The Witch Who Lived Next Door

02/23/2016  By  Donald Hallene III     No comments

My friend’s sister was a witch. I knew it for sure, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the buildup to it’s release, much has been made of the Satanic qualities of Robert Egger’s new film The Witch. The Church of Satan proudly endorses it, as do several prominent modern witches. This is certainly a good tool for drumming up business, and make no mistake, there is an actual witch, and the Devil does show up, several times, in several different forms.  The film, however, is not about him. It does not praise the deeds of Satan nor does it condemn them. They simply are. Many will praise this film for being so evil, but that’s a misrepresentation of the film’s true message, which really boils down to the truth that religious hysteria can destroy even the holiest of people.

I grew up in a religious family, and for years, this was something I wore as a scar of sorts. I would gladly tell people how much I detested organized religion and came close to severing ties with my parents over it. Part of the reason I was so bitter and upset was because of how I was educated and molded to be. This isn’t the fault of my parents or even the church I attended, but I was a product of “Jesus Freaks,” and that would lead me down some very strange and ultimately dark roads. One such incident was brought to my memory as I watched the Puritan family in The Witch succumb to fear and hysteria.

I lived in Maine in a very typical neighborhood, right on the edge of a patch of forest that separated us from the closest road. It was quite a secluded little chunk of suburbia, with the illusion of being a part of nature. When I was in fourth grade, I befriended my neighbor, Nick. we hung out most afternoons after school. Truth be told, I only really hung out with him because he was the only kid my age in the neighborhood, but we spent a lot of time together, so I got to know his family pretty well. His older sister was of particular interest. She was tall, beautiful, and mysterious, which got the attention of pre-teen me. I started to notice things besides her looks though, things that were unnerving to the good Christian I was. She had books on witchcraft, Wiccan ceremonies and other seemingly scary things. I tried to investigate but was as subtle as a rock. I quickly dropped the subject. I didn’t want to piss off someone who could potentially be a witch.

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Good advice, apparently.

About a month later, I was exploring in the woods near my house, as I was apt to do. Part of the woods was swampland that in the summer would dry out. Smack in the middle of this dried out marsh was a ring of stones and candles. My stomach dropped. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I had a strong suspicion it belonged to Nick’s sister. Nick confirmed this theory, and then told me not to mess with it. He didn’t know what she was into, and I don’t think he took it seriously, but he was being protective of his sibling, and didn’t want me making things difficult for her. I agreed.

That agreement came to a swift end a few weeks later when I was having a sleepover with some friends from church.

I told them all about the witch next door, and how she was up to something. We got ourselves worked up into a religious fervor, and we became determined to cast out the evil in the swamp and defeat the witch next door. This makes us sound much cooler than we actually were. We were doofy little nerds messing with things we didn’t understand.

The next day, we went down into the woods and we destroyed the ring of stones, we knocked over the candles, and we loudly bellowed to any spirits that were lingering that we cast them out in the name of Christ, like some terrible impression of Father Merrin in The Exorcist. We felt accomplished and empowered in the name of Jesus. We walked home like conquering heroes, but pride comes before a fall. My friends departed and the next morning as I awoke to go to church, I became violently ill. I was puking so hard, it was a wonder it wasn’t coming out my ears, and I felt like death all day. It didn’t occur to me that this might have something to do with our foolish actions, but I got word that all of my friends were also sick. My parents theorized food poisoning, but they too had eaten the same food we had, that’s when I knew what had happened. To some this would have strengthened their resolve to fight the evil, but I knew I had messed up.

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Pictured: Young Donald.

A few days later, as a babysat my younger sibling, I saw Nick’s sister standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac in front of my house. She wanted to speak with me. It was time to face the music, so I spoke with her. It turns out that she wasn’t a witch in the sense I was imagining. She wasn’t in the woods cursing my family, or killing animals for the devil. Whatever it was she was practicing, it was more of a religious experience, and something that connected to nature and the world around her. I felt like a moron, and most importantly, I felt deep remorse. In my desire to be a good Christian, I had lashed out and destroyed someone’s place of worship. Something I will never forget was how kind she was. She placed a hand on my shoulder, and said that she understood and that she forgave me. She even offered to explain her practices to me more if I wanted. I wish I had taken her up on that, but I quietly took my leave after mumbling my apologies again.

I walked out of my screening of The Witch, and these memories came flooding back.

It had been several years since I thought about any of this, and I think it’s the main reason the film resonated with me so much. It is a magnificently crafted film, and a truly tense horror movie, but it’s much deeper than your average spook-a-blast or slasher. The film will likely be mentioned in the same sentence as Suspira, The Shining, and other classics, and rightfully so, but I do hope people won’t just delight in the Devil, but also take a look at what it says about us as a society. We are always seeking something bigger than ourselves, but sometimes we can be consumed by it, unless we take great care.

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