‘The Banishing’ Doesn’t Reinvent the Haunted House, but Does Offer a Reflection on the Horrors of Religious Sexism

A still from 'The Banishing'.  Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) is seen centre frame, close-up, she is in a corridor and looking behind her with a shocked expressions. she is wearing a yellow woolen top and her dark curled hair is cropped short and full of volume. It looks like she is being followed or has heard something behind her.

On April 15th, Shudder premiered The Banishing, a new horror film based around the house considered to be the most haunted in England before its demolition in 1944. In late 1930s England, Linus (John Heffernan), a new small-town vicar, moves with his wife Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) and their daughter Adelaide (Anya McKenna-Bruce) to Borley Rectory, a sprawling house full of sheet-covered furniture and floral wallpaper. Although Linus’ overseeing bishop, Malachi (John Lynch), assures him that the prior vicar and his wife relocated from the town, it’s clear from the film’s opening that they both met their deaths within the house at the hands of the vicar himself. Not soon after settling, Marianne and Adelaide begin to experience the effects of the house’s haunting, and Marianne looks for answers from a mysterious local man named Harry Price (Sean Harris). Meanwhile, Linus deals with his own personal demons, namely in the form of his religiously-influenced sexual shame and possessiveness over Marianne, who had Adelaide out-of-wedlock with another man years before.

The issue of women’s sexuality and traditional Christianity’s punishment for it takes centre stage throughout the movie, influencing both the characters’ social and supernatural experiences. Marianne is a woman who relies on her Minister husband and the support system of the church, but resists feeling shame for her sexuality. This enigmatic quality makes her both resilient and vulnerable throughout the film as she works to protect both herself and her daughter. Although many horror films tackle sexual shame or the traumas of religion, The Banishing remixes old visual tropes and themes to make a new kind of haunting that considers the generational consequences of shaming and enacting violence against women.

The way the film handles religion and sexuality isn’t always ideal: although Linus’ sexual shame is certainly not shown as a spiritual ideal, the film may go too far in the other direction to condemn it by having Marianne pressure and shame Linus for not “consummating” their marriage. It’s not explicitly stated, but it does seem that some of Linus’ discomfort with a potential sexual aspect of their marriage is due to the fact that Marianne had her daughter out-of-wedlock with another man, thus, from a very traditional Christian perspective, making Linus and Marianne’s marriage adulterous. Despite Linus’ shame being a reflection of his own sexism over Marianne’s sexual history, and Marianne having a very valid anger and resentment for this, some viewers might still find discomfort in the way Marianne’s behaviour veers into the sexually-manipulative.

The surprising gem in the film is Harry Price, a strange man who offers secrets and warnings about the house that contradict the local Bishop’s smooth assurances of safety. Harris plays Price as a liminal figure, a man standing at his own crossroad and threshold to the other side. He’s aware of the dangers of the house and its long history and takes it seriously, gravely, and doesn’t shy away from throwing himself into situations where he is easily seen as the transgressive adversary. Harris’s wiry frame, bright red hair, and rust-coloured jacket make Price look like a fox —a trickster figure in more than a few cultures— and he uses his smarts to subvert the lies of the religious establishment by assisting the wife and bypassing her husband’s authority. Although there’s nothing specific in the text that marks Price as queer, the ways he serves as an outsider with a keen understanding of the Church’s sexual stigma and an empathy for Marianne sets him outside the normalised masculinity of the time and place. He’s a compelling supporting player and helps elevate the film’s themes while also lending a strangeness that keeps the film from feeling stodgy.

The Banishing’s parts don’t fully add up to a satisfying whole, with some of the house’s world-building not quite fitting together by the end, but the film is still worth a watch for those interested in its themes, however imperfectly they may be conveyed. The critiques of Christianity unfortunately do get ham-fisted as the film goes on, and the movie never quite earns or fully explicates some of its harshest condemnations. Although the film’s performances make for a worthwhile viewing, this film doesn’t add to the genre as much as remix aspects from other recent horror media to tell a somewhat new story. For viewers with an interest in narratives that interrogate Christianity’s complicated history with gender, it’s worth seeing, and for fans of Mike Flanagan’s two seasons of the The Haunting anthology, The Banishing will satisfy in the absence of a third season. Although The Banishing may not be an excellent innovation, its unexpected touches and dedication to its themes make it worth its 97 minute runtime.

The Banishing is available to stream exclusively on Shudder now

by Bishop V. Navarro

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter 

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