Two of my friends, Pam Grossman (Waking the Witch) and Peg Aloi (The Media Witch), are practicing modern witches. In this just-in-time for All Hallows' Eve exchange, the two rewatch Robert Egger's 2016 film, The Witch, and have a chat about the film's symbolism and how it relates to the real-world history and practice of The Craft.
Grossman: Crones are scary, especially naked ones who still desire things, whether that's sex or power. But she returns as the Snow White-fairy-tale sort of witch, using glamour to disguise herself. She even wears a scarlet cloak, harking back to both Little Red Riding Hood and the biblical whore, who's described in the Book of Revelation as "arrayed in purple and scarlet." Beautiful women are just as threatening as crones, because they can lead you to damnation.
Aloi: And that witch archetype emerges later, when the mother, Katherine, accuses Thomasin of trying to seduce both her brother Caleb and her own father, William. It's right out of the Malleus Maleficarum (translated to The Hammer of Witches), the 15th-century manual for hunting witches: "All witchcraft stems from carnal desire, which is in women insatiable."
Grossman: Having the protagonist be a young woman on the cusp of sexuality weaves in the association of women with diabolism, which we most famously see in the Bible with the story of Eve. An adolescent girl's "magic" is really her newfound sexual power—an unruly force that she has to learn to control, lest it bring ruin upon her and those around her. It's a central tenet of Puritanism, and it's why Katherine sees Thomasin as an agent of the devil.
Aloi: The fact that Kate and William want to farm out Thomasin, to go work for another family as a servant, reminded me that nearly all the young women accused of witchcraft at Salem—some of whom later became accusers—were indentured servants. They were of childbearing age but had no marriage prospects, which made things sexually tense, which sometimes resulted in accusations of witchcraft. The dangerous power that's unleashed by burgeoning female sexuality shows up again and again in cinema. Just think of Carrie (1976).
Image: Film promotional