Secular Nightmares: Mental Health and the Absence of God in Parker Finn’s Smile

Promotional image for Parker Finn’s 2022 film Smile

Today we share the third of six pieces of public writing selected for publication from an assignment in ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English”: a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words) which tailors an academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Read more about the assignment and the first publication, “Signs, Signs, Everywhere…The Hidden Depth of Japanese Signs in Spirited Away” by Ian Lutz (MA ’24), in the post from December 8 and the second publication, “Can YA Fiction Predict the Future? Political Mimicry in Kiera Cass’s The Selection Series” by Delaney Sullivan (MA ’24), in the post from December 13. Now, on to “Secular Nightmares: Mental Health and the Absence of God in Parker Finn’s Smile” by Milena Beliso (MA ’24)!

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 ZA (Fall 2022)


As religious identification in the United States decreases, are “secular” nightmares becoming more common in the horror genre? What frightens a post-Covid, post-Trump, and post-religion American populace? 

Without fear of being flung into hell, preserving one’s mental and financial wellness in an inflation-plagued economy seems much more suited to terrify. 

According to Gallup polling, as of the year 2020, the U.S has experienced a steady decline in religious affiliation and church membership. This recession of religious affiliation suggests that new audiences might be frightened by more practical concerns – not necessarily ghouls and demons. Leveraging people’s fears about deteriorating mental health and its impact on one’s social and financial capital are ways that post-horror films might seek to elevate the genre in a post-religious context. 

Parker Finn’s Smile (2022) is interested in the act of smiling – the human tendency to mask deep seated trauma with relentless, toxic positivity. The film’s protagonist, a psychologist named Rose, seeks to uncover the truth behind a “curse” that takes the shape of a smile, but she does not seek help from the Catholic church to perform an exorcism, as is typical of horror films that involve malicious entities. Instead, she attempts to unpack and explore her past traumas after the lone survivor of the curse tells Rose, “This thing needs trauma to spread.” 

Rose’s internal terror presents audiences with a uniquely secular nightmare in which deteriorating mental health plays the part of the demon, characters are motivated by preserving their bourgeois lifestyles, and spiritual forces are interpreted as symptoms of childhood trauma. The film omits religious language from the story altogether, in order to appeal to a contemporary, materialist worldview. The growing cult-like popularity of Smile suggests that horror is trending toward the secular.  

Horror’s transition from exploiting religious dogmas to leveraging materialist concerns, prompts the question: How do filmmakers exploit fears, whether rooted in long-held belief systems or newly developed in a specific cultural moment, to create horrific experiences? 

Chuck Tyron, in the Journal of Film and Video, argues that films like The Ring II (2005) and The Blair Witch Project (1998) use fears surrounding technology and its impact on the stability of the family unit, to frighten American audiences. These films target fears about the rising popularity of technology to create tension during a specific moment in time – one in which anxieties about technology’s impact on the family unit are heightened. Tyron’s observations about the intersection between fear and media suggests that horror filmmakers are in tune with what frightens audiences, not only childhood fears, but also present-day experiences.

While some scholars have studied the intersections of mental health and horror films, the function of religion (or lack of religion) in horror film plots remains largely unexplored, perhaps in part because, as critic Steffen Hantke suggests, 1990s and early 2000s signaled an end or “slump” of horror. Films like Scream (1996), which critics dismissed as “postmodern play” caused scholars to shy away from theorizing about contemporary horror films. 

Admittedly, there is certain academic anxiety about researching within the horror diaspora. However, post-horror films have succeeded in elevating the horror genre from this slump, and remedying academic anxiety about horror. Steve Rose of The Guardian coined the term “post-horror” in his review of It Comes at Night (2017) to mean a film that “doesn’t play by accepted rules” and yet still a “place where we explore our mortal and societal fears.” I consider Smile to have earned its place in the post-horror category, because of its deviation from the horror genre’s norms and accepted rules, but I am much more interested in its replacement of religious dogma with psychological terror. Namely, a secular nightmare.

The secular nightmare can be defined as any horror film that omits religious mention, particularly Christian associations, from the plot, while still employing malicious, supernatural elements. Secular nightmares do not include the following categories: slasher films like Scream (1996), thrillers like SwimFan (2002), or suspense films like Jaws (1975). Instead, films with secular nightmares do include supernatural elements, but these entities are not specifically categorized as formally religious or acknowledged as such. Secular nightmares focus on contemporary, temporal concerns– personal relationships, financial struggle, mental health, and overcoming childhood, racial, or sexual trauma. These concerns take the shape of a supernatural entity that oppresses or persecutes the protagonist(s).

So, what makes Smile a secular nightmare?  

