BY JESS PEACOCK
It has been a few months since David Bruckner’s adaptation of the creeptastic Adam Neville novel The Ritual clawed its way onto Netflix to generally positive reviews. The story is a simple one – as most good horror tends to be – focusing on four buddies who, following the tragic and violent passing of their friend during a liquor store robbery gone awry, set out into the Swedish backcountry to memorialize their fallen mate. Not surprisingly, things go wrong and the British lads find themselves deep inside a mysterious forest where they encounter a slaughtered elk hanging from a tree and enigmatic runes carved throughout the shadowy wilderness. The hikers are soon beset by traumatic dreams as well as a massive creature relentlessly stalking them throughout the forest. Luke, the central character within the narrative, also struggles with guilt stemming from his inaction the night his friend was murdered, the collective accusatory gaze of his friends, and the disturbing visions preying upon his feelings of helplessness and cowardice from that tragic evening. He is eventually captured by a cult that worships as a god the monster stalking them and is forced to watch helplessly as his last surviving companion is sacrificed to the beast, leaving Luke with the unenviable choice of either joining the twisted congregation in the woods or perhaps dying himself.
All in all, The Ritual operates as an effective hybrid of Blair Witch inspired horror with traditional creature feature tropes, while offering an opportunity to analyze and discuss the nature of divinity and religious devotion.
As described in the film, the monster is a Jötunn, “A god. Ancient…a bastard offspring of Loki.” While the role of the Jötunn in Norse mythology is somewhat ambiguous (more akin to giants than gods), its role as a divine figure in The Ritual is clear and anything but accidental. And while I am not an expert in Norse mythology or Scandinavian folklore, it is not difficult to see the similarities between, say, the god Odin sacrificing himself (to himself) by hanging on the World Tree to that of the crucifixion of Jesus (who was God and who was sent by God) on a trees well (Acts 10:39). Similarly, and with respect to The Ritual as well as Norse mythology, the religious theme of a monstrous god found within the film are applicable across many cosmologies and theologies.
For example, one only has to skim through the Judeo-Christian bible to understand that the nature of Yahweh is not simply nobility or rightfulness. Within these narratives, the reader is often confronted with a disturbing ambivalence around the unique brew of violence and abhorrent sexual ethics that are not only endorsed by God, they are indistinguishable from the very nature and agency of God.
“It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” -Hebrews 10:31
For example, the horror of the ten plagues in the book of Exodus, culminating in Yahweh (described in the text as “the destroyer”) murdering en masse the first born of Egypt, coupled with divine orders to the Israelites in the book of Numbers to murder all of the Midianites (including the children and women – although they spared the virgins to serve as sex slaves), should be sufficient to provide even the most faithful religious devotee concern as to how such behavior from a deity is anything but monstrous. These two illustrations, of which the Judeo-Christian scriptures are rife, are an uncomfortable miscegenation of the holy and the horrific, as the Almighty is often portrayed less as a nurturer and more as a mercurial cosmic overlord who demands, above all else, fealty.
Within the world of The Ritual, this fealty is accepted by the Jötunn whether it be willing or through force. Luke discovers his friend Phil kneeling naked in front of a bizarre totem, frightened and postured in a penitent manner seemingly against his will. And while there does seem to be some amount of eagerness from the cult members to worship and present sacrifices in exchange for a type of eternal life (one woman even telling Luke, “We worship it. It is a privilege to worship”), the underlying call to adoration is obviously spiked with fear, reflecting the warning from Hebrews 10:31 that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
While contemporary Christian adherents might like to paint a theological picture of a cosmic Manichean struggle between the forces of pure good and absolute evil, scripture is rarely so cut and dry, echoing theologian Paul Tillich’s assertion that “the holy originally lies below the alternative of good and evil; that is both divine and demonic…Our ultimate concern can destroy us as it can heal us.” Within the Hebrew bible, Yahweh is seen as both reveling in the presence of malevolent forces as well as crushing them, modeled in the complex relationship between the divine and the chaos monsters Leviathan and Behemoth. And, as clearly portrayed in the book of Job, the creator of the universe has a comfortable and permissive relationship with Satan, granting “the accuser” permission to dismantle the livelihood of one of God’s elect as a result of a pissing contest between the two cosmic personalities. The case could even be made for God representing the most diabolical, violent, and bloodthirsty monster of all, an otherworldly ancient deity that revels in mass genocide, rape, or any number of atrocities visited upon humanity.
In much the same way that Luke is forced by the Jötunn to kneel in reverence at the conclusion of The Ritual, many fundamentalist conservative Christians have refined an ominous theology whereby non-believers will come to worship God one way or another, operating under the proclamation in Philippians that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” while emboldened by the book of Revelation and the action/adventure eschatology of the Left Behindseries of novels that paints a picture of a vengeful God returning to this planet drenched in the blood of all those who refuse to kneel in worship. As Luke is told in the film, “You will kneel before the god. If not, it will hang you from the trees.”
The 18th century theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards described the Christian god as a deity whose wrath “is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given, and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is its course, when once it is let loose.” The blood god rampaging within the theology of Edwards is filled with unbridled anger toward its followers resulting from the sinful decay of creation. Subsequently, those followers are required to appease this monstrous force poised to unleash its omnipotent fury at a moment’s notice through the ritual reenactment of the most legendary act of filicide in popular mythology, whereby they symbolically (or literally through the process of transubstantiation) drink the blood and eat the flesh of the demigod Jesus the Christ whose atoning sacrifice is all that satiates an ancient and furious deity, thereby preventing its full wrath from being visited upon the earth.
In The Ritual, despite his great pain and status of being chosen by the Jötunn (indicated by the fresh wounds on his chest), Luke refuses to kneel before this god, standing twice after being shoved to the ground, then defiantly sinking a hatchet into the monster’s head while its “church” burns down around it. As someone who spent many years in an oppressive Christian environment, the final sequence of Luke fleeing through the confusing darkness of the forest, pursued by a jealous and angry god, to finally break free of the confines of the monster’s territory and boldly roar back at it, was a powerful representation of escaping religious fundamentalism, and an image that anchors The Ritual with enough conceptual heft to separate it from standard fright fare and elevate it to a HALLOWED HORROR.