Humanity has been gifted with a drive to create understanding and meaning. There is possibly even a biological mechanism behind that drive. One half of our brain records the raw experience. The other half draws lines around the elements, giving them borders and definition. This applies not just to concrete experiences but also abstract concepts, such as “What is beyond the stars?” or “Where did we come from?” Historically, whenever societies have formed, they sought to answer these harder, more abstract questions by creating a religion that is a reverential and a highly symbolic practice with a connection to an otherworldly source of power and wisdom. 

Religion, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “… the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” (emphasis added). These religious practices (the belief in and worship of) have many beneficial aspects for the members of a community. Religions unite a people and help guide society by defining right and wrong. People’s faith in their deities quiet fears by offering answers about the unknown, such as the ones mentioned earlier and also, “What happens next?” Faith is a key component of religion and is defined by the OED as a “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” The people’s behavior is a reflection of their faith in the deities they worship.

While eagerly waiting for the wide release of Chad Crawford Kinkle’s new film, Dementer (trailer), I revisited his first film, Jug Face (2013), which examines the impact of religion and faith in the lives of two members of a small religious community. Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) and Dawai (Sean Bridgers), are among the descendants of a group of settlers who replaced their Christian God with a deity called The Pit. The Pit is unlike the distant, mysterious God of their fathers; it is able to be seen and felt and can communicate very clearly with its worshipers. Dutiful daughter to the present-day leaders of the cult, Ada has a secret that she must hide from all, even the Pit. Jug Face is the story of her ruin and redemption.

The cult in Jug Face began when the original settlers, perhaps 17th Century pilgrims, find a powerful and alien entity living in a nearby clay pit. This entity makes its will known by possessing the potter and making him it’s prophet. The Pit promises to cure them of the plague that is wiping out their settlement for a blood sacrifice. The Pit is also capable of going among the settlers and tearing their bodies apart to show its displeasure with them.

While in the thrall of the Pit, the potter had made a jug in the likeness of the priest, who is the first called to be sacrificed. When the plague lifts, the settlers start to worship The Pit. They create a new religion similar to the one they just abandoned. They revere the Pit and declare it the supreme authority, often using the phrase “The Pit wants what it wants” to justify its enigmatic demands. 

With the threat of annihilation by the plague having weakened the faith of the settlers, their miraculous salvation by the Pit lays a perfect foundation for their repudiation of Jesus and conversion to worshipers of the Pit. Their divorce from God having been signed with the blood of the priest, the settlers are left with a religion without a god and a god without religion.

Naturally, with the structure provided by the practices of the Christian religion ingrained so deeply in their culture, it’s no trouble at all for the Pit to take God’s place in the souls of the settlers. “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, .. .I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer,” (Exodus 15:26, English Standard Version). Just like in Christianity’s Heaven and Hell, those who are obedient to the Pit enter into an eternity with it. Those who disobey the Pit become the shunned, whose spirits are doomed to wander the woods for eternity.

Redemption and healing, Old Testament-style by The Pit

According to the Book of Genesis in The Holy Bible, Adam and Eve are the first humans created by God and lived alongside him in The Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise. They were banished from the garden after they disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The cult’s home in the mountains is very different from the paradise of The Garden of Eden. It is a poor community isolated from the modern world. There are no radios or televisions in use. Houses are cramped and dirty, full of broken appliances packed into rooms with cracked and stained walls. Nothing is new: all their possessions and clothes are worn and bear the signs of much repair and mending. 

According to The Holy Bible, the descendants of Adam and Eve populated the world, and one particular group, the Israelites, were God’s chosen people. He protected them from famine and foes, freed them from slavery, and brought them to a promised land. To atone for their sins, the Israelites were required to make ritual, blood sacrifices. Animal blood substituted for human blood, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life,” (Leviticus 17:11, ESV).

The Pit’s chosen people pay a higher cost for sin and disobedience. It does not accept animal blood nor banish the disobedient. Only the blood of a member of the community forestalls its wrath. When the Pit “takes the hand” of Dawai, the jug maker, working through him to create the latest jug, it is in Ada’s likeness.

