It was once said by the great satirist G.K. Chesterton, in his book The Everlasting Man, that Paganism, not atheism, was “the one real rival of the church of Christ.” One can see why. In an argument between pure faith and pure reason, the masses will generally choose the pragmatic option and choose faith. Paganism creates problems because it offers a third way, a way where, in the words of Jonah Goldberg’s Tyranny of Cliches, it “offers no dogmatic opposition to a three-way with your wife’s pilates instructor.” It is less morally demanding but no less dogmatic.
It has for that reason been curious to see the subtle influence of pagan imagery pop up across the film industry. The most immediate example of this might be said to be superhero movies, in which case imaginary godlings as great moral arbiters to war against each other with the wrath of the Greek gods. The most overt example though comes with the proliferation of Pagan imagery in arthouse films. The independent film studio A24 seems specifically vulnerable to these decisions, with multiple movies casting Wiccan and naturalist imagery as a stand-in for themes of liberation from dogmatic religious systems. And I don’t even know what to do about the animism of Lamb…
Robert Egger’s The Witch cast witchcraft as a form of feminist liberation set against the austerity and authoritarianism of puritan Christianity. The Green Knight was centered on a witch using her magic to create a magical quest to redeem her son. Midsommar is named after a Pagan festival. Images of wooden effigies, spells, and animism are quite popular in these movies and seem to suggest a fascination with the imagery, or possibly even an affectation brought about by some random producer behind the scenes who happens to be a practicing Neo-Pagan.
There’s something vaguely sinister about this use of imagery, made creepier by the fact that True Detective used very similar imagery as a stand-in for satanic pedophile rings. I don’t want to misattribute malice though. Much of this kind of imagery comes as a result of the proliferation of works like Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon which popularized the idea of Pagan imagery as feminist empowerment, whereas the Christianity of Arthuriana symbolized the crushing patriarchy with its opposition to naturalism and women’s autonomy.
It was only much later in her life after the publication of her book that Bradley would be accused of enabling pedophilic abuse, so yeah there’s no obvious connection between those two things!
That leaves a film like You Won’t Be Alone to work through a lot of complex implications and assumptions, although pedophilia isn’t relevant in this context. You Won’t Be Alone is a Macedonian horror film and the directorial debut of Australian director Goran Stolevski. It is a very good horror movie!
The film follows a young 16-year-old girl named Nevena who has been raised in a cave since her infancy by an overly protective mother who wants to shield her from a witch that promised to take her as an adult. Upon her birthday, the girl is approached by the witch who kills her mother and takes her into the woods. There she is given access to the witch’s power — the ability to kill any individual or animal, graft their skin to herself, and take on the appearance. Nevena is mute so all she has to do is pretend that she had been induced by madness or a spirit and she’s instantly accepted wherever she goes.
The heart of You Won’t Be Alone is the central ideological disagreement between Nevena and the witch Maria (a curious choice of name, seemingly setting her apart as a feminine demigod-like figure). Nevena’s journey is framed as a coming-of-age drama. She’s so protected that Maria’s return for her becomes an expression of her introduction to the real world, emerging from the Platonic shadowlands into the light of nature and society.
Early in the film, Maria scolds Nevena for trying to comfort an animal, which she sees as a sign of weakness. To Maria, the wilderness is cruel and survival is the most vital principle. Nevena however is gentle and wants the connection. The two-part ways and Nevena finds herself embraced by a small Macedonian village after using her powers to kill a local woman and blend in.
Nevena’s innocence makes every one of her interactions with society feel new, unassuming like a child. She experiences society with fresh eyes and doesn’t understand the significance of why people act in certain ways, through multiple perspectives as she changes bodies and identities. This unfortunately proves to be the weakest aspect of the film. The peoples she faces are all ciphers and one-dimensional representations of people. The men are all cruel tyrants and the women are all submissive broodmares. Her first interaction with society is watching a woman give birth only to be immediately ordered back to work in the cornfields seconds later.
Maria is certainly right to hate a society this cruel. As the film goes along, we come to realize just how cruelly the Macedonian villagers treated her and why her resentments run so deep. This society is singularly cruel and willing to go to extreme lengths to punish anything different than itself, especially women.
It’s a wash to say that You Won’t Be Alone is as subversive as some other contemporary depictions of witchcraft. There’s no hedonistic glee in the liberation from Christianity like we see in the final moments of The Witch, where the female teenage character literally takes flight after removing her clothes and embracing the coven that killed her baby sister. There is some similarity though to the way The Green Knight uses witchcraft — as a stand-in for a mother witch trying to give her son an opportunity to prove himself.
I am tempted to compare this morality tale to Silence of the Lambs though — that great story where the ultimate grotesque evil was two serial killers whose evil was founded on their ability to regard humanity solely as a piece of meat to be worn or consumed. Her power is very literally born from her ability to tear chunks of skin off of another person and to fully assume their identity absent of their voice or memories. In the age of materialism and non-binary identity, there’s a wish-fulfillment subtext that could be written into a form of witchcraft that allows you to become anything by literally just grafting it onto your skin.
For the most part, You Won’t Be Alone is disinterested in these implications. Again, this is a coming-of-age drama about coming to terms with the society you live in through fresh eyes, and the horror is just there to make it shocking and apparent how cruel this world is.
While the desolation of innocent humanity is ultimately depicted as horrific, pointless, and sad, Maria and Nevena’s witchcraft is founded on the assumption that there is no way to reconcile female dignity with the patriarchal society. You can either just blend in or totally abandon society altogether. Maria is the villain in the piece — the Hannibal Lector who feels fully justified in his consumption of humanity. No one will accept these characters if they saw their real skin and claws, their true nature. Nevena has hope and tries to make the most of society, only for the horror and bitterness to slowly creep up and haunt her.