Seeing the Dark

The Dark may be a movie that tries to do too much, but it does illustrate an idea that has been lurking around my head for a few years. That which we fear and that which we worship are never far apart. Since The Dark was pretty much panned, in brief it goes like this—a separated couple gets back together in Wales to draw their troubled teen daughter back. While there she drowns and the ghost of a girl from the past shows her mother how to get her daughter back. The film is notable as being the first I’ve seen that could make sheep scary. Skulking in the back story is a minister, “the shepherd,” the father of the ghostly girl, who started a new religion over the ocean cliffs of Wales half a century ago. When his daughter died, he convinced his flock to leap off the cliff to reach a place that is a combination of Heaven and a Welsh mythical afterlife called Annwyn. The shepherd, however, is really using their sacrificial deaths to bring his daughter back from the dead. The story is complex and the darkness of the narrative is at times overwhelming, nevertheless, it is a showcase of how religious conviction can be more frightening than consoling at times.

Some years back I researched the Welsh mythology of the Mabinogion. Having been a student of ancient religions, however, I knew there was only so far I could go without the lexical support of learning Celtic languages. (This is a fact of mythological study often overlooked by popular treatments; if you really want to get what is going on there is no substitute for reading texts in their original language. I was too busy learning Ugaritic and the time, and struggling with Akkadian, to pick up Gaelic as well.) Nevertheless, the mythology struck me as particularly compelling. Some of the roots of the Arthurian legend lie deep within this lore, and although often uncredited, it still influences our society today. Mythology is simply religion dressed to go out for the evening. The concepts form the basis of much that we still believe and that which still has the power to terrify.

Although the critics didn’t care for the film, the dense interweaving of misplaced religious devotion, Welsh mythology, and basic human longing make The Dark in many ways a classic horror movie. It may be hard to find the characters sympathetic, but they are in some ways archetypal. With a sinister minister driven by personal loss turning to pagan folklore to bring his daughter back, we have a secondary character who curses the fate of an all-too-human condition. The concept of sacrifice becomes a tool for selfish gain rather than a means of helping others. Possibly those who panned the movie did so without an appreciation of the mythology that pulses just beneath the surface here. And while sometimes horror films are simply puerile escapism, at other times they should give us pause to think, and maybe even learn.

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