“I’m going to unshackle this house from the world…”
We understand isolation now.
No longer an exotic curiosity, isolation—real, prolonged social isolation—is now some portion of most every person’s vocabulary, part of our emotional and psychological experience as human beings. As the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in America, as it has claimed the lives of 500,000 people and counting, some of us have isolated with immediate family, with roommates, with our partners and/or children. Some of us have spent this time in true solitude, utterly alone. As the weeks crawl by and become months, and the months crawl by on their way to a full year of partial or total quarantine, we have found ourselves separated from the larger world by a figurative circle of salt.
In this, our age of pandemic, of grief and uncertainty and profound social isolation, an intimate no-budget Irish horror film very much about grief and uncertainty and prolonged isolation offers a haunting, harrowing, and ultimately uplifting glimpse of hope and transformation.
Writer-Director Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (2016) promises its audience horror, delivers creeping unease, and ultimately yields itself up to awe—taking us on a journey from the depths of entropic despair to the heights of spiritual renewal. Within a single location, Gavin and his two impressively gifted character actors give Christians and non-Christians alike a darkly beguiling gift to turn over and over in our hands.
“I believe in God.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
A Dark Song introduces us to its lead, Sophia (Catherine Walker), in the process of investigating and renting at considerable cost a large, vacant, and neglected home in the Welsh countryside, then retrieving a shabby occultist named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) from the train station. These two deeply damaged individuals will spend the entirety of the film’s runtime haunting the interiors and grounds of that rundown country home as they attempt a year-long, claustrophobic, demanding, and debasing magic ritual known as “the Abramelin.”
Sophia’s motive is grief, caustic as acid, eating her from within. We watch in flashback as she meets with her sister months earlier, and it is clear from their exchange that Sophia’s life is drained of meaning. He sister’s assertion of belief in God provokes a question that will haunt the film on multiple levels: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Whatever the quality of her life before tragedy struck, Sophia has become a figurative wraith haunting the edges of that former life, unable to conceive of what a belief in higher power is supposed to mean in a world where what we love most can be so effortlessly snatched away. She tells Joseph Solomon, an alcoholic misanthrope participating in the ritual for his own selfish reasons, that she wants to perform the Abramelin ritual “for love.” She is lying—to Solomon, and perhaps to herself. The lies Sophia tells herself not only complicate the ritual she desires to perform, but also actively stop her from facing the truth of the emotions she is drowning in, from grieving her loss effectively and cathartically. It is harmful enough to deceive oneself while struggling with something as powerful as grief. Worse still (as any fan of horror can inform you) are self-deceptions where dark magic rituals are concerned. Physically, mentally, and psychologically taxing, the Abramelin ritual presents multiple opportunities for Sophia to be harmed or even damned. Those opportunities for harm and damnation, Solomon informs Sophia, multiply in the presence of falsehood.
“This has to be pure. Not just your intention, but your drive. It can go SO wrong.”
It may seem like an invention for the film, but the Abramelin is an actual ritual, referring to an elaborate 18-month series of rites and requirements intended to create communion with a person’s “guardian angel.” Made infamous by real-life occultist Aleister Crowley, the ritual—purportedly originating with an ancient “Egyptian Mage” named Abramelin—draws on Kabbalistic magic to create that communion. The Abramelin functions as an intricate set of figurative “keys” and “locks,” rites and actions performed to enable an “opening of the way” to the spiritual realm in which angels and demons freely swim, submerged shapes gliding by in darkened waters. It is clear in the film as well as in literature about the historical ritual that it has a deeply dark side. The Abramelin involves the evocation/invocation of demons, and so has been compared to so-called “Goetic” magic, the practice of conjuring demons. Sophia wants to talk to her guardian angel, but without pure intention and drive, without strict adherence to the ritual and its demands, there is no guarantee at all that she won’t encounter an infernal force.
The purported purpose of the Abramelin is rooted deeply in the same sorts of spiritual desire described by those who have written extensively on the much-misunderstood notion of “Christian Mysticism,” an ancient division of Christian thought and practice primarily concerned with attaining a form of unity/communion with God. Eleanor Gregory’s An Introduction to Christian Mysticism discusses several specific examples of Christians engaging in rituals of purification to reach an ecstatic and communal state with the Divine. A sub-section of these Mystics includes those that Gregory identifies as “magic users.” Gregory writes:
“To obtain union, or at least communion, with the Highest is thus, as may be seen, the endeavor of all [Christian] mysticism; and the way to this has generally been divided into three stages: the first, of purification; the second, of illumination; the third, of union…”
Gregory identified three generalized subsets of Christian Mystic, citing the works of the Reverend Robert A. Vaughan and William Ralph Inge (Anglican priest, professor of divinity at Cambridge, three-time Nobel Prize nominee): (1) the “saint,” (2) the “sage,” and (3) the “spiritualist.” It is the “spiritualists” we are concerned with here: a rough grouping of figures such as Paracelsus and Jacob Boehm, for whom Christian Mysticism was further divided into three separate if interlocking “magical” practice areas: the “elemental world,” (concerning the sympathetic influence of matter upon matter), the “celestial world” (concerning a form of astrology), and the “spiritual world” (involving invocations, diagrams, and signs).
