Tyranny, Patriarchy and Coercion: Ritual Control in A Dark Song

  • Film
Steve Oram and Catherine Walker reading in a darkened room

Tyranny, Patriarchy and Coercion: Ritual Control in

A Dark Song

Joe Howsin explores Liam Gavin’s 2016 British horror, A Dark Song...

Our daily lives are defined by ritual. Brushing our teeth, going for a morning run, ordering takeaway at the weekend, habitually watching horror films with the lights off (and curtains drawn); all of these seemingly inconsequential actions become, with enough repetition and fixity, the building blocks of our lives and how we define ourselves.

Mundane daily routines may seem far removed from the solemnity of religious ceremonies, but both serve the same general purpose: to impose some semblance of order onto a chaotic world. Such ritual practices, according to scholar Catherine Bell, have been with us ‘since the earliest hunting bands and tribal communities’, making them an integral part of human life. ‘Yet it is only in the late nineteenth century that people began to perceive all such activities under the rubric of “ritual”, [1] meaning that this line of inquiry is both primordial and modern. 

The relative youth of ritual theory makes this already esoteric topic one that is fraught with ambiguity, both in terms of definition and morality. Ritualism can provide comfort, closure, and a sense of community; but equally, it is instrumental to pervasive systems of social control, including religious dogmatism and patriarchy. This ambiguity means that the imagery of ritual provides artists with a richly visual and malleable thematic device that can explore the darkness and complexity of the foundations of society and culture.

The relative youth of ritual theory makes this already esoteric topic one that is fraught with ambiguity, both in terms of definition and morality.

One such exploration is Liam Gavin’s 2016 British/Irish horror film A Dark Song (2016), starring Catherine Walker as Sophia and Steve Oram as Solomon. Sophia is a grieving mother who, after the murder of her child by occultists, hires a practitioner of dark magic, Solomon, to enact a ritual that will allow her to speak to her guardian angel and seek vengeance. The film depicts the ritual in gruelling detail: Sophia must endure drowning, starvation, sleep deprivation, humiliation and other acts of physical and mental torture before she is able to contact her angel. However, entities other than this await her. The film is part supernatural horror, part psychological thriller; for much of the runtime, the audience (and Sophia) is unsure whether the ritual is producing a supernatural effect, or whether the domineering, bullying Solomon is merely indulging in a tyrannical power fantasy.

Mythological

In the early days of ritual theory, the broad aim of scholars was to track the evolution of human thought from pre-history to the modern age and to determine whether ‘religion and culture were originally rooted in myth or in ritual’ [1]. In other words, ritual theorists were investigating whether rituals were invented to explain myths, or if myths were invented to explain rituals. The mythological school of ritual theory, spearheaded by anthropologist Edward B. Taylor, argued for the primacy of myth, stating that it ‘should not be interpreted as a misunderstanding, but as a deliberate philosophical attempt to explain and understand the world’ [1]. To Taylor, myth was born ‘in the experience of seeing the dead in dreams’ and subsequent explanations of these dreams as manifestations of untethered souls or spirits.

From there, the notion of souls evolved into a belief system that encompassed nonhuman animals and plants and endowed them with their own spirits. Mircea Eliade added to this theory, suggesting that, with a pantheon of spirits and gods now established, human societies would re-enact events depicted in myth through ritualistic acts in order to identify the historical here and now with the sacred primordial period of the gods before time began. Through the ritual enactment of primordial events […] human beings come to consider themselves truly human, sanctify the world, and render meaningful the activities of their lives [1].

Though the yearning for meaning that ritual expresses has remained in our secularised age, the predominance of myth has waned. For example, Christmas, one of our most enduring and widespread ritualistic celebrations, is celebrated both by Christians and non-Christians. While the former group may perform an extra set of rituals, the practice of bringing a tree inside the house, for instance, exists independently of any system of belief. 

