Mercy Black: Digital Folklore and the need to believe in something, even if it’s evil

Netflix and Blumhouse Productions dropped a surprise new horror flick last week (US only). Mercy Black tells the not very original story of Marina Hess (Danielle Pineda) who as a child, along with her friend Rebecca, committed a terrifying crime against another friend, Lily, as a human sacrifice to an entity called Mercy Black in order to make her flesh and blood. From this point forward readers: Beware of Spoilers.

Marina has been institutionalised ever since the incident, but, as an adult, is now deemed well enough to re-enter society.  So yes, this appears to be loosely based on the true story of two 12-year-old girls, Anissa E. Weier and Morgan E. Geyser, who lured their friend Payton Leutner into the woods and stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to impress the fictional character Slender Man. Payton thankfully did not succumb to her injuries and crawled to a roadside where she was discovered. Weier and Geyser were tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity and were instead sentenced to long stays at a Psychiatric facility.

For the most part, this movie focuses on Marina’s battle to shrug off Mercy Black as a figment of her imagination. Her psychiatrist, Dr Ward, played by the great Janeane Garofalo, has pretty much convinced her that it was all in her head and Marina has found ways to deal with the hallucinations, like by closing her eyes and counting to five. Marina is sent to live with her sister Alice (Elle LaMont) and her nephew Bryce (Miles Emmons).

Marina Hess (Danielle Pineda) in Mercy Black

Marina has been locked away for the majority of the time that the internet has been around, so she is surprised to hear that the legend of Mercy Black has become viral since her crimes, with many more stories of the entity being reported, and copycat murders carried out across the world. Alice’s friend Will–a knock-off Matthew McConaughey–is particularly interested in finding out exactly what happened, but Marina doesn’t want to talk about it, understandably. Will keeps pushing her though, and eventually, Alice discovers that he has been researching the case in the hope of writing a book or a true crime documentary of which he will make money at the expense of Marina, Rebecca and the victim Lily. Needless to say, Will doesn’t last very long.

He is tormented by the bizarrely masked figure of Mercy Black. She floats in the air, wears a garment of torn fabrics, twig-like arms. It’s unfortunate that this spectre just isn’t scary (at least to me). It has no personality, it is not intimidating in the slightest, its like a Halloween decoration.

All the while, strange things are beginning to happen in Alice’s house. Doors creak open by themselves, the pet dog is murdered and dumped in the trash, and young Bryce begins to see things. Bryce is a handsome little boy but at one point his starts wearing a jacket with a fleece collar, just like Little Nicky dressed by Dick Tremayne in Season 2 of Twin Peaks. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Bryce becomes a devil child around the same time.

A kindly librarian takes him under her wing when he first gets to hear about what his Auntie did. In a not so subtle fashion, she allows this little kid to browse the internet in the library, to find out all there is to know about the legend of Mercy Black, and what Marina and Rebecca did to Lily. Of course his impressionable young mind was going to run away with ideas, and not only was he going to start believing in the entity that his Auntie created—he was going to become a servant to it.

What did Marina and Rebecca do to Lily while under the influence of Mercy? Well, they led her into the woods to the edge of a pond, they bashed her across the head with a rock, stabbed her and cut off her ring finger with pruning shears.

Why did they do it?

The nature of Mercy Black is that her crude form is not meant to be her final form. Her followers must make human sacrifices and gift body parts to her in exchange for having their wishes granted. Rebecca wanted Mercy to become flesh and blood to get rid of her abusive father. Marina’s mother was dying and she asked Mercy to take Lily as a sacrifice to save her Mom. Clearly, they were two very troubled girls in desperately difficult situations. They needed to believe in something, have some hope that things were going to get better. But did they?

Well no. Marina and Rebecca were both institutionalized separately. Rebecca, it turns out, was released before Marina, so Marina goes off to visit her old pal. Rebecca sits in a wheelchair in a trailer, with her somewhat crazy mother who has her positioned looking out of a window but with a blanket over her head. Rebecca does not move, she is clearly severely mentally disturbed. Her mother explains that upon release from the hospital that Rebecca tried to hang herself, but that she found her and cut her down. Now she just sits and stares at the dark of the blanket weaving that her mother ‘lovingly’ drapes over her. But Rebecca did get her wish. Her father died before she was released, so the abuse in that sense ended. She’s now in a whole different kind of hell. Did Marina’s mother survive her illness? No, she did not. So what was this all for? and surely they don’t still believe Mercy is real?

