The Real Horror in ‘The Witch’ (2015) is Generational Trauma

The Witch (2015) was the first “horror” movie I ever watched. Subtitled as “A New England Folktale, I knew that there would be some mystical element that would appeal to me. So, not knowing what to expect, I let my initial apprehensions go and succumbed to the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere. With bated breath, I awaited the arrival of the titular “Witch,” not knowing when or how she’d show herself. Then, suddenly, I found myself glaring back at my reflection in the form of the film’s protagonist, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). 

A bloody and teary-eyed Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) looks both towards the audience, and the coven of Witches she has just joined.
Image courtesy of A24

As the eldest daughter of Iranian immigrants, the colonial undertone of The Witch was not one I thought I could ever relate to. However, despite the obvious (and valid) connections to religious trauma, there was also an increasingly obvious connection to generational trauma that revealed itself to me throughout the film. As the folktale it promises to be, The Witch is a moral lesson wrapped up in something that falls between truth and fantasy. Whether there ever was a titular “Witch” or not is up for debate, but I believe in the end, it is clear that it has been and always was Thomasin. Through her slow embodiment of the “Witch,” something unfathomable to the very foundation of her familial structure, Thomasin frees herself from the weight of the same trauma that crushes everyone she loves. 

Directed by Robert Eggers, The Witch begins in New England in 1630, with a family’s exile from their plantation over a religious dispute. We watch as they leave and settle into a remote farm to the moaning of strings that foreshadow the perils to come. The family’s choices are consistently spearheaded by patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), and this decision is not without pushback. Despite clear apprehension from Thomasin and his wife, Katherine’s (Katie Dickie), growing hesitancy, William denies his family’s struggles for the sake of his own pride. We first see their move begin to wear away at Katherine after their baby, Samuel, disappears. Moments of peace are few and far between. Through Samuel’s abduction, the possession of eldest brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the mischief of the twins (Ellier Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and the slow but inevitable crumbling of Katherine and William’s marriage and faith, the family’s exile is not kind to them. We witness the denial of a steady downfall that, by the end, leads to the death of every family member— except Thomasin.

Thomasin (Taylo looks up towards "God" as she is praying in a dark room.
Image courtesy of A24

As the embodiment of the “Witch,” Thomasin is at the core of the film. It begins with her staring doe-eyed at the judge who banishes her family. We see her shake her head, albeit softly, as her father seals their family’s fate. She is the only character whose eyes we see, haunted by the decision to leave the plantation, as the carriage moves farther away from her home. And then we hear her first words; a prayer to God for forgiveness. “Forgive me, show me mercy, show me thy light.”

Thomasin is the only member of her family who we see ask God for forgiveness before the family’s undoing. Bound by religious duty and shame, they run circles around themselves trying to uncover why so much misfortune happens to them without taking a look inwards, until it is too late. Each family member is burdened by sin they cannot shake. Be it William’s pride, Katherine’s envy, Caleb’s lust, the twins’ sloth, this inability to rectify or identify their unresolved trauma ultimately leads to them becoming crushed under its weight.

Thomasin, Katherine, William, Jonas, and Mercy kneel on the floor around a dying Caleb.
Image courtesy of A24

William’s push to move the family over his pride is abusive. Throughout the film, he denies his family’s suffering, and kickstarts the trickle of abuse that follows, despite knowing he is wrong. With her youngest son dead and the stressors on the family piling up, Katherine comes to believe that God has cursed her family. She tells William multiple times that she wishes they had never left and that she was back home in England, even accusing him of damning the family to death. But the blame on William never lasts long, and when the opportunity presents itself, it always falls on Thomasin.

Both parents, especially Katherine, punish Thomasin for doing what she is told. Praise never lasts long, and though it is often fruitless, Thomasin does nothing but try to please her family. She performs physical and emotional labor; sweeping the barns, tending to the animals, comforting her siblings, and fundamentally overcompensating for her parents’ lack of care throughout. When William and Caleb return from the woods, having lied about their outing, Katherine quickly channels her anger over their circumstances towards her daughter. This happens often throughout the film. She reprimands Thomasin for not watching the twins well enough, for having stolen her silver cup, for Caleb’s disappearance, for being the “Witch,” for killing her husband. Despite knowing Thomasin isn’t to blame, Katherine traumatizes her by redirecting her own trauma towards her, and eventually convinces herself that Thomasin is the “Witch”. If Thomasin can embody both the evil of the eldest daughter and the evil of ultimate sin, then the solution to the family’s misfortunes is clear. 

Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) kneels in front of her father, William, as her mother, Katherine, and siblings Jonas and Mercy cower behind her.
Image courtesy of A24

Before Samuel is abducted from under Thomasin’s watch, she asks God for forgiveness, and though the events that follow are shrouded in tragedy, they are what allow her to finally break free from this generational trauma. It is not easy for Thomasin — and it often isn’t for cycle-breakers — to break free. Forced to kill her mother as an act of self-defense, Thomasin sheds her blood-stained clothes, a physical removal of her bloodline, and finally steps into becoming what the family most feared. Despite how hard she tries to please them and God through the pressures placed upon her, she is constantly seen and deemed as evil. Women often are, especially when their actions go against any norms; be it familial, societal, or otherwise. 

For me, the older I become, the easier it is to spot all the ways I am a product of the generations before me. I feel the pressure to please my parents, the burden of needing to succeed, and to make sure my family’s sacrifices weren’t wasted. When I was younger, I would lie awake at night, afraid that any path I had taken instead of the one I knew I should be walking was a betrayal to my family. This fear gnaws at me from time to time, and it was one that I spotted in Thomasin. The Witch allows Thomasin to reclaim what it means to be “evil”. After she signs a deal with the devil Black Phillip (Daniel Malik) and joins her coven, Thomasin sheds tears not only for the life she’s left behind, but also for the life she can now begin to live for herself; free from judgment, free from guilt, free from shame, and free from the cycle of trauma.