BEGOTTEN. Total Horror

Begotten is usually classified as horror, but orthodox fans of the genre will find nothing to their liking here.

Lukasz Budnik

15 March 2024


Can one pass by indifferently a film that begins with the suicide of God?

In a forest cabin sits a strange figure dressed in white robes, who in an act of brutal self-sacrifice, opens his abdomen with a razor and pulls out his entrails. This is… God Killing Himself, and from his remains emerges a woman – Mother Earth, who uses his seed and blood for self-fertilization. Mother Earth leaves the cabin and traverses the desolate landscape, where she gives birth to the Son of Earth – a deformed being, whom she soon abandons to fate. The Son wanders through the hostile world and encounters a tribe of hooded nomads, who subject him to torture, and then throw him into a fiery pit, where he burns to death. The Son of Earth is resurrected by Mother Earth, but the nomads return to murder them both, dismembering them and burying the remains deep in the soil. After some time, vegetation erupts from the burial site, and Mother and Son are resurrected.

The initiator of Begotten was Edmund Elias Merhige – a student at the State University of New York fascinated by silent cinema, experimental theater, and the Japanese butoh dance technique. Merhige founded a theater troupe called Theatreofmaterial with the intention of staging a dance performance accompanied by a symphony orchestra, but when it turned out that the costs of such production would amount to at least a quarter of a million dollars, he decided to make a low-budget film instead. The artist began working on it in the mid-1980s with members of Theatreofmaterial, who joined the cast and technical crew. It was decided that the entire film would be shot on black and white film and devoid of traditional narration and dialogues to emphasize the visual aspect of the film. Sources of inspiration included films such as “Blood of the Beasts” (1949) by Georges Franju, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) by Robert Wiene, as well as the paintings of Bosch, Munch, and Goya.

The creators began developing their ideas through intensive rehearsals, discussions, and group sessions. To achieve the appropriate mental and spiritual states, they underwent hypnosis, meditated, and performed ritual breathing exercises to help the actors attune themselves to the characters they portrayed. When the team was sufficiently prepared to work, filming began in New York and New Jersey, lasting nearly half a year. Merhige served as director, producer, cinematographer, and special effects specialist. The budget amounted to about $33,000, mainly from Merhige’s private funds and a trust fund set up by his grandfather. Cast and crew members worked for free or for minimal pay, receiving only free meals and accommodation during filming.


The most labor-intensive part was post-production. Merhige – a special effects designer who collaborated with Disney among others – gave the material the appearance of an old, weathered artifact. “I wanted Begotten to look not like a film from the 1920s, not even like a film from the 19th century, but like a film from the time of Christ, like the cinematic equivalent of scrolls from the Dead Sea, buried in the sand, remnants of customs and rituals of a culture that are no longer relevant in that culture, but still hidden somewhere beneath the surface of what we call ‘reality'” – explained the director. The grainy footage was also meant to evoke ambivalence in viewers’ interpretation of the screen events. Editing one minute of the film took eight to ten hours of meticulous work using an optical printer. For these reasons, post-production of the 72-minute film took eight months.

After completing the editing, Merhige searched for a distributor for two years because no one was interested in a silent, black-and-white film without a clear storyline. He then offered Begotten to several museums, but when two of them expressed interest in showing the film as an exhibit, the director changed his mind. Thanks to the efforts of Peter Scarlet and Tom Luddy – film critics who watched Begotten at a private screening – the film was shown at the San Francisco Film Festival. The fame of Merhige’s work reached Susan Sontag, who became one of its greatest advocates: she argued that it was “one of the ten most important films of modern times” and provided her copy for a screening at the Berlin Film Festival. Since then, Begotten has been screened in the USA, Canada, Portugal, and Austria, and has also been released on VHS and DVD (in limited editions).

Numerous volumes of analysis and interpretations have been written about the hidden meanings of Begotten. Critics have sought references to the motif of death and rebirth, as well as the myth of creation from pagan, Celtic, Egyptian, and Christian beliefs (troops justified, considering the names of the characters). Merhige admitted to believing in alchemy and hermeticism, as well as being inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. He suggested that the events in the film are a metaphor for life and humanity’s struggles with both the surrounding nature and themselves. Such an interpretation is suggested by the opening words of the film: “Language miners, photographers, diarists / You and your memory are dead, frozen / Lost in a present that never ceases to pass / Here the incantation of matter lives / Eternal language / Like a flame burning darkness from within / Life is a body trembling above the earth”.


Begotten is usually classified as horror, but orthodox fans of the genre will find nothing to their liking here. Although incredibly disturbing and at times downright terrifying, the horror stems not from jump scares, sudden dramatic music cues, or other clichéd means, but from biology, nature, violence, and the unfathomable mystery of existence. The source of terror here is matter and its decay – earth, nature, body, flesh, secretions. Although rudimentary and not entirely clear, the “plot” of Begotten refers to collective patterns of human beliefs and experiences: birth, journey through life, interaction with the world, suffering, and ultimately death and rebirth. In this way, Merhige touches upon the horror of existence itself as biological endurance and psychological torment in a hostile, dangerous world affected by entropy. In this sense, his extraordinary film is an existential horror – a total horror.

There is no doubt that this is one of the most astonishing pictures in the history of cinema. It is difficult to assess it unequivocally because during the screening, one gets the impression of encountering not a film, but rather a work of modern art, a cosmological treatise, or a magical grimoire. The influence of Begotten on Merhige’s career and broader popular culture is more tangible. The director made two sequels to his famous debut [Din of Celestial Birds (2006) and Polia & Blastema (2021)], two feature films with a Hollywood cast [Shadow of the Vampire (2000) and Suspect Zero (2004)], and music videos (Marilyn Manson, Interpol, and Danzig). Meanwhile, Begotten itself remains an inspiration for musicians (Zola Jesus, Katatonia, Silencer) and filmmakers such as Panos Cosmatos, who openly admitted that the flashback scenes in Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) imitated Merhige’s film style.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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