Joachim Trier’s ‘Thelma’ Serves Up a Supernatural Coming Out Story
In a genre typically considered “for the guys,” it’s time to give a nod to the ladies. Uterus Horror is a subgenre of horror films that focuses on the uniquely female experience of puberty and the act of coming into your sexuality, using horror elements to emphasize and/or act as a metaphor for that experience. These films are often ignored in theaters but quickly develop cult followings. Columnist Molly Henery, who named and defined the subgenre, tackles a new film each month and analyzes how it fits into this bloody new corner of horror.
After having fun talking about the many severed penises in Teeth last month, I decided to take on a more serious film for November. This month, it’s time to dive into Thelma. This 2017 film from Norway was likely missed by even the most vigilant horror fans, but it is a powerful piece that uses Uterus Horror to tackle multiple subjects including religion, sexuality, and repression.
The film was directed by Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs, Reprise), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eskil Vogt (Blind, Louder Than Bombs). Thelma tells the story of a young woman (Eili Harboe) just starting college. Clearly a sheltered girl with no friends, she soon notices Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student. As Thelma’s infatuation with Anja grows, she also experiences increasingly frequent and violent seizures that seem to accompany supernatural abilities.
The opening of Thelma shows a young Thelma on a hunting trip with her father (Henrik Rafaelsen). They go out into the snowy wilderness, and as Thelma watches a deer, her father points the rifle at her head. While he doesn’t kill her, this lets viewers immediately know there is something about Thelma her father finds so threatening or terrifying, that he was ready to kill his own child. The film then jumps ahead to Thelma starting college, where she first meets Anja.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Thelma’s seizures are related to her interest in Anja and her strange abilities. In their first encounter, they don’t even speak. Anja simply takes a seat next to Thelma in the library to study. Thelma seems to cause birds to fly into the library window as she has her first seizure. It happens again after Thelma appears to have telepathically put an idea in Anja’s head compelling her to come see Thelma in the middle of the night. After Anja arrives, Thelma has her second seizure. Anja invites Thelma to see a dance performance. During the performance, she touches Thelma’s leg and Thelma is barely able to stop the oncoming seizure that rattles a massive hanging light above the crowd. The two kiss for the first time shortly after that, but Thelma runs away and cuts contact with Anja.
Thelma is hospitalized to monitor her brain activity to see if her seizures are caused by epilepsy. After a couple days with no seizures, the doctors are finally able to trigger one by making her think of Anja. At the same time, we watch as Anja’s lights flickers, her music starts playing on its own, and then she is pulled into a shattered window before vanishing.
Throughout all of this, Thelma has a reoccurring theme of religion and repression. Early on it is established that Thelma is a Christian who doesn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. The same day she meets Anja, Thelma has a dream of a snake slithering from outside into her dorm and wrapping itself around her. After Thelma and Anja’s kiss, she attends a party with a mutual guy friend. As a cruel prank, Anja and the guy pretend to smoke weed with Thelma. This leads to her hallucinating an intimate moment with Anja, when the same snake appears to her, coiling itself around her neck and entering her mouth. Christianity often uses snakes to depict the devil and evil. In Thelma’s mind, by allowing Anja to get close to her and by partaking in drugs and alcohol, she is allowing the devil to enter her soul.
It’s apparent that the religion Thelma’s parents brought her up in has taught her to be fearful of being different. The way her body physically reacts every time she gets close to Anja quite strongly indicates a homophobic upbringing. There is so much self-loathing that, even though Thelma clearly loves Anja, her abilities are subconsciously activated because she has been taught that homosexuality is a sin. Even when Thelma’s seizures are diagnosed as psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, her research takes her toward a religious answer. This is an illness which is a mystery to most medical professionals, yet Thelma reads about how in the olden days it was often believed that seizures were caused by witchcraft, demons, and the devil.
This likely explains why Thelma makes Anja disappear. She’s triggered into having a seizure in the hospital. She has been trying her hardest to resist her feelings for Anja, yet the doctor has brought up all those feelings in order to bring about the seizure. Thelma has the ability to make the things she desires with her entire being come true, and in that moment all she wants is for the temptation that her religion teaches against to disappear from her life. While she doesn’t do it on purpose, Thelma makes Anja vanish in order to make her homosexual feelings vanish. Unfortunately, all that does is cause her more heartache and strife.
Seeking help from her parents only leads to even more devastation. She learns that her abilities manifested when she was only 6 years old, leading to an unfortunate accident. Instead of trying to help Thelma then, they drugged her to repress who she was. Thelma’s parents make the same mistake again, simply confining and drugging Thelma to keep her “safe,” and forcing her to pray her “demons” away rather than accepting her for who she is.
The moment Thelma realizes her family’s actions are wrong is when she finally becomes free. She kills her father in her sleep, setting him on fire. While she didn’t mean to do this, it is obviously a very cathartic moment. She mourns the loss, but also realizes it never would have happened if her father had embraced her instead of actively trying to stop her from becoming the woman she was always meant to be. The moment she frees herself from religious persecution is the moment she finally learns how to control her powers. She is able to restore her paralyzed mother’s (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) ability to walk – and bring back Anja – without any seizures. By accepting herself, despite her family, she is finally able to be her true self and be with the woman she loves.
The story told in Thelma feels somewhat reminiscent of the original Uterus Horror film, Carrie. It is about a young woman experiencing love and sexual desire for the first time, which triggers a supernatural ability she didn’t know existed. There is also the theme of oppressive, religious parents who use Christianity to control their daughter and make her feel evil for loving a woman, and for her innate abilities. What makes Thelma stand out from other Uterus Horror films is that it also tells a beautiful queer love story. Instead of having queer subtext, Thelma uses the supernatural abilities and what triggers them in a way that highlights the dangers of religious oppression and homophobia. There is no mistaking the message these filmmakers are trying to convey. Thelma is a Uterus Horror film that shows the beauty and freedom in being unapologetically who you are.