Writing

The Horror of Everything We Don’t See in Robert Eggers’ The Witch

(This article discusses graphic violence in the context of horror movies. The scene discussed is so horrifying, in fact, that I debated as to whether I should even write a piece on it, as I hope to avoid sounding insensitive and tasteless. However, I believe that the concepts this sequence raises are absolutely crucial for understanding the horror genre, and to ignore them would be to leave a gaping gap in one’s understanding of cinema.)

Film analysis involves the careful dissection of everything that happens within the frame (the mise en scène), how those frames are linked together, and the sound that accompanies them. This, of course, makes sense, and it seems rather silly to point it out; obviously analyzing a film involves picking apart the components that constitute it. But I think this conception of cinema leaves out a crucial component; yes, it’s important to note all that a movie is, but what about everything it isn’t? The choices an auteur makes about what to leave out of a frame or a sequence are often just as crucial as the decisions they make about what to actually put in it, and it can sometimes be challenging to see this.

Here’s a perfect case study: The Witch by Robert Eggers. There’s a lot to love about this film, and reams have been written about it (see, for instance, Briana Rodriguez’s review in Back Stage that discusses the psychological relationship between director and actor), but there’s one particular sequence I’d like to hone in on. The film kicks off with a colonial New England family leaving their town after a heated religious disagreement, venturing into the wilderness to start their own independent farm. Shortly after the move, the mother of the family gives birth to Samuel, her fifth child. Just a few minutes into the film, one of its most horrifying sequences takes place. Thomasin, the eldest child in the family, is out in a field playing with Samuel. When she diverts her attention for a split second, he disappears. The family searches for him in the woods, but he’s nowhere to be found. They’re unsure of what happened to him, but it’s revealed to the audience that he was abducted by a witch, a middle-aged woman who lives in a decrepit hut just a short walk from the family’s farm. A minute-long sequence shows his fate: be warned, this sequence is incredibly graphic. I’ll link it here for anyone that wants to give it another look, but I’d highly suggest that you watch the film in its entirety before reading this piece. The scene may just seem tasteless without the film’s context. (The portion in question begins around 1:18 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIfjcHn9JYw)

It’s a brutally tough sequence to watch. Yet the interesting thing about it is that we don’t actually see the violence taking place. We see the moment immediately preceding the brutality, and then we see the product of it. The process, replaced by a few moments of a black screen, isn’t actually shown on screen. This may seem like it would lighten the impact of the violence, but in many ways it actually bolsters it. Although we don’t directly see what is happening to the child, there’s certainly no ambiguity about what’s going on in the scene. We’re left to fill in the blanks, forced to conjure up scenes of the horrifying act that’s taking place in the sequence. Perhaps our own imaginations are capable of generating images more terrifying than anything Eggers could throw at us, and that potent ability is what he’s leveraging for the sake of horror. Sure, at risk of being seen as a tasteless and gratuitous filmmaker he could have actually shown the murder on screen, but that may not have even been as effective as his practice of restraint. All the fake blood, special effects, and CGI in the world couldn’t match what the audience’s mind is capable of dreaming up, and by giving them some space to roam he leads them to a terrifying impact that traditional imagery couldn’t match.

Perhaps, then, this scene may inform how we think of the medium as a whole. Perhaps film isn’t just a set of juxtaposed images and sounds that deliver an emotional and intellectual impact, but the scaffolding that allows for the creation of an effect within the audience’s mind. Thus, film is the framework for viewers to generate their own thoughts and feelings built upon the content on screen. It’s not a neatly packaged dose of stimulation, but rather an unfinished picture with blanks left for the audience to fill. This seems to align in some ways to the “reader-response” school of literary criticism, but I think the basic concept may apply to any artistic medium. In a lot of ways, the input from a film’s viewer is just as important as the film itself; the horror of what we don’t see in The Witch provides a great example of this give-and-take.

