Witch is not the witch, but the isolation that self-justification leads us toward. It isn’t the violence depicted in the film that is disturbing, but the depiction of what violence follows when justification is sought through anything but faith in Jesus. Horror is an art when it confronts us with a kind of terror that we can see in the mirror if we look hard enough, an imminent threat to especially the most religious. The Witch reminds of the terror of thinking that the law can outdo the cross. But the cross conquers terror.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13).