In the 2019 Hulu Original Pure, a group of young women attend a church camp centered around chastity with their fathers. The Pastor, Seth, tells them that having pre-marital sex dirties and ruins them, much like the way a stick of gum is irreparably changed after it is chewed. The girls’ end goal while staying at the camp is to attend a purity ball with their fathers and sign a contract that affectively relinquishes their sexual autonomy to their dads and to God.
If this blatant oppression isn’t scary enough, Pure is also a horror movie.
The explicit horror of Pure revolves around the figure Lilith, who is said to be a female demon cast down to Hell by God for having sex with an angel. In Pastor Seth’s telling of the story, Lilith was said to be created by God out of the same material as Adam, therefore being the first woman and his equal. However, her independence and lustfulness determined Lilith unworthy and she was condemned to Hell. Eve was created as her replacement, a loyal, subordinate woman crafted out of Adam’s rib and living as a consequence of his existence. She was delicate and in need of the protection and guidance of her male counterpart.
In the film, Lilith is summoned by the main character, Shay, and a group of her fellow campers. Shay and the demon seem to share some intrinsic connection; Shay mysteriously knew the missing element needed in the ritual to properly summon Lilith. The demon appears in place of Shay’s own reflection and, by the climax scene, Shay is able to channel Lilith’s powers.
While these moments acknowledge the connection between Lilith and Shay, their relationship serves to equally humanize Lilith. The she-demon’s presence is never inherently scary; the only way in which Lilith’s presence is frightening is through the use of jump scares. Though some may write this off as lazy writing, it works in framing the character as misunderstood. Lilith is not supposed to be a horrific figure; instead, what’s supposed to be scary is what men did to her and the vendetta that Lilith formed toward mankind in response.
The truly scary aspect of Pure is the declaration of male ownership of female autonomy. The construct of virginity positions women’s bodies as objects whose only inherent value lies within a sexual or moral marketplace. When women are no longer able to choose whether or not to participate in the idea of virginity, leading to chastity of their bodies being mandated by male power structures, they are forced to reduce themselves to property.
The Lilith figure in Pure functions as an ironic monster, for she is only truly an antagonist to the men who desperately want to continue asserting control over young women’s bodies. For the female campers, as well as the audience, Lilith is a heroine. She gives Shay the ability to liberate herself and the other girls from being forced to sign away any independence over how to use their bodies. Although this liberation may be violent, it is not unjustly so, especially when one considers the equally harmful systemic violence of male sovereignty over women through high-profile institutions like the church.
Pure‘s horrid purity ball is an explicit, physical manifestation of the oppressive qualities of forced virginity. It very clearly distinguishes daughters, their bodies and virtue as functions of male and patriarchal ownership, with the men literally signing to control over bodies that aren’t physically theirs. In the film, Shay is forced into a cage at the ball, like an animal at the zoo, or much more disturbingly, like a slave at auction. The fact that she’s a woman of color only reenforces this metaphor, especially as she bangs on the bars of her enclosure in a room filled with white men. This analogous representation undeniably positions Shay as the property of her father and as a victim of institutional brutality against women, especially women of color.
Purity balls, however, are not a fictional plot device. Although the girls in attendance are not forced into cages, these events happen in modern times. Real purity balls are not interrupted by summoned demons to protect the young women involved from the toxic ideologies of their fathers. In the end, Lilith’s few jump scares are not really horrific when compared to the frighteningly realistic tyranny the camper’s fathers desire to have over their children’s sex lives.
Lilith’s character in Pure won’t haunt the audience’s nightmares, unless you’re scared of a woman’s freedom of choice. In that case, get ready to be mortified and castrated beyond repair.