As Above, So Below: A Descent Into Esoteric Knowledge
(Previously published on 8/29/19 at Features of Fright)
DISCLAIMER: This is all cursory knowledge and I do not pretend to be an expert in esoteric religion, magic, or Latin. I apologize if anything below is misconstrued in this overview.
On August 24th, 2014 , As Above, So Below released in theaters on the tail end of the found footage phenomenon, and was received with mixed reviews and a whole lot of negativity. In the years since, it has quietly gained a cult following. It is, in fact, one of the best films of the found footage genre, and so much deeper than it has been given credit for. Recently, a friend described it as “Lara Croft Goes To Hell”, and to be fair, he is not wrong. The premise treads heavily in the Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones area, as an archeologist searching for a mythical treasure finds much more than they bargained for. ABSB follows Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) as she hunts for the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary alchemical substance that has the ability to turn things to gold, as well as grant eternal life. Her search leads them deep into the Parisian Catacombs, and the deeper they go, the more things go wrong.
The film’s story and mythology around it center around a variety of religious beliefs and systems, but a good portion can be drawn to Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and esotericism through left hand path magic. That’s the thing I think I love most about ABSB, is that it draws from a wellspring of spiritual mythology, using it not just as filler, but to firmly root this story in something beyond the character’s comprehension. So let’s start with Gnosticism, as that seems to be the most surface level here.
Gnosticism is the catch all term for a number of ancient religious ideas that have been around since the first and second century. The term itself is from the Greek “gnostikos”, meaning “having knowledge”. The majority of these belief systems hold that the material world is not a creation of a supreme being, but of a lower god. This lower god trapped the “divine spark” within human bodies, and that the only way our souls can be freed is through acquiring spiritual knowledge, or “gnosis”. They hold a variety of tenants, but the baselines are that all material matter is evil, and the nonmaterial realm is good. There is a supreme God, who is all powerful and unknowable, who created lesser, inferior spirits. There is no sin in Gnosticism, but instead, only ignorance. And to attain salvation, you must acquire knowledge. This belief blends in with ABSB, as the films subject is after the philosopher’s stone, considered the magnum opus of alchemy, and one attainable through gnosis.
Alchemy is a philosophical and proto-scientific belief in which humans can attain perfect of the body and soul, transforming base metals (lead) into noble metals (gold), and creating a potion that could make a person immortal or cure any ailment. We see this in the film, as Charlotte finds the philosopher’s stone, which is revealed to be a trap. The taking of the fake stone sets in motion a number of events that lead to the deaths and injuries of the group. George is attacked by a petrified statue, that bites a large chunk out of his neck. He whispered “Vitriol” as he begins to bleed out, recalling the Alchemical motto referenced previously in the movie. Vitiriol, in chemistry, is a sulfuric acid that is used in the creation of the Philosopher’s stone, as it dissolves all metals except for gold. In ABSB, vitriol stands for “Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem” which translates to “Visit the interior of the earth and rectifying (or purifying) you will find the hidden stone.” It is this moment when Charlotte realizes that the stone she currently holds is fake, leading her to run back and return it to it’s original place, in hopes to find the real stone. In doing so, she rectifies her mistake, or her ignorance. She wipes a mirror, in which it becomes polished gold, and she realizes she holds the power of the Philosopher’s Stone in her. Returning to George, she cups his wound and it is miraculously healed.
The film heavily relies on alchemy, and specifically, the hunt for clues of Nicolas Flamel, a 14th and 15th century scribe and alleged alchemist. Through a series of writings ascribed to Flamel, he developed a reputation of a legendary alchemist, and was believed to have created the Philosopher’s Stone, though there is no indication that any of that is founded in truth, but rather folklore. His alchemist roots are heavily tied to Hermeticism, an esoteric tradition tied to Gnosticism. It is based on doctrine that believed in a single true theology that is present in all religions that was presented to man by God in the ancient past. It attracted a number of scientific minds from 1300 to 1600 that led to science conjoining with magic and allied arts, such as astrology and alchemy, to test nature in all its forms in a means to control and experiment with the physical world. The ideas stemmed from Hermes Trismegitus, who is the purported author of a number of sacred texts, specifically The Emerald Tablet, written between the sixth and eight centuries. The text is concerned with secret esoteric wisdom, namely the creation of the philosopher’s stone. This text has been found throughout history, including translations by Sir Isaac Newton.
The Emerald Tablet is where the phrase “As Above, So Below” is derived from. It can be linked to Hermeticism, Sacred Geometry, and Tarot, as it principle that spans esoteric disciplines. The phrase in latin, “Quod est inferius est sicut quod est superius. Et quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius, ad perpetranda miracula rei unius” translates roughly to “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing “ Essentially, everything is connected and serves a larger purpose. If the worlds are connected, man is in an unfinished world that mirrors the larger universe, and man must look upward, in order to learn to look downward, and inward to himself. The Catacombs lead Charlotte into the depths of the earth, in a world that begins to mirror the outer world, as the group sees ghosts of their past that haunt them. They have to descend, in order to ascend. This idea comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno. They enter a door that says “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here”, the same inscription written on the gates of hell in Dante. By descending into a literal version of hell, Charlotte and the group are forced to confront their own selves, their ignorance or mistakes in life, and only through that reconciliation, can they hope to ascend. The film ends with Charlotte, George, and Zed (their French guide) pushing a manhole down, which when entered delivers them right side up on a surface street, next to Notre Dame cathedral.
Director John Erick Dowdle, and writer, Drew Dowdle craft a narrative that is heavily rooted in esoteric theology and secret knowledge. While on a surface level, a lot of these references can be dismissed for a hodgepodge of religious symbology that mirrors something like National Treasure, when laid out before you, it becomes apparent that this is not only intentional, but also extremely informed and researched. The final part of this is rooted in left hand path magic, which is typically associated with malicious black magic. In chaos magic, what you believe in, you put into the world. Charlotte believes so heavily in the existence of the Philosopher’s stone that she propels the entire journey into this literal hell. Likewise, all that came before her, the esoteric followers that subscribe to these beliefs and sheltered them in the catacombs, believed so deeply in these subjects that they in turn created a sacred space where this literal hell can manifest in order to guide those that seek it to test their physical self against a greater spiritual universe. Charlotte and the group encounters cultists that exist in the tunnels before them, as well as demonic entities, petrified statues, and even the hooded figure of Death himself.
This film continues to shine as not only one of the best found-footage films of the last decade, but also as a film that treats it’s mythology with so much respect and research. As a kid that grew up in church, the films that approach religion through esoteric lenses like this enthrall me, as it’s the taboo topics that no one ever wanted to talk about with me. Today is the fifth anniversary of this film, which is destined to become a forever underappreciated masterpiece of occultist cinema. Don’t let the shoddy reviews fool you, this one hits, and it hits hard.
As Above, So Below is currently streaming on Netflix