Angels are symbols of ultimate good. Renaissance art portrays them as shining, beautiful beings with massive white wings and glowing halos. They are creatures of God who descend to Earth to deliver warnings to human beings or deliver prophecies. They are often portrayed as humanoid, too, so while their powers are great, their appearance makes them more palatable. However, these creatures are not as beautiful as they seem.
In Jewish and Muslim belief, angels such as Azrael have much more horrific forms. Azrael, the angel of death, has 4000 wings and is made up of as many eyes and tongues as there are humans living on Earth (right now that’s over 7 billion tongues and 14 billion eyes). These mighty beings are not said to necessarily conform with comforting or easily-digestible forms, yet as previously stated, Renaissance art errs on the side of optimism. However, horror films have taken the idea of horrific angels and use them to create awful, almost eldritch monsters. No longer is it just demons or Satan that spark religious fear, but angels can, too.
“Azrael, the angel of death, has 4000 wings and is made up of as many eyes and tongues as there are humans living on Earth (right now that’s over 7 billion tongues and 14 billion eyes).”
Perhaps the most well-known example is the archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, The Dead Don’t Die) in the 2005 film, Constantine. The androgynous character is portrayed as a human, yes, but their intentions are malicious as they manipulate the world of humans and demons. Gabriel is an important figure in several religions and she is almost always the angel of communication who comes to Earth to relay God’s message to humanity. She is also the only female archangel. So, it makes sense that the Gabriel of Constantine is the angel shown speaking with the demon hunter himself.
However, in being God’s communicator, Gabriel is able to manipulate and scheme. They wish to bring Hell to Earth so humanity can better prove God’s love, which seems counterintuitive for an angel of the Almighty. Swinton’s portrayal of such a well-known angel provides an entry point into a potentially diabolical side of the angelic, one where they do not have humanity’s best interests at heart. Perhaps angels are more selfish beings that, after millennia of governing humanity, have become power-hungry and bored.
More recent horror films have taken an eldritch approach to the angel and instead of humanizing them or making them a character in a more epic drama, they become monsters. The 2016 film A Dark Song does just that, especially around the concept of the guardian angel. Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker, Patrick’s Day) is a grieving mother who has decided to use her wealth to pursue a rather desperate endeavor of summoning her guardian angel. To do so, she hires occultist Solomon (Steve Oram, The Canal) to guide her through the grueling ritual.
Typically, guardian angels are thought of as benevolent beings who we pray to for protection, guidance, and even wish-granting. They are assigned to each of us and watch over us throughout our lives. They are bathed in warm light and protect us from harm, or so we think. But in A Dark Song, a more intensive approach is used to meet Sophia’s guardian angel and ask it to grant a wish. She and Solomon look to The Book of Abramelin, an actual text, to perform the months-long ritual which requires fasting, concentration, and sacrifice.
“Perhaps angels are more selfish beings that, after millennia of governing humanity, have become power-hungry and bored.“
The ritual laid out in The Book of Abramelin shows that perhaps angels require more than just half-hearted prayers to help humanity. These are not creatures that can be summoned on a whim; rather, they are massive deities that require literal blood, sweat, and tears. Sophia and Solomon confine themselves to a massive estate and scrawl elaborate symbols on the floor. They pour over texts and work to prove their dedication to their goal.
When her guardian angel is finally summoned, it is humanoid in appearance but it is a massive being full of golden light. However, this is not before demons appear and cut off one of Sophia’s fingers. Again, this angel does not just appear for anyone or anything; humans must prove themselves worthy and strong enough to be in their presence. A Dark Song is a harrowing representation of the darker side of such holy beings.
In a similar vein to A Dark Song, angels are conjured through sacrifice and strange rituals in Babak Anvari’s 2019 film Wounds, which is based on Nathan Ballingrud’s short story, The Visible Filth. However, if you have just seen the film, it is not clear that what is being summoned through literal wounds is an angel. Will (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) is a skeezy bartender in New Orleans who finds a phone full of disturbing videos of people being tortured. It seems senseless until he and his girlfriend, Carrie (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria), realize there is a stack of red books in the background with the title, The Translation of Wounds. These fictional books are guides to summoning angels through actual wounds. All the person performing the ritual needs a human body to tear open.
While Ballingrud is more explicit in the film’s source text, Anvari keeps the ending very ambiguous, choosing to focus rather on Will’s slipping veneer of charm than on whatever supernatural elements lurk around him. In an interview with Refinery 29, Anvari said, “Once he comes across this cellphone, this charm drops. As his life turns upside down, that mask starts to slide off and he exposes his true self.” The revelation of angels does not change Will for the good, but rather for the malicious. It is a divine revelation, yes, but not one that brings him closer to God in the traditional sense. Instead, these creatures bring him closer to something seemingly evil.
“While angels may seem to be beautiful winged creatures with humanity’s best interests at heart, there is a dark side that lies just under the surface. Angels, in fact, require sacrifice, blood, and pain.“
These are angels that thrive on the disgusting, the quite literal visible filth. They appear from wounds that fester with infection, that ooze pus and decay. Cockroaches skitter over every surface, almost like tiny angels themselves, harbingers of pestilence and disease. They announce the impending arrival of these beings, flying up in a haze of tiny repulsive wings.
While angels may seem to be beautiful winged creatures with humanity’s best interests at heart, there is a dark side that lies just under the surface. Angels, in fact, require sacrifice, blood, and pain. Angels cannot be accessed by prayer; only through eldritch rituals can their protection be found. Recent horror films have taken ancient religious texts and adapted them into our contemporary context to create a scarier, and more complex look at figures that seem inextricably linked to humanity. No longer is religious horror so tightly bound to the saving of souls through exorcism. These three films showcase a hopeful widening of the genre’s perspective on religious texts and further horrific interpretations of such well-known beings.