Do not read any further unless you want to know details about the climax to The Witch
When writer-director Robert Eggers released the 2016 frightener The Witch
, critics universally praised this terrifying mediation on pride and paranoia. The Witch
is set during the early days of colonial New England when the devout Pilgrims sought to create a Holy Land in the New World but ultimately fall victim to the same sins which have bedeviled mankind since time immemorial.
Centered around a family of exiled true believers, Egger's folk tale is fascinating for its depiction of the era and its ability to create a mood that only grows darker and more dire as the film reaches its horrifying conclusion when the family billy goat, Black Philip, is finally revealed as the Prince of Darkness himself. By this point, Black Philip has either corrupted every one in the family or killed them, all except the virginal Thomasin, who has been accused of being the titular witch by her now-dead parents and siblings.
Broken and alone, Thomasin willingly gives over her soul to Satan, signing her name in his unholy book. As the film closes, Thomasin joins her fellow witches who are dancing with wild abandon around a fire in the New England countryside. Naked, gyrating, and in the midst of a some sort of sinister ritual, Thomasin's body slowly rises from the earth and soars to the top of trees as ecstasy washes over her face. It is a look of unrestrained joy and freedom, a look that runs counter to our preconceived notions of how this moment should be, as good character willingly joins the dark side.
Watching all of this, I was reminded of the performance I had seen earlier in the day by the Indian-influenced British dancer Aakash Odedra called Rising
. It was a work that was filled with moments of what felt like religious ecstasy. One piece in particular, In the Shadow of Man, came to mind in those closing minutes of The Witch
Underneath somber red lighting, Odedra was on his knees as the performance began. He was completely still. But then his body began to move, his bony shoulder blades seemingly pushing his skin to what surely seemed like the point at which it would tear. And at that moment, it became clear that what we were witnessing was the birth of a terrifying creature, a beast that would grow to something rough and fearsome but which was now frail, frightened, and alone in the world. Black Philip would have been pleased. Thomasin would have understood.
However, that one work, regardless of how much it left an impression on myself and many others in attendance, was the lone moment in Odedra's well-staged exploration of light and darkness in which the dark was, if not victorious, winning. The other works were transcendent, drawing the audience into a spiritual rush that was as powerful as a tent revival or the endless spins of a whirling dervish. If anyone had lost their religion prior to this show, they surely found it as Odedra danced among slivers of light which seemingly cut the stage or the bright orbs which hung from the ceiling like stars in the hands of their creator.
As the show came to a close, Odedra took hold of one of the glowing orbs. He shook, he shivered, he seemingly felt pleasures — and terrors — that few but the most holy have ever felt before. And while he didn't ascend to the lights, it was clear that his spirit and ours had briefly touched both the damned and the divine.