It’s scary because it’s true.

If you read many reviews of The Witch, you’ll keep coming across the phrase “attention to detail,” and yes — director Robert Eggers’ recreation of a 17th Century family’s life as exiles at the edge of a Satanic forest is remarkably authentic. Right down to specific building materials and particularities of dialect, this world is consistently impressive. And immersive. So immersive that you’ll be gasping for air by the end.

But the realism of the film is also powerful because of how spiritual evil only seems to grow more and more persuasively present the more closely we attend to the real-world details, and the farther we travel through this time warp into the 17th Century.

That has bothered some critics — that Eggers “literalizes” the evil forces that people believed in back then. Alan Scherstuhl, in The Village Voice, for example, concludes his review by complaining — complaining! — that the film takes such things as witchcraft seriously. Methinks the movie got under his skin a bit too effectively. But I think such reviews expose modern discomfort with the fact that science and “progress” have not removed from us the overpowering notion that we are caught int the crux of spiritual warfare between “powers and principalities.” Stories like this persist throughout human history in cultures around the world, with peoples struggling and failing to invent vocabularies that can explain it away.

© 2016 - A24
© 2016 – A24

Talk to director Scott Derrickson about the research he’s done for films like Sinister and Deliver Us from Evil. Go back and listen to the interviews with the cast and crew of even comic-book films about demonic forces, like Constantine, and you’ll find that some of them encouraged each other not to do research on the subject because of how troubled they would become. Some of the most reliable people in my own life have had experiences that will make your hair stand on end — right down to encountering scenes of levitation like we see in the film’s finale.

(I’ve had a few encounters myself: For example – twice I’ve been in situations where friends and I stumbled upon scenes of apparent witchcraft and, keeping our distance and praying, we observed the practitioners stop, turn, and stare daggers through us even though they couldn’t have heard us or singled us out in those crowded public spaces. You don’t have to believe me, and frankly, I hope that we are all spared any such entanglement in such blatant manifestations of the demonic; I’m just saying that I don’t doubt the reality of spiritual forces in conflict. And what’s more, I don’t bring it up to sensationalize or to aggravate fears — only to remind us that yes, things are this serious, and yes, that’s how much we need the Gospel’s promises, which really are our only hope.)

Dramatizations of dark powers draw audiences in part because power is appealing. Such movies can make us feel “more alive” by reawakening us to realities beyond our rational grasp. This stuff is appealing because it fills in more of the picture than other films allow. This stuff is haunting because it allows us to get closer to describing what’s really going on in the world. David Lynch knows it; it’s why his films have such uniquely haunting depictions of evil. But horror is a dangerous genre because even though it can, for some, awaken them to the severity of this present darkness, it can also be seductive, and ignite curiosity about things from which we should all pray to be delivered. Oh people of 2016, “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Cast, sound design, cinematography — this is world-class horror filmmaking. And it illustrates unnerving truths about what happens to community and family when the response to evil is blame and violence instead of soulful repentance and faith. And, frankly, even repentance and faith do not excuse us from suffering — they only offer us hope beyond the valley of the shadow.

© 2016 - A24
© 2016 – A24

I’ve heard Christians condemning this film for its seeming hopelessness as evil triumphs. But stories like this are true to human experience, and all around the world tonight there are people earnestly praying for deliverance — here and now — that will not arrive to rescue them. Evil will strike them down, destroy all they’ve worked and hoped for, destroy their loved ones, destroy them, and seem to triumph. Because I believe the Gospel, I do not think that is how their story truly ends — but it is a true part of the story, and a devastating one at that.

This film disturbs me because, believing in the Gospel as I do, then I must also believe that evil forces such as those depicted in this film film exist. Even Christ himself had an experience in which, like these characters, he believed he was forsaken by God, he said so loudly in front of the people he has inspired to beileve… and then, what an abominable story, he died, with darkness taunting him and tearing him to pieces. Like that twisted Sam Phillips song reminds us: “Help is coming / Help is coming / One day late, one day late.

Without faith in the resurrection, this story is all we have — the unsolvable problem of evil, eventual disappointment with our efforts and lives, desperation, worst fears realized, a devastating sense of guilt or blame or both, and then death.

I’m glad this movie exists. It rings true. True to my sense of evil in the world in forms far beyond mere bad behavior. True to my sense that we cannot save ourselves from damage and death (in other words, “the wages of sin”). And yet, while the film seems to be an expression of authentic despair, something in me pushes back saying, “The credits roll before the end of the story.” We have assurances of mercy, of peace, of justice. We have assurances that the sufferings of this present time will seem like nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed.

So, yes, I believe Black Philip is more than just a symbol. I believe he’s real.

But I don’t think I need to see this movie again, because its hermetically sealed horror suggests that he may have the last word. And except in the existence of beauty in human faces, and beauty in the composition of its own images, the film resolutely refuses to acknowledge any such thing as beauty in nature — thus falsifying its vision. In the sense that the narrative of the father rings with a note of the tragic, I glimpse that the film is willing to acknowledge the existence of goodness and love, and in that I catch a glimpse of something else in the world. A lifeline. Evidence that there are other forces in the world too that may not yet be finished with us.

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