How Robert Eggers Wove the Nightmares of The Witch Out of Historical Documents

Photo: Desiree Navarro/WireImage

The Witch is easily one of the most disturbing horror films in recent memory. As the core family of witchcraft-fearing 17th-century New Englanders devolves into hysteria, the film one-ups itself in unsettling scenes that are near impossible to shake days after watching. Part of what makes the most bloodcurdling moments so startling is that they hail from a very real place in the American past. Writer and director Robert Eggers spent the years leading up to his Sundance-award-winning film enmeshed in research of fairy tales, Calvinism, and the difference between bone and linen corsets. What emerged from his research is an aggressively accurate portrait of the time period portrayed in the film and the fears it contained. Vulture spoke to Eggers to about how he created this historical master class, which has some troubling modern-day resonances.

How did you start your research?
By going to the New York Public Library. I checked out anything witch-related or Puritan-related or related to early Colonial history. It’s easy to find collections by contemporary historians of primary source materials, so I used a lot of those. There was a book that was a collection of Elizabethan witch pamphlets that was very helpful. Eventually, the more I read, the more I became aware of specific things. There were even things that didn’t have to do with witchcraft but were eye-opening, like William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, and other texts like that. In looking through this stuff and trying to create the story, I was sort of like, “All right, in all of these accounts of witchcraft, be [they] historical accounts of actual witchcraft or folktales or fairy tales, what are the tropes that always happen in every single one? What are the ones that speak the most personally to me? Those need to be in the film.”

Do you have an example of a trope that is featured prominently in the film?
The hare. Tons of folktales have to do with hares and witches. Basically, witches all over Europe turn into hares and are able to do malevolent things in the form of a hare. It goes back to the great god Pan. Pan is, if we’re going to do archetypal projections, related to the Christian Satan, but as a child, Pan was wrapped in a hare’s hide. There’s all kinds of things like that.

The concluding title notes that much of the dialogue is taken from your research. What was your process for pulling the primary sources into the script?
I had to research the vocabulary and understand the grammar structure. After that, it was about going through the primary source materials and pulling out sentences and phrases and organizing them in a phrase book for different situations. So earlier drafts were these disgusting, monstrous collages of other people’s work that I had to hone into something that felt like the characters’ voices.

Almost like a tool kit for you to use when writing dialogue.
Exactly, yes, but certain things are deliberately kept intact. The things that the children say when they’re possessed are things that children said when they were possessed.

How was possession typically recorded?
A lot of what I used was the writings of Cotton Mather. Cotton Mather was very obsessed with writing down accounts of witchcraft. So sometimes there is court testimony. Sometimes it’s different things. But Cotton Mather collected and synthesized it, and oftentimes wrote it as a narrative. Sometimes it’s the account of the father experiencing it, so it’s hard to know who the actual author was, and so maybe some of it is false, but it certainly feels authentic and has authentic elements.

There’s a notable scene when the family’s oldest son, Caleb, is possessed. Was that scene from the work of Cotton Mather as well?
I think that a lot of the stuff that Caleb says when he’s possessed — I wish I’d been a little more exact in my bibliography — but I think that a lot of that comes from witch trials in Connecticut in the 1660s.

Beyond specific lines of dialogue, you had to build out the Puritan belief system. What did that look like across your research?
Digging into the creation of the Puritan mind-set involved really trying to wrap my head around extreme Calvinism and what that's all about. I now understand predestination, and I had to read the Geneva Bible cover-to-cover and read the gospels quite a bit to get into that world. Reading these religious texts and these personal diaries was a great way to get an understanding of these people as human beings. They’re just like us, even if their worldviews are very different. And then, working with museums and historians and some people in the living history community to try and understand what agricultural practices were in England and how they changed when they came over here, learning about animal husbandry. 

How much time did you spend immersed in this stuff?
Four years. But it wasn’t full-time. I was working as a costume designer on other projects. So it wasn’t four years full-time. Basically, if I got a gig that paid a little bit or I was out of work, I would hit the books again.