The Inseparability of Romanticism and Science

As a humanities-focused student and a “romantic” according to Robert Pirsig’s definition, I’ve always had some preconceived ideas about people who pursue math and science. For instance, I tend to think of them as fact-driven, emotionally detached from their investigations, and focused on the utilitarian outcomes of their work. Of course, some scientists probably fit this description fairly well, but a quote from Einstein raises another possible motivation for the pursuit of these disciplines that I hadn’t considered before. He claims that some scientists are drawn to their profession out of a desire to “escape from everyday life” and “[trace] out the restful contours apparently built for eternity.” It may not even be the useful outcomes of their investigations that draw them in, but the experience of the process itself. Human life is emotionally turbulent and opaque, often not understandable by cold logic alone. Science, on the other hand, relies entirely on objective observation. Although the process is challenging and involves countless missteps, the tools that garner answers in science are well-defined and easily observable. Perhaps these tools attract those who are turned away by the volatility of everyday life.

 

There is, however, a hint of irony in Einstein’s justification of scientific pursuits. Everyday life, just like science, could be broken down using methods of logic and inference. It’s just that the objective tools of scientific investigation are rarely applied in an informal setting, and therefore human life takes on the appearance of an impenetrable mystery marked with emotion and uncertainty. If we stick to Pirsig’s definition, then claiming that science is understandable via logic and everyday life isn’t is itself a highly romantic statement. It’s looking purely at the observable veneer of each pursuit: science as a chain of reasoning and life as an ever-changing combination of mysterious factors. A true scientific mindset would hold that life can just as easily be approached using logical tools of inference. Perhaps this tension, this inability to see the entirety of existence through an objective lens, shows that we all have a degree of romanticism within us. The tools we use to perform science may be based entirely on observation, but the motivations for utilizing them are not so pure. Even Einstein couldn’t deny that science is sometimes pursued for reasons beyond the purely utilitarian and logical.
Furthermore, science is also influenced by rules of morality and justice, rules that are based entirely on romantic intuitions about what is right and what is wrong. Beyond the evolutionary conditions that have trained us to cooperate with others, ethics are based primarily on emotion and instinct. Science, thankfully, is restrained by these ideas, which demonstrates that there is a degree of intuitive decision making that affects even the most objective discipline. It seems to be impossible to separate ourselves entirely from our romantic affectations, which is probably for the best.

Mr. Holmes and Shifting Perspectives

A few days ago I set aside some time to watch Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it. It seems like a Holmes movie starring one of the most beloved British actors in history would get a lot of publicity, but I really hadn’t heard much talk at all. It’s not a groundbreaking or exceptional film, but it certainly tells an emotionally satisfying and thought provoking detective tale that’s worth an hour and a half. What I really enjoyed about it, though, was the grace with which it weaves together distinct plotlines into a cohesive narrative.

The story is split into three separate series of events: Holmes’ outing in Japan to seek a plant that provides youth and enhances one’s memory, his final case that leads to his retirement, and his activities many years after his removal from the world of detecting. These three sequences could easily have been tossed together into a jumbled mess, but Condon manages to tie them together with poise and deliberation. Many recent films have tried to manage similarly complex plotlines and fallen flat on their faces (see Snyder’s participation-trophy-worthy Batman v. Superman. Actually, don’t see it), but Holmes never feels disorienting. This is partly due to the clear changes in setting that clue the viewer in as to what bit of Holmes’ story is being shown, but the key is distinct causal relationships between a sequence and the time shift preceding it. Every turn feels motivated, allowing the audience to understand where they actually are in the story and why they’re there in the first place. It’s very similar to chapter 3 of Brave New World, which I happened to be teaching the day after I watched Holmes. Huxley manages to wrangle the perspectives of three separate characters into a single chapter, and the result is one of the most effective pieces of worldbuilding in the entire novel. Shifts in perspective and time can be incredibly effective tools for a storyteller, but one must be sure not to lose cohesion in the process of utilizing them.

The Voyeur’s Sleep

This is a short story I wrote some months ago. It’s very flawed and I have no immediate plans of revising it, but I think it has some interesting ideas worth sharing.

