Live long enough and you’ll see your favorite tropes get subverted, then those subversions become tropes in their own right. Over the last decade, a very specific iteration of the human sacrifice trope has risen to prominence, transforming the film’s sacrifice into the savior.
Since the early days of horror, people have been sacrificing the young, pure, and innocent for their own nefarious means. Reaching back to films as old as 1933’s King Kong through to the folk horror of The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw as well as strange genre fare like Satan’s Slave (1976), human sacrifice has long been one of horror’s most memorable tropes. And it’s easy to see why — it provides both the act of killing someone and the justification of why. But rather than a morally motivated killer like in Saw or a vengeance spree like in Friday the 13th, the justification behind ritualistic sacrifice comes with a promise of personal gain or betterment. Those behind the sacrifice are willing to kill others to make their own lives better or to become more powerful, which in turn is why it’s so appealing to see them fail.
Pitting victims against their captors and watching them come out on top is an essential wish fulfillment story. And it’s what makes the emergence of the one-time subversion turned resounding trope of “the sacrifice becoming the savior” so appealing. Teased with the terror of watching a sacrifice, audiences are instead treated to a tale of survival. Odds stacked against them, the would-be sacrifice becomes the arbiter of their own fate. No longer tied down figuratively or literally, they strike back, whether by defeating those that would hurt them at their own game or by becoming an anti-heroic monster themselves.
Darkly humorous and sharply satirical, a recent example of this trend is in 2019’s Ready or Not. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s satirical slasher pits Grace (Samara Weaving) against a power-mad clan of rich psychopaths. After a game of chance on her wedding night deems her a victim, Grace is offered up as a sacrifice and her only option is to survive the night as her new family hunts her down. Grace is a former foster child who grew up in near abject poverty; she’s the definition of expendable to her new in-laws. They’ll do anything to keep their wealth and status, including hunting her to the death. So it’s Grace, her Chucks, and her blood-drenched wedding dress against the nightmarish Le Domas family. And when she survives the night, sending them to their deaths, she may have won the favor of the ancient demon that was giving them their money, material wealth, and status.
Narratively, this story device can feel like a sibling or offspring of the cathartic and often exploitative rape revenge tale. But in the sacrifice to savior story we often see the potential sacrifice regain their power and justice before they’re physically harmed. There’s more agency in watching someone fight against an injustice that might happen and stopping it rather than retroactively seeing them gain vengeance. And just like in Ready or Not, the power balances that are explored in sacrifice to savior stories often give those watching it an enjoyably radical thrill. Rich vs. poor, powerful vs. oppressed, or — as in Chelsea Stardust’s hilarious and knowing Satanic Panic — worker vs. the wealthy.
The richer the neighborhood, the worse the tips. It’s a lesson that anyone who’s worked in food delivery knows well, and it’s one that Sam (Hayley Griffith) learns quickly when she takes a pizza to a wealthy enclave. It’s not just the tips that suck, though, as Sam ends up being on the menu when her customers realize she’s a virgin, making for a perfect sacrifice. Stardust knows the rules of these stories well enough to smartly subvert them, and — just like Grace in her battle for survival — Sam ends up in the favor of a demon herself. After a nightmarish night trying to escape the Satanists she’s stumbled upon, she beats them with sheer force of will. In doing so, she invokes a more powerful demon than their favored Baphomet, who allows Sam to leave while feasting on the ones who would have killed her. Not only does Sam get the kind of visceral fantastical revenge many service workers have dreamt of, but she also escapes the drudgery of her working life. In other films, that escapism can draw in the sacrifice, hoping for something better than what they already have in a melancholy echo of the self-enrichment that drives their captors.
Miles away from the depressing city where a woman lost her family in a tragic murder suicide, the stark sunlight of the Swedish countryside offers a subtly different kind of inversion of the sacrifice trope in Midsommar. Desperately grieving, Florence Pugh’s Dani makes the ill-advised choice to travel with her awful boyfriend to see an ancient Scandinavian ritual. Her deteriorating mental health seems to put her at risk, but as her vacationing party is picked off she finds power in the rituals of Hagår. While Dani eventually becomes the monster she was fighting — and even assimilates to the beliefs of her captors — it’s not so different from what makes the sacrifice to savior trope so enjoyable. In those “good for her” moments, we celebrate a victim becoming something more, taking back their power and defeating those around them by emulating their behavior or besting them.
