I've been a horror movie fan for most of my life, and I've been writing about New England folklore for many years. I saw The Witch from this dual perspective, so I'm going to first write about it as a film, and then about its folkloric aspects.
I really, really enjoyed The Witch. It's been getting a lot of hype as being incredibly scary, which I think does it a disservice. It's more of an art film with horrific aspects than a straight up horror film. Don't go into it expecting screaming teenagers being chased through the woods by an axe-wielding maniac. Yes someone does wield an axe, and teens do indeed scream, but it's not Friday the 13th. Rather than terrifying, I found it spooky, unsettling, and morally icky, but also emotionally resonant and thought-provoking.
If you want to be surprised about this movie don't read any further. In other words, SPOILERS AHEAD.
The premise is relatively simple. In 1630s New England, a family is banished from a Puritan settlement for being too religiously strident. Exiled but unbowed, Mom, Dad and their five children carve out a small farm a day's journey away from the settlement. Things go well at first, but by the fall their crops are failing, and one day when oldest daughter Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother Samuel he suddenly disappears. The parents suspect a wolf took him, but the name of this movie isn't The Wolf.
That all happens within the first ten minutes. Things only get worse for the next eighty. The narrative is a twisty mix of family psycho-dynamics and mythic imagery. The tight-knit pious family is realistically dysfunctional. Did they really think settling on the edge of an unknown continent would be easy? Dad is successful only at splitting logs, the children tell vicious stories about each other, Mom is getting cold feet about the whole pioneer thing, and their oldest daughter is reaching the peak of puberty. At times the movie implies the supernatural shenanigans are just the imaginings of a stressed out family in a bad situation, but then shifts to show powerful, archetypal images that indicate the supernatural forces menacing the family are quite real. A woman in a red cape in a tangled forest. A rabbit that can't be killed. Baby Samuel's real fate...
My favorite scenes in the film involve the young twins Mercy and Jonas, who are simultaneously cute, bratty and creepy, like the Olsen Twins of Full House mixed with Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem. They spend a lot of time frolicking with the family goat Black Phillip. The twins say he talks to them, but maybe they're just playing a game. Or maybe not.
Now onto the folklore in the film. The movie's full title is The Witch: A New-England Folktale. Although is is not based on any actual witchcraft cases or particular folk stories, Eggers did a lot of research into 17th century life and folk beliefs. Much of the movie accurately reflects authentic New England folk stories.
There are bewitched children pinched and tortured by unseen attackers. There are ghosts. There is Protestant prayer, both fearful and ecstatic. There are bewitched farm animals, and familiar spirits suckling on human blood. The Devil appears as a man in black with a book awaiting signatures. There is the overwhelming sense of being a sinner in the hands of an angry God and the accompanying fear of damnation.
Ultimately though this is a movie by a modern American aimed at a modern audience. Traditional New England witch stories are usually about societal issues. Accused witches were seldom family members but were usually shunned members of the community. The stories often follow this pattern: a poor person asks a wealthier person for food or money. The wealthier person refuses, and the poor person mutters threats. Shortly thereafter bad things happen to the wealthier person. Cattle don't give milk, children sicken, crops fail. The poor person is suspected of witchcraft.
Eggers' film does not follow this classic pattern, but instead focuses heavily on psycho-sexual issues. To support this focus, many of the film's later images are drawn not from New England witch narratives but instead from continental European myths and narratives, which had more sexual content. Continental witch stories were quite lurid, full of orgies, infanticide and cannibalism. The New England witches, malevolent though they were, were demure Puritans at heart. Their nocturnal gatherings didn't involve naked gyrating hags, but rather fully clad people standing around listening to the Devil lecture them. They were an inverted version of the Puritan Sunday meetings, not a crazed bacchanalia. At their wildest they sometimes had fiddle music and square dancing. Square-dancing witches wouldn't make for a very scary movie.
And though I love the goat in this movie, the Devil seldom appears as a goat in New England witch stories. Most often he appears as a man richly dressed in black, but when he does take animal shape he appears in a variety of forms, including a cat and a hog. Modern people tend to think of Satan as goatish, though, so I understand why this makes sense for the film.
Finally, many traditional New England witch stories are actually about how to defeat a witch. They describe the witch's predations only to relate how they can be stopped. They are instructional tales told to help younger generations manage malevolent forces. They are not grim or pessimistic.
Witches were bad, but their magic could easily be foiled by simple measures. Keeping urine in a jar full of nails. Hammering a horseshoe above the door. Placing bay leaves around the window. Burning the hair of a bewitched child. All of these could effectively stop a witch's attack. The world was full of evil forces, but the early settlers were optimistic that ultimately they could be defeated.
I think the ending of The Witch is morally ambivalent, but is it optimistic? Probably not, but then again, much like square-dancing witches, it's probably not what a modern audience is looking for.