William Inge described the “spiritualist” form of Christian Mysticism as follows:
“Through all phenomena, it was believed, runs an intricate network of sympathies and antipathies, the threads of which, could they be disentangled, would furnish us with a clue through all the labyrinths of natural and supernatural science…. We find (at this time), especially in Germany, an extraordinary outburst of nature mysticism – astrology, white magic, alchemy, necromancy and whatnot – such as Christianity had not witnessed before.”
These Christian “spiritualists” were (and are) often considered by various groups and individuals as heretical, meddling in supernal affairs where “humankind was not meant to tread.” But divorced for a moment from assumptions regarding the potential theological acceptability of their methodology, we can perhaps see these people as Ms. Gregory appears to: as sincere and devoted in their desire to achieve higher and higher degrees of connection to, and unity with, God. These “spiritualist Mystics” find echoes in Biblical figures like King Solomon, namesake of this film’s own Joseph Solomon, who, according to extra-canonical sources, supposedly possessed a divine ring capable of commanding demons.
As interesting as the above may be, Gavin’s film is not advocating for Mysticism or occultism, nor is it pretending to be a treatise on either. Gavin uses the deeply atmospheric trappings of a “real” Mystic ritual to dig deeper and further into an unspeakably human emotion—to portray with visceral wordlessness some of the ways that grief can feel, how it can imprison, isolate, and immolate a person. Gavin’s primary innovation is to focus the vast majority of his film on the ritual itself, and on the cost of its demands upon its participants. As the ritual grinds on and on and on, the methodical (but never tiresome) repetition of it begins to wear the viewer down into a strange psychic groove, lowering us into the same harrowing and claustrophobic headspace Sophia cannot escape from.
Shot in a way that makes the progression and the details of its ritual into something private and voyeuristic and immersive, A Dark Song takes its slow and sobering time as it walks through the systems of rites and rules, the observance of which will define Sophia’s existence over the course of a year. And as the magic squares and salted circles and chalked triangles shift from simple, rough, black and white geometric shapes to a kaleidoscope of intricate colors, the ritual begins to resemble Sophia’s own progressively ornate and intricate grief. The house begins to resemble the woman (and perhaps they are two separate things—this house and this woman— and perhaps they are not). The audience begins to see in this mazelike warren of symbols and sanctifications and self-mortification and empty rooms a mirror to match the web of denial and lies and grief that Sophia has constructed, and that is now devouring her, demanding that she strip more and more of herself away to reach something deeper, far down in the gathering darkness.
What is waiting for her down in that darkness?
“I don’t do forgiveness.”
Never once mentioned within the film itself, but very much functioning as an unspoken mirror to the Abramelin ritual, are Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s famed descriptive Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. While Ross’ Five Stages have come under fire from academicians for lacking empirical evidence and theoretical underpinning, those Five Stages remain dramatically powerful as a descriptive tool, used often in dramatic contexts, and function usefully here to underline Sophia’s narrative predicament in A Dark Song.
As Sophia and Solomon proceed haltingly and with no small difficulty through the Abramelin’s elaborate, abusive, disturbing stages, we watch in parallel as Sophia essentially refuses to proceed similarly through her grief or to grapple at all with its underpinnings. Her essential being is arrested, frozen in an ambered anger. Just as Sophia and Solomon are shut up inside the ritualistic magic circles they have created, so Sophia is shut up in an unbroken emotional and psychological circle of her own making. While Sophia can complete the mechanistic actions of the ritual itself, she is incapable of completing the deeper and more spiritually demanding interior work of honestly and meaningfully confronting the feelings that keep her within that emotional and psychological circle.
The film teases out the full backstory to Sophia’s grief, revealing in increments its void-like enormity and its primary source: the murder of her son. For all the innovations and evolutions which the horror genre has undergone over the centuries, the death of a child tenaciously remains a true taboo of sorts. There’s horror and then there’s horror. Stephen King understands this. He’s Stephen King, after all. King famously threw his manuscript for Pet Semetary into a drawer because its subject matter—the death of a young child—scared him too much. That anecdote frames King’s moral limits in clear terms and they are, by and large, our moral limits also: the death of a child opens a door to a place where all meaning can bleed out of the universe. A universe in which children are “allowed” to be murdered is a universe in which the question “what’s that supposed to mean?’ becomes Job-like in its enormity and justification.
