Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) is a horror film, to be sure, although most critics have tended not to treat it as a genre film, focusing on its impressive innovations in production, narrative, and cinematography.
Every time I’ve watched the film, though, I’ve been struck by the scenes of Ralph Ineson’s William, the Puritan patriarch, furiously chopping wood. He does so three times (that magic number) and each time he is more disturbed. These scenes stand out not only because lumber is pretty much the only thing the struggling family has in abundance but also because it strikingly evokes The Amityville Horror, both the 1979 original (Stuart Rosenberg) and the 2005 remake (Andrew Douglas).
Here’s George Lutz (James Brolin) chopping wood in the original Amityville Horror. (His wife’s comment about how George has enough wood to heat the entire south shore certainly applies–though different region–to The Witch‘s William.)
The first scene in The Witch that shows William hewing wood is right after he and his son Caleb go into the woods trying (and failing) to find food. Not only does William fail at hunting, but his son lies to his mother (Kate Dickie) about where they’ve been, since she is adamant that her children not go into the woods. Tellingly, the camera tracks menacingly round the house and past a huge pile of wood before it finds William chopping, and he is bordered by a looming stack of still more wood.
In the second scene, William inexplicably starts chopping wood at night in the rain, right after Caleb has returned—bewitched—from being lost in the woods. And the final scene is also at night, after William has buried Caleb and boarded his remaining three children, Thomasin, Mercy, and Jonas, in the shed with Black Phillip, suspecting that one or all them may be witches.
William’s chopping of wood evidently serves no practical purpose; indeed, if anything, it highlights his practical failures in other arenas—all other arenas. And it’s this irrationality, the compulsiveness, of his chopping that echoes that of George Lutz in both versions of The Amityville Horror.
In both versions of Amityville, George’s compulsive chopping of wood expresses his sublimated hostility toward his family. In fact, in the remake, in which George (Ryan Reynolds) is stepfather (not father) to his wife’s children, the hostility is actually not sublimated very effectively or for very long! It’s clear that the wood is a flimsy substitute for his oldest stepson.
The furious chopping in Amityville is not only an expression of psychological aggression, however. It also represents the encroaching possession of George Lutz by the malevolent force that haunts their new house: Satan worshipper John Ketchum in the 1979 film and seventeenth-century preacher Jeremiah Ketcham in the 2005 film. The role of Ketcham is fleshed out more fully in the remake (and is, in my view, one of the film’s greatest strengths). Whereas in the original film (anticipating Poltergeist), the Lutzes’ house has just been built on an Indian burial site, in the remake, the Lutzes discover that Ketcham had, centuries before, tortured and killed Indians as a twisted part of his evangelizing “mission.”
So when Eggers shows us William compulsively chopping wood (three times), he draws on genre history, on The Amityville Horror, to enrich his character. The reference adds to William’s character a deeply repressed well of aggression toward his wife and children that is actually fairly muted outside of these scenes. And the reference also weaves The Witch’s Puritan story with Amityville’s suppressed history of white Christian settler violence toward Native Americans—a history that is also repressed in The Witch (displaced onto the woods, perhaps), but that inevitable pervades the sense of fear and guilt that contributes to the family’s violent demise.