“The Witch” and other horror films set in early America

The Witch Poster

When I saw the poster and trailer for Roger Eggers’ The Witch, something felt right. It clicked. To me, the existence of such a film filled a certain void. That void? The lack of quality (Gothic) horror films set in early America.

Sure, there are a few horror films set in colonial America: Sleepy HollowThe Village (well, kind of), and some others that I found discovered only by researching this topic: An American Haunting and Eyes of Fire. To many people, this list leaves a lot to be desired. The average Rotten Tomatoes score for these films is probably… well, rotten.

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow. Here’s a great post on continually being disappointed by this film.

This short list of mostly bad films doesn’t make a lot of sense. Early America is an era is ripe for exploration in horror film. It was a time practically defined by fear of unknown, for both European American settlers and Native Americans. For Europeans, this new land was cruel, unfamiliar, and extreme. Their homes were surrounded by dark , labyrinthine forests inside which anything could lurk. Their worldview was largely governed by superstition, fear, and paranoia. They viewed the native inhabitants of the land as demons or agents of the devil, and even ritual powwows appeared to be full of unknown kinds of witchcraft – wild black sabbaths. You can see evidence of this mentality in Hawthorne’s Gothic short story, Young Goodman Brown.

Indian Powwow Engraving

Yet imagine how horrifying this time would have been for Native people. A completely unfamiliar race coming out of nowhere, with instruments and weapons that seem to defy nature and common sense (guns – can anybody say “witchcraft”?). Most people also are under the impression that “scalping” was a technique uniquely performed by Natives to European settlers, but the truth is that the practice was likely brought to America by Europeans, and early settlers were strongly encouraged (ie., paid) to scalp and kill Natives. European settlers were all too happy to collect the “scalp bounties” that colonies had placed on Natives’ heads – in 1703, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was offering $60 for each native scalp. And that made up just a fraction of the violence experienced by either side. But perhaps the most horrifying force that Native people had to face – made all the more terrifying by its invisibility – was the rapid and brutal spread of infectious diseases through Native communities. A person could leave their Native village for a period of time and return to find it a complete ghost town – corpses of their neighbors and loved ones littered about, their skin covered in terrible boils. Every neighboring village would be completely lifeless as well.

Smallpox epidemic

Perhaps some of these elements are a little too real and depressing to feature in an entertaining film, but they at least form a pretty terrifying backbone from which to build a Gothic frontier horror film.

I haven’t had a chance to see The Witch yet, but I hope to see it soon and have high hopes for it. Perhaps it will usher in a new wave of films exploring this dark and stormy period of time.

Have I missed any good Gothic horror films set in early America? Let me know in the comments section below!

 

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