Dreaming of Witches

(Minor spoilers below for The Witch.)

This is a story about the most frightening dream I’ve ever had.

I was maybe five or six years old. In the dream, I was in bed. The dream-room, just like my real bedroom, was well lit. We kept a nightlight burning, and it illuminated the hallway that led to the back of the house.

In the dream, four women walked out of the hallway into my bedroom. They all had the same misshaped face, and they were all laughing the same laugh, a monotonous cackle.

“Ah-hah-hah-hah-hah. Ah-hah-hah-hah-hah. Ah-hah-hah-hah-hah.”

Witches, the dream-me thought. These are witches.

And they were. Their faces were a combination of the Witch from my Little Golden Book’s Hansel and Gretel, and a witch Halloween mask the girl up the street had worn the year before.

I got up from my bed, and ran for my mother in the next room. I pushed open the door and she sat up in bed…only she had a witch face too.

End dream. It must have lasted less than 10 seconds, but I can still storyboard it nearly 35 years later.

For some time after that dream, the basic idea of witches, or just the word “witch,” terrified me. Any movie or TV show that mentioned a witch was enough to summon up the dream.

(The only exception was The Wizard of Oz, which in those days aired on CBS once a year. The Wicked Witch of the West might have been scary, but the movie somehow cast a protective bubble.)

When I had the dream, my concept of witches was pretty basic: riding on brooms, menacing (and eating) children.

As I got a little older, I discovered the witch/devil connection, which made things worse. My parents were/are pretty devout Catholics, but they aren’t ashes and sackcloth types. And there weren’t any nuns or priests threatening us with damnation.

Still, the lesson was clear: really bad people went “down to the devil.” I assumed witches were there too.

Then I got even older and realized there were no witches, at least not the kind that lived in the forest or rode brooms. And there are no devils, at least not living in a kingdom below the earth.

I’d never told anyone about the witch dream until this weekend, when I shared it with my girlfriend as we drove home from seeing the new horror movie The Witch.

She was expecting the movie to be scarier, but still enjoyed it. I had watched it in a state of growing dread. We’ve seen it twice over the last two weekends, and it still haunts me. It may be one of the best horror movies I’ve seen.

There are apparently a number of horror fans (and movie goers in general) who would disagree. People walked out during the second screening. A few of them booed. I’m not here to tell them they’re wrong. We’re not debating whether the earth is round.

What I liked about The Witch are the things a lot of other people may hate about it.

The movie comes with the subtitle “A New England Folk Tale,” and it may help to keep that phrase in mind as you watch. Director Robert Eggers has cited The Shining as an influence, and that’s pretty apparent on the screen. (Both movies feature a family threatened by madness, isolation and poverty, and there’s one scene in particular that recalls Jack Torrance’s visit to Room 237).

Yet it’s also a film that feels like you’re watching one of Grimm’s fairytales, one of the early, unsanitized ones, filtered through a Goya painting.

The Witch offers no easy answers and never holds its audience’s hand. It’s about the horrors of fundamentalism, but also features a monstrous witch, living in a forest much like the woods I’ve lived near all my life.

It’s a movie that feels nightmarish and naturalistic all at once. It reaches a conclusion that’s both triumphant and terrifying. Jacob Hall of Slashfilm may have said it best: it’s a film that “bites every hand that tries to feed it.”

But those are all conclusions from the older, analytical side of my brain. Another reason the movie worked on me was that as I watched, somewhere in the back of my mind, a voice whispered “Seeeeeee? Witches!”

Because deep down, there’s always going to be a part of me that finds the twin monsters of my childhood — witches and Satan — scary. And as I get older, I find myself responding to horror movies that have their roots in the past: The Witch, Lords of Salem, The Wicker Man (1973), A Field in England, Ken Russell’s The Devils. (The 1600s were terrifying.)

And I understand movies about the past can say things about the present. But witches, demons, eternal damnation, these things are all easier to be afraid of, than, say economic ruin, environmental catastrophes, or political witch hunts. (Or actual witch hunts, in some cases.)

I’m typing this as people line up to vote for men who talk of carpet bombing, of building walls, of doing nothing as our air and water turn to poison.

I see all this, and the witches coming out of the darkness seem almost comforting.

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