Catholic Horror and the Two Theologies of “The Witch”

A couple notes of Halloweenery for you. First, I did a piece for a Scottish Catholic paper on the Church in horror films, and I think it turned out pretty well. I even truffled up a religiously-tinted horror flick set in a Glasgow housing project:

No matter how much deserved criticism or casual contempt other kinds of films offer Catholics, in horror our Faith is often the haven of last resort. When nothing else can explain your situation and nobody else will help you, these movies suggest, turn to the Church: She can see in the dark.

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Second, I also did a podcast with Weyward Son about The Witch, the extraordinary 2015 tour de force of American religious horror. Man, The Witch is amazing. I rewatched it for the podcast and was once more just blown away by how visceral and emotionally devastating it is. And short–I’d remembered it as a two-hour movie because it was so harrowing, but it actually clocks in at an hour and a half almost on the nail. There’s a point after which I just never stopped grimacing because I knew every scene from then on would be painful. Gosh, what a great movie. You can watch it for cheap on YouTube tonight after the trick-or-treaters fall asleep!

The film’s most intense scenes and deepest horrors all center on the family’s faith, and the specific form of Christianity they practice. So I found myself wondering, as I watched: What in all this is false? I tried to express some of that in the podcast but ended up rambling about sanctification (& subtweeting Karl Barth, sorry) in a way that wasn’t super illuminating. Let me see if I can articulate my response to the film more clearly here. Spoilers and sermonizing ahoy!

So first, a huge part of the family’s misery is about its inability to hold out hope that unbaptized infants can be with God. As I said on the podcast, sketchy old Limbo would be very comforting to them!–let alone meditating on and praying for the intercession of the Holy Innocents. Of course the situation of infants, not yet consecrated to the people of Israel by circumcision, murdered before the proclamation of the Kingdom is not the same as the situation of an unbaptized Christian infant. But the Catholic insistence that we can trust in these children’s holiness and innocence (it’s right there in the name!) does suggest that God in His mercy shelters those who, through no fault of their own, died before they could be released into His service.

Second, lots of people tried to read The Witch as a feminist movie. If the witches are feminists then The Witch is an anti-feminist movie–y’all, they kill babies. This movie is not about how great the baby-killing community is. But The Witch is about being trapped, with no way out. And the movie offers no escape from patriarchy. The witches serve a devil who always appears as a male. The witches are a horrifying inversion of Mary–a figure who never appears in this movie, of course. One of the reasons I love the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, here in DC, is that in its countless Lady chapels you see so many wildly-varying images of Mary’s beauty and power: a woman’s beauty and power. The closest The Witch gets to honoring a woman’s role in salvation is when Caleb quotes the bride in the Song of Songs.

And third. Part of why I love this movie so much, and feel so deeply for the characters, is that they express two kinds of Christian spirituality which both resonate with me really intensely. First there is the attention to our own sin and lowliness. The relentless reminder that we could never do anything to deserve God’s love. And second, there is the ecstatic rapture in God’s embrace. This family knows both those relationships to God. In the wilderness the wife loses the memory of God’s embrace–and so she, and they, are left only with consciousness of their own vileness.

They have no theology to account for their acceptance of God’s embrace. What in them can even respond to Him, if they are so utterly and immutably corrupt? Augustine says that just as we have been distorted by Adam’s sin, so we retain the memory of Adam’s happiness, and by the light of this memory we can recognize (sometimes!) goodness, and God.

I said on the podcast that emphasis on our own helplessness and lowliness, and on God as the only source of power and goodness in our lives, is often a reaction against a kind of Pelagian strain in Christianity in which we’re charged with working for our salvation. The thing is that it’s also true. God is the only source of power and goodness in our lives! Catholicism tends to just sort of go hard on both things, both our lowliness and our ability to cooperate with God. “I am utterly vile and there is no good in me! Also, please check out my 987-part treatise, On Cultivating the Virtue of Diligence.” -some saint, probably. This can be confusing if either of these approaches feeds your own neuroses–it’s easy to either focus on the thing that feeds your neurosis, and pretend the other aspect of our relationship with God doesn’t exist, or focus solely on the aspect which comforts and corrects you, and look away from the part that too-easily sharpens in your hands. A lot of people’s spiritual journey within the Church is about realizing that the kind of Catholic spirituality which feeds their self-destructive tendencies isn’t the only kind there is–and what’s striking to me is that so many different kinds of Christian spirituality can be so destructive, depending on what you yourself fear and what you tend to misunderstand.

You know what makes it super hard to find the form of Christian spirituality that is right for you? Leaving your community and going off to be guided solely by your own family, i.e. the people who gave you your neuroses in the first place. MAYBE THE REAL WITCH WAS THE TINY SPLINTER CHURCH WE FOUNDED ALONG THE WAY.


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