Suspiria is a movie intentionally difficult to follow. The original 1977 version was an Italian film about witches posing as dance instructors. After watching it, I felt I didn’t have enough backstory to understand the action. Then a remake was released last year and I felt I needed, like a dancer, to try again. I have to confess I’m not a dancer. Luca Guadagnino’s remake left me scratching my head again, although it underscored a point I make in Holy Horror: in horror films with remakes the role of the Bible changes. Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen the first Suspiria, but I don’t recall the Bible appearing. It does, however, in the 2018 remake. The protagonist, Susie Bannion, is an American enrolled at a German dance school. She is, in the remake, a Mennonite from Ohio.
Not only does this situation allow religion to take once again an important role in a horror film, it is also the opportunity to show the Bible visually. Susie’s mother, who objects to her daughter engaging in such a showy profession as dancing (and given the performance of Volk in the film, the nature of this objection can be easily guessed), is dying as the film begins. Her Mennonite community watches and prays over her, sitting with Bibles clutched in their hands. To take a page from Holy Horror, this suggests that the Good Book is powerless to save. While the movie itself is a little confusing on this point, it seems that Susie’s mother dies as her daughter becomes the head witch of the dance academy. Since Holy Writ famously contains verses condemning witches, the impotence of Scripture is underscored.
Italian folklore about witches appears to be remarkably robust. From Strega Nona to Suspiria, the wizened women of society have power against which men are powerless. Some of the bleakest moments in the film (from the point of view of the male gaze) are when the witches taunt powerless, naked men who cannot in any way defend themselves. Turnabout, of course, is fair play—at least if folk sayings have any validity. Here it’s worth considering that if male religions hold females down—the Mennonite women are shown in bonnets and uncomfortable clothes—then being a witch is remarkably freeing. Indeed, there is the energy of a life-force evident in the dancing of the young women and the academy is closed to men, apart from public performances. I’m still scratching my head over Suspiria, but it seems that the direct engagement with religion and the power of women makes this a movie worthy of rewatching and attempting to understand.