Having gathered the Sundance Directing Award, the official endorsement from the Satanic Temple, and histrionic pull-quotes from freaked-out reviewers, The Witch is being called the scariest movie in years. We sent Nate DiMeo to see if it’s as scary as all that because The Witch is set in Puritan-era New England and Nate hosts the popular history podcast "The Memory Palace." And also because he’s the scarediest scaredy-cat we know.
I am a chicken. I know this about myself. Not in real life. I act decisively in a crisis. I can navigate foreign cities on my own. I can investigate a bump in the night in our old house at the foot of the Hollywood Hills with zero fear of either home invasion or Hollywood-sign-suicide-ghost encounter. I don’t believe in aliens or ghosts or anything otherwise supernatural. But, holy shit, am I afraid of horror movies. I have never gotten over The Blair Witch Project. The only grudge in my life is one held against a then-friend who made me watch the Japanese version of The Ring. I firmly believe The People Under the Stairs is the scariest movie ever made, and I have never seen The People Under the Stairs. But I’m guessing there are people under the stairs in it, and fuck that. There aren’t supposed to be people under the stairs. Why are there people under the stairs???
You may have noticed that the only movies I’ve mentioned are all more than 15 years old. That’s because I can name the horror movies I’ve seen in the theater in this millennium on two thumbs: The Cabin in the Woods and The Visit. And I know they barely count.
And this sucks. I love movies. I’m painfully aware that I am missing out on vast, vital parts of film history. That the great horror movies are some of The Great Movies. That there’s something beautiful and human about going into a darkened theater to be scared together and walking out into the night laughing with your friends, holding your girl/guy that little bit closer, feeling just that little bit more alive. But, does the theater have to be that dark? I mean, wouldn’t everyone just have a little bit more fun if they left the lights up and maybe did a picture-in-a-picture deal running through the whole thing with the pre-show trivia contest in case some in the audience wanted to look away from the possessed doll under the bed to confirm that Joseph Gordon-Levitt did, indeed, play an alien on C: Third Rock from the Sun?
So after I admitted to this horror-phobia, my editors sent me to see The Witch. Or, they said, “You should see The Witch and write about it! It’ll be hilarious.” And I said, “Yeah! That’s a fun idea for an article! I’ll go on Monday!” And then I immediately regretted it and was at least a little bit afraid for every waking hour of the weekend.
Because the setting of The Witch alone freaks my goose. There’s nothing scarier than life in Puritan New England. You’ve got these families trying to farm in their little clearings in the middle of the woods. The woods are preternaturally terrifying. There are reasons why that’s where Little Red Riding Hood runs into the wolf. Bad things happen in the woods. And here you are, an English immigrant who's left your island home to come to the untamed wilderness. There are animals who will eat you, or your family, or the family dog, or the crops you spent all summer cultivating while you sweated in your elaborate underwear and swatted away at gnats and slapped mosquitoes on your sunburned neck. People died of new diseases. They starved to death. They froze to death. They went mad.
And these Puritans believed wholeheartedly that all of that stuff — the starving, the freezing, the being eaten by bears — was their fault. They were sinners. And sinners get what’s coming to them, in this world and the next. I am not sure what I’ve done to deserve The Witch.
The assignment is simply to go see The Witch. No one’s told me how I have to see The Witch. So I pick the safest screening: 11:00 a.m. on a sunny Hollywood Monday. I go to the ArcLight, the go-to spot for over-it cinephiles and lovers of $15 matinee pricing, assuming that’s not a particularly screamy crowd because I don’t think I could take a screamy crowd. Plus, even though no one actually goes to work in Hollywood, there’s no way the first show on Monday is too crowded. Uncrowded is key.
The last scary movie I saw was The Visit, from renowned maker of not actually scary scary movies, M. Night Shyamalan. I thought it was going to be your standard spooky sci-fi thriller. I can do your standard spooky sci-fi thriller. Within five minutes, I realized it’s your standard haunted-house movie (with SPOILER a twist that means the house isn’t haunted; it’s just occupied by murderous, sad dementia patients, which is SO MUCH SCARIER THAN GHOSTS! OH MY GOD I AM SCARED JUST REMEMBERING WHAT THE VISIT IS ABOUT and, seriously, it’s not that scary. Even I know that). Within 10 minutes, I got up and moved to the unoccupied, back row of the theater so no one could sneak up on me. Also, so no one could see me squirming if I needed to squirm (I needed to squirm).
I also made sure I’d brought a set of headphones with me on my date with The Witch. Because when I saw The Visit, I realized that, during a particularly tense scene (in which the brother and sister are SPOILER playing hide-and-seek in the creepy crawl space and see their “grandmother” who’s not really their grandmother crawling around super-fast with no pants on OH MY GOD I HATE REMEMBERING THIS MOVIE IT IS SO SCARY AND SO STUPID WHY DID SHE CRAWL SUPER-FAST IT MAKES NO SENSE THAT SHE WOULD CRAWL SUPER-FAST but, honestly, it’s not that scary), rather than my typical m.o. of surreptitiously pushing in that cartilaginous flap on my outer ear (the tragus, apparently) so I can’t hear the music and the screaming and the whoo-ooo-ing of ghouls or whatnot, I could just change the soundtrack. So my version of the pantsless grandma scene was scored by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. So much less scary!
