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So one time you enter this beauty pageant. It seems like a good idea at the time, and hey, why not? Then you get third place and have to spend the year being a princess, travelling around doing parades and shows in this royal-blue off-the-shoulder gown and a purple cloak with fake fur trim, and this crown.
“You” is me. It’s from a short story I wrote about it a few years afterwards. I was 15 when I took my short, cold dip into pageant life, and I can’t shake that naive voice. I slide into it when I talk about that time, which isn’t often (I never published the story). A fog descends, not just at the thought that it was me swanning around western North America in a rhinestone tiara. Like a lot of smalltown girls, I gave a good impression of agreeable calm — like a lake. When I think of myself and my friends then, I see us holding still in spite of all the usual teen infernos, as if just about to be photographed.
The Lady of the Lake is a young woman who has a personal presence that leaves a favourable and lasting impression. She has the integrity to meet anyone in an honest and genuine manner, the self assurance and judgement to converse intelligently, the finesse to meet dignitaries in any social setting, the natural warmth and grace of a young lady, as well as the intelligence, and excellent public speaking skills. Combined with the fact that she has an awareness of herself as an individual, and you have the young woman who is the Ambassador of Kelowna.
This is from the curiously antique-sounding pageant website. Or maybe not so curious, given that the competition began in the 1930s, when my British Columbia city was hauling itself up from its one-horse-town roots. It hit its stride in the 1950s, when the winner’s every move was reported breathlessly in the news. “Lady of the Lake” is Miss Kelowna’s alternate title, straight out of King Arthur, wherein the Lake spits out Excalibur and the Lady is Lancelot’s foster mom. Kelowna has a lake of its own, and its parade float is covered in blue tinsel to approximate it. The real lake is narrow and very deep, and home to more than one lost corpse. I used to swim down as far as I could off my grandmother’s wharf with one of those disposable underwater cameras, trying to photograph bones or ghosts.
Photographs eat your soul, right? (We all talked like that, in questions.) But that’s what I think about when I think about that time: being looked at. This was the early 1990s, pre-cellphones, pre-Instagram, but in training the pageant candidates developed an alertness for cameras, like animals for danger, or for food. We learned how to wave (one from the elbow, two from the wrist). How to eat soup (dip the spoon away from you, it looks less greedy). How to sit down (edge of the chair, legs angled to one side, ankles uncrossed). How to close a door (behind you, without turning around to look). How to exit a car without displaying your unmentionables (press your legs together and swing them out first). What unmentionables to buy for beneath evening gowns and suits (“Cinnamon” was an approved shade for nylons. So was “Nude”). How to pose: three-quarter turns, feet in third ballet position, arms at sides, chins slightly down. Look up at the lens from under your eyelashes.
I loved it. This was stuff I would never have learned anywhere else; my parents were bookish and kept to themselves. The ladies who ran it, the 30-ish Trainer and the 60-ish Director of Royalty, insisted this was not a beauty pageant, but they took femininity seriously. They looked the part, never without jewelry and full hair and makeup. Here was arcane knowledge: This is how it’s done. I remember going to the drugstore for their recommended French-manicure polish and touching a bottle of Witchcraft brand on the shelf. That’s how it all felt, occult. Initiation. Ritual. Hogwarts before there was Hogwarts, watered down for middle-class Canadian girls.
Men start things for me. Two of them, friendly and middle-aged, from a local service club, get my name from school, and one evening they come to my house to meet me and my parents and ask if I will be their sponsored candidate for 1991-92. They sit in the living room and politely accept cheese and crackers and ice water. The glasses sweat as the men chat with my dad about ski lifts and construction. My mother keeps out of it. My younger siblings lurk in my view at the top of the basement stairs, narrowing their eyes identically when the conversation turns to me. Why you?
I sit next to the fireplace, keeping my back straight and ignoring them. I’m flattered to be asked, persuaded easily, as I am into most things. The men are full of good cheer. The club buys me a dress. I pick blue velvet. The club’s name goes on the white satin banner I have to wear over it.
A couple of my more academic or proto-feminist friends are dumbfounded by my decision. But Why not is a minor refrain with me, and I’m used to pleasing adults. I usually choose Truth in Truth or Dare, so I can lie pleasantly if necessary and escape. This candidacy feels like a dare, and I take it. It plays into my inner perversity, doing something that already feels bizarre and out of time.
