The Devil to Make Her Do It: THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER & Depictions of Satan and Women in Horror (Originally published for Bloody-Disgusting.com)

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The original article can be found at Bloody-Digusting.com.

This article contains spoilers.

For as far back as the genre’s inception, horror has been pinning its protagonists against the biggest baddy, seducer of sin, and purveyor of evil within existence: Satan. Whether he’s looking to claim an earthly human body or he’s manipulating characters into doing his “work,” horror has been fascinated with the Devil for decades— but especially in regards to his relationships with women and female characters.

And it makes sense. The mythology behind Satan and women has bedeviled (no pun intended) history since…well, forever. Christianity has largely interpreted Satan to be the serpent behind Eve’s first bite into that apple in the Garden of Eden. History has been littered with wrongful accusations and persecutions against “hysterical” women for dark arts and witchcraft. And for years, horror has explored, commented on, satirized, and even exploited this, as we’ve watched countless films that dive into any of the following: women getting possessed by Satan or one of his demonic disciples (The Exorcist); women being sacrificed as a gift to Satan (Jennifer’s Body); women willingly worshipping Satan and sacrificing others for him (The Blood on Satan’s Claw); women getting seduced by Satan (part 2 of Haxan); women’s bodies being used to birth Satan’s children (Rosemary’s Baby, The House of the Devil); and, what I personally deem to be the most interesting, women who are liberated (or, at least think they are) by their embracing of Satan, Satanism, and/or witchcraft (All the Colors of the Dark, Season of the Witch).

In Osgood PerkinsThe Blackcoat’s Daughter, (also referred to as February) a socially awkward, quiet prep school freshman Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is stranded at school with Rose (Lucy Boynton) and a couple of nuns while she waits for her parents to pick her up for winter break. She has dreams/premonitions that her parents have died in a car crash, but she still anxiously crosses off the remaining days on her calendar until she can see them.

Kat is seemingly demure and pristine on the outside, with her perfect French braids and her meek-and-mild attempt at a musical performance, but there’s a visible corruption hiding inside of her. She smirks at her principal when she passive-aggressively calls him out on a lie. She sneaks into Rose’s room after she specifically tells her not to. She’s morbidly curious about the nuns at school who Rose swears are low-key devil worshipers. Kat is tempted by the darkness— she just needs someone (or something) to lure it out of her.

As Blackcoat splices between three different timelines, it cuts to “Joan” (Emma Roberts) as she’s suspiciously ripping psychiatric hospital bracelets off her wrists. She’s roughed up, with a bullet wound on her shoulder and bruises all over. Like Kat, Joan is uncomfortable. She doesn’t say much— barely enough to even respond when spoken to. A man that picks her up at the bus station asks, “Do you believe in God, Joan?” “No,” because her belief lies in something else. Joan is wary of kindness and coldly giggles at the man who picks her up when she realizes he’s related to someone from her past. Like Kat, something darker lurks within Joan, and it’s only a matter of time until it comes bubbling to the surface.

Cut back to Kat: as her time spent in isolated abandonment continues, her behavior grows increasingly brazen. Rose catches her throwing herself in front of a boiler, kneeling before it in worship. Her body contorts in the middle of the night. Kat’s sly remarks change from subtly condescending to downright threatening: “You had your chance,” she spits at Rose. Her attempts at prayer and trying to say grace at the dinner table are overturned by scoffing and Regan MacNeil-style vomiting, as if something in her body is completely rejecting godliness.

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And we know who’s behind it all. One night while alone, Kat makes a phone call while trying to reach her parents. The voice on the other line is distorted, deep, and masculine, but soft, practically a whisper: “Hi baby girl…They’re not coming. Kill the (a word that rhymes with punts).” Whether he’s been summoned or been waiting for someone vulnerable to possess all along— Satan walks within these school hallways, and he has found his doll in Kat. But his looming presence is used sparingly, as he is felt more than he is shown: Perkins understates him as a tall-horned, shadowy figure that slowly lingers his way through the rooms, while his face and detailed physical attributes are never revealed. He skulks in the corners of the girls’ bedrooms, nearly to the point of invisibility. Perkins’s version of Satan quietly entices and oversees more than he actually demands of Kat.

But Kat still obliges. She butchers Rose and the nuns, leaving their decapitated heads as gifts for him in front of the boiler. For the first time at this school, or perhaps in her entire life, she is feeling monstrous, terrifying, and powerful. She hails Satan and releases a guttural growl before getting shot in the shoulder by police. In the time after she’s been apprehended, a priest then performs a successful exorcism on Kat, and Satan exits her body. But— in a twist that is seldom seen in the genre— Kat watches him leave her behind and weeps, as she begs him not to go.