“The world isn’t just science, is it?”
“Is that what you’re here to prove?”
“I don’t know…. possibly.”
“Science describes ‘the least’ of things. The least of what something is. Religion, magic, it bows to the endless in everything. The mystery.”
A Dark Song takes the effective tact of making it unclear for much of the film what is possibly or definitely spiritual as opposed to manifestations of Sophia’s volatile emotional state, making her grief a splintered prism. Within the confines of a ritual demanding lengthy abnegation—the denial of essentials like water, and food and sleep—what is real versus what is not becomes an elastic and experiential question. As the days become months, the film, aided by a marvelously evocative score, develops the strong sensation of some unseen power slowly and ominously gathering itself. Solomon claims to hear a dog barking in the night, miles from any other human habitation. A bird slams into the kitchen window in a sudden storm of blood and feathers. A door in the house opens itself, unaided by any human hand. An object Sophia holds dear, a small and ridiculous little rubber monster, disappears, then reappears, then disappears again. While all these events are explainable, a clean psychological explanation for these events becomes harder to justify as the film progresses. Something is beginning to happen within the confines of their shared isolation—but what’s it supposed to mean? The smatterings of the possibly supernatural are like irregular markings along an unknown and seemingly endless road to an unclear destination.
And as the months drag on, the film exposes Solomon’s filth and flaws, his own forms of isolation and self-hatred. Taking advantage of his position of power, he manipulates Sophia for sexual gratification and is exposed for it (literally and figuratively). The combined experience poisons the air around them both. Distrust mounts. Unhappiness and impatience grow up between them like a thicket. Amid this, Sophia completes the entirety of the Abramelin ritual only to be told that it has failed and she must repeat it all, all over again. She cannot know, and the audience cannot know, if this is more manipulation from the small and deeply unhappy man whom she has chosen to share this space with. Sophia becomes trapped in a different kind of circle, a circle of repetition, one that she has drawn around herself with her own lies and unwillingness to confront the truths behind her motives and her guilt. And this too mirrors her stagnation in grief, and the ways in which grief can mire a person in the same repetitive actions, in the same small circle of pain, revolving endlessly around the same fixed point of horror until vanishing into the oblivion of that awful orbit.
“Cross the line, we’ll be stuck here forever.”
Following Solomon’s crude sexual manipulation and the revelation that the ritual has failed, Sophia tries to leave the house (and perhaps they are two separate things—this house and this woman—and perhaps they are not). Solomon warns her of the apparently dire consequences of that act. If she leaves the house before the ritual is successfully completed—if she steps outside the protective circles he has drawn for them around the entirety of the house—they will be stuck there “forever.” What the word “forever” is supposed to mean in a universe potentially populated by divine and satanic mystical forces is entirely unclear. But there is a level of narrative meaning to Solomon’s words that speaks directly to Sophia’s bone-deep grief: if she abandons the process, the effort to work through her own ritual, to progress through her grief and achieve catharsis or closure, she will be trapped there within that grief.
Faced with that prospect, Sophia redoubles her efforts. She places herself back in the hands of an untrustworthy man. She allows herself to move past anger, into bargaining again, back into the abnegation and repetition that define the ritual and now her life. And this time, things begin to change. As snow falls outside, impossible pink blossoms appear inexplicably on the carpeting. Seated indoors within her chalked circle, flecks of brilliant inexplicable gold begin to fall all around her like snow in a slow and beautiful cascade. But what is all of that supposed to mean? Sophia still has no idea. That lack of any apparent deeper meaning to these mystical occurrences drives her to despair. Mystery without meaning, no matter how magical, arouses her fury. The torrents of anger she unleashes at Solomon are all about that lack of meaning. Despite her efforts, the ritual is not “working.” Its failure is Sophia’s fault. She has not been honest—with Solomon or with herself. Sophia was never motivated by “love.” She is motivated exclusively by vengeance. She wants to hurt the ones she holds responsible for her son’s murder. She wants to damn their eternal souls.
“I will give you your vengeance. I promise you.”
Solomon makes it clear that Sophia can ask for “so many things” from her guardian angel if she successfully completes the ritual. And he makes it clear that those who murdered her son are “damned anyway” due to their own actions. Yet Sophia cannot see past her own desire to be the cause of that damnation—to be the one who engineers and viscerally, actively ensures it. Her grief has swallowed her whole. The enormity of that grief untethers her from any morality other than the desire to claim an eye for her eye.
As A Dark Song rolls deeper and deeper into the darkness, progressing toward a conclusion that feels both dread-soaked and foregone, Sophia’s inability to confront her own honest desires, her own guilt, and her own grief leave her at last entirely alone and bereft of direction. Solomon is gone. The magical texts and grimoires she has relied on become unreadable. And it is in this total silence and solitude that Sophia finally begins to chafe at her self-imposed confinement. Without a guide, against Solomon’s warning, she chooses to break the protective circle and step outside.