I have long hair, I like makeup. I play piano and flute, I get good grades. I look at myself in the mirror frequently. A bloodier part of me, the part that pours out gothic tales in a flowery journal and occasionally startles the English teacher, knows to stay in its kennel. But it’s easy enough to move between selves. I want to see me as you see me. Joyce Carol Oates makes this a refrain in Blonde, her psychological portrait of Marilyn Monroe. But I think it goes beyond that.How thick a shell can I build, so you can’t see me at all?
The competition takes months. There are nine candidates, all sponsored by local shops and clubs and societies. I’m the youngest, the oldest is 20, the upper age cutoff. Two girls are Asian, the rest white. Most of us have biggish 1991 hair. There is much friendliness, sisterliness, at training nights and the local events we are sent to. We wear matching boxy suits and white heels. We hear over and over in speech practice about respective career plans (teaching, beauty therapy, “a singer in Japan,” the law) and causes (children, mostly). Some of the girls are deeply earnest about all of it, with stage-mothers bustling in their wake. If you win this, you go on to more pageants, ideally to Miss Universe. Win that and then what? Then you win.
No one is mean. There’s a Miss Congeniality trophy at stake.
But first blood outs itself at the talent competition. Our hackles shift as we side-eye each other’s outfits and abilities. What can you do? For me, this question goes two ways: what is your talent, and what are you supposed to do about it? One of the more outspoken girls talks petulantly about a candidate from another year who played a video of herself synchronized-swimming while she did ballet live, in a costume she’d made herself, also singing at the end. The sense of injustice is visceral. Showing off is not what you do with your talents. But what do you do, then, if you have to perform them in public?
This part is held one evening at the Centennial Hall in the middle of the sports fields, with its chalk-dust smell and its raised curtainless stage. A girl puts on a felt beret and shows off her art. Another performs a liturgical dance in a white robe. There are a couple of jazz routines, a dramatic monologue in a fetus’s voice. I play the flute to a fuzzy tape-recording of myself playing the piano. The Trainer stops me backstage and powders more blush on my cheeks and forehead. More smell of dust. I get out there and do reasonably. In spite of nerves and hissing worries about being showoffs, we’re all enjoying being looked at onstage. Doing something that merits being looked at. We know this is what we’re here for.
The audience is gravely favorable. A full house, half-visible in the dark, but no cheers, just long gentle applause for everyone. One of the girls is tearful afterwards. She sniffles, “I want to do it again.” I’m not sure whether she means she wants to do her song better, or just to be on stage again. She’s inconsolable. We circle her, pat her.
As it turns out, my flute and piano and I win this part. Standing alone on the stage again, I feel I had nothing to do with it. I’m always surprised by things that happen to me. And I’m tired. The training nights are getting longer and more frequent, as are the weekend charity events.
School ends, and we do a summer fashion show for a full house. The pageant is approaching like an express. We inhabit our bodies more and more uneasily, though we go over and over walks and turns for the evening gown component, and the Phantom of the Opera jazz-dance routine we’re all in. There’s a judges’ question we each have to answer at the end of the big night, and the practice answers get sharper, and at the same time less sincere. No one says she doesn’t want a career or a cause, but a flabbiness has struck the responses. Yeah whatever, I want to be a teacher, I guess. Will we ever need careers? Aren’t we enough, doing this? Isn’t this what we’re here for?
Then it’s late August and the valley is soaked in heat. I’ve been avoiding tan lines all summer because of my strapless blue velvet. And it’s time. On pageant day, I get my hair done in long spirals, though it’s already curly. I take a bubble bath and it sags. My mum has caught a whiff of the stage mothers by now and starts to fuss around my head, but I tell her to leave it, and I get myself into my blue velvet dress and white banner. My heart is thudding like an old machine. When I arrive at the hotel hours early to get ready for the night, the candidate trainer clacks her tongue and attacks me with bobby pins. “They need to see your face,” she tells me, looking hard into my eyes and puffing my hair above my forehead. I close them against the hairspray bomb until she’s pleased with her work. She touches my cheek softly, an uncharacteristic gesture, checking me like a grocery store fruit.
