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

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 Harkness Method and High School Film Classes

The typical high school level film class will, of course, be incorporated into the English department. While this is certainly the most suitable place for such a course, there are some points of drastic divergence as to how the class must be taught compared to the average English class.

The interesting thing about an introductory film course is that in some ways, it resembles a foreign language class more closely than a literature-based English class. In language courses, oftentimes the first two or three years are dedicated to learning the syntax, vocabulary, and structure of a language before having any actual discussions. In the typical high school level English class, knowledge of these concepts is assumed. Now, it would be silly to claim that a beginning film student must spend the first three years of their studies just learning the tropes and visual vocabulary of cinema, but nonetheless a strong foundation must be established before any high-level discourse is held to examine the technical elements of the medium.

So how does Harkness fit into this? My only experience with the method is with 9th grade English students so I can’t discuss all contexts in which it may be useful, but I can say that it isn’t a tool that I’ll be implementing at the outset of my course. The first few weeks will be spent building up a strong visual vocabulary, and the weeks following those will probably center around heavily guided discussion. I want to ensure that we build a strong understanding of the building blocks of cinema, and I fear that leaving students to their own devices will reinforce bad habits of film analysis. Perhaps later on, when I’m sure that students understand the purpose of cinematic analysis and the good habits that go along with it, I’ll give them more room to discuss in a more free flowing manner.

Yet I fear that by restricting free discussion early on I may set a negative tone for the discipline of film studies in general. While a great degree of film analysis involves the systematic deconstruction, there’s also an element of emotional connection to the medium that has to take place in order to analyze it in an original manner. Leaning too far towards the didactic teaching style would, I think, remove too much of this emotional connection. As I discussed in my last post, removing this instinctual link to some degree is crucial, but to do so completely is to destroy one’s ability to empathize with the thrust behind a piece. Perhaps my dilemma concerning Harkness demonstrates this pressure point, and my decisions about how to implement it effectively will turn out to be consequential for my semester-long plan for molding the analytical abilities of my students. If I can strike a productive balance between Harkness-style discussion and traditional classroom techniques, then I can also strike a balance between disconnected analysis and instinctual empathy. That, ultimately, is the reason to teach a film class in the first place.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity Pt. II

(This is a continuation of an article I posted on March 26th, 2017. If you haven’t read that post, click here to get caught up.)

I posted the above on to start a dialogue about the theory’s implications for the delivery of film education. I got a few interesting responses, but the most notable one extended the theory to encompass all forms of visual media and consider its social implications. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

(As is completely understandable in a casual forum, /u/mosestrod made some grammatical errors in his response. I preserved them for the sake of accuracy.)
The moving image is so familiar to us insofar as it is our everyday, it does – as you suggest – produce both passivity and conformity with the what is. Film mimics reality better than any other art form. But this pretence is also its risk, and we’re always threatened by the loss of that capacity to critically confront the artwork, to break its spell. Few even recognize the hold but finish as if having been mesmerized. You’ll often hear people talk about getting lost or absorbed in film, which is necessary, but so too is that moment in film that break the trans-fixation…
…We can perhaps probe even further the moving image; the infamous Baudrillard argued the image-world had produced a simulation of reality that had substituted itself for reality. That the hold of the TV was like the gods of old, and consumers sat fixated on the truths it delivered ready-made into their minds; moving only to make the regular libations and offerings of coin. What does it mean to switch fluidly from a film channel to one on baking to an advert and so on? How does art as a separate sphere survive this? What does it mean to carry around a screen, a smart phone, so you can be always plugged into the network 24/7? So many of our experiences come to us via. the moving image; I’ve been to so many countries, and worlds, I’ve seen shock and awe live, danced in prisons and inside volcanoes. But have I ever actually lived it, experienced it? All those moments are no longer lost in time, in rain, but captured, colonized, stored in ventilated server warehouses in Arizona, replayed and doled out. I can exchange my independence for access to this image-world and the wonders it delivers to me like all the rest. The avant-garde once made it their task to breach the separation of art and life, well our industrialized society did it for them, but at the expense of both.”

This comment spurred me to consider two important implications of film familiarity. The first relates to how film familiarity can warp our perception of what is real and what is entertainment, breaking down the barriers between experience and media. In the modern world we’re exposed to an unprecedented volume of visual stimulus, from commercials to cell phone screens to pieces of art. If we accept the idea that film is a medium that closely resembles our perceptions of the real world, then how are we to determine what belongs to our world and what belongs to the world of the image? With this challenge in mind, overcoming film familiarity becomes a much more meaningful task. Before I had thought of it simply as a way to facilitate the analysis of the form, but if we concern ourselves with the social implications that /u/mosestrod raises, then it serves a different purpose entirely. It becomes a method of demarcating what is real and what belongs to film. It constrains our perception of reality and determines what we internalize as art and what we accept as experience. Thus, our ability to overcome the rapport that accompanies our innate film familiarity determines the extent to which we can identify reality for ourselves rather than have it preselected for us by the visual media that we consume.

So what are the implications of this extension of film familiarity for the delivery of film education? For one, it certainly ups the gravitas of the endeavor. We’re no longer just teaching people to appreciate and understand an art form, but rather we’re teaching them to filter the information they’re exposed to in order to separate reality from fiction. There are also some important practical implications of this shift in pedagogical duty. For instance, I think for the purposes of a beginning level film class it will be crucial to develop visual literacy for a wide range of image-based media, not just the feature film. Of course, actual films should be the focus of the course, but including other forms of visual stimulus will ensure that students establish a strong base for overcoming film familiarity in all spheres. Perhaps the deconstruction of advertisements and visual social content will help facilitate this.

