Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Heretic: A Dark Song (dir. Liam Gavin, 2016)

Horror is a religious experience. 

That, anyway, is my favorite explanation for horror fandom; the answer to the puzzling question of why there are festivals and podcasts and magazines and (ahem) newsletters, all dedicated to promoting and celebrating movies that are intentionally distressing to watch. It’s not that horror fans endorse real-world violence; most, in my experience, are sensitive and even anxious people. It’s not about the misogyny of watching naked women die, or the machismo of toughing it out; most horror fans are women. We look more like the victims than the killers.

Yet we show up to watch ourselves get killed. The reason, according to Barbara Creed, is spiritual. She calls horror movies a “defilement rite;” a type of ceremony in which the seeker engages in perversity, smears herself in the abject and reviled and taboo of her culture, so that she can emerge, on the other side of the rite, spiritually cleansed.

“The horror film attempts to bring about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order finally to eject the abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and the non-human,” Creed writes. “As a form of modern defilement rite, the horror film attempts to separate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its stability[.]” 

If you exhaust your capacity for the profane, you have nowhere left to go but the sacred; if you go down far enough into Hell, you find a trap door that leads to Heaven. And, if you would ever like to see this principle demonstrated within a horror film — a defilement rite about a defilement rite — I highly recommend Liam Gavin’s 2016 film A Dark Song. 

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A Dark Song is a weird movie; I’m not even sure it qualifies as horror, except that I suppose there’s no other way to classify a movie about two people who lock themselves into a decrepit old British mansion to perform a black magic rite that opens a gateway to Hell. But, though you could easily wring a jump-scare infested, action-heavy movie out of that scenario — and many directors have — A Dark Song is quiet and introspective. It’s a story about the extremes people will drive themselves to in the name of faith, and — what is even more rare, and more interesting — about a woman’s attempt to reconcile with her God. 

The woman in question, Sophia, is a mother whose very young son was murdered. She has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on renting a remote mansion and paying a reclusive occultist, Joseph Solomon (who insists on being addressed only as “Mr. Solomon”) to perform the Abramelin Operation, a ritual in which the seeker obtains a favor from her Holy Guardian Angel. The favor she wants has to do with her son’s death. To go into it any further would spoil it, so I won’t — but the whole movie hinges on whether Sophia is honest, with others or with herself, about her motivations.

The Abramelin Operation is a real practice; it takes six to eighteen months to complete, most of which require dawn-to-dusk ritual and complete isolation from the outside world. A quick Google nets you multiple blog posts from the occult community, warning each other that it is incredibly dangerous. “You will be fucked with in some pretty spectacular ways,” one such post warns; failures are left with “no home, no family, no job, and no sanity,” and the success rate is 1 in 100. Aleister Crowley claimed that he was plagued by “devils” throughout his own (failed) attempt; one anecdote has Crowley absent-mindedly writing down an order for his butcher on a piece of the Abramelin spell, only to have the butcher go into a trance and cut off his own fingers while fulfilling Crowley’s order.

I don’t expect most readers to believe in this, or even take it seriously. But Gavin’s movie, which was inspired by a documentary about the Crowley attempt, does. (In fact, Gavin — a practicing Catholic — took the ritual so seriously he refuses to quote it. “I'm actually quite careful not to show the actual proper ritual on screen,” he told one interviewer. “Call me old fashioned but I don't want to enact a black magick invocation on screen, I don't want that following me about.”) The ritual does go wrong, and things do get gory. But the movie is less interested in the stabbings and decaying dog corpses and demons coming up through the floorboards than in the question of just how desperate you’d have to be to risk all this for a single favor. Sophia and Solomon perform the Abramelin Operation less because they are drawn to its darkness than because they have nothing left to lose.

Sophia wants justice for her son. But she also wants to grab God by the scruff of the neck and shake him around a little; she wants God to answer for what he did to her family. When warned by her Christian sister that what she’s about to do is clearly Satanic, Sophia replies that she doesn’t care about right or wrong. She cares about results, and she cares about answers. She wakes up every day to a world without her little boy in it: “And tell me, where is God? Where is His goodness?” 