In the case of Dani, it’s all about your reading. The cult of Hagår seems to bring her happiness, safety, and family. It kills her emotionally abusive boyfriend and replaces the family that she lost. But it also emulates her abuse to control her, and if we pay a little attention we notice it has all the hallmarks of a group that holds violent white supremacy up as a vital part of its so-called tradition. So while Midsommar almost ticks all the boxes for a sacrifice-to-savior story, it ends up existing in a space all of its own. However, if you simplify it to whether or not Dani has won out in a situation where she was clearly supposed to die, then it fits.
A decade before Midsommar hit screens and the “good for her” discourse, there was Jennifer’s Body. Existing in the glittery grey area between Midsommar and Ready or Not, this Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody film was years ahead of its time, taking on womanhood, the appalling reality of being a teenager, and the role of the sacrifice in horror. Megan Fox stars as the titular teen alongside Amanda Seyfried as her long-suffering best friend, Needy. In Jennifer, Kusama and Cody find an incisive commentary on the over-sexualization of teenage girls and women in horror in general. And then when a useless metal band Low Shoulder decides to sacrifice her to the devil for fame, they create a literal monster. Jennifer becomes a flesh-eating beast who devours the creepy and useless teen boys around her; it’s a near-aspirational genre fantasy. The sexy young woman who in any other horror movie would be killed for being morally bankrupt — and was supposed to die during a botched sacrifice — is given a second lease on life (and deadly superpowers).
Taking the blurred line between victim and monster one step further is 2020’s We Summon the Darkness. Playing on our expectations, the slick slasher reveals the people that we think would be the sacrifices are actually the would-be sacrificers. It begins with all the trappings of a classic Satanic Panic-age movie: a trio of young girls headed to a metal show, a drunk and potentially dangerous group of men, and a series of unsolved murders. It could even be argued that We Summon the Darkness subverts not only the classic human sacrifice trope but also the sacrifice to savior subversion. Horror films have spent so much time setting up beautiful young women as victims or badass heroines that no one is really expecting them to be the Satanic killers. But that’s exactly the case here, as Alexandra Daddario leads a group of young teens on a mission from God to fan the flames of the Satanic panic of the ‘80s.
So how can We Summon the Darkness subvert a trope that itself was only a subversion of another one until recently? Well, like anything that inspires the stories that people tell, the concept of sacrifice to savior has been around for a long time.
One of the trailblazers was the original Hellraiser. Though Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) is not solely a sacrifice, the way she survives the Cenobites echoes what the sacrifice to savior trope would become. After opening the Puzzle Box, Kirsty makes a deal with the hellish creatures, offering her soul in exchange for her Uncle Frank’s. That wileyness defines this trope; it’s about the unexpected ability to change your circumstance. Using your wits and inner strength to fight a foe who on the surface is far more powerful than you. Kirsty does that here on multiple levels, not only trading her soul for Frank’s but also eventually besting the Cenobites with her own understanding of the Puzzle Box.
Another early example of sacrifice to savior, 1977’s Satan’s Cheerleaders was co-written and directed by Greydon Clark. Not only does it cleverly subvert the sacrifice trope, but the entire first act of the movie is a ribald teen romp more akin to a beach party flick than a horror film. Once the horror begins, however, it slowly becomes clear that the evil Satan worshipers have bitten off more than they can chew. Patti isn’t simply a cheerleader, she’s a conduit for the power of the dark lord. The Satan worshipers who would sacrifice her are deemed unworthy in the face of their deity, and Patti’s power is both respected and appreciated by her peers.
The film delivers a small but crucial subversion of the virgin-sacrifice trope, upending expectations by having the virgin secretly be the adult cheerleading coach watching over the girls in her squad. That concept of sacrificing the “wrong” virgin is continued in Jennifer’s Body. When Low Shoulder chooses Jennifer, it’s simply based on the idea that she’s a virgin. Their mistake — she is decidedly not — is what leads to her becoming possessed by the succubus that gives Jennifer her monstrous powers.
Undoubtedly, the joy of these stories comes from the visceral thrill of watching an underdog reclaim their fate. People who would otherwise be oppressed and dominated find their power dynamics instantly reversed. And an extra layer of complexity comes from what they choose to do with that power. For a sacrifice to savior character, that choice can be a cause for celebration, or its own source of horror.