1970s Horror/Feminist Nightmare: Sexuality, Sin, and the Church in Alice, Sweet Alice
1970s horror films elaborated on the figure of the slasher-killer character introduced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Just as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, most famously, depicted bloodthirsty, inscrutable killers, who seemed to murder their fellow human beings without reason, the 1976 film Alice, Sweet Alice (originally titled Communion) provided a slasher film with an unexpected and “principled” killer, inviting examination of the film through a theological lens.
Alice, Sweet Alice is set in a Roman Catholic parish during the early 1960s, prior to the liturgical and ideological reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Alice is introduced as a rather difficult Bad Seed-like 12-year-old as compared to her angelic sister, Karen; Catherine, her mother is young and has been separated from her husband, Dominic; Catherine is very close with Fr. Tom, one of the parish priests (although where this deep connection comes from is never explained). Alice’s contrary nature is first revealed when she dons a creepy mask and sets out to scare Fr. Tom’s elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni.
Shocking and quite ahead of its time, the film depicts the horrific murder of Alice’s sister Karen on the day of her first communion, while waiting in the church sacristy. As the family gathers to mourn the loss of Karen, Catherine’s overbearing sister, Annie is also brutally attacked by a masked figure in a child’s raincoat – a raincoat matching Alice’s St. Michael’s-school-issued uniform. Suspicion falls on Alice for the attack and the murder, as Fr. Tom declares that she has become increasingly distant. Alice fails a lie-detector test and is institutionalized. For the majority of the film, the director draws the audience to the assumption that Alice is a disturbed child and the murderer; however, while she is institutionalized, her estranged father is also murdered. **Spoiler** Alice is not, in fact the murderer, rather it is the parish housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni, who sees it as her divine mission to protect the priests under her care.
At different points in the film there are clues to why, seemingly innocent and self-sacrificing Mrs. Tredoni is a serial killer. In the aftermath of Catherine’s sister, Annie’s attack, Annie implicates Alice. Catherine screams at her, “You hate her [Alice] because you knew I was pregnant when I got married!” Alice is the fruit of a sexual relationship outside of wedlock. In Mrs. Tredoni’s eyes this brands Catherine a whore and her husband a “filthy pig.” As Mrs. Tredoni is in the process of killing Alice’s father, Dominic, she reveals her mission, “God wants you punished … Fr. Tom belongs to the Church!” In Mrs. Tredoni’s mind, this mission was given to her after her own daughter died on the day of her own first communion. According to Mrs. Tredoni, she is doing God’s work, punishing sinners and protecting Fr. Tom from their evil influence
There are a couple of theological problems that rear their heads in this film. One is the hierarchical view of the lay state vs. the clerical state. In keeping with the era in which the movie is set, Mrs. Tredoni holds the clerical state to be vastly superior to those of regular lay people. This idea had a long development throughout Christian history, but in the sixteenth-century Council of Trent it was formally promulgated that celibacy and virginity were superior to the life of the common man and woman. This concept of vocation was re-examined by Vatican II in the 1960s, where clerical and lay life were deemed different ways of life, yet equal. To put it rather simply, despite Vatican II’s statement the related issue of clerical celibacy continues to be debated. Pope Francis, as recently as May 27 of this year said that a celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church was a “gift,” but “not dogma” and thus open to re-examination and debate of the tradition.
A more pernicious theological and social question arises in Alice, Sweet Alice is the role of women vis-à-vis sin and sinfulness. Christianity’s track record with misogyny has been well documented and traced out by much better theologians than I. Equating women with the sinful, sexualized body, rooted in commentary on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, stretches as far back as the formative years of Christianity. Women in many theological texts and spiritual writings have been depicted as a sign of uncontrollable, sexual sinfulness and as a stumbling block to more spiritual men. Mrs. Tredoni’s assertion that Catherine is a whore for conceiving Alice out of wedlock also taints Alice. Throughout the film, Alice continues to act out, and in a disturbing subtext, acted upon sexually. Her descent into madness begins with her beginning to menstruate, which is not revealed to her parents until she is seen by the psychologist, Dr. Whitman, at the institution. Like Mrs. Tredoni, Dr. Whitman (also a woman) insinuates that Alice’s repressed hostility, capability for violence, and possible schizoid personality disorder is tied to her being conceived before Catherine and Dom’s wedding. Alice herself declares while institutionalized, “I don’t play with dolls anymore!” Her sadism and sinfulness, narratively, coincides with her becoming a woman.
The closing scene of the film reaffirms this correlation of Alice’s tainted-ness and burgeoning dangerous sexuality. While Alice kneels beside Mrs. Tredoni at the communion rail, Fr. Tom, who has become aware that his housekeep is the real murderer, denies both of them communion. Alice looks hatefully at the priest, as Mrs. Tredoni bellows that he would give a whore, pointing to Catherine, the host, but not herself. The elderly woman stabs the priest in the neck and then embraces him as he bleeds to death. Alice picks up the murder weapon and dreamily walks toward the audience. The film closes with her looking down at the bloody knife, smiling to herself, and then focusing a dead stare directly into the camera. The film closes on this disturbing note, insinuating that Alice has now crossed the line into madness; raising the question was Mrs. Tredoni right all along? Is Mrs. Tredoni’s conception of sexual morality and sin seems to be branded ethically correct? – surely not to the point of murder, however Alice’s murderous glare gives one pause for reflection on the cause and consequences of sin and the correlation with womanhood. Alice, Sweet Alice is a horror film indeed; one with a long Christian history that continues to play out in theology and church structures today.
By: Seth Alexander