The Pit possesses Dawai to make another jug

Even though, after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God didn’t walk among humanity again until the time of Jesus, God’s desire was to be close to his chosen people. In the Old Testament, the Israelites built The Ark of the Covenant, a holy place for God to dwell in and speak to his people,.”There I will meet with you … I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel,” (Exodus 25:22, ESV). Even though it was placed among the people, there was a mystical barrier that surrounded it to set it apart from the community. Touching it, even accidentally, led to instant death. The Pit also has its own laws that are enforced swiftly and brutally.

Just as God knew that Adam and Eve disobeyed him, the Pit knows when its followers are disobedient. It is not clear why it chose Ada, perhaps because she was pregnant with a child from an incestuous affair. But its calling for her to submit herself is clear. It is displeased with Ada for hiding Dawai’s jug and disobeying its summons. The Pit punishes her by forcing her to watch as it kills cult members. 

After a failed attempt to escape the cult, Ada loses her child. She tells her parents the truth about her pregnancy but withholds the hidden jug until The Pit takes Sustin, her father (Larry Fessenden). Ada confesses about hiding the jug. Outraged at what she has done and the lives that have been lost by her selfish actions, the community offers up Ada and Dawai, who tried to help her escape, to be killed as punishment by the Pit. The Pit won’t take Ada unless she willingly offers herself. Ada knows that Dawai will be killed by the cult if she leaves. To save Dawai and temporarily stop the killing, she remains there to be sacrificed by the cult.

Adam, Eve, and God in The Garden of Eden in this detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights

In the New Testament, God became human and lived among mankind as Jesus Christ, the Messiah who was promised to deliver God’s people in The Holy Bible. Jesus’ role was to be the final blood sacrifice for all humanity, not just the Israelites. His death provided propitiation, i.e. appeasement to God, for all who sought forgiveness. Jesus’ sacrifice meant the end of the ritual sacrifice. The faith of the believers in Jesus provided the grace needed to restore the relationship between God and his people:

“He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:12-14, ESV)

Ada becomes a Christ-like figure when she willingly offers herself as a sacrifice to appease The Pit. Even though she knows this will only save the lives of those whom The Pit would have taken in punishment for her sins and will not stop the sacrifices altogether.

In this, we see just how far removed The Pit is from the Christian God. Whereas Jesus Christ espoused love and forgiveness, the Pit proves itself to be bloodthirsty and unforgiving, having not a single care about the well-being of its followers. The followers’ devotion to The Pit is absolute. They have been conditioned to give all to its demands even when the price for forgiveness is their own flesh and blood. So pervasive is the indoctrination that, when Ada’s mother (Sean Young) is faced with her daughter’s imminent death, even having lost her son and husband to the Pit, she just repeats the prayer, “We understand, The Pit wants what it wants.”

Ada’s parents do not approve of her life choices.

There is no freedom for the members of the cult. They are enslaved in a hard life of ignorance, poverty, and want. Though they may live in the modern world, their lives are practically indistinguishable from the lives of the original settlers. Because the members of the cult have spent generations and generations worshiping The Pit in isolation from the rest of the world, their belief that they have re-created the Garden of Eden was unquestioned. Even when faced with the deaths of beloved family members. When Ada makes herself a willing sacrifice to appease The Pit, paying penance not only for her own sins but also for the sins of others, she becomes a messianic figure and illustrates in stark relief how very far from paradise they truly are.

The film ends with Dawai sitting in his shed. His expression is unreadable as he stares at the receding camera, revealing his yard full of broken and discarded items, turning to rust and rot. Perhaps, having been enlightened by Ada’s sacrifice, he is looking for a new Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, not to be tempted to do evil, but to pull away from what he considers an evil God.

The Pit’s cult is not the only example of a religion that harms its adherents; historically, the power of a centralized religious body has been a breeding ground for corruption. In the Judeo-Christian branch of religions, this was seen very clearly in the form of indulgences paid to the Roman Catholic church in the Middle Ages and a host of other, questionable practices. It is especially relevant now in America where a hard-core class of conservative evangelical leaders have elevated a blatantly, corrupt, self-serving figure as God’s chosen one to lead America to a fictional greatness.

The Pit wants what it wants.