As it’s all revealed, “Joan” is really adult Kat nine years after this incident, and she’s stilllonging for that liberation and companionship she thinks Satan once gave to her as a teenager. She murders Rose’s parents that she’s hitchhiking with and decapitates their corpses to bring back to him as an offering. To her despair, the boiler room is cold, and Satan’s presence is no longer there— leaving her not only alone, but also without that feeling of deliverance that she so craved once more. 

What’s unique about Blackcoat is that, the movie doesn’t simply end with Kat’s exorcism and then the implied hope that Kat is cured and will get her life together from this point forward. Instead, we get a glimpse at what life is like for Kat after her time spent with Satan ends, and he leaves her with (what should be) independence— it just didn’t work, because Kat is completely lost again once he abandons her. Satan did his part before leaving Kat to her own devices: he (temporarily) freed Kat of her pain and awarded her agency, but she just didn’t know what the hell to do with it after his guidance ends.

And The Blackcoat’s Daughter is interestingly part of a recent shift within the genre in which young women are left pondering what to do next after Satan quasi-liberates them from their previous paths. Similar to Blackcoat, Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket depicts the consequences of allowing the titular demon (not technically Satan himself, but a force close enough) to infiltrate a young woman’s life after she’s feeling suffocated and out of control of her own narrative. Like Blackcoat’s Kat, Leah (Nicole Munoz) is also drawn to the occult because it makes her “feel better” after the loss of her father. In her desperation, Leah conjures Pyewacket and wishes for her mother to die, after she has uprooted Leah’s life and makes a disparaging comment towards her in the throes of an argument.

Like Satan in Blackcoat, Pyewacket’s existence is felt more than shown, as the shadowy figure skulks in corners and manipulates from a distance at first, before eventually acting more aggressively. As Leah and her mother start to mend their relationship, Leah regrets her wish, and attempts to reverse Pyewacket’s involvement in their lives. But ultimately, Pyewacket tricks Leah into killing her mother, and Leah is left orphaned and maligned. But whose fault is it, really? Pyewacket gave Leah the exact liberation that she had wished for— even if the repercussions were much graver than she was able to handle.

Conversely, in Robert EggersThe Witch, Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) deal with the devil is coincidental and unintentional on her behalf, and it yields way more satisfying results…or at least it seems to. After her father, mother, and siblings turn against her, accuse her of being the “Witch of the Wood,” and demean her for embodying “evil,” Thomasin is the last one standing. Satan, in the form of their rambunctious black goat Black Phillip (which will forever be one of Satan’s most iconic Baphomet in horror ever), gets rid of her oppressive father, makes her betraying siblings disappear, and leads her to his book. For the first time in her life, Thomasin is given agency, as she has likely never been asked this question before: What does thou want? After years of caring for her siblings and tending to her chores, Satan has given her the gift of self-servitude. He asks her if she desires to see the world and wishes to experience the pleasures of taste and beauty. But we are only left to imagine the delicious life (we hope) Thomasin is about to have for herself, because the film ends before we get to experience it with her. Dissimilarly to Blackcoat and Pyewacket, we will never know if there are possible consequences to Thomasin’s relationship to Satan— we just witness her liberated ascension.

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Even in Kiernan Shipka’s other dances-with-the-devil project, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina series, Sabrina finds herself grappling at partially wanting to commit to the “Dark Lord,” while still maintaining independence, friendships, and relationships formed outside of the underworld. Alas, Sabrina eventually signs her name in Satan’s book (but at what cost.) Additionally, Kevin Kolsch’s and Dennis Widymer’s Starry Eyes allows Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) the opportunity to be reborn after she gives herself over to the demon Astraeus, in exchange for everything she wanted: acting gigs, fame, and physical perfection.

But the questions remain: Is Satan freeing these women? Harming them? Or a mixture of both? The answers aren’t black and white. However, as more and more women find themselves openly admitting to practicing witchcraft, subscribing to Satanism, and/or belonging to the Church of Satan or The Satanic Temple, etc. and this contemporary trend in horror attempts to reflect this, we have to wonder if the genre is giving Satan quite enough credit. In his 2017 book Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture”, author Per Faxneld suggests Satan to be a feminist ally and rejects Christianity’s notion that his kinship to women is problematic, while documentaries like 2019’s Hail Satan? shine a revisionist light upon The Satanic Temple’s search for social justice and empowerment for historically oppressed groups (like women.)

It’s unclear as to why The Blackcoat’s Daughter doesn’t quite get the level of fanfare as some of its other recent, Satan-liberating movie peers get. But if there ever was a horror film that perfectly encapsulates how complicated a woman’s relationships to both Satan, as well as her own sense of identity can be— well, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is unparalleled.

We ponder these things and celebrate The Blackcoat’s Daughter in honor of Osgood Perkins’ follow-up, Gretel & Hansel— which also suggests possible witchcraft/Satanic imagery in its trailer— coming to theaters this week.~

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