Pyewacket. 2018. Directed & Written by Adam MacDonald.
Starring Nicole Muñoz, Laurie Holden, Chloe Rose, Eric Osborne, James McGowan, Bianca Melchior, & Missy Peregrym (voice).
Cave Painting Pictures/Just Believe Productions/JoBro Productions & Film Finance
Not Rated. 90 minutes.
The subject of witchcraft has been used as storytelling fodder for as long as stories have been told, through oral storytelling, fictional novels and plays, and the visual medium of film. Adam MacDonald’s latest movie is in a class of its own, portraying witchcraft vastly different from the large majority of modern horrors concerning witches.
Pyewacket is a tale of what happens when people can’t reconcile reality with fiction, when mental health issues allow fantasy and folklore to mingle with reality. Nicole Muñoz plays Leah, whose grief over her dead father leads her to the occult. She and her mother (Laurie Holden) aren’t doing well. When mom decides to move to a new town, to start fresh, Leah reacts with anger. Leah gradually falls deeper into the occult. What’s only weird fun for her friends, and was once only an interest to Leah, soon becomes dangerous when her grief embodies a palpable vengeance.
Aside from witchcraft and mental illness, Pyewacket is also about how we deal with grief. Sometimes it leaves us isolated and increasingly depressed. Sometimes it makes us hurt ourselves. Other times it wounds the people around us. Leah’s trajectory is the epitome of how grief can lead us to scary places— some from which there is no return possible.
At first Leah’s dealing with her issues by diving into death metal, horror, and the occult, connecting to the so-called darker aspects of human nature to help come to terms with the real darkness of her life. Problem is, grief can manifest dangerously. What MacDonald does perfectly is straddle a line between witchcraft and mental illness, not revealing until the end what’s the actual cause of the plot’s events.
Leah tries conjuring a witch using a spell to a familiar named Pyewacket. The name comes from the familiar spirit of a witch, apparently discovered by witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins in 1644. He claims to have spied on a coven of witches. Upon hearing the name of a local woman, Hopkins detained her for days, and she told him of her familiars/the shapes they take. One of those familiars was supposedly called Pyewacket. In essence, Leah was reaching out to the familiar to help call the witch.
Leah didn’t conjure a witch— witches, in the traditional, patriarchal sense don’t exist. What she did was conjure up the darkest parts of herself, diving into grief by seeking revenge on her mother and allowing mental illness to take hold. MacDonald shows this through Leah’s actions, though as they occur they’re made to seem part of a supernatural plot and the viewer sees things from her POV, leading us to think what Leah does.
First, the cut she makes on her arm for the hex is reminiscent of a suicide attempt, how one would look if they’d recently cut their wrists. She comes to find evidence of someone entering their home at night, when it was actually her not able to remember she went out— she wakes in the woods during one scene without knowing how she got there, as if losing time in a dissociative state. Leah appears to dissociate several times, including the scene with the mixed up text messages, and also the scene in which her friend Janice (Chloe Rose) has a scary experience at the house, suggesting Leah might have been the one to scare her. Finally, there’s her auditory hallucinations: footsteps shuffle in the attic, and again behind her on the road up to her house, only audible to her. Later, there are serious visual hallucinations. A scene in the attic between mother and daughter is so unbearably tense it made Father Gore sigh with relief once it was over. Albeit only the briefest relief before a shocking finale.
A revealing line re: mental health comes from occult expert Rowan Dove (James McGowan), whom Leah idolises. When Leah gets in contact with Rowan he reminds her: “Pyewacket can take many forms, so don‘t trust your lying eyes.” Although he buys into his own bullshit, this is an important moment. He’s really telling Leah mental illness can take many forms. One’s own eyes can deceive them when their mind is manipulated by mental illness. And this is what leads Leah to horrible tragedy.
If this were a supernatural horror, and the witch Leah conjured was real, this would be a different movie. Yet the core would remain: grief is a weapon, or a tool. Artists and even regular people use grief as a tool to create, or to survive, and find a way forward. People likewise can find self-destructive and generally destructive ways to deal with grief, too.
Leah crosses over into fatally destructive grief when she believes the witch has become her mother and she lights it on fire. Only when the police confirm her mom’s corpse was burned in the house, not lying dead in the woods as she thought (due to a hallucination), does Leah understand she’s actually killed her mother.
An important aspect of Pyewacket is how MacDonald illustrates the duality of life and death as ever present aspects of existence we must reconcile. One image is juxtaposed in a positive and negative light during two scenes. In one, we see Leah conduct her conjuring ritual and she has to dig a hole in the ground, in which she’ll place the ingredients required (blood, hair— y’know, Witchcraft 101!). In a later scene, Leah helps her mother gardening and digs a similar hole to plant seeds. The ritual is representative of death, whereas gardening/planting symbolises life. Life and death are what Leah cannot fully reconcile, represented in the uneasy feeling she has while planting those seeds with mom, not far from the woods where she conducted the ritual.
The irony is, she surrounds herself with death, and, somehow, can’t accept it, either. She falls into a fantastical world of witchcraft, spells, and familiar spirits, only to find at the police station everything’s been real, death is real— there’s no return. Even darker: Leah – suffering from serious mental disorder – reverses the flow of time by figuratively returning to an age where witches were burned at the stake when they were nothing but normal women. Creepily reminiscent of how even women turned on other women by claiming they were witches in the 17th century, like a spooky bit of historical irony reaching from out of the past.
Leah tells her mother, when chastised for being too into occultism since her father passed: “It makes me feel better.” Father Gore’s turned to horror movies, heavy metal, dark literature, and all manners of eeriness in times of need. Many of us who love horror often find the genre cathartic, in a variety of ways. As Pyewacket so terrifyingly shows, grief is also a pain capable of warping our minds if we let it. In those dark hours, sometimes, dark things only serve to let the already dark parts of our hearts fester.
When we let grief bend the good to bad, when darkness leaps from our mind into corporeality, those things we find comforting are no longer comfortable. Grief can weaponise us— against ourselves, against others. MacDonald’s movie works fine on its own. It likewise operates allegorically, by starkly presenting the lengths to which grief will take us and how damaging it can be when it’s the centre of our lives.
In a way, the story is indicative of a need to move on past grief, as well as the necessity of reconciling life and death as part of our daily existence. Everyday people use drugs/alcohol/sex/adrenaline/so many other things to combat grief, or to escape harsh realities. Sometimes those things ruin their lives and the lives of those around them. Leah’s inability to cope with grief and come to terms with death leads her astray into a space where the line between reality and fiction is all but effaced, resulting in the destruction of her life, and that of her mother’s, too.