The hotel is older, built to look modern in 1961, and still the most formal in town. The water in the central courtyard’s outdoor pool shifts and glitters. People in swimsuits watch from their lounge chairs as we dart back and forth between dressing and rehearsal areas. A woman is lying facedown, her white bikini top undone, the man beside her massaging her tanned back in slow circles. In a sudden sweat I thank God there is no swimsuit competition; I don’t think I’ve considered that possibility until this moment, and it’s nauseating. It’s not the abrupt hint of sex that scares me. Teenage pageants are resoundingly asexual, or at least the outer rind of them is, in spite of being all about bubbling femininity and strapless dresses, in spite of male-gaze theory. Those father-daughter Purity Balls are cousins. Girls doing what they ought to do, while everyone waltzes around the fact that they’re getting old enough to do what they want to do.
I stare at the half-naked woman on the lounge chair. It hasn’t occurred to me that people might look at us that way, though one of my indignant friends told me that prostitution and pornography are exact equals to what I’m doing. But those analogies are too easy. They don’t take into account the hiding in plain sight. And this woman isn’t hiding. She couldn’t care less who looks at her. The nauseating part is that I never think things through. I see that now. I don’t want to be stared at, but here I am, asking for just that.
The ballroom begins in darkness. The emcee is a slow-voiced AM radio host. The judges are local celebrities, two women and the token man. We know them by now, we’ve seen them watching us. And we know each other, we watch one another more closely. These are all smart girls, and tonight, waiting to go on, I see the way they use or screen their smartness. One is grieving her mother’s recent death, hoping to make her proud, but she rarely brings up this fact, though others might have. Her eyes swim with tears now. One, who has little chance, stands with military straightness in the knowledge that her candidacy has given her family undreamed-of pride. A couple inhabit their bodies with ease and proficiency, in tighter gowns than the rest of us, shifting their breasts in their bodices, posing better. They look as if they were another species, bred to this.
We do everything we’ve trained for. The judges’ surprise questions come towards the end. They ask me whether young people today should have goals and I’m momentarily flummoxed. Is the question stupid? Is it deeper than I’m seeing? Do they want us to have goals? Should I say No, they should not?
I don’t argue. I come up with something about physics, and my struggles with it, that somehow relates. The two in the tight gowns are asked about whether men and women are different (yes, but equal! Like hands!), and about heroes (people with cancer!). One of them tells me later that “Hitler” was the first word that popped into her head, but her big hazel eyes never showed a fleck of obscenity. She is very good. The purple cloak she ends up with suits her.
She wins, after last year’s Princess revenges herself on the Queen with a farewell speech about how she ate too much Mexican food on a trip to Washington. The other tight-gown girl is second. I am third, and dazed, and thinking Now what. The tiara is now what. Its combs gnaw at my scalp as I’m crowned, and the three of us stand on the low stage doing our wave to the long, packed room. Some of my friends and family are there, grinning in amusement or bemusement. As we walk off, escorted by scarlet-coated RCMP officers, Lionel Ritchie’s “Ballerina Girl” plays loudly.
The Director of Royalty takes us aside. She tells us we’re now living in a goldfish bowl, and all our movements will be scrutinized by the public. Her lined face is plentifully made up. Her heavy earrings tremble as she talks. She’s been running this show for years, she lives for this. She radiates joy. It hits me in the chest, like heartburn.
The watching goes on. The Director and her husband chaperone us during all our royal duties. He drives quietly, doing his male part. We three new royals are crammed together in the backseat of their compact Chevrolet, listening to Abba tapes or to the Director talk about World War II and why she will never buy a Japanese car or wait in line for a restaurant. It’s not something we do. We travel to parades and other pageants around BC and Alberta and Washington State. It’s another planet, all of it. We model wedding dresses and sportswear. We meet other royalty and exchange city pins. We meet Superman, Christopher Reeve, at the Calgary Stampede, a few years before he falls and is paralyzed. In our matching gowns and cloaks, or matching suits, or matching snowsuits, and always in crowns, we ride the City of Kelowna float with its blue tinsel. Floats lumber, parades are long. The driver, a realtor, is hidden underneath with the controls. I can just see the back of his head from my place left of Ogopogo, our resident lake monster, staring bland and bug-eyed from the top. I wave until my shoulder shakes, I smile until my jaw trembles and migraine stabs my left temple.
