Who’s the Monster Now

Creator's Statement

I'm writing this text not even one month after the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the right to abortion, and thereby women's bodily autonomy. This decision makes the dystopian world that Margaret Atwood describes in her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale and is visually depicted in Hulu's TV adaptation seem a lot less fictitious and more like a logical consequence of the momentum Christofascism is currently experiencing in the US. When I first received the text "The Mark" by Gregory Brophy, I felt some resistance to engage with the religious aspects of the text. My first experience in the US was as an exchange teacher at a Christian high school, living with a host family whose children attended the school. While I had heard about evangelical Christians, I had always thought of them as a fringe niche group. The culture shock of being suddenly thrown in the midst of born-again Christianity was quite severe. Yet, I don't think I would have understood the deep divide in US American culture without this experience to quite that extent. Since "The Mark" brought on some adverse memories from that time, I felt more drawn to engaging Brophy's notion of paranoid reading strategies he explains to have developed through the constant vigilance in fear of the devil, both for real-life situations as well as textual analysis. 

I set out on a quest for films portraying paranoid protagonists whose distorted perception leads them to commit horrific acts of violence (which incidentally happens to apply to Christianity as well). What finally drew me to the Austrian film Homesick (2015) by Jakob Erwa and Black Swan (2010) by Darren Aronofsky was their frequent use of follow shots, often with a handheld camera, that struck me as emphasizing the protagonists' sense of paranoia that finally leads to their own destruction. When I rewatched the films, I was astonished by the similarities between them that hadn't occurred to me previously. The female protagonists in both films have an artistic career with a unique opportunity; according to their male teachers, their performances are technically excellent but lack emotion; the recurring theme of the angel has symbolic meaning; they perceive another woman as a direct antagonist, leading to their growing paranoia; when they finally access the level of emotional depth necessary for a truly spectacular performance, it unleashes an unforeseen darkness that consumes them; they attack and kill their female antagonist; this final attempt at liberation turns out to be their own suicide. 

By adding the continuous soundtrack of the hanging scene from The Handmaid's Tale (2018), I argue that the female protagonists' mental deterioration is a product of their experience of the patriarchy upheld by female accomplices, and their final violent act the only way to achieve freedom within a society imbued with fundamentalist Christian beliefs. The lack of a male aggressor in Homesick and Black Swan as well as the sound clip from The Handmaid's Tale underscore the significance of systemic sexism that goes beyond the individual. The title of my video is not a question but a provocation that destabilizes the preconceived roles of victim and perpetrator, on a narrative as well as metaphorical level. 



Maria Hofmann is a film scholar and video essayist. She holds a PhD in German and Moving Image studies. Her research focuses on contemporary documentary film, videographic criticism, horror film, and Austrian studies, and has been published in [in]TransitionStudies in Documentary Film, and Austrian Studies, among others. Her video essay "Beyond the Screen #nofilter" was screened at the Adelio Ferrero film festival where it received the award for best video essay in 2018.

Memory text "The Mark"


And I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast, nor his image, nor had received his mark upon their foreheads or on their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. – Book of Revelation 20:4

Before committing myself to the study of culture, as an adolescent, I was committed to Christ. My father’s job saw the family packing up and moving on every couple of years, and the first place we’d lay roots in each new suburb was the local evangelical church.

In the 1980s, evangelical “culture,” such as it was, was formed in anxious opposition to mainstream entertainment. This counter-cultural stance was quickened by the conviction that the world’s distractions—even seemingly benign stuff—were cunning anti-Christian lures, secretly crafted to place straying teens under Satanic influence. Religious leaders peddled the idea that art was an instrument of devilish artifice that must be read against the grain. Run the record in reverse, and hear how the music plays you.

This dread of the subliminal and subtextual was amplified by mainstream media, law enforcement, and politicians who warned that popular entertainments held the power to “manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”[1]

The devil certainly hasn’t disappeared from current evangelical discourse, but he had a much meatier role in the heyday of our Satanic panic: an era of symbolic warfare electrified by bombastic ritual, pyrotechnic stagecraft, and melodramatic performance that was sorely lacking in contemporary Protestant traditions of Christianity.

For every tempting taste of taboo culture, kids were offered appropriate Christian alternatives (often proposed in one-to-one substitutions for objectionable content). This sublimation of teen desire generated a distinct subculture: for a good decade, I immersed myself in a world of music that anyone growing up outside of “the church” has likely never heard of.

Godless Hollywood posed a bigger challenge to the church, which answered as best it could with independently financed productions, starring no-name actors. They’d screen in sleepaway camps and church basements on youth nights, beneath the notice of mainstream culture, and off the radar of box office metrics.

