Posted on January 9, 2017

Defying Gravity: How The Witch and The Fits Rise Above the Terror of Growing Up in an Oppressive Society

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In the beginning of 2016, Robert Eggers’ The Witch confounded audiences with its slow, not particularly scary take on “a New England Folktale.” In that film, a young woman faces the tyranny of religious and familial oppression in early Puritan New England while also trying to avoid the very-real menace from the film’s title. Different in almost every way, Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (2015) seems at first like a sports movie, as it follows a young woman who switches from boxing training to a competitive dance squad housed in the same community center in modern day Cincinnati. Soon, though, the film’s real genre takes hold as women in the crew start to experience mysterious seizures that scare the other members of the squad. Neither film will inspire any screams of terror nor will any viewers’ hearts likely start racing except in appreciation for excellent filmmaking, though both films have terrifically creepy scores and feature some standard horror scenes. What patient audiences will discover, especially if they watch the two films as a double feature, is their shared examination of puberty’s perils for young women when they grow up in places where they are not allowed to be their full selves.

Each of these films has a horror-antecedent in both style and substance which illuminates how they use horror tropes to build their visions of transgressions in oppressive societies. The Witch is indebted to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in its rigid formalism. There’s no shaky-cam to be found in either film; instead both Kubrick and Eggers keep things perfectly framed and tightly controlled so that no detail goes unnoticed and each scene builds to maximum tension. The films feel claustrophobic, mirroring their similarly controlling father characters and the menace that they infuse in otherwise benign surroundings. Though the supernatural antagonists are real in both films, it is the fear that they inspire in the respective patriarchs that causes the most damage. Similarly, The Fits plays like a more experimental and obtuse version of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). Each film is so tuned in to its protagonist that the camera begins to see the world from their perspectives, often following the dancers closely from behind so that the audience sees what they see. Since both movies also trade in body horror, their attention to their dancers’ bodies and physical experiences make the films into an interesting subjective experience. By the end, you really feel like you are these young women, even if it is clear that their lives are not the most inviting. These previous films teach audiences how to see the horror tropes at work in the newer movies and provide the filmmakers with a vehicle to tell their own stories.

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Neither The Fits nor The Witch will tell audiences that it is about oppressive societies and how they particularly attack young women on the verge of adulthood, but there is ample evidence on both sides that this idea lies at the heart of each movie. In The Fits, young boys seemingly must train in the boxing gym while young girls must dance. The only transgressor is Toni, played with remarkable conviction by newcomer Royalty Hightower, who starts with the boys but joins the girls, though her joining seems to spark the uncontrollable fits that give the movie its title. The girls try to make her one of them, branding her with a rub-on tattoo, nail polish, and even self-inflicted earrings, but Toni removes all of them in turn. It is clear that she fits in neither the boys’ group (because she’s a girl) nor the girls’ group (by choice). Her inability to conform to either set of expectations makes her an outsider, and that fact is perhaps the cause of all of the writhing and moaning that her teammates experience. Anna Rose Holmer makes sure that the camera isolates her as well, often putting her to the side of the frame if it contains other girls or focusing only on her as she wanders around, thinking about her place in the world.

The Witch’s isolation tactics are more extreme and, in keeping with its subtitle, allegorical. When the Puritan village kicks the family out, they travel deep into the woods so that they can practice religion as they wish. After the family’s youngest disappears under Thomasin’s watch, she becomes the scapegoat for all of the problems that follow. Thomasin, also played by a standout newcomer in Anya Taylor-Joy, must try to appease her paternalist and ultra-religious father, her grieving mother, as well as taking care of her remaining three younger siblings, including decidedly wicked twins. Her lustful pre-pubescent younger brother spends some time looking at her developing chest in the morning, an action the camera is sure to imitate. The whole family treats her like an outsider, so it’s no surprise that she claims to be “that very witch” to regain some autonomy, at least by scaring the twins. When your religion, your town, and your family all want you to play a part you don’t want to play and punish you for transgressing even when it is not actually your fault, the delicious freedom that the witches who live in the woods represent sounds increasingly appealing.

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Though I won’t spoil either film’s remarkable ending here, I do want to write a bit more generally about the strategies that the directors use to visualize the oppression that both characters feel. Both films find their freedom from the oppression they depict in the natural world, away or at least apart from the man-made societies that the characters inhabit. Indeed, it is telling that each film takes place in one location with a homogeneous population. Only the family and the witches are given any meaningful screen-time in The Witch, and there’s only one white woman in The Fits who is always out of focus. It is clear, then, that the restrictions come from within these small units in both cases; and though both films take small jaunts outside the property lines that form the boundaries of these units, each excursion allows the protagonists small glimpses of the freedom that they do not yet have. The filmmakers embody these restrictive societies in restricted films, and only at their ends do they show what might happen if those restrictions are removed. The song that ends The Fits has as part of its chorus, “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?” The thrilling answer to that question comes at the end of both films, and Eggers and Holmer ditch the words and use the power of images to do it.

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Alex Thompson is in the M.A. Program in English at Lehigh University and can be found on Facebook.

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