A 1940s French film is one of the most Catholic horror movies ever made
The best Catholic horror film of 2018 was made in 1943.
At first glance, “The Song of Bernadette” seems as wholesome—and as outdated—as the clink of the morning milk delivery. It’s filmed in black and white, its score is plangent and heavy on the strings, and Jennifer Jones plays the saint at its center with a sweetness and softness that played big to wartime audiences but which, to me, is a little too spun-sugar. It was a huge hit at the box office and won four Oscars, which might make it a classic or might just make it a time capsule. The final frame even includes an advertisement: Buy war bonds!
But this fictionalized story of Bernadette Soubirous, a French peasant girl who claims she sees a mysterious “Lady” in a secluded part of the city dump, follows a classic horror-film structure in order to make a theological point that could not be more urgent and contemporary.
"The Song of Bernadette" follows a classic horror-film structure in order to make a theological point.
There are some surface parallels: The scenes where local officials scheme to prevent worshipers from believing Bernadette are basically from “Jaws” if the Fourth of July weekend was a new railroad station and the great white shark was our Blessed Mother. The threat to have Bernadette examined by a psychiatrist calls up memories of Fairuza Balk in “Return to Oz.” But the real parallel between this hagiography and a horror film lies in the movie’s structure.
Horror movies, especially supernatural ones, often turn on questions of authority. Whose account of reality can be trusted? Horror films often spend a long time on the investigative process, eliminating normal explanations until the abnormal is all that is left. The point of these investigations is not to answer the question of whatdunnit. Nobody goes into “The Exorcist” wondering if maybe little Regan is just having a bad reaction to her parents’ divorce. The point is to show the failure of accepted, modern authorities—science, medicine, government, reason itself. The people who know the truth are the ones least likely to be believed. From the island singer in “I Walked with a Zombie” to the project kids in “Candyman”; from the disbelieved teenagers in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to the disbelieved teenager in “The Song of Bernadette”—authority, in horror, lies with those to whom powerful men do not listen.
Horror movies, especially supernatural ones, often turn on questions of authority.
“The Song of Bernadette” is an extended confrontation between a peasant girl and every single power of this world. No, wait—two peasant girls. There is an achingly tender scene early on when Bernadette’s mother (Anne Revere) is comforting her by the fire, telling her daughter that soon she will be married and have her own babies. This harrowed woman says in soft, heartbreaking tones, “Life goes by so fast.” Bernadette is so young, too young for what’s being asked of her. When she sees the Virgin Mary in a grotto in the city waste ground, Our Lady is so young—almost as young as when the angel came.
The mayor and other civil authorities (including one played with sinister ennui by the great Vincent Price) meet in the Cafe du Progres to plot against the peasant girls. Police officers flail helplessly as crowds of women march to the grotto to kneel. The priest and his superiors stand aloof from Bernadette. Her fiercest opponent is a woman, of course—like her staunchest supporters—a nun played with febrile ferocity by Gladys Cooper. The film notes fairly that there have been impostors before, who claimed to see visions in order to fleece the gullible. And there have been hallucinations, fantasies, wishful thinking. Still, the constant interrogations can’t help but resonate in the age of #MeToo—if this is how the world treats girls who report miracles, how does it treat girls who report rape?
The film can’t help but resonate in the age of #MeToo—if this is how the world treats girls who report miracles, how does it treat girls who report rape?
The clergy refuse to help Bernadette, or even hear her, until the Virgin Mary forces their hand. They are part of the world that has taught her that she is stupid. The bureaucracy of miracles interrogates her again and again, all the way to the end of her life. The film’s frequent comedy erupts when Bernadette’s humility exposes others’ wickedness and folly. But it is a hard comedy whose punchline is the absurdity of shameless power and shamed truth.
Bernadette’s opponents harp on the fact that the “Lady” appeared in “a place of filth,” “a cesspool.” They claim this is unfitting for the Virgin (who bore Christ in a stable). The hygienic ones are scandalized by where God shows his greatest favor, whom he most insistently loves.
Bernadette experiences the fickleness of the crowd, as her own Palm Sunday triumph quickly becomes a humiliating Way of the Cross. The theology in “The Song of Bernadette” is subtle; it satirizes Catholic worship of suffering, a kind of Pelagianism of pain, and yet, Bernadette’s acceptance of suffering is key to her credibility and her holiness.
Many films show the beauty of humility. Many show the evil of knuckling under injustice. Few show both the beauty of humility in the face of injustice and the way this humility can be marbled with self-hatred. Bernadette’s genuine humility leads her to believe those who tell her she is stupid and lazy. Many of us have felt that vertiginous slip from “Lord, I am not worthy” to “Therefore, you will not come to me.” This is Bernadette’s final temptation. All her former adversaries are vanquished, but like Michael Myers, they rise up from behind the couch, as voices in her head.
At the climax of many horror classics, the “final girl” confronts the monster—alone, because no one in power will believe in the threat—and defeats him through her bravery and resourcefulness. Bernadette, at the close of her earthly life, confronts monsters within herself and falters. The bravery she has shown throughout this film is not enough: She needs rescue. Unlike the “final girl,” she can’t triumph alone; unlike the “final girl,” she doesn’t have to.