by Olivia Oliver-Hopkins
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Olivia Oliver-Hopkins is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at the University of Sydney. She has presented at the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) and the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (PopCAANZ) annual conferences. She has also worked at the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
[This is the text version of a paper presented on the day. It is a summary of a work in progress and in no way a finished product. Comments and feedback on the ideas in this paper are most welcome and encouraged. Please ‘leave a reply’ in the box at the bottom of this page.]
Southern horror films that engage with tropes of religious faith, such as Frailty (2001), have been read by many critics such as James A. Crank and Maria Herbert-Leiter as films that harmfully present an overwhelmingly negative image of the U.S. South as a region characterised by backwards locals and a hostile natural environment, or what Crank calls cinema of “South-sploitation”. He suggests that:
Throughout their exploration of [the] small town [South]… filmmakers suggest that the South’s inherent religiosity is itself a kind of horror… [The] message [is] a strong suggestion that the South’s obsession with religion represents a primitive savageness that exists nowhere else in America… [South-sploitation cinema] expresses a sombre obsession with the Southern gothic trope of religious zealotry connected to violence and terror.[i]
This notion of religion being connected in some way to class – what Crank calls a “primitive savageness”, borne of lack of education and opportunity connected to low socio-economic status, is further supported by critics working in cultural studies and sociology, such as Matt Wray, who bases his writings on personal experience growing up in a charismatic Christian cult in what he describes as “a ‘trashy’, New Hampshire factory town.”[ii] Wray notes that:
[t]hough not all the members of our church were poor, poverty was primary among the social conditions which helped shape our religious identity… In general, charismatic Christianity brings a sense of spiritual power and righteousness to those who, because of their positions within capitalist economic structures, suffer from a fundamental lack of social and economic power.[iii]
Furthermore, while I do not have time to work through these notions in detail today, I have elsewhere explored the strong connection in the popular imagination between the U.S. South and poverty, especially the notion of “white trash” – those white people whose standards of living and behaviour fall far short of America’s expectations for members of their race. Therefore, religion is not only seen as having strong links with the U.S. South, it is specifically seen as having strong links with white trash in the U.S. South.
However, while it is true that the horror in Frailty is based upon religious notions, and is strongly associated with the white trash Meiks family, I feel it would be a mistake to assume that this suggests that religion itself is inherently negative. That said, Crank’s comments are typical of academic readings of religious horror film, particularly in recent years. Specifically, the notion that religion is rooted in ignorance and superstition, and that there is always a more comprehensive and – most importantly – more accurate or truthful way to explain the world seems to be a common element not only of horror film criticism, but of the increasingly secular nation that is America, along with the rest of the Western world.
But horror film has a way of turning such accepted truths on their heads, and the idea that religion is an inaccurate way of interpreting the world is continually challenged, if not overturned, in most religious horror films. In the so-called ‘real world’, a bump in the night more than likely is just a possum in the roof or your significant other stumbling to the bathroom, but in the world of the horror film, it is usually a portent of a far more frightening encounter that you will be unable to ignore. This implied validation of the existence of the supernatural, even if it is just within the world of the film, has interesting implications for the value and validity of alternate world views. Unlike the real world, where we are constantly encouraged by our culture to seek an ultimate ‘truth’, usually a scientific explanation, horror films ask us to open ourselves up to the possibility that this ‘truth’ is in fact a supernatural explanation – or, more radically, that there is no absolute ‘truth’ and what does and does not happen, and what it is caused by, is determined by your viewpoint, and multiple perspectives can be equally correct.
In other words, religion is a way for such people to take back control of their lives by embracing the spiritual dimension in order to ignore or correct the lack they feel they suffer from in the physical world. As such, it is an important way of granting power to minorities who may not otherwise experience it, and also of validating experiences that do not necessarily fit into Western paradigms of rationality and science. Films like Frailty help to open our minds to the possibilities inherent in these alternate experiences, and suggest a genuine questioning of these dominant Western paradigms in order to explore diverse worldviews and address power imbalances in our everyday society.
Frailty is unique among the horror films I have viewed for this project (to date, almost one hundred) in its positioning of the audience in regards to the religious explanation given for the atrocities that take place in the film, which may be partly because of its more ambiguous genre, which could also be described as thriller, mystery or crime. At the commencement of the film, we are encouraged to discount the validity of the man we believe to be Adam Meiks’ reasoning for his perpetration of the God’s Hand murders – that “[d]emons are taking over the world” – as he appears to be mentally ill and raving (Frailty). However, as the film progresses, we slowly come to question whether the Meiks’ religious beliefs could indeed have some basis in fact – unlike other horror films, where we are either positioned to believe in the supernatural from the outset (partly because of the expectations of the genre) or our positioning is changed by a sudden event – the appearance of a demon, for example – for which there is no other logical explanation. Through this, the film guides us from scepticism to a belief in – or at the very least, acknowledgement of the possibility of – the validity of the Meiks’ religious viewpoint.
At first, there is a strong indication that Fenton and Adam’s father, Mr. Meiks – whose first name is never revealed – has suffered some sort of psychotic break, driven, perhaps, by the very poverty and lack of social power of which Wray speaks. We learn that Mr. Meiks is a mechanic and that Mrs. Meiks is long since dead, apparently leaving the boys to look after themselves most of the time, as in the constant shots early in the film of Fenton cooking, washing dishes, etc. More troublingly still, after Mr. Meiks has his vision, we see him drinking and smoking while his children clean around him. While we see, apparently from Mr. Meiks’ point of view, light shining off a trophy in his bedroom late at night, we don’t see the angel of which he speaks – until his second vision, which comically takes place while he is under a car in the workshop (Frailty), with the shot of someone’s legs walking by the car with the sound of a saw in the background further undermining his credibility. Furthermore, in this vision the angel does not look real – more like an animated Renaissance painting than an actual being.
