In 2015, a movie came out to little fanfare and it was simply titled “The VVitch”. (yes, the VV is how the producers chose to write the title).

I didn’t love this movie at first because all of the actors spoke an older form of English. The story is set during the mid-1630s in Massachusetts, not far from the original Plymouth Colony. The Puritan characters speak according to the time period, and after doing some research I discovered that the screenwriters derived the story and the language from letters and journals and first-hand accounts about the Salem Witch Trials and other 17th century accusations of witchcraft.

The first time I watched the movie, I didn’t realize all of that and got confused and wandered away. But when a writer friend suggested I give it another chance, I did. This time I didn’t have my phone or any other distractions about. I even turned out the lights (big mistake!) and immersed myself in the story. And OMG–the story was so good (and the acting superb) that I was sorry when the movie ended despite the fact I was scared out of my mind.

I do want to add a caveat. This movie is not about witchcraft. In fact, the witch in the woods is a minor character and there are moment’s when no one (character or viewer) knows if there really is a witch. This movie is a psychological drama about a Puritan family evicted from the safety of their colonial colony surrounded by high walls who are forced to carve a life for themselves in the wilderness. And by family I mean a husband, wife, teenage daughter named Thomasin (the protagonist), a middle-grade son, six-year old twins (boy and girl who are super annoying) and a baby on the way. So, right away, the viewer understands that the family’s chance of survival is quite low.

I also want to mention that if you watch this movie, be prepared to sit in a heightened state of tension and suspense. The cinematography along with the Puritan aesthetic add a level of stress not normally seen in movies.

So why am I writing about this movie? Obviously, I loved it and thought it was well written and well acted and highly recommend it for older audiences. (there is gore and nudity and violence so that might be an issue for some). I’m discussing this movie because I wanted to comment on why I think it was so brilliantly written–I wanted to talk about the Incident Incident.

Inciting Incidents take place in the beginning of a story but they’re sometimes hard for writers to truly understand. The Inciting Incident isn’t just a plot point. The Inciting Incident has to carry the story’s theme, premise, and central question which are the three elements necessary to impart to the reader/viewer what the story is really about at the deepest, psychological level.

Spoilers Ahead (If you don’t want to know any spoilers, you may want to stop reading here).

The basic plot is that not long after this Puritan family is thrown out of the safety of their colony and establishes a homestead by themselves in the wilderness, their baby boy disappears. While the father, William, believes wolves took his son, his wife Katherine believes a witch stole him. This is a terrible scene and it does set off a series of events that lead to the family’s inevitable tragedy. But while it’s a strong beginning plot point, it is not the Inciting Incident. The baby’s disappearance/abduction is awful but it’s not what the story is about. The story is really about sin and temptation and what it takes for man to fall out of God’s grace. Remember, they are Puritans so the words of the Bible structure their entire life from sleeping, eating, working, etc. And not only are they trying to live a pious life, they are living in extreme poverty. Everything, including food, water, and bait to trap animals is rationed.

Essentially, each of the characters represents one of the seven deadly sins. William, the father, suffers from pride, a sin that has forced the family out of the safety of the colony. Katherine, the mother, is so envious that her twisted mind makes her believe that her teenage daughter Thomasin could be a witch. The pre-teen son Caleb is guilty of lust. Mercy and Jonas, the horrible twins, represent anger and sloth/gluttony, respectively. Mercy’s anger, in particular, causes the family to turn against Thomasin at a crucial moment when she was trying to save them all. So what was Thomasin’s sin, and how does it relate to the Inciting Incident?

I’ll try to explain without giving away too much. In the story, there’s a black billy goat named Black Phillip. The horrible twins (really, truly awful) run around saying that they talk to Black Philip and he tells them to do bad things. As most adults would do, they ignore the kids and tell them to get back to work. But Black Philip watches everything… and I mean everything. During a scene early on in the movie, Thomasin is praying to God and extolling her sins. She is self-aware and truly committed to following God’s commandments–more so than the rest of her family. In this scene, she tells God that despite the horrible situation her family is in (living in the wilderness and starving), she will never forsake Him.

Now I didn’t catch this at first, but after this scene we see the horrible twins playing with Black Philip. And it wasn’t until the end that I realized the significance of this. Basically, by offering this prayer aloud, she has alerted the supernatural world that she will not be tempted. So, of course, who comes to tempt her? Who could never back down from a dare? That’s right. The devil. This is Thomasin’s Inciting Incident.

As the story progresses, and each of the characters falls to their vices (and their violent deaths), Thomasin stays true to her vow to never forsake God. Even if she wonders if he’s forsaken her. Now, while bad thing are happening, we are shown elements of Thomasin’s sin of greed. (because no one is perfect) As the violence ratchets up, Thomasin (and the viewer) suspect that Black Philip isn’t just a billy goat. Again, I don’t want to give away too much, but during the Black Moment of the movie, every member of Thomasin’s family dies a horrible death. And while these thing are happening, the family members are blaming Thomasin, calling her a witch. No one believes in her innocence and when she tells them that Black Philip isn’t just a goat, and that the witch in the woods is real, she’s spurned. She’s attacked. She’s almost murdered. Still, she stays true to the vow she made to God.

She’s true to her vow until the brutal, violent end when there’s nothing and no one left and she’s covered in everyone else’s blood. At that moment, she confronts Black Philip who transforms himself into the devil and asks her to write her name in the book. And we realize that Thomasin was his target all along. He didn’t need more sinners like William and Katherine. The devil wanted the Puritan girl who would have sacrificed herself for her family if they’d only believed her. Now desperate and terrified and alone (and suffering major PTSD from a day of watching her family get slaughtered), he makes her an offer she can’t refuse. He offers her butter and a pretty dress. He appeals to her vanity and greed.

At first she says no, but then–after the devil offers her a “beautiful life” and an apple, she succumbs. She hasn’t seen butter or pretty dresses of apples since her family left England. Food and clothing that, to Thomasin, represent safety and security. The two things she begged God for and the things that the devil stripped from her. But, in her grief, she doesn’t realize that it was the devil’s doing. She now believes God has forsaken her and gives in to greed and selfishness. So Thomasin signs her name in the devil’s book and chooses to follow Black Philip into the woods where she finds a coven of witches.

Yes, it’s an intense, deeply psychological movie. But I’m still fascinated by the brilliant Inciting Incident. By setting up Thomasin’s verbal prayer to God, the writers put her on a doomed course that we never saw coming yet at the same time knew she’d never survive. Thomasin, the protagonist of the story, began this entire chain of tragic events by uttering a simple prayer and believing she’d never betray her family, her beliefs, or God. This is her Inciting Incident. It doesn’t get more terrifying than that.

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