Happy Women’s History Month! I figured what better time to bring up an old, dark current in human history—a question as absurd to our modern sensibilities as it was ubiquitous to earlier generations: Are women evil? Now, I’m not going to attempt to go through an exhaustive historical catalog of theological and philosophical sources that have answered this question (unfortunately, often in the affirmative). But let’s turn to one particular stream of thought: Gnosticism. The religions under the umbrella of Gnosticism are characterized by a dualistic cosmology that pits the physical, material world against the heavenly, spiritual world, the former being seen as profane and corrupt, the latter being seen as good and holy. Unfortunately for women, they were seen as by nature being more closely tied to the passionate, material world, whereas men were seen as being more closely tied to the rational, spiritual world. Can’t sum it up better than this line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Let Mary [Magdalene] leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”
Though Gnosticism never won out as a normative expression of Christianity, some of its dualistic thinking about gender and sexuality continued to inspire later thinkers in church history. For this post, I want to focus on just one iteration of the idea: the haunting, psychosexual nightmare of a film by Danish screenwriter and director Lars von Trier, entitled Antichrist. I remember first reading about the film on some internet click-bait page of “the most shocking horror movies” or something like that; and it is indeed shocking. A quick list of adjectives I’d use to describe the film include: brutal, savage, delirious, perverse. Yet the cinematography has a sinister, aching beauty that makes it a morbid pleasure to watch for fans of artsy horror films. With a cast of just two main actors (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, of all people) in incredibly intense performances, and backed by a research team that includes consultants on subjects from theology, anxiety, and misogyny to “mythology and evil”, horror films, and psychotherapy, it is an unexpected, unforgettable look at the age-old question: Are women evil? Spoilers below.
The film begins with an Italian aria being sung over black-and-white, slo-mo footage of a husband and wife having sex as their small child climbs out a window and falls to his death. What follows is a story of trying to overcome grief that ends in ruin instead of redemption. The husband is a psychotherapist, and in an effort to help his wife cope with her complicated grief, he takes her to a cabin in the woods where she had been working on an academic thesis. The cabin is aptly named Eden, although the husband and wife remain unnamed throughout the film, leaving them to stand in for Everyman and Everywoman. Obviously the cabin’s name hearkens back to the Garden of Eden, along with the oft-associated idea that Eve was the one who really brought evil into the world, giving us a foundation based on a myth that preaches the evil of women. Once the couple gets to the cabin in the woods, strange things begin to happen.
This isn’t a haunted house movie, though; it’s a haunted world movie. Much of the imagery involves a sense of nature in revolt, such as an inexplicable rain of acorns on the cabin, or nature’s cruelty—for example, a baby hawk falling from a tree and being eaten by its mother. “Nature is Satan’s church,” the woman proclaims to her husband. Indeed, apparently, the earliest version of the film was centered around the idea that Satan had created the world, not God, but Trier rewrote the script after this plot secret was let out by a producer. This would have fit in perfectly with the Gnostic notion that this material world was created by a Demiurge, a wicked figure often conflated with the “God” worshiped by mainstream Jews and Christians. Nevertheless, the connection between evil and nature is certainly retained in the film. Whatever Trier’s original idea may have looked like, the final project, like other strains of theological thought in human history, marries the quandary of the relationship between nature and evil to the question of the relationship between women and evil.
We find out that the woman’s academic thesis that she had been working on was about the subject of gynocide, heavily focused on the systematic murder of women during the European witch trials. She was trying to understand, in her own words, “the kind of [human] nature that causes people to do evil things against women”. Yet the viewer comes to realize that her research has taken an extremely dark turn: at some point, she has come to believe that women are in fact inherently evil, and that is what instigated, and apparently justified, the mass murder of women. The man succinctly summarizes this for the audience with the line, “The literature that you used in your research was about evil things committed against women, but you read it as proof of the evil of women?” Her obsession and internalization of the idea of women as evil, and deserving of punishment, leads to a complete breakdown in which she acts out in increasingly violent ways, maiming and mutilating both her husband and herself until he kills her to stop her rampage.
