April 9, 2009
Religion, Vengeance, and Hospitality in The Last House on the Left: The Long Strange Journey of a Myth Motif
— Brian Collins
"Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof." -Genesis 19.8
Wes Craven's notorious 1972 exploitation film The Last House on the Left is the latest low-budget cult classic from the drive-in era to get a Hollywood remake. The new version, directed by Dennis Iliadis, opened Friday, March 13th to the same mixture of box office success and critical disdain that greets most films of its ilk.
When the original came out in 1972, Chicago critic Roger Ebert immediately recognized Last House's plot as that of the 1960 Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring. The Virgin Spring is in turn based on the medieval Swedish ballad Töre's Daughters at Vange, whose themes go back to the same Indo-European imperatives of obligation, revenge, and hospitality that underlie Act I of Richard Wagner's opera The Valkyrie. The basic narrative of Töre's Daughter at Vange, The Virgin Spring, and The Last House on the Left involves a group of men who rape and murder a girl, then unknowingly seek shelter in the home of her father. When they give away what they have done, the father must decide what to do with these men he has welcomed as guests. It is the transformation of this motif that makes The Last House on the Left of interest to historians of religions.
In the Wagnerian story of Siegmund and Hunding, drawn from pre-Christian sources, the major conflict arises when the obligation of protection owed to one's guests runs up against the equally weighty obligation to pay back violence done to one's clan. After Hunding has offered his hospitality to the stranger Siegmund, the latter relates that he had lately come upon a woman being forced into marriage and intervened on her behalf, leading to a battle with her kinsmen in which she was killed. He is seeking shelter at Hunding's house from those kinsmen. Hunding reveals that he is related to Siegmund's enemies from the wedding party and is obligated to take vengeance, but will wait until the morning to do so, since Siegmund is his guest for the night.
This type of hospitality and the seriousness of its obligations are explored in the ancient Indian context by Stephanie Jamison in Sacrificed Wife/Sacrificer's Wife, and in the Homeric epics by Steve Reece in The Stranger's Welcome. The Near Eastern emphasis on the obligations of the host is apparent from the shocking actions Lot is willing to take to protect his guests from the Sodomites in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as in the verse from Genesis in the epigraph above.
In Töre's Daughter at Vange, religion is at the center of the tale. Töre's daughter Karin is on the way to church when she is accosted by pagan herdsman, who kill her and take her clothes to sell. After they have traveled a while, they stop for the night at the first house they come to - Töre's house. He takes the strangers in, but when they try to sell him his daughter's clothes, he realizes what has happened and kills them. Then Tore asks God to forgive his act of vengeance and builds a church to atone for his sin. The ballad not only pits a pure Christian maiden's virtue against the lust and depravity of the pagan herdsmen; it comes down on the side of Christian forgiveness as opposed to the old Scandinavian morality of the blood debt. Töre's building of a Christian house of worship, following his condemnation of violence, signifies the transition from an honor society to one under the central authority of the church.
By the time Bergman, who famously explored his relationship with religion and God in The Seventh Seal (1957), visited the tale, he claimed he was no longer interested in the Christian morality aspect. "What really interested me," he writes in Images: My Life in Film, "was the actual horrible story of the girl and her rapists, and the subsequent revenge. My own conflict with religion was well on its way out." Nevertheless, religion stays at the center of The Virgin Spring. At the film's conclusion, Töre (Max von Sydow) cries out to God in anguish and, again, builds a church as penance.
Wes Craven's 1972 film drops the explicit Christian morality of the Bergman movie and the hospitality-vengeance conflict of The Valkyrie. Instead, the conflict lies in whether or not a soft city-dwelling doctor and his wife have what it takes to exact vengeance on a band of cold-blooded killers. As it turns out, they do. Early examples of this motif exemplify the crisis that arises when one's obligations as a "good" man in an honor society come into conflict: It is proper to avenge one's slain kin, but it is equally proper to provide protection to a guest. Once the story enters the Christian context, the obligation of hospitality is displaced by the question of the morality of vengeance. At the end of this metaphorical road is The Last House on the Left, where vengeance is unquestionably moral and the only conflict is between the avengers and their targets. As an illustration of the Nietzschean transvaluation of values, one could not ask for a more striking (if hard for some to stomach) set of examples.
For further reading consult William Ian Miller's Eye for an Eye, the edited volume Mythes et représentations de l'hospitalité, and David A. Szulkin's well-researched and thorough Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left: The Making of a Cult Classic.
Brian Collins is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a former Marty Center Junior Fellow.