The ritual remains, but the myth and meaning has lost all of its potency. A Dark Song subverts this state of affairs: the ritual is nothing without belief in the myth. The idea that rituals reinforce our humanity and give life meaning correlates strongly with Sophia’s attempts to ascribe meaning to her child’s senseless murder through the ritual. A Dark Song’s depiction of ritual is based around this mythological school; the myth, that Sophia can summon unearthly spirits and be granted a wish or ‘favour’, is paramount; the ritual itself is merely a method of contact.

Steve Oram and Catherine Walker

On the first day of the ritual, Solomon wakes Sophia by splashing her with a bucket of cold water: a punishment for her oversleeping. As she dries off in the kitchen, Solomon feeds a toadstool mushroom to her in order to ‘purify’ her, bodily as well as spiritually. The visual of Sophia eating the toadstool is reminiscent of the Catholic ritual of taking communion (24:03) which frames this act as religious and therefore dependant on belief. The greater implication of this comes from the clash between Sophia’s rational worldview (the toadstool will make her ill) and Solomon’s mythological explanation (that she must become ill in order to be ‘pure’).

The triumph of Solomon’s argument over Sophia’s highlights the power of mythology to become reality. Solomon’s later emphasis that ‘this is real’ when the horror of the ritual starts to fracture Sophia’s mind further cements the way myth becomes reality for the initiated (32:57). Without belief, Solomon is torturing an emotionally vulnerable grieving mother, and without myth, Solomon is merely cruel and sadistic, not a spiritual guide or sage. Such is Sophia’s desperation to find meaning and closure that she is willing to believe anything.

Herein lies the core of A Dark Song’s dialogue on the nature of ritual and control: by consistently reinforcing the mythological truth of the ritual, Solomon excuses and justifies all manner of manipulative and inhuman treatment. Quick cuts between Sophia and Solomon show the former performing backbreaking household tasks while the latter takes what looks like a leisurely stroll around the garden (17:27). This juxtaposition is repeated when Sophia is violently ill as a result of the toadstool while Solomon casually waters the plants (24:50). This imbalanced power dynamic continues as we witness Sophia endure physically and mentally demanding rites while Solomon looks on, apathetic to her torment.

Equally, however, once Solomon becomes too ill to properly perform the ritual, his power fades. After Sophia accidentally stabs Solomon with a kitchen knife (or he is purposely stabbed by her angel) his wound becomes infected. The subsequent fever causes Solomon to become physically weak and mentally confused, at which point the imagery is flipped: it is Solomon who is shown being violently ill, while Sophia calmly lays in bed (1:08:14). 

More importantly, since Solomon is unable to properly perform the ritual (1:07:44) it is Sophia we see studying by candlelight (1:12:48). Without his guarded knowledge of the ritual, Solomon’s authority disappears. He becomes infantilised and is seen being cradled by Sophia (1:11:25). However, forces beyond Solomon step in to bar Sophia from the knowledge required to finish the ritual, inking-out the books he leaves behind after his death (1:17:36). She is then left at the mercy of the invading demonic entities. This ever-changing balance of power highlights the fickle nature of ritual control for individuals, compared with its enduring institutional influence.

The continuation of imbalanced power dynamics facilitated by gated sources of knowledge reflects the institutional patriarchy found in many organisations, both religious and secular, and the way this state of affairs is maintained through the careful regulation of knowledge and resources. The esoteric nature of the ritual reflects the way women were excluded from libraries and academic institutions, an example of which is the fact that women did not receive full membership and graduation rights from Cambridge until 1947, after being denied twice before by votes in 1897 and 1921 [8]. 

The fact that Sophia is able to complete the ritual despite being denied access to the knowledge necessary is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration: ‘lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind’. The freedom Sophia finds is the power to move beyond her grief, make peace with herself and her religion. The power of ritual, it seems, lies in specialist knowledge hoarded by a select few; the antidote to this abuse of power, on the other hand, is ingenuity, originality, and clarity of purpose.