How did your background in costume design and production weigh on the aesthetics of the film? I’m sure there weren’t a lot of visual resources.
Yeah, certainly in New England they were against graven images, so they really just don’t have them. In England, the painterly tradition, the fine-art tradition, was more focused on wealthy people; we don’t have the Dutch golden age or all sorts of stuff that was going on in France of painting peasants and common people in a very detailed way. That doesn’t exist in England. So, if you’re going to go off of the woodcuts, you’re kind of like using New Yorker cartoons to look into the the 21st century. But there are so many people who were doing this stuff before me, historians and living history people, so it’s not stuff that you can grab on Amazon, but it’s out there if you’re working with and talking to the right people.

How did you ensure historical accuracy with the aesthetics of the film?
We tried to stick to the most up-to-date knowledge wherever we could. For example, in Plymouth Plantation, when I started going to there as a kid, all of the women were wearing boned corsets. But there’s a historian named Stuart Peachey, who is really the world’s foremost expert on the clothing of the common people from the Elizabethan to early Stuart eras. He wrote a gigantic, 30-volume book set — I mean, they’re all thin pamphlets, but still, it’s pretty massive — about the common people. 

You had a limited budget. What was the biggest challenge in staying true to the history?
There were certain things, like we couldn’t find all handwoven cloth. Linda Muir, the costume designer, had samples from the U.K. that were all handwoven, exactly what it should be, and then, where we could afford it, we would use that, but if we couldn’t afford it, she found incredible machine-woven stuff that looks really good. They were all hand-stitched and lined correctly, they were made like clothing, not made like costumes. So that was one thing that was a bummer, but it would have just exploded the cost, and the stuff that Linda found was so strong. The wools that she had have a ton of texture and a ton of integrity, so I don’t think that it is taking away from the film.

How about with the set?
Yeah, another one of the big expenses was the clapboard, the sheath, and all the outbuildings. Those were all hand-driven by a guy who repairs first-period homes and does museum re-creation. We tried to find a way to fake it, and we just absolutely couldn’t. We couldn’t find the equivalent of Linda’s machine-woven wool that was close enough to the handwoven wool. There was just no way we could possibly fake it. So, we had to have it done for real. But when I first met with Craig Lathrop, the production designer, I said, “Craig, I just want to build this farm exactly how they would have done it, and I think it’s going to be cheap to do it like that.” And he was like, “Well, maybe, except for that it’s the dead of winter and the snow is up to my crotch, so we can’t do that. Like, I can’t dig the post holes to put the posts in for the house.” Back in this period, they didn’t have the foundations and sills; generally, they just dug holes for posts, stuck them in, and moved from there.

How did you work around that?
Craig was like, “The compromise is I’m going to build pieces of this as a kit, some of it very much like a set, but everything that’s on camera is going to be made out of the proper materials.” That means we had to use period tools and techniques a lot of the time to make it look right. If we could use a chainsaw or a screw gun, we would, but sometimes we couldn’t. You can’t fake some of this stuff. If we had to use a draw knife, we would use a draw knife.

Why did you subtitle the film a “New England folktale”? Was there an important distinction between a fairy tale and a folktale in your research?
I’m a very naughty, bad person, because this film is more of a fairy tale than a folktale, to be honest. But because of the primitive New England, farm-y, harvest, archetypal vibe, the folktale seemed better for a subtitle. That’s very embarrassing, but it is true. It endeavors to be more of a pre-Disney fairy tale. I’ve actually taken credit for this wording earlier, but I’ll stop doing it: Marie Louise Vaughn is a prominent Jungian, she’s dead now, but she talks about how these watered-down fairy tales aren’t going to survive because they were designed to fit inside a post-Victorian epoch, and the fairy tales that are earlier and closer to myth, they’re just human. When you read them today, you’re conditioned to have a super objective. You’re like, “What’s the point, man?” But it’s not about a point, it’s just expressing something human. One of the things that these early fairy tales do so well is that they unconsciously explore the complex family dynamics the same way myth does. They explore the family dramas, the drama we’re all dealing with all the time through all the relationships in life.