The streets were always sparsely populated on my commute to work, although on weekdays I would normally see at least a few cars. On this Wednesday, though, I didn’t see a single vehicle. Vacant skyscrapers loomed above my head, monuments to a bygone age. There was no use for them now, as most office jobs had been automated by 2030. I thought about how my parents always told me to get a degree in virtual reality. “It’s the future”, they’d say. “You’ll make a lot of money!” Their first prediction turned out to be correct, as evidenced by the packed long-term parking garage I passed every day. The second one, though, was a bit off the mark. Sure, the guy running the center made plenty, but it turns out that a position filling IV bags with nutrient solution and carting away bodily waste isn’t the most lucrative in the industry. I turned a corner and pulled into the employee parking lot, right next to the enormous virtual reality center. It towered over the outdated skyscrapers, with sleek black walls glinting in the morning sun. All the windows were flush with the walls, tinted to obscure the private rooms of each inhabitant. It was wider and longer than any building nearby, taking up the same amount of space as about ten skyscrapers. This center was one of many that dotted the city, each penetrating the sky, surrounded by massive parking garages.

 

I entered the building and pressed the elevator button on my left. It always took a minute to reach the bottom. When the doors opened I entered, took out my keycard, and slid it into the employee slot. For the previous month or so, the screen had always flashed “FLOOR 180” after I put in my card, but this time it was “FLOOR 162”.  “Great”, I thought. “Reassignment day.” About once a month, management would reassign us from one achingly boring floor of identical rooms to an equally achingly boring floor of identical rooms. I guess they thought this radical change of scenery would maintain whatever passion we had for our dull work, but all it did was annoy us when we had to get accustomed to a new supervisor, who was almost guaranteed to be insufferable.

 

I emerged from the elevator, had a brief exchange with my new supervisor (who did indeed turn out to be insufferable), and set off on my morning duties. It was always my responsibility to refill all of our clients’ IV bags first thing in the morning. It supplied them with water, vitamins, and all of their necessary nutrients. VR companies had an aversion to automating these menial tasks after an accident early on, when a customer was killed by a malfunctioning nutrient machine. Afterwards, most of these tasks were relegated to people like me, in order to appease our clients. Refilling the IVs took a few hours, and then I had a bit of downtime to eat, read whatever little news had been posted online, or watch reruns of ten-year old shows. After the advent of the VR centers, most people gave up their real-life pursuits in favor of cramming themselves into tiny rooms and doing their business in a bedpan. This included the people who made TV shows, so us workers were stuck with whatever had been made beforehand. We always made fun of the “prisoners”, but, truthfully, any of us would have jumped at the chance to trade places with one of them. After being recruited by one of the big providers, us employees always had tight restrictions placed upon us. We were never permitted to try out the service we facilitated, sometimes under the threat of violence. They were afraid that we would never come out if we got a taste, and they needed some people to work to make sure everything ran smoothly. Of course, if I had known this beforehand I never would have taken the job in the first place, but employees are also restricted from telling any outsiders about their conditions. There wouldn’t be many people to tell anyway, as most people had taken up near-permanent residence in one of the centers by a few years after VR’s advent, including most government officials. Providers were the new authorities.

 

I went into the supply closet to get a cart and a crate of IV bags, then set off to fulfill the needs of all three hundred people on my floor. This may seem boring, but it could actually be pretty interesting. It was also absolutely necessary to pay attention to what you were doing in order to have something to talk about at lunch. Thanks to the lack of any entertainment or exciting news in the world, there was a lot of  “hey, did you see that old guy drooling in 180-127? I’d hate to see what he was dreaming about!” Sometimes I’d even take notes on notable clients during my rounds so that I’d have something interesting to talk about over my turkey sandwich. Other than an old woman muttering to herself in 162-247, there didn’t seem to be much to write home about on this day. That is, until I finally arrived at 162-300, the final room on the floor.

 

Something seemed off about this room from the moment I laid eyes on it. It was as if it had been there forever, unchanging for millennia. Even the door seemed aged, dark and removed from the others; not in distance, but in the aura it gave off. When I entered, I was immediately struck by what I saw. Its inhabitant was a middle aged man, tall and wiry, with dark red hair. He was wearing a white tank top and ragged jeans, as if he had stumbled into a bar after getting off work. Like everyone else, he was slumped back into a reclining chair, an IV in his arm and a small metal pad attached to his forehead via a wire. Most people who entered the simulation just looked like they were deep in sleep, as if they had fallen drifted off in the living room while watching television. This man, however, had a look of perfect contentedness. He seemed hypnotized, enchanted by whatever it was he had dreamt up. Sure, everyone live out happy lives in their simulation. Who wouldn’t? If you have perfect control over the world, the only logical thing to do is to make it perfect. But this man was different. Despite his ragged and disheveled exterior he seemed to be in a perfect state of bliss. In addition, I found out from his information packet that he had been in this single simulation for nine straight real-world months,  which translated to over four years of time in the simulation without any drastic changes. It was because of this that I was immediately tempted to join him, to look in on his world and find out what he was thinking of.

