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Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), a 20-something blonde woman seen in extreme closeup, looking nervous in The Sacrifice Game Image: Shudder

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The Sacrifice Game’s director carefully avoided summoning any actual demons

‘I’m an atheist, but I don’t want to fuck with real demons’

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

Jenn Wexler’s holiday horror movie The Sacrifice Game is full of surprises. The story, about a group of killers hoping to enact a demonic ritual at an elite boarding school at Christmas, feels a little like a home-invasion thriller, and a little like other period-piece boarding-school horror movies, from the classic Suspiria to Simon Barrett’s Seance. (And coincidentally, a whole lot like 2023 critical darling The Holdovers.)

But the murderers are unusually nuanced, and a series of reveals over the course of the film adds unexpected tension and gore to the initial thriller-style plot. Talking to Wexler after the movie’s U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, though, one of the bigger behind-the-scenes surprises that emerged was how much scholarship went into her horror movie — and exactly how she did and didn’t choose to use it.

“Jen did a lot of demonology research to create the world,” said Heather Buckley, a producer on Sacrifice Game and Wexler’s previous horror-thriller, The Ranger. “I know she got deep into The Lesser Key of Solomon. There was some real exploration there. […] A lot of the demonology stuff for the book came from real research and real illustrations, from a lot of esoterica.”

That’s fairly common in movies that tap into satanic rites or demonic rituals: For instance, The Exorcist and its sequels are built around Pazuzu, a demonic god worshipped by ancient cultures thousands of years ago. But Wexler wanted to avoid tapping into that kind of history.

“I was looking at all those demons and their characteristics, but I didn’t want to use a real demon, because I’m scared of demons,” Wexler said. “At the same time that I’m an atheist, I’m like, I don’t want to fuck with a real demon, and then have that demon mad at me. I wanted to create a demon that had some of the characteristics you read about [in ancient texts]. And I took a sigil creation class to come up with the design of the demon’s sigil, which I have on the necklace I’m wearing.”

That class — a Zoom seminar held by Brooklyn’s now-defunct occult bookstore Catland Books — helped Wexler form the visual symbolism for the movie. “It was essentially, write the thing you want, what you want to manifest, write that out,” she says. “And then you take those letters, bring them together, and create a symbol out of them. You allow the letters’ meaning to be lost, so it’s all encompassed in this symbol. So that was part of the manifestation of Sacrifice Game the movie.”

An ancient-looking book open to two pages scrawled with symbols in red ink surrounded by runic and Celtic-looking language in The Sacrifice Game Image: Shudder

All that said, the film’s symbolism came as much from Wexler’s interest in possession and exorcism movies as from an interest in occultism. “I’ve seen so many possession movies where little girls in nightgowns are possessed, and then you have your older man that has to come and save them,” she said. “And there’s something weird and darkly sexual and perverted about that. Take God out of it — it has nothing to do with God, it has to do with this dynamic of the older man saving this girl that’s writhing her body in sexual ways, even if she’s vomiting at the same time. That’s a whole thing our culture is into. I love The Exorcist, but The Exorcist obviously spawned so many movies in that tradition, with those kinds of images.”

For Wexler, part of making The Sacrifice Game was specifically working against that kind of standard possession and demonic imagery, and finding ways to subvert it. But there’s no way to discuss that without getting into spoilers for a movie that’s better experienced than described. And in the end, the real-life occult research and the underground inspirations aren’t as important to her as the idea of people enjoying a horror movie that moves quickly and is full of shocks and twists.

“I really enjoyed talking about things under the surface — but through a fun storybook kind of fairy-tale aesthetic,” Wexler said. “I wanted to make a fun, escapist, roller-coaster-y ride movie.”

The Sacrifice Game is streaming on Shudder now.

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