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  • Writer's pictureShane Smith

How "The Witch" Changes Folklore

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

The Witch, the 2015 debut horror film by Robert Eggers was many things. A brilliantly executed chiller. An effective calling card for Eggers’s directorial style. A box-office champion, grossing around ten times its budget, and helping to cement a young A24 as one of the most interesting production companies in the industry.

However, when viewed side by side with some of the pillars of folklore research, it becomes a lot clearer that Eggers’s scary movie is much more than that. The film engages directly with the perceived functions of folklore throughout the many cultures and aeons of humankind. Without getting too bogged down in the academia of it all, famous folklorist William Bascom defined the four principal functions of folkloreas such: (1) to amuse, (2) to validate culture, (3) to educate and (4) to maintain conformity. In most cultures, from Ireland to the Ashanti people of West Africa, folklore and its subgenres perform these functions to a lesser or greater extent and have done so for centuries and in some cases, millennia.

Sharing the stories of old.

For most of us, our days of sharing fireside tales passed down by previous generations to stave off the encroaching night are gone. Instead, our shared storytelling experience comes in the local cinema, surrounded by strangers, or at home with streaming services. It is only natural then, to speculate that cinema and television may have assumed some of the responsibility of stories as they were originally intended, unwittingly or otherwise.

As a way to test this hypothesis, The Witch is a perfect fit. After all, the film directly adapts some of the folklore of 17th century New England to create its world and shape its story. Christian Puritans, dark woods, witches, evil farm animals. They are all classic elements of folk tales.

Definitely an amused audience member

So, how does The Witch engage with the functions of folklore as outlined by William Bascom? First up is amusement. This one is quite easily quantified, as box office records show that The Witch grossed around $40 million, on a production budget of $4 million. People went out in large numbers to see the film. The response then: the film holds a 90% rating on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Audience engagement and discussion was also positive. Some fans even went so far as to create funny Twitter profiles for Black Phillip, the film’s caprine antagonist. So, a lot of people went to see the film, and some people loved it. In other words, it amused its audience. First function of folklore, completed. This is where Eggers’s film stops playing ball.

The second function of folklore is to validate culture. Let’s look at the kind of culture on show in the film, 17th century Puritanical culture. The central family in the film (two parents and five children) adhere to strict religious custom and patriarchal structures on a stark New England farmstead. Yet, as the story unfolds this devout adherence does not provide the wellbeing and protection from evil that the characters believe it will. Despite scrupulous praying and labour, tragedy befalls the family time and time again. Children are stolen or killed, crops fail, mother fights daughter. One potent example has Thomasin, the main character and eldest daughter, attempt to warn the family of an external threat but is ignored by the father William, to the family’s ultimate misfortune. A clear display of Eggers’s intention to question the patriarchal power structure within the family. Historically, folklore has served teach a community’s young people that their culture and traditions are worth preserving. But here, Eggers’s shows us that strict adherence to the cultural rules don't always prevent evil, and in some cases cause it.

The Puritan family of "The Witch" - Courtesy A24

A witch burnt at the stake, 19th century engraving

On to the third function of folklore, education. Folk tales have been used to teach in many cultures across the world, in all aspects of life from moral values to roles within a society. Narrative devices like witches and forbidden forests have shown up in dozens of cultures across Europe and North America. Traditionally, the witch represents the danger of the unknown and association with devil and the occult. Throughout much of the 16th and 17th centuries, fear of the power of the other manifested itself as a belief witches, and this representation was often projected onto women in Western cultures.

In many ways, folklore was used to teach the dangers of the independent woman, thereby reinforcing the patriarchal structures in a society. Here again, The Witch subverts the expectations of a folk tale and presents an opposing lesson to the one that would usually be found in this kind of story. Bascom wrote “[t]o the extent to which it is regarded as historically true, its teaching is regarded as important; and to the extent to which it mirrors culture, it contains practical rules for the guidance of man.” The events of the film may no longer be regarded as historically true, as most people (though definitely not all) would confine the existence of witches to the realm of fantasy, but its view of history is especially potent. Throughout many of the cultures in whose folklore witches appeared as antagonists, women who pursued femininity and sexuality were persecuted in order to maintain a male-dominated social order.

The Witch as folktale does educate, but by shifting to the perspective to those who are usually outcast. In short, the film educates on the physical and spiritual restriction of women, and the ultimate damage done by that restriction.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in "The Witch" - Courtesy A24

The fourth and final function of folklore is to maintain conformity. It is against this function that The Witch truly excels. Here, it is almost as if Eggers has infused his film with a sort of feminist vigour to oppose and ultimately dispel some of the more outdated norms of folkloric storytelling.

At the beginning of the film Thomasin prays to God to ask mercy for her shame, all the while tending the homestead and caring for the children. She meets her mother’s strict expectations which correspond with the ideal of womanhood held throughout Puritan society. She is maintaining conformity.

courtesy A24

As the film unfolds and the presence of the Devil reveals himself to Thomasin in the form of Black Phillip, the family goat, she is presented with a choice.

Witches' Sabbath - Francescco Goya 1798

To maintain conformity with the Puritan way of life or to break social convention and pursue the earthly pleasures of independence and power. As the Devil presents Thomasin with a contract to sign, she chooses the latter. The film shows Thomasin’s choice to dispel enforced social norms and embrace her own femininity and sexual freedom as a victory for Thomasin. Thereby, The Witch argues the value of rejecting conformity, the exact opposite of Bascom’s fourth function.

The result of all of this is simple. It shows us that even though a new medium has changed the ways in which most cultures today engage with folklore, it can still provide cultural and societal functions. The old functions will always be there, and so they should. Many of the folk tales passed down have acted as a sort of cultural cohesion, linking generations of people with shared traditions. But now, with films and television, folklore can also serve as a new tool with which we can invalidate some of the rituals and institutions of a culture that no longer reflect the values of a society. In other words, films like The Witch can be a medium which does not preserve old folklore, but rather recreates it in a new light.

Campfire - Albert Bierstadt 1863

References and further reading:

Bascom, William R. “Four Functions of Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 67, no.

266, 1954, pp. 333–349. JSTOR,

The Witch. Dir Robert Eggers. A24. 2015.

McGill, Alan Bernard. “The Witch, the Goat and the Devil: A Discussion of Scapegoating and the

Objectification of Evil in Robert Eggers’ The Witch.” Theology Today, vol. 74, no. 4, Jan. 2018, pp. 409–414, doi:10.1177/0040573617731708.

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