 

There was an easy process to enter a shared reality. Lots of people did it, from young lovers going on exotic vacations to old soldiers reliving the glory days together. I pulled out another headpiece from my cart and began wiring it to the central system. I was a bit worried I would get caught, but the temptation was too strong. I had to see what was inside. Before entering the simulation, a client would select an amount of time they’d like to be inside, with renewals offered in perpetuity. To be safe, I selected a mere five minutes. Due to the condensing of time in the simulation, however, this would give me a half hour of perceived time. I paused for a moment. If I were to be caught, I’d have spent months in one of the provider’s detention facilities. This would be devastating, perhaps the greatest hardship I would ever face, but I couldn’t resist the temptation. After a bit of deliberation, I took a deep breath and put on the headpiece. The built in sedative began working immediately, and the world around me slipped into darkness.

 

When I jerked myself awake, I found myself lying on the roof of a building. Looking out at the horizon, I could see old-fashioned skyscrapers towering above the streets. Cars and buses were rumbling along below (still gas powered, so I suppose it was sometime in the early 10s), honking incessantly. Except in pictures, I had never seen such a city. By the time I was born, megastructures had already begun to become the norm. The building I stood on seemed to be rather low, as most others around it were a bit taller. After scanning the skyline, I turned around and saw a red-haired man sitting on the opposite ledge with a young woman by on his right, her brown hair reaching down to the gravel atop the roof.

 

I sat on the ledge and watched them for a while. I was a bit afraid he would notice me, but he seemed so engrossed in his lover that it was probably unlikely. His left hand rested on the ledge while his right was entwined with hers. Occasionally he would look at her sidelong, his eyes waiting to meet hers. Then she would look at him in turn, smiling and glancing down at her legs. They both seemed content, wishing to be nowhere else in the world. Despite this, I couldn’t fathom why this would cause him such intense happiness that it bleeds out of the simulation. I’m sure that lots of people think up the partner of their dreams and whittle away some time with them, but I couldn’t imagine it being fulfilling enough to burn four whole years on it. Surely he would get tired of it and switch over to something new, perhaps a fresh experience with different people, rather than wasting away with one woman? With the world and more at your fingertips, did it not make sense to explore all of it that you can? I simply concluded that there was something wrong with him if he had spent countless days doing the same thing, that perhaps he was just on a different wavelength. I decided that instead of watching this couple for another 25 minutes, I would explore the city. I couldn’t get out of the simulation early, so i figured that I might as well make the most of it. I stood up and began to walk towards the door. After a few steps, I heard the loud crunch of a tin can beneath my foot.

 

Before I could do anything, the man immediately stood up and began to stride towards me. I rushed to the door to escape, but I found that it was locked. I struggled with it for a few seconds, but it wouldn’t budge.  A few seconds later, he reached me and shoved me to the ground. I hit the gravel and tried to crawl away, but he quickly restrained me and stood above, looming. I couldn’t escape. There was no way to exit early, and since this was his simulation he had complete control. It wasn’t designed for the benefit of voyeurs.

 

“Is this funny to you? You think this is okay?” He choked a bit as he spoke, and I could see tears welling in his eyes. I tried to stammer a reply, but nothing would come out. I was completely petrified, at the mercy of this man until I could finally exit. After a few seconds, his expression suddenly calmed. His look of anger turned to resolve, as if he had made peace with the situation and decided my fate. This only worsened my fear. I figured that he had decided some punishment, some terrible form of torture to make me pay for spying on his perfect world. He took a few steps back, turned around, and began to stride away. I tried to get up, but the world soon faded to black. I felt the rooftop slipping away as the man drifted off into the distance, my vision completely enveloped.