I bring the headphones (I nearly had a panic attack when I thought I'd forgotten them) and roll up to the ticket counter, then pick seats far enough away from people that they can’t see me squirm or listen to Anti during some witchy infanticide situation or whatever.
Finally, I decide not to pee before the movie even though I probably should because I remember that sometimes it’s good to have a reason to get up and leave the theater during a horror movie and break the spell.
I totally forget about previews. I totally forget that, if you never go to horror movies, you don’t ever have to watch horror movie previews. On some sort of imaginary Scream-o-Meter, like in Monsters, Inc. or some other movie I can actually watch, my needle would have gone from green to yellow at the mere knowledge that previews are coming. It ticks up during the preview for the Cloverfield sorta-sequel thing. Truth be told, I might see that. It seems like the sort of psychological, sci-fi, scary-but-not-scary thing I actually enjoy. But then I remember my experience at The Visit — fuck that Cloverfield movie. I’m at orange.
Then there’s some nonsense called The Conjuring 2 which is by that guy James Wan, who I am aware of as an important filmmaker, but there’s no way I’m ever seeing one of his movies if they’re all like the preview to The Conjuring 2. This one is almost laughably paint-by-numbers with its possessed child and some former prestige-picture actors trying to pull an Ethan Hawke-style genre revival; I would be rolling my eyes if I didn’t have one of them closed and the other one all squinty so I don’t have to watch-watch all those crucifixes tacked to the wall upside down because there’s apparently some sort of conjuring happening.
Oh, how I hate demonic possession movies! Oh, that I weren’t about to watch one! Then there’s a red-band trailer for Green Room, which seems to be about some punk rock kids who get Straw Dog-ged in a backwoods DIY space by some rednecks and it actually looks kind of good. I’m back down to yellow.
The Actual Scary Movie
The movie starts, and the poor The Witch family self-banishes from their Puritan community to set out for a new life in a clearing by the woods, and I’m back to orange.
Already bone-afraid in general of the plight of Puritan families in the woods, here’s a family with (a) a dad who has taken his Puritan family away from the Puritans because they are not hardcore enough; (b) a doe-eyed teen (nothing good happens to doe-eyed teens in movie woods); (c) creepy-ass twins (proposal: boy/girl fraternal twins are way scarier than identical twins); (d) a mom played by the actress last seen being moon-doored by Carcetti on Game of Thrones; and (e) a goat that is so clearly the devil that it makes me fundamentally skeptical of the depth of the family’s Puritanism.
And there they are, at the edge of the woods, creepy twins singing creepy songs to their clearly-the-devil he-goat, terrifying-Moon-Door-mom warning her doe-eyed daughter not to go into the woods. There’s a repressed preteen leering guiltily at his doe-eyed sister, they live in a drafty, candlelit hovel among their bleating livestock and their howling dog, and everything about this setup terrifies me.
Then SPOILER, UNLESS YOU'VE SEEN THE TRAILER the baby disappears during a game of peekaboo, which exhumes this distant sense memory from a period, years ago, when I was living in a creaking old house of mysterious bumps in the night and locked rooms, and I made the mistake of watching Don’t Look Now because I heard it wasn’t scary — and it scared me so pointedly, so idiosyncratically, that I was baffled and disturbed in equal measure. I am peaking red on the Scream-O-Meter. I’ve got one eye closed. I am surreptitiously, impulsively pushing on that body part I now know is called the tragus so I can’t completely hear the cliched-but-effective sawing, atonal violins of the score, or the squelching sound made by something unimaginably terrible happening but, when forced to imagine it, you realize that terrible thing would squelch exactly like that and aaaaaaaaagh! The Witch, man. I am thinking of firing up Spotify.
But then the scene’s over. And I’m not particularly scared. In fact, I can’t help but think, Is that all you got? You, movie The Witch, have just disappeared a baby in a way that explicitly reminds me of the most scared I’ve ever been by a movie, and done your squelchy, literal worst, and you didn’t get me. So what else could?
Not much, turns out.
Everyone’s got that thing they annoy their friends with after a movie. That ongoing complaint. That thing they’re bothered by that no one else is bothered by. My go-to harangue is that no one in a sci-fi or horror movie ever acts as scared as they would be. Aliens just landed and people aren’t actually freaking out. The Head Cheerleader just got de-limbed and people are still taking the time to make out in the old lake house. Yet here is a movie in which the writer/director has gone to great pains to have this family react believably as Puritans. It ought to work. It ought to make it scarier. But all of this painstaking verisimilitude, all the thees and thines and thous the characters speaketh, makes this world and these people seem more foreign and more distant in time. Instead of tapping into something universal about the unknown things that lurk just beyond the safety of our home, or the particularly American notions of the frontier and self-reliance, it keeps us, or me anyway, at a distance. And it kept the needle at a marginally uncomfortable but not, ultimately, unenjoyable orange for me.
These people and their beliefs feel nuts. And when the doe-eyed innocent loses her innocence, I was pretty stoked. She’s not Rosemary’s Baby. She’s Lindsay Weir going off to follow the Dead.
Despite the animal mutilations, twins who talk to goats, learning that the actress who plays the mom is to Roles That Include F’d-Up Breast-Feeding Scenes as Julie Andrews is to singing nannies who loosen up high-strung dads, The Witch is not that scary. It's a movie about evil that never feels evil. It is the most tasteful, dignified movie to traffic in the unimaginably squelchy. I didn’t have to listen to Anti once.