Early on in Mercy Black, there are indications that the monster might have been something older that was simply discovered by Rebecca and Marina. There are references to “a house you cannot see” and “a book you cannot read” both of which conjure up images of a witch’s house in the woods and a book of spells. However, after finding a map in Rebecca’s room, Marina is able to retrace their steps and find the truth about Mercy Black’s origins. The “house” is actually a nuclear bunker in the woods, whose entrance was hidden by leaves, and the “book” is actually a book called Greek Language For Beginners. This seems to prove undoubtedly that this was all just a grim fairytale.

Mercy Black comes to life

But there’s a twist! But not an unexpected one. No-one ever seems to have let Marina know that she didn’t actually murder Lily. No, Lily survived and took herself out of society, nobody knew who or where she was. She turns up right under their noses as, surprise! the kindly librarian. Lily has been grooming Bryce the whole time, wanting him for next sacrifice for Mercy. Lily herself is, in fact, a worshipper of the fictional entity and actually wanted and still wants to die for her. It was Lily that killed the dog, killed Will and has been dressing up as Mercy Black and playing spooky tricks the entire time.

Marina and Lily fight, almost to the death, but Marina just cannot go all the way and lets her go. Bryce is less empathetic.  He is now a firm believer in Mercy Black, he believes she can bring his Daddy home from working at NASA. Of course, he doesn’t really work for NASA and he just doesn’t give a shit about his son, but Bryce doesn’t know this so he stabs Lily through the eye, killing her. At this point, an actual incarnation of Mercy Black appears and takes Lily’s eye as her own. With each body part sacrificed, Mercy comes a little closer to being flesh and blood. So she is real?

Here’s where the story ends.

I am not going to pretend for a second that this was a good movie. It wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t scary, the effects were pretty poor (at one point Mercy seemed to be moving via a pulley chord which made me laugh out loud), and the storyline unoriginal. The acting was so, so, but not camp enough to make it ‘so bad it’s good’.

However, this film did give me pause to think about why we as humans create these mythological beings to worship. Other people’s beliefs often seem unbelievable. It may be puzzling to some as to why there is a widespread belief in astrology, psychoanalysis, homoeopathy and telepathy, or why 70 per cent of Americans reportedly believe in angels. And this phenomena appears to be something uniquely human.

Even our closest cousins, apes and chimpanzees, can’t quite grasp the concept of cause and effect. They may learn complex tasks; for example, they can pile boxes on top of one another to get a reward, but if the floor is made to be unbalanced they show no realisation that the boxes will topple over. Human children, however, learn pretty quickly how their behaviour, and also language, has consequences. This lack of understanding from animals of the consequences of their actions poses questions about whether they can believe in anything at all?

Upon learning language and a concept of cause, our ancestors were faced with something they could not understand. Life was tough and many children died at a young age. Volcanoes, storms, lightning and other natural disasters happened and there was no clear cause. As a result, we began to construct false knowledge to try to make sense of things. It may have been fear then that produced religion–the need to believe in superhuman beings or superhuman objects.

This gave our ancestors two advantages that enabled them to adapt to a tough environment: uncertainty and anxiety were removed, we had hope that if we appeased this ‘god’ or deity that these bad things wouldn’t happen to us. These beliefs became our natural way of thinking and may be part of our genetic makeup because we are adaptive. We hate uncertainty and, when it comes to life and death issues, we find it intolerable.

But what about now? We live in a terrifying world. Children are exposed to things on the internet that no-one should be. The leaders of our nations are narcissists and bullies and proud of it. We are becoming desensitized to violence and graphic imagery. But let’s face it, it has always been a terrifying world. Yet more and more people are losing faith in conventional religions because they have been let down by them so many times–they are, after all, run by flawed humans. Even despite scientific advancement proving where we came from, we still have a fundamental need to find something from outside of this world to believe in and not only that, a community to belong to.

This may explain the popularity of online forums, the r/NoSleep SubReddit, websites and so on that host Creepypasta urban myths, legends and pictures which get shared around the world. Slenderman is probably the most famous, but even in the last couple of weeks ‘Moma’ has been hitting the headlines, with children allegedly committing suicide or attacking other children after being egged on by the buggley eyed, grinning statue on Whatsapp.

Slenderman, Moma, Smiling Dog

So while all these Creepypastas are very made up, their threat becomes very real. Children are terrified into doing things they never would have dreamed of before. Belief in them causes hysteria and fear, the more people that caught up in the craze, the more powerful the monster becomes. And when you think about it, it’s not that different from a religion.

I believe this is what Mercy Black was really about. If you believe in something strongly enough, you can bring it to life. Maybe that 70 per cent who believe in angels have got the right idea after all.

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Written by Laura Stewart

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