The Abramelin, in which Sophia’s angel is required to give her anything — anything — she asks for, is her way of answering that question. If God has abandoned Sophia, she will hunt him down; if God denies her his goodness, she will storm the gates of heaven and take some of it herself. 

We’re never given a clear sense of what forged Solomon’s character, what formative trauma drives a man to a life of semi-professional demon summoning. Yet it seems clear that he, too, was broken by life at some point. He is an incredibly mean-spirited, angry, abusive person; he discloses, at one point, that he “lives a hard life,” and that he’s an alcoholic. It also seems important that Solomon is working-class, and that he palpably loathes Sophia, who is not; he goes full Chapo the minute there’s any disagreement, sneering about “you stupid little girls, you stupid little posh girls” even as he accepts the not-inconsiderable payoff of eighty thousand pounds for his services. 

It’s the class resentment, I think, that gives us the clearest insight into what drives him. Historically, whether we’re talking enslaved Africans practicing hoodoo or English witches prescribing herbal birth control, magic is a language of the oppressed, a knowledge discipline for people shut out of the academy. Solomon’s magic, in particular, is incredibly complex. In order to pull off the rite, the participants must be fluent in English, French and German, arrange complex geometric figures and “number squares” so that they add up to numerologically significant sums, and have the physical and emotional discipline to go through punishing ordeals. In one early exercise, Sophia is told to sit still for two days, without food and water, while contemplating a rock.

Solomon, who seems incapable of functioning in most social contexts, lights up with something like genuine human warmth when he’s teaching Sophia some finer point of the art. He likes mastering complexities, and teaching other people to master them; he’s proud of what he knows. In another life, with different opportunities, Solomon might be an academic — someone’s tough-as-shit, life-changing old professor. In this life, he gets paid to make desperate rich women stare at rocks. He’s aware that there is a difference.

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My own spirituality is not something I talk about a lot. That’s mostly because I cover politics, which is a secular discipline and best served by a secular perspective, but it’s also because I think there’s too much temptation to go from talking about your practice to posturing as some kind of wiser, more enlightened person because you have one. I’m not a Christian, but the one bit of scripture I do try to honor is Matthew 6:1 - 6:8; if your spiritual practice becomes a means of sating your ego or enhancing your personal brand, a better brand and a bigger ego is all the reward you will ever get.

But. I was raised strictly Catholic, and my experience of the faith — which is both common and banal; I don’t want to over-stress it — was one of coming to believe that the God I was being taught to worship was not a good being. He condemned all of humanity to toil and suffering because one woman made one mistake. He created Hell and tossed people into it just for not having heard of him. He allowed death to exist. He allowed pain to exist. He made rules and didn’t abide by them. Maybe some of this would be forgivable if believing in him actually made you a better person, but it clearly didn’t; he encouraged men to abuse and subjugate their wives, he emboldened torturers to create new implements and means of torture, he gave colonizers their excuse to enslave people and erase cultures and commit genocides. He also, as per my second-grade CCD teacher, did not give animals souls, so no matter how good you were, and no matter what your mother told you, you still wouldn’t see your dead cat in Heaven. 

So it was Sophia who pulled me in to A Dark Song. I could understand her rage at God; her need to make him account for his creation. In the moments when Solomon is dressed up in his priestly robes, beating and berating her for some minor error — a process that starts dark and very quickly turns unforgivable — she seems like a stand-in for every woman who’s undergone abuse and shaming at the hands of a patriarchal religion. She’s come for redemption, or for truth; what she gets is some man screaming into her face about how worthless she is, and how the angel won’t deign to show its face unless she does exactly what he tells her. I mean, I was Catholic. I’ve been there.

There are even some moments when Solomon seems like a stand-in for the Christian God himself; certainly, in his violence and sexism and endless need for control, he embodies all the worst impressions I ever had of YHVH. In one scene, Sophia is unable to purify herself by forgiving her son’s killers, and so Solomon is forced to redeem her before the ritual can continue. He manages this by opening a vein and making her drink a juice glass full of his blood. This is my blood, which is poured out for you; drink it. It isn’t over the top, or blatant, but it’s there.

