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‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’: Grief, Motherhood, and Spirit Possession

This guest post written by Gareth Evans appears as part of our theme week on Women in Horror.

A common question that is asked of horror movies is why? Why don’t any of the leads think to go to the police? Why do they not stop messing around with dark forces before it is too late? Not only does Ouija: Origin of Evil have an answer to such questions, it answers them in a way that serves to make its cast more sympathetic.
Directed and co-written by Mike Flanagan, Ouija: Origin of Evil — the prequel to the 2014 film Ouija — stars Elizabeth Reaser as Alice Zander, a fake psychic who enlists her daughters in order to convince people that she can communicate with the dead. Since the death of Alice’s husband, this has become how she earns money. The film opens with Alice performing a séance with her daughters and a client. They are able to pull off the illusion, but Alice declines the customer’s money because she wants to save him from a possibly fraudulent business venture. Alice justifies lying to clients as she believes that she’s providing a service that meets their emotional needs. But her refusal here conveys that there are limits she won’t cross when it comes to dealing with her customers.
This scene serves three important functions. It establishes why the Zander family would choose to experiment with a Ouija board. Alice turns away her customer’s money, proving that she is invested in her job for more than monetary gain. Finally, it reinforces how easy it is for someone to believe that a medium can allow them to contact a deceased loved one, as many people yearn to reconnect with those they have lost.
By this point, the audience is familiar with the aspects of Alice’s character that will inform her actions for the rest of the film. She still mourns the loss of her husband. She honestly believes that her job helps people; she says as much while talking with Father Hogan (Henry Thomas), a priest at her daughters’ school. Alice is passionate about what she does and sees in herself as akin to a therapist. Because Alice is a widow, she’s in a similar position to the people who seek her help. This makes it easier for her to view her actions as helping others grieve, and not the actions of an emotional predator. She feels what they feel. Alice longs for the closure that she believes she gives others through her work.

When her younger daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson) displays the ability to use a Ouija board for real and actually connect with spirits, it makes perfect sense that Alice jumps at the opportunity. In her eyes, she is finally able to do what she has been pretending to do all this time and make a real difference in the world. In doing so, Alice fails to see both the danger to Doris and other warning signs that suggest the spirits she speaks to aren’t who they claim to be.
When Doris first uses the Ouija board, it doesn’t appear to cause her any harm. During the course of the film, however, she displays signs that she is being possessed: she starts writing in Polish despite not speaking the language,she uses strange powers to fight back against two boys bullying her. Father Hogan notices that something is amiss, but Alice doesn’t. She is too focused on the great work she thinks her daughter is doing. Alice doesn’t even think to question the spirits beyond a basic test, as she is too wrapped up in what she thinks her daughter has to offer people. The fervor with which she encourages her daughter’s talents shines a light on Alice’s own grief. Through Doris’ gift, Alice has found a purpose for herself. She is still mourning her husband, and being able to heal the pain of others gives her something to strive for. It’s also possible that despite statements to the contrary, Alice felt guilt over lying to the people who sought her help. Now that she can genuinely contact the dead through her daughter, it would make sense for Alice to see this as a redemption of sorts — a way for her to make amends for her earlier lies.
Towards the end of the film, Alice’s older daughter, Paulina “Lina” (Annalise Basso), points out something rather alarming: the answers the ghosts have been giving are the same answers that Alice used to give clients when she pretended to commune with the dead. The ghosts have been manipulating Alice with her own con.

The film comes full circle, connecting back to the very first scene. Everything that was true of Alice’s customer in that scene is true of Alice at this point in the film. She desperately wants to believe that she is talking to the deceased, and whomever she is speaking to knows exactly what to say to get what they want from her. The difference is that these spirits don’t have Alice’s best interests in mind.
Ouija: Origin of Evil subverts the conventions of the horror genre with a sympathetic main character with a relatable motivation. The spirits tempt Alice with her heart’s desire and this keeps her invested in doing what they want, even when it becomes increasingly clear that something is wrong. Alice makes mistakes, ignoring Doris’ needs in favor of her own being chief among them. This is successfully portrayed as tragic because Alice is shown to be an otherwise good mother. She is involved in both her daughters’ lives, to the extent that she has multiple scenes with Father Hogan to discuss Doris’ well-being. When Lina brings her doubts to Alice, she is frustrated by her mother’s inability to really listen to what she is saying because she is used to her mother being more willing to listen. It was Lina who suggested incorporating the Ouija board into her mother’s act. That her mother followed this advice serves as evidence that Alice is usually willing to take Lina’s ideas. In the film’s first scene, the whole family works together to pull off the séance, showing that they normally function well together as a unit. Influenced by The Changeling (1980), Flanagan wanted to create a period piece exploring the dangers of grief within a family, as he views “family as the safest place in the world.”
Because the film takes the time to examine Alice’s motivation, these are truly mistakes and not plot holes. Instead of undermining the film, they serve to contribute to its depth of character. Ouija: Origin of Evil may be a prequel, but it is first and foremost a tragic character piece. One in which a previously strong family dynamic is torn apart when malicious forces use Alice’s grief to manipulate her.

Gareth Evans is a writer from Godalming, a small town in south England. He currently writes for Starburst Magazine and Ink Magazine.