Perhaps the most enduring of these attempts was a string of apocalyptic films featuring lukewarm Christian protagonists who have been “left behind” in the great rapture, and must resist assimilation into a one-world government that insists its citizens take the Mark of the Beast. These movies play as plodding and campy now, but in my youth, they were touchstones. Watching the first film was a defining moment for me, sparking a fretful recommitment of my life to Christ.

These movies delivered hellfire-and-brimstone sermonizing in the packaging of the apocalyptic action flick, with touches of horror in the brutal violence carried out by agents of the antichrist.

But the terror of these films didn’t lie in supernatural spectacle. Just the opposite, in fact. The trouble was that was that Satan never appeared in the flesh: he was only manifest through the human institutions that carried out his will. Even the iconic mark of the beast was unrecognizable: instead, foreheads and hands were imprinted with binary computer code that translated to “666.”

So, on one hand, you could pledge your life to Satan without realizing it. Conversely, you might think you were a Christian, but belatedly realize you’d done it all wrong! Here was a drama of interpretation in a paranoid register, with stakes that couldn’t be higher. Proper reading was a matter of eternal life and death. A resistant Christian had to be armed with an esoteric understanding of latent signs and coded messages, lest one naively adopt the mark without reading the fine print.

Those movies marked me, planted a seed of doubt about ever taking signs at their face value. They were for me the harbinger of a culture war that turned upon the obsessive analysis of anagrams, numerology, backward masking and arcane ritual. I can trace the roots of my own reading strategies within those cryptic schemes of interpretation. As a child, I participated with a haunted sense of fearful apprehension for the state of my soul. These days, I’m driven by a fascination for that subversive principle that animates artists—from Milton’s acrostics in Paradise Lost to Lynch’s backwards speech in Twin Peaks—to forge against the grain, often with Satan as avatar. And I look back with some yearning for that time in my youth when art was felt to hold such dread apocalyptic energies.


Work cited

[1] From California legislative proposal A.B. 3741, introduced by Republican assemblyman Phil Wyman in July 1982.


Author’s reflection on the video

When I began scripting my text for this edition of Once Upon a Screen, I rushed back to my first encounters with film, in a childhood blinkered by parental prohibitions against a dangerous and seductive “secular” culture. Growing up in Canada in the 1980s, the evangelical churches I attended were already deeply marked by the culture wars south of the border. Around that time, Canadian author Margaret Atwood, sensing those tremors, would publish The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), a biopolitical dystopia set in a near-future American theocratic regime.

I’ve long since left behind that system of belief, but held fast to its habits of doubt—particularly the tendency to read against the grain of a text, never taking words at their word, and straining to convert and connect all signs under the aegis of a skeptical counter-reading. 

Biblical exegesis in this suspicious mode follows a general trend in modern interpretation that Maria gestures to with an opening passage from Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” superimposed over shots from parallel scenes in Erwa’s Homesick (2015) and Aronofsky’s Black Swan(2010). For Sedgwick, paranoid interpretation is a vexed critical inheritance: a vital tool in ideological demystification, it’s also vulnerable to the critic’s own self-fulfilling expectations and projections. Do these films provide an enactment of this trouble in their twinned portraits of violent delusion?

Maria’s video essay interrupts Sedgwick before she broaches the topic of reparative reading, subsuming the text with another scenario that seems to confirm and direct the paranoid energies of these two films. Inserting audio from perhaps the most harrowing episode of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Maria provides an unmistakable commentary on everything we’re seeing, fusing the films together under the larger context of misogynist violence and patriarchal control.

Atwood’s story hit television screens in 2017, just as Donald Trump began holding auditions for his own adaptation, a reality/TV construct he would host as U.S. President. Two weeks before the Hulu series’ premiere, Neil Gorsuch joined the Supreme Court, and within three years, casting was complete: with Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett confirmed, the stage was set for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

In historical moments such as this, gothic depictions of women’s rage provide dark catharsis. Sedgwick understood that the paranoid position can be a necessary defence against the dangers of a world structured by coded misogyny and homophobia, to which one must ever remain alert and aware. As they say, it’s not paranoia when they’re really out to get you…



Gregory Brophy is Associate Professor of English at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec. His research spans film and literature, including work forthcoming in Literature/Film Quarterly (2023), and recently published in The New Review of Film and Television (2021), Science Fiction Film and Television (2020), Victorian Review (Spring 2020) and the Journal of Victorian Culture (October 2019). His current project, Endless Forms: the Evolution of Science Fiction Film Studies, is a book and multimedia project that connects formal arguments about film adaptation to urgent ecological and ethical questions concerning our evolving relations with the planet in the Anthropocene.