To be lonely is different from being alone. To be alone is to make the choice to create distance from people for comfort, self-care, and at times self-preservation. Whereas to be lonely is to feel isolated, misunderstood, and vulnerable. To be lonely is to feel cold even on the hottest of days. When you are lonely you can find yourself creating a narrative in your mind as to why you feel disconnected from the world or abandoned by people around you. Sometimes these narratives can take you into a dark state of mind and thus, loneliness can be dangerous. This can be seen as a theme in the 2015 dark and brooding film, The Devils’ Daughter, also known as The Blackcoat’s Daughter or February.
Written and directed by Osgood Perkins, the son of Psycho (1960) star Anthony Perkins, this film is a slow nightmare that unravels in both the past and future. It stars Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) as a young despondent woman named Kat who seems to have been forgotten about by her parents during her Catholic all-girls boarding school’s winter break. She is left with a fellow student Rose (Lucy Boyton) who had ‘supposedly’ also been forgotten about by her own parents, although it is later revealed that this was on purpose so she could sneak out to see her boyfriend. This portion of The Devil’s Daughter focuses on the strange events that surround the two young women at the school while under the care of the school’s Sisters: Ms. Drake and Ms. Prescott. Intermingled with these scenes, the viewer follows Joan played by Emma Roberts (Scream 4, American Horror Story, Scream Queens) as she travels with a kind yet distraught couple to Bramford, unaware of their own connection. As the viewer, we don’t realize that the scenes with Joan are actually nine years in the future from the events with Kat and Rose, until the stories converge and we come to realize that Joan is Kat.
Bramford Academy is situated in a wooded area isolated from the town and the events at the school take place during the coldest month of the year, February. We learn this as Kat counts down the days on a calendar waiting for her parent’s arrival. It is also a time where many people are likely to experience Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) or depression due to the lack of sun, cold weather, and a general sense of isolation since people are less likely to connect with others to avoid the cold and snow. This helps to build the atmosphere of isolation and disconnection in the film, as you can feel just how miserable the environment around us can impact our state of mind and thus, our characters. This is how we meet Kat; she has just dreamt or had a premonition about losing her parents in a car accident. Whether in disbelief or fear, Kat knows that something bad has happened and yet she remains silent and does not relay this concern to the Sisters who are meant to be her guardians.
Kat comes across as an introverted and disillusioned young woman. We don’t see her conversing with any friends her own age and she has a friendly relationship with the school’s priest, someone she may see as a father figure. She is crestfallen when she learns that the priest will not be able to come to her recital the day the parents come for the rest of the students. Kat looks like a lonely girl, seeking someone or something outside herself to feel safe and at home. You can already tell that she is struggling with a dark narrative in her mind, or as what the movie shows, is a dark entity slowly possessing her. She misleads the Headmaster and the Sisters into believing that her parents have forgotten about her as a means to stay, not wanting to face the reality of having possibly lost her parents and spiral further into darkness.
Kat attempts to connect with Rose, seeing her as an opportunity to make a true human connection with someone outside of herself and not allow herself to become prey to the dark voices in her mind. Rose tells Kat that she should be fully capable of taking care of herself and decides to scare her by telling her that the Sisters were rumoured to be Devil worshippers. Rose uses fear to coerce Kat into keeping her outing a secret, further isolating Kat. As she tells Rose that “She had her chance” aware of something sinister to possibly be revealed; with no one there to comfort her Kat falls prey to her dark thoughts. We next see her bowing to the school furnace in an oddly warm and welcoming scene as if she has found home; safety in something that is not quite human or possibly even real.
This is where The Devil’s Daughter takes the narrative into the supernatural. As Kat begins to act erratic and falls ill, we are led to believe that she has become possessed by some demonic entity as she shows the typical signs such as body contortion, refusal to say the Lord’s Prayer, and she becomes despondent and aggressive. However, we know that historically mental illness has been treated much like demonic possession. So, is Kat truly demonically possessed? Or is she a lonely young woman who has not dealt with the possible death and loss of her family? She becomes obsessed with the idea of staying at the school as it has become a place of comfort and refuge for her. To turn towards the entity in her mind that gives her ease would only make sense, as The Devil’s Daughter portrays the women and their relationships to one another as very cold and isolating. The Sisters keep their distance from the two young women, the meals together are silent and they treat Kat very clinically when she becomes ill, standoffish and belligerent. You can tell from the looks the two older women give each other that they can sense something is not right about the situation, yet instead of asking questions and offering comfort, they keep the young women at arm's length. There is no solidarity among these women but rumours, demands, and abandonment.
As Kat gives into this dark narrative and a belief that she is being spoken to by Satan himself, she performs an act of service for him by murdering Rose and the two Sisters. This is when it is revealed that Joan is Kat as she remembers the moment she was captured by the police. And as she is making her way back to Bramford, the couple that had been helping her are revealed to be Rose’s parents, on their way to pay their respects to their daughter’s grave. Joan/Kat also recalls the ‘exorcism’ that forced her to be alone again. For as she sees the dark entity she asks for it not to “leave her.'' So this leaves the viewer to assume that her escape from the mental institution and journey back to the school is her attempt to end her loneliness and be reunited with the demon that brought her such comfort. But when she returns, the furnace has grown cold and all she is left with is nothing.
While one can choose to see The Devil’s Daughter as purely a film about demonic possession and it’s after effects, I found that after watching this film for a second time, I see the demonic possession being used as a plot device to portray mental illness. When people experience a traumatic loss and grief, it can often lead to mental illnesses such as depression and if not diagnosed and treated appropriately, it can take individuals to a dark place. They begin to create stories and entities of people or things in their minds to justify their feelings and actions. Often people who are suffering mentally feel abandoned, vulnerable, and lonely. They try to make a connection with others, but any sort of rejection can send them spiralling into a hell of their own creation. Kat is a lonely young woman, whose parents died in a tragic accident (as confirmed by the scene when the Headmaster returning to the school with the police to deliver the news) and with no one around to help her manage her grief/depression, she gives in to the negative voices in her mind to find solace and comfort -- because sometimes it is easier to give in to our darkness then to maintain our sanity.