Few things hurt like the betrayal from someone you trusted. Perhaps this is even more true when this trust was placed in a religious community or pastoral figure. Over the past few years, we have seen countless examples of toxic religion and the effects of spiritual trauma sprawled across our news feeds and present in the lives of friends and family members. The consequences for such experiences are often tragic, dealing with such trauma for years to come and calling into question whether one can keep on believing what they previously had as true. As Carol Howard Merritt notes in her book on spiritual wounds, “Our souls are tender places. We hold our ideals, hopes, wishes, and dreams there. That’s why spiritual wounds can feel so devastating. In response to that inflicted pain, we can reject God. We can grow scabs in order to protect ourselves from further suffering, so that our souls might not ever be susceptible to that sort of pain again” (10-11). In such scenarios, not only do we find ourselves hurt by such experiences, but the responses of such trauma can have secondary effects on those around us.
Enter 2018’s The Bad Nun and The VelociPastor. Both B-level, independent horror fare may seem to offer nothing but opportunities of sharp criticism, but despite the technical aspects of these films leaving a lot to be desired, even amongst these outliers of our favorite streaming services can we find dialogue partners as we explore the devastation left by toxic religion. In The Bad Nun, we are greeted at the top of the film by an old recorded tape, showing a rather uncomfortable moment between a nun and schoolboy whereby we are supposed to read between the lines that this Sister is abusing this boy. Before long, we find ourselves settled into the main narrative thrust of the film, with our protagonist Aesha Wadia (Becca Hirani) sent off to a bed and breakfast by her mom to clear her head and re-focus on the priorities of her studies, having lost her way a bit after the death of her father. A seemingly non-religious millennial, she finds herself under the care of Dan (Thomas Mailand), the owner of the bed and breakfast which previously had been a local nunnery. Through the uses of household lighting and nighttime’s darkness, a sinister foreboding seems to hover over the story. Less like The Conjuring and more like the vibe of When a Stranger Calls, we bear witness to what appears to be an average vacation. That is until the nun arrives at the front door. It is this moment in the narrative where past religious trauma rears its ugly head in the present. In this third act, we come to learn the nun is in fact Dan (à la Norman Bates in Psycho), who was the abused little boy in the video and who, as an adult, murdered the nun who had abused him. This cloud of darkness over his life from a young age had left a path of carnage as Aesha comes across countless photos of his victims throughout the years. And this film offers no happy ending. Dan is locked in the church, sitting in an environment where he constantly reminded of his childhood abuse and Aesha is slowly bleeding to death from a stab wound, hoping the police will arrive in time. In this story, we see a man caught in the chain of abused-abuser, but manifested in a way far more violent way.
As we come to The VelociPastor, a film which intentionally does not take itself seriously and has become somewhat of a cult favorite as of late, we find a combination of traumatic life events and a toxic religious culture changing the life of our protagonist, Father Doug Jones (besides the whole transforming into a crime-fighting dinosaur thing). Father Jones begins questioning his faith after both his parents are murdered outside his church. It is these moments in life that leave human beings, clergy included at times, reeling in uncertainty, a million different questions in their mind, one often being, “Why God?” In the middle of his grief, his fellow priest Father Stewart tells him, “It is not our place to ask questions. God has a plan for all our lives. Everything happens for a reason.” This trite, clichéd phrase and poorly timed, error-ridden counsel certainly provide no relief for the despair. Beneath this film, despite how silly and over-the-top its crazy antics become, is a story of a man wrestling with grief, calling, and the complexity of doubt in the face of suffering.
Both of these films explore themes that seem as relevant as ever. Unfortunately, we have seen far too many examples of toxic religion the past few years, as church abuse cases make headlines and high-profile ministry leaders destroy their ministries through years of abuse or the hiding of abuse. Church cultures which have not cultivated a space for questions to be asked and explored ended up dehumanizing people. In the places where we seek to find answers to life’s questions, to build friendships, and to understand the world around us – our religious communities – is often instead a place of trauma, betrayal, and grief. It times feels unbearable, like the supporting beams of our lives have been snapped in two. What these films invite us to wrestle with is the way spiritual abuse and toxic religion leaves us with a sense of existential dread, of feeling unmoored and haunted by the past as it makes its way into the present through our fears, our and our triggers. In the midst of this darkness, not all his lost and bleak. In the midst of this despair, we find One who has felt the deep trauma of an unjust death and the breaking down of his body to be made an example of, yet who triumphed over those who oppressed and abused his body. He, too, is weeping with us, present along with all the ups and downs of healing, and he will not let even a bad nun escape justice.