Film: As Above, So Below

by C.F. Cooper

When a horror movie brands itself with the title As Above, So Below, you’ve got to worry that it’s going to take a saying potent with meaning for neopagans and put it—and us—through a slanderous mill. Awful as this film is, it doesn’t do that; instead it demeans a sacred journey that every pagan should have the good fortune to experience, and that’s a crime all its own.

But first, about the film itself: The meaning behind the title is one of the few things it gets right. After the groaning realization sets in that As Above, So Below is going to be yet another of those contrived, poorly constructed “found footage” fake documentaries (a subgenre pioneered by The Blair Witch Project, executed most successfully by Cloverfield and Chronicle, and since flogged to death by Devil’s DueParanormal Activity films ad nauseum, and other cheapies seeking to hide their lack of budget), an archaeological mystery takes us to Paris. This is the most promising part of the film, as its little-known actors sleuth their way Indiana Jones-style through secret inscriptions on museum relics and, eventually, to the signature phrase.

Our brainy female protagonist correctly interprets it: “As above, so below” comes to us via a long line of thought in the Western esoteric tradition, via Hermeticists and alchemists, with the simple but powerful message that the patterns we see on a large scale repeat on the small scale. The spiral form of galaxies is echoed by the coils of DNA inside us…the orbits of worlds and suns are perhaps not unlike the motions in atoms and molecules…a raging thunderstorm releases pent-up energy just as an angry outburst of shouts and tears does. This vital connection between humanity and the universe around us lies at the heart of so much of what paganism is about. As it is with the gods, so it is with us.

Then, as the movie descends beneath the streets of Paris, it reaches familiar depths of bad filmmaking. Clever sleuthing gives way to cheap scares and pointless, rather boring bloody mayhem as our heroes pass through what may or may not be the actual, physical gates of hell. Nothing new in that, at least not in horror movies; but what makes it so distressing is the setting: the catacombs of Paris.

The catacombs are an actual place, not a horror movie invention. Beneath the streets of Europe’s most cultured capital, there lies a second city: a city of the dead. In the 18th century, as the population of Paris grew and its boundaries sprawled further and further, housing began to crowd into areas that used to be solely for cemeteries, and the result—foul stenches and disease—forced city officials to relocate the remains of some 6 million of the deceased. Limestone for all those new houses had been mined from deep beneath the city, creating a vast system of tunnels, so the decision was made to re-inter the dead in this underground labyrinth.

If you are ever fortunate enough to visit Paris, a journey through the catacombs—part of which are open to the public—is an extraordinary experience not to be missed, particularly for a pagan. As opposed to so many Christian sects, which could be said to fetishize “the culture of life,” we pagans tend to have an appreciation of the balance of natural forces, of light and dark, and of life and, yes, death. We understand the essential role death plays, the counterpart to life without which life as we know it could not exist. We pagans are not waiting for a life eternal and deathless as our heavenly reward; our “heaven” is in us and around us in the here and now, where life and death exist side by side, renewing each other in the great cycles of existence.

That healthy respect for death is nowhere more profoundly displayed than in the catacombs. Here death is incarnate; the bones of human beings who have come and gone before us are piled high on either side, lining the tunnels—actual human bones, thousands of anonymous remains without headstone or marker or so much as a pane of glass between you and them, less than an arm’s reach away. (But don’t touch them; that sort of casual vandalism would be the ultimate in disrespect.) Interspersed throughout these snaking halls of the dead, lit only by what lamps the living have seen fit to place here, are inscriptions: quotations, meditations, verses that reflect upon mortality and the end that awaits us all. The occasional striking monument—a somber urn in a vaulted cavern, perhaps—stands in isolation, as if to underscore the solitude. And despite the bustling metropolis above, here everything is still. Quiet.

As you journey through the catacombs, your thoughts may be drawn to Innana’s descent, or to Orpheus’ ill-fated underworld visit; an experience in the catacombs shaped my own vision of the underworld that unfolds in Songs of the Metamythos. Near the end of my visit to the catacombs, the silence was punctuated by the drip of water draining into the tunnel I was crossing through, water from somewhere above…as if the city of Paris herself were weeping for her lost ones.

Few experiences are as moving as a visit to the catacombs of Paris.

Little of this is explored in As Above, So Below. Instead, the catacombs become merely a spooky backdrop where, if one wanders far enough, the entrance to hell can be found. That, then, is this movie’s great failing: not the questionable acting, or the cheesiness of the whole endeavor, but that it takes a real sacred journey and reduces it to an excuse for a tacky frightfest.