Social

The relationship between esoteric knowledge and power highlights ritual practices as an effective method of control. This leads us into the social school of ritual theory pioneered by Old Testament scholar William Robert Smith, who ‘argued for the primacy of ritual […] [r]eligion, he believed, did not arise in the explanations of animism but in activities that cemented the bonds of community’ [1]. Smith and the social school believed that the primary (and original,) purpose of ritualistic activity was to cement social norms. Ritual was invented in order to unify the community; mythological meaning was introduced later in order to further cement its validity among the populous. 

From this perspective, ritual can exist, and thrive, without myth. The advent of television, for example, changed the ritual life of Britain when Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was broadcast in 1953. Television not only widened the scope of the traditionally localised nature of ritual into ‘a great nationwide communion’ but also reframed British society around the family unit, as these groups could now engage with ritual activity independently of wider society in their own homes [1]. This demonstrates how secular influences, with no accompanying mythology whatsoever, can change and direct the role of ritual to influence the organisation of society and its values.

Michel Foucault, building upon this social model, equated the ritualistic aspects of modern society with what he called ‘economies of power’. In short, Foucault theorised that by manipulating the language of ritual (based on repetition, formality and fixity), a particular ideology can be strengthened and enhanced to form ‘a specific “technology” of the body’ [2]. An example of this is the way Solomon controls Sophia’s body, dictating what she can eat, drink, and do (0:04) under the guise of following the prescribed actions necessary to perform the ritual. This social side to ritual becomes apparent whenever Solomon’s actions appear suspiciously separate from the ritual and more in line with his own selfish desires. 

The most distressing example of this is when Solomon falsely implies a sexual element to the ritual in order to coerce Sophia into undressing. The language of this scene is awash with sexist assertions based around female gender roles, such as Solomon’s insistence that Sophia should wear makeup because he is ‘just a man’ (42:50), framing her body as a commodity which should be geared towards his pleasure. This scene overtly codifies the power dynamics at play in A Dark Song as representative of a wider history of patriarchal control and coercion, the origins of which lay in the historical role of ritualistic practices in society.

Catherine Walker submerged in a bath in A Dark Song

Another example of the gendering of ritual control can be seen in Sophia’s connection to the domestic sphere. In the midst of angels and demons, it is odd to see Sophia doing laundry (0:40), a call back to Solomon’s early insistence that she must cook and clean (0:09). To literary critic Diane Long Hoeveler, however, scenes such as this are all too appropriate in Gothic spaces such as the house in A Dark Song, since ‘the net effect of mingling the gothic with the domestic’ is the production of awareness that ‘we cannot think any more about the domestic without at the same time recognising its gothic underpinnings, its propensities for playing with the topoi of violence, abuse, and exploitation of women’ [6]. 

When Sophia reminds Solomon that she owns the house and is paying him a lot of money for his services, therefore effectively making her his employer and landlord, Solomon’s only rebuttal is an angry and indignant: ‘Do you know the ritual?!’ (0:23). Such violent outbursts repeat throughout the film (52:30), echoing Kate Ferguson Ellis’ assertion that in the Gothic, ‘the middle-class idealisation of the home, though it theoretically protected a woman […] from arbitrary male control, gave […] little real protection against male anger’ [4]. The irony here is that Sophia’s ownership of the house should cement her power over Solomon, but instead, it becomes a symbol of her oppression.

Psychoanalytical

Psychoanalysis, the third major school of ritual theory, is conspicuously absent from A Dark Song. The possibility that the supernatural occurrences in the film might be the product of the mind rather than the ritual is dismissed early on when Solomon flippantly refers to such an explanation as ‘psychobabble’. However, we only have his very dubious word, and the unstable point of view of Sophia and himself, to lend credence to the assertion that these are ‘real angels, real demons’ (0:09:31). By reintegrating psychoanalysis into the plot and imagery of A Dark Song, our perception of the nature of ritual, and the sacred and profane, alters significantly. 