In some ways, her thinking is traced back to the root idea that the natural world/Nature is evil, a teaching at the heart of Gnosticism, and by extension that “human nature” is evil. If human nature is evil, then women are evil by sharing in that human nature. However, women must be necessarily more evil as they are more connected to nature. She states that women do not control their bodies, nature does, playing into the old concept that because of menstruation women are more directly tied to nature. I would like to point out that the correlation of women with nature/chaos/profanity and men with reason/civilization/spirituality is a heterosexual, cisgender construct; heterosexual cisgender men wrote their worldbuilding mythology both in fear based in lack of understanding of cisgender women’s nature menstrual cycle as well as fear of women’s ability to affect the natural physiological process that men have no control over: erection. Her ability to provoke a natural bodily function in a heterosexual man beyond his control was an affront to his greater “rationality”, since a man was thought to be able to have mastery over his body the way a woman never could because he did not menstruate as she did. Surely this must have seemed mysterious and magical to early man who did not understand physiology, and sometimes I wonder if this is part of the origin of the archetype of the witch. Speaking of…
I recently wrote about The Witch, and in some ways, that film feels like a companion movie to this film; themes about the nature of women and nature and evil all intertwining serve as foundations for both as do questions of the self-fulfilling nature of ideas about women’s inherent damnation. The woods are, naturally, the witches’ “church” to congregate and worship “ungodly” forces in the nude, and the witch hunts form the basis of the woman’s thesis about gynocide in Antichrist. Indeed, the film ends with the man alone in the woods, being swarmed upon by hundreds of faceless women (their faces literally blurred out on screen) who I believe represent the witches of his wife’s research, which in turn represent all women. Another striking similarity is that the three spirit forms (goat, hare, and raven) seen in The Witch are rather reminiscent of three harbingers of Nature’s doom in Antichrist: a doe, a fox, and a raven called The Three Beggars whose mysterious presence is part of the mythos and symbolism of the film.
What makes Antichrist stand out about other discussions of the topic is that overall in the film, the question has moved from a socio-cultural or even ontological question to the personal arena. The woman’s grief is complicated by her intense feelings of guilt. She feels responsible for her son’s death, as seen by a flashback (or possibly a fantasy) in which she watched him climbing up to the window during the sex scene with the man at the beginning, but did nothing to stop him. In the film’s most ambiguous plot point, we also find out that she had been putting her son’s shoes on the wrong feet, leading to subtle deformities in the bones. Was she doing this by accident and later re-reading into it that she was evil? Did she begin doing this because she was acting out her newfound belief in the evil of women? Whatever the truth of the matter, she now wants to be hurt, to be punished in atonement for her sins, a desire so strong that it leads to her death. Behind all this lingers a question for me that is never addressed: If the woman believes all women are evil, does this remove some of her personal culpability in her son’s death? I now see a possibility I didn’t see in my first few viewings of the film: her belief existing as a psychic defense mechanism to protect her from an even worse “truth”—telling herself that “all women are evil” is horrible, but perhaps better than the alternative of “I (as a particular woman) am evil”.
In the end, what is truly terrifying about this film isn’t any of the disturbing, macabre imagery, or even the “truth” that nature, and therefore women, truly are evil and the work of Satan’s hands, but rather the idea of a woman internalizing the idea that women are evil. The idea of anyone internalizing the idea someone of their particular group (gender, sexual identity, religion, race, etc) is inherently evil and the self-loathing and psychological damage this can do is both heart-breaking and certainly not entirely in the realm of fantasy. The world’s religions have spawned a number of unhealthy self-concepts for those who are not cishet, white males. The “Antichrist” of the title has nothing to do with any accepted ideas of the Antichrist in either formal theology or popular imagination. Rather I think it is a much more generic use of the word, simply a way of saying the opposite of Christ, that which brings damnation rather than salvation. This is an unspoken label (the word “Antichrist” is never mentioned in the film) that the woman has attached to women, whether through her damnation of herself and by extension all women, or vice versa. It could also be the collective works of men that have led her to believe in the inherent evil of women.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this movie. However, a viewer’s discretion if you have never seen the film and are thinking about pulling it up on Netflix—the haunting beauty of the glossy cinematography is interspersed with extremely graphic violence towards the end. Themes of domestic violence or violence or misogyny in general may make the viewing of the film difficult for many people.