The early 2000, specifically 2003 to 2009, saw a rise in a horror sub-genre that became known as French Extremism. These films were known for excessive brutality and extreme mutilation, and included titles like FRONTIERS, INSIDE, and HIGH TENSION. 2008’s MARTYRS was probably one of the most discussed films of this sub-genre for both its use of torture as well as the philosophy behind that torture.
In MARTYRS, a young girl is abducted and put through a series of brutal tortures in order to experience transcendental insight. It is hypothesized by her torturers that through extreme physical distress it is possible to glimpse into the afterlife. The film’s title comes from the belief that before someone becomes a martyr, they are given this glimpse as a gift for their sacrifice. It is this gift that finds its way on to artistic depictions of saints in the moments leading up to their death.
So has this experiment ever been done in real life? Although there is no official record of such an incident, there are the regular rumors and speculations circling the internet about experiments quite similar to the ones in MARTYRS. One of the more popular rumors making the rounds is about a 1983 group of scientists supposedly experimenting in sensory deprivation when they stumbled upon something much bigger. According to the urban legend, the study hypothesized that our senses are a hindrance for divine thought. Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste ground us in this world, thus preventing us from experiencing transcendence. According to the story, scientists removed the portion of their subject’s brain that experienced these sensations. After the surgery, the subject began to experience transcendence and at one point was believed to have begun conversing with God. His last words, before the experiment and subject were terminated was, “I have spoken to God, and he has abandoned us”.
Presented as a Creepypasta in 2009, there are those who still believe that transcendental insight through such means is possible, and there is some historical validity to this claim. After all most religions, do believe that there are ways to achieve transcendence, some less gruesome than others. Buddhists believe it’s done through meditation, while some Christian sects believed that self-flagellation was a direct pathway to becoming one with Christ or as means of atoning for your sins. A 13th century monastic movement known as Flagellantism took the practice to the extremes, publicly whipping their own flesh with various instruments. Although outlawed by the church in 14th century, there are still those who practice flagellation to this day. In the Philippines, the religious holiday of Good Friday is celebrated by a Christians who willingly crucify themselves in the same manner as Jesus Christ, despite the fact that this practice is still frowned upon by the Catholic Church.
The practice of flagellation predates Christianity, going all the way back to the Isis cult of Egypt and Dionysian’s of Greece, both known for flagellation as an attempt at bringing them closer to their respective gods.
In ancient Rome, eunuch priests during the Dies Sanguinis, or Day of Blood Festival, would whip themselves bloody for their goddess Cybele. Even today some Shi’a Muslims celebrate Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali, by beating themselves bloody with swords or other sharp objects. This devotional practice is seen by some as a way of washing away sins or a means of spiritual purification.
Although MARTYRS is a brutal film packed with plenty of cringeworthy moments, it is easy to find where such an idea comes from. The belief that pain is a pathway to transcendence has been with us for centuries and remains prevalent in many religious ceremonies. Even the symbol of the Catholic Church still features a man who is believed to have seen God in the last moments of his life as he was being tortured to death on a cross. The experiment from 1983, whether fact of fiction, is not all that hard to fathom considering that so many religions find credence in the belief that are human senses are all that separate us from a blissful existence beyond our own. But if I were to pick one I’d probably stick to Buddhist meditation.