It’s still puzzlingly rare to read or see stories about how women experience patriarchal religion as violence. You can stream Wild Wild Country on Netflix, freak yourself out with tales of ritual sex and red outfits, marvel at the atrocities people will commit for their gurus. Cults are weird. But every religion is weird, if you don’t practice it. And, if my (many) experiences watching cult documentaries are any guide, all of that weirdness begins with presumed right of access to practitioners’ bodies.

In that context, a scripture like “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does… do not deprive one another,” which literally mandates that married women do not have the right of consent, can be just as shattering as any naked encounter session in an Oregon commune. (Yes, yes, Mom, I know: Husbands technically don’t have the right to withhold consent, either. Which is just as bad, but also, raise your hand if you think this scripture has ever been applied equally to both genders.) To grow up hearing that “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” will change your opinions about husbands for the worse, certainly. But it will affect your judgment of Christ and the church as well.

Like I say: You don’t hear a lot of discussion about this, outside of annoying Reddit atheists and Tori Amos albums. (Speaking of defilement rites.) But, in the scenario of Sophia, trapped and alone with Solomon, I see a shadow of that truth.

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And yet, as I rewatch the movie, it’s Solomon, horrible abusive misogynist Solomon, whose perspective I increasingly find myself drawn to. He doesn’t do magic because he wants something from God. He does magic for the sake of magic — because he loves the act of making contact.

This is why A Dark Song makes for a weird fit with the horror genre; not many other horror movies slow down enough to include bits of dialogue like this one: 

SOLOMON: I’ve seen gods, demons. I let gods rain silver on me. And the dead, and the damned. Most of us are damned, you know.

SOPHIA: Have you seen anything that scares you?

SOLOMON: It all scares me. 

SOPHIA: Is that the point? 

SOLOMON: No, the point is to know. To fucking know. To see the architecture, and the levers. To climb the mountain.

The parallels with horror as a defilement rite are also subtle — but, as you can see from that bit of dialogue, they are present. Both Sophia and Solomon are seeking wisdom through confronting the deepest darkness they can find, trying to see things that “scare them;” they’re summoning Hell to get a glimpse of Heaven. Fear is the necessary price of revelation. Before the ritual begins, Solomon even refers to it as “the horror.”

But, dark as the ritual might be, its aim is enlightenment. For Solomon, the point of an encounter with the Divine isn’t to get something. The point of an encounter with the Divine is to have the encounter. It’s something you do to understand how things work, and thereby understand your own role in that greater purpose.

This is what Sophia is after, too, whether she knows it or not. Solomon is not her way there; in fact, Solomon is something she has to overcome to get there, an obstacle in her path. He profanes his own authority, and he profanes what is sacred about their work. This doesn’t mean the sacred is forever beyond her reach.

What A Dark Song ultimately suggests is that there is not much distance between a heretic and a mystic. Though the feeling may start with how could You do this to me, it quickly becomes why do You do anything, and then who are You, and for a certain sort of person, that question won’t be resolved until you can track down the Great Whatever and see it face to face. Maybe some people come to God whole. But there is also a particular orientation to divinity that you can only get if something broke you; a sacred wound. 

That Sophia and Solomon seek their apotheosis through magick — complete with the Crowleyan “k” — may strike some viewers as silly, and others as evil. But whatever the Abramelin Operation may be, it is also a long, arduous process, which requires a tremendous amount of work and suffering, just for a tiny chance at receiving God’s mercy. It may not be condoned by the Church, but it is an act of genuine devotion. 

Horror as a spiritual vehicle may seem equally silly. But it’s also rooted in something real. William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist in the hopes that it would scare hippies back to the Catholic church. Stanley Kubrick said The Shining was his happiest movie because it contained proof of an afterlife. Women who have been damaged and frightened by a patriarchal culture show up to these movies, ready to bathe themselves in taboo and sexually tinged violence, to drink in what disgusts them, no differently than Sophia drinking a glass of blood to coax her angel down. The point is not fear, but reaching what lies on the other side of fear; exhausting the possibilities of ugliness and evil, and thereby returning to the outside world with a deeper knowledge of goodness. 

If A Dark Song has a message, it is that absolution, or grace, can lurk in unexpected places. The Will of the Angel and the will of the person are not always in sync with each other. When we seek out darkness, we are headed toward light; what we want, and what we think we want, are often very different things. 

A Dark Song is available to stream on Netflix.

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