Fede Alvarez’s EVIL DEAD and the Horrors of Addiction
This editorial should not be considered a substitute for, or a component of, professional addiction counseling. Any assertions regarding the nature of addiction come from the author’s personal experiences and postulations.
I admit it: I used to suffer from a condition known as Knee-Jerk Remake Hate. I immediately called foul on any modern reimagining of a classic horror movie, and as such, I was prepared to loathe Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead when it was released in 2013. Instead, I emerged from a midnight screening stunned, shaken, and utterly satisfied.
“Mia (Jane Levy), a drug addict, is determined to kick the habit. To that end, she asks her brother, David (Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend, Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) and their friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) to accompany her to their family’s remote forest cabin to help her through withdrawal. Eric finds a mysterious Book of the Dead at the cabin and reads aloud from it, awakening an ancient demon. All hell breaks loose when the malevolent entity possesses Mia.”
Alvarez stayed extremely true to the spirit of the original Evil Dead, creating an intensely visceral experience that was utterly horrifying to behold. But he also included a bold innovation, one that served as both a plot motivator and a brilliant metaphor for a modern social scourge. If the title of this article didn’t already give it away, I’m talking about addiction.
In the original Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell, a group of college students head off to a cabin in the woods for a bit of vacation. In Alvarez’s Evil Dead, it’s a planned detoxification. The film features Mia (played by Jane Levy), a heroin addict who sought out the isolation of the cabin in order to kick the habit.
How many times have we seen horror movies where protagonists ignore blatantly foreboding situations that would send a normal person fleeing in an instant? “So what if half the group is missing and the walls are covered with blood? Let’s party!” Most of the time we cough it up to the stupidity of characters or lack of imagination on the part of writers. That’s why Alvarez’s use of addiction in Evil Dead was a near genius turn.
If a normal person says, “I smell decomposition; I’m seeing ghosts; I have an overwhelming sense of foreboding,” etc., people usually take them seriously. If an addict in the throes of withdrawal makes these same claims, however, they’re easy to dismiss.
Mia’s past inability to kick heroin also makes staying at the cabin seem like a rational option, even with additional red flags waving wildly (dead cats in the basement, or a strange book bound in human flesh, for example). Leaving the cabin before she’s completely detoxified will be seen as a failure, not just for Mia, but for those who care about her most. This tough love created a perfect storm for supernatural mayhem.
Fede Alvarez’s use of addiction in Evil Dead isn’t just a brilliant plot motivator; it’s an illustration of how perfectly demonic possession works as a metaphor for struggles with extreme dependency. Most often, possession in horror movies is used to explore two key subtexts: Mental illness and sexual awakening. The first can be seen in recent offerings like The Taking of Deborah Logan and The Atticus Institute, while the latter is the crux of just about any possession yarn featuring a teen/young adult woman. And while possession remains an impactful springboard for exploring these ideas, Evil Dead’s metaphor works at least as well; created in the early years of “The Opioid Crisis”, however, Alvarez’s innovation is both compelling and (dare I say it) important.
Acting like someone unrecognizable to your closest friends and family is a symptom of addiction. Addicts are sometimes described as behaving inhuman, lacking empathy, or prone to violent, even fatal outbursts. Mia’s self-mutilation while under Deadite control parallels various forms of physical decay associated with intravenous drug use: track marks, facial sores, deterioration of oral hygiene being a few. Indeed, drug addiction is, by definition, self-destructive.
In addition to being a stellar plot motivator and a creative spin on established subgenre tropes, Alvarez’s use of addiction in Evil Dead offers a profound way of understanding it. In the film, everyone was so focused on keeping Mia off of drugs, they ignored clear signs of danger to themselves. They considered drugs the sole source of Mia’s torments, incorrectly assuming that everything will be okay once the chemicals leave her system.
Unfortunately for the characters in the film, Mia’s withdrawal was only coincidental; their tunnel-vision caused them to completely miss the real threat to Mia’s life (and their own). The message behind the metaphor could be that battling addiction in a vacuum can be ineffective if not downright dangerous.
If you’ve ever watched shows like Intervention or Dr. Phil, you’ve probably heard the term “dual diagnosis”. It reflects a change in treating addiction where drug use is regarded as a symptom of a larger problem. Think of it as a curtain that hides the real source of a person’s struggle. You can pull down the curtain but the unknown (or unacknowledged) terror behind it remains.
In other words, had Mia been clean as a bell, the young adults at the cabin still would have faced deadly manifestations of sadistic Sumerian specters.
The possession metaphor for addiction, along with the subtext of multiple underlying issues, was used again and made even more obvious in 2014’s Inner Demons, directed by Seth Grossman. In that film, a young woman uses heroin to suppress the literal demons that would otherwise consumer her. It addresses a school of thought that only the uninitiated believe: That addicts should simply be able to muster up enough strength to quit.
“A reality show crew descends upon the home of a teenager struggling with drug addiction and uncover instead a terrifying case of demonic possession.”
You can cure an addict of addiction, but unless you have a plan for treating the beast behind the curtain, it’s a fruitless battle. Addiction is never the problem in and of itself; it’s a shield for even darker demons.
With the recent cancelation of Ash vs Evil Dead, fans have been hoping Alvarez may pick up Mia’s story in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, Alvarez seemed to gauge interest in the project when he floated the idea past his Twitter followers; the response was tremendously encouraging. Whether or not Mia’s story, should a new entry happen, will continue to include elements of addition remains to be seen.