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  • Devil in the Details:The Uncanny History of The Witch (2015)
  • Aviva Briefel

What can the horror film teach us about history? Robert Eggers's breakout horror film, The Witch (2015), is striking both for its chilling depiction of witchcraft in 1630s New England and for its unusual commitment to historical authenticity. In presenting the story of a Puritan family victimized by supernatural forces in the American wilderness, Eggers undertook an "aggressively accurate portrait of the time period…and the fears it contained," as Lauren Duca explains. The director spent three years researching his subject, working with historians at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts; scrupulously studying details of seventeenth-century colonial life; consulting manuals on subjects ranging from Calvinism to witchcraft and goat farming; even insisting that his female characters wear cloth corsets rather than the bone ones anachronistically used in many films depicting the period (Duca). Trained as a production designer, Eggers paid meticulous attention to mise en scène, ensuring that the house and barn at the center of his film were constructed according to the strictest historical parameters, using only tools that would have been available at the time. Lighting, with the exception of night scenes, was primarily natural or candlelit, creating chiaroscuro effects reminiscent of Dutch painting.1 Eggers placed just as much emphasis on sound as on image, requiring the actors to speak in a period-specific Yorkshire accent and, in the soundtrack, using only instruments that were extant in the early seventeenth century (Anielski).

The director's attention to historical detail is not "just authenticity for the sake of authenticity," however (O'Falt); accuracy is a means to an end: "[I take a] Puritan's nightmare as I would envision it and upload it into the audience's mind's eye" (Anielski)—as if it were an actual memory—turning the film into an "inherited nightmare" (Robinson). Eggers links the idea of the nightmare to the transference of personal memories he would have had as a Puritan child. Eggers has explained that articulating such a nightmare to an audience requires that it be "personal to me. This has to be my memory of childhood when I was a Puritan, the way my dad smelled in the cornfield that day. And thus begins the obsession to recreate the era" (Robinson).

Alison Landsberg says historical films can indeed provide audiences with "prosthetic memories," a phenomenon that "emerges at the interface between a person and a historical narrative about the past, at an experiential site such as a movie theater or museum…the person does not simply apprehend a historical narrative but takes on a more personal, deeply felt memory of a past event through which he or she did not live" (Prosthetic Memory 2). The terms "personal" and "deeply felt" can seem fuzzy and perhaps even sentimental, but Landsberg is identifying the moment another person's experience becomes, in its artful representation, yours—down to your bones. In her book Engaging the Past, Landsberg expands on the physical nature of the [End Page 4] identifications afforded specifically by the history film: "Even when the viewer does not identify with one of the characters, his or her body is activated, brought into proximity to the conditions of existence for a person in the historical past, and affected by the conditions of possibility of that moment" (37).2 There may be no better way to achieve these physical effects than by merging historical drama with the "body genre" of horror, which, as Linda Williams describes, offers "the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion" (209). In trying to make his audience experience a "Puritan's nightmare," Eggers needs them to fear it as their own.

Ironically, with the exception of a handful of films intent on reproducing a particular period, such as Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Albert and Allen Hughes's From Hell (2001), and James Wan's The Conjuring (2013), horror films often broadcast a postmodern skepticism to an accessible past.3 Most renowned, perhaps, is the refusal of clear temporal structures and contexts in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), which, according to Fredric Jameson, attests to...