The stars of Into the Dark’s “Pure” head to the Purity Ball.
Photo: Richard Foreman (Hulu)

Into the Dark’s season finale is based on a true story. Not the part where a trio of young women summon a Biblical demon while at a religious camp, but the story of young women signing virginity contracts, wearing purity rings, and standing in bridal gowns as their fathers vow to “protect” their chastity until their husbands can take it for themselves. That is the horror story of “Pure,” and it’s all too real.

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Hulu and Blumhouse’s holiday anthology series closed strongly with Hannah Macpherson’s “Pure,” an episode commemorating Daughter’s Day, something not commonly celebrated in the United States. According to the National Day Archives, Daughter’s Day started as a way for some countries to help reduce stigmas associated with having girls instead of boys. In the case of “Pure,” which centers on very American Protestant views of Christianity, the so-called celebration of daughters feels more like a way to reinforce those stigmas.

NOS4A2's Jahkara Smith stars as Shay, a 16-year-old girl who recently came into the life of her estranged father, Kyle (Jim Klock), who presumably didn’t know Shay existed until after her mother died. This whole situation is treated as a bit of a scandal, though no one ever openly talks about it. Shay and her rebellious half-sister Jo (McKaley Miller) are roughly the same age, which means exactly what you think it does.

Kyle’s brought Shay and Jo to a Purity Retreat, a weekend-long religious event that ends with a fancy ball, where daughters and fathers sign a contract committing themselves to protect the daughter’s virginity until marriage. The atmosphere is very Midsommar meets that woodlands scene from The Craft, delighting in the innocence of a long, hot summer as danger lurks in the brush. I also admired the music choices scattered throughout. On the surface, they sound like Christian rock songs straight out of a Pureflix film, but the lyrics are much more...palpable.

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Shay and Jo share a cabin with the pastor’s daughter, Lacey (Ciara Bravo), and another girl named Kellyanne (Annalisa Cochrane). Kellyanne’s father keeps tight control over her weight, appearance, and lifestyle, and Lacey is so dedicated to her chastity, she refuses to even kiss before marriage—something that does happen in some conservative Christian sects. All the actresses turn in solid performances, but I have to give a special shout-out to Smith, who knows how to walk that delicate line between conflicted and confident.

Things quickly go awry at the camp. The girls endure boastful sermons from Pastor Seth (Scott Porter)—who keeps a gun at his hip while preaching about “used gum” and other common abstinence analogies—while they’re trying to resist temptation from some young men staying at the camp. One of the stories he tells every year is about Lilith, a figure in Jewish mythology who isn’t part of typical Christian teachings. She was Adam’s first wife, created as his equal. Pastor Seth claims she had sex with an angel and was sent to hell, but the girls know better...thanks to a book they find telling the “real” story.

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Throughout the film, Shay is being haunted by visions of a demonic woman in dark bridal wear—visions that only increase after she and the other girls summon the spirit of Lilith. It’s only because of Shay that they’re able to call the spirit because she’s secretly no longer a virgin. Lilith mostly takes the form of jump scares and temporary possessions of the men at the camp. The spooks from Lilith’s arrival don’t always land, but that kind of makes sense. They’re not designed to be the scariest thing in the episode.

The fathers are the real monsters of this story, and not just because their eyes turn black and Pastor Seth coughs up dark muck. It shows in their words and their actions. The way they disguise their misogyny and hypocrisy as protection or even love, while not holding boys (or themselves) to the same standards. That’s not even getting into the issue of how easily they condemn homosexuality. It’s addressed once as “a sin” and never brought back up, something that I think was an intentional choice.

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“Pure” might seem a bit extreme at times, but it’s based on something that’s all-too-real. Purity Balls are a common thing in the U.S. (thousands happen every year), along with purity rings, contracts, and abstinence-only education. The pastor’s arguments might sound far-fetched, or the fathers’ words too stereotyped to be real, but I assure you...every single one of them feels familiar and terrifying to someone who grew up in that kind of environment. If it’s a personal choice, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to not have sex until marriage. But when you’re staring down your friends or family as a pastor hands you a contract that says you swear to stay “pure” until your wedding night, it doesn’t exactly feel personal anymore. Let’s just say this story brought back some memories and regrets.

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At Purity Balls, fathers and daughters dress up in prom or wedding attire and go to a fancy party, which ends with the father promising to protect his daughter’s “purity” until marriage. The founders of the phenomenon, Randy and Lisa Wilson, have distanced themselves from the notion that Purity Balls are designed to control young women’s sexual behavior. In fact, they’ve argued that Purity Balls are “a fatherhood event, not a virginity or abstinence event.”

Even if that’s true (and I have my doubts), it further cements the central thesis in “Pure”: Purity events aren’t for celebrating daughters, but for reinforcing traditional gender roles and men’s dominance over their lives.

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The episode ends with Shay and the other girls getting a much-deserved reckoning over the men who’ve tried so hard to control them, though the final scene does come across as a bit rushed and corny. Plus, some of the surprise “twists,” mainly the one involving the camp boys, did feel contrived. But the overall story was so evocative, I can forgive a few eccentricities in the final minutes.

Hulu’s In the Dark was advertised as a series of fun holiday horrors but what we actually got were some surprisingly insightful and challenging stories. “New Year, New You” was about societal pressure for female perfection, and “Culture Shock” was a look at immigration and forced assimilation. “Pure” ends the anthology series on a beautiful and terrifying note, shining a light on an issue that goes beyond faith, control, or systemic sexism. It’s about fighting for the right to be yourself. What could be more pure than that?

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