 

I didn’t jerk back to consciousness. This time, it was the raindrops on my face that roused me. I awoke slowly, and it took a few moments to remember what was going on. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, looking around at my surroundings. It was the middle of the night, and I was lying in the middle of a narrow street. The rain poured down in buckets, pooling at the side of the road. All around me there were nondescript suburban households, gray and black family sedans parked in the driveways, and sparse streetlights dotting the sidewalk. It could have been any suburb in the country, but it reminded me of my childhood home. I stood up and looked all around me, seeking refuge from the rain. I looked up and down the street, and about five houses down I saw a single light on in a house with a canopy hanging over it. Jogging over, I saw that it looked in upon a small kitchen. I stood under it and looked inside. Beyond the kitchen there was a wide threshold leading to a dining room, and seated there was the red haired man and the woman he was with on the building. They were seated across from each other. They were talking in low voices, but they were muffled by the window.

 

Standing at the windowsill, I scanned the kitchen. Pictures of the couple dotted the counter, of them at their wedding, on the beach together, and other such adventures. Looking at one photo of them at a small roadside cafe in some European country, I noticed that both of their faces looked much younger than they did now sitting in the dining room. In the photo they looked young and in love, their eyes and smiles bright. Looking at them now, all I saw was age and sadness. The man’s face sagged with lines that didn’t exist before, his eyes sunken and miserable. Her brown hair now had gray streaks in it, and she carried an expression of surrender.

 

Suddenly the man shoved back his seat and rose, his legs pushing the table towards his wife. His voice raised to a yell, but I still couldn’t understand what he was saying. His wife began to cry, stood up from her seat as well, and walked towards the man. She tried to put her hand on his chest, to talk to him and calm him down, but he wouldn’t have it. He shoved her into the wall behind her, then formed a fist and struck her jaw as he yelled and stormed off to another room. She stood motionless for a while, holding her face and sobbing. She didn’t have a look of disbelief, but rather of disappointment and mourning. It was obvious that this had been coming for a long time. Their faces, the man’s yelling, it all told me that neither of them had been happy for a long time. I never found out why. He didn’t show me. The woman stormed out of the kitchen towards the front door, and the world began to fade once again.

 

I was in the back seat of a sedan. The brown-haired woman was driving. Her face was streaked with tears and her hair was matted. Her nose had been broken, but she ignored the blood streaming down her chin and dribbling onto her lap. It was night, and we were flying down an empty highway. She held the wheel with her left hand, and in her right she had a large handle of vodka.

 

“Bastard.. I can’t…”

 

She muttered incoherently under her breath, and I could only catch a few words. The car swerved between lanes, even crossing over to the other side at times. I saw a bridge with low railing comings up, but she continued to pick up speed. Her steering began getting worse, her cries more frantic as she bowed her head to the wheel and struck it with her hands. As we reached the bridge she began to scream in a fit of rage. She pushed herself back into her seat, lifted her arms up and struck the dashboard. The bottle exploded and the glass slashed her arm, but she didn’t seem to even notice. The car swerved sharply to the left, crossed over the lane of oncoming traffic, and then struck the railing and flipped over it. As the car sank into the water, her expression became oddly serene. She looked straight ahead, as content as she had appeared on the rooftop.

 

I opened my eyes and saw the red-haired men lying in his recliner, in the same state I had left him. That felt like days ago. I pulled off my headpiece, then sat for a minute to catch my breath. Looking back on it, I’m surprised at how calm I was. You’d think I’d be in a panic over what I had just found out, but I think the reality of it just didn’t hit me. I packed away the headpiece into the cart, refilled his IV, and left the room to return to my business.

 

——————————————————————

 

About a month had passed since I ventured into the simulation. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was like an itch that I couldn’t scratch. I had no desire to return to the red-haired man’s room specifically, but there was something about the experience that I just couldn’t get off my mind. It was reassignment day again, and I was on my morning rounds. My morning rounds seemed much more monotonous than they had before. I had seen lives beyond my own, and I could never return to being satisfied with the way things were.

 

This time, there was nothing off-putting about the room itself, but as soon as I laid my eyes on her I was immediately taken aback. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.

 

This time, there was no hesitation before taking out the headpiece.