The Queen is sometimes handed solo gas-station roses in plastic tubes, or asked for autographs. I’m impressed by her easy handling of these peripheral guys, these dumb spider mates. She and the First Princess get along splendidly. They don’t wear unmentionables under their nylons, avoiding panty lines altogether. They’re not shy about showing me how this works. They idly discuss whether posing for Playboy one day would be a good idea.They’ve already staked their claims on womanhood, and they don’t know what to make of me. The Queen tells me, “You’re so innocent.” I’m not sure if she’s exasperated or curious. I use my innocence as a shield, pretending not to understand what they talk about half the time, though I’m always listening. They snap my bra, do my hair, hide my textbooks, tease me about sex, paint my nails, lend me earrings, rub my neck, make me share a bed with one of them everywhere we go. The rooms are always doubles. The motels are always functional. In small bathrooms, I take long showers to be alone for a while.
At many events, we’re paired up with local high-school boys as escorts. I find this humiliating and hilarious, as most of the boys seem to. One of them tells me he’s doing it for a PE credit. We usually dance one or two dances and then I try to bow out and sit on the sidelines, tiara-ed and smiling gamely. One night I end up with a boy I’d known in primary school. We haven’t seen each other in years. We leave the gym for air and stand around looking at the stars and laughing. Our reunion makes me bizarrely joyful, as though my actual life is still tethered to me. As though I have a life. I feel it then, shifting around in my chest under my strapless bra.
I remember a lot of disconnected details like this. The stars, the helpless laughing, the welts from control-top underwear, the pads in the balls of high-heeled shoes to ease pain. At one parade, a little girl with brown braids and a purple shirt asked me if I was a real princess. She was suspicious. I liked kids, I babysat all the time, but I curtly told her no. I’m not real.
I found the blue velvet dress in the garage a while ago. It smells, but I tried it on anyway. It just fits (it has a full skirt). But teenage me still doesn’t seem to have quite existed in this world. Stacy Schiff’s recent book about Salem in 1692 makes clear that the original accusers at the infamous witch trials were very much adolescent: The neighbor made me do this. I don’t like her. She pinched me. I’m tired all the time. The men and the hints of sex only entered the story later: She bewitched me. She made me think of her constantly. Her form came to my room at night. The way things slide away from you. You start them, then they escalate, they’re not in your control. You can only watch.
We looked a little witchy in the early ‘nineties, given free rein. Black dresses and tights, dried-blood lipstick. I got my driver’s license during the pageant year. I passed without having to parallel park; the examiner and I had the same name, so he let me off the hook, saying it was a wonderful coincidence. After being introduced to the mayor with the other candidates that night, I got to take the family Honda out by myself for the first time. I was still in my boxy suit and nylons, my white heels thrown into the passenger seat so they wouldn’t scuff. I drove everywhere, aimlessly, for hours. It occurs to me now that what I felt like was one of those teen witches flying off on a broomstick through the night over Puritan New England. Surveilled, questioned, harnessed by someone else’s power, but turning it around. Watch me now.
The Witches, Stacy Schiff’s novelistic examination of Salem in 1692, reveals how religious literalism and paranoia was baked into the New England soil. The first capital crime of the colonist’s legal code was idolatry. The second, Schiff notes, was witchcraft: “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.”
Less than a year after Schiff’s book comes The Witch, the directorial debut of Robert Eggers. Labeled a “New England Folktale” and set in 1630, The Witch feels like an apocryphal precursor to the mania in Salem. The film begins with a town council banishing a Puritan family, likely based on the unidentified sins of William, the father. While the family soon appears happy enough on their own small, secluded farm, they are manacled by faith. The family does not simply believe in God; they fear the divine. Prayers are laments. God, impatient and unkind, is watching.
William, it seems, has recreated God in his own image, imbued him with fire and vengeance, and not a small amount of interest in their farm and clan. We never learn much about the community from which the family has been cleaved, but we can assume that a literalist becomes even more literal when he reads sacred text alone. That said, William is more eager than evil. He casts judgments rather than aspersions. He truly loves his wife, Katherine, along with his children.
His young son, Caleb, is industrious, a good hunting companion. Twins named Mercy and Jonas are mischievous, and claim to communicate with one of the family’s goats, named Black Phillip. Mischief is a precursor to misery. Early in the film, Thomasin, the family’s teenage daughter, is playing peekaboo with the family’s newborn, Samuel. She closes her eyes, and the boy vanishes in a moment. A dark figure shadows through the forest with the baby, leading to a shocking scene of midnight ritual. Although it might be a product of its 17th-century setting, The Witch feels like a film that we should not see; events that belong on parchment, that are too legendary for moving images.