The language Mr. Meiks uses to talk about the angel is also strongly suggestive of the attempt to gain social power through religion that Wray discusses. Mr. Meiks describes the family’s new purpose to his children by saying:
We’re a family of superheroes who are going to help save the world… God [has a] special purpose for our family… The end of the world is coming. It’s near… [The final battle] is being fought right now. But nobody knows it except us and others like us. We’ve been chosen by God. He will protect us. He’s given us special jobs to do… We can see the demons while other people can’t… Judgement Day is here… Soon we’ll all be in Heaven – [Fenton], me, Adam – with Mummy. She’s waiting to see us in Heaven. Judgement Day is here. We’ve been chosen by God. (Frailty.)
The constant repetition of “the end of the world”, “the final battle” and “Judgement Day” being near or here is strongly reminiscent of common cult beliefs, and Mr. Meiks also uses a lot of phrases which seem designed to make the family seem special and powerful in ways that their socio-economic status prohibits in the real world, such as “superheroes” and “help save the world”, as well as the exclusionary language (“nobody knows it except us”, “we can see the demons while other people can’t”) and repetition of “we’ve been chosen by God”. Wray comments that “[t]he Apocalypse represents a final confirmation of the truth claims of fundamentalism, a fulfilment of righteousness, and a total liberation from a fallen world of sin and misery.”[iv] In other words, while Mr. Meiks and his family are poor and unhappy on Earth, their cult-like beliefs are a way for them to endure their suffering by clinging on to the idea that those who are better off on Earth will eventually be less powerful and happy than them, and for a longer time, when they are in Heaven.
However, as the film progresses, we begin to see possibilities in Mr. Meiks’ vision. His first victim, Cynthia Harbridge, has apparently committed hideous sins – but we are not told what those are. However, according to Mr. Meiks, the second victim, Edward March, was “a murderer of little children” (Frailty). The fact that the actor cast as March looks very much like the stereotypical popular culture image of a paedophile – an older man, overweight and balding, with glasses and poor dress sense – adds to the audience’s sense of doubt. The casting of Powers Boothe, well known for a variety of villainous roles, in the role of Agent Wesley Doyle, is another subtle way in which the film begins to undermine our disbelief of the Meiks’ family’s religious explanation of their acts. This belief is further undermined by the revelations that the man we thought was Fenton is actually Adam, that the God’s Hand killer is not committing the murders in God’s name but to torment Adam for his beliefs, and that, just as Adam said, God appears to be protecting him when no one at the police station can remember his face and the security cameras have malfunctioned, preventing him from being identified as Doyle’s killer. The language used in these situations further suggests the validity of the religious explanation – the camera technician at the precinct tells the detectives that he “can’t explain” the malfunction of the tapes, and Agent Hull says that he “can’t understand” why he can’t remember Adam’s face; and further, even when he meets Adam again face-to-face he doesn’t recognise him (Frailty).
Finally, the film directly endorses the Meiks’ assertion of the demonic nature of their victims through Adam’s revelation, confirmed by Doyle himself, that the FBI agent murdered his mother. While whether these “demons” were demons in the Biblical sense or whether the term was simply meant metaphorically to denote a person who commits horrific acts is left open to interpretation. However, at the end of the film the audience find themselves much more willing to believe that God has told the Meiks family of criminals’ unpunished acts and has licensed them to carry out these executions, not least due to the common human desire for evildoers to be punished outside of the rule of law if necessary, as well as the frequent citation of God’s lack of involvement in punishment or prevention of evil acts as a reason for atheism.
Sharon Patricia Holland argues in her book Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity that different world religions – non-Western systems of belief in particular – espouse a belief in the connections between worlds. For example, Holland tells us that the Zulu believe in two worlds, ‘this world’ and the ‘other world’, and that the source of birth, the beginning of life, is believed to be in the other world, although it actually occurs in this world, and death, the end of one’s life in this world, is merely a transferral of life to the other world. Moreover, as mothers, women are particularly close to the boundary between this world and the other world, and hence are in a position of great power because of their ability to connect with the other world.[v] In other words, while Western society has a distinctly black-and-white way of viewing the world – either something is true or it is not; either a way of viewing the world is correct or it is not – non-Western societies do not see boundaries as being quite so solid or categories as being quite so clearly defined.
What I argue religious horror films like Frailty do, therefore, is not so much endorse an alternate worldview to the exclusion of all others, or even endorse such a worldview outright, but rather endorse the possibility of the validity of such worldviews, perhaps even in conjunction with the dominant worldview. We are never informed for sure whether God is giving Adam instructions, or just protecting him, or whether Adam is a madman who has benefitted from one lucky guess and some coincidental technology and memory failure; but what we do know is that given the evidence, any of those, perhaps even all three at once, are possible ways of viewing the film. In Adam’s words, then, “sometimes truth defies reason” (Frailty).
[i] Crank, James A. “An Aesthetic of Play: A Contemporary Cinema of South-Sploitation.” Southerners on Film: Essays on Hollywood Portrayals since the 1970s. Ed. Andrew B. Leiter. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011. pp. 211-212
[ii] Wray, Matt. “White Trash Religion.” White Trash: Race and Class in America. Ed. Matt Wray. Ed. Annalee Newitz. New York: Routledge, 1997. p. 202
[iii] Wray p. 207
[iv] Wray p. 194
[v] Holland, Sharon Patricia. Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. p.105