CW; self harm
Religious horror in the horror in the 21st century seems almost nonexistent. As a lapsed Catholic, I’m constantly drawn to horror films involving religious imagery. It won’t surprise you, there’s a lot. Most of the time, I’m just disappointed. My disappointment is that they’re rarely religious. Most of these films generally just regurgitate the scares and sacrilegious imagery of The Exorcist fifty years later. James Wan built The Conjuring franchise on the premise of “good” Christian souls, the less said about the actual Warrens the better, doing battle with the forces of capital E “Evil”. These will generally involve a priest or other figure of religious authority. Religious iconography becomes window dressing for what are basically monster movies. Monster movies, religious imagery, and the occult are fun. I like these things. Religious horror should communicate something about religious beliefs though.
I remember seeing The Exorcist for the first time in high school. I’d never seen a horror movie like it or really any film like it. I understood the religious ideas in this film because they were the ones in my home. When it comes to religious horror, this still remains the standard. Yet its imitators copy the surface struggles without looking at the philosophical struggle central to the film. Yes, two priests battle a possibly demonic force for the soul of a young girl. Yet, this isn’t the true struggle of the film. Jason Miller’s Father Karras struggles constantly with whether he is a good person and the beliefs he practices. The horror of The Exorcist lies in how this otherworldly tests both Karras’s character and his beliefs. The Exorcist is ultimately a film about faith.
Rose Glass’s 2019 directorial debut Saint Maud is also about faith. Glass’s film is the first religious horror that seems made by some who understands the actual religion. This is a tale where the Catholic faith drives the story. A bleak parable, Saint Maud looks at one person’s faith and its horrible costs.
Morfydd Clark portrays Maud a young hospice nurse who is devoutly Catholic. Her latest patient is Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda, a once celebrated choreographer now dying of cancer. Maud openly shares her faith in God with her new patient and how she hears him. Amanda, clearly an atheist, indulges Maud’s peculiarities. She facetiously refers to Maud as her little savior. Maud, already believing God sent her to this new patient, takes this jibe with total sincerity. Only when Maud realizes that Amanda’s words were meant to insult does the film start down its dark path.
Writer/director Rose Glass presents two possibilities to the audience about Maud. The first is that Maud might be unhinged in her beliefs, a side effect of past trauma. There’s shots towards the beginning showing scars indicating possible self harm. Maud’s adherence to her faith only fuels this tendency towards self mutilation. When she slaps Amanda, she punishes the offending hand. At one point, she place nails in her shoes as a form of penitence. Maud is a Catholic who firmly believes through suffering comes salvation.
The second possibility Glass presents is that Maud truly receives visions from God. Very early on, we see Maud enraptured by something multiple times. After she feels abandoned by God, she finds herself alone floating in mid air, redeeming her faith. There’s multiple times Maud sees vortexes as possible signs from the Lord. By the end of the film, she’s talking to Him directly.
Whether she’s crazy or is being visited spiritually isn’t the point of Glass’s film. What is important is that Maud utterly believes. Glass doles out enough about Maud we understand why she’s turned to Catholicism. At one point she was a nurse named Katie. Something occurred with the death of a patient that deeply affected her. She turned to Catholicism and Katie became Maud. There’s precedent in the New Testament of saints changing their name after conversion. It’s clear Maud’s own conversion lies in her desire for absolution and salvation. She truly believes that self harm she does now is in service of her penitence. She sinned and now believes she must save Amanda to save herself. By the end, Maud truly believes only God will absolve her of her sins, even after others grant her this.
Saint Maud is terrifying because of what Maud’s faith drives her to do. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a horror film that actually understands the religion it portrays. Rose Glass crafts a story where the religious philosophy drives the horror. This is the story of a woman who feels her beliefs justify her increasingly deranged actions. Here the religious imagery and philosophy serve only to make the film scarier.