From the Archives: Why did an entire audience boo The Witch?

From the Archives: Why did an entire audience boo The Witch?

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

As a staunch defender of some of the worst movies out there, I know that taste is subjective and I would never presume to force anyone into liking or disliking any single film. Not my tempo. But when I spent the entirety of The Witch pooping myself in a fit of soul-shattering fear only to have my fellow theatergoers boo the film, I began to question my sanity. I mean, there is no way that this critical darling would evoke such a vile response, right? But it did. And not only was it met with a wall of jeers, but at least 10 people walked out. They walked out! Meanwhile, the theater for Ride Along 2, a movie that is almost entirely garbage, remained filled for the duration. Am I taking crazy pills? But then something occurred to me. There’s a dark secret out there regarding the way many of us view horror movies: we act like we’re above them. We can’t be scared by something as silly as a movie, and we scoff at the idea that anyone could even try to create fear from make-believe, often with a Monday morning quarterback style of reasoning.


“That would never happen in real life!” we say. “If that happened to me, I would just do this!”

Take THAT, movie!

No other genre seems to fall victim to this viewpoint, at least not to such an intense degree. If a comedy isn’t funny, it isn’t funny. If a drama isn’t compelling, it isn’t compelling. But if a horror movie isn’t scary, it’s dumb. It’s stupid. It’s worth booing.

I have a few theories as to why this seems to be.

Perhaps this is an extension of our nature. Fear, as it exists, is not something we are supposed to crave. It’s a response to a threat – a method of survival. The feeling we get when we’re afraid is the result of our fight/flight mechanisms kicking into high gear. Yet we, as consumers, have evolved to the point where we do crave fear. We find it fun to tell scary stories, to watch scary movies, to ride roller coasters, go on haunted hayrides, etc. There is novelty in being spooked. But I guess there are some of us who, when faced with a horrifying fiction, feel the need to push back – to tell others (but mostly ourselves) that everything is going to be okay … because this supposedly scary thing is actually laaaaaame.

I know about this tendency to take the blue pill because it lives within me as well. It’s not always easy to subscribe to fiction, especially when it seems so illogical, which is often the case with horror cinema. But isn’t taking the red pill sort of the point of watching a movie? Now of course this doesn’t mean we have to accept everything that’s presented to us, no questions of quality asked, but it does require us to step out of our own reality at least a little bit. Film is often referred to as an “escape” for this very reason.

image1So why is it that so many people can’t do this with horror? Why is horror the only genre in which mainstream audiences expect the film to bend to our reality and not the other way around? Well, I don’t know. I don’t think there is a good answer, and that’s why witnessing aggressive mockery of The Witch has chapped me so. I spoke with a few of my fellow audience members, and it sounds like those who didn’t enjoy it cited these two reasons:

1. “The characters behaved illogically.”

In my conversation with a particularly aggressive boo-er there was this idea of “I wouldn’t behave that way, so why would the characters?” Well, my first guess is that the characters behave the way they do because they’re living in 1630s Puritan New England. Moreover, I submit that if you were living in 1630s Puritan New England, you probably would behave that way too. Odd that when the characters spoke in period-accurate vernacular and behaved with the same type of backward piety which laid the groundwork for the trials at Salem, it drew laughs. But because this is a horror film, we expect it to conform to our reality, and not its own.

2. “This wasn’t the movie I expected.”

The accusation is that The Witch delivers a much different product than promised. Indeed, the film is dissimilar to most mainstream horror fare, but it is 100% congruent to its own advertising. There is nothing about any of the marketing material – which consistently refers to the film as a “New England Folktale” – to purport that the final product would be anything but what we got.  Did you expect metatextual references to existing horror tropes? How about a little white girl in a nightgown being exorcised by a priest who is facing a crisis of faith? Or maybe you wanted the entire thing to be shot with a GoPro. If so, that’s your fault. There ain’t no contextual bait and switch going on here.

Once again, I would never expect someone to have the same opinion as me in a matter of subjectivity, but I must know why such a bullish mentality invaded this particular theater so suddenly and aggressively. As I stated before, no one has given me a valid explanation. Even if you didn’t like The Witch, it cannot be denied that the filmmakers succeeded at giving us something new – something challenging. This DEMANDS to be applauded.

Since this is amounting to rant rather than a thinkpiece, I’d like to do some bullying of my own, pointed directly at the folks who booed during our shared theater experience:


YOU ARE WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! The Purge 25? Yeah, that’s on you. Paranormal Activity: Demon Slumber Party? Your fault! Saw reboot? You asked for it, you’re gonna get it. And when you inevitably say “waaaaaaaah, the are no original ideas anymore and everything looks the same,” you will be 100% correct. You will also be 100% to blame.

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