Freudian psychoanalytic theories of ritual differ from mythological and social theories; while the latter interpret ritual and myth as the result of considered (if flawed) explanations of natural phenomena, or as deliberate attempts to control and direct society, psychoanalytic theories argue that practitioners and inventors of ritual were largely unaware of their true motivations. For Freud, both religion and neurosis come from the same source: the unconscious repression and displacement of guilt for harboured taboos onto outside forces, such as demons or spirits. To Freud, ‘taboo necessitates the ritual’ [2] in so far as ritual actions are a direct subconscious response to the guilt associated with said taboos. So, where other theorists argue for the primacy of either mythology or society, for psychoanalysts the origin of religion and culture is guilt.

Wider assertions espoused by ritual theorists reflect the primacy of taboo in ritual, though mostly without Freud’s emphasis on the unconscious and repression. At its core, ritualism is all about defining the world, separating good from bad, setting the boundaries of community, and defining what is sacred and what is profane. More complex is the way that ritual can be manipulated in order to codify certain aspects of community life as especially good or evil. This definition is formed through the creation of a privileged contrast that highlights the goodness of the divine order. 

What this usually means, is that good acts will become part of the ritual, while evil acts will be left out or actively denounced. This contrast, however, can work the other way too: evil can be symbolically summoned in order to better define the preferable nature of the good. Therefore, ‘ritualisation gives rise to (or creates) the sacred as such by virtue of its sheer differentiation from the profane’ [2]. From this perspective, the sacred and profane are two sides of the same coin-the definition of one also defines the other- they cannot exist alone.

This creation of a privileged contrast is acted out in the ending of A Dark Song when, after Solomon’s death, demons invade the house and drag Sophia into a hell-like dimension in the cellar. There, a group of demons restrain Sophia and cut off her ring finger (1:30). This hell scene is awash with dark, depraved, and violent imagery; the emaciated forms of the demons and the violence they commit are the epitomai of the profane in A Dark Song. However, Sophia’s wound forces her to clasp one hand over the other in a symbol of prayer (1:31:38) thus preparing her for her encounter with the angel by forcing her into the appropriate symbolic gesture. By forcing Sophia into this position through violence, the demons act not as adversaries to the angel but as helpers. 

The demons, furthermore, provide the image of the angel with a privileged contrast: if the gigantic, uncanny figure of the angel (1:32:29) appeared earlier in the film, it would have been terrifying, but because it appears directly after Sophia’s encounter with the demons, it instead strikes Sophia as clean, peaceful, and beautiful in comparison. This symbiotic dichotomy extends to the dark rites Sophia must perform over the course of the ritual. When Sophia’s sister asks if the ritual ‘is […] something godly?’ (15:00), the answer is both no and yes. By performing ungodly acts in a ritualistic form, Sophia is engaging in a process of better defining the sacred. She is finding God by invoking the devil.

Steve Oram and Catherine Walker reading in a darkened room

For this privileged contrast to take place, according to psychoanalysts, individuals must harbour a deep-seated sense of guilt, as this is the catalyst for ritualistic actions. It is fitting, then, that guilt plays a vital role in the events of A Dark Song. Sophia’s motivation centres around her failure to pick her son, Jack, up from daycare on time, at which point he was abducted (1:25), triggering guilt and self-loathing. An old woman is glimpsed by Sophia in the car park before the ritual begins and aggressively whispers: ‘she doesn’t know what’s waiting’ (0:15), a reference to upcoming events in the house. The old woman, here, appears as a manifestation of Sophia’s anxiety regarding Solomon and the ritual. Furthermore, the old woman’s aggression towards the child she is accompanying (a shade of Jack) represents Sophia’s guilt that she, in her mind, killed her child (indicated by the demons later in the film (1:13)). 

Finally, the last sight Sophia sees before being plunged into the demonic underworld is her double, the old woman (1:28:52), indicating that the hell scene is the ultimate manifestation of Sophia’s guilt. The old woman is framed as Sophia’s Gothic double in the same way that Bertha is Jane Eyre’s in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s seminal essay on feminist Gothic, ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’. Gilbert and Gubar argue that Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife whom he locked in his attic, is ‘on a figurative and psychological level […] another […] avatar of Jane […] what Bertha now does […] is what Jane wants to do’ [5]. In the case of Jane Eyre, Bertha ‘is the angry aspect of the orphan child’ [5], she is the embodiment of Jane’s rage at Rochester and her circumstances. In the same way, the white-haired woman in A Dark Song is an older, ostracised manifestation of Sophia’s desire to punish herself for the ‘murder’ of her own son. The old woman’s violence towards Jack’s shade, followed by her motherly holding of his hand, represents the split identity of Sophia as both mother and murderer.