Anthony Lane sees the farm’s setting “on the verge of a forest” as the “classic habitation of a fairy tale.” He compares the film to the stories of the Brothers Grimm or the Venice-set Don’t Look Now. Both comparisons are merited, but there is a distinctly American tinge to The Witch, and it is not merely the fact that tales of baby-snatching witches were also a continental staple. Schiff writes that “As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures.” European witches flew; their displays of power were more vulgar. In contrast, “Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last for three years. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest. They stole babies and penises. The Massachusetts witch disordered the barn and the kitchen.” The devil works in mysterious ways.
The devil in The Witch has his eyes on young Thomasin. In one scene after the newborn’s disappearance, Mercy and Jonas heckle their older sister near a river. Thomasin takes their bait and pantomimes as an actual witch, documenting the hellish actions she would take with children. The performance is too perfect: the twins know it, and the viewer knows it. Yet Eggers has more of a story to tell. The Witch is purely a New England tale, a descendent of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, Nathaniel Hawthorne returned to his hometown of Salem. There he wrote “Young Goodman Brown” among other stories. A tale of a man discovering the “fiend” in his own “breast,” “Young Goodman Brown” reads as the product of Hawthorne’s own cloistered life.
In an 1837 letter to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hawthorne wrote “By some witchcraft or other, for I really cannot assign any reasonable cause, I have been carried apart from the main current of life, and find it impossible to get back again.” Malcolm Cowley thought Hawthorne’s “self-imprisonment” in Salem was an essential time in his artistic life; those years were “his term of apprenticeship and his early travels, corresponding to the years that other American writers of his time spent traveling in Europe or making an overland expedition to Oregon or sailing round Cape Horn on a whaler…Left alone, he traveled into himself and worked or idled under his own supervision. It was the Salem years that deepened and individualized his talent.”
“Young Goodman Brown” demonstrates that talent. It is one of those tales anthologized into simplicity, a staple of American Literature high school reading lists. Yet the story remains clever and rather chilling. Brown sets off on a journey that “must needs be done ‘twixt now and sunrise.” His wife of three months, Faith, is worried. She has good reason to be; Brown is heading for the wilderness. The story never hides his “present evil purpose,” and that forms the first connection with The Witch. New England horror is less about surprise and more about the slow burn of suffering. In Hollywood, horror sneaks into your home, leaps from behind doors; in New England, horror festers in your soul.
Brown meets the devil in the forest. The path he has taken was lined with the “gloomiest trees,” which “closed immediately behind” his entry. The devil knows his grandfather and father; in fact, “I have a very general acquaintance here in New England. The deacons of many a church have drunk the communion wine with me; the selectmen of divers towns make me their chairman.” Of course, this is typical Salem fare: the devil is in each of us. Yet Hawthorne, like Leo Tolstoy, remains long enough in the moments of his stories to force us to look deeper. Brown continues alone into the forest, which becomes transformed. Trees creak, wild beats howl, and even the “wind tolled like a distant church bell.” It seemed as if “all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.”
That shift — “The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man” — weds Hawthorne to The Witch. If Thomasin is the potential vessel for evil, then her father opens the door for the devil. William’s lie about the disappearance of his wife’s silver wine cup becomes an act of betrayal. Whereas at the start of the film he might resemble, in stature and temperament, the father from Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, he might best be considered Goodman Brown. The burning light of God has blinded him to the evil in front of his face.
As Hawthorne’s tale enters its final quarter, Brown becomes maniacal as the “benighted wilderness pealing in awful harmony together.” He discovers what resembles a witches’ Sabbath in the forest, lead by the devil. Brown and his wife are about to be the newest converts, ready to be baptized in sin. Yet in a move so common in such tales, Brown finds himself “amid calm night and solitude” in the tranquil forest, with no sign of the fiery ritual remaining.
Hawthorne’s extended description of the dark Sabbath shows that its reality was present in Brown’s soul — the only place that matters. In The Witch, characters carry the forest to their farm, their beds, their hearts, and then return to that darkness for more. Unlike Brown, what they experience is fully real, quite bloody, and surprisingly disturbing. The Witch is worth watching for a new approach to old horror: the feeling that we have heard this story before, and that is exactly why it scares us so much.
“My idea of the ideal literary dinner party remains locking a book under my left wrist while conveying risotto to my mouth with my right at the kitchen table.” Stacy Schiff talks literary dinner parties and more in this week’s New York Times By the Book column. Schiff’s latest, The Witches: Salem, 1692, is out this week.