Religion Begets Trauma in ‘From Within’
The excitement of wandering up and down video rental store aisles was a hallmark of my childhood. One such venture led me to artwork with a giant red stripe down the side claiming it was one of “8 FILMS TO DIE FOR”. The cover was simple, yet effective: a woman with white tendrils of smoke crawling from empty eye sockets as she stared into an unknown abyss. The title, along with the picture, etched itself into my memory: From Within (2008). Years later, with a few fright flicks beneath my belt and a newfound bravery, I found the movie again on Netflix and instantly had to satisfy the curious child that shied away from these movies for so long.
From Within opens on a scene that feels nostalgic as two lovers dripping in teen angst sit by a river. The boy, Shaun (Shiloh Fernandez), is reading Latin from a book aloud to his girlfriend Natalie (Rumer Willis). They ask each other if they’re ready—ready for what, the audience wonders. The two share a kiss, to Natlie’s horror Shaun brandishes a gun, and he matter of factly tells her she’s “not gonna like this.” Shaun puts the barrel in his mouth and pulls the trigger.
The scream that erupts from Natalie cuts into the film’s title sequence, abruptly thrusting viewers into this perceived tragedy between two lovers. The shock and terror felt from watching someone take their own life with no explanation is an all too real glimpse into the horrible effects of losing a loved one to suicide. We are left no moments to recover or process what we just witnessed, and are forced to confront grief head on.
After a montage revealing the small town where our story takes place, writer Brad Keene’s narrative focuses on Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice). As she reluctantly tries on new dresses for church, Natalie bursts through the doors covered in blood, screaming that “she” is following her and to lock all the entrances. Natalie’s father Bernard (Jared Harris) attempts to comfort her, but hysterics continue as she insists she’s in immediate danger. The crew in the store (including Lindsay’s stepmother played by Laura Allen) leave Natalie alone for a moment to investigate, and the doors to the room she’s in slam shut.
We hear Natalie scream and struggle—once they’re able to gain entrance she’s now slumped against the wall with scissors protruding from her neck. Natalie clutches the black book that Shaun read from at the beginning, a tome that now emanates a tragic aura. Bernard rushes to his kin in a fruitless attempt to help, but instead becomes a victim of possession. This sets the chain of events in motion that terrorize this small town and its inhabitants, sweeping through them like a plague.
In reality, suicide affects millions of people all over the world. When I was in high school, a friend of mine took her own life unexpectedly and the news hit me like a freight train. The idea that you could erase your own life so quickly, with such ease, was a stunning realization. Movies like From Within—which conjure up a monster out of the trauma of suicide—are examples of how horror can help us cope. Rather than pushing these gruesome truths to the side like they don’t exist, we’re allowed to confront and fight them along with our protagonists.
Lindsay befriends Shaun’s brother, Aidan (Thomas Dekker), whose close encounter with the death of his mother opened a door to grief in his life from a young age. This pattern of horrific life-changing events seems to be the way life deals us our woes, one tumbling on top of another. Finding solace in others is an easy way to crawl out of that ever-deepening pit, and we see that connection as Lindsay and Aidan remain a team against the terrifying unknown.
The film’s heavy-handed approach towards self-harm is heavily intertwined with the concept of religion. Most who find comfort in religious extremism see themselves to be holier than thou, justifying the hardships of others by way of their sins. The root of this idea is worded by Linday’s best friend Claire (Britt Robertson) in a single sentence: “They praise God for the good, and blame the Devil for the bad.” As From Within continues, however, it’s clear that no one is safe from the dark spirit that haunts their town. Each poor soul who discovers the last to have taken their life is marked by this mysterious entity. At first, everyone attributes this chain reaction to unbearable trauma—but when death begins to fester across the town, it’s clear that a supernatural effect is at play.
Some characters turn deeply to their faith, convincing themselves that God will save them from the unknown evil. This inability to accept the unacceptable, to be so buried under a world of unfathomable horrors brings out the worst in people. Rather than banding together, the town rages against each other as their sanity begins to slip, desperately searching for someone to blame. These moments reflect the true fragility of human nature and how cruelty and hatred can spread like mold.
In its ever-changing and modernizing state, both horror and religion cause us to look deeply into our morals and how far we’re willing to go to defend them. Do we see ourselves as good because we follow some set of rules? Or is it an unspoken truth we all share that keeps most of us far from a violent, murderous rage? The evil spirit we see in this man-made horror shows itself as a monstrous physical representation of those who fall prey to its torture. Keene’s metaphor for confronting your deepest, darkest self in death adds a level of terror that is inescapable.
As the death toll grows, the secrets of townsfolk who felt closest to God are revealed. Not only are the righteous’ sins brought to light, but we learn that Aiden is the source for the book’s evil being released. A “key” which he used to open a portal to power he could not understand. Each character’s checkered past serves as a link in a chain of violence that threatens to doom them all.
We all fear the inevitable, the ending to what we know. There is a deep dark mystery to life after death that frightens even the bravest of us all. This idea that there is something out there you don’t understand, something that is hurtling towards all of us at a rapid rate, leads us to turn to comforts such as Christianity. It also allows room for delusions of grandeur, that without the mighty hand of those who feel they’ve earned the right to judge, how will order be kept well enough to allow for a divine being to return and save us all?
This mentality rips through the remainder of the movie, infecting more and more people as the spirit inches closer to our main characters and, in turn, the audience. We are given hope, yet find it ripped away just as soon. The ups and downs of grief and destruction are painted beautifully through the lens of a horror film, a cathartic release through a violence we can control. We spend all of our lives searching for outlets, for some sort of signal confirming there is more to live for, and when we find those comforts it’s easy to obsess.
Every member of the town that exists in From Within had some sort of reason for their reaction, a push towards a greater good or perhaps a power that allows them some sort of handle on the whirlwind that is their life. Strip away the monsters, the cursed books, the excessive gore, and you have a story with a bleeding heart that takes us through something we all may know too well.
Trauma works in horrible, manipulative ways. It festers until it becomes an unrecognizable force in your mind. Horror is unique in that it can give grotesque faces to these emotional wounds, and reason—for a moment—as to why such tragedies could occur. While the act of taking one’s life, or violence in the name of religion may seem like otherworldly horrors, they are all too close to us in ways that are far more paralyzing than any movie could portray.