'The Witch:' History and Hysteria: Photos

Learn about historical sources for 'The Witch' -- about new movie about witchcraft in 17th century New England.

The historical horror film "The Witch" is already being hailed as one of the best scary movies of recent years. Written and directed by theater veteran Robert Eggers, the film details the eerie fate of a 17th century Puritan family as they encounter witchcraft and religious mania in the wilds of colonial New England. Fans of slow-boiling horror will certainly dig the film, but devotees of authentic historical drama will find plenty to contemplate as well. The filmmakers conducted extensive research on the world of 17th century New England to recreate the period sets, props, costumes and especially the arcane dialect of the film's bedeviled family. Here we take a look at historical elements from film, and the context of the New England witchcraft hysteria of the 1600s.

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"The Witch" opens with a tribunal scene in which William (Ralph Ineson), husband and father of five, is exiled from a Puritan colonial plantation over an undisclosed theological dispute. William flees with his family into the wilderness of New England, where they attempt to set up their own homestead on the edge of a sinister forest. The plantation scenes were researched and filmed with the help of the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum outside Plymouth, Mass. Reconstructed from archaeological records, the museum is designed to recreate the original 17th century English settlements in the area. Plimoth's structures and outbuildings are historically accurate and were built with era-appropriate technology.

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Exiled from their community, the desperate family soon encounters a series of strange and disturbing events. Their crops are blighted and animals go missing. Eerie sounds echo through the night and the children whisper of a witch in the woods. When oldest daughter Thomasin investigates, she is accused of witchcraft herself. "The Witch" is set in the year 1630 -- 60 years before the infamous Salem witch trials. Throughout the early colonial period in America, belief in witchcraft was remarkably widespread and intense. In a carryover from European religious traditions, it was believed that Satan actively tried to tempt the faithful through black magic and sorcery. Supernatural forces were part of everyday life, and witches were the Devil's foot soldiers. In New England, belief in witchcraft was reinforced by the strong Puritan influence in both church and secular authority.

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The full title of the film is actually "The Witch: A New England Folktale" and the filmmakers based the plot on both folk legends and actual incidents of the era. To evoke the proper historical details, director Eggers researched hundreds of period sources, including court documents, personal diaries and church-issued "witch pamphlets" that described alleged incidents of witchcraft and demonic possession in lurid detail. The Puritan author and minister Cotton Mather was perhaps the single most prolific pamphleteer of the era. In his publication "Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions" (1689), Mather described the supposed symptoms of demonic possession and witches' hexes, such as flailing limbs and guttural cries of pain. Because these publications were among the only circulated media of the time, they're believed to have fanned the flames of witchcraft hysteria in the colonies.

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Twenty people accused of witchcraft were executed during the series of incidents known as the Salem witch trials, which actually took place in the communities of Salem Village, Andover and Ipswitch in colonial Massachusetts. But it's estimated that dozens more were killed, usually by hanging, in various American colonies in the 17th century -- and still more died while awaiting "trials" in jail. The first execution of a suspected witch in the American colonies occurred in 1647, when Alice Young was sent to the gallows in the town of Hartford, Connecticut. The colonial government of the time listed witchcraft as a capital crime, citing Biblical authority: Leviticus 20:27 (“A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.”) and the infamous Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”)

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As terrible as it was, witchcraft hysteria in the American colonies was but grim echo of the madness that had engulfed Europe for more than 400 years -- from the early 1300s to the late 1600s. Tens of thousands of supposed witchcraft practitioners -- mostly women -- were executed during this period. Witchcraft trials in the American colonies were a violent collision of ancient superstitions, rickety local laws and vicious interrogation techniques brought over from Europe. For instance, since it was believed that witches were unable to sink in water, accused women would be cast into bodies of water with their hands and feet bound. Many perished in this fashion before a formal trial was even convened. Above: T.H. Matteson's 1853 painting "Examination of a Witch" was inspired by the Salem witch trials.

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The Salem witch trials mark the moment in American history when witchcraft hysteria crested and broke in the colonies. Nearly 200 people in all were accused, 19 were hanged and one elderly man was pressed to death with heavy stones. When the chaos finally subsided, witch persecutions dropped across all of New England. Most fictional accounts of American witchcraft hysteria focus on the Salem trials and their aftermath. "The Witch" goes in another direction by setting its story in the era before the trials, when the madness was slowly percolating. By narrowing its focus to the experience of one family, the film examines themes of fear, isolation and religious mania. Of course, in the movie, there may actually be a witch in the woods. So heads up on that.

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