Death Creeps is a monthly column of ecological readings on horror media. Combining the terror of the climate crisis with terror on screen and in print, Sydney Bollinger looks at how horror can act as a guide and reflection on our dire situation.
Darkness and isolation make winter a character in The Blackcoat’s Daughter.
Winter has two personalities; it acts as a juxtaposition of itself. Will we see the cozy side of the season that tastes like hot chocolate and the smoke from a fireplace? Or will winter greet us with bitter cold, darkness, and isolation? The fact that the season is dual-sided also plays into much of the lore that exists around winter, lore that reminds us we can find light in the darkness and that we don’t have to succumb to what it wants from us. The solstice — and many of the winter holidays around the solstice, to be frank — reminds us of this fact. Still, darkness seeps its way into our lives.
In The Blackcoat’s Daughter, written and directed by Oz Perkins winter is the malicious bringer of loneliness and doom for the teenage Kat (Kiernan Shipka), a freshman at Bramford Academy, a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. The film opens in February on the day that mid-winter break begins for Bramford students. Kat’s classmates’ parents come and pick them up to spend some time at home, but rather than the comfort of home, Kat is given a vision of her parents in the aftermath of a car accident. The vision is bright and visceral, snow reflects light back to the viewer and Kat squints when looking at the wreckage. It’s this harshness of winter that Perkins uses to his advantage here, forming the character of his winter in the beginning moments of the film.
In the context of The Blackcoat’s Daughter, winter is like death’s blanket. It’s the season of decay, and desperation, which can also represent the dichotomy of isolation and connection. This dual identity is important because it shows that there is potential for life — usually, in signs of spring — but at Bramford, it’s the dead of winter. The ground is frozen, snow covers everything in sight, and the muted colors of the film all point to something much more sinister lingering under the surface.
The dread and isolation of winter isn’t something new Perkins is playing with; it’s even present in holiday favorite Home Alone (1990). When young Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) wakes up and realizes his family is gone, he’s happy to have some time to himself. As the film progresses, though, isolation begins to set in at his home, and winter’s effects — holiday travel, weather — also prevent Kevin’s mother (Catherine O’Hara) from returning home to her son. This isolation often leads to desperation, to hang on to any sign of connection available.
Desperation due to winter’s cold isolation is what leads to the “twist” in The Blackcoat’s Daughter. The film follows two distinct storylines: one about the possessed Kat and senior student Rose (Lucy Boynton), who lied to her parents about the pickup date, and one that follows a young woman named Joan (Emma Roberts), who is headed to Bramford for reasons unknown. The storylines converge at the end of the film, revealing that Joan is actually Kat nine years later returning to Bramford to find the dark spirit that was her companion all those years ago. So what’s the point of the “twist?”
It has to do with Perkins’ use of winter as a character in the film. Kat’s life is marked by isolation. She watches as her peers are picked up from school, and then is left with Rose, who wants an extra day at the school to see her boyfriend and tell him that she thinks she is pregnant. Kat’s only companion is the dark, devilish spirit that has been keeping her company, itself a creation of winter’s isolation — and desperate wish for connection.
Even though Rose is told to keep an eye on Kat, she escapes out her window to meet her boyfriend, using the darkness and solitude of winter to her advantage in a way that Kat can’t. The juxtaposition between the two girls shows how winter can be manipulated into giving its wielder what it wants. Kat, though, succumbs to the power of the season. After Rose leaves, she makes her way to the basement of the dormitory. The basement holds little else than the furnace, which itself is a paragon of warmth, but in children’s tales often is a scary, monstrous object — like in Home Alone.
Prior to leaving, Rose tells Kat a little horror story about how the nuns worship the devil in the basement, so Kat’s descent is natural. When Rose returns, she finds Kat there, prostrating in front of the furnace, the host of darkness. With winter’s malignancy now exposed, it grows more powerful, to the point that Kat unnaturally contorts above her bed. With this contortion, the night moves into the day, though this transition of light is not like the life-giving light of comforting winter holidays where solstice talk of finding light in the darkness or Christian discussion of Jesus as bringing light into the world is common. Perkins does continually tease this duality because it seems as if something warm and comforting should happen, but the viewer and the character are continually shrouded in darkness and the absence of life.
The next morning, Rose and Kat join the nuns for breakfast. Kat, now consumed by the influence of the dark spirit, acts strangely and without explanation. Then, the nuns receive a phone call and ask Rose to go shovel the sidewalk in preparation for visitors. The physicality of winter is also one of the marks of isolation. This act, though, saves Rose — at least for the time being. When the police officers and headmaster arrive, they find the nuns dead by Kat’s hand. The phone revealed that Kat’s parents did, in fact, die in a car accident.
The subsequent events of the film are a snowball of Kat’s possession and reliance on the dark spirit. She kills and beheads Rose. Then, she takes Rose’s head, as well as the heads of the nuns, to the basement in an offering for the darkness. In the end, she is caught and taken to a hospital where she is given an exorcism. Following the exorcism, the shadow of darkness is on the wall in front of her, having left her body. Now, she is completely alone.
Joan’s arc harkens back to this feeling of loneliness after the exorcism. Since then, Kat, now Joan, has been unable to feel a connection or belonging. The darkness was her father and her caretaker. Without it, she has no one. Thus, Joan’s journey through the cold, wet winter in Bramford is an attempt to regain the connection she once had — nine years from the day of killing Rose and the others.
With her fake name, Joan hitchhikes to Bramford with Rose’s parents. Suspension of disbelief lets the two parties not recognize one another, but once the parents say they are visiting their deceased daughter Rose, Joan — in an attempt to gain back the darkness — kills and beheads them. She then goes to the basement with the heads, but now the furnace is nothing but a furnace. Light streams in through the windows, and the cold is bitter and lonely. Winter’s loneliness is now amplified, causing a visceral reaction in Joan who screams into its endless white blanket.
Sydney Bollinger is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. She is the author of the bi-monthly Slay Away column, Death Creeps, and an arts and entertainment writer for the Charleston City Paper and Into. Sydney is the creator of the Thursday Matinee, with a weekly newsletter released every Thursday afternoon in addition to film and television reviews.