To start, the film has a distinct focus on careers and life-planning, as characters attempt to overcome generational trauma through social climbing, higher education, and even marriage. The plot of Smile is a subversion or deviation from typical horror, which prompts commentary about disorder within our institutions and the self’s relation to those institutions. Finn suggests that true fear lies in the childhood trauma that remains uninvestigated and unresolved, obfuscated by fake smiles and bourgeois lifestyles.

Perhaps the most pressing theme in Smile is the preservation of positive mental health, or using the language of psychoanalysis to better one’s mental health and free oneself from the human condition. Interestingly, attempting to overcome the human condition without spiritual guidance or intervention is directly contrary to most Christian beliefs. The film’s supernatural curse is passed from person to person through a cycle of trauma. The carrier of the curse will typically be haunted for three to four days, until they commit suicide in front of another person, who then receives the curse and continues the chain. The sequence of performing violent acts and visually traumatizing the next person functions within a psychoanalytic understanding of violence, rather than a religious one.  

Throughout the film, poor mental health is considered a form of marginalization that even minor characters will avoid by any means necessary, while asserting psychology as a dominant understanding of the world. Rose’s patient Laura Weaver says, “I’m a PhD candidate, I’m not some lunatic” while Rose assures her, “I know it feels incredibly real.” Here, the fear of social stigma is portrayed as more pressing than the matter at hand – Laura is being haunted. In oddly relatable fashion, Laura must assert her academic background and social capital in order to be believed. Still, Rose diagnoses and psychoanalyzes rather than acknowledging Laura’s fear as a legitimate one. Later, while afflicted by the curse, Rose tries to visit the home of the professor who originally passed the curse to Laura. His widow labels her a “nutcase”, “fanatic”, and “morbid” before sending her away. The social stigma that mental illness holds in contemporary society, as well as the social consequences that Rose experiences because of her brush with mental illness, are enough to frighten secular audiences with the same capacity as those that target religious beliefs.

In addition to using psychoanalytic language, characters in Smile also interact within a  consumer-driven environment and take specific action to preserve their upper-middle class bourgeois value systems.  

Characters use corporate language that highlights an annoyingly sanguine, escapist brand of suburban life. The title itself, and the disturbing smile that the curse forces upon characters’ faces, suggests that it is deeply wrong and unnatural to use fake positivity and consumerism to escape pain, as if the film is self-aware. Rose and her sister Holly are established early-on as suburban, upper-middle-class white women. At dinner, Holly brags about how busy she is chauffeuring her son to soccer and band practice, while shaming Rose for working at a county hospital. Rose later accuses Holly of being a trophy housewife in her “smug little bubble” rather than caring for their depressive mother. Rose’s fiance, Trevor, reacts to her public breakdown by rejecting her in order to preserve his reputation and lifestyle. Whilst Rose is in tears, he argues that she is “complicating” his life and that he must consider his “life plan” when choosing a partner.  

Smile’s depiction of these bourgeois characters demonstrates how the secular nightmare is concerned with preserving financial, social, and material status quo, revealing the “fear” of being poor, marginalized, and alone. In her final days, Rose experiences life as one of her own marginalized, mentally-ill patients – far removed from her suburban, bourgeois world.  

Finn might be suggesting that psychoanalysis is not the only mode for overcoming trauma. Spiritual-religious exploration may be needed, particularly in a society motivated by one’s ability to present as mentally stable, professional, and most disturbingly – happy. As a purveyor of the unknown, Finn leaves the messaging of the film shrouded in mystery. Still, the legacy of Smile will undoubtedly be its aesthetically playful, materialist, post-horror interpretation of the supernatural.


Works Cited

Finn, Parker, director. Smile, Paramount Pictures, 30 Sep. 2022. 

Hantke, Steffen. “Academic Film Criticism, the Rhetoric of Crisis, and the Current State of American Horror Cinema: Thoughts on Canonicity and Academic Anxiety.” College Literature, vol. 34, no. 4, 2007, pp. 191–202, https://doi.org/10.1353/lit.2007.0045

Rose, Steven. “How Post-Horror Movies Are Taking over Cinema.” The Guardian, 6 July 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/06/post-horror-films-scary-movies-ghost-story-it-comes-at-night

Rose, Steven. “I Called It ‘Post-Horror’ – and Now I’ve Created a Monster.” The Guardian, 2 Aug. 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/aug/02/i-created-a-monster-how-post-horror-it-comes-at-night-a-ghost-story.

Tryon, Chuck. “Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 61, no. 3, 2009, pp. 40–51, https://doi.org/10.1353/jfv.0.0034.


Milena Beliso (MA ’24)

2 thoughts on “Secular Nightmares: Mental Health and the Absence of God in Parker Finn’s Smile

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