Shudder Secrets: Seance: Urban Legends, Masked Identities, and Mean Girls
Simon Barrett’s already proven his horror chops. His writing credits include You’re Next (2011), The Guest (2014), and various segments of the V/H/S franchise. His directorial debut, Seance, is about an urban legend called the Edelvine ghost that haunts an all-girls academy. Like all urban legends, however, there’s more to the story. Seance is a fun romp that has echoes of Candyman with a mix of old-school slashers. It comes to Shudder on September 28, and it’s not to be missed.
The Edelvine Ghost
The film opens with a group of students standing in front of a bathroom mirror, preparing to summon the Edelvine ghost. Inanna Sarkis plays Alice, the domineering ringleader who leads the girls in the Candyman-like chant. According to the legend, a student was found dead in the bathroom. She apparently ran tap water over her wrist and then slit it, drowning in her own blood. If students repeat the phrase, “Edelvine ghost, rise up” at 3:13 am, the time she allegedly died, then she’s supposed to appear in the mirror and kill you.
Moments later, another student appears in a bathtub filled with blood. Of course, Alice orchestrated the prank to get a rise out of her classmates. One of the students, Kerrie (Megan Best), freaks out, certain that they summoned a ghost. She flees to her room. Minutes later, she dies. It looks like she jumped out the window or was pushed. The mystery sets up the rest of the film.
This opening is important for a few reasons. For one, it shows the many influences that Barrett uses in the film, including the likes of Bloody Mary and Candyman. Kerrie’s death, meanwhile, shows the slasher influence and proves that something strange is afoot at the school. It also includes an abrupt narrative turn when Kerrie winds up dead. Seance includes several head fakes and plot twists in its narrative, and somehow, they all work.
The New Girl
Suki Waterhouse stars as the new girl, Camille Meadows. She enrolls after Kerri’s spot opens up, following her death. Yet, instantly, Camille doesn’t get along with Alice and her social clique. In fact, they get in a physical altercation with each other when Camille sits at the cool kids’ table unknowingly and refuses to give up her seat.
This new girl/outcast trope is familiar, and it shows that teen movies were likely another inspiration for Barrett’s film. Following this familiar arc, Camille befriends another outcast, Helina, played by Ella-Rae Smith. Helina was also close to Kerrie, at least until she started hanging out with the cool girls.
After Camille’s introduction, there are hints that something may be off about her. For instance, during ballet class, she’s unable to keep up with the performance. To put it bluntly, her movement is wretched, despite the fact that she listed ballet as a class she took at her previous school, one she allegedly excelled at.
The Not-So-Subtle Symbolism of Masks
In an early scene, as the girls sit in drama class, the teacher mentions that for centuries, men performed as women on stage because women were barred from performance. The drama teacher says, “Their roles were acted out by male performers wearing masks, not entirely unlike those you each design for yourself.” This is yet another indication that at least one or more of the characters has something to hide.
Further, masks are used throughout the film. During detention for the fight between Alice and Camille, two of the girls wear masks to spook Camille and Helina. Later, it’s revealed that the true murderers wore classical theatrical masks while slicing and dicing. The true identities and intentions are revealed in the film’s closing minutes, but there are more than enough hints, especially the drama teacher’s dialogue, that not everyone is quite who they say they are.
A Haunted Dorm Room
Not only does Seance play with urban legends and wear its slasher influence proudly, it contains a good old-fashioned ghost story, or so we’re led to believe. Camille stays in Kerrie’s old room. Frequently, she hears strange noises in the walls. It sounds like groaning, creaking, and perhaps something more sinister. She rarely sleeps because she’s haunted by nightmares. At one point, she sees someone beneath a bedsheet. Is it Kerrie? Is it the OG Edelvine ghost? The movie never quite answers that.
It’s never quite clear if the room is actually haunted. When the light flickers and when Camille hears groans and creaks, she’s awake. However, when she sees or hears the more supernatural elements, like whispering, she’s dreaming and suddenly wakes up. At one point, she tells the girls that her grandmother believed if a person dies horribly, their energy is imparted on the location. Those sensitive can still feel it. The movie does leave open some possibility that a ghost may linger.
The Murderers Behind the Mask
Seance is a well-structured film that keeps the mystery of the killers veiled until the last 20 minutes or so. Bethany (Madisen Beaty), a red-headed, supposedly super-smart student, is one of the killers. After capturing Camille and Alice, she explains she did it because she stole and plagiarized one of Kerrie’s essays. After her peer’s death, the essay won a big contest and was set to be published in a school magazine. Fearing expulsion and a ruined future, Bethany kills off everyone who would know that it was Kerrie’s essay.
Bethany also takes advantage of her friends’ superstition. When they perform a seance, she uses a magnet on her phone to make it seem like the planchette moves, and it’s Kerrie communicating. Trevor (Seamus Patterson), son of the headmistress, assists Bethany. He has a less clear motive than Bethany, other than the fact they’ve apparently been in love since her freshman year. He’s also just one sick pup.
Trevor also worked as the school’s handyman, so he installed crawl spaces around the dorms, making it easier to kill. He also explains that he’s the one who killed Alicia Kane, the school’s original ghost when he was 12. He dragged her body into the bathroom and made it look like she killed herself.
Camille’s True Identity and Intentions
Trevor and Bethany aren’t the only ones with hidden identities, however. During the ballet scene, it’s evident that Camille may not be quite who she says she is. She eventually reveals to Helina in the closing minutes that Camille isn’t her real name. She only enrolled in the academy to understand what happened to Kerrie, her childhood friend. “I owed her a lot,” Camille says of her childhood friend.
Earlier in the film, Helina explains that she and Kerrie were close before Kerrie befriended Alice and the other girls. Because Helina and Camille have sexual chemistry with each other and kiss at the end, it’s not a large venture to think maybe Kerrie had some romantic connection with Helina, masked her sexuality, and succumbed to the pain of denying who she was. There are also several pictures of Kerrie and Camille together too, so at one point, they may have been more than friends. Regardless, Camille creates a fake identity to better understand what happened to her friend.
The film ends with a brilliant closing shot of a figure appearing in a window as Camille readies to leave. Because the figure has brunette hair, it’s likely that the figure is Kerrie, giving a final goodbye to her friend. This shot works so well because it feeds into some of the film’s ambiguity, specifically whether there is an actual ghost at the academy.
Seance is a movie with so many fun twists and turns. It’s part ghost story, part slasher, and part mystery. Upon more than one watch, you’ll see that some of the clues leading up to the ending were there all along. It’s a great movie to stream at the beginning of a school year and during Halloween season.
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Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.