Motherhood and Monsters in ‘Under The Shadow’

This guest post written by Becky Kukla appears as part of our theme week on Women in Horror.

Set in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Under the Shadow focuses on the lives of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) living in in a small apartment in the middle of Tehran. Early on, Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is conscripted to the frontline of the fighting, leaving Shideh and Dorsa alone. As the bombing becomes worse, and their own apartment building is struck, both of them begin to experience ghostly apparitions within the apartments, categorized by their neighbors, and by Dorsa, as jinn.
The title, Under the Shadow, refers to both the literal shadow of war that Shideh and Dora live underneath on a daily basis and the ghostly souls which begin to haunt them. With regular bombings being an everyday part of their lives, and a warhead landing in the apartment above them, the two of them live under the “shadow of war” in a very real sense. The spiritual shadows known as jinn — supernatural creatures that exist in Arab folklore and Islamic mythology and theology — lurk in doorways and in the corners of rooms, never existing as more than a ghostly figure in the corner of one’s eye. These shadows descend on Shideh and Dorsa, aggressively destroying their lives.
The jinn in Under the Shadow have a basis in myth and legend. Like ghouls and ghosts, they are fantasy figures that may or may not exist. For most of the film it’s hard to know whether the jinn are really haunting Dorsa and Shideh or whether they are manifestations of their fear concerning their current situation. Dorsa, after being told about the jinn by a young neighbor, claims that they are in the apartment several days before Shideh begins to have any experiences with them. This could be Dorsa’s grief at her father leaving and her fears about being killed — as a child she has even less control of the situation than her mother does. When Dorsa loses her beloved doll, she explains to Shideh that the spirits have taken it. Again, this could easily be attributed to Dorsa’s fear of abandonment and death.

Under the Shadow straddles a very thin line between fantasy and reality. Writer-director Babak Anvari never explicitly reveals whether the haunting of Shideh and Dorsa is real or imagined, which means that the audience is kept in confusing uncertainty as well. Anvari based his debut film on his personal experiences as a child living in Iran during the war, as well as his own childhood fears about “the ancient myth.” Contextualizing the mayhem that Dorsa and Shideh are going through (they are living in a literal war zone) helps the audience to rationalize their heightened states of fear. On the other hand, some of the events that take place cannot be explained away logically, and we (like Dorsa and Shideh) are forced to confront the terrifying thought that not only has their city been invaded, but their home may be too.
The jinn, and the hauntings, also serve as a metaphor for Shideh’s own insecurities about motherhood. In the first scene of Under the Shadow, Shideh is at university in Tehran to find out whether she will be able to return to finish her medical studies. It is revealed that she was part of the Iranian Revolution before the war, and because of her liberal attitudes, the university will not permit her to come back and graduate. She leaves, deflated and angry. Later, in the film Shideh and Iraj have a heated conversation about why Shideh wants to return to her studies, and why she cannot be satisfied with looking after her daughter. Though Dorsa and Shideh get on well for most of the film, there are moments of tension between the two. The film’s themes of motherhood, hauntings, and trauma drew comparisons to The Babadook. Shideh, as someone who used to want to be a doctor and was actively involved in the revolution, is now trapped inside her apartment building. It’s a huge shift for her, and though she doesn’t blame the birth of Dorsa outright, there seems to be some resentment there. This resentment is only worsened when Iraj leaves — he is a doctor and his skills are needed. His departure partly serves as a reminder to Shideh that she is not qualified and due to the changing role of women in Iranian society post-revolution, she may only hold the title of “mother” for the rest of her life.

Shideh is also living at a cultural crossroads. In her apartment, she exercises to Jane Fonda workout tapes, wears Western clothing, and allows her daughter to watch videos. Outside, she must dress conservatively, predominantly in a chador. At one point she reminds Dorsa not to tell the neighbors that they own a video player, as they are banned. Her life is lived in secrecy, under a different type of shadow. These inner conflicts (mother/doctor, traditional/modern) all contribute to Shideh’s frustration and assist in her slow descent into the depths of fear in her current situation.
Ultimately, Shideh feels incapable of doing what it is widely believed that mothers are supposed to do: protect their children. She is unable to protect Dorsa from the war raging in their country just as she is unable to protect her from the spirits raging in their apartment. During the height of their haunting, Shideh receives a phone call from Iraj, who begins to berate her for being a bad mother, telling her that he knew she wouldn’t be able to protect their daughter. Of course, the phone call is attributed to the jinn playing games with Shideh, but they deliberately tap into Shideh’s biggest insecurity.
Real horror is difficult to convey in film; it needs the audience to truly identify with the main characters, to feel their fear as though it is their own. Under the Shadow is a film which bleeds horror from every frame. Not only does it have a strong narrative with an excellent cast, Under the Shadow succeeds in transforming our own self-doubt into horrifying experiences. We identify with Shideh as someone who is struggling, frustrated, and fearful for the future. Whether Shideh’s fears have manifested themselves as a haunted house of horror, or whether the jinn really do exist, is almost irrelevant by the end. All we want is for Shideh and Dorsa to be safe — from both the war and the jinn. 

Becky Kukla works in factual TV by day, and by night she writes about representation in film and television, and rants about politics on twitter. You can find her at Femphile or at Film Inquiry.