Sandra Costello takes a look at Paddy Murphy’s horror feature The Perished.
The Perished opens with the statement that “Between January 1980 and December 2017, at least 173308 women and girls travelled from the Republic of Ireland to access abortion services in another country.” This is followed by “Sometimes women with unwanted pregnancies would be put in facilities such as Magdalene Laundries or ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ by the Catholic Church.” These statements give the film a very documentary type feel and we learn that Paddy Murphy is trying to connect two important and distinct social issues concerning control over the female body within Irish culture and history; that of abortion rights – that have only recently been granted to the women of Ireland – and the wrongful incarceration of pregnant unmarried Irish women for decades.
Murphy’s film follows a young woman called Sarah who is enjoying her carefree life until she finds out she is pregnant. Before she has the chance to inform her boyfriend, he suggests they take a break, which convinces Sarah that she is on her own and she must deal with her situation all by herself. We find out that her mother is very religious so Sarah is forced to take the lonely trip abroad by herself in order to access an abortion. The opening clip of the film shows Sarah walking towards the departure gates, dragging her luggage behind her as if to represent her very real emotional baggage weighing her down and holding her back.
When Sarah returns to Ireland her parents quickly discover her secret. Though her father is understanding, her mother becomes enraged and throws her out of the house. Sarah leans on her best friend Davet for support. Davet takes her to his house which we learn was formerly an old Mother and Baby Home. Sarah is haunted by an infant-like monster who at first watches her sleep but later physically dominates her. She also repeatedly bleeds and finds blood on her hands that she is unable to wash off. She hears church bells and children’s cries. We are unsure at first if all of this is a manifestation of the guilt and shame placed upon her by her mother and society, or if in fact Sarah is actually being haunted by this creature and the ghosts of this former institution.
We discover that it seems to be a mixture of the two. This is an incredibly interesting and powerful portrayal of the kind of trauma that manifests from a judgmental society and an unsupportive family. Davet leaves Sarah to pursue a romantic interest and Sarah declares how safe she feels in his house which makes little sense having been bombarded with disturbing experiences up until this point. Things do not improve in her friend’s absence and eventually her ex-boyfriend Shane gets in contact and comes to be with her. Interestingly, Shane can hear the sound of the babies too which indicates a shared guilt on his part. Shane’s sister Rebecca and her boyfriend Nigel soon arrive to join the action. Lisa Tyrrell is particularly impressive in the role of Rebecca.
From this point onwards the film goes full speed into horror. The tried and tested connections between terror, birth and the female body are used to full effect. The ties between the enforced shame of the past and ongoing female repression, are cleverly displayed within this narrative through the union between Sarah and the ghosts that haunt the old Mother and Baby Home. It is a valiant effort to visually manifest a link between two topics concerning control over the female body that have had an enormously traumatic effect on Irish women.