Call me a wellness junkie if you want, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m a spa person. If I had my way, I’d spend every day sitting in the steam room, getting massages, facials, scrubs, the works. I mean, who wouldn’t? But no matter how often I go or how excited I am to be there, there is always a moment where one thought flashes through my head: this would be the perfect place to get murdered. Think about it—spas are quiet; you’re often alone in unfamiliar spaces with low visibility; and during a treatment it’s usually just you and the therapist in a tiny room and your eyes are closed. If that situation doesn’t hold the potential for nefarious activity, I don’t know what does.
It seems it’s not just me. A new slate of films and television shows centered around wellness bring that tension front and center, most obviously in Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers. The show stars Nicole Kidman as an eerie, new age guru welcoming nine attendees to a wellness retreat with the promise of full mind and body transformation. There’s also M. Night Shyamalan’s Old (in theaters now) and dark comedy The White Lotus (which just finished up on HBO). All of these works, to varying degrees, take our collective obsession with wellness and turn it on its head, morphing something we view as positive into something, well, downright scary.
But why is the wellness world so ripe for psychological terror? “I always find the scariest stuff happens in broad daylight and in a beautiful setting,” Nine Perfect Strangers director Jonathan Levine told Town & Country. “There’s something so absurd and tragic, yet relatable, about people going somewhere hoping to change their lives for the better. To me, the horror elements were always in support of that theme.”
On the most obvious level, wellness thrillers operate on one of the simplest horror tropes: the unsafe safe space. “In horror, there is always a safe space that one is trying to get to—like a cabin in the woods or a small town,” says Jim Hansen, PhD, associate professor of English at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an expert on horror. “Then, it’s always revealed as the most unsafe space.”
Indeed, the point of going to a spa is to isolate yourself, to cut out all other distractions so you can focus on rejuvenation. But really, a wellness retreat is little more than the adult version of a summer camp—another classic horror movie trope. The tension here hinges on our knowledge as viewers that these idyllic locations are not what they seem, something Hansen says is even more resonant in 2021, “We’re suspicious right now in general—all the things we want to believe are good, we don’t trust.”
There’s also “the culty thing,” says Jack Halberstam, PhD, professor of Gender Studies and English at Columbia University. Characters, and by extension the audience, put all their faith in a central figure who promises “to lead them down the path of enlightenment,” he says, but the central question is whether they actually will. In Nine Perfect Strangers, Nicole Kidman nails the soft-talking, unflappably calm, incense-scented vibey-ness of wellness guru Masha, who teaches enlightenment through smoothies and meditation. But, as with all would-be cult leaders, there is a cryptic sharpness to her, that immediately gives us the sense that there is something lurking beneath her penetrating stare.
In the case of Kidman’s Masha, or many other wellness gurus both in real life and film, it can’t be discounted that she is a woman. Wellness, for better or worse, is seen in our society as a feminine pursuit, which can make it immediately suspect. “These positions of power have been traditionally assigned to women, almost in a witchy way,” says Halberstam. Like the medicine women and witches of folklore, these women use knowledge to achieve what could be considered magical results and, by extension, create power for themselves. They say, “we know how to use the pharmaceuticals and botanicals and wellness rituals in ways that can either kill you or cure you, and we’ll decide which,” he says. “There’s a sense of new forms of power located in femininity.” And, as with any type of power, it can be met with, and sometimes bolstered by, fear.
There’s more to what makes wellness thrillers scary than just the setting and the people. At their core, movies and TV shows like Nine Perfect Strangers are about our own paradoxical relationship to change. “You want to tap into the thing that makes you better and superior, but what if that thing is terrible? What if that thing is a horrifying monstrosity?” asks Hansen. “Horror lets us experience that but not actually do it.”
“There is a deep moral uncertainty at the heart of it and you never know whether wellness is a force of good or evil,” adds Halberstam. Often, when it comes to wellness, this moral uncertainty is illustrated by drug use. In both Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus, drugs come into play in various ways. On one hand, they’re a crutch that must be conquered in order to live a fully realized life; on the other, if substances are used in the name of healing, then they are allowed. The suspense comes from where that line is drawn and whether consent is given.
Getting even further down the rabbit hole, it’s impossible to separate wellness from discussions of class. The wellness industry has long been criticized as exploitative and centered around wealthy, white experiences. Wellness thrillers mine that critique in the name of fear. “We actually like to see rich people punished,” notes Hansen. As audiences, we’re meant to root for the working-class outsiders, but when the rich, arrogant kid gets killed at summer camp, we actually cheer. It’s a long-standing trope. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. “Joan Fontaine plays this very mousy kind of character, but she’s brought into this incredibly wealthy environment and Rebecca, the villain of the piece, is never seen,” Hansen says. “We still hate her because she’s so elegant and in-charge and aristocratic.”
Both Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus blend the issue of class with the issue of race. Race is certainly not a rare theme in modern thrillers either (think about Get Out), and in the case of both shows, it manifests alongside class in the employee relationships. There’s “a kind of hostility” that lurks beneath the surface in these relationships, says Halberstam, that helps to ramp up the tension. “You begin with a kind of Eden premise that everything is perfect for the rich and white,” he says, but it soon becomes clear it’s not.
But still, despite all that, it could just be that wellness reflects the current time we’re living in and that, to be honest, is a freaking scary time. “People are worried about being contaminated by the world around them, by other people, by germs they can’t see, by an invisible world of bacteria that is invading them,” says Halberstam. “There is a kind of primal fear of contamination that sets us up to be naive subjects for a wellness industry that may or may not have our best interests in mind.” After almost two years of a pandemic, who wouldn’t want to escape to a fancy resort or wellness retreat. Until we remind ourselves that those places might not be safe either.
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