Hail, readers! Welcome to Devils in the Details, a monthly column examining the satanic and occult influences in horror. This column provides a non-sensational look at these influences by examining them through the perspective of modern Occult scholarship. The study of satanism and the occult is a life-long endeavor, and I have much yet to learn. I hope you will join me in this sojourn into the darkness!
The Devil’s Doorway is a 2018 found footage film directed by Aislinn Clarke. It takes place in 1960 Ireland, where two priests are dispatched to a Magdalene Laundry to investigate a purported “miracle.” Aside from being incredibly efficient while shot on 16mm film and using mostly practical effects, the film is potentially one of my favorite explorations of evil and the hypocrisy of organized religion.
The Devil’s Doorway begins with some facts about Magdalene Laundries that explain that women from prostitutes to unwed mothers were held as inmates. Fathers Thomas Riley and John Thornton arrive at the Magdalene Laundry to document and investigate the claims of a Virgin Mary statue weeping blood. After a few nights, the pair experience supernatural incidents and begin to uncover dark secrets about the Laundry. The Mother Superior being generally unwelcoming and hostile towards the couple only adds to the evil hiding within the asylum. The film deftly employs typical possession and religious film tropes; however, The Devil’s Doorway has a more cynical tone and drive than something like The Nun (2018) or The Rite (2011).
Before delving too deep into The Devil’s Doorway’s message, it would be helpful to discuss Magdalene Laundries’ history and the inherent abuse that lays the foundation for this film.
Magdalene asylums, particularly Irish Magdalene asylums, existed since the late 1700s, housing thousands of women in the years leading up to their closure. Initially Protestant facilities, Magdalene Laundries were created with the purpose of housing and rehabilitating prostitutes, hence the dedication to Mary Magdalene, traditionally a reformed prostitute. These women, dubbed “Fallen Women,” were sentenced to penitence at Magdalene Laundries, where they suffered constant physical and psychological abuse. As time went on, the Catholic Church took over most Magdalene Laundries employing sisters to run the facilities.
While the Luandries’ original purpose was as a penitentiary for prostitutes, their profitability led to an increase in demand for Magdeline Laundries. As the number of facilities increased, so did the need for the free labor the inmates provided. The term “Fallen Women” expanded from women who did not adhere to Catholic principles to any woman who did not conform to Irish society. Anyone from orphans to unwed mothers became prospective inmates. Despite the initial goal of rehabilitation or social, moral responsibility, the Laundries quickly shifted focus to profit with a preference for permanent inmates, i.e., a permanent free workforce.
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“These women, dubbed “Fallen Women,” were sentenced to penitence at Magdalene Laundries, where they suffered constant physical and psychological abuse.“
Even after Magdalene Laundries shut down and the public was made aware of the awful abuse women suffered in these facilities, the Catholic Church held to secrecy and would not accept responsibility. Still today, some of the religious institutes that ran Magdalene Laundries refuse to contribute to reparation funds for their victims despite pressure from the Irish government and the United Nations.
After some time at the Laundry, the Fathers confront the Mother Superior about her mistreatment of the girls, having beaten a girl in one scene for singing. The interview that follows is particularly compelling. The Mother Superior explains how they are sent the “world’s messes” and are expected to hide it away and clean it up. It comments on how “troublesome” women were cast away from society, out of sight where they won’t cause any more issues, a sentiment that is echoed by a bible quote later in the film about cutting off a hand if it makes you stumble. However, the more poignant part of the interview is the Mother Superior’s question in response to Father Thomas:
“You worry about how we treat the girls. What about how you treat us?… Do you know how many of the church’s messes that I personally have had to clean up? Do you know how many of the babies born here had fathers who were fathers, Father? Didn’t think so. Didn’t think you’d want to either.”
While all of that is enough for the makings of a horror film, The Devil’s Doorway tackles the attitude that allowed the Laundries to flourish in the first place. While investigating the bleeding statue, Father John asks Father Thomas questions about his faith and what he thinks of miracles. Father Thomas’s response is that of a cynical and bitter old man in that he believes there are no miracles, only the work of “tricksters.”
In another scene where they continue this discussion and after Father John has experienced some supernatural phenomena, Father Thomas expresses that he became a priest to be a good man, but that didn’t happen. Presumably, Father Thomas refers to the corruption and politics within the Catholic Church that would disillusion him with the concept of getting closer to God through organized religion.
He buttons his point by asking Father John if he believes God is “here,” referring to the Laundry. Father Thomas even says that “For these girls, this place must be a livin’-” only to be interrupted by the Virgin Mary’s resumed bleeding, a nice touch and testament to the cleverness of the film.
While The Devi’s Doorway is a comment on the atrocities committed in the name of “moral responsibility,” it’s also a kickass satanic found footage film! As previously mentioned, the film is shot in 16mm, giving it a distinct look and sound even if not 100% historically accurate. Shooting on film makes the practical effects that much more terrifying, and the effects themselves are brilliantly employed.
As the Fathers uncover more about the Laundry, they discover a pregnant girl chained in the facility’s lower floors. At this point in the film, the audience has clues about the supernatural evil present in the facility, but after finding Kathleen, events escalate. The film does an excellent job of misleading the audience by using common possession tropes. Warning, spoilers ahead!
“While The Devi’s Doorway is a comment on the atrocities committed in the name of “moral responsibility,” it’s also a kickass satanic found footage film!“
The sisters are overtly antagonistic towards the girl, calling her the Devil and claiming she is a sinner. However, when speaking to Father Thomas, Kathleen appears to be thankful for his help. In one scene, the Father asks Kathleen to pray with her, and she eagerly does so. Upon starting the prayer, though, one of the sisters starts to contort horribly, interrupting the prayer. At first, it seems that the sister’s contortions were caused by Kathleen or at least by the demon possessing her, but that’s only half right. As is revealed by the end of the film, it’s the sisters who are in league with Satan, having presumably sacrificed the facility’s children for some unknown reason.
It’s a fitting sentiment, given that Magdalene Laundries essentially sacrificed its inmates’ humanity for profit. Throughout the film, though, there are other instances where Kathleen begins to pray or mentions the Holy Virgin in some way, causing the evil entity to react. Again, it seems that this is a reaction to her possession, but upon a second viewing, subtle clues show it is actually a result of the sister’s covenant with Satan.
If you’ve read any other Devils in the Details, you’ll know that I usually take a look at the rituals and pick apart the Satanic tropes. However, for The Devil’s Doorway, I don’t believe that’s necessary. The references are short and only serve to give a reason for the evil of the Magdalene Laundry. Sure, Black Masses were an invented ritual that doesn’t have any actual historical precedent. Instead, The Devil’s Doorway uses it as a metaphor for the overarching evil rather than a simple trope. Further, the ritual itself is never shown, and the audience is left to fill in the blanks, which I think is incredibly useful in this case.
The Devil’s Doorway is one of the few satanic/religious horror films that use the tropes in a meaningful way. It’s not just Satanists doing satanic things for devil-worshipping reasons. Well, it is, but there’s a more profound message here and an exploration of what evil actually is. The sins of these Laundries were hidden just like the Satanic cult was hidden within this film. Due to the religious institutions’ refusal to acknowledge their involvement and responsibility, there are no official records to account for the thousands of women imprisoned and abused in Magdalene Laundries despite the last one closing in 1996. In the eyes of the church, the abuse that they experienced is nonexistent. The tagline for The Devil’s Doorway is “This Is Not Found Footage. It Has Been Suppressed by the Catholic Church for the Last 58 Years.” Perhaps the most terrifying part of the entire movie is the truth behind that tagline.
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