/u/mosestrod’s post also got me thinking about another implication of film familiarity: film’s status as an exploitative medium. Motion pictures rely on their ability to place viewers into a sort of “spellbound” state of mind in order to achieve their emotional effects. But film’s entire ability to place us in this state relies entirely on the existence of a subconscious familiarity with the medium in the first place. In a way, it’s targeting a weakness of our mental capacities in order to shift our perception of reality for a limited time. Is this the case for all forms of art? Are they simply targeted doses of stimulus that leverage our instinctual quirks for the purpose of entertainment? Perhaps I’m getting off task with this, but it could be interesting to consider what mental weaknesses, if any, are targeted by other forms of media.
This concept of film as a medium that takes advantage of an instinctual weakness also has some interesting pedagogical implications. Primarily, it harkens back to the issue of balancing an emotional connection to the piece with intellectual disinterestedness. If film really does leverage emotional quirks, those quirks must be kept active in some capacity to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced. In order to break down how a film works we must be able to remove our latent film familiarity, but in order to see its intended effect we must allow some of that film familiarity to remain. Perhaps encouraging multiple viewings would strike this balance: the first one to watch the film as intended, the subsequent ones to understand its technical elements. This may be impractical for a classroom scenario, but striking the proper balance between these two observational modes will be crucial to developing a deep understanding of the form.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

spoilers for We Need to Talk About Kevin


It’s always interesting to see how storytellers strip down their pieces to deliver a precise, focused message. Distilled narratives have always been far more fascinating to me than labyrinthine thickets of intersecting plotlines and heaps of deep characters. Perhaps my attention span is just sorely lacking, but I like to believe there’s something special about these barebones pieces. They capture the fundamental essence of a feeling and nothing more. It’s why I’m so fascinated by directors like Nicolas Winding Refn who strip down their films until there’s nothing left but unadulterated audiovisual stimuli.


I recently watched We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay, and it does something novel to simplify its message down to the core. It’s a story about the relationship between a mother and a son, the latter of which turns out to be a misanthropic, hateful outcast. The film primarily concerns itself with the intersection between mother and son and the seemingly inevitable hatred present in some people, but there’s a moment when it could easily veer into the political. The film builds up to the son, Kevin, going on a killing spree at his high school. However, the filmmakers had no intention of making a film about gun control, so they made a simple narrative change: they had Kevin do his killing with a bow. 


It’s a simple change, but it radically changes how the piece is read. If he had used a firearm, there isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that people would take the film as justification for stricter gun laws. But that’s not what the film is about. It was never intended to have a political message. It tells a story about evil and interdependency, nothing more and nothing less. Including a gun would muddle this message and greatly lessen the raw emotional impact that Kevin’s unstoppable decline has on the audience. We Need to Talk About Kevin shows the importance of focus in storytelling. A piece that tries to do too much can end up doing nothing at all.

Green Room and Unrestrained Brutality

The strength of the horror genre lies in its ability to build up layers of tension and dread, to pile the audience’s fears into a fragile tower until it finally knocks out the foundations and allows the whole thing to come crashing down in a crescendo of terror. A good horror film repeats this throughout its runtime, creating mountains and valleys that work the viewer into an inescapable stupor of fright. It doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, but it’s a formula that has appealed to the masochistic side of countless fans throughout cinema’s history. Green Room is a masterwork in pacing. Anxiety is generated skillfully and without respite, and when it erupts into violence it doesn’t hold back.

It’s not a film for everyone. I still haven’t decided whether it’s a film for me. I’m more apologetic towards violence in cinema than some (see my piece of Refn’s Only God Forgives), but Green Room toes the line between hard-hitting gore and nauseating snuff. I’m not criticizing the film for it, but the violence certainly makes it a difficult piece to digest. I’m not comfortable saying I liked the film, but it’s hard to deny that it provides a visceral, unapologetic look at the depths of human depravityand that’s exactly what it sets out to do.

They Look Like People

Although mainstream horror has faltered in recent years, terror junkies have enjoyed a string of rock-solid films from independent studios. Check out my posts about The Invitation and Hush for a few examples. Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People is another hard-hitting entry in this dynasty of independent horror, but it brings some fascinating dynamics to the table.

Rest assured that, like most of the great horror pieces that have been cropping up, They Look Like People generates terror by slowly building tension and dread rather than through cheap jump scares. Blackshear pulls off some interesting moves in order to achieve this. (minor spoilers ahead) For instance, as a result of some repeated sequences that occur when the protagonist goes to sleep, I found myself dreading a terror lurking in the dark every time the day’s light began to fail. The film relegates its fear to certain times, warning the viewer through stylistic moves when a frightful crescendo is about to build. The effect is that viewers aren’t surprised when the horror culminates, but the built-up dread is just as effective at making the audience want to cower in terror.

The film also gives a compelling, cathartic look into the relationship between two friends. Without spoiling anything, it’s a beautiful story about one man who notices too much in the world and another who tries to block it out. The way these two men interact and how their priorities and affectations clash forms the backbone of the film’s emotional effect.

If you’re a fan of modern independent horror, or if you’re looking for a good place to dive into the psychological terror Renaissance, They Look Like People is worth your time.