But Solomon was right. The ritual is uncompleted. Sophia’s own journey through grief is uncompleted. She is well and truly trapped. She may step outside the circle of salt which surrounds the house, but the circle seems to have become the world itself, and no matter how far she attempts to run, she finds herself back at the very house she chose for herself. The house has transformed in her absence, reflecting her own inner being, shifting from a neglected empty place to something despairing and overtly sinister. Filthy, mysterious handprints dirty the walls. Her son’s photograph lays under a puddle of vomit. His young voice speaks to her from behind closed doors—but the voice is not her son. Not at all. It belongs to something much, much darker. Darkness now suffuses this place (and perhaps they are two separate things—this house and this woman— and perhaps they are not). Demonic spirits now freely roam the halls. We begin to see them and hear them, clearly and horribly. In the unforgiving darkness of her transformed house there are no brilliant golden flakes falling from the ceiling, only a drifting black ash. What has been until now a grindingly slow journey into darkness becomes a sudden plunge. This development also tracks Sophia’s arrested grief, stuck at a grim waystation between anger and depression and unable to leave, unable to ask for forgiveness, unable to forgive.
As this present darkness closes in all around her, Sophia finally, quietly confronts her own guilt in the form of her son’s voice, who tells her that Sophia was late arriving at her son’s daycare on the day he was murdered, and heavily implying that she was late because she was cheating on her partner—making her actions and moral choices a genuine if indirect component in her son’s disappearance and murder. She acknowledges her crimes, her role, and her guilt, but she cannot take the final crucial step in her journey. “Are you asking me for forgiveness,” her not-son asks? “No,” she responds.
Perhaps Sophia feels that she is beyond the reach of forgiveness, unworthy of it, too sin-stained and culpable to be deserving. Perhaps she rejects forgiveness as weak or meaningless, given the enormity of the crime against the child she loves. It is to the credit of the actor Catherine Walker, and to writer/director Liam Gavin, that we are never directly told how Sophia feels about any of these things. Her glistening emotional carapace can only be observed from outside, currents of motive and recrimination swirling beneath the impenetrable surface of her interesting face.
In anger and in despair of any meaning for her pain, Sophia is taken down among the demons and the damned. She is dragged down, literally and figuratively, into the bowels of the house (and perhaps they are two separate things—this house and this woman—and perhaps they are not). And in that moment, just as hateful wraiths begin to cut her and torture her and trap her among themselves for all of eternity, Sophia hits rock bottom. Something shifts inside of her. She screams. She stands. She begins to struggle, to fight, to resist the implacable dark forces surrounding her. She utters three words—not to her son, and not to the coterie of capering demonic faces all around her, but to something, or Someone, else entirely:
“I’m so sorry.”
In that moment, looking up at the world from the bottom of a well that she has patiently dug for herself, finally understanding just how far she has fallen, Sophia reaches acceptance. Acceptance of her role in her own suffering. Acceptance of the part her own negligence played in the crime for which she seeks vengeance. Acceptance, perhaps, that her son is truly gone. And in reaching acceptance, Sophia finds repentance. For what is repentance, at its core, but those three words spoken in clear sincerity?
With her apology, her repentance, Sophia finally breaks the protective circle that she has drawn around her feelings of guilt and rage and sorrow. She breaks the stasis of her grief, the rigid and self-immolating rage that has defined her year of occult quarantine.
And what happens then?
…Well. That would be telling, wouldn’t it? A Dark Song’s denouement should be experienced in the moment, without forewarning. To spoil it would be to try and approximate someone else’s epiphany, to steal from you, the reader, the secret that writer/director Liam Gavin and his talented colleagues have been holding closely to their chests as their film patiently uncoils itself for our eyes.
In its final moments, the film’s fathomless darkness is suddenly suffused with strange new light. Hope rises from the black ash of grief and despair and A Dark Song answers the question posed by Sophia to her sister at the start of the film. It is a question about loss and cruelty and about the purpose of faith in a universe where loss and cruelty can feel infinite. It is a question about the power of that faith in the face of true evil. It is a question posed by every parent who has ever lost a child, every person who has ever lost something that they genuinely love, as they stare into the abyssal absence left behind.
Sophia must descend into darkness to receive the answer to her question because without the darkness there is no meaning in the answer. Without a reckoning, there can be no real redemption. Without sin, no salvation. Like poor Job before her, Sophia hurls her furious question into the face of the Almighty and demands response. A Dark Song’s patient narrative descent and swift, sudden elevation is that response. Sophia asks herself, asks us, asks God Almighty: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
God answers. It means forgiveness.