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Vaults of the Vatican: “STIGMATA” and Secret Gospels

Sunday, May 22, 2022 | Archival Horror


At first glance, 1999’s Stigmata (Rupert Wainwright) seems like a typical Hollywood possession film. A girl or young woman, in this case, Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), begins “acting out” or refusing to conform to the image of a “good girl.” Her body becomes “monstrous” under the influence of a demonic entity, and a male religious authority figure comes to “save” her – body and soul. However, in Stigmata, this is turned upside down. The possessing spirit isn’t evil; It’s the spirit of a saintly priest and it is the Church that is her tormentor, not her protector.  More specifically, it is the Vatican as an archive – as a repository of hidden secrets – which is the true source of corruption in the film.

When Frankie is gifted a rosary belonging to the recently departed Father Paulo Alameida (Jack Donner) by her mother, who has just returned from a Brazilian village, she begins exhibiting the signs of the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – and speaking in a strange language. It turns out that before his death, Father Alameida had been working on the translation of the forbidden Gospel of Thomasgospel written in Aramaic, and Frankie is somehow channeling this unfinished work.

Conspiracies involving hidden relics or texts have become familiar tropes in religious horror and thrillers. We need only think of The Da Vince Code or The Order. Dusty tomes, obscure religious orders, and the off-limits Vatican vaults feature so frequently in such films because society has become suspicious of the secrets that powerful institutions like the Church try to hide.

In Stigmata, Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne), the former scientist turned priest sent by the Vatican to disprove Frankie’s claims, becomes her ally when he and a friend within the Vatican recognize Frankie’s words as belonging to a document discovered outside Jerusalem said to contain Jesus’ exact words. This text is considered heresy by the Church and covered up because it makes clear that both clergy and church are unnecessary. The various scenes of whispered telephone conversations, deleted photographs, partial manuscripts, and watchful eyes within the Vatican all point to the archive’s threat. The need for the Vatican to suppress the very words of Christ and the murderous lengths they are prepared to go to to silence dissent within the film are an uncomfortable reflection of the real-world scandals involving church cover-ups during the ’90s and that continue to this day.

Once again horror uses the archive – lost texts, forbidden manuscripts, secret libraries – to bring to light the dark recesses of human behavior.

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