Similarly, Solomon is doubled by the smoking demon Sophia encounters (1:13:22). The association between the two is formed both by Solomon’s habitual smoking and his framing as a figure of shadow (0:54:27). The whispering of the smoking demon further suggests that it is a double of Solomon, as it contemptuously complains that the ritual is all about ‘what she wants’, echoing sentiments expressed by Solomon that the ritual is all about Sophia (0:53). These doubles are reminiscent of the Jungian psychoanalytic concept of the shadow self–the parallel side of the psyche which houses negative impulses. According to Jung:

modern man […] must rediscover a deeper source of his own spiritual life. To do this, he is obliged to struggle with evil, to confront his shadow, to integrate the devil [3].

The appearance of Sophia and Solomon’s shadow selves, therefore, is a key step towards the enlightenment they both seek. The fact that Sophia speaks to the demons, fully knowing what they are (1:25), suggests she is ready to confront her shadow, while Solomon’s reliance on alcohol and unfinished apology to Sophia (‘Sophia… I’m…’ (1:16)) suggests that he is not. The reunion of both sides of the self, referred to by Jung as ‘integrat[ing] the devil’, is vital to ultimately transcend the ritual, as Sophia does at the end of the film.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, A Dark Song is about more than an occult ritual, more than the pain of two broken, desperate, guilty people. It is a film that forces us to consider how culture, religion, and society are constructed, how they can be manipulated, and the implications of this for our contemporary sphere. Each school of ritual theory interprets different elements as the primacy of ritual, be it myth, ritual, or guilt. By analysing A Dark Song using each of these theories as a lens, it becomes clear that these different viewpoints are interrelated; mythology and guilt both seem geared towards facilitating ritualism’s capacity for social control. Ritualism, in its definition of the sacred and profane, forms the reality of society. 

In this sense, the ending to A Dark Song is bleaker than it may first appear. Though Sophia has escaped Solomon’s patriarchal control, she is still inured within a world of ritual. She has regained her faith in Catholicism, but this institution is one that still frames females as subservient to men as they cannot take on primary priestly duties. However, in an interview with the BFI’s ‘The Evolution of Horror’ podcast, Liam Gavin mentioned how making A Dark Song led him to the Catholic faith [7]. This personal adoption of faith mirrors Sophia’s, and it is likely that this ending alludes to a personal affirmation of belief away from the stifling ritualistic influence of organised religion. In A Dark Song, it is not necessarily faith that controls, oppresses, and harms; it is people who manipulate the imagery of faith for their own selfish desires who are to be film condemns.

Sources: 

[1] Bell, Catherine (1997) Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[2] Bell, Catherine (2009) Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[3] Conger, John P. (2005) Jung & Reich: The Body as Shadow. California: North Atlantic Books.
[4] Ferguson Ellis, Kate (1989) The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
[5] Gilber, Sandra and Gubar, Susan (1979-2020) The Madwoman in the Attic. London: Yale University Press.
[6] Hoeveler, Diane (1998) Gothic Feminism. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University.
[7] Evolution of Horror podcast. OCCULT Pt 21: A Dark Song.

A Dark Song (DVD) is available to buy now by clicking the image below

A Dark Song DVD cover

Joe Howsin

Joe Howsin

Joe Howsin studied the creepy craft with Manchester Metropolitan University’s MA in Gothic literature and film. He’s now trying to create his own Gothic tales, focusing on the psychological, the surreal, and the uncanny. He was a finalist in the London Independent Short story Prize with his ghost story, ‘Snapshots’. Follow Joe on Twitter by clicking his name (above).

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