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Torture Porn, or Feminist Critique?

For women, horror films about cults offer a metaphor for social imprisonment—and liberation.
mia farrow rosemary baby

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, 1968. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Movies about cults are almost always metaphorical. Period pieces take a hard look at how upheavals in American history created a particularly vulnerable segment of the population—take Joaquin Phoenix’s World War II veteran in the Master or Elizabeth Olsen’s orphan in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Other films use cults to address issues of ritualistic bigotry in certain pockets of America—have you seen Red State?

But here’s what I noticed after watching a semi-arbitrary portion of this highly specific horror sub-genre over the past few weeks: A surprising number of these films use so-called “destructive cults” analogically, to discuss an issue Hollywood so often doesn’t want to—the lingering systemic oppression of American women.

Somehow, the promise of devil worship and nefarious personality tests bring out the best in Hollywood’s representation of women.

This is really quite unique. For one, because movies about cults often fall under the horror and psychosexual thriller genres—both of them known for capitalizing on the suffering of women who had the misfortune to be slightly promiscuous, and to find themselves at the mercy of lazy screenwriters. Moreover, we are talking about Hollywood, where, last year, only 12 percent of protagonists were female (and only 30 percent of characters with speaking parts) in the year's 100 top-grossing films.

It’s rare to get a woman to open her mouth in a film, not to mention having a film seriously deal with the very forces that make her such a rare commodity in screen entertainment.

Yet deal with it they do, and with the kind of female representation that we female viewers dream of; these leading women stand steady amid scenarios rife with suspenseful, psychological, and, sure, violent subjects. Somehow, the promise of devil worship and nefarious personality tests bring out the best in Hollywood’s representation of women: Seven of the Decider’s 10 essential films about cults star women. It’s important to point out, too, that these are not roles that paint the woman as the hapless victim. Many on-the-rise actresses have chosen to follow their breakout performances with range-demonstrating performances in movies about cults: Perhaps you recall that Mia Farrow followed up Peyton Place with Rosemary’s Baby (1968), or that Kate Winslet took a starring role in Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke! (1999) in the wake of her Titanic (1997) fame. More recently, Brit Marling released Sound of My Voice (2011) after Another Earth (2011), and Elizabeth Olsen—yes, that Olsen—made her feature-film debut with Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene that same year.

How did this bizarre collision of cults and feminism come about at the movies? You can't talk about sensitive approaches to women in cult movies and not examine the sub-genre’s ür-text, Rosemary’s Baby. Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece represents the best of the sub-genre’s most entertaining elements—a coven of creepy old people, a sex scene ripped straight from a grindhouse film, and an innocent ingénue in peril—and, also, well, a sophisticated critique of women’s health care and ownership of their bodies. Rosemary’s Baby isn’t so much about the coven residing in New York’s Dakota Building as it is about painting housewifery as a social conspiracy to keep women vulnerable and their bodies under patriarchal control.

Ever since Rosemary’s Baby, movies about cults have posed subversive questions about women’s role in America through the frame of the cult story.

It remains dissonant to remember that Polanski—who, in addition to being a rapist, holds some very retrograde attitudes about birth control—gave us a film that slyly critiqued the sanctimonious cult of the American mother. Rosemary is vulnerable not because she is stupid or pretty or promiscuous, but because she is confined to her apartment and too polite to shut the door on her next-door neighbors, who happen to be part of a cult that wants to impregnate her with a demon baby. The tactics the coven uses in order to bring this satanic birth about, however, are all too mainstream. Like any good upper-middle-class New York circle of housewives, the cult members persuade Rosemary to go to a doctor (highly recommended), to eat strange herbal remedies (including a delicacy known as a chocolate “Mouse”) and to regularly attend neighbors’ parties (Rosemary can’t stand them). All of these seemingly benign activities take on oppressive tones as they slowly confine Rosemary to a social circle that cares only about cultivating the parasitic baby inside her (if it kills the host, so be it). Is the cult really the devil-worshipping group, or a larger establishment, a moral majority, that commands the well-off American mother to remain at home, tend to her womb, the stovetop, and children? The genius of the film is that it suggests both at once.

Ever since Rosemary’s Baby, movies about cults have used the frame of the cult story to pose subversive questions about women’s role in America. For instance, are cults necessarily more abusive to women than secular society is? That question hangs in the beclouded air of Holy Smoke!, a 1999 delight from feminist director Jane Campion. The plot of the film involves the de-programming of Ruth (Kate Winslet), a past follower of a charismatic Indian guru, at the hands of professional “exit counselor” P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel). Campion quickly turns that premise on its head by questioning whether the de-programmer isn’t in fact deluded himself. During the de-programming process, staged in a remote Australian cabin that casts the battle between man and woman in epic dimensions, Ruth reverses the power dynamic by questioning Waters’ womanizing ways. She argues, too, that her former cult was a more nurturing environment for a woman than the mainstream society into which she escaped. These are all tactics to delay the success of the treatment—and yet, when Keitel’s character acts forcibly on his attraction to her, the movie shows she’s not entirely wrong. By the time she’s bound and gagged in the trunk of Waters’ car, Winslet’s character has traded one form of sexual objectification for another.

A more insidious suggestion that runs beneath all these films: Is the mainstream complicit in maintaining the male hegemony in cults, even when it’s clear something is wrong? Take the scene in Rosemary’s Baby when a shaken, crying, and blubbering Rosemary tries to tell an outsider—a doctor—that she has been incarcerated in her apartment by a cult. It ends with the doctor taking the testimony of the respected (yet corrupted cult member) Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) over hers. The scene is charged with medicine's long history of silencing and discrediting women; it wasn't so long ago that discriminatory diagnoses such as hysteria could be used to commit a woman to asylum, or worse.

Perhaps the most subversive question of all: Can women actually find themselves more empowered within a destructive cult than outside of it? To an outside observer, Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) in the Master is your typical 1950s housewife—warm, inviting, and often carrying a baby. In private audience with her husband, however, she strategizes and plots how to discredit non-believers. “We have to attack,” she lectures her husband after a dinner party at which a man publicly criticized their community of belief. “We can never dominate our environment unless we attack.”

It’s worth noting that women in positions of power are the exception, rather than the rule, in movies about cults. But this is where the tiny sub-genre is kind of remarkable. The heroines of movies such as Rosemary’s Baby aren’t immune to the machinations of social systems that work to control them. But they aren’t passive victims, either. These women are shaped, and their futures determined, by larger infrastructures that are out of their control—and their struggle within and against those systems is inevitably a thing of power, however futile the effort. It’s this narrative liberalism that gives the cult movies their unique feminist bent.

While the research often focuses on the abuse of women in destructive cults, the movies imagine that perhaps women in cults can wield power. Indeed, for some of these female characters, the right cult is a better route to empowerment than a “straight” gig in mainstream society. And when these women escape destructive cults, they may not be automatically saved or redeemed.

Whether or not the truth of modern cults supports any of this is irrelevant to such projects of feminist imagination. The larger point is that entering a cult often means just trading in one set of discriminatory rules and parameters for another. And when women leave, the process is not one of de-programming, but of re-programming.

Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.