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Feature Article

How The Purge TV Show Uses Religion To Say Something Different

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Join the cult. Sacrifice yourself.

The interesting thing about the Purge franchise is that its ridiculous-seeming premise--that all crime is legal for one night a year, including murder--opens the door for commentary on real-life America. The movies have quickly become political satires about racism and classism in the U.S., while also being about horrifying people in frightening masks attempting to use machetes to murder blue collar working folks.

USA's 10-part TV series The Purge is digging a little further into the idea of an America where people can kill each other freely one night per year, expanding on the things we've already seen in the movies. The premiere aired on Tuesday, September 4, focusing on the ever-present dread as the clock ticks down to "commencement" of the Purge. But the really interesting thing about the series is the exploration of how people would really respond to a world where the Purge exists--and how the Purge might affect religious beliefs, by adding a "Purge cult" to the proceedings.

In the first episode of The Purge, we slowly come to realize that one of its main characters, a woman named Penelope (Jessica Garza), is a member of that Purge cult and follows its unnamed leader (Fiona Dourif). These folks don't go out during the Purge to kill other people in the name of their religion, though. Instead, they have a different, spookier belief: They sacrifice themselves for the sake of other Purgers. As one cultist puts it, the group doesn't purge, they are "purged upon."

We learn early in the show that Penelope lost her parents to some past Purge, and she's come to believe that, by allowing herself to die in the Purge, she'll be reunited with them. The cultists seek peace through their sacrifice and pain, and expect to be spirited away to a kind of heaven ("The Invisible") once they die.

Lots of horror concepts throw in cultists and other religious fanatics for flavor, but in "The Purge," the concept that people would go out and sacrifice themselves adds another level that feels true to real life. Since the first "Purge" film back in 2013, there's been an aspect to which the Americans of the movie universe delude themselves into thinking a night of allowing anyone to turn into Jeffrey Dahmer or a Manson Family member is a good idea. In the first film, the Purge comes off like a successful idea--in 2022, crime and violence are at historic lows and unemployment is near 1%. It's a suggestion that it's working.

Throughout the film series, the justification for the Purge is that it's backed up by science. In "The First Purge," we discover the concept was created by a social scientist who really did have people's best interests at heart (well, OK, not the people getting murdered, but the other people). The audience knows the truth: that the Purge is used by the fascist New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) to kill poor people to thin out the population and boost the economy. But the country is told that the Purge is actually a good thing that helps people, and to the normal person, there's evidence to support that conclusion.

So it doesn't seem too far-fetched that traumatized people like Penelope would go out for a cult that fully buys into the need for the Purge and the idea that allowing people to kill them is actually a selfless act. We have cults in the real world that attract people when they're hurt and damaged, like Penelope is by the loss of her parents, and we have plenty of real world religions that glorify concepts like "sacrifice" and suffering.

This isn't the first time "The Purge" has used religion, but it might be the first time a part of the franchise has really delved into the idea of how something like the Purge might affect religious belief. What we've seen in "Purge" movies up to now of religion is a politicized view of Christianity through the lens of hypocritical fascists. Basically, the NFFA in the movies use religion when they can to justify the Purge and their power, but it feels like more of a comment on the relationship between real-world conservatism and religion--and the things both justify--than on how the Purge might actually affect real people.

So how might things shake out, if it's generally accepted that the Purge is a good thing, and that the country is better for it? It's not that big a leap to expect that empathetic or traumatized people might find a purpose in contributing to the Purge without committing murder themselves. The cult makes a frightening amount of sense, in that way, and it adds another dimension to the overall Purge concept of considering what might happen to people who aren't necessary vulnerable to being killed because they can't afford to protect themselves, but are vulnerable in other ways.

What makes the "Purge" franchise endure, apart from being a spooky set of horror movies and despite the idea of a crime night sounding impossible (as well as completely, ridiculously complicated to fit into the existing legal system), is that it's easy to see shades of the real world in the absurdity. With a version that has the room to explore the Purge over 10 consecutive episodes, there's a chance for the TV show's creators to look at the concept in new and unexpected ways, like through the idea of spirituality, religion, and trauma--and to see what that might reflect about our world.

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Phil Hornshaw

